Rocks & Docks For Reds & Trout With Miss Judy Charters
April is when coastal fishing is on the edge of busting wide open.
How often do we drive over a body of water, gaze out and muse, “There ought to be fish there… and there, and there…” and wish we were in a boat checking out those hunches?
Motoring over Lake Sinclair on 441, past Little River and Lakeside landings, drives me nuts. I’m crisscrossing the Oconee, Ogeechee, Flint and Ocmulgee on a weekly basis—alas, no boat. Topping the Thunderbolt Bridge, over the Wilmington River below Savannah, used to conjure up visions of critters with spotted tails and others with yellow mouths at each and every point or bend of bank below…
But now I know. Thanks, Judy.
That would be Judy Helmey, with whom I’ve spent time on the water for a lot of years now. Miss Judy Charters is a legendary outfit when it comes to fishing Atlantic waters both near and far out of Savannah. Her father, Sherman, started it all as the first charter captain on the Georgia coast more than 70 years ago. Judy was all of 5 years of age when she began going out with him, and at 14 wound up taking her first “unscheduled” paying charter, following her dad to a set of fishing banks about 10 miles offshore. Why? Because too many fishermen for one boat showed up! She was a very proud teenage captain for a day, and while it’s a reasonable assumption that all the legal documentation might not have been QUITE in order, there happened to have been several limits of fish welcomed aboard, and at the end of the day all those fishermen went jubilantly home.
Now—56 years later—she’s still squiring customers offshore into the deep or slipping around inshore, including under and around that big bridge. Judy Helmey is a boat-driving encyclopedia of fishing and history when it comes to this coast, and she and the captains working for her always provide a pleasurable experience.
Of all the fishing trips I’ve ever taken, one with Judy and her cousin and right-hand, Deidra Helmey Jeffcoat, will always stand out.
That gray, blustery February day in 2016, temps were in the upper 40s, wind blowing 20 knots and seas running 5 to 7, which meant that I was looking UP at waves. We were the only boat to leave Wassaw Sound, planned to go out 20 miles, only made it 12 to 14, caught, tagged and released 33- and 38-inch redfish before hightailing it back to the dock. That’s the condensed version and is not to thump one’s chest and say how bold we were to overcome what turned even worse later. It’s to give you an idea of the trust I put into this lady to recognize the sole window of opportunity we had and get her job done so that I could get my job done. On deadline.
Things—like weather and catching fish—can change at a moment’s notice down here. Over half a century of day-in and day-out knowledge of exactly what’s going on results in a safe, pleasant, arm-and-shoulder workout when it comes to the fish of your choice. She knows the best times to target your favorite species of fish throughout the year, and has the class to tell you “No” if your schedule won’t match up with what the fish are doing. Beating dead water with a live shrimp won’t do either of you any good.
You can get more info or book a spot either on a boat or in one of Judy’s fishing clinics at MissJudyCharters.com. Or buzz her at 912.897.4921 or 912.897.2478. The address is 124 Palmetto Drive, Savannah, from which you’ll walk but a few steps to the dock. According to the length of your fishing trip—from four hours to 14, inshore or offshore—about all you’ll need to bring is snacks and beverage. I can just hear her now: “No hard liquor, no moonshine and no spray suntan lotion!”
Miss Judy Charters is a busy organization, and over the years Judy has welcomed a variety of local captains to help out. I’ve learned a lot from each of them. Matt Williams, who found a smile early in life and never lost it, taught me how to section a very large body of water into a few small ones and to both move and fish s-l-o-w. Just because the Yamaha has 300 horsepower doesn’t mean you have to use them all. And sure, you can ride hundreds of miles and fish hundreds of feet deep. But on a trip 10 years ago, we puttered around Wassaw, fished a couple of yards deep and threw back redfish and trout by the dozen.
Capt. Garrett Ross introduced me to an overlooked beast that is pure power, speed and disreputable attitude: the jack crevalle. Picture roping a ton bull and walking him in a direction he doesn’t want to go. That’s a jack.
This time around, I hooked up with “up and coming,” as Judy calls him, Capt. Justin Rahn. He’s been with her full-time for four years now.
Old compadre and taxidermist (Southern Reflections Taxidermy) Scott Hodges and I have seldom discovered anything within the hunting and fishing domains that we didn’t care to harass, so when I mentioned redfish and trout to him, it was on. Judy’s place is two hours from Dublin, so Justin was gracious enough to allow us a little extra snooze time.
“Let’s meet up about 10,” he said. “The areas we want to go should be just about right by then.”
Sure, he’s a nice guy, but like every other fisherman down, here he’s at the mercy of the tides. Ocean current dictates everything everywhere when it comes to inshore. My very favorite redfish spot on the entire Georgia coast—and it’s only a few miles from where we’re about to launch—is a mudhole that can’t even be reached by boat until a certain time of day when the tide begins rolling in. (And yes, I’ve grounded there a couple of times trying to hurry things along!) But with the flow come the redfish, pouring in to where a certain creek bends and forms a deep hole… It can be like a shellcracker bed on a May full moon.
“There’s no sense in getting out at first light to catch a couple, then having to sit for hours until tide turns,” he continued. “It’s a little early in the year yet, but we’ve already started catching fish on these mild days. In April and throughout the summer the reds and trout will really begin stacking up in these places. From there I’ll be fishing seven days a week, two trips a day.” (We’re on the water the first week in March.)
Technique is simple. All day we’re easing around no-wake zones—and in truth throughout the day only planed the big boat maybe a couple of miles—drifting live shrimp at depths from 2 to 6 feet along shoreline structure. There’s a big orange-and-white cork under a slip knot so as to easily adjust fishing depth, weight and a hooked shrimp. Old docks and rocks along the bank are key locales, as are oyster beds, as always. The bait needs to be tossed as closely to structure as possible, which means that you’re going to get hung up and lose a shrimp fairly often. It’s part of the game; fish 10 feet shy of the target and you might as well be dropping the shrimp in the boat bottom. The tide will take the bait along for the ride, hopefully into the jaws of something edible.
Fish relate to structure for a variety of reasons, ambush among them. Another that may not be as well known is the fact that exposed structure soaks up heat from the sun, crucial during colder months.
“Back during the coldest days this winter, we found redfish in 2 feet of water ganged up on a mud bank,” Rahn relates. “That mud was soaking up the sun, and the water around it was just a little warmer, enough to make a difference to the fish.”
Hopefully by the time you’re ready to go, this hit-and-miss winter weather will be gone, but local knowledge like this is how guides put you on the fish.
We fished the drift rigs up and down the Wilmington and entered a few creeks not even named. Including one featuring a foot bridge that almost took my cap off. If you’re headed out of Savannah toward Tybee, its entrance is on your right, behind a marina. Cars will be whizzing by on a gravel road above, voices drifting in as walkers pace alongside. There may be a few bank fishermen—we saw three—watching you catch redfish!
Those reds hit both the live shrimp and a double-rigged setup of DOA artificials bumped along the bottom. Think plastic worm and largemouth. That’s but one of the creeks we tried, and while traveling, you’ll see everything from jonboats and 10-horse outboards to million-dollar pleasure and fishing rigs at the many docks.
OK, so let’s go to the other side of the bridge…
You may have heard of Bonaventure Cemetery, which is one of the most picturesque of all such places and has been around since the 1800s. The 250-year-old moss-draped Spanish oaks on their own are worth a look-see; the stories they could tell… Bonaventure was featured in the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as well as Clint Eastwood’s movie based on the book. But what you need to know is that there’s a rock wall, plainly visible from the bridge, bordering the huge cemetery grounds. I caught the first big trout of the day while drifting a shrimp by those rocks, with cemetery visitors and tourists 50 yards away.
(So if you get roped into a family Bonaventure tour, remember to stash a rod and pick up a few shrimp…)
Reds and trout are but two of the species touched on, mostly because they’re among everybody’s favorites and are about to begin piling into these easy-to-reach coastal waters. Besides, when it comes to eating, I prefer a redfish to a ribeye on any occasion, and trout aren’t far behind. You’ll have a slot limit, 14 to 23 inches, for keepers, with a maximum of five per fisherman. (Tossing 40-inch redfish—head-first, if you please—back into the ocean is great for building discipline.)
The size limit for trout is 14 inches, and 15 fish is the limit. Just so you know, 20-inchers are good-sized fish here. Justin’s personal best is a 30-incher, guaranteed to have a mouth full of what appears to be bright yellow paint, not to mention teeth. But never put limits on Miss Judy and her crew. From flounder to whiting to sheepshead to sharks, if it swims here it can be caught, and usually not very far from the bank.
From the time you step onto the boat, everything is taken care of, including licenses and all bait and tackle. For first-timers, know that a daylight run even in warmer months can get a little brisk. Also, sun on the ocean is a different animal, even for a four-hour trip. Early in the summer, before you’ve had much exposure, it can be especially sneaky; a week’s worth of sun poisoning is something you can do well without.
April kicks off the best fishing of the year, and things are getting ready to bust. Pick a species and call Judy; she’ll know where to look.
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