Floating-Worm Finesse For Altamaha River Bass
With flooded bushes and cover-laden oxbows, this grand river is perfect for floating-worm fanatics armed with finesse tackle.
When the Okefenokee Bass Anglers in Waycross was a fledgling club in the late 1990s, there were only two anglers who were proficient with a spinning outfit. Some of the guys did not even own a spinning reel. During the summer months, when the majority of the bass were in the main run of the Altamaha, fellow Waycrossan Michael Smith and I typically swapped first place finishes whenever we fished the river. Occasionally someone would get on a good concentration of fish that would bite worms or crankbaits, but most of the time the winning limit was caught by skipping floating worms to the heavy shoreline cover, especially willow trees. It did not take long before most in the club had at least one spinning outfit in their arsenal, and they learned how to skip floating worms amongst willow limbs.
After the arrival of our first child in 2001, I left the bass club and competitive bass fishing. Just a few months before I left, I met a young man named Justin Bythwood who had moved from Fort Pierce, Fla. to Waycross and joined our club. I quickly learned that fishing floating worms on spinning tackle was Justin’s specialty, and we spent several days skipping Trick Worms to Altamaha willows that summer. As Justin continued fishing tournaments, he honed his skills with floating worms of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and they have been his go-to bait for years.
At 21 years young, Justin has already done well in the Okefenokee Bass Anglers club. In 2002 he finished third, and in 2003 he was angler of the year. In 2004 the club joined the B.A.S.S Federation, and Justin qualified for and fished that year’s Top Six Tournament. He is currently in third place this year, well on his way to a repeat trip to the Top Six Tournament. Most impressive is that Justin’s accomplishments have come from the back of the boat.
“I just fish hard, concentrating on putting my baits in hard-to-reach areas and paying attention to subtle bites,” he said.
In early June I was fortunate to share my boat with Justin on one of his favorite waters, the mighty Altamaha River. The river was beginning to clear up to its typical summer greenish hue until just days before our trip. As up to seven inches of rain fell in parts of the basin, I cringed as I envisioned the imminent rising and muddying water ruining the floating-worm bite. Justin and I had planned to fish in the upriver portion around Jesup or Baxley, but we quickly scratched that plan as a wall of water descended downstream from Macon. We closely monitored the river levels on the internet and figured our best chance for clearer water and a decent floating-worm bite was as far away from the slug as possible — at Altamaha Park. With a mid-morning low tide, another positive ingredient when the river is swollen, we fixed our sights on the Glynn County park located near Everett.
I became nostalgic as we loaded boxes and bags of floating worms into my 14-foot Grumman jonboat, the craft from which I had skipped my way to victory in club tournaments. After what felt like 50 pounds of floating worms of every hue, size, and shape were hoisted over the gunwales, we headed north from Waycross to the Altamaha.
As we backed the boat in, our fears of muddy water were confirmed. Even ahead of the big slug, local rains had muddied the water to less than a foot visibility. We hoped that the backs of the oxbow lakes would be clearer, a common phenomenon as the river begins to rise. Our first couple stops in downriver oxbows squelched our hopes of finding clearer water. Nevertheless, we persisted in trying to force-feed floating worms to bass in some of my favorite downriver spots. I tried several brightly colored Bass Assassin Charms while Justin flung a gold dust Wave Worm Tiki Stick. We both fished the worms unweighted, skewered to 3/0 red, offset, round-bend XPS worm hooks. In reservoirs he often rigs floating worms with a swivel and a short leader between the swivel and the hook, but not when he’s fishing the Altamaha.
“In the Altamaha I always fish floating worms without a swivel. They really do not twist your line too badly, and my casts around heavy cover are much more accurate without the swivel getting in the way,” Justin said.
We had not gone far down the bank of our first oxbow lake when Justin reeled down and set the hook hard. His slow, methodical twitch-pause retrieve had fooled a fish of the prehistoric variety — a bowfin. The 3-pounder flopped awhile at the side of the boat, mangling his hook and worm before Justin could release it. After several more unproductive yards down the bank, we decided to move to the back of another of my favorite oxbow lakes.
“I like covering a lot of water early when the bass are usually active, then I’ll slow down later in the day,” Justin said.
When we stopped at the back of the next oxbow, I was disappointed to see the same chocolate-milk water clarity as elsewhere. We quickly worked the back of the lake alternating between floating worms and other typical river lures. Our quick lap produced a 5-lb. and a 4-lb. bowfin and two undersized bass. Justin’s Tiki Stick accounted for the bowfin, and a chartreuse Smithwick Rattling Rogue and a four-inch junebug Bass Assassin worm produced the undersized bass. We decided to try the main river, the prime July location, to see if the bass had moved into their summertime haunts yet. On the way upstream to some of Justin’s favorite banks, he discussed some of his summertime strategies.
During summer, Justin usually fishes the main river, concentrating on stretches of willows and small eddies created by blowdowns. When the fish are active, he fishes worms that float higher in the water column, such as Zoom Trick Worms and Bass Assassin Charms. If trying to skip his lure far under overhanging willow branches, Justin opts for denser, slightly heavier plastics, such as a Bass Assassin Twitch or an Edge floating worm. If he wants the worm to sink with a slow, seductive wobble, he rigs a Wave Worm Tiki Stick or Bass Pro Shops Stick-O. Justin relies on more subtle colors, such as gold dust, junebug, watermelon copper, red shad, and black. He occasionally dyes the tip of the tail chartreuse for added attraction.
I typically throw the gaudy-colored, high-floating worms, as I enjoy seeing the fish inhale the bait. My most effective colors have been white, pink, and yellow. My favorite summertime presentation is to skip long, skinny Charms under willow limbs and make them dance back and forth a foot under the surface until a bass cannot stand it any longer. The longer and thinner the worm, the more action you can impart, while the thicker and shorter the worm, the more subtle action it will have.
The perfect rod to effectively fish floating worms on the Altamaha will have a relatively soft tip with plenty of backbone to work a fish out of heavy cover. There is a fine line in having a soft enough tip to accurately cast a light bait without the tip being too soft. Justin’s favorite combination is a medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Pro Qualifier spinning outfit spooled with 12-lb. test Berkley Big Game monofilament. The stretch in monofilament is critical to impart the side-to-side action that is so effective. Neither of us like the characteristics of superlines when fishing floating worms.
Water clarity is very important when fishing floating worms, as these baits trigger bites mostly through the fish’s sense of sight. During a typical July, the water above Jesup will have a characteristic emerald-green appearance, and visibility will be greater than two feet. Below Jesup, the water will be clear, but will have a dark color due to industrial outflows in the Jesup area. Both sections produce good catches of bass, so do not shy away from the lower river just because it has darker water. River levels below five feet on the Doctortown gauge usually indicate that the water will be clear, as long as there have not been hard local rains during the previous couple days. You can check all Georgia river levels at the USGS website located at http://ga.waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt.
Skipping Floating Worms
While skipping floating worms is not an inherent skill when you begin to pursue bass, it is not difficult to learn. The cast is akin to skipping a stone across a pond as a child. Floating worms draw strikes when skipped into distant, shaded haunts, such as beneath a boat dock, under overhanging vegetation, in the shady spot beside a standing cypress tree, or in the tangle of willow limbs.
To learn how to skip a floating worm, first practice in an open area until you have mastered the mechanics of the cast before adding a target. Spinning gear is perfectly suited to this presentation, so leave your baitcasting outfits in the rod locker.
Squat down low to the water and position your rod parallel to the water surface. Begin with about six inches of line between the rod tip and worm; then fling the worm with a snap of the wrist. Use significant force parallel to the water surface to cause the worm to make many small skips across the top of the water. You can control the distance of the cast by applying pressure on the lip of the spool with your pointer finger. After mastering the mechanics of the cast, aim at targets. Eventually, you will learn the necessary trajectory to make the cast while standing up. Learn this technique and you will be putting your lure where most other anglers have not fished.
Back to our recent trip, Justin and I were disappointed in the morning bite to that point, but we had not yet tried the main river. On one of Justin’s favorite main river banks, we fished floating worms to no avail in the subtle eddies formed by obstructions.
“When the river gets back down in July, small eddies along the main river are where the active fish will concentrate,” he said.
With less than optimal visibility, we changed approaches and tried calling the fish to our baits instead of trying to finesse them. Even though it was the heat of the day, we tried buzzbaits, lures that have consistently produced for me when the river water is stained. My only 10-lb. bass, an Altamaha behemoth, hammered a buzzbait. Our lure switch was quickly rewarded, as a fat keeper inhaled my bait. At the end of that stretch, the buzzbait caught us two keepers from the shaded nooks and crannies.
We moved upstream to the mouth of an oxbow lake. Along the mouth of the lake was a row of willow trees surrounded by a shallow flat. My first cast to the willow point was smashed by a large bass that I saw, but was unable to hook. Repeated casts with buzzbaits, floating worms, and spinnerbaits were unsuccessful, so we continued our upstream voyage. We targeted shoreline willows and creek mouths for about another hour before thunderstorms, an ever-present summer threat, started building. Wanting to give that large bass I missed another chance to eat our buzzbaits, we headed back to that same willow point. Three casts later, a big bass crushed the buzzbait, and we boated the biggest bass of the day, a 3-lb., 12-oz. beauty. We had just enough time to snap a few photos of our three keepers that weighed 6 1/2 pounds before taking out in the shadow of a thunderstorm.
On the drive home, we reflected on the day. The bass were definitely in their summer locations, the main river, but we believe were unable to detect our floating worms due to the heavily stained water. In July, when the water clears, main-river bass will be eager to pounce on a floating worm danced just below the surface. If, however, rains keep the river up and stained, crushing buzzbait strikes are not a bad fallback option.
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