Classic Trip, Fine Bream Fishing On Ogeechee River
The Ogeechee River is so famous for its redbreast bream that it celebrates the fish with an annual festival.
The Ogeechee River is high and muddy but dropping out fast. About the only condition that could be worse for catching its famed redbreast bream is if the river iced over.
But then, even if it did, Carson Cross would likely still manage to come up with a mess of fish. His quiet confidence on this day, even as we watch the stained water roil, buoys my confidence as we launch his boat. I’ve come here to fish the gorgeous Geech with a man who has been fishing it for half a century. He fishes from a homemade boat built in the 50s by Billy Bishop of Metter. For this body of water it’s perfect — it’s light enough that two men can easily pick it up onto a trailer. Or over a log.
And in places down the Geech when it is typically low this time of year, there may well be some carrying involved. The plan is to go downriver by paddling and floating, then come back up with the boat’s vintage 50s 3 hp Evinrude outboard, also light enough to hoist in and out with relative ease.
I think back to my first conversation with Carson, a week earlier. “Are you a fisherman?” he abruptly asked. “I always like to know what I’m getting into.”
Well, I’ve been fishing nearly as long as he has, so I figured it would work out just fine. And it did.
Ideally, the river would be between one and two feet at Midville, which has the nearest public launching ramp, and clear. But as we pushed off some eight miles upriver near Drake’s Crossroads at the northeast edge of Emanuel County where it borders Jenkins, the coffee-colored water was moving swiftly, causing literally thousands of newly-formed eddies around curves and bank-side trees. These spots would soon prove to be magic. But Carson had a little tinkering to do with my methods first.
For starters, he refused to fish, choosing instead to paddle me back and forth across the river and into sloughs he said should be bone dry this time of year. We were using a method locals call “reeling,” during which you pretty much cast and reel and nothing else. It is how you go about it, however, that makes all the difference, as I was attempting to find out.
My outfit consisted of a Zebco 33 loaded with 6-lb.-test clear blue Stren line on an ultralight rod. Snapped on — at first — was an 1/8-oz. Spin Dandy spinner, brown and yellow, with a single spinner.
A couple of times I watched as fish would boil up behind the lure.
“If he wants it, you can’t take that lure away from a big red,” Carson said as we watched yet another one cut the water and attempt to nail the lure.
Yet something was wrong, and my years of experience told me exactly what it was: too much speed. I was reeling too fast, taking the bait right away from the reds. It is an age-old mistake excited fishermen everywhere make; but I knew better.
Slowing the lure down to a crawl was tough, but it went back to lessons long ago learned: slow and steady is much better than no strike at all. Plus, Carson had another trick up his sleeve.
“Take off the swivel and put a cricket on that lure,” he advised.
“Yeah, just thread him on just like you do a normal hook,” said Carson. “These fish hit by sight and smell as well as vibration of the lure.”
And about that lure: it is a single-spinner, 1/8-oz. Spin Dandy in orange and brown. Fishing it from the front of the boat, I try to hit every fishy-looking spot on the river, which is just about every spot you happen to look at.
“Sometimes they’ll be right where you think they’re not,” said Carson. “You fish in the shade, they’ll be right out here in the middle of the river.”
But a sudden jolt to my rod hand tells me that they are in the in-between: the dappled spots where the day’s bright sunlight filters through the leaves and hits the water. Maybe it is that the fish can see the lure’s pulsating single spinner better, but the first several fish I catch are all female redbreast that are staged in these hiding areas, waiting for some bait to be whisked by on the current.
“In the hot summertime when the river is down less than two feet at Midville, I’ll use a light Bream Buster-type pole and fish crickets for bream right on the bottom,” Carson said. “But when it’s up like this, the flash and spin of reeling seems to produce better.”
As soon as I slowed down, the catching became consistent. The lure is pitched into every conceivable nook and cranny in the cover along the riverbank, then retrieved just fast enough to spin the spinner.
The first several fish sort of sneak up behind the lure and inhale it. Carson assures me than when the water is down and clear, you can actually see them attacking from a few feet away.
“You can’t take it away from them when they really want it,” he says of speed of retrieve.
But for now, they want it slow and steady, and that’s what they’re getting. There was no explaining why everything was female, but what I was really wanting was what the river is famous for: the rooster redbreast, among the most beautiful of bream. And when I caught the first one, the difference in the two was immediately apparent: this thing hit like a freight train!
“Bass!” was my first thought, but when the rod tip was jerked down and the fish began cutting those figure-eights that bream so like to do, I knew better. When at last the fish was played down and brought aboard, Carson asked me what I thought he’d weigh.
“Fifteen ounces,” I said, hoping he’d say a pound. “Nah, closer to 13 or 14,” was his reply.
Either way, a lot of redbreast. But that was not to be the largest fish of the day by far.
One thing about the Ogeechee and a Spin Dandy: you never know just what you’re going to catch. Each bend in this small, wild, beautiful river produces different looks and habitat. On one curve may be huge cypress trees with their fish-holding root systems and broad shade; the next may be willows and potholes, while a third may be a lily-pad-dotted sandbar stretching toward the run of the river. It was on that last that something large absolutely pounded the little spinner, and as I saw the fish flash for deeper water, my first thought was gar. We had seen probably 100 or more already, some seemingly half as long as the small boat.
As the fish hit the end of the line, the ultralight rod bowed and the drag whined, but he was turned back after stripping only a couple of feet. A half-dozen similar runs and I could see that what I had was not a gar but a large jackfish, or chain pickerel. These powerful pike-like rascals have a mouth full of vicious teeth, and all I could think of was that he was going to snip the thin line at any instant. But he never did, and the 3-pounder was finally hoisted aboard.
By the way, this is a very bony fish, but among the very finest of table fare. A couple of methods of preparation: gash the fish cross-ways from front to back to break loose and remove the hundreds of bones, or take a heavy meat mallet and pound the fish about as flat as a pancake (my favorite). Fry the fish hard and eat bones and all. Possibly the only freshwater fish as tasty as the jack are the redbreast there in the livewell with him. But we’re not done yet.
As we ease around yet another bend, this time with willows jutting into the river, the Spin Dandy is walloped once more. I get a flash of red, and while Carson thinks it’s a red, I know better.
“Shellcracker,” I tell him, “and a nice one.” This is a solid pounder, the biggest bream of the day, and did he ever give that little outfit a fit! I had mentioned earlier that working that big jack in had been worth the 60-mile drive from home to the Geech. But so was this fish.
And if the smorgasbord we had in the livewell so far was not enough, I added several bluegills, mostly caught up in sloughs and a small lake. These, by the way, are absolutely packed with voracious mosquitoes, so be ready to defend yourself.
Keep in mind, however, that bug spray on your hand transfers to your cricket, and no redbreast in his right mind is going to bite that.
And all the while, Carson kept assuring me that those spots will be dry in a few days. And in fact, before the day’s end, we could see it coming, The water was already dropping and clearing dramatically.
Midville celebrates the river and its best-known inhabitants with an annual redbreast festival, held this year in April, but its usually June before the finest fishing is to be had. Even with the less-than-perfect conditions on this day, I caught better than 20 very good fish that were kept for the table and several more turned back to grow.
“The river will be down to around a foot or two at Midville and will clear up here shortly,” Carson says. “That will make it harder for big boats to get around, even your typical 14-foot aluminums with the standard 9.9-hp motor. Seems like everybody down here has a 9.9.”
But this Bishop boat will go anywhere. That’s what they were made for, and they’re real collectors items now. This boat, by the way, sells for about $3,000. I have another one just like it that has never been in the water. I’m saving it for my boys.”
When the river drops out, the area will change, but not the fishing method.
“I’ll still use that Spin Dandy and cricket, but the fish will be concentrated in deeper water,” said Carson. “Holes in this river probably average 10 feet, and fish will retreat into them to find cooler water. The spinner will work, or you can fish a pole on the bottom with a cricket and just enough lead to hold it down.”
There’s a lot of stumps and logs on the bottom, and an extra-light wire hook comes in handy when hanging up. Later in the day, I managed to lose that orange/brown single-spinner Spin Dandy, and Carson handed me a chartreuse, double-bladed one that very closely resembled the old Golden Nugget, with which I’ve caught a ton of bream.
This particular model caught a fish on its first cast, and proved almost as effective as the original brown/tan single-spin. I prefer the former, but it’s hard to argue with success. It was a little lighter, and I didn’t have to continually adjust the wires to keep the spinners from hanging up in the skirt. And if the spinners aren’t moving, you’re wasting your time.
By the time you read this, the river should be perfect for fishing — if you have a small, navigable boat. And in case you see a green-painted hand-made one coming, there’s a good chance Carson Cross will be fishing from it. Or maybe cruising back upstream under power of his “big motor.” If he stops to fish, drop what you’re doing and study his every move. You’ll see a fisherman at work.
Other Articles You Might Enjoy