September Redfish In The Georgia Marsh — Canoe Style

You’ll need a canoe, some light tackle and a camera. There’s a good chance if you catch one of these redfish it won’t be legal — it’ll be too big!

Brad Gill | September 1, 2002

There’s a “new” kind of fishing fever that’s beginning to accelerate off the Georgia coast, and it makes fishing a whole lot simpler.

For hundreds of years, anglers have been setting their hooks on a variety of fish while fishing from a canoe. However, it has just been in the last several years that some modern-day anglers are beginning to see the canoe as a valuable tool in catching BIG  redfish in the marshes along the coastline of Georgia.

Chris Ruff is a Wildlife Resources Division Law Enforcement officer out of Brunswick, and when he’s not on duty he’s oftentimes paddling through marsh grass listening and looking for these shallow reds as they cruise for food.

“You get in there sometimes, and there are fish everywhere,” said Chris. “You don’t know which way to go, it’s crazy. In the summertime, they’re so aggressive that you can just about throw anything and they’ll attack it.” When Chris fishes for these saltwater shallow reds, also known as spottail bass, red drum or channel bass, he pays special attention to the tide predictions.

The tide must be coming in before the reds can find their way into the marsh, which is usually done from a feeder creek.

“Most of the fish access the marsh as the tide is coming in by going up the feeder creeks off the main river or creek system,” said Chris. “Sometimes these feeders are real small, only two or three feet wide. The redfish use these as a trail to get in there, and once they find a spot big enough on the side of the marsh they’ll just ease up in the grass. “Once you get into the grass with your canoe, you’re usually in there for two hours. That’s when the tide starts going back out. When this happens, those fish know it, and they’re on their way out.”

Chart show you Georgia’s high-tide predictions for September. Along with the tide times, you can find the tide height. Chris said the best tide height for this fishing is between 7.5 and 8.1 feet. Anything less means not enough water in the marsh, and anything more means the marsh gets flooded and you can’t find the fish as easy. I boldfaced a few days that may be of interest to you. For example, if you’re not going deer hunting on the 14th and 15th, good afternoon tides are predicted. These times and heights are predictions because wind does play a factor in what the tide actually does, especially when winds exceed speeds over 15 mph. An easterly wind augments the incoming tide, making it a little higher. A westerly wind on an incoming tide will hold the tide back some. Your fishing location is another thing to consider when picking the best fishing time. The farther you get away from the ocean, the longer it’ll take for the tide to rise or fall when compared to the peak times. Learning how the tide works is important but is best learned with on-the-water experience, so go red fishing this month in the marsh.

GON contacted Spud Woodward, chief of the Marine Fisheries Section for DNR’s Coastal Resources Division (CRD), to ask him why September was the “magic” month for these big reds in the marsh.

“With immature reds, you have a four-year time span,” said Spud. “They make a behavioral shift about the second year of their life. It’s the two to four year olds that are coming up on the marsh surface. They’re kind of equivalent to the teenagers, and they’ll be the 22- to 32- inch fish. These fish will weigh six to 10 pounds. Once the fish get to be over five years of age, they leave and join the spawning population.

“I think from an evolutionary standpoint that these teenage fish don’t feel as vulnerable to avian predators, and they don’t seem as threatened being up in that skinny water. For smaller fish, there are still things that can get them, so they don’t get up there.” Spud said you can find reds in the marsh all year, but September is when this new group of “teenagers” feel confident enough to start feeding shallow.

Chris, who has been redfishing from his canoe for five years, said his canoe is 16 feet long and three feet wide. This wider-than-normal canoe also has a flat bottom, unlike the more common round bottom.

In the canoe, Chris will pack several rods, a small tackle box, two paddles, life jackets, a cooler and a small enough anchor that the canoe can still be maneuvered by using a paddle as a push pole. Chris said on real windy days, the wind will push you around so much that you have to have something to hold you in place so you don’t run over the fish. Drop the anchor, and if you want to move a little bit, just push with your paddle.

“One of the biggest advantages to a canoe is that you can get close to the fish,” said Chris. “I’ve been as close as arm’s length before they saw me.”

Chris has been looking into the option of putting either a trolling motor or small gas motor on his canoe just for moving to locations quicker, but he discourages anyone from running a motor in the grass.

To start fishing, Chris arrives along the marsh line two hours before peak high tide. Once there, he’ll stand up and start poling with his paddle, while listening and looking. Chris said it’s important to wear a pair of polarized sunglasses for this particular type of sight fishing.

“Most of the time before you see anything, you’ll hear a lot of splashing,” said Chris. “That’ll be the red’s tail slapping against the water. Head in that direction, and   most of the time you’ll see the fish. If possible, keep the sun and wind at your back.

“Sometimes you’ll see a tail sticking out of the water, and some of these reds are so big their backs will stick out of the water. This is the best time to approach him because his head is down in the grass, and he’s trying to eat those fiddler crabs. You want to throw your bait out there, but not on top of the fish. Throwing right on the fish will usually spook him.”

Look closely and find the red. With a canoe, you can oftentimes sneak right up on these spooky fish and catch them.

Chris prefers throwing a soft jerk bait on a spinning reel rigged with 8- to 12-lb. test line. His two favorite baits, a Mud Minnow and a Deep Water Mullet, are both made by Offshore Angler.

This 4-inch bait is ideal because anything bigger is likely to spook the fish. Chris said bigger baits just make too much noise when they hit the water. Using a barrel swivel, Chris will rig the soft bait on a 12-inch leader of 20-lb. fluorocarbon line.

Next, rig the bait weedless with an offset shank 4/0 or 5/0 hook. Chris doesn’t use a weight but says a small bullet weight could be used on windy days or if your bait isn’t getting down in the grass.

One of Chris’s good fishing buddies, Robb Vanwie from Jekyll Island, prefers throwing a bait from Cabelas called a Livineye. He fishes this soft jerk bait just like Chris does.

“You want to throw past the fish almost at a 90-degree angle,” said   Chris. “Try to gauge which direction the fish is swimming. You want to cast off at an angle from him, and bring it 90 degrees to him as he is swimming. As he sees that bait come into his view, he’ll ease back for a second and then just pounce on it.

“It’s a rush to get out there on that high tide and see those fish, it’s more like hunting than anything else. It gets to be a challenge with the wind and getting your presentation down right.”

Once you’ve spent several hours in the marsh searching for shallow reds, it’ll be time to leave these big flats.

Those same feeder creeks that both you and the reds traveled in on will just now be getting hot as the reds flush from the grass.

“In the corners of the feeder creek, where the creek bends, you’ll sometimes find a dropoff,” said Chris. “You’ll find reds, trout and flounder. They just pile up in those feeder creeks when the tide runs out. I went one day and caught 27 redfish, four trout and   two flounder. It was just as soon as you could get a bait in the water.

“As I find an area I think will hold fish in some of the bends, I’ll push the canoe until it hits the marsh mud and sit there and test it out. That’s going to be more realistic for folks coming fishing because you can do it whenever, not just on high tide.”

Chris said that boats can access some of these feeder creeks during high tide, but if you get far enough away from the main river or creek run, you may get stuck during low tide. A canoe is just the way to go.

Since the fish are not easily visible in these feeder creeks, Chris will put the artificials up and start using live bait — mud minnows and live shrimp. He’ll fish them on the same small Carolina-rig that he uses for the soft jerkbait.

“The great thing about fishing both the marsh with artificials and the feeder creeks with live bait is that you can do it just about anywhere. If you find some marsh at a bridge and you’re allowed to park, you’re good to go.”

Chris and Spud Woodward both agree that anywhere along the Georgia coast that has this marsh could be   holding reds this month.

“Any tidal flat is subject to have fish on it,” said Spud. “What people need to think about is places they typically fish — the oyster mounds and creek mouths and places where the fish are during lower stages of the tide. Those fish are not going to venture far from there. They’ll be in those same places when that tide floods up and they’ll be up on that marsh surface. I think what you have is a whole bunch of undiscovered places. In terms of fishing in the tidal creeks themselves out of a canoe, you’ve got 1,400 miles of tidal shoreline in coastal Georgia and about a half million acres of tidally influenced wetlands. Think about all the places there are to fish by sliding your canoe off a bridge or a place where the road runs parallel to it and you can safely park. It just opens up water you can’t get to any other way.”

Spud said for this type of fishing he recommends the Coastal Georgia Fishing Guides. These county maps are produced by the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service, and the cost is only $2. Liberty and Bryan counties are included on the same map, but Chatham, McIntosh, Glynn and Camden are all separate   maps.

These maps include roads, access points, boat ramps, phone numbers and facilities. When you’re putting your boat in skinny water a lot of these now important details, those that don’t always show up on the bigger coastal maps, will be on there. The phone number for a map is (912) 264-7268.

The bag limit for redfish is five fish per angler, per day. Only fish between 14 and 23 inches may be harvested, and no fish over 23 inches may be harvested. You better take a camera with you on this marsh canoe trip — Chris’s largest canoe redfish measured 35 inches. Remember to keep that camera in the boat, because if you’re fortunate enough to get bit there’s a good chance it’ll be longer than 23 inches. Snap that photo and release the fish just as quickly as possible.

When the tide is high, ease your canoe into the marsh with scanning eyes and open ears. When you see a red, throw a soft jerkbait past it and reel back to it. When the tide goes out, push your canoe back out to the feeder creeks, and throw live bait on the bottom. Leave your big Carolina Skiff at the house — fishing just got simpler!

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