Stringer Full Of Altamaha River Bream
The author and Danny Ammons caught this awesome stringer of bream last month. The fishing will remain good in June.
This is not supposed to be happening. There is a steady wind blowing 15 to 20 miles per hour out of the northeast; the temperature at 8:30 a.m. is in the very low 60s, clouds low, dark and threatening; the Altamaha River reading at Jesup is a little over two feet lower than what we were hoping and waiting for.
Yet Danny Ammons and I are catching bull bluegills, shellcrackers and warmouths hand over fist! If it’s not an every-cast bite, it’s every second or third. And some of these fish are so large, as Danny says, “They look plumb deformed.”
You may recognize the name Danny Ammons from previous trips to the Jesup arm of the river, but likely you’re pairing it with the catching of some very large catfish. In fact, Danny is a former state-record holder, with a flathead well over 60 pounds. But before he catches catfish, Danny must catch bait for those big catfish, and that consists of bream, sometimes hand-sized specimens. It’s enough to make an old-time bream fisherman like me cringe to see a plate-sized redbreast sacrificed for something as ugly as a 60-lb. flathead!
But when the call came for a bream-fishing feature on the Altamaha, Danny was the first fisherman I thought of. He knows this river and its sometimes unsettling ways like few others. And he knows miles and miles of it, from Jesup on down to the coast. We put in at Altamaha Regional Park, located on the widening section of the Altamaha as it prepares to empty into the Atlantic. The park is 20 miles east of Jesup on Highway 341, 13 miles west of Brunswick. There are excellent launch ramps here, with a bait-and-tackle shop on site that can also get you fixed up with camping facilities. And some mighty fine fishing begins only about 400 yards away, but we’ll get to that area shortly.
We’re fishing on Tuesday morning, with May’s full moon coming up four days hence. It’s time for the bream to begin gathering for their full-moon bedding rituals, and if anyone knows where they’ll be, it’ s the man up front running the boat. We’re apprehensive about the weather, which looks as if the bottom of some very dark clouds could fall out at any minute. As it turns out, we’ll fish all day with the sun never breaking through — a blessing in itself.
Danny initially planned to run several miles downriver to his favorite spot, Lewis Creek, a deep creek that runs several miles off the river.
“You can fish a week or longer in there and never fish the same spot twice,” he says wistfully, “and you’ll be catching fish every day. I like a change of scenery when I fish, and there’ s always something going on in Lewis Creek.”
But we decide against tempting the weather, and instead go upriver to Creel Lake, two miles and 10 minutes. You’ll pass under the overhead powerlines en route, roughly halfway. Creel Lake is on your left heading up. Look for a large sandbar with an elevated bank, likely sporting several tents. The 20-yard-wide lake entrance is 100 yards before you reach that sandbar.
That Tuesday morning, we did not see a boat on the water as we motored upstream. That, in itself, is enough to make the trip worthwhile.
“This is such a big river with so many feeders and dead lakes that you can always get away,” Danny remarked. “There are so many lakes and sloughs that you can find a place that’s peaceful and quiet any time. I can come down here even on holiday weekends and get away from everybody and catch fish. It is a very unique spot, especially considering it’s open to everybody.”
I was using the same bream outfit on the Altamaha I use in a farm pond or creek: 6-lb.-test line, a tiny yellow Dragon Fly cork, two BB shot, a No. 10 Aberdeen hook and a cricket. The only differences in my outfit and Danny’s were the color of his cork and that he used a slightly larger hook.
Less than 100 yards into Creel Lake, Danny dropped the trolling motor and we began sliding along the still, cypress-lined water. With my first toss of a cricket to the base of a big cypress, the cork never stopped. I noticed that Danny had one hooked and coming in toward the front of the boat, and when we pulled a pair of 8-oz. fish in, he looked at mine and tossed his back into the water.
“We’ll do a lot better than that,” he said with his usual quiet confidence. “That’s a pretty good fish if you’re bream-hungry, but we’re not going to get that hungry.”
I was quickly convinced when my third fish turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous bluegill, a pound if he was an ounce and so blue he was almost black. As that fish stripped line and began cutting figure-eights under the boat, I resolved that catching this one fish on ultralight tackle was almost worth the 130-mile drive from Dublin to Altamaha Park! But he was only the first keeper of many, many such fish on the day.
As we fished, I asked Danny about the methods we were using, and about their productivity during the summer months and times of day on the Altamaha. This portion of the river is like no other in Georgia in that it is so tide-influenced, rising in the morning and falling out as the tide begins to recede. Ammons checks tide charts with fervor before any fishing trip, and it is an absolute must especially when going up into the sloughs and dead lakes. Because not only do you have to have enough water to go in, you also must have enough under the boat to float it back out!
“It’s funny about that tide,” Danny told me. “I’ve heard a lot of bream fishermen say that you want a falling tide to catch the most fish, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with me. We’re obviously caching fish as the river is rising, and I think that’s because we’re fishing to the trees along the banks. These bream are following that rising water into the shallows. Most of the other fishermen prefer a falling tide because they’re using a different method, fishing on bottom off the sandbars and humps, where the fish congregate as the water drops. It’s all in how you like to fish, and most fishermen won’t listen to other folks telling them how to do it.”
I can’t vouch for the bottom fishermen, but I can tell you that if you want to catch a very nice stringer of bream, it requires nothing more complicated than pitching crickets in 3 to 4 feet of water at the bases of cypress trees and knees or to fallen logs or under overhanging branches. As I mentioned, it remained cloudy from daylight until dark, and the fish never left the shallows. Quite possibly a bright sun would have pushed them out, but it never happened to us.
While fishing, Danny moves constantly; we never dropped an anchor, moving up one bank and then down the other. This lake is an average of 40 yards or so wide. We talked quietly, mesmerized by the sounds of nothing but lapping water and numerous squirrels and birds along the shore. At one point, a motor fired up downriver, to be answered immediately by a shock gobble from a tom a very few yards away on up the bank. We never saw him, but our minds were on the fish anyway.
Literally hundreds of cypress trees held bream, but there was one in particular that we returned to several times. The base of the tree is at least 20-feet wide, and it stands alone on the right bank going in, an island of its own some 30 feet off the bank. The first time by, I cast to the back of it as Danny cast to the front. My big shellcracker was a little smaller than the lard-laden warmouth he pulled in, but two more casts to the same tree got us even. We caught more than a dozen fish off that one tree, even changing from crickets to pink worms just to see if the shellcrackers would like them better. Throughout the day it didn’t seem to matter; we caught three species of bream on both baits. For the record, I tied on a small Spin Dandy spinner and dressed it with a cricket — a combination deadly on redbreast in the Ogeechee — but never caught a fish. The spinnerbait was quickly replaced by a cricket.
Creel Lake might not have been our first choice, but it was a dandy as things turned out. However, there are numerous areas that are equally as productive. We left Creel around noon and motored another mile or so upriver to Flat Lake. By that time, the outgoing tide was beginning to become noticeable as the water level dropped. Just as we stopped to fish, and again with my first cast in this new area, I tossed a cricket among three cypress knees in four feet of water. The cork shot sideways, and as I set the tiny hook my first thought was “bass.” But as it turned out, it was another tremendous bluegill, my largest of the day — and the hook pulled loose just as the fish turned up on its side at the boat. The joy of this type of fishing is to play the broad-shoulder fighters on tiny tackle, and this one gave me all I wanted as he fought to exhaustion.
I’m glad — now that I think back on it — that he’s still swimming around.
Whether time of day or falling water got us, Flat Lake didn’t produce the fish that Creel had, so we headed back to it, and again began catching fish right off the bat. In just over seven hours of fishing, we caught well over 200 fish, and kept 30 of the most impressive bream I’ve ever pulled from river systems all across Georgia. There’s simply no telling what we could have done if the weather and time constraints hadn’t pushed us off the water before dark.
“Right across from the park where we put in is Mary’s Lake,” Danny related. “It winds its way forever out through the swamp, and you can go over there just before dark and the bream will just wear you out. Lewis Creek is a deep creek, and it runs for miles and miles back off the river. Then you have Gamecock Lake, another pretty deep one; Swan Lake, with lily pads in there that hold some really big bream; Big Buzzard and Little Buzzard Lakes, Minnow Creek, just bunches and bunches of lakes and creeks up and down the river.
“People tend to look at the Altamaha as such big water, and it is,” said Danny. “But if you section it off into these creeks and lakes and get out into them and fish them thoroughly, you can find what you’re looking for. There’s no need to make it harder than it has to be.”
Another little item that strikes fear into the hearts of river fishermen is water level. But this is another factor that can be overrated when it comes to bream fishing.
“I live in Jesup, so I’m used to checking the river level there and fishing by it,” Danny says. “I like it best about seven feet, with the tide up like it has been today. This morning, the river was 5.4 feet at Jesup, so we probably had about 7-foot water where we’ve been fishing. With the big bream, though, it really doesn’t matter with the method we used, because they’re going to follow the water into the shallows and all you have to do is go with them. Get out into the woods and just about any cypress or stump you come to will have at least one of these old big bluegills on it.”
While he makes his home in Jesup, Danny also has a camphouse at Altamaha Park and has come to love and appreciate this larger section of the river like no other. He spends most of his weekends here, and there are many nights he’ll be on the river alone for most of the hours of darkness, catfish fishing.
The solitude and utter peace of the river are the twin allures that draw him. During the daytime hours in summer, when he’s on the Altamaha, again he appreciates those must-have periods of relaxation — interrupted only by the Altamaha’s hungry, plate-sized bream.
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