Savannah River Striped Bass — Like A Largemouth Bass On Steroids

When the weather cools, striped bass in the Savannah River know it’s time to go home.

Nick Carter | November 1, 2007


“The bridge is right here. It’s a fabulous place to fish; you need not know anything else about striper fishing. You don’t even have to crank your big motor,” said Tim Barrett moments after backing the boat in at the Port Wentworth ramp on the Savannah River. I had to take his word for it. I couldn’t see a bridge — I couldn’t see much of anything beyond the 5 feet in front of my face.

A thick fog had settled in over the Savannah, making even the big Houlihan Bridge, which carries Ga. Hwy 25 over the river into South Carolina, a shadow in the gray early morning. But Tim knows his way around the river. Even with such low visibility he motored slowly and carefully up to the wooden structure around the bridge, and dropped the trolling motor as eddies swirled around the pilings in the last half of the incoming tide.

“This is a perfect day to fish, overcast and cool,” he said, handing me what amounted to a scaled-up version of an open-faced casting rig for bass.

Tim likes a saltwater casting rod 7 to 9 feet long combined with either a baitcasting or open-faced reel. He spools them with 20-lb. braided line because of the abrasion resistance and limited stretch.

“You want it strong enough to hold your fish, but light enough to get deep if you need to,” he said. “And you need a pretty long rod, something you can get some leverage with, because you’re pulling ’em out of some pretty nasty stuff.”

We started pitching 3/4-oz. bucktail jigs and 5-inch, soft-plastic swim- baits on 1-oz. jig heads into the current breaks, tight on the structure around the bridge. An accurate cast was necessary, as Tim said the lure needs to be within a foot and a half of the structure for the fish to see it in the turbid water. This was not what most Georgia anglers think of as striper fishing, which normally involves live bait fished either on downlines or trolled behind the boat. This felt more involved, more hands-on.

“This is just like bass fishing…” Tim quipped, “bass on steroids.”

Striper fishing on the river is a lot like largemouth-bass fishing. Artificials worked around structure, such as bridge or diverter pilings, can lead to fast action.

Tim was surprised that we didn’t pull any fish off the bridge, and within about 20 minutes of casting he pulled up the trolling motor and suggested that we might be a little early on the tide. You need moving water and structure, he explained. Stripers will face into the flow, holding in current breaks on the upstream side of structure to ambush passing menhaden or shrimp.

Here, 21 river miles from where the Savannah flows into the ocean, moving water means fishing the tides, and the tides here run about two hours behind the charts for the Savannah River Entrance. It is the most important factor in catching these fish. They’re lazy and won’t feed unless the tides bring food to them. Tim said the best fishing occurs on the last half of the incoming tide and the first 10th of the outgoing tide.

We moved downstream, actually against the flow of the tide, and pulled up on some diverter pilings put there years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That’s when the action start- ed. On his first cast, as Tim worked his bucktail jig up the face of the wall of pilings, a striper slammed it in a swirl of fins and splashing water. Working quickly, he horsed the fish out of the structure before it made a furious run downstream peeling line off his reel. After working the fish to the boat, he hoisted a fat and healthy 10-pounder out of the water, still kicking.

“This one looks pretty good,” he said in surprise. “Usually, they’re not in great shape this early.”

He was speaking of the fall run, when water temperatures begin to drop, sparking a mass exodus from the stripers’ upstream, summer stomping grounds just below the Savannah Lock and Dam, 13 miles south of Augusta. The fish run nearly 200 miles down- stream to their historic breeding area over a two- or three-week period, arriving famished from a long, lethargic summer in the cooler waters upstream, and ready to gorge themselves on the conveyor belt of baitfish in the coastal river. It takes a while for the fish to put the weight back on, and they spend the fall swiping at anything that looks edible.

Tim keeps a fly rod on the boat when he goes after fall stripers on the Savannah. When they are feeding voraciously on shrimp or menhaden after their long downstream run, stripers will hit anything in front of them, and it’s a good time to get one on the fly.

November, when the water temperatures drop into the 60s, is the best month of the year to catch these fish while they’re still feeding aggressively. There are countless man-made and natural structures where stripers can hold over miles of river between the I-95 bridge down to south of Savannah. The fish will sit between 2 and 15 feet waiting to smash passing food, but in late December they move deep, before coming back up in the spring to spawn. Then they head back upriver to Augusta.

“This is a real good time to catch those big ones. They’re vulnerable right now, and they’ll eat anything you wiggle in front of them,” Tim said. “By December or January, they’ve gained that weight back. They don’t look like stripers in other places. They’re plumb obese.”

It is for this reason Tim is pretty sure the state-record, 63-lb. striped bass caught out of the Oconee River in 1967, will be eclipsed by a fish from the Savannah River soon. People are reporting regular catches of stripers in the 40-lb. range, and a few 50-pounders, which was previously unheard of on this river.

“I imagine the state record will be in jeopardy here in the next four or five years,” Tim said. “I’m excited. It’s neat to see these fish keep getting bigger and bigger.”

He should be excited. As a DNR fisheries biologist based at the Richmond Hill Hatchery, where all of Georgia’s stocked stripers are hatched, he’s helped raise the fish. Striped bass used to breed in huge numbers in the Savannah, creating an incredible natural fishery. But now the vast majority of the stripers you’ll catch here came from the hatchery. When the corps established a floodgate on the Back River in 1977 to re-route water into the shipping channel to save on dredging costs, it ruined the historical spawning grounds.

“It messed up the spawning of the striper. It just kind of crashed,” Tim explained.

The tide gate was taken out of operation in 1991 because of the undeniable environmental toll it had taken, and the WRD has been trying to restore the fishery ever since. They have released between 30 and 40 thousand 6- to 8-inch stripers into the estuary every year since the early 90s. The fishery has returned, but the stripers are no longer using their historic breeding grounds. They now release eggs in the Front River, where they float down into high levels of salinity too quickly to hatch successfully.

“It’s really one of the most successful stocking programs I’ve heard of. We’re back at or above historic levels,” Tim said. “We’re trying to fix the flow pattern the way it used to be, but in the meantime we’ve figured out that we can sustain a pretty good fishery through stocking from this little hatchery.”

As the fog began to lift a little, I discovered that “pretty good fishery” may have been an understatement. Soon after Tim boated then released the first fish of the day, I was pulling a swimbait in a steady retrieve across the end of the same row of pilings when my rod loaded up with an aggressive strike less than 4 feet from the boat. It was not as big as Tim’s, but the fish still put up a impressive fight.

“Handle them as little as possible. Make sure they’re revived then just push them off, almost abruptly,” Tim said as I unhooked the fish and put it back in the water. “It’s not like a red- fish, where you hold them till they swim off.”

Tim encourages catch and release, because DNR is hoping stripers will begin successfully spawning at sustain- able levels again. On most of the coastal rivers, there is a 22-inch minimum size limit for keeping stripers, but on the Savannah, the minimum size limit is 27 inches.

“We’re trying to give these fish two full years of spawning before they can be kept,” Tim said. “That gives the female two shots at spawning before she can be taken out.”

After catching a few more fish off the diverter pilings, we moved back up to the bridge to catch the end of the incoming tide. Tim pitched a swimbait deep into a corner formed between a concrete bridge piling and the wooden structure around the bridge. A striper exploded on the bait as soon as it hit the water, providing a few anxious moments before Tim was able to steer it out of the structure and into open water. After that fish, the action fell into a lull as the incoming tide began to slow and change directions. We even took a short break to allow time for the  current to pick up as it turned around headed back out to the ocean.

“If you’re going to catch a bigger fish, it’ll be when the tide turns,” Tim said. “Those big guys like to maximize their chance when the food is easiest to get.”

The window of opportunity is short, however, as the outgoing tide gets moving very quickly. There comes a point where it is no longer possible to hold a boat or a bait in the swift water. Tim said it’s not wise to use an anchor on the outgoing tide, unless you’re willing to lose it.

We didn’t get the “big boy” the day we were out, but we did catch enough fish during the four hours when the tides were right to make for an exciting morning. We also didn’t move more than a mile from the ramp because Tim knew there were fish in the area.

The fishery is not limited to that one bridge, though. Tim said fall striper fishing is best east of the I-95 bridge down to just below Savannah. And the river is actually braided into three rivers here, so there’s plenty of water and structure to fish. Play the tides and find the bait, and you will find the striped bass.

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