Oconee River From Sinclair To The Coast

Each spring several friends slide jonboats into the Oconee River just below the Sinclair dam and head for the coast.

MacKay Bloodworth | May 1, 2007

MacKay Bloodworth (left) steers his jonboat downriver while Tim Meyer enjoys a ride that will take them from the Sinclair Dam to the coast.

I have lived in Milledgeville all my life and since I was old enough to know what a fish was, I have had a love for the river. I spent many days fishing from the bank of the Oconee River as a youngster. While I was in high school, I saved my pennies and bought a second-hand 1970s Johnson Seahorse 5 1/2 horsepower motor and attached it to an old aluminum boat. This is when my true passion for the river began. Fishing, camping, exploring — it didn’t matter; as long as I was on the river, I was happy.

I learned how to fish for flatheads, find bedding shellcracker and to catch good messes of redbellies. Most of this was self-taught. I also learned about navigation and how to run the river. After a lot of pushing my boat off sandbars, I found out how to follow the deep run of the river, too. At this time, I didn’t know that all this would pay off in the future.

From time to time, I would hear different people talk of making a journey down the Oconee River to the Altamaha River and on to the ocean. When I was younger, this seemed like a fantasy. I never actually knew anybody who had done it, and it seemed too far-fetched to even think about. But the seed had been planted.

Every year I became more familiar with the Oconee and Altamaha rivers, and by the time I reached my early 30s, I had traveled and fished many different areas of both. By then I had a good river boat and what I thought was enough “river sense” to do what I had always wondered about. It was time for a river trip from Milledgeville to the Atlantic Ocean.

While the following river story is about the second trip to the ocean, the first one was a great learning experience. The knowledge I gained paid off and made the second trip the best adventure I have ever taken. It took place in April of 2006.

My fellow river buddies who went on this trip were Tim Meyer (my boat partner) of Watkinsville, Kenny Eady (my stepfather) of Milledgeville, Brad Walker and his son Will of Madison, John Grier of Haddock, and Chad Powell of Milledgeville.

Our goal for the trip was to waste very little time getting downstream to Altamaha Park, where the more relaxing and exploratory part of our river trip would begin. From the park, we could venture out fishing and cruise through backwater areas enjoying unique scenery.

We left the state boat ramp just south of Milledgeville on Sunday afternoon, seen off by quite a large crowd of wives and kids. The water was lower than usual for April, so the running was rougher. We made it to our first planned stop, a very nice boat ramp and camping area at Beaverdam WMA near Dublin, with enough time to get camp set up before dark. After we set up, we enjoyed an excellent low-country boil on the riverbank.

We skipped a turkey-hunting opportunity the next morning, since we were too anxious to get going and make our destination near the ocean. We motored through East Dublin and under I-16. We stopped at the Highway 280 bridge between Glenwood and Mount Vernon and ate lunch. We watched as some boys swam in the river and talked about how they must have been freezing. A few hours later we made it to the Highway 95 bridge near Uvalda, just above the mouth of the Altamaha, for a planned fuel stop.

After refueling, we were quickly in the Altamaha and heading east. That evening we set up our camp a short distance below Benton Lee’s.

Benton Lee’s is a steakhouse on the Altamaha in Toombs County that served the largest and best steak I had ever eaten. After enjoying one of their famous steaks, we headed back upriver and settled into our tents, while falling asleep to owls hooting and mullet jumping.

The next morning after a fine breakfast on the riverbank, we headed for Jaycee Landing in Jesup. We arrived just after midday and had lunch while looking at all the pictures of fish hanging on the wall.

Taking off again, we motored through Doctortown in Wayne County, heading for Altamaha Park. This is a beautiful section of the river known as “The Narrows.”

We passed by Paradise Park and arrived at Altamaha Park in Glynn County around mid afternoon and set up what would be our camp for the rest of the week.

If you have never explored the lower end of the Altamaha River, you could spend days riding in sloughs and creeks and never see the same place twice. To say that it is beautiful is an understatement.

After setting up camp, we fished a little and explored a lot. On this part of the river, everywhere you look seems like a good place to fish. It is all black water, cypress trees and lily pads.

The next two days were spent doing some serious fishing. Downriver from the park in the back of one of the deep sloughs, the caterpillars were hatching over the water and falling in. This created a natural feeding frenzy for all the pound-plus bluegill we could handle. We also got on some good beds of shellcracker in the lily pads in the lakes above the park. Some of these crackers were close to two pounds.

We were fishing right on the full moon, and it seemed like every fish we caught was bedding and hungry. Chad and John had good luck fishing limb-lines a couple of nights. They caught some good catfish and had several hooks straightened; Some of their lines were even broken completely. The limber willows that line the banks of the river are excellent for hanging limb hooks on.

Part of the adventure of an extended jonboat trip is the opportunity to take home lots of fish meat. John Grier, of Haddock, shows off several big catfish caught on limb-lines.

By Friday, we decided to put down the fishing poles and do some sight-seeing. We all rode down river to Darien, where we had an excellent lunch at Skipper’s Fish Camp. We then walked one mile east of downtown Darien for a very interesting and historical tour of Old Fort King George.

This is the old site where the Darien River was defended from would-be invaders in the 18th century. It is also the site of a sawmill that existed for almost 200 years, milling the large timber floated from upriver. By evening we were ready for a good seafood meal, and that is exactly what we had. We motored back over to the Brunswick side of the marsh and enjoyed a feast fit for King George himself at Mudcat Charlie’s Restaurant, which is at Two-Way Fish Camp.

Before heading back upriver to the tents and knowing that our trip was near an end, we all pulled up on a sandbar in the tidal marsh. We collected a few pieces of driftwood as souvenirs and reflected on the fact that we had covered almost 275 miles one-way since the trip began. After so much planning, preparation, and anticipation, I was glad to finally write in very big letters in the sand, WE MADE IT!

Having eaten all the seafood we could handle and caught all the fish we could fit in our coolers and carry home, our trip was nearly over.

Saturday morning we packed up, and that afternoon, four wives, all driving pickups pulling boat trailers, arrived to load us up and take us home. We did give them a brief tour of the river before leaving.

If you plan to attempt this trip or just a section of it, maybe some of the things I have learned will make your trip better and save you some heartache along the way.

One of the great things about making a long run in jonboat is camping in beautiful places along the river bank.

Preparation is definitely the most critical element of a trip of this nature. I estimate that I had more time in planning for these river trips than time actually spent on the river. The wives of the river-trip crew could testify to this.

I try to keep the date of the trip around the full moon in April. A full moon in April means bedding fish. Bedding fish means river trippers won’t go hungry. Also, an April trip usually means the nights are comfortable, the mornings are usually cool enough to warm up with a hot cup of coffee and the afternoons are hot enough to wear shorts.

Also, the spring of the year usually means good water. You don’t want so much water that the fishing is no good, but you’ll want enough water to navigate the river without losing a prop or a lower unit by striking a log or rock. I strongly suggest taking a reserve prop and small tools, anyway.

The final reason for this time of year is turkey season. The old river bottom longbeards are usually in full swing during April. Although we didn’t take advantage of the turkey hunting, many WMAs border the Oconee and Altamaha rivers, with the two larger ones being Sansavilla and Altamaha WMAs. However, if you plan to turkey hunt any of this public land, make sure that you have signed in prior to chasing that gobbler.

It is a good idea to have your boat serviced prior to running it for an extended period. Our boats ranged from a 14-foot boat with a 30 horsepower two-stroke engine to a 17-foot boat with a 60 horsepower four-stroke. They all performed superbly, but I would not recommend a boat much larger than 17 or 18 feet, especially for the Oconee. Most of us run tunnel-hull boats with adjustable jackplates, which really pay off in low water.

We pack conservatively and plan our meals ahead of time. We usually all eat breakfast together, eat an individual light lunch, and cook a community supper or eat out at night if we are near a restaurant on the river or at the coast.

Basic camping items are necessary, of course. Don’t forget a Thermacell and Skin-so-Soft for the swamp mosquitoes and sand gnats near the coast. A cookstove and basic cookware are essential. Pack an air mattress; the extra room it takes up is well worth it. I found out on the first river trip that my back is not as young as it once was.

You’ll want to consider a half-empty boat to act as a pack mule. We were fortunate that Kenny didn’t have a boat partner on this trip, and he was able to bring along a fish cooker and tank and the rest of the crew donated some extra items for him to carry along. I strongly recommend one boat without a rider almost as a necessity to make this trip more pleasurable. Take your comfort items, but don’t load your boat so heavily that it is unsafe.

Gas is probably the most critical supply needed. It seems to be our experience that our boats get between 5 and 6 miles to the gallon with a boat full of gear. Before attempting a trip like this, have a good idea of how many miles to the gallon your boat will get and plan fuel stops accordingly.

We left with between 20 and 25 gallons of fuel, depending on the boat, which was enough to get us to the mouth of the Altamaha. There, we stopped at Three Rivers Bait and Tackle, which is on the Oconee River at the Highway 95 bridge, about a mile above “the forks,” where the Oconee and Ocmulgee form the Altamaha.

Three Rivers Bait and Tackle is run by the Coleman family, who are originally from Milledgeville. They sell basic food items and bait and tackle but no gas. We had a prearranged trip to a gas station about 3 road miles from there, so we could top off our tanks.

The forks was about halfway between Milledgeville and Brunswick for us, so from there we had enough gas to make it to Altamaha Park in Glynn County. The park, which is slightly less than 20 river miles from Brunswick or Darien, would serve as our camp for the remainder of the trip. The park has gas on the river, bait and food supplies, along with tent-camping sites and shower facilities. While the convenience of the park was nice, this year we will camp on the riverbank for more tranquility.

Some of the more important items to take along are river maps and a GPS (preferably with local maps downloaded), and of course, the good ol’ cell phone. We tried the two-way radios the first year, but they are hard to hear while running a boat.

My GPS has proven to be priceless. Not only does it keep you from getting lost (which is possible, especially near the coast), it helps you figure your times for specific legs of the trip and how long it will be before your arrival at your next destination. You can also use it to determine how far your boat is running on a tank of gas.

For power on my boat, I installed a DC outlet that I use to charge my cell phone and run a spotlight or filet knife. It has proven to be most useful.

I also take along two tarps. These are good in the event of rain, but a tarp between the ground and your tent bottom keeps the ground moisture and condensation out. I prefer to camp in the edge of the woods if possible. Not only is it cooler than a sandbar, but it is much cleaner than camping on the sand. If you do camp on the sand, allow the tent tarp to extend out the front. This acts like a doormat and really cuts down on the amount of sand tracked into your tent.

I take spinning reels for the bream fishing and a heavy rod that I can use for either catfish or bass. Crickets and worms are my baits of choice unless the water is warm enough for Beetle Spins or Spin Dandys. If you fish with limb hooks, use very heavy tackle and be sure to tie them to limbs that have lots of flex. Sometimes this may not even hold a giant flathead catfish.

A very detailed set of maps can be obtained from a book called A Paddler’s Guide to Southern Georgia written by Don Otey and Bob Sehlinger. This book gives exact river miles and shows boat landings and how easily accessible they are.

More maps of the Altamaha can be obtained free by calling the DNR office in Waycross; their number is (912) 285-6094. Those maps show more boat ramps and places to get supplies.

If you enjoy history, especially local river history, I recommend a good book called Running the River. It is written by Carlton A. Morrison and is available from Saltmarsh Press. It tells of the poleboats, steamboats, and timber rafts on the Altamaha, Ocmulgee, Oconee and Ohoopee rivers.

My in-laws live in Rhine near the Ocmulgee, and I have made similar runs there. The Ocmulgee is just as suitable for this type of trip if you wanted to start your journey on a different river. Many people have made this voyage and longer ones in canoes.

Richard Grove, from Cumming, even traveled from Lawrenceville to the Atlantic in a kayak. Neither I nor my river-going friends are able to leave our families and jobs for that long. There are also groups of boaters who run the Savannah and Ogeechee rivers every year on the same type of trip. In a nutshell, no matter by what means you travel or what river you travel on, this is a getaway that is far more pleasant than any vacation to a crowded tourist attraction. Some places you will encounter will almost make you think you are in a different world, and in a way, I suppose you are.

There is not enough room in a single article to describe everything that made this trip so much fun, but with good water, good weather and lots of planning, a river trip like this can be terrific. When all these elements combine in the right way, it makes memories that will last a lifetime. I would have rated this trip a 10 if we never even caught a fish. I can’t wait until my two children are old enough to make this trip with me.

It seems that the trip is gaining popularity, also. Each year we add a boat or two to the group. If all goes as planned, by the time this article is printed my devoted river friends and I will have just returned from another fantastic voyage from Milledgeville to the Atlantic. Make a plan to take a vacation on the river, and maybe I will see you there!

Here’s the jonboat crew from the 2006 river adventure. (Top row, left to right) John Grier, Chad Powell, Tim Meyer, Brad Walker. (Bottom row, left to right) Kenny Eady, MacKay Bloodworth and Will Walker.

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