Right Combination For Georgia Redfish
When the factors of salinity, tidal current, bait, and stealth all come together, the springtime fishing for redfish can be fantastic.
Spring in the marshes. Wading and water birds of all kinds are moving back into the marshes and creeks of Georgia’s coastline. In its relatively short 100 miles of coastline, Georgia has more estuary and marshland than any other state on the Atlantic coast. That fact, according to Capt. Mark Noble, is the reason there are so many saltwater-fishing opportunities in Georgia. It’s something that has gone relatively unnoticed to most anglers over the years.
Just as the birds and wildlife return, big redfish begin their migration from offshore wrecks and reefs back into the creeks, passes and marshes up and down Georgia’s coast. Smaller redfish from the previous year’s spawn, having stayed the winter in the creeks and passes, have grown to almost-legal size. (A keeper is 14 inches total length, but none longer than 23 inches can be kept. The limit is five fish.)
This is April along the coast of Georgia, and Capt. Mark Noble and I had set out to find these returning and resident redfish. We fished out of St. Simons Island from the Golden Isle Marina, where Mark keeps his boat.
As we made our way south across the inlet at St. Simons Sound headed for Jekyll Island, Mark pointed out the wading birds along the shoreline. Long mud flats, exposed at what was now dead low tide and sprinkled with a few small oyster bars, line the waterway channel on both the east and west sides. The wading birds were standing in six inches of water along the edge of the mud flats, looking for baitfish.
We watched the birds, particularly the white egrets, to see any signs of baitfish or redfish “pushing water.” The round nose of a redfish swimming in shallow water pushes the water up and out creating a distinctive wake that we call “pushing water.”
“I particularly watch the white birds,” Mark said as we continued under the bridge at Jekyll Island. “They seem to hang with the redfish, and if I see several birds up on a mud flat, I will stop to watch for redfish moving. More likely than not, there are feeding redfish on that flat when the birds are there.”
We watched, but it appeared the birds were waiting on the reds to show up on the incoming tide, and were not feeding.
As we moved farther south, Mark pointed out a number of mud and oyster flats where he finds redfish on an incoming tide. Today, however, we were headed to a small creek, one of thousands of small creeks on the Georgia coast.
We arrived at the mouth of the creek literally at dead-low tide. Surprisingly, we were able to slowly navigate the entrance to the creek. Most creek mouths are so shallow at low tide, with a bar across the mouth, that boats have a hard time getting into the creek. Surprising to me, Mark’s 24-foot custom C-Hawk had no problem idling into this creek.
Most anglers when quizzed about redfish tactics will opt to fish on an outgoing tide, down to low tide. The idea is that redfish feed up in the grass and on the flats when the water is high and move off the grass down into the creeks when the tide starts moving out. While that is true, and many redfish are caught on an outgoing tide, Mark showed me how to catch them on an incoming tide.
Stop and think about it. On a low tide, these fish have been out of their feeding territory for several hours. They have to move back into the creeks and onto the grass marshes to feed. Doesn’t it make sense that they would be just as likely to feed on the incoming tide when they are hungry as they are on an outgoing tide moving off the flats? That’s the theory that Mark was operating on, and he was proven out in spades on this trip.
As we idled into the creek, several finger mullet scattered in front of the boat, making small wakes to the side. Mark raised his hands in celebration, saying, “That’s exactly what I was looking for! The reds will be in this creek.”
He watched the motor wake behind the boat as we moved farther into the creek looking for more activity.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I can see small grass shrimp flipping on top after being disturbed by the prop wash. That’s another good sign that this creek will be active with reds.”
We stopped the engine about 30 yards before a bend in the creek and Mark allowed the boat to slowly and quietly slip toward the bend. When the boat reached the inside of the bend, he quietly dropped a small, 10-lb. anchor up onto the mud bank.
“Don’t jump in the boat or bang anything around that will make a noise,” he said. “These fish will spook easily, and any noise we make goes right through the hull of the boat.”
This creek was about as narrow as the boat was long in many places. When we were there on the inside bend, we could pitch a bait across to the outside bend with little effort. I reached for a live shrimp, as did Mark, hooked it through the tail and did an underhanded cast to the other bank. As our baits sat on the bottom in literally no current, Mark told me it would be some time before the reds started moving, because they move with the current. We would have to wait on the tide.
That’s an important message to all anglers. Sometimes we fail to wait for the tide and assume there are or will be no fish in a given area. Tide moves the water; water moves the bait and, big fish will follow the bait. Sometimes we are too impatient and leave an otherwise good fishing spot because they aren’t biting. Remember that tidal current plays a key role in any angling opportunity.
We sat in that bend and caught a couple of small rat reds, a sheepshead, and a small black drum, but the action was definitely slow. While we were there, Mark talked about water salinity. Recent rains had pushed a large amount of freshwater into the bays and sounds. He takes this into consideration when choosing a creek to fish. The more rain, the more likely he is to choose a creek that is charged more by saltwater than by outgoing river water. He says the freshwater tends to drive the fish into areas with a higher salt content.
At that point, the current had begun to move. Mark pulled the anchor from the mud bank and told me it was time to move and get serious. He cranked the outboard and idled another 50 yards into the creek. Once again, he shut the engine down and allowed the boat to quietly drift with the current.
When we boarded his boat earlier that morning, I noticed he had placed a long, fiberglass push pole in the boat. I even commented that I hoped he had either a strong back or a friend we were to pick up to pole his big boat. He told me I had three guesses as to how that pole would be used, and all three of them would be wrong. It turned out that he was right.
As the boat continued to drift into the creek toward a tight bend, he put the tip of the push pole against the mud bank on the left and gently nudged the bow of the boat to the right. It was no huge effort, and the boat slowly responded to the nudging. Two or three pushes off the bank later left the bow of the boat against another inside bend in the creek, and once again, the small anchor went into the mud bank.
Quietly, Mark reached for two baitcasting outfits rigged with special floats. The rigs consisted of a “Thunder Chicken,” a patent-pending float rig that Mark designed, and a three-foot fluorocarbon leader. The hook we used was a very small wire, 2/0 Kahle or wide-gap type hook. My first impression was that the hook was far too small for redfish.
My second impression was that the leader was at least two feet too long for the water we were fishing. Rather than fish the deep outside bend directly across from the boat, Mark pitched his rig farther up the creek. The depth was less than two feet in that section, and I was skeptical at best about fishing there. But, I followed the instructions of someone who was very quickly becoming an expert in my mind and pitched my bait to the same place.
Mark’s float went under first, and he brought a medium-size red to the boat. From that point on, the action became almost non-stop as we caught redfish after redfish, some over 24 inches in length, all from a creek no wider than 15 feet and an area no larger than an eight-foot circle. As we caught fish and took pictures, Mark explained what was happening.
“The water in that circle is only about two-feet deep. A shell bar runs across the creek there, and the reds that are moving into the creek follow the line of that bar. Our baits are right where the reds run,” he explained.
We needed to be a distance away from that spot, given the depth of the water and the probability that the fish would spook if we were any closer. We also needed, according to Mark, to have the live shrimp able to swim freely under the floats.
This is where the comparatively long leader and smaller hook come into play. The smaller hook does not weight the shrimp down and allows it to move at will. I watched on several occasions as the shrimp on my hook danced across the surface around the float trying to escape the redfish pursuing it below.
The float rig also plays an important part. While there are several similar float rigs on the market, the Thunder Chicken is the only one designed with a molded-in weight on the bottom. That 1/2-oz. weight allows the rig to be cast a surprising distance. Mark designed the rig to compensate for the need of his clients, many of whom are not experts, to easily make long casts onto a mud flat. On the mud flats, just as it is back in the creek we fished, there is a need to stay a distance from the redfish that are feeding in shallow water. That means long casts.
As we continued fishing, Mark talked about the need for stealth and quiet when fishing a creek.
“I hate coming into a creek like this in an aluminum boat, because it is almost impossible to stay quiet,” he said. “Everything that hits the bottom of the boat, from shoes to sinkers makes a noise that is amplified three times over in the water.
“Lots of people wonder why I bring a boat this big into the creek. You see how easy it is to maneuver with a push pole if you don’t fight the inertia. A bigger, more stable platform reduces the risk of dropping something on the bottom of the boat and running the fish off.
“Lots of fishermen run their engines all the way back to where they plan to fish. They don’t realize how delicate the situation is in a small creek. Then, after all the fish are spooked, they wonder why they didn’t catch anything.”
We left the creek that day with the fish still biting. Mark said that we could have caught fish all the way up to high tide. But, being a conservation-minded guide, Mark left them, planning to return on another day.
So, where can an angler go to experience the same redfish success we had on that day? According to Mark, almost any small creek can hold redfish. The key is a combination of proper salinity, tidal current, bait, and stealth. Without any one of those four elements present, the likelihood of finding redfish drops significantly.
For some creeks to investigate, try Hawkins Creek, almost a stone’s throw north of the Golden Isle Marina. Small creeks off the Frederica River, like Dunbar Creek, are good spots to check. The myriad small creeks on the backside of Jekyll and Cumberland Islands all have the potential to hold redfish.
When choosing a creek to investigate, don’t look for the wide, deep, easy-to-navigate creeks. Most times, the smallest most unlikely creek will be your best investment in time. Make sure the right combination is present, and then ease into the creek. Fish the bends in the creek. Look for shell bars along the bottom that will direct the redfish’s route.
The mud flats we mentioned can be found directly across the intracoastal from Cumberland Island and from Jekyll Island. As Mark indicated, look for the birds. This is an area to fish as the water rises on the mud flat. Look for redfish “pushing water,” and cast ahead of them. Using a Thunder Chicken rig will help you make that long cast without spooking these shallow-water-feeding fish.
Areas abound to the north of Golden Isles Marina, including the Hampton River and the dozens of small creeks that run into the marsh there. The marsh areas around Little Egg and Big Egg islands will hold fish. Look for the mullet schools. Remember, where there is bait, there will likely be fish.
The Intracoastal Waterway channel entrance on the north end of Jekyll Creek is lined with rocks. That entire length of rocks will hold not only redfish, but also sheepshead, trout and flounder, mainly on the high, outgoing tide.
I consider myself to be a decent angler, but I never really pursued redfish on an incoming tide. This is something I took away from the trip to try all up and down the Georgia coast.
Mark says that at some point, he fishes all of the creeks we mentioned; it all depends on that right combination. Having planned his trip based on water salinity and tide conditions, he heads out. If he goes to one creek and the combination is not there, he simply heads to the next one on his list. You can easily do the same thing. Don’t be surprised if, after doing your homework, you find yourself in the same creek with Mark. If you do, tell him I said hello!
Capt. Mark Noble truly knows his business. As the president of the Golden Isles Charter Fishing Association he leads other area guides in their efforts. He loves to share his fishing knowledge with his clients and is available for both inshore and offshore charters. Go to his websites at www.goldenislesfishing.com or www.georgiafishing.net. You will not only catch fish, but will learn some valuable fishing tips as well!
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