Coastal Georgia Striped Bass Highway
In March, as you cross Georgia’s scenic coastal rivers on I-95 or U.S. Highway 17, a striper-fishing heaven is right under your wheels.
“Striper Highway” could be the name of either of the two, main highways in coastal Georgia, I-95 and U.S. Highway 17. What lies below the asphalt is what many coastal anglers seek — striped bass.
At times there are more stripers stacked up behind the bridge pilings than motorists driving above. Some terrific striped-bass fishing can be had below and within earshot of these bustling thoroughfares.
March is one of the prime months to sink a hook into a feisty river-run striper. Striped bass in Georgia spend their entire life cycle within river systems, unlike more northern populations which migrate between the Atlantic Ocean and coastal rivers. Georgia’s river-run stripers spend the winter in the deep channels of expansive saltmarshes. During spring they head inland to the freshwater/saltwater interface, feeding heavily in preparation for the spawn. They spawn in the tidal freshwater reaches of the rivers then head upriver to spend the summer in cool-water refuges such as dam tailraces and springs. As the water cools in the fall, the fish return to the sounds and channels of the lower river. Now is the time to intercept these fish with rod and reel after they have fed all winter and have fattened in preparation for the spawn.
To catch striped bass in Georgia’s rivers you must keep in mind two “Cs”: Concrete and Current. Concrete bridge pilings are great fish attractors because they create eddies, or backcurrents, as they obstruct the river flow. Current is the second necessity, as stripers ambush prey swept past them in the current. When these two factors combine and there is bait present, you can usually count on stripers lying in wait somewhere near the pilings. Typically stripers will be just in front of the current break or in the turbulence below the current break. Any current break, whether concrete, wood, or just the mouth of a creek, has potential to hold stripers at any given time.
There are three keys to catching river-run stripers: boat positioning, boat positioning, and presentation. As you can tell from the redundancy, you’d better be able to position your boat in current. A strong trolling motor is a must to hold the boat into the current long enough for your lure to get down where the fish are located. Presentation is critical, as the fish are suspended near the surface some days, but other days you must get your lure to the bottom. Getting a lure to the bottom in 20 foot depths with stiff current can be a chore but is often the difference between bending the rod or just dragging a lure.
Tackle for river-run fish must be stout, unless you don’t mind large fish getting away. When fishing the maze of concrete, steel, and tangled logs where the stripers hide, you’ll need a beefy rod and a little luck to bring a large fish boatside. You’ll need at least as stiff a rod as a bass-sized flipping stick and a reel with a large line capacity and plenty of braking power. A great rod and reel combination for fishing swift rivers is a Quantum XL 7’6” medium/heavy saltwater rod paired with a Quantum Iron 410CX reel. Spool this rig up with 17, 20, or 25-lb. monofilament, and you are ready to hoist large stripers from the tangles where they feed.
Baits for striped bass do not have to be complex. If you favor artificial lures, you’ll want to make sure you have a supply of Rat-L-Traps, large grubs and shad tails, and bucktail jigs. Rat-L-Traps in the 2-oz. or magnum sizes are your best bets. White or flashy hues such as silvers and golds are consistent producers. Magnum-sized grubs and shad tails on a jighead will earn their share of bites. My favorite lure due to its effectiveness, durability, and fishability is a bucktail jig in sizes 1/2-oz. to 2-oz., depending on the strength of the current and the depth I am fishing. White or white/red bucktails are a dependable choice. If fishing with bait is your game, large shrimp or shad free-lined or on floats around current breaks will score.
Don’t fret thinking your boat is too small for fishing coastal rivers. If winds are predicted to be over 15 knots from the east or west, coastal rivers can get very rough, especially if the wind is blowing against the tide. On those days you’d probably be better off finishing chores around the house so you can fish when the forecast is more favorable. I fish out of an 18-foot fiberglass V-hull boat equipped with a 150 hp Mercury Optimax, but boats much smaller are fishable in coastal rivers. I have fished very successfully out of a 15-foot jon boat with a 15 hp motor. As long as you carefully navigate and pay attention to wind speeds and directions, you can productively fish from these smaller crafts. As previously mentioned, the most critical component of your fishing rig is a dependable, powerful trolling motor. You’ll have to keep the boat positioned in strong current, so a high-thrust trolling motor is essential.
Georgia’s harvest regulations on coastal-river striped bass are different than linesides in reservoirs. In coastal rivers, each angler is allowed to harvest a total of two striped bass or hybrid bass (combined). Each fish must be over 22 inches in total length. All fish under this size must be released immediately. The exception to this is the Savannah River, which is closed to harvest of all stripers and hybrids. Fishing-regulation guides or guides to fishing the Ogeechee, Altamaha, and Satilla Rivers are available from any Wildlife Resources Division office.
All of Georgia’s coastal rivers have populations of striped bass, but some are more noteworthy than others. The following are your best bets for hooking up with linesides listed in order of probable success, starting with the best choice: Savannah River, Ogeechee River, Altamaha River, and Satilla River. By chance, this is also the order of the rivers from north to south on the Georgia coast.
• Savannah River
The Savannah River is the prime destination for landing a 20-lb. or larger striper or a 10-lb. hybrid. The fishery is currently closed to harvest of all linesides to allow the striped bass population to regain its ability to sustain itself without the need for stocking. Therefore, quickly release any striped bass or hybrid caught in this river. The striped-bass population has increased during the last decade, but the vast majority of adult fish were not spawned in the river but were stocked there by Georgia WRD.
The easiest access to Savannah River late-winter hotspots is the Port Wentworth landing. The landing is on the south side of the front river on the east side of U.S. 17. The U.S. 17 bridge on the front river is immediately upstream from the ramp. Downstream from the ramp is a power plant which has a warm effluent. During extreme cold spells, fish congregate around this discharge. Port Wentworth and the port of Savannah, downstream from the ramp, have a myriad of pilings and docks which on any given day could hold stripers. Remember, this is an operating port, and a busy one, so stay clear of shipping traffic.
• Ogeechee River
The Ogeechee has a good population of sub-legal-sized to 10-lb. stripers. Target bridge pilings, creek mouths and docks. Rice paddies abounded in the marshes at the turn of the 20th century. The water-control structures have since decayed, leaving a series of small canals through the marsh. On an outgoing tide, the mouths of these cuts hold stripers, especially if wood cover is present.
Two main landings provide access to the Ogeechee tidal zone. Kings Ferry Landing is on the north side of the Ogeechee on the east side of U.S. 17. This ramp is in the upper tidal portion of the river. Concentrate your fishing effort on the U.S. 17 bridge pilings and the railroad trestle a short distance downstream of the landing. A landing at Fort McAllister State Park provides a gateway to the lower estuary. To get to the state park from Richmond Hill, take Hwy 144 east to spur 144 which ends at the park. The landing is on the left. There are many private docks above the landing and numerous rice-paddy cuts in the area.
• Altamaha River
The Altamaha River contains a large number of hybrids in the 2- to 5-lb. range. An occasional striper in the 5- to 10-lb. range is landed. Bridge pilings are the main targets in each of the four main channels of the Altamaha (South Altamaha, Champney River, Butler River, and Darien River). Both U.S. 17 and I-95 cross each of the channels. That makes eight sets of bridge pilings in a very small area. You can spend more than a day just fishing all of these pilings. My favorite sets are the U.S. 17 bridges over the Darien River and Butler River. Docks in Cathead Creek, which is a tributary off the Darien River, also produce consistent catches. It is a good idea to scale down the size of your baits when fishing the Altamaha since the average fish is smaller than in the Savannah River. The most consistent producers on the Altamaha are 2-oz. Rat-L-Traps and 4- or 5-inch grubs.
The most central landing in the tidal portion of the Altamaha is Williamson Park Landing on the Champney River on the east side of U.S. 17. Start fishing the U.S. 17 bridge just above the ramp, then head to the Butler River and Darien River bridges north of the Champney River. Obtaining a map of the lower river is suggested, as the many channels can get confusing.
• Satilla River
The Satilla River contains a small population of striped bass. I don’t recommend traveling great distances to fish the river for stripers, but if you’re in the area, it is worth fishing. Most of the stripers run from two to five pounds, with an occasional 10-pounder. White Oak Creek, a large tributary of the Satilla, enters below the I-95 bridge and winds its way westward past I-95 up to the town of White Oak. This tributary is home to many of the striped bass in the Satilla. Bridge pilings and docks are the primary targets to fish in the Satilla. As in the Altamaha, scale down the size of your baits since the typical fish is relatively small.
Two landings will allow access to the lower Satilla River. A landing on the east side of U.S. 17 on the north side of White Oak Creek provides access to White Oak Creek. Docks in the Red Bluff area hold their share of scrappy stripers. To get there, head downstream and take the first major creek to the left. The I-95 bridge, with its many pilings, is several miles downstream from the ramp. The first of the outgoing tide can also stack up some fish in the mouths of the many small creeks feeding into White Oak Creek.
The second access is a ramp in the community of Woodbine. The ramp is located on the south side of the Satilla River, on the east side of U.S. 17. The two main destinations from this ramp are the U.S. 17 bridge immediately upstream and the I-95 bridge approximately three miles downstream.
As with most fish species, striper fishing can be a hit-or-miss proposition. Frequent are the days when you catch a large number of fish one day and very few the next with no noticeable weather change. That’s the nature of striper fishing, but if you frequent a coastal river in March, you’ll eventually be there when everything comes together and there seems to be a striper behind every piling. When it happens, you will be a striper angler for life. My friends and I often muse on the drive home after a slow day, “I won’t be back again… before tomorrow!”
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