Rooster Redbreast On the St. Marys River

Terry Bradley says take a Beetle Spin to the St. Marys River and have a ball catching bream!

Ron Brooks | May 1, 2006

Terry Bradley with a nice string of St. Marys redbreast. The fishing should be the best of the year during May.

May is the month that southeast Georgia anglers hit the streams and rivers. The red-breasted sunfish are bedding this month, and some of the biggest you will ever catch can be caught right now. Whether you call them redbreasts, red-bellies, or robins, these fish are great to eat and put up quite a fight on ultralight tackle.

Often overlooked, the St. Marys River on the border with Florida is one of the most productive rivers in Georgia for redbreasts. Originating in the Okefenokee Swamp, the river zig- zags its way east to the ocean. It is a comparatively wild river, with many miles of pristine, undeveloped land along its banks.

I fished the river in April with Terry Bradley. Terry owns “Terry’s Huntin’ and Fishin,” a tackle-and-gun shop located in MacClenny, Fla., close to the Georgia border. Terry fishes the St. Marys regularly and is a local expert on the river and the fish that can be caught there.

“These fish are getting ready to spawn,” said Terry as we readied his boat. “They should really be turned on between now and the end of May.”

As it turned out, he was absolutely correct!

There are several access areas and ramps available to the public, but we decided to put in on some private property in order to launch Terry’ s boat. The river is really not suitable for anything approaching a bass boat. The water level is down, and stumps, logs, and shifting sand bars make navigation hazardous at best.

Terry, however, knew the river and with the exception of two or three areas, we were able to run upstream several miles in his 16-foot aluminum bass boat.

“I wouldn’ t advise anyone to do what we are doing,” he said as we rounded another bend. “I know where the logs and bars are, so I can run the river. Anyone else will tear up a lower unit or prop if they try to run.”

We hit quite a few logs andchurned over some sandbars. I was glad he had a stainless prop on the engine, because an aluminum prop would have been destroyed. Terry’ s suggestion for anyone planning to fish the river is to use a Gheenoe or jon boat and a kicker.

When we had run several miles upstream, we stopped and began rigging our rods. We needed time for the water to settle down, because we were going to fish the water we had just traversed, and the fish needed time to calm down.

The river in the area we fished was about 30-feet wide — wider in some spots and narrower in others. Downed logs, trees, and limbs lined every outside bend in the river. The inside bends, like almost every other south Georgia River, were pure-white sandbars.

As we began to let the boat drift downstream, Terry told me to concentrate on the side of the river that had the cover.

“Right now these fish are up against the bank in the deeper water,” he said. “They will move into some of the sandy backwater sloughs to start fanning their beds in May, but right now we’re going to find them in deeper water.”

Within a minute or two, Terry hooked up. This would be the first of many redbreasts to go into the livewell. One or two more casts later, he had another one. He looked back at me as if to say, “What’s wrong with you?” I wasn’t even getting a thump.

It was only after Terry had a good five- or six-fish lead on me that I began hooking up as well. We continued to drift downstream, finding likely areas at which to cast our lures. We shifted from one bank to another as we moved, always concentrating on the deeper, cover-laden side of the creek.

As we approached one particular bend, Terry told me that this hole was one of his favorite crappie holes. As he was talking, I got a hit, and sure enough, a nice St. Marys crappie came to the boat.

Terry said the crappie aren’t terribly thick in the river but that several holes are productive, and the crappie he catches are all good-sized. He was right, based on the two or three we caught.

On another bend, Terry pointed out another hole. This one, he said was a good copperhead-bream hole. And, sure enough, in short order he hauled out a nice bream to add to the catch.

While we talked I noticed the large number of willow trees in the area. The limbs on some of them draped out over the water, providing a bit of shade. Terry told me to cast to each side of the limbs and up against the bank. I did, and quickly put two more redbreasts in the boat.

“Willow trees seem to hold some special significance for these redbreasts,” Terry said as he reeled in another fish. “For some reason they love to gather around the overhanging willow limbs. I’m not sure whether some sort of insect is present on the willows, or whether they just like the shade, but usually whenever you find a willow branch, you will find a redbreast or two.”

Our methods were strictly artificial, and we really did not need any natural bait. W e used small Beetle Spins with a black-plastic cricket on the hook. I began the day using a white grub with a red dot on my Beetle Spin, but since Terry was catching five fish to my one, he made me switch to the black cricket.

Top artificials on the St. Marys include (left to right) a Cricket Hopper, a Beetle Spin with a black plastic cricket, and a Beetle Spin with a white grub.

We also had a topwater bait that is a favorite of Terry’ s when the fish go on the bed. He called it a “Cricket Hopper,” and it looked like a small, yellowish, floating grasshopper imitation with two treble hooks. We were catching so many fish on the Beetle Spins that Terry did not fish very long with the topwater. He told me that the cricket hopper would be really hot fished over the top of bed- ding fish in May.

Terry said that the standard natural baits would work very well. Crickets and wigglers catch a lot of fish this time of year. He likes to put a cricket about a foot below a small cork and pitch it up against the bank or onto a bedding area. But, today, we had no need for anything but Beetle Spins.

Terry was using a small Zebco 33 outfit and doing quite well. I was using an ultralight spinning outfit with 4-lb. line. Some of these redbreast ran the drag on my little outfit and provided a great battle coming to the boat. I highly recommend the ultralight for this kind of fishing. The rod is only four- and-a-half-feet long, and the light line allows you to cast under and around limbs and logs in tight areas.

The water in the river is a stained dark brown or black color. This is a “black water” river, as are most south Georgia streams. The water is stained dark by the tannic acid coming from the surrounding tree roots and limbs. Although the water is dark, it is some of the clean- est water I have fished, and it serves to heighten the color scheme on the fish that inhabit it. The redbreasts almost gleamed with bright color.

The water was relatively low, and barring any late April rains, it will remain that way through May. That is not always the case. As we were driving a logging road through the woods toward our launch site,

Terry told me he had actually run his boat right where we were driving. The water does come up in flood conditions. Based on the water marks I saw, it could rise 20 feet or more from where it was when we fished.

Terry with a brightly colored St. Marys “Rooster” redbreast.

While the St. Marys River is easy to fish, it is somewhat of a challenge to access. Only two or three roads cross the river west of Folkston, and they are quite some distance apart. On other rivers I have floated, I would park one vehicle somewhere way downstream and take our boat upstream to launch with another vehicle. That allowed us to fish only one direction and not have to run back.

On this river the distance between public-access points is a minimum of eight hours of drifting. Given that fact, we have to come up with another plan.

Although there may be more private access points, there are two main public boat ramps that can put you on fish this month. The first is where US1/US301 crosses the river at the Georgia border just south of Folkston. The other is located where GA 94 crosses the river east of St. George. There is one more entry point between these two ramps located off SPUR 121 where the Suwannee Canal enters the river.

Because of the distance between ramps, unless you are interested in a long day of fishing, I would plan on running your boat upstream and drifting back, or drifting downstream and running back. Canoes and kayaks will work very well if you don’t mind some serious paddling. This is a moving river.

A small cold front passed through the area while we fished this particular morning, and what started out as a calm warm day turned to a slightly windy affair with a chill breeze. We had left our jackets in the truck because it was warm that morning. The significance of the cold front is that the fish did not stop biting. The classic result of a front coming through is that the fish turn off. These redbreasts kept right on hitting, even as the temperature dropped and the high pressure set in. The fish were aggressive. They hit hard, many of them almost jerking the rod out of my hand. And, they fought hard on my light tackle.

Were I planning a trip to catch these May redbreasts, I would plan on putting in at the ramp east of St. George. I would head upstream from there and drift my way back to the ramp. The area we fished was upstream from the St. George ramp.

Terry said that the farther upstream you go, the more redbreasts you will find. As you move east toward the ocean and past the Folkston area, the redbreasts start thinning out. Perhaps the river is wider there, and the current not quite as swift — and redbreasts do like a good current.

I would use a Ghenoe or jonboat with a small outboard motor, and I would motor upstream from the ramp to begin fishing. That way, if I did shear a pin or lose a prop, I only have to drift back to the ramp. If I ran downstream, I could get stuck on a breakdown, and there is not a lot of civilization to help on this river!

In all, we fished about two hours on this trip. Between 7:30 in the morning until 9:30, we caught fish on almost every cast. A total of about 30 bream, redbreasts, crappie and even a stump-knocker or two made the morning fly by. We kept 21 fish for a later fish fry. It was a quiet, peaceful, fishing float. There were no cars, no trucks, no planes, and no other noise — save the hoot owls early that morning. The only thing that made me jump was the turkey that launched from a tree next to the bank, flying directly over our heads; all of that, and the non-stop fishing action made it a great trip.

If you want more information about fishing the St. Marys River, call Terry at his tackle shop at (904) 259- 9080. He will gladly tell you what’s biting and what baits to use. Right now and through May that would be redbreasts on Beetle Spins!

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