Catch Satilla River’s Coastal White Catfish
These fish are often overlooked but are abundant and tasty.
When you think of the most popular fish to catch in Georgia, I doubt a white catfish will be high on your list. In fact, you would probably have to dig deep to even describe what the species looks like… if you know. That is a shame, as the lesser-known whiskerfish is extremely abundant in the tidal portions of all of our Atlantic slope rivers. And, they are not very difficult to catch! Add to the list that they are very tasty to eat, and I think you would agree that there is no reason that the species is almost totally overlooked as a target.
White catfish are present in most of the Satilla River, but their abundance peaks in the tidal portion, which starts around Burnt Fort (the Hwy 252 Bridge). The fish are brackish-water tolerant, so they are distributed all the way down to saltwater. The epicenter of the white catfish population on the Satilla is the Woodbine area.
My favorite location to chase them is White Oak Creek, a tributary to the Satilla near Waverly. During warm spells in the early winter, I took family and friends on several trips to that location. The river came up significantly in late December, and the persistent cold set in, and I have not been back since, but the fishing will be great this spring when it warms up. During those multiple trips, white catfish were the only species of catfish that we caught from White Oak Creek. The farther upstream on the Satilla you go, the more species will join your creel, as channel, bullhead and flathead catfish are also present in the river.
During our trips to White Oak Creek, we launched at the Highway 17 ramp and ran downstream past a myriad of small tidal creeks draining the marsh. We tried to time our trips so that the tide was about to ebb and pull literally tons of catfish and baitfish out of the flooded marshes and to the mouths of the cuts. The creek widens with each mile you run, and opens up to a fairly wide river below its confluence with Waverly Creek from the north. That is the area we typically started our search for the magic creek mouth.
The drill started with me idling the boat in position at the mouth of the creek and dropping anchor or staking the boat (if the water was shallow enough) so that our baits could settle behind the boat in the hole at the mouth of the creek. The outgoing tide signaled the catfish to leave, and it seemed as if they would hold at the mouth of each creek. The fish left in waves, as sometimes we went 15 minutes without a bite, and then all the poles doubled over.
The rig we caught the most on was a Catfish Catcher Jighead. It is a setup I make that has a Gamakatsu octopus circle hook attached directly to a ball or football head. I get really tired of rigging Carolina rigs because of all of the components and multiple knots, so I came up with this rig to simplify bottom fishing. You tie your main line to the eye, bait the hook, and fish. The best presentation was to flip our offering downcurrent, directly behind the boat. It settled to the bottom and usually did not sit long before the rod doubled over. With the circle hook, my son Timothy, 9, and nephew Nathanael Johnson, 7, just had to grab the pole when it bent over and start reeling because the fish hooked themselves with that style of hook. My brother-in-law, Ron Johnson, of Blackshear, and I spent the day baiting hooks and taking catfish off the hooks. The boys had so much fun that Nathanael named that trip as his most fun fishing trip of the year and cannot wait to go back.
While I enjoy the simplicity of catch-and-release fishing, I also like to bring home food on some trips. White catfish trips fit into the latter category. I have not eaten a white catfish that I did not love, even the bigger ones. At family fish fries, the species has been a big hit, even with those in my family that are not usually fans of catfish.
Most white catfish you catch will be between 1/4 and 3 pounds. Our largest during the trips we made was a 17-incher caught by Timothy. It qualified as an angler award from the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (see rules and qualifying sizes at www.gofishgeor gia.com/Fishing/AnglerAwards).
Shrimp, worms and cut baitfish all produced fish, but shrimp produced the majority of our catch on all trips. Brentz and Alex McGhin, of Blackshear, joined in the fun on a few trips and also went a few times on their own. Once the river approached flood stage in late December, the bite slowed, and the McGhins had a trip where they caught very few. We believe that even though the fish are still there during flooded conditions, they simply spread out and do not concentrate at the creek mouths as much as during “typical” water levels. Expect the fishing to be red hot once the river level at the Atkinson gage drops below about 10 feet. To monitor all the Georgia river levels, visit the USGS website http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ga/nwis/rt.
Almost any outfit will work for white catfish, as they are not huge fish. My favorite is a 7 1/2-foot medium-action Ugly Stik Inshore Select rod paired with a Penn Conflict 3000 reel and spooled with 17-lb. test Nanofil braided line.
The three main boating accesses to target white catfish are the Burnt Fort ramp on the southwest corner of the Highway 252 bridge, the Woodbine ramp on the southeast corner of the Highway 17 bridge, and the White Oak Creek ramp on the northeast corner of the Highway 17 bridge on White Oak Creek, near Waverly. All of the accesses are free. Do not fret if you do not own a boat, as white catfish are still accessible to you. The waterfront walkways under the Highway 17 bridge in Woodbine offer bank access to catch white catfish.
If you are one of the few who already like chasing white catfish, the lower Satilla would be a location to add to your bucket list. If you have never fished for white catfish before, follow these tips and you just might fall in love with this productive fishery.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Bert is a freelance writer from Waycross. He has also been making quality lures (both freshwater and saltwater) under the name Bert’s Jigs & Things since 1987. Give him a call for a catalog or information at (912) 287-1604 or e-mail him at [email protected].
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