Chasing Giant Redbreasts Way Up the Satilla River

Flatheads down the river are hurting the redbreast fishery, but if you fish way up this black-water fishery, chances rise for a rooster red.

Craig James | May 30, 2023

The author’s son, Colt, shows off a mature redbreast caught on a float trip from Forks Road to Duncan Bridge.

By Craig James

The Satilla River is and will forever be my favorite body of water to fish. I got my start fishing its white sand bars and towering bluff walls decades ago, and it’s just as magical a place to me now as it was the very first time I stepped into its tannic waters as a small boy.

If you’re a GON subscriber, a quick search in the archives will reveal numerous stories I’ve written on the river during my tenure with Georgia Outdoors News.

Last year, I worked on a Satilla Special, and I predicted the river was poised for some of its best fishing in decades after a period of high water. Boy was I wrong… well sort of.

Last year saw the Satilla River record redbreast broken three times, with the final fish being certified as a tie for the current world record.

Not bad, huh? Well… kind of. What I noticed quickly last summer was that though more quality fish were being caught than I can remember in my lifetime, the quantity of redbreast being caught was not good at all. I can’t tell you how many times on social media that someone would post a cooler picture of their catch on the river. Looking inside you’d see 30 nice fish, mostly bluegill with a few crappie and stump knockers mixed in and maybe a couple of redbreast… maybe.

But why?

I’m convinced that though the redbreast benefited from being able to grow and feed during the period of higher water, in turn so did the thriving flathead population. It makes sense when you think about it. Healthy prey equals healthy predators.

Though the Satilla River is one of the world’s greatest redbreast fisheries, it has slowly deteriorated in the roughly 30 years since flatheads were first found in the river. Despite the hard work by the Department of Natural Resources to control these fish, I’ve come to accept the fact that it’s a battle we’re not gonna win without the appropriate resources or government funding.

At this point it’s going to take legislative action and a whole bunch of money to save the Satilla River redbreast population. Two lines the suits in Atlanta don’t want to hear.

The good news you say? There is still a place where giant rooster redbreast swim, where hungry flatheads have yet to make an impact on the red belly population. Key word… yet. While working on this story, I ventured far into the uppermost parts of the river in search of the redbreast-infested river I remember from my childhood, where 50 fish days were common and fish in the 3/4-lb. plus range are plentiful.

The only problem? Getting there sure ain’t easy. For those who are willing, here’s a breakdown of how to get to the Satilla River’s final frontier.

Duncan Bridge

Duncan Bridge has a nostalgic effect that takes one back to yesteryear.

Situated a few miles down a dusty dirt road in Milwood, Duncan Bridge will take you back in time. The tiny concrete bridge looks like something straight out of the Andy Griffith show, only in color. The Satilla crawls slowly around the wooden posts that support the bridge. The river runs small here, often only 30  to 50 feet wide and rarely much more than 10 feet deep in only the deepest holes. Navigation here is difficult, and I don’t recommend using any boat or kayak that you can’t comfortably lift and drag over logs and other obstacles.

Anglers will do well here fishing both up and downstream. Going up seems to be a little tougher, however it seems this is where I have caught the majority of my bigger fish. Regardless of the direction you decide to go, spend at least 15 minutes to get away from the bridge, and the farther you go, the better the fishing.

There isn’t a gauge that monitors this section of the river, but you can get a good idea of what to expect by checking the Highway 158 bridge online. The river will fish its best when Highway 158 reads between 4.5 and 6.5 feet. Much higher and it will be moving extremely fast, much lower and the river begins to become more of a tiny creek consisting of a series of puddles than a river.

The redbreast in this section of the river don’t see many lures and are thus easy targets. A variety of lures work well to fill a cooler. Popping bugs and foam spiders work well, especially for big fish, and Beetle Spins and small spinnerbaits work well for getting bit by whatever you throw it in front of. I have recently realized that opting for a bigger panfish spinnerbait will discourage tiny fish from biting, and it tends to consistently draw bigger bites.

Anglers preferring to fish live bait will do well fishing worms or crickets on the bottom of deep holes. Find a good tall, bluff wall and a hard bend in the river and you will find deep water. When you find a good spot, be sure and mark it on your phone, as fish in this section of the river don’t move around much and will hold in the same areas all months of the year. Another good option is a cricket fished a foot or two under a cork. Pitch the offering to cypress knees and other visible structure for success. This approach will often yield a large variety of fish, including bluegill, stumpknockers and warmouth.

Some of the best redbreast fishing left in the Satilla River can be found in the extreme upper portion of the river. Expect to catch fish in the 10-inch range.

Forks Road

A little farther up the road and upriver from Waycross, the Forks Road Bridge is another great option to explore this month. Also situated in Milwood, the tiny bridge stands on a small, two-lane country road. To get to the water, drive over the bridge and go a few hundred yards and you will see a turn off by a farm gate. Turn right and you can follow the path down to the water.

This area fishes the same as Duncan, but I do recommend going downriver for better success. Be sure to load your kayak as light as possible and be sure and strap everything down. Paddle down toward where Perch Creek feeds in and be ready to drag your kayak over, under and around a series of nasty log jams. Maneuvering through this area is not easy, but I can assure you it’s definitely worth the effort.

This bridge is above Duncan Bridge, and the water levels I recommended for Duncan Bridge will also apply here.

Highway 158 Bridge

Though this bridge offers great fishing, the great fishing is far away from it. Focus your efforts here on either the area upriver where the Seventeen Mile River feeds in or downriver to about the half way mark toward the Highway 1 bridge. Both are lengthy trips with a paddle, but those with very small boats powered by electric motors can also maneuver this section of the river.

This stretch fishes its best at its very lowest when boats with outboards can’t get around. Look for levels on the online gauge of under 5 feet, and expect the closer it gets to the 4-foot mark, the better the fishing will be.

Float Trip Options

I had a chance to do all of the float trips mentioned below while working on this story. Here’s a breakdown of them.

Forks Road to Duncan Bridge: When you put in at Forks Road, you have two options. You can either float to Duncan in about eight hours or make the all-day trip down to Highway 158. I recommend taking the shorter float on your first go at it, because the section between Forks and Duncan is downright nasty and you’ll be worn down after it. Bring plenty of water and expect to do a bunch of work to get through here. Newly fallen limbs are a common occurrence and a small hand saw tucked in your kayak can be worth its weight in gold.

This is one of the most beautiful sections of the rivers with several stretches of towering bluff walls and areas where the river runs straight and swift for long distances. I recommend having a drag chain handy for areas where the current gets swift.

Duncan Bridge to Highway 158: This is a good six-hour trip and not nearly as tough to work your way through as the other float trips mentioned. A few logs have to be pulled over and around, as well as dragging the kayak over occasional shallow areas.

I recommend fishing all the way until you get to where the Seven Mile River dumps in and then paddling your way out. I wouldn’t waste much time fishing the heavily pressured area between the Seventeen Mile River and the Highway 158 bridge.

For anglers wanting to do more fishing, you can paddle up into the  Seventeen Mile River and do pretty good, too.

Highway 158 to Highway 1: This section of the river happens to be one of the most remote I’ve ever floated. On this all-day float, you will rarely see another soul, and only a few river cabins and concrete boat ramps dot the landscape.

When I float this section, I like to paddle down to the powerlines before I start fishing. This is roughly an hour or so downriver. Expect the first part of the trip to be the roughest to navigate in the way of obstacles, but it tends to get better as the day goes on. The water does often run less than a few inches deep in some places, so even with a kayak expect to do a fair share of dragging.

When you make it to the Highway 1 bridge, take out on the right side of the river. It is a couple hundred yards from the water to the highway, so if you’re fishing out of a heavy kayak, plan on bringing a buddy to make the job easier.

If you get to the take-out point earlier than you want to take out, just downriver of the bridge there is some good fishing. Target the area around Cox Creek and the large bluff walls near it for your best chance at a big rooster.

Accessing these remote stretches of the Satilla isn’t for everyone, and it definitely isn’t easy. But for those who accept the challenge, the work will be worth the reward. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this story, the Satilla River as we know it is slowly fading away. If you’re able, experience it at its best while you still can.

DIY Drag Chain

A drag chain can be a valuable tool, especially when floating in a variety of currents. Here’s how to do it. Tie a carabiner clip to a 15-foot of rope and use electrical tape to wrap your knot. I’ve learned that the knot will hang more than anything. When tightly wrapped with tape, it tends to slide through limbs easier. Cut three small pieces of chain. I like to have one short piece approximately 6 inches long and two pieces around 8 or 10 inches. Use electric tape to wrap each chain individually and bend it some to make it flexible.

Experiment with it in current using the clip to take away or add links for more control. With a little practice, it becomes easy to manage your kayak and fish efficiently even in strong current.

Editor’s Note: For those wanting a more in-depth look at the Satilla and these float trips, take a look at the author’s YouTube Channel, GA BOY OUTDOORS. He has recently uploaded videos from float trips mentioned in this story.

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