Satilla River Blackwater Panfish
This scenic river holds crackers, gills, stumpknockers and your best chance at a rooster red heavier than a pound.
Are you looking for a different sort of fishing trip where the scenery is spectacular, the boat traffic is minimal and the action is hot? You can’t do much better than a trip down the Satilla River after redbreast sunfish, otherwise known as “redbellies” to the locals.
The Satilla is your best chance in the Southeast to catch a redbreast heavier than a pound. Those who fish the river on a regular basis call these trophies “roosters.” If you take on this challenge, your reward will be a feisty pull on the end of your line, lots of action and the best-tasting fish to ever grace a frying pan. As a bonus, you will see some of the most spectacular sugar-white sandbars and glorious river country found on the planet.
The Satilla River begins in Ben Hill County close to Fitzgerald and winds about 260 miles in an east, southeast direction until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean about 10 miles south of Brunswick. The water is full of tannins, making it the color of iced tea, as is typical in many of the streams and rivers of south Georgia. It is a free-flowing river, unimpeded by dams, and at summer flows can be difficult to navigate above Waycross unless you have the right boat and equipment. Some would say the area below Waycross is better for anglers, but that is not to say the fishing is necessarily better, but rather is a statement about the ease of movement.
In April, I fished the Satilla with Stan Aldridge, my former basketball coach at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. Coach Aldridge and I spent some quality time together reminiscing about the good old days when he tried to whip us into some semblance of a basketball team, but we mostly talked fishing — specifically how to go about catching some of those “roosters” that are legendary in this part of Georgia. We were there when the river was a little too high for optimum fishing and had to work pretty hard to come up with a decent stringer. We came back home wiser, having learned some things through first-hand experience and from the extensive knowledge of local fishermen who helped us have a successful adventure and the prospects of an even better one next time.
Here are a few things you need to know to have a memorable trip.
The peak months are typically late spring right on up through the summer when the river flows are lower.
Proper water level is one of the biggest keys to success. There are two river gauges (Waycross and Atkinson) that can be consulted online at <waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?02226500>. The information there will tell you the present readings at those two places. It will also tell you that the best fishing is when the gauges read 4 to 8 feet at Waycross and 3 to 7 feet at Atkinson. I don’t believe that is completely correct. The top ends of those measurements indicate that the river is full, so try to time your trip when the gauges read at least a couple of feet below those levels. If you go when the water is at 8 feet on the Waycross gauge, you are going to find a swifter current and encounter more difficulty locating fish.
Your choice of boat is going to be another key to a successful and enjoyable trip. It’s best to use a smaller craft. I think a 15- or 16-foot Gheenoe is the perfect choice. Best case scenario is a small gas motor (10 horsepower or less) and a bow-mounted trolling motor. This boat is stable, easy to navigate, has a built in livewell and is roomy enough to carry equipment. It is also easier to put in and take out at some of the places you will encounter.
As far as tackle is concerned, light spinning reels on short poles loaded with 6- to 8-lb. test line are the best. They are easier to throw to the target areas you will encounter and also give you the maximum enjoyment when the fight is on. Also, there’s nothing wrong with spincasting outfits either like Zebco 33s. Don’t take your baitcasting outfits on this trip. They are a waste of space.
The best live bait is a cricket under a cork, and the best lure is a small 1/8-oz. Beetle Spin in dark colors with small light stripes. When fishing with live bait, a small No. 6 or 8 hook is probably best with a very small split-shot to weight it down. Put on an additional split-shot if the current seems to be keeping your bait from hanging straight down. The depth to fish is going to vary, but most of the time it is no more than 2 feet. These are by no means the only methods used.
Worms of different kinds can be successful as can small Rooster Tails. The Beetle Spins are most effective when the water temperatures rise into the 70s. Fly rods with popping bugs are also used by some anglers, especially early in the morning.
When targeting redbreasts, look for woody cover in the mainstream of the river channel as well as in oxbow lakes in lower areas of the river. If the water is a little higher than the optimal level, look for slack water just off the current line, back eddies and the downstream side of sandbars. You may catch other types of fish as well, because shellcrackers, spotted sunfish (stumpknockers), bluegills, bullhead catfish and flathead catfish abound in these waters also.
For our first morning on the river we chose to put the boat in off Highway 121 south, 5 miles out of Blackshear. We set off downstream and gradually found out by trial and error that crickets under corks were going to be the best bet. We worked our way through the most popular methods for catching fish. We used worms, minnows, Beetle Spins and a couple of other types of small spinning lures.
Crickets fished about 2 feet below a cork was the most successful tactic by far. With the river just about full and the current moving along at a fair pace, we worked several different types of areas before finding that we needed to target slack water just off the current line where there was some brush.
Our first catches were actually shellcrackers, and we added a couple of bluegills as well before landing our first redbreasts. It was quite a thrill to see the little fighters proudly flashing their colors underwater as they tried valiantly to escape. Their reputation as feisty game fish is well earned. If they ever get into the main river current, you are in for a special treat. They will make your drag sing a pretty tune.
Once in the boat the redbreast is one of the most strikingly beautiful fish you’ll encounter. You don’t often see coloration like that of a redbreast.
We ate fishermen’s feasts of sardines, Beanie Weenies and crackers in the shade on beautiful white sandbars, and the sights and sounds of the river alone were enough to make the trip worthwhile. One day on our lunch break we saw a 2-lb. bass cruising shallow water close to the bank, and Coach Aldridge had to take a whack at it with a minnow. He looked like a trout fisherman as he waded in the water, but he came up empty. With our lunch break and bass escapade behind us, we returned to the business at hand.
We fished another stretch of the river on Highway 158 between Douglas and Waycross that afternoon but not before we put in some grunting and sweating at the boat ramp. I use the term boat ramp loosely. In order to launch the boat, we took the gas motor off and pared down our equipment. We then got the boat in the water by sliding it off the trailer and putting it in by hand. We proceeded upriver using only our trolling motor and were rewarded with another stretch of fabulous scenery. We continued to catch a mixed bag, and crickets were still the bait of choice. In addition to the redbellies, shellcrackers and bluegills, we also boated some spotted sunfish and even a mudfish along the way. There were a couple of oxbow lakes on this run, and we found a few small fish grouped up in these areas.
On to the practical aspects of making this a high-quality trip, here is a check list of items to take with you.
Be sure to include plenty of bottled water, sunscreen and insect repellent. The temperatures may well be in the 90s, and the mosquitoes are especially aggravating toward the end of the day. Be sure to take your worst pair of tennis shoes, because you will probably run into situations where you need to get out and pull the boat around obstructions when the water level is on the low side. Also add to your list a boat paddle and a small anchor. Both can come in handy in certain situations.
On our trip to the Satilla we scouted out a few places to launch boats and a good place to pick up bait, tackle and the local fishing report. Here’s a little information that will help out.
There is a nice boat ramp just outside Blackshear. To get there, take Highway 84 East from Waycross to Blackshear. On your right in town, you will see a store called Do It Best Hardware. You can pick up live bait, lures and light tackle there. You can also get the latest update on how the fish are biting. Once you leave there, proceed a couple more blocks until you reach Highway 121 South, and turn right. It is about 6 miles out to the river and ramp. My advice is to fish downriver from there. It is a beautiful stretch of river with several oxbow lakes and dozens of beautiful sandbars. There is also a ramp on Highway 84 East out of Waycross.
There is another place to get in the river between Waycross and Douglas on Highway 158 North as you cross the river. I say put in because the ramp is basically non-existent. This is where we had to launch the boat by hand. Do not go to this spot unless you have a boat you can launch without a trailer. We caught fish upriver from there, and the scenery was the best on the trip.
There are lots of places to launch up and down the Satilla. Herrin’s Lake Landing on County Road 224, 6 miles northwest of Nahunta; Highway 301 landing between Nahunta and Hortense; and the FFA Camp Landing in Pierce County are all places where you can get into the river. The best way to get to these places and others is to get directions once you are in the area. Many of them are in out-of-the-way places and can be hard to find. The condition of the boat ramps also varies quite a bit from very poor to excellent, so stop at a bait shop and ask the locals.
If you go on this trip, plan to stop and eat lunch in the shade on one of the sandbars. Take time to enjoy what the river has to offer in scenic value as well as the great fishing. You will come home with some good stories, a burning desire to get back to the Satilla River and a stringer full of tasty redbellies.
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