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Black Drum, Sheepshead, Redfish, Sharks & More

May is a transition month where there’s a lot of fish catching going on.

Don Baldwin | May 7, 2019

The month of May along the Georgia coast is an exciting time for anglers. Longer days and warmer temperatures mean some of the most beautiful days you’ll see during the year. In addition, the angling activity really begins to heat up. 

May is a transition month as summer patterns begin and new species of fish begin to show up. This fishery, both inshore and nearshore, is always pretty good, but in May, the action explodes, and the options available to anglers are plentiful.

In mid-April, we had the opportunity to go out with Andy Gowan, of St. Marys. Andy has been living in the area most of his life. He grew up fishing in Crooked River and has run a guide business (Tail Chaser Charters) for the last 15 years. He is on the water almost constantly and stays on top of the status of the fishery. I caught up with Andy at the Meeting Street Ramp in St. Marys right around daybreak, and we headed toward the mouth of the river.

“We’ll try a couple of different locations and tactics today,” said Andy. “There are lots of options available, and I would use all of these techniques in May.”

We headed out of the mouth of the river and moved along the jetties on the north side of the channel.

Andy stayed on the channel side of the rocks and put the trolling motor down near the end of the jetties. We were in water about 20 feet deep, and the tide was moving but not too swiftly. 

“We’ll be fishing vertically with a jig and live shrimp hooked through the tail,” said Andy. “There should be some good-sized redfish in the area.”

It didn’t take long to convince me that he was right. We started getting bites almost immediately.

We landed two really nice redfish, both of which put up great fights. The larger was just longer than 35 inches, and the smaller about 27. We released both fish, and Andy suggested we move in along the rocks to shallower water about 8 to 12 feet deep.

“Often we catch smaller reds and some black drum close to the rocks at about that depth,” said Andy. “The smaller drum are called puppy drum and are generally in the 2- to 6-lb. range. They are a lot of fun to catch and pretty good eating.”

We worked the area with jigs and live shrimp and caught a few whiting and small flounder but no drum or reds. Andy said we were a little early, but the black drum should be plentiful by May. Andy suggested we change it up and head into the river for some shallow-water action.

“First thing in the morning and late in the evening, there can be some great topwater action on flats in 2 to 4 feet of water,” said Andy. “I prefer to fish the incoming tide on the flats because it tends to drive the fish in toward the bank.”

As he moves his boat over the shallow water, the push of water from the bow will often spook fish and will help him know where to come back and begin fishing.

We pulled up on a flat in the Marsh Island/Tiger Creek area near the Florida/Georgia line, and we could see bait and fish breaking the surface. Andy picked up a topwater rod and handed me a spinnerbait. We were both fishing light spinning tackle with braided line. Andy got a few hits on the topwater bait, but the spinnerbait proved to be the better choice that morning. We boated several keeper-sized flounders on a spinnerbait just slow-rolling it over the flats. 

‘The flounder, trout and red action on these flats will only improve as we move into May,” said Andy. “And the topwater strikes will be both explosive and produce some good fish.”

Andy said that moving water on the flats is a must, and the conditions are best the first two hours in the morning and just before dark in the evening.

May offers the angler a host of fish species to select from. Andy gave us the highlights.

Luke Gowan with a big black drum. Expect the drum to move into Georgia waters this month.

Black Drum: You can usually find black drum in 7 to 12 feet of water near the rocks on the jetties. The larger fish can be as much as 20 feet deep. The drum don’t feed as aggressively as red fish or sea trout, so dead bait works better than live bait.

Andy suggests that you use a 1/2- to 3/4-oz. football jig head with a 3/0 kahle hook. The dead shrimp should be hooked through the body and not the tail. Andy said this makes the shrimp look like it is escaping as it folds and unfolds when moved along. Lift the jig slowly with a pumping action rather than the more aggressive hopping action used for the trout and redfish. You are also likely to catch whiting and sea bass in this same area using this method. You might even land a stray sheepshead or two as a bonus.

Sheepshead are best caught around docks, pilings and rocks while using a shrimp hooked through the middle of the body. A good population of redfish will also be in those areas and like to eat shrimp.

Sheepshead: Andy said that even though May isn’t the more traditional month for sheepshead fishing, there’s still some around to catch using the standard bait, which is fiddler crabs.

“Fishing for sheepshead on the flood tide has became really popular,” said Andy. “I use light tackle so I can cast a long ways and still keep distance without spooking the fish.” 

He’ll fish fiddler crabs on docks, pilings and solid structures, like the jetties. Andy says to focus on very last of the outgoing through the first of the incoming tide. He selects a light, sensitive spinning rod from a 7-2 to a 7-8 and loads it with a 1/8- to 3/8-oz. Swing jig with a No. 2 or 3 kahle hook and the all-important fiddler crab.

“I have found that the less current there is, the easier it is to hold your bait near the structure,”said Andy. 

Capt. Andy McGowan with a healthy redfish caught at the jetties in April.

Redfish: In the deeper water near the end of the jetties, particularly on the north side of the channel, you will find bull reds and sharks feeding on the pogies that are arriving in large schools. 

Attack this situation prepared to fish both a freeline and a downline until you discover where the fish are holding. Sometimes, depending on conditions, they will be feeding near the surface, and the freeline is your best bet. At other times the fish will be holding deeper, so the weighted line is more effective. If you try both methods at the start of your trip, it shouldn’t take long to find out what the big fish want. On some days, it doesn’t seem to matter. You will catch fish throughout the water column.

There are so many pogies and mullet in the area that a single cast of a cast net will often produce more bait than you can use in a day.

A little closer in toward the beach along the jetties in 8 to 20 feet of water, Andy fishes a 1/2- to 3/4-oz. football jig attached to a 3/0 kahle hook with a live shrimp along or near the bottom. The football shape of the jig helps avoid hang-ups, and the larger hook is best for keeping the fish on during the fight when attempting to release a fish. Small hooks can be tough to get out of a big fish without causing injury to the fish. Bump the jig on the bottom, and pop it off every few seconds, keeping a tight line on the fall.

Trout: Andy finds he has his best luck over the shallow flats with a topwater bait or a live shrimp under a popping cork. The trout are attracted to the racket, and you can have some fun and explosive action.

Sharks: Sharks are certainly plentiful in the area, and catching a big one can be an exciting experience. The St. Marys area is becoming a popular destination for the big fish. We have already discussed the option to catch them along with the big reds at the end of the jetties. Another popular and productive approach is to fish behind the shrimp boats dragging nets just offshore. The bait of choice is a live pogie, and it should be offered on either a freeline or downline. 

“Don’t get right up behind the boat,” said Andy. “The shrimpers won’t like it, and it can be dangerous.” 

The sharks are generally a good ways back anyway. There appears to be a defined pecking order around the boats. The gulls are right behind the boat waiting for the by-catch to be dumped overboard. Behind them you will see dolphins working the surface and feeding on scraps, and behind all of that the sharks are working the depths for the leftovers. You can be several hundred yards behind a shrimp boat and still pick up big sharks.

Andy’s artificial line-up typically includes topwater and spinnerbaits with trailers, baits generally used in freshwater fishing.

Artificial Baits: For the topwater action, Andy has a couple of go-to baits, including the Badonk-A-Donk, Zara Spook and Red Fin. If the fish are breaking the surface but not responding to those baits, he switches to something more subtle, like a broke-back Rapala. Andy said he has probably caught more topwater fish on a broke-back Rapala than any other bait. The more subtle action is less likely to spook the feeding fish than more aggressive walking or splashing baits.

Spinnerbaits are very effective when worked slowly along the bottom on flats. Color matters and Andy suggested bright colors in clear water. On the day we were out, I tried a couple of body colors, but white produced the best. On cloudy days or in stained water, choose a darker color like black or olive. Andy said that body color is much more important that head color.  

For light-tackle action around the rocks, Andy uses a 1/2-oz. football style jig with a 3/0 kahle hook. If the current is strong, he increases to a 3/4-oz. A live shrimp hooked through the tail is his bait of choice, especially for redfish.

Tackle: For the deeper water applications at the jetties, Andy suggests casting gear. One of his favorites is a Quantum Smoke S3 reel on a  7-2 rod. Andy makes all of his own rods, both casting and spinning, and selects the proper action for each application. The casting reel is spooled with 15-lb. test monofilament main line, and a 20-lb. test fluorocarbon leader finishes the outfit.

For the shallow applications, Andy uses 7- to 7 1/2-foot medium-action rods with a Quantum size 30 spinning reel. The reel is spooled with 12-lb. NanoFil attached to a 15-lb. test fluorocarbon leader.

Right now is a pretty exciting time on the Georgia coast. Lots of fish of all types are readily accessible as they move in following baitfish in the warming water. If you would like to head out and experience some of this great angling on the Georgia/Florida line, contact Andy Gowan at www.andygowenfishing.com or give him a call at (904) 383-0866. He is very knowledgeable and well equipped to give you and your friends or family an excellent day on the water.

A flat like this one in the river is a great spot for artificial action. Fish them early and late with topwater lures and spinnerbaits for a variety of fish.

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