Drive-Up Surf Fishing

Three locations on the Georgia coast for saltwater fishing where you can drive, park and fish.

Capt. Spud Woodward | June 15, 2007

Capt. Spud Woodward surveys his surf fishing spread.

Worried about seasickness and long boat rides? Three of Georgia’s coastal islands offer saltwater fishing within walking distance of your vehicle.

The intricate network of sandbars, sloughs and points found near coastal inlets and barrier-island beaches are a battlefield for predator and prey, each vying to win the age-old contest for survival. Wind and waves push bait— glass minnows, menhaden, shrimp and sand fleas — into the shallows, where they become disoriented and vulnerable. Enter the predators—speckled trout, shark and redfish to name a few — with their highly evolved senses, strength, agility and ravenous appetites. Savvy anglers know that on days when the tide and weather are right, a bait cast into this melee almost guarantees a strike.

While coastal Georgia may not have the surf-fishing reputation of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, anglers equipped with the right tackle and the willingness to take a stroll can find plenty of fishing action along the barrier-island beaches. And, they can do it without spending their children’s inheritance. Given that only three of Georgia’s 11 major barrier islands are accessible by road and open to the public, many folks assume the best surf fishing is out of reach to all but a privileged few. Yes, these remote islands have some great beachfront fishing spots, but so do Tybee, St. Simons and Jekyll, and they are accessible by vehicle.

Location, Location, Location

The northernmost barrier island, Tybee has long been a playground for Savannah residents and tourists with its shops, restaurants and 2 miles of beach, most of which is open to fishing. However, the City of Tybee Island has designated certain areas for swimming only, so check before you cast a line. Besides beach fishing, Tybee offers angling from coastal Georgia’s only ocean pier, located at the end of 16th Street. Jutting out into the Atlantic, the barnacle-encrusted legs of the pier form an artificial reef and create eddies and current breaks that attract fish. There is no admission charge, and the pier features amenities such as restrooms and a snack bar. A fee-parking area is located just behind the beach between 14th and 19th streets. Both ends of the island — north at the mouth of the Savannah River and south near Tybee Inlet — are good places to try surf fishing. The twice-a-day tides move ocean water in an out of these areas making them a magnet for saltwater game fish. The remnants of rock jetties located near the south end of the beach are also a great place to try.

About 70 miles south of Tybee Island are the Golden Isles — Sea Island, St. Simons Island, and Jekyll Island. Sea Island is private and only accessible to residents and guests of the Sea Island Company Resorts. However, St. Simons offers several public beach-access points. The best location for surf fishing is located between Gould’s Inlet and the old U.S. Coast Guard Station. The Torras Causeway, which connects St. Simons to the mainland, becomes Demere Road once you cross the Frederica River. Stay on Demere Road until you see a yellow flashing light marking the intersection with the East Beach Causeway. Turn left on the causeway, and follow it to a four-way intersection. A left turn will take you north on Bruce Drive to a small, free public-parking lot at Gould’s Inlet; or go straight to a larger free public-parking area at the old Coast Guard Station. Gould’s Inlet features a small, public fishing dock but no other amenities. The beach access point near the Coast Guard Station has public restrooms and an outdoor freshwater shower. Bait and tackle are available at St. Simons Island Bait and Tackle located on Mallory Street near Neptune Park.

Gould’s Inlet, formed where Postell Creek splits St. Simons and Sea islands, drains hundreds of acres of marsh on an outgoing tide. On the incoming tide, millions of gallons of seawater push back into these same marshes. Consequently, baitfish and crustaceans are constantly moving back and forth through the inlet, attracting everything from sharks to whiting. The inlet itself is narrow, but a wide expanse of shoals and sandbars has formed at its juncture with the Atlantic. Rocks placed in the 1960s to prevent beach erosion recently emerged after decades of being covered by sand and offer some fishing structure on high tide.

Jekyll Island State Park recently took the spotlight as the Georgia General Assembly debated the future of this popular coastal destination, once an exclusive resort for captains of industry. A 7-mile causeway connects the island with the mainland thoroughfare of U.S. Highway 17. The daily access fee is a very reasonable $3 per vehicle. Several large public-parking areas are located around the island, some of which have restrooms and freshwater showers. Convenience stores sell basic fishing gear and frozen bait. Live bait shrimp can be purchased at the Jekyll Marina.

With 10 miles of beach, Jekyll offers many places to cast a line. Here are a few of the popular spots: There are several dune crossovers and plenty of parking near the convention center located at the end of the Jekyll causeway. Driftwood Beach, named for the skeletal remains of trees, is located on the extreme north end of the island and is accessible from Clam Creek Road. St. Andrews picnic area, located on the opposite end of the island, is popular with beach seiners as well as anglers.

Experienced surf casters know that all beaches are not created equal, and that the beach constantly changes. Try to time your trip to coincide with low tide. Look for sloughs, points, depressions and other features different from the surrounding beach. As the tide rises, these features, though often subtle, can change the longshore current and create a congregation point for small fish, crabs and other food. Look for current rips and a change in the water color indicating sudden depth changes. Feeding gulls and pelicans are also a good sign that baitfish and predators are working a stretch of beach. Never hesitate to move if you see such activity in the area.

Surf Tech

Variety may be the spice of life, but it also brings a challenge for the surf fisherman. When it comes time to choose your equipment and terminal tackle, things can get awfully confusing. One-size-fits-all just doesn’t work when your quarry varies from a 12- inch whiting to a 40-lb. redfish. Oh, what a problem to have!

My favorite outfit is a 7- to 8-foot surf-style spinning rod with a medium action and fast tip. The Penn Power Stick, Okuma Solaris and Daiwa Emblem are some good choices. These rods have the heft to handle a big fish without robbing you of the fun of catching a 2-lb. beach-run trout. They also have the stylish and functional composite cork grips that provide sure handling with wet hands. These rods should be paired with a spinning reel capable of holding 200-plus yards of 12-lb. test, high-viz monofilament. The Penn 550 SSg and Okuma AL-45 rank as favorites.

Most tackle shops in coastal areas sell a double-hook rig made from cable and fitted with snaps for hooks and a pyramid weight. These rigs will work in the surf, but I prefer to make single- hook rigs from 15-lb. test fluorocarbon. I begin by tying surgeon’s loops at each end of a 3-foot section of leader material; I make a dropper line about 18 inches above one of the end loops and attach a hook there. I connect the upper loop to the main line via a 30-lb. test coastlock snap swivel. I pass the bot- tom loop through the eye of a 2- or 3- oz. pyramid sinker then pass the sinker back through the loop.

Another effective terminal rig I build uses a fish-finder — a nylon sleeve attached to a duolock snap. I pass the end of the main line through a plastic bead, then the nylon sleeve, and another bead. I finish that by tying on a coastlock snap swivel. I clip a pyramid sinker into the duolock snap to keep the bait anchored in the churning water, while allowing the line to move when picked up by a fish. Since the fish can’t feel the weight, they bite aggressively, ensuring a solid hook-up. I finish the rig with a 24-inch length of fluorocarbon leader. I tie a surgeon’s loop at the top end of the leader and tie a hook onto the other end. I attach the leader to the main line by clipping it into the snap swivel. Keep a supply of terminal rigs in a zipper-style plastic bag, and you won’t have to waste fishing time by tying extra gear.

I prefer to use thin-wire circle or wide-bend-style hooks when surf fishing. Both hooks have a self-setting feature that allows me to fish multiple rods. Some of the choices are the Eagle Claw L2222, the Mustad Demon Circle Extra Fine Wire and the VMC Sport Circle. The size designation of circle hooks can be confusing; just make sure you choose a hook with at least a 1/4- inch gap between the point and shank. Avoid the offset circle hooks since these are more likely to deep-hook fish that you may have to release. Also, mash down the barb and you’ll find it easier to remove the hook. I use a snell to connect the up-eye-style hooks to the leader, and stick with an improved clinch knot for standard hooks.

Surf-run fish are not known for being finicky eaters, but I always prefer fresh-caught bait to frozen. Shrimp, finger mullet, crabs, mud minnows and small menhaden are good choices to tip a surf rig. Many times mullet and menhaden can be caught at the fishing spot, and that’s why I always carry a 3/8-inch mesh cast net and a trolling-style bait bucket when I go surf fishing. I attach a 12-foot nylon cord to the bait bucket handle and tie a brass snap clip to the other end. After I fill the bait bucket, I snap it to one of my rod holders and let it wash around in the surf, keeping baitfish alive and frisky.

While fresh, natural bait tops my list, I can’t always find it before a trip to the beach. That’s when I fall back to the new generation of synthetic baits that has revolutionized saltwater fishing. The Berkley Saltwater GULP! attracts whiting, redfish and other bottom feeders. I was skeptical about this product when it first hit the market, but now I won’t go to the beach without it. I like the sand flea, peeler crab and shrimp patterns. Fish Bites also makes synthetic bait that is effective for surf fishing. They may seem a bit pricey, but they are non-perishable and give anglers the choice to fish even when they can’t find the real thing.

A blacktip reef shark is one of many species you may catch while fishing the surf of Georgia’s coastline.

There are several accessories that make a surf-fishing trip more enjoyable and productive. Some essentials include a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, a pair of stainless-steel pliers, a bait knife, a small first-aid kit, a cooler with ice and drinks, a fish-measuring device and a fish stringer. During the warmer months, you can go barefoot, but some folks like to wear water-sports sandals.

One of the most important accessories is a surf-rod holder also known as a sand spike. These are available from catalogs and tackle shops, but I prefer to make mine from thin-wall (Schedule 20), 1 1/2-inch diameter PVC pipe. Take a 5-foot length of pipe and cut one end at a 45-degree angle. About 8 inches below the opposite end, drill a hole through the pipe large enough to accommodate a stainless- steel eyebolt. Attach the eyebolt with stainless-steel washers and hardware, and you have a handy connection point for other accessories like the bait bucket I mentioned. Carry a sand spike for each rod and at least one extra for the fish stringer.

If you get serious about surf fishing, you’ll want to invest in a beach cart. Fish-N-Cart makes two models that have built-in rod holders, a bait station, oversize wheels and room for a full-size cooler. Another accessory is a wade-fishing belt. Team Numark makes a belt that provides back support while carrying everything from pliers to a fish stringer to an accessory pouch. Just remember you’ve got to carry all this gear back to the truck at the end of the day.

Like many who have gotten the saltwater fishing bug, I had my first rod-bending experience at the beach. Forty years later, I still enjoy standing at the ocean’s edge, listening to the crash of the surf, and staring at the tip of a fishing rod. Give it a try, and you’ll find that this surf fishing is one of life’s simple pleasures.

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