Saltwater Fishing Georgia Reachable Nearshore Reefs
GPS coordinates to good fishing on these nearshore reefs that are within reach in a reasonably sized boat.
Lots of Georgia anglers have a desire to go saltwater fishing offshore. Unfortunately, because they think offshore means a 40-mile run, or their boat is too small, they stay inshore. There is good news for those with smaller boats — those in the 18- to 20-foot range. This month you can get in some “offshore” fishing without running 30 or 40 miles, and you can do it in a reasonably sized boat.
The Georgia coast is fortunate to have about a dozen artificial reefs and natural-bottom areas within 10 miles of the beach. From Savannah south to St. Marys, these locations are marked on every chart and are easy to locate. Nun buoys at each location make finding the general area of one of these reefs quite easy.
My son and I and some friends fished several of the close-in reefs off the south Georgia coast in April to find out for you just what kind of fish can be caught. While we didn’t hit every reef, we fished enough of them to be able to say that the fishing is awfully good right now. We left from Cumberland Sound and ran out the St. Marys River. Seas were running 2 feet or less, a condition that should be more prevalent now that the March winds are subsiding. Turning north, we set our GPS coordinates and headed for our first stop.
The trick on any of these reefs is to know where the reef is situated, and then begin looking for some high-relief structure on the bottom. Even an average depthfinder can show the bottom structure in about 45 feet of water. Once the structure is located, we drop a marker buoy so we can come back to that same location.
Marker buoys come in a variety of sizes and prices. The cheapest one is a homemade rig consisting of a milk jug, a heavy line, and heavy weight. Orienting your boat with no physical references is almost impossible. The marker buoy helps you determine the current direction and the location of the bottom on which you want to fish.
Once the buoy is down, we stop the boat right next to it and let the wind and current take the boat. If you have a GPS that marks trails, make sure the trailing feature is on and allow the boat to drift several hundred yards. It is now a matter of following the trail back to the marker and going several hundred yards beyond the marker to let the boat drift back. This allows your boat to drift back over the good bottom every time.
We mention drifting as opposed to anchoring. Anchoring, while possible, often takes several attempts to get the boat over the good bottom. On these reefs, being off a few dozen yards can often mean the difference between catching fish and coming back skunked.
The idea is to drift through the good bottom and catch a few fish. Once you have passed the area on a drift, simply move back up your GPS trail and do it again.
If your GPS does not have a trailing feature, you can use two marker buoys. Drop one on the target area and allow the boat to do its natural drift. After several hundred yards, drop a second buoy. This gives you a line up for your drift direction. Run that line back to and beyond the first buoy and begin fishing.
We fished with bottom rigs on all of the reefs we sampled. Some of us used a “fishfinder” or “chicken” rig. This is the standard party-boat rig with a weight tied to the bot- tom end of the leader and the hook tied to a loop in the leader one or two feet up from the weight. Knowing we would be looking mainly for seabass, we used 2/0 and 3/0 hooks. The weight we used was from three to as much as six ounces, depending on the current and drift conditions. Use only enough weight to get your rig to the bottom as close to the boat as possible.
In a heavy-current condition, the boat will drift slower than the current, and a lighter weight will send your line well ahead of the boat, never reaching the bottom. Be prepared to adjust the weights as conditions change.
Our bait was pretty standard. We had some frozen squid, frozen cigar minnows and dead shrimp. But we never go out without the means to catch our own bait. Sabiki rigs come in handy for catching fresh bait to be used either live or as cut bait. We’ll discuss using Sabiki rigs later in this article.
Here are the reefs we fished, and what we caught:
• “KBY” (N 30° 46.65, W 81° 17.32)
Situated about 5 miles due east of Cumberland Island, this buoy marks an area of live bottom and dumped rubble that is currently holding fish. The buoy is actually on the southwest corner of the fishing area. The live bottom extends north and east almost two nautical miles.
We began a slow zig-zag idle headed northeast from the buoy and came upon some nice bottom relief. Bottom relief is any structure that projects upward off the bottom. A school of fish was up halfway in the water column and visible on the depthfinder. We dropped a marker and allowed the boat to drift to obtain our drift direction. Using the KBY buoy as a drift reference, we began drifting over the area.
Bluefish! The school of fish below us was primarily bluefish, small but feisty. We put our bigger bottom tackle away and took out spinning gear and had some fun, sometimes catching two at a time on a double-jig setup. One red-and-white nylon jig was tied about a foot behind a first jig, and the bluefish ate it up!
It was almost impossible to get a bait to the bottom past the bluefish. They hit it on the way down on almost every drop. We were after seabass, and the bluefish would not leave us alone, so, after catching several-dozen fish, we reeled in, picked up our marker buoy, and headed for another location.
• “C” Buoy (N 30° 50.79, W 81° 09.82)
This buoy also marks an area of live bottom. Located about five miles to the north and east of the KBY buoy, it is an area of almost 3 square miles. The buoy itself is situated almost in the center of the area, so we began slowly circling the buoy in ever larger circles, looking for fish or high relief.
There are so many little areas of bottom that can hold fish one day and not hold fish the next, that providing specific GPS coordinates is almost futile. The fish move from location to location, looking for shelter and food. They can be there one day and gone the next.
We found some nice relief and once again dropped a marker buoy. But this time we decided to try to anchor over the structure. The winds were light, and we could sense the current direction, so we maneuvered the boat and dropped anchor up-current from the marker.
The boat drifted back almost perfectly, and we began catching seabass on every drop. But, a few minutes later, the bite stopped. We looked for our marker buoy and found it about 20 yards off our port beam. The depthfinder showed we had drifted off the bottom, and that short 20 yards made all the difference. This is why we usually drift all these areas. The current and wind are so unpredictable that anchoring usually does not work.
We pulled the anchor and reverted back to our drifting pattern. On each drift, we left the engine running while we dropped baits. Every time we moved over the good bottom, we hooked up on seabass. We even caught one triggerfish. We took turns at the helm so that everyone could have a chance at fishing, so we all caught fish.
Looking for more variety, we moved about this area again and found even more good bottom relief. As we drifted this area using the same marker-buoy technique, we caught a ring-tailed porgy. While these fish seldom grow larger than about a pound, they are excellent eating and fun to catch on light tackle.
We took our spinning gear out again and downsized to a No. 1 hook. Using smaller pieces of squid for bait, we really got into these fish. They have teeth similar to a sheepshead and rather small mouths, hence the small hook and small bait. Once again, we used only enough weight to get the bait to the bottom.
On light tackle these guys really fight, and you can catch them right now until the cows come home! They probably were on all the other bottom we fished on this day, but we had tackle too heavy to catch them. They are in their spawn on the close-in reefs and should be there through the end of May.
• Nine-Mile Bottom (N 31° 19.37, W 81° 07.20)
This is another relatively close-in area of live bottom, about 9 miles due east of Altamaha Sound. It is larger than either of our first two stops, but it is not marked with a buoy. These coordinates will put you in the middle of the bottom area. Simply drop a marker and begin circling, looking for some relief and fish. Once you find a good spot, fish it the same way we fished the previous two spots. Use your GPS trails or two marker buoys and determine the drift. Then drift through the good bottom with baits just off the bottom.
• Grays Reef (N 31° 22.21, W 80° 51.39)
The famous Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary has to be mentioned. This is an area of about 17 square miles located 18 miles due east of Sapelo Island. It is farther offshore than other reefs, and anglers fishing here will need a more substantial boat for safety reasons.
The fishing here can be awesome. Seabass in large numbers and large sizes are all currently over the reef. The fishing methods are the same as all the other reefs we fished. Set your drift direction, and drift over the good bottom.
Anchoring on this reef should absolutely be avoided. This is one of the few remaining live reefs and has a habitat that needs to be preserved. Anchors will damage bottom coral and fans.
We fished the best three nearshore reefs off the southern Georgia coast and found and caught fish on all three of them. Fishing should remain good for seabass, bluefish, mackerel and other fish through May.
While we fished, we looked for pods of baitfish — Spanish sardines and cigar minnows. We didn’t see any, but they will be showing up any day and will be prevalent over these reefs in May.
This is where your Sabiki rig comes in handy. A weighted six- or eight-hook bait-catching machine, these rigs can be purchased at any tackle shop. If you find a pod of bait on the surface, toss a rig into the school and reel in six fresh live baits.
Grouper and red snapper will come in on these close-in reefs from time to time, and a good
live bait simply can’t be resisted. We managed to catch a few short gag grouper at all the locations we fished, even though we weren’t targeting them specifically. We have also caught some
of our largest seabass in the past on live cigar minnows.
The water is warming quickly and that means the barracuda will be moving north. Expect to catch these toothy guys in May on the near-shore reefs. Be prepared to be cut off while bringing a bottom fish to the boat!
We can’t leave this article without talking about safety. Even though these reefs are considered close-in, the weather can still kick up more quickly than you think. Make sure you carry all the right safety gear. Consider a VHF radio as well. And, for sure, keep an eye out for thunderstorms. In May they will be forming over land and near the coast in the afternoons, and you can find yourself cut off from reaching your inlet.
If you are in doubt, err on the side of safety — even go with friends and take two boats — and make sure you have enough fuel on board. Taking a chance is simply not worth it.
On our entire trip, we saw only one other angler. The Georgia coast is an awesome fishing resource. These close-in reefs are easy to get to, and it is usually easy to catch fish!
Editor’s Note: Click here for a free brochure on Georgia’s artificial reefs, or call the Coastal Resources Division at (912) 264-7218.
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