Low Water Altamaha River Bassin’
Rat-L-Traps and worms catch river bass in December.
The Altamaha River is at record lows, with rarely seen sandbars and rockpiles popping up along its length. There are two primary ways to navigate the river during such low water. The first is to poke around cautiously in small, preferably aluminum, boats and motors, and fish where you can. That is how I typically approach it. The other option is to scoot over the sand- bars at speeds so extreme that the sand- bars don’t see you coming.
Leaning very heavily toward the careful side, I have never really considered the latter until I met my partner before dawn at Carter’s Bight Landing on the Altamaha River in Appling County. I could tell by the 150 horsepower Yamaha hanging off the back of his Nitro bass boat that my partner was planning to pursue the latter option for the day.
My guide for the day was Tattnall County native, Bobby Beecher. Had it been someone less familiar with the river, I would have bailed on the spot, complaining of instantaneous indigestion, gout in my big toe, recurring back spasms, or anything else I could come up with to stay out of the boat. But, because of Bobby’s experience on the river, I loaded my equipment and exercised my fingers and knuckles, preparing them to turn white.
Bobby has bass fished just about his entire life, and six years ago, along with friend Bill Anderson, he started the Muddy Waters tournament trail. Most of the tournament locations have been on the Altamaha.
During discussions preparing for our trip, I was impressed with some of Bobby’s unique approaches to fishing the river. He mentioned Rat-L-Traps and Carolina-rigs as some of his primary tools. In my decade of tournament fishing on the Altamaha, I can count on one hand the number of times I have thrown a Carolina-rig, and I have yet to cast a Rat-L-Trap into the snarls and tangles where the bass live. I was definitely looking forward to seeing his tactics first-hand.
On the way to the river, stiff north- east gusts pushed my truck around. The first cold snap of the season began just a few days before the trip, and we hoped that conditions had stabilized enough that the fish would feed again. Just after daylight, we left Carter’s Bight Landing and made our first white-knuckle ride of the morning. We dropped off plane in a deep outside bend and started casting — Bobby a pearl Zoom Super Fluke and I a junebug jig.
“The fluke is a good bait in the morning when the fish are active and chasing bait,” he said.
Bobby’s boat is not loaded with various colors of plastic Flukes, as pearl is pretty much the only color Fluke he throws. He rigs them unweighted on a 5/0 Gamakatsu wide- gap worm hook. The most effective way to fish them has been to make the lure dance back and forth like an injured baitfish by twitching the rod every couple seconds, with pauses to let the lure fall.
Shortly after we started, Bobby had a fish roll on the Fluke, but it did not hook up. Shortly thereafter, I had a tell-tale tap on my jig. I laid back into a solid fish. Unfortunately, its rolling clued me in that I was fighting a several-pound bowfin. A five-minute wrestling match later, a retied jig, a new trailer, and I was casting again. Bowfin are numerous in the river, and they love eating crayfish. That translates into they love eating (and mangling) jigs. Expect to lose at least a trailer and six to eight strands of skirt with each bowfin you catch on a jig.
After a couple missed hits and a couple more bowfin, we noticed a few big fish blasting bait on the current break near the channel. After a couple of boils, a 20-lb.-class striper came completely airborn. I scrambled for a surface lure — a jerkbait being the bait I had already tied on.
“We occasionally catch stripers in the deep bends, especially when they are migrating downstream for the winter. They’ll stop busting the top as soon as the sun hits the water,” Bobby explained.
And, he was right. The melee slowed as the sun rose and was completely finished by the time the sun hit the water. My jerkbait was the wrong color, size, or an altogether different lure than they were keying on because I could not get any of them to take it, even when dropping a cast directly on top of a boil.
When the stripers stopped schooling, I went back to concentrating on bass. We eased down the bank, targeting any blowdown tree or current break on the deep bend. As we eased past a sandy point, Bobby picked up a Rat-L- Trap, a lure I was looking forward to watching him fish.
“I don’t cast it right into the slop, but I fish it around the edges and over points to get a reflex strike,” he said.
He chuckled as he told me that he would throw any color Rat-L-Trap as long as it was chrome and blue. The 1/4-oz. model is his first choice, as he can fish it a little more slowly than larger versions, and it is the size that river bass key on. We worked our way back into an oxbow lake, billowing mud with the trolling motor as we went.
“This lake usually has a couple feet of water in it this time of year, but we can barely get back in it now. I catch a bunch of fish in shallow coves, even during winter. You would be surprised the size of bass that will come out of shallow water during winter,” Bobby shared.
On the way out of the oxbow lake, he paused at the mouth and pulled out a Carolina-rig, the other lure I was interested in seeing him fish. His rig consisted of a 1/2-oz. weight, an 18-inch leader of 15-lb. test P-line mono, a 1/0 Gamakatsu wide-gap worm hook and a Zoom Finesse worm. He cast to a ditch just at the current-slackwater interface and dragged the lure through the slightly deeper depression at the mouth of the oxbow. A short bass inhaled the watermelon-red flake offering and was released after a quick fight.
After another white-knuckle ride, we pulled into the mouth of a different oxbow lake with current sweeping by its mouth. The upstream side of the oxbow entrance had a long, tapering sandbar point that dropped into an 8-foot-deep hole, deep water for the river being so low. Bobby alternated between a Carolina- and a Texas-rigged worm and made a few casts with a Rat-L-Trap. Another feisty small bass and a bowfin ate the watermelon-red flake Carolina- rig in the calm water. We left the calm and worked our way down the river- bank where large chunks of mud had sloughed off as the water careened off the bank. Bobby pitched a black-blue flake Texas-rigged Zoom Speed Worm behind one of the chunks and set the hook into a solid bass. A short fight later, and our first keeper was in-hand. Bobby uses two worm colors for almost all his fishing.
“Black and watermelon-red flake pretty much covers all my needs, whether Texas-rigging or Carolina-rigging worms. I use black in stained water and watermelon-red flake in clearer water,” he shared.
As we worked down that bank, chunks of mud transitioned to boulders. Just downstream from our first keeper, a well-placed cast to a log in a small eddy resulted in our second and final keeper of the day, a fat, healthy 16-incher. The bass was sitting under the log and sucked down a silver-green back Bite-A-Bait jerkbait as it worked past. After trying several more spots, we could only manage a couple more bowfin before heading to the ramp.
“Today was slow, but fishing will pick up when the weather stabilizes and the fish get into their winter pattern in the places we fished today,” Bobby said.
When asked the keys to winter fishing on the Altamaha, Bobby shared his successful approach.
“Patience, time, and good trolling-motor batteries are most important,” he replied.
He fishes an area thoroughly, hitting all of the primary ambush points several times if he knows the fish are there. It is amazing how you will cast a half- dozen or more times to a piece of cover and then get just the right angle and a bass will inhale your offering. Over the years, I have noticed that river fish are even more notorious than their reservoir counterparts for requiring multiple casts before they are convinced to bite. I have actually made more than 20 casts to a piece of cover before getting bit. There is no substitute for time on the water, and Bobby has enough logged to know exactly where prime ambush spots are that are not visible above the water. Several times during the day he pointed out the locations of trees or stumps where he has caught big bass or won tournaments. The only way to learn those spots is to put in time fishing the river. During winter he catches most of his fish out of cuts and creeks that provide current breaks and cover for bass. He usually fishes a handful of good spots several times each during the course of a day.
Bobby opts for baitcasting gear on the Altamaha. He uses 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-heavy graphite rods when fishing worms and Flukes and the same length fiberglass rod for spinnerbaits and crankbaits. When fishing tangles, he likes the power that the longer rods provide because they can move a fish quickly from the cover. Along those lines, he uses a high speed, 6.2:1 gear ratio reel to move them away from cover and also to quickly reel a lure in for another pitch. His choice for its reasonable price and ruggedness is a Quantum Accurist PT 500 series reel. He does not usually work a worm far from cover before reeling in, so a high- speed reel can save some time and effort during the course of a day. He spools all of his reels with 15-lb. test P- line mono.
I talked with Bobby a few days after our late October trip, and he fished the exact same spots that following weekend. The colder weather had put the bass in their wintertime locations, and he caught more than a dozen 1 1/2- to 2-lb. bass, primarily on the silver-green back Bite-A-Bait jerkbait.
In the couple weeks between our trip and writing this article, the river levels have continued to drop even farther into record territory. The upper river can truly be treacherous navigating, with rocks and sandbars seemingly everywhere. Typically in December, we begin to get winter rains, and the river will come up to levels where you can get around. When the water level tops 2 feet at the Baxley gauge or Doctortown gauge you can carefully motor. If you go when the water level is below a foot, expect to have a very aggravating and possibly expensive day. If the rocks in the upper river scare you, a trip from Jesup downstream is in order, as sandbars are the primary hazards in the lower river. To monitor river levels across the state, go to waterdata.usgs.gov/ga/nwis/rt. For a free Guide to Fishing the Altamaha River, which contains launch sites, contact the Waycross Fisheries office at (912) 285- 6094.
Nowadays, I spend most of my fishing time chasing inshore saltwater species. Last decade though, I primarily fished the Altamaha for bass. This recent trip to the upper Altamaha rekindled my love for bass fishing on this beautiful river. All it would take is one trip, and I am sure you too will fall in love with this scenic and productive river.
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