Blackwater Redbelly Slam
GPS numbers to some of the author’s favorite southeast redbreast holes.
A quick flick of the wrist and the underhanded toss sent the tiny spinner sailing under a low-lying bough of a bell-bottom cypress, bumping a root lying at the edge of the black water. A glimpse of the small, gold blade spiraling down and BANG!
The little whippy rod instantly bent to the water, the line went taut and sliced past the front of the boat zinging toward the faster current in the channel. Reel, reel, reeling like a madman trying to keep pressure on the hook.
Moments later the water broke, and I flipped the scrappy redbreast in the boat. First thing I notice every time is that red/orange/yellow belly. Wow, what bright colors! I’ve caught thousands and always take time to admire each one. God painted this creation and in turn blessed Georgia abundantly.
The bottom half of Georgia is inundated with thousands of miles of scenic blackwater streams loaded with these and other panfish. Due to its beauty, a feisty battler and excellent table fare, the redbreast sunfish is the most prolific and sought after panfish species amongst my circle of fishing buddies.
In my area of south Georgia, chasing “redbellies’’ is a rich cultural heritage that’s been around seemingly forever. Every spring, anglers will begin watching water levels and temperatures for that first “big bite” of the season. Bait-and-tackle stores will begin to sell crickets, worms and spin lures like every day is a Black Friday sale.
As water levels drop to around 6 feet or less, anglers will begin chasing the bite from ramp to ramp. This will begin at the uppermost landings first. However, any heavy rains will work the river levels up and down like a yo-yo.
That’s why I pick the later summer months to fish our redbelly rivers and creeks. By then, all will usually be “fell out’’ (low and stable) and the big-bite crowds will have diminished. Less water and better clarity will better allow one to read the water as where to place your casts. Current, depth and shade are key, and my fishing this time of year is usually done opposite the sandbar side.
When I come across flatwater sections, those sections of water that are slow or seemingly non-moving, I will blast through them rather quickly. As summer progresses, most redbreast and larger panfish will be found in or near the swifter current.
Targets areas with breaks and eddy pockets, areas where moving water meets non-moving water. Work the bank and all wood cover, such as roots, cypress knees and fallen trees. Then grid cast out and across to the black water line. This will be dictated by the white sand shining up as it transitions to the shallow side. However, don’t totally ignore the downstream ends of the sandbars. You may stumble upon some bedding fish in any eddy water that may hook behind.
For lure and bait selection, I use a simple approach. My go-to lure is a crawfish-colored Satilla Spin, and it seems to work in all the water down here. I usually chunk a 1/16-oz., but I pick up the 1/8-oz. when I need to slow-roll a deeper pool.
My next favorite color selections in order are red/white, black/chartreuse and copperhead. I use a slow retrieve and kill it near the boat to occasionally trigger a strike. Also, before beginning your retrieve, let it flutter a second or two. This is where the quality Sampo swivel really shines. This is better than the cheaper barrel swivels you find on other lures. On standby, I’ll still have an assortment of Spin Dandys, Beetle Spins and Rooster Tails, which are three baits that I was raised on.
For live bait, you’re not going to believe this, but I prefer worms over crickets. Big reds or pinks. I seem to catch bigger fish, especially after those first easy big bites of the season and when the rumors start that certain stretches are fished out.
By July, I truly believe the surviving larger redbreast begin to get cork shy. Countless times over the decades, I have fished used waters behind seasoned locals corking crickets, and I with a worm on the bottom. I got a lot more bites than them, especially from the bigger redbreasts. I use a mini Carolina rig with just a No. 5 round sinker 6 to 8 inches up from a No. 4 to No. 6 Tru-Turn or No. 4 to No. 6 Mustad Aberdeen Hook.
Use the whole worm, hooking it a couple of times on the fat end and let the rest dangle. Don’t wad it up. There is not a panfish alive that’s going to turn down a big worm fluttering on a tantalizing twisting drop. What’s sweet about this rig is the first fish that hits it is usually the biggest one in that spot. If a butterbean gets it first, move on because McDaddy is probably not there.
Most hits will be on the fall, but if it contacts bottom, bounce it in place a few seconds to trigger a strike. If you are only wanting a mess of eating-size redbreast and other panfish, bumping bottom and dead-sticking can aid that in a hurry. Just find a deep hole adjacent to an eddy.
If your quest is the bigger redbellies, stay on the move and make casts at least 4 to 5 feet apart. The big ones seem to be scattered apart, sort of like bass with their own ambush point.
Rod & Reel: For lures, I use spin-cast reels and prefer the Shakespeare Synergy TI 6 and TI 10, along with a Zebco Micro 11. I like a 5-foot Blaze rod and a variety of 5-6 Zebco rods. These are all cheaply built reels. The reels either tear up the first trip or two, or they last for years. Go figure.
I love a short whippy rod. Their give keeps you from pulling the lure out of the fish’s mouth when they try to inhale the bait.
I like the spin-cast reels because I can make more pinpoint casts with it. Also, when compared to a spinning reel, I can engage the gears quicker to get the lure rolling. This is also key for not getting hung up in cover.
I string ’em up with Seaguar Red Label 8-lb. test fluorocarbon and Mr. Crappie 6- to 8-lb. test mono. I buy a mega spool for a better deal in the long run.
On my live-bait rigs, I prefer spinning reels. It’s hard to go wrong with Mitchell Advanta combos with the same 5-6 rods mentioned above.
When I pull up to an area, I usually work the artificials first and then follow up with the live worm, especially when fishing deeper holes adjacent to current breaks along the main run and eddy pockets. I also equip several other rods with micro versions of larger bass lures. For these panfish, I like to fish small crankbaits, jerkbaits and that secret 4-inch plastic worm I mentioned last month. You can see what worm I am talking about at www.gon.com/fishing/suwannee-river-warmouth. On a slow day, I love to use these 4-inch worms as a search bait. If I get a peck on it, I’ll quickly grab the live-worm rod and drop that bait on their head. Already got him growling and his hackles raised, so most times they will hit it.
One other lure I love is a red Worden’s Rooster Tail. I’ve used them for decades, and they are very reliable to catch some of all species in the river. They are even more awesome in the smaller creek tributaries.
I also keep a clean-up lure with silver blades, such as the Spin Dandy. When you run a good bank with the gold-bladed Satilla Spin, return with a silver Spin Dandy and you can usually scrape up a few more for the cooler.
Every summer I try to run a redbelly slam on several blackwater rivers and creeks. I do this not only for the redbreast itself but for the picturesque scenery these waterways offer.
Below, I listed some of my favorite spots with GPS coordinates. Yes, coordinates. Not necessarily to show you a honey hole but what type of spot I look for to confidently place a cast. Hundreds of other identical places will be awaiting your drift.
All GPS coordinates except for Satilla No. 10 are upstream from the noted boat landings. Also, even though you have these coordinates, don’t forget the rest of the river. Although I usually catch fish at these spots, there is a lot of fishy water in between them that I didn’t mention specifically.
US 280 Landing
No. 1: N 32º 08.432 – Wº 81 46.621 — The river narrows down to a shallow trough with swift current. Once below, spin around and face upstream. Holding the boat in place with the trolling motor, work the Satilla Spin on each side of the current breaks.
No. 2: N 32º 08.284 – W 81º 46.653 — Facing downstream, the left side is the deep bank. There’s good current and shade here. Cast tight to the bank, and slow-roll the bait back, working all the way down to the logjam. The right side is shallow and sandy, so periodically beach the boat and grid cast.
No. 3: N 32º 08.221 – W 81º 46.629 — Facing upstream, the left bank is a deep, shady run below an outside bend. I caught the largest redbreast and bluegill on a recent trip here using a Satilla Spin. Fish here will be in ambush mode.
No. 4: N 32º 08.348 – W 81º 46.730 — Major logjam on an outside bend. Drift boat along side of a big log for great boat control. A lot of eddy pockets to pick apart here. Fish lures and bait.
Berrien Beach Ramp (Hwy 168)
No. 5: N 31º 09.485 – W 83º 02.366 — Drift the boat up against a log for a convenient position in the current. Downstream is a deep, inside bend with an overhead log and foliage, which creates nice shade out to the current break. I’ve caught every species of panfish in the river here. A live worm on the bottom will get bit.
No. 6: N 31º 09.634 – W 83º 02.323 — This is a nice deep run a few feet off bank. Easy to spot as there is a nice log to hold up against in the current. Also, in the adjacent tree there is an old rope hanging from swimmers of long ago. Lures first and finish up bottom bumping.
No. 7: N 31º 09.723 – W 83º 02.430 — This is an inside bend where a long stretch of main run and fast current ends. A deep pool of water creates a large eddy pocket. Work the bait on bottom. Don’t be surprised to pick up a few catfish here.
No. 8: N 31º 09.588 – W 83º 02.338 — This is what I call a trashpile in the river. It’s not really litter but nature’s residue washed down to be trapped up against a large fallen tree. It creates an all-day shady spot and great cover for fish. Most folks will not pick this spot apart, afraid they will lose too many hooks. I don’t mind re-tying often because there will be fish there.
First, throw the Satilla Spin along the edges to coax any ambushers out. For the worms, cast to the edge, keep the bail open, and let the current drift your bait under the mat.
No. 9: N 31º 09.661 – W 83º 02.365 — This shady, deep run has good current. Hit the bank tight, and work outward among the submerged roots and woody cover. This classic spot has redbreast written all over it.
US 84 Landing
With 235 miles of unmatched beauty and many boat landings, the Satilla River is definitely the king of the redbreast rivers. Visit the online GON archives for some great past articles. Also, on Facebook visit “Kayak The Satilla River” and “Bert’s Jigs and Things” for updates and fishing reports.
No. 10: N 31º 14.233 – W 82º 19.123 — Downriver from the ramp right before the powerline crossing is a huge cypress a few feet from bank. Fish all around the tree, but the best spot seems to be 5 to 10 feet in front of the tree. Fish will be staging around the doughnut ring of cypress knees.
These fish will tend to be missed as most anglers hit the tree only and drift on by to the next visible target. Here, I have caught redbreast, shellcracker and redbreast in the 1-lb. range. Chunk and wind first, and then finish up with the live worm.
No. 11: Nº 31 14.392 – Wº 82 19.635 — Upriver from the ramp on left is a shaded portion of the main run with good depth, current and wood cover just before a rip-rap bank.
Work upstream to the cypress on the point. Grid cast from the bank out to the eddy line.
Hwy 147 Landing
No. 12: Nº 32 01.417 – W 82º 09.786 — A rock ledge across the river will stop the boat here. Both sides below the rocks will have some large eddy pockets. Work from the bank and out toward the middle. Fan cast the area with the Satilla Spins until you find the fish and finish up with the bait. I found my bigger fish here with the 4-inch plastic search worm.
No. 13: Nº 32 01.303 – Wº 82 09.535 — Facing upriver, the left bank has the faster current and a deeper trough tight to the bank. The middle of the river is shallow here and becomes a rock bed farther up. Don’t run the big motor. Work the Satilla Spins up to the rocks. The inset eddy pocket just above the rooty bank is a great place to bottom bump the worms.
No. 14: N 32º 01.266 – Wº 82 09.485 — Face up river. On the right, tie to the overhanging tree, and bottom fish down current with the worms. There will be a deep hole here that comes out to the shade line.
Take in mind—jonboats, kayaks, canoes and wade fishing is the norm this time of year. Check the river levels at the USGS website. Each of these rivers have multiple ramps across many counties, which will give you many options regarding water levels and traveling distance. Many anglers plan float trips between ramps.
With a little experience and the aid of these GPS coordinates and written descriptions, this summer you’ll learn to read the water, make the cast, feel the tug and say, “That fish was right where he was supposed to be!’’
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