Pelagic Magic On Georgia Offshore Reefs

Seasonal visitors to Georgiaʼs artificial reefs like mackerel and barracuda will put a bend in your rod and a smile on your face.

Capt. Spud Woodward | July 1, 2005

Summer is prime time for fishing Georgia’s coastal waters. Sea conditions allow for safe and comfortable trips into the Atlantic. Bait is plentiful. Gamefish diversity and abundance, particularly in the case of the migratory pelagics, is at maximum. Best of all, these fish are hungry. But, the Atlantic Ocean is a big place, and there’s a lot of water to cover. Fortunately, the choice is simple. Head for an offshore artificial reef, Georgia’s best saltwater fishing real estate.

Since the early 1970s, the Georgia DNR in partnership with businesses, fishing clubs, and groups like the Coastal Conservation Association of Georgia has created 23 offshore artificial reefs. The majority of these are located from six to 23 nautical miles off the coast in 30 to 75 feet of water. Two deep-water (WW and DW) reefs are 50 to 70 nautical miles offshore near the edge of the Gulf Stream. The most recent additions to Georgia’s artificial reef family are three experimental beach reefs (BL, BH, and TC) built in the late 1990s. These are called beach reefs since they were built less than three miles from the shoreline in fairly shallow water.

Over the years, everything from New York City subway cars to Army tanks to specially constructed concrete reef units have been sunk to create fish habitat. DNR uses Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration, Georgia fishing-license revenues, private donations, and special legislative appropriations to pay the costs of material acquisition and deployment, buoy purchases, SCUBA surveys, and all the other activities that make the Georgia Artificial Reef Project a success. The thousands of dollars spent on this project return millions to the state’s economy and provide angling opportunities that simply wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Barbara Ann Adcox, of Jacksonville, caught this 25.46-lb. king mackerel during the Two-Way Sportfishing Club tournament on June 18, 2005.

The Coastal Resources Division of DNR (912-264-7218) produces a free printed guide to Georgia’s offshore artificial reefs. Current information can also be found on the division’s website <www.crd.>.  Commercially produced laminated maps and charts with this same information are available at many tackle shops and marine supply stores.   

With the exception of the beach reefs, all offshore artificial reefs are designated as Special Management Zones, which prohibits certain commercial-fishing practices harmful to habitat and possibly to fish populations. This makes sense considering that angler dollars have been used to build most of the artificial reefs off the Georgia coast. This SMZ designation has little or no impact on the recreational angler who uses conventional hook-and-line gear. However, fishermen should make sure they are familiar with Federal fishing regulations before heading offshore. Information is available online at <www.>.

Mack Attack

A perpetual favorite with coastal anglers, particularly families with smaller boats, the agile and lively Spanish mackerel may not be the biggest fish in the ocean, but it’s one of the most accessible. Topping out at about six pounds but averaging more like two, it makes a decent meal when grilled over hot coals.

Capt. Judy Helmey of Miss Judy Charters in Savannah has been fishing Georgia’s offshore artificial reefs since the first ones were built in the 1970s. She uses a proven technique to put her customers on Spanish mackerel.

“My most effective technique for Spanish is a fast-trolled Clark Spoon,” Judy said. “The two styles I use are OO-RBMS (two inch) and the 0-RBMS (2-1/2 inch) both of which have a 2/0 hook. I have tried both the chrome and gold colors and have found the chrome version with the red bead to be most effective.

Rhett Veal (left) and his brother Dillon, of Waycross, with a 23-lb. king mackerel caught aboard the Seaducer.

“I tie the spoon directly to a 15-foot length of 20-lb. test monofilament leader. Then, I attach the other end of the leader to a Sea Striker No. 2 planer using a snap swivel. The planer is then tied off directly to the main line on the reel and acts as a miniature downrigger to carry the spoon down in the water. Trolling speed and rod position on the boat controls the depth of the planer. About four knots is a good speed and will get the spoon down to 25 feet, just the right depth in 40 to 50 feet of water,” she said.

Capt. Helmey also mixes surface baits into the spread.

“I pull a cigar-shaped Cajun Thunder float with a Clark Spoon about 10-feet in tow. Like with the planer rig, I use 20-lb. test low-visibility monofilament to attach the spoon to the swivel on the float. The float produces a bubble trail and the brass and plastic beads create sound that will often bring mackerel to the surface where they see the spoon acting like a panicked baitfish.”

It is not unusual to see schools of Spanish on the surface working pods of glass minnows and other small baitfish. Clark Spoons can be cast directly into the melee and retrieved as fast as you can turn the reel handle. For those who like the long rod, Spanish mackerel can be caught with a baitfish fly pattern such as a chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnow or a surface popper. Be sure to run a trace of wire between the tippet and fly to avoid cut-offs.

While Spanish mackerel can be found well offshore, the reefs located in 30 to 40 feet of water such as SAV, KC, DUA, CAT, KTK, ALT, F, A, and KBY are some of the best spots to try. These reefs are all within 10 miles of the beach and are accessible to seaworthy small boats on days with decent weather. Work the low-relief structure like concrete piles and pallet balls to avoid losing hooked fish to barracudas.

Spanish mackerel are not only a favorite of anglers, big kings like them, as well. So, any time you’re working around the smaller mackerel it pays to be ready for their larger cousins, which can run in excess of 30 pounds. Capt. Helmey uses an upsized planer-spoon rig to target kings with a fast-trolling presentation.

“I pull a No. 3 planer to which I attach 30 feet of 80-lb. test monofilament finished off with a heavy snap swivel,” she said. “Then, I attach a 3 1/2-inch Drone spoon to the snap swivel. If the water is clear, or I suspect the fish may be finicky, I cut the leader in half and use a barrel swivel to connect the two pieces. Then, I tie the mono directly to the spoon. Drone spoons come in a variety of colors, and I’ve had good luck using the chrome version with a chartreuse stripe.”

If you’ve got a cast net, a few multi-hook bait-catching rigs and a flow-thru bait well, you’re ready for the live-bait approach. The scent and sight of live bait is something that a big king mackerel, and a big Spanish mackerel for that matter, find almost irresistible. These baits can either be drifted or slow-trolled over and around artificial-reef structure. In either case, the boat speed should be just fast enough to keep the baits out of the prop.

Terminal tackle consists of a two No. 4 treble hooks connected with a six-inch piece of No. 4 low-visibility wire. Another 20-inch piece of wire is twisted to the eye of one of the treble hooks and finished with a black barrel swivel. The main line from the reel is tied to this barrel swivel. One barb of the lead treble is passed through the nostril of the baitfish securing it to the terminal rig. The trailing treble can either swing free or be lightly pinned in the skin below the dorsal fin.

Position a trio of baits to swim on the surface, one just behind the prop wash, another 50 feet behind the boat, and the last out about 100 feet. Downriggers work best for getting baits down into the water column, but egg sinkers positioned above the terminal rig on the main line can also get baits 10 to 15 feet below the surface. Colored skirts and beads can be added in front of the nose hook for variety.

The most consistent producers of kingfish during the summer season are L, CCA, J, DRH, SFC, and G reefs. All of these lie in 50 to 70 feet of water, 18 to 23 miles offshore. Try to avoid passing over the high-relief structure like tugboats, Liberty ships, and instead work the outer edges of the material. If you see Spanish mackerel on the surface, make a beeline for them but avoid running your boat into the school. Instead, skirt the edge of the feeding fish with your bait spread since that’s where you’re likely to run into a prowling kingfish.   

Cudas and Jacks

It seems that the sharks are the only toothy critter that get the press, both good and bad. When was the last time you heard of Barracuda Week on the Discovery Channel? Although it may not be a media darling, the barracuda has earned the respect and disdain of anglers, particularly those who have seen it cut the tail off a tournament-winning king mackerel with a single pass. Its acrobatics are second to none, and even a large barracuda can make dramatic leaps when hooked. Most importantly, the barracuda can always be counted on the put a bend in the rod.

One of the most effective techniques for barracuda, especially really BIG barracuda, is a dead Spanish mackerel skipped on the surface over the top of submerged structure. If amberjacks are in the neighborhood, they will go crazy over this presentation, too. Just be sure your tackle is up to the chore of subduing a 30-lb. barracuda or possibly a 70-lb. amberjack.

The technique is pretty simple. Build a heavy wire, two-hook rig very much like the one described for live-baiting kings. Substitute a 6/0 O’Shaughnessy-style hook for the lead treble, increase the size of the trailing treble to a 4X strong No. 2, and upsize the wire to No. 6. Pin the mouth of the bait closed with the lead hook so that the point is up, then stick the trailing treble in the skin just behind the dorsal fin. Troll this bait at a speed fast enough to ensure that the bait skips with a lively action.

Barracuda love artificial reefs, particularly those with structure that protrudes high off the ocean floor.  So do the amberjacks. With the exception of the beach reefs, any of the offshore destinations hold decent numbers of these gamefish. Using the fishfinder, mark the structures that rise the highest off the sea floor and work directly over the top of them. If the ocean is calm, you’ll actually see the schools of barracuda hovering near the surface over the Liberty ships, tugboats, barges, and other high-relief structure.

While barracuda provide great sport, refrain from taking one home for dinner. This species has been implicated in ciguatera, a type of fish poisoning that afflicts the central nervous system.  Amberjacks on the other hand make decent table fare and are not known to carry the organism that causes ciguatera.

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