Crooked River’s Reds and Trout
Capt. Bert Deener's patterns for great October inshore fishing.
If ever you wanted to learn how to fool a seatrout or redfish with a hunk of plastic or other man-made substance, fall is the time to do it. Hoards of hungry fish are prowling our marshes, fattening up on crustaceans and baitfish in anticipation of the coming winter. Capt. Andy Gowen, of St. Marys, has been chasing both species, while specializing in redfish for almost three decades. Since moving to Waycross almost 20 years ago, fooling seatrout with artificials has tickled my fancy. In early September, we combined our almost half a century of experience to see what we could do with the Crooked River population of specks and spottails.
We began our day loading what seemed like tons of my gear into Andy’s Hewes flats boat. As the sun peaked over the horizon, lighting the bluff just downstream of the ramp with golden-red light, we motored down toward the Intracoastal Waterway. We dropped off plane while still in the river and eased to an area of shell mounds protruding from a mud flat. As we drifted close enough to cast between several mounds, Andy put a halt to our progress with his Power Pole. Perfectly in casting range, we began the assault. Finger mullet were nervously dimpling the surface, while larger mullet leapt airborne repeatedly. There was a feel in the air that it was going to be a great day.
Andy flung a silver, mullet-looking topwater walking bait toward the shells and was rewarded with a small trout almost immediately. I started casting a Flashy Jighead (a jig head I built with a Gamakatsu hook and a small spinnerbait blade attached underneath) with a hot-chicken Assassin Sea Shad skewered on it in hopes of enticing a redfish. Only a few casts after Andy’s trout, my Legion rod loaded up with a solid fish. It made a strong first run without shaking its head, so I thought I had a redfish. After a short fight, the 20-inch seatrout surfaced, surprising both of us. A couple of photos later, and we released the big girl. The horizon was still red with the rising sun, and high-fives were already in order.
Other baits we alternated between were Z-Man ChatterBaits and spinnerbaits, like the Saltwater Assassin Red Daddy and Precision Tackle Thunder Spin and Flats Intruder and a Flashy Medusa (a castable umbrella rig I make with spinnerbait blades). We fished another half-hour without enticing any of the numerous redfish we saw pushing around on the flat, so we headed a short distance to another flat.
As we approached, we saw mullet flipping around and redfish pushing, so we were pumped. Andy got us just the right distance to reach them, and we went to work. We worked through an assortment of lures without success, so I picked up my favorite trout presentation, an Equalizer float with a Sea Shad suspended beneath. On the opposite side of the boat was a seam (an obvious area where hard-flowing water meets slack water) where I had caught lots of trout before. The water was the right clarity for Texas roach, so that is the color Sea Shad I selected. In only a couple retrieves of twitch-twitch-pause, my float took a quick dive. I swept a hookset and swung an undersized, head-shaking trout over the gunnel. Meanwhile, Andy picked up my Flashy Jighead/hot chicken Sea Shad and stuck an undersized redfish, the only one we could fool from the dozens working the flat.
Andy thought we should move north to several flats before the tide got too high, so we put his Yamaha into the wind. As we eased toward his chosen spot, he explained the redfish move around the point we were approaching back into the backwaters, but that most of the fish there were usually small keepers. On his very first cast with an oval float rig with a drunk-monkey-colored Gulp shrimp, he scored with a small keeper redfish. On just a couple of casts later, I fooled one with my Flashy Jighead and hot-chicken Sea Shad. Andy caught another redfish before the bite stopped. Our next spot was a large area with oyster-shell mounds just off a deep channel.
“The redfish feed all along and between these shell mounds on the incoming tide like we have now,” he said.
With only about a foot of water underneath us, we staked out and waited. The wait was short-lived, as sheepshead tails started poking out of the water around the mound almost immediately. Redfish boils followed soon thereafter, and the action started. We alternated between topwaters, spinnerbaits, Flashy Jigheads with Sea Shads and Equalizer Float/Sea Shad rigs. After I fooled a couple of small redfish on Flashy Jigheads and goldfish Sea Shads (the water had cleared, so that color worked well), we both started flinging it. On other days each of the aforementioned lures work well, but that day the Flashy Jighead was the ticket. We blind-casted around shell mounds until we saw fish pushing and then cast to them.
At one point, more than a dozen oversized redfish pushed around a shell point, and I watched as one of them broke from the school and inhaled our Sea Shad. Another time, I had a fish on as Andy swept on another, a double. While blind-casting a little later, a fish ate our offering just like all the others, but the long drag-screaming run indicated it was much more than anything we had previously hooked.
After a 15-minute battle on light tackle, we boated a 32-inch redfish with 46 spots—the most spots I had personally ever seen on a redfish and the biggest redfish caught so far on my Flashy Jighead. After a photo session, we released the bull redfish. After the melee slowed, we started easing around with the trolling motor and casting to scattered shell mounds. We alternated between the various lures again until my encounter with “Brutus.”
“There is a huge redfish that hangs around this point,” Andy shared.
The statement was barely out of his mouth when my Equalizer Float went under and my rod doubled. I could see the redfish wallowing on the surface, and I knew it was bigger than the one we had just caught.
“Do you want me to chase him with the trolling motor,” Andy asked.
“Naw, I got ’em. This rod has a lot more power than the one we caught that big one on,” I quipped.
It made a few short runs, stopped to yawn, made a few more runs, realized it was hooked and then took off.
With concern I said, “You might want to go ahead and start chasing it.”
With panic, I continued the play-by-play to Andy as he motored toward the behemoth, “I’m almost on the backing… I’m on the backing… I’m back on the main line…..Uh, oh, he’s headed for shells… He’s wrapped around shells… He cut me off on the shells.”
“Bert, meet Brutus,” Andy laughed.
We laughed the rest of the day about my badly underestimated first response to the hook-up. A big redfish can easily make a fool of you with light tackle. But, it is very satisfying when you are the victor at the end of a fight with a trophy-sized fish on undersized gear.
We worked several other points and oyster mounds, casting the float rigs for trout around high tide and connecting with several. Our tally was 11 redfish up to 32 inches and 16 trout, all on artificials. None of the trout equaled the early 20-incher, but one other trout touched the 18-inch line. About a fourth of our trout were keepers. The Flashy Jighead with a Sea Shad body was the best lure that day, but it changes from day to day. Our catch was fairly typical for early September, but the numbers will creep up as fall progresses. Andy has been back several times per week since our trip and has had comparable catches, about 30 to 35 fish per half-day trip, which usually includes at least three or four oversized redfish.
The day after my trip with Andy, I took a group back to Crooked River and targeted some deeper channel banks with shell rather than mud/shell flats, and we managed 52 trout, with about a third of them being keepers, and two redfish. Several of the trout ate the Flashy Medusa, but most were fooled with the Equalizer or Cajun Thunder Float and Sea Shads. Our most productive Sea Shad colors that day were copperhead, glitterbug and sand trout. The two redfish ate the Flashy Jighead with an electric-chicken Sea Shad.
Gear choice is important to most effectively present various artificials. Both Andy and I use spinning gear almost exclusively for its versatility, great drag and ability to easily cast lures into the wind. Andy uses 7-foot long, medium-action Fenwick HMG and Abu-Garcia Veritas rods paired with either Quantum Energy or Penn Battle reels (in the 20/2000 sizes). He spools with 20-lb. test Berkley Big Game braided line.
I generally throw a Flashy Jighead/Sea Shad and spinnerbaits with a 7-foot long medium-action Penn Legion rod. I launch the Equalizer/Sea Shad rigs with 7 1/2-foot long, medium-light Ugly Stik Lite rods (the light tip allows the give to keep from pulling a hook when using braided line). Vicious braid in 20-lzb. test is what I spool Penn Battle (3000 series) or Penn Slammer (260 series) reels. The main time I use baitcasting gear is when fishing castable umbrella rigs, like the Flashy Medusa. The perfect outfit for that is a 7-foot, medium-action Legion baitcasting rod paired with an Abu-Garcia Revo Inshore or Penn Pursuit reel. Even for casting the umbrella rigs, I successfully use only 20-lb. test Vicious braided line.
For all leader material, whether on float rigs or the terminal end of braided main line, fluorocarbon is the way to go. Vicious 20-lb. test Pro Elite gets the nod from me, and Andy opts for Berkley 100 percent fluorocarbon. The harder fluorocarbon is much more abrasion resistant than monofilament, and it is clearer, thus allowing you to use a higher poundage and still be invisible to the fish. To save money, buy a filler spool instead of the small leader-spools, and you will have enough material for years.
We typically add about a 2- to 3-foot leader of 20-lb. test fluorocarbon to our main line and tie the leader to a No. 3 black duolock snap. The snap allows a quick lure change between Flashy Jigheads, ChatterBaits, Medusas and spinnerbaits. There is nothing at all fancy about fishing the above lures. Cast them to likely ambush areas and reel them in. Sometimes pauses or twitches work, but more times than not a straight retrieve works best.
For the Equalizer or Cajun Thunder float rigs, tie your main braided line to the top of the float. Add an 18- to 30-inch section of fluorocarbon leader material. Attach a 1/8-, 3/16- or 1/4-oz. jig head (you want to choose the right weight that sits the float up without sinking it), impale an Assassin Sea Shad, and you’re ready to fish. For the float rig, attract the fish with a sharp two- or three-twitch cadence with pauses after the twitches to let your float sit up. Pay attention to the length of the pause when you get a hit, as some days they hit it right after it sits up, while other days it takes a couple-second pause to trigger a strike. If your float is not sitting up on the pause, change to a heavier jig head or make sure the wire shaft is straight. You will see a marked increase in strikes if your float sits up during a pause, as that couple-inch drop when your float sits up often elicits a strike.
If you are interested in a trip with Andy, you can check out his Tail Chaser Charters website at www.andy gowenfishing.com or call him at (912) 729-1958. For information about Capt. Bert’s lures, give him a call for a catalog or information at (912) 287-1604 or e-mail him at [email protected].
While fishing live shrimp under a big float is still the gold standard for trout and redfish along the Georgia coast, chasing them with artificials has grown in popularity over the last few decades. Give these techniques a try this fall during the peak bite, and you too may be a convert to fooling them with lures.
Crooked River Guided Fishing Packages
Beginning this year, Crooked River State Park is offering fishing packages. It is quite a deal, including two-night accommodations in the cabins at the park and a half-day guided fishing trip with guide Capt. Andy Gowen. Options are not limited to just trout and redfish, as other fishing choices include shrimp cast-netting and flounder gigging. Prices vary based upon the length of the trip chosen and the type of trip. The cabins at the park are very nice. Capt. Bert Deener said he has vacationed in them on numerous occasions and has had a blast. Two of the cabins are designated as pet friendly.
For details about fishing packages, check out the Crooked River State Park website at www.gastateparks.org/info/crookriv and click on “Guided Fishing Trip Packages.”
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