River Bass On The Lower Savannah
Billy Robertson shows us how to get regular bites in a peaceful setting on one of Georgia’s natural wonders.
Bass fishing in rivers is different, plain and simple. And it’s also interesting and fun.
For those of us accustomed to fishing flat water in reservoirs, fishing a big river like the Savannah down near the coast is different. You have to adjust to current, tides and food sources on the river, but the payoff can be good fishing in unique natural resource every Georgia should experience at least once.
From the Lock and Dam at Augusta, the Savannah River flows freely for more than 200 miles to the coast at Savannah. The terrain changes from low hills near the fall line to the flatlands of the Lower Coastal Plain. That lower area has many old oxbow lakes, big river bottom swamps, bottomland forests and blackwater tributaries that vary in length.
Near the coast, the tides affect the river level and flow up to a few miles upstream of the I-95 bridge. Below the bridge, the tidal effect can be pronounced, up to a 7-foot change, and the water is brackish. Bass survive in the salty water, but they do not thrive there like those bass up the river in more stable freshwater.
In the tidal area, the main food sources for bass are shrimp and fiddler crabs. Up the river, crawfish and baitfish like bream and shad are what the bass eat. Those food sources control your bait choices, although some baits like a small jig will imitate both crawfish and crabs, and crawfish-imitating crankbaits apparently look like crabs and shrimp to a bass.
The lower river tends to produce numbers of bass, but they are a smaller average size. The bigger bass live up the river. For that reason, most tournament anglers will run upstream to oxbow lakes and creeks entering the river, as well as fishing the main run of the upper river.
Billy Robertson lives in Springfield just north of Savannah. He grew up fishing farm ponds in Emanuel County around Swainsboro with his grandfather. He started bass-club fishing with the Coastal Bass Anglers, which helped him learn to fish the Savannah River since they have regular tournaments there. Billy also fishes some Costa Series as a co-angler and some ABA and local pot tournaments as his schedule allows.
Billy showed me around the Savannah River in early spring. We talked about how the fishing would be different in April, and how to catch bass right now as you’re getting your April issue of GON. We had a good day for numbers, landing more than a dozen keepers in a few hours. They were all 12- to 14-inch fish, nothing big, but typical river fish that fight hard for their size. And we had fun catching some big bowfin, landing about a half dozen 4- to 5-pounders.
Most of our bass came from the lower river up in some creeks below the I-95 bridge. We started up the river in a creek that morning, but we ran into a couple of tournament fishermen and pulled out since they were competing. Some of the creeks and backwaters are narrow, and you must respect other fishermen. We think the early bite was affected by the cold morning. After it warmed some and we went down the river and fished the outgoing tide in creeks, we did better.
There are decent fish caught in tournaments, as the weigh-in the day we fished showed. It took 14 pounds to win, 11 for second, 10 for third and nine for fourth. Big fish was over 4 pounds. Most of the local fishermen had limits weighing around 7 pounds, which is about what our best five bass would have weighed that day.
There are several ramps to choose from, and you can pick one that shortens your boat ride. We put in at Millstone Boat Ramp near Hardeeville, South Carolina, since it gave us a central location to fish up and down the river, and it is an active ramp, so it is more secure. We ran upstream about 15 minutes to start in the backwaters of Coleman and Fox lakes, running by Bucks Ferry landing on the way up.
If you want to fish the area near the I-95 bridge like Big Collis or downstream of it like Union Creek back in the Middle River, Houlihan Ramp might be a better choice. Regardless of the ramp, if you fish off the main river up creeks and backwaters on the South Carolina side, you will need a nonresident fishing license. I got a 14-day trip license for $14, including the service fee.
Two things control fishing on the river—tides and river stage. River stage is critical. It shows how high the river is and indicates how fast it is flowing. For the best fishing, look for a river gauge reading of between 5 to 8 feet at the Cylo River Gage monitor (waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/02198500/#parameterCode=00065&period=P7D). Higher than 8 feet, and the current will make it difficult to fish. Lower than 5 means sandbars on the river are more dangerous and water in backwaters may be too low to fish, especially if it is a good bit lower than 5 feet.
Billy says he has fished as low as 3 feet, but many areas he likes in the backwaters he could not get to due to low water. And if much above 8 feet, you will have to find backwaters that are not affected by the current. And that can be good if the river’s not too high to navigate safely, because high current may make more bass move to calmer water.
Tides control the way bass feed on the lower river. The best tide is an outgoing tide. Water moving out of the swamps and ditches pulls bait to the bass waiting in the creeks and on the river. Check tide table at www.usharbors.com/harbor/Georgia/Savannah-ga/tides.
The closer you are to the coast, the closer to the time shown in the chart. You have to adjust based on distance up the river and back in feeder creeks. The low tide at the railroad bridge above the I-95 bridge will be about three hours later than at the mouth of the river shown on the chart. Back in Union Creek it will be 30 to 45 minutes later than at the bridge, depending on how far back from the river you are fishing.
You want to time your fishing to be where you want to start casting at the beginning of the tide drop at a location, and fish downstream as it drops, fishing the cuts and ditches where bass wait on food flushing out of the swamps and shallows.
You can plan to follow the tide, fishing closer to the mouth of the river as the tide drops, and then running upstream to catch it as it drops there a couple hours later. However, to that means you leave before the tide finishes dropping on the lower creeks, so it may not be worth it.
For April bass fishing on the Savannah River, Billy suggested rigging a Texas-rigged black Trick Worm behind a 3/16-oz. sinker, a crawfish or red crankbait and a spinnerbait. I fished some with a 3/16-oz. black-and-blue Bitsy Flip Jig with a blue Creepy Crawler trailer, with the tips dipped in chartreuse JJ’s Magic. I still had it tied on from a previous trip, and I caught several bass and a bowfin on it. The key is where you put your bait as much what bait you use.
Right now bass will be bedding back in the creeks and on sandbars on the main river. Downstream where the tide affects the creeks, you have to find eddies and slack water to find bedding fish. Up the river many of the backwaters have little or no current. In both areas bass will bed out on the main river, but they seek out sandbars in eddies with slower-moving water on the river.
The creek we started in but left was the kind of place Billy likes this time of year. The creek ran back several miles, getting smaller and shallower. The other anglers were set up right where the clear creek water met the muddy water moving downstream as it cleared. They were in the ideal place.
We went downstream away from them and stayed in the heavily stained water. Billy explained there is little rock cover for the bass, so we would target wood back here. There was a very slight current, and we fished with the flow, pitching baits as close to the bank as possible. Steeper banks showed some crawfish holes, especially where it was clay, and those clay banks produced a couple keeper bass.
Willow trees lined the banks, and there were many logs and limbs in the water. Running a spinnerbait along a log will often produce a bite. When you come to any ditch entering the creek, fish both points of it carefully. If it is a deeper point, a crankbait bumping the bottom works well, otherwise a Texas rig is good.
We fished one ditch on the outside bend of a creek, and Billy said he won a tournament there last fall. The good thing about the river is the lack of options bass have even as the seasons change. Find a place they like, and you can often find them there year-round. Although we were too early for bedding fish, those are the same areas they will choose for bedding.
We tried some places on the main river, but with the Cylo gauge showing just under 7.5, the current made it tough to fish. Billy would stop at a ditch or eddy caused by a turn in the bank. He would face the boat up the current and let us drift slowly backward while he fought the current with his trolling motor. That takes a different kind of boat control skill than most of us lake fishermen have.
As we drifted downstream, Billy would hold us in the mouth of the ditch, covering both upstream and downstream points. He would usually bump them with his crankbait for aggressive fish, and then crawl a worm on the bottom. To do that he would cast back into the ditch far enough to be able to get it on the bottom where the current was slack. When it moved out and hit the current, he would let it drift a few feet and then reel in for another cast.
Billy said the downstream point is often the best, but he covers both sides. And bass will bed just inside the ditches, just deep enough to stay underwater as the river falls. We caught a couple keeper bass and several bowfin doing this.
For bedding fish on the river, go to the inside bends and look for sandbars. On the downstream end of the sandbar, the current should be fairly slack, and the bass will bed on the point and backside of the bar. The water is usually too stained to sight fish, so you will be dragging a worm or lizard blind fishing for them.
Down the river we ran up Middle River and then idled a long way to get to where Billy wanted to fish. As the tide dropped, the current got stronger, even miles from the main river, so we fished the creek the same way as we fished the main river—with the boat slowly backing down with the current as Billy kept us pointed upstream.
It took me a while to identify the kinds of targets that held fish, even with Billy’s help. He caught about 10 to my four, but I finally saw the small eddies right against the bank he targeted and was able to hit them.
Anything in the water—from wood to a small clump of mud sticking out from the bank—can create an eddy where the bass hold and wait on food to come to them. I learned to pitch my jig to the upstream side of the eddy and watch carefully, ready to set the hook.
I missed several bites that Billy probably would have caught, and he caught two that I think I missed. The current will pull your line and alert the bass fast, so you have to be ready to set the hook much faster than in slack water. If you play touchy-feely with a bass, you will not hook it.
Moving baits like a crankbait or spinnerbait don’t have this problem, but the target area is often so small and close to the bank that it is hard to work these baits effectively. They work best on ditch points and along logs and limbs running out from the bank. You still have to be fast to get your bait into the strike zone before the current moves it away.
We ended up the day back in a creek on the Georgia side where there was still some current, and we caught a couple more fish. Feeding bass might be in all the creeks, as well as on the river, so you just have to adapt to the current and cover the areas to find feeding bass.
Head to Savannah, check out the river and its many feeder creeks and sloughs, and learn to catch some river bass. It is extremely peaceful, with few other boats to bug you. That was one of the best features of our time on the river, but getting regular bites was a lot of fun, too!
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