Fishing Georgia Nearshore Reefs
Built within 3 miles of the Georgia coastline, these artificial reefs are ready for a visit.
The bright yellow buoys that mark Georgia’s offshore artificial reefs are a familiar and welcome sight to anglers who venture into the wide expanse of the open Atlantic Ocean. Despite the confidence we place in our GPS, there is something comforting about seeing a buoy right where your navigation electronics said it would be. Not only do these buoys mark the location of prime fish habitat, they make great fishing spots themselves since they congregate both bait and gamefish.
During the spring of 2002, boaters roaming the waters just off St. Catherines, Blackbeard and Cumberland Islands might be a little surprised to see yellow buoys in some new and unlikely spots.
Since the 1970s, the Georgia DNR has coordinated the deployment of a variety of manmade materials in an effort to improve fishing opportunities for both offshore and inshore anglers. By 2000, DNR, with the help of several fishing clubs, had constructed 19 artificial reefs scattered in the Atlantic Ocean along the Georgia coast and 15 reefs built within the tidal rivers and sounds. Traditionally, the open-ocean reefs have been built at sites seven to 23 nautical miles from shore in order to maximize their potential to attract gamefish and to avoid conflicts with commercial fishing and shipping. In the past few years, two “deepwater” reefs were built on two sites more than 50 nautical miles off the coast with water depths of 120 and 160 feet, respectively.
In 2000, the Coastal Resources Division was asked if small-boat anglers might benefit from the construction of artificial reefs closer to the barrier island beaches. The Coastal Conservation Association of Georgia (CCA-GA) spearheaded the initiative. Soon, Henry Ansley, Shawn Jordan, and the crew of the Artificial Reef Program were exploring the options for building reefs within the state’s territorial Atlantic Ocean waters which extend out three miles into the Atlantic.
The challenges of this endeavor were great. After all, no one had ever built what would come to be called “beach” reefs in Georgia’s waters. The nearshore waters are shallow, turbulent and subject to high waves and strong currents. A single tropical storm can wash away a whole sandbar or bury a wreck. Could reefs in these areas really be productive, or would they settle and disappear into the bottom? South Carolina has built several such reefs and spoke highly of their success. The input of scientists from the Palmetto State proved invaluable, and momentum built.
First, commercial trawling interests were contacted. Shrimpers avoid areas of the seafloor littered with underwater obstructions that can damage expensive fishing gear. Some keep a detailed record of the location of these “hangs.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would only issue the permits for reef construction in areas where there would be minimal chance for such a reef to be a hazard to navigation. So, construction of the beach reefs near existing “hangs” made good sense.
Other governmental agencies, the Marine Extension Service, and the angling community were also actively involved in the decision-making process. Like the shrimpers, veteran anglers know the location of many underwater obstructions that provide seasonal catches of popular gamefish.
The reefs would also have to be built in areas safely accessible to Georgia’s recreational fishermen. Soon, there was a list of 1,500 potential sites along the coast. More discussions followed and the list was narrowed down to three potential sites by early 2001.
As with any operation of this scale, money was an issue. But the CCA-GA was up to the challenge and lobbied hard for the funds to construct three beach reefs. During the 2001 session of the Georgia General Assembly, $200,000 was put in the budget specifically for beach-reef construction.
“This project wouldn’t have got off the ground had it not been for the CCA-GA. They were committed to the idea of beach reefs and worked hard to get the money to make it happen,” said Henry Ansley. Once the Corps of Engineers issued the permits in July 2001, the last obstacle was cleared and plans were made for construction.
Over the years, everything from Liberty ships to U.S. Army tanks has been used in Georgia’s Artificial Reef Program. However, the unique situation with the beach reefs required that considerable thought be given to the type of material to be used. The materials would have to be heavy to prevent movement off the reef site and into the nets of trawlers working adjacent bottom. The shallow water depths meant that high-profile material, such as surplus vessels, could not be used.
After studying the options, a decision was made to construct the reefs with piles of solid concrete tetrahedrons weighing in at 3,000 pounds and measuring four to five feet wide. Designed by Stability Reefs Inc. for use in shallow waters, the individual units look very much like the classical Egyptian pyramid. The hopes are that these tetrahedrons will be heavy enough to resist the energies of the unpredictable Atlantic yet wide enough not to sink into the bottom. Given time, encrusting organisms such as barnacles, oysters, and soft corals will turn the mass of concrete into a haven for other marine life. As with most manmade reefs, these new sites should only improve with age.
All of the reefs were built in the same basic configuration. The yellow marker buoy topped off with a radar reflector was located in the center of the permitted area. Then a barge loaded with concrete tetrahedrons was moved into a position where the material could be deployed in an area within 200 yards of the buoy.
The waters off Cumberland Island have a reputation for producing memorable catches of big spotted seatrout during the spring and tarpon during the summer. The construction of Reef “TC,” named for State Representative Terry Coleman of Eastman, near the wreckage of the shrimp boat “Caroline” should mean more fish stories from the southern part of the Georgia coast. A total of 400 concrete tetrahedrons were pushed off a barge into 25 feet of water about three miles offshore and south of the Stafford Shoals.
All material was successfully deployed within a 200-yard radius of the buoy, with most of the tetrahedrons being within 50 to 130 yards. There are three distinct patches of concrete located at approximate headings of northwest, northeast, and south of the buoy.
Tony Blount with the Artificial Reef Program commented, “We anchored the barge at both ends and were able to get good stacking, with some piles ending up with over 10 feet of height off the bottom. Clearance over the piles will be about 12 feet on an average low tide. The water clarity is pretty good in that area, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of some smoker kings coming off TC. I know there’ll be some good catches of Spanish mackerel and bluefish.”
The famed Fernandina jetties located where the St. Marys River enters the Atlantic Ocean are about four miles to the south. This area has produced tournament-winning catches of kings since the 1980s. The large schools of menhaden commonly found along the Cumberland Island beaches should draw some tackle-busting gamefish into the vicinity of TC.
Slow trolling or drifting live baits should be productive for kings, bigger Spanish, and jack crevalle lurking around Reef TC. School-size Spanish and bluefish feeding on the surface can be targeted with jigs or by trolling No. 00 Clark spoons. Live finger mullet or mud minnows fished on the sandy bottom adjacent to the concrete are likely to attract the attention of flounder or slot-size reds. Anglers planning a trip to TC can launch at the boat ramps at the St. Marys’ waterfront or at Crooked River State Park.
Legend says that Blackbeard stashed some of his treasure along the Georgia coast. While no one has found any gold or silver, the beach reef built off the island named for the infamous pirate should offer up its own treasure of a fishy sort. Another 400 concrete tetrahedrons were placed in the Atlantic Ocean near Concord Shoals, just south of the entrance to Sapelo Sound.
Reef BH was named in honor of Representative Bob Hanner of Parrott, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a long-time supporter of saltwater fishing programs. Located about 2.5 nautical miles from the shore, BH is just a few miles west of Reef KTK, which is popular with both anglers and divers. Low-tide water depths at BH are less than 16 feet with about 10 feet of clearance over the concrete.
“Since this reef is close to an inlet, conditions may change dramatically with tidal flow and height,” said Shawn Jordan of the Artificial Reef Program. “The reef site south of the Sapelo Sound entrance is a pretty high-energy area with lots of sand moving around. We certainly expect it to attract fish this summer, but we’re curious to see what happens over time.”
Sheepshead, black sea bass, and whiting are just a few of the species that should be caught at this reef. The standard 2-hook bottom rig weighted with a 2- to 4-oz. bank sinker and tipped with squid is a good way to probe the crooks and crannies of the reef. A standard J-hook such as the Eagle Claw 084 in a 1/0 size is preferred for sheepshead, while circle hooks like the Eagle Claw L787 in a size 2 will work for other bottom dwellers, such as whiting. Nearest access points to BH are the public boat ramp at Belleville or the marinas in Shellman Bluff, all in McIntosh County.
When buoy BL and the last of 400 concrete tetrahedrons were pushed from the barge and into the Atlantic Ocean off St. Catherines Island, the first phase of beach-reef construction in Georgia was completed. Named for Representative Bob Lane of Statesboro, an avid outdoorsman and Chair of the House Game, Fish, and Parks Committee, Reef BL was built about three miles east of McQueen’s Inlet in an area known to local shrimpers as “Big Hang.”
The reef site includes the remains of two barges reportedly sunk during the 1940s and the aforementioned concrete units. The remains of a third barge are thought to lie outside the reef site. All of the concrete units are well within 200 yards of the yellow buoy on headings of northeast, east, south-southeast, and southwest. Depth over the structure at low water will be about 10 feet.
The McQueen’s Inlet area is famous for catches of trout and keeper reds. The mouth of the inlet is a popular spot for bull reds in the fall. Reef BL should also produce catches of big reds in the fall, as well as catches of mackerel, tarpon, and possibly tripletail during the warmer months.
Try float-rig fishing over and around the reef. If you use a slip float rig, the depth can be adjusted to present the bait right at the top of the structure or along the sides of the concrete. Live or artificial baits rigged under a Cajun Thunder rattling float rig should also be productive. Don’t forget to check the buoy for tripletail lying in wait for an easy meal.
Fresh cut mullet on a 9/0 circle hook attached to an 18-inch length of 50-lb. test leader is a preferred terminal tackle for reds and small sharks. Fish this rig on the bottom next to the submerged concrete. Anglers wishing to try Reef BL can launch at Yellow Bluff Fish Camp and Half Moon Marina in Liberty County or the previously mentioned locations in McIntosh County.
Although all of these reefs are a short distance from land, the run from an inlet should be made with caution and with regard for the unpredictable nature of the open ocean. Often times, just the change of tide from flooding to ebbing can create a choppy sea that will test the seaworthiness of your boat. Summer thunderstorms can produce temporary, but hazardous, conditions. Any trip into the ocean, whether it’s three miles or 30 miles, should be made with careful thought for emergencies.
Also, be forewarned that piles of concrete have an insatiable appetite for anchors. Most anglers who bottom fish on artificial reefs will use a grappling hook, which is fine for anchoring in the sand or mud, instead of the traditional Danforth anchor. The prongs on the grappling hook are strong enough to hold a boat in position, but yield to strong pull from the boat’s engine. Some anglers prefer to make their own grappling hooks from reinforcing rod, while others choose the store-bought variety such as the Mighty Mite, which is made from aluminum and won’t rust after exposure to saltwater.
Henry and others with the Artificial Reef Program will be closely monitoring the performance of these beach reefs over the next couple of years. They will be using sophisticated side-scan sonar to get a detailed underwater picture of the reefs each year. This way, they will be able to tell if the material is sinking or remaining exposed as hoped.
Program staff will also be making periodic trips to the reefs to see which fish species are in abundance. Anglers can help by giving Georgia DNR some feedback on their experiences at the beach reefs.
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