Satilla River Catfish On The Rise

Craig James | May 4, 2019

As we rounded the tight bend in the river through the morning fog, our first limb-line of the day thrashed violently 30 yards ahead. Idling toward it slowly, the crew in the boat began to ready for battle with the oversized fish that continued to struggle in the current in an effort to get free.

Although I chose to start this story here, the real story actually began a year ago. As I was scrolling through pictures on Facebook, I came across a picture that caught my attention immediately. In the photo were a couple of guys standing with some giant flatheads, but it was the scenery behind them that grabbed my eye.

I immediately recognized the black-water river in the background and was shocked by the caliber of catfish it had produced.

Up until now, the mighty Altamaha had long been known as south Georgia’s catfish factory, and for good reason. For decades, the Altamaha has produced more and bigger catfish than pretty much anywhere in our state.

Key words: “Until now.” 

That’s right! A new contender has entered the race to be south Georgia’s best catfishing destination, though substantially smaller than its larger cousin. The Satilla River is without a doubt making a name for itself among serious flathead fisherman in southeast Georgia.

With a standing rod-and-reel record fish in the record books weighing 45-lbs., 15-ozs. and dozens of 60-plus pound fish coming off limb-lines in the past couple of years, it makes one wonder just how big they are growing in the relatively small river.

When I met up with Van Troxell, of Atkinson, the morning of our trip, he had plenty to say about the river’s giant catfish.

“There are some big flatheads in the Satilla River. The biggest one we have managed to get in the boat was 63 pounds, but I know this river has some way bigger. They don’t get pressured like the cats in the Altamaha do, and they have plenty to eat.”

Plenty to eat indeed. The Satilla’s prized fish, the redbreast, is a favorite snack of the flathead, and if not controlled, flatheads could devastate the Satilla’s redbreast fishery. Luckily for the redbreast, DNR has a year-round shocking program that has removed tens of thousands of flatheads in recent years through electrofishing.

“We keep everything we catch. You just can’t catch them all, trust me we have tried. From April to September, every weekend I’m home, I’m running lines, and the flatheads keep biting,” said Van.

The morning of our trip, we launched out of the Atkinson Boat ramp on Highway 82, just a few miles from Van’s home. After being introduced to his good friends Shane Davis and Dennis Mosley, we launched Shane’s 17-foot jonboat equipped with a 70-hp Yamaha and headed down the river.

“Right now we use Shane’s bigger boat since there is plenty of water, but as it drops in May and June, I like to use my 14-foot jonboat. It’s got a 15-hp motor on it, and that makes it way easier to get around on the river,” said Van.

Van says the prime river level for flathead fishing on the Satilla is around the 7-foot mark on the Atkinson gauge, which he checks on the NOAA website.

On Easter morning before church, Van went out at daylight to check limb-lines and caught this 40-lb. flathead.

“When it gets much lower than that, the river really dries up in a hurry. You have to go slow and watch for fallen trees, stumps and other debris,” said Van.

Due to obligations the day before, I was unable to come to the river when the trio set their lines, so Van showed me how he likes to rig his limb-lines, which is a little different than the conventional way I’ve seen it done. 

He starts by pre-rigging his leaders at home in order to save time. The leader consists of 12 to 15 inches of 400-lb. red mono that he purchases at West Marine in Brunswick, a 12/0 Eagle Claw Circle Sea Hook and a Spro 1/0 Power Swivel. He uses a crimping tool to crimp on the hook and swivel using 2.2 mm crimps to complete the rig.

For his main line from the limb, he uses H&H size 36 nylon twine. To complete the rig, he slides on a 6-oz. egg sinker and ties the twine to his ready-made leader.

The most important part of his limb-line setup comes next, and that’s the bait. Van won’t just use any bait for his lines.

“If I can’t catch my bait before I go, than I don’t go. Some folks will run lines with shiners or goldfish, but I only like to use fresh, lively bait I catch out of the river,” said Van.

Finding bait isn’t a problem with the Satilla’s healthy population of redbreast and other bream. A cricket or worm under a cork is all it takes to load the livewell with bait.

“If you are catching them a few days before a trip, it can be hard to keep them lively in a livewell, but a few frozen water bottles dropped in each day along with a good aerator seems to do the trick,” said Van.

Using twine, 400-lb. mono and a 12/0 hook, Van pre-rigs all his leaders at home.

Van will use any size bream for bait but says a 4- to 6-inch fish seems to work best at tempting big flatheads. He hooks his bait through the back, being careful not to injure the spine, so the bream will swim and move around and stay lively on the hook.

“If you have a bream that isn’t real lively, you may as well save that one for cut bait for channel or blue catfish. A flathead ain’t going to eat a dead bait. He wants to kill his dinner,” said Van.

Once he has his bait rigged and ready, Van attaches his twine to a low limb over a deep hole in the river. After dropping the bream to the bottom, he pulls it up a foot or so and ties it off on the limb.

Van fishes the river from the 82 bridge several miles downriver but only keys on certain places for setting lines.

“I like to find tight bends in the river where it turns really sharp. This will usually mean deeper water, and there will be a little area where the water eddies up. Big flatheads stay in these types of holes, especially if there’s a lot of cover around,” Van added.

A normal flathead hole on the Satilla will only average 6 to 12 feet deep. A far cry from many of our state’s deeper rivers.

“That’s all it takes though. The Satilla is such a little river that you can find the flatheads easy if you look in the right places.”

To up his odds, Van likes to run a long set of lines down the river.

“Checking lines is fun, but setting lines is a job,” said Van. “It usually takes me, Shane and Dennis a couple of hours to get 20 or 25 lines run, and that’s with us moving quick. 

“To set lines in the Satilla, you need a minimum of two, and even better three folks, to do it. With one driving the boat, another setting lines in place and one more to pass bait and other items, it really makes the job much easier.”

Van said lines are best set just before dark, checked once at midnight and then left alone, giving time during the night for the big ones to bite.

Van Troxell prepares to grab a line loaded with a Satilla cat.

At daybreak the next morning, Van and his crew check their lines immediately and cuts them down.

“I hope everyone who reads this will give setting hooks a try. But if you do, make sure you take down your lines when you’re done. Folks ski out here and pull tubes with kids on them. You don’t want to be the reason someone gets a 12/0 hook in their arm,” Van pointed out.

Limb lines left on the river are also deadly to wildlife, especially birds like herons.

As we pulled up to our first line of the day, Van grabbed hold to the line as a large catfish fought back. After a brief struggle, Van managed to sling the 10-lb. blue catfish into the boat.

As it flopped around on the floor of the boat, Van explained that about 70% of what you can expect to catch in the Satilla are flatheads, with the other being a mix of channels and blues.

We continued to work the lines for the next hour, catching a few more good-sized catfish and finding plenty of empty hooks.

(From left) Van Troxell, Dennis Mosley and Shane Davis hold some nice Satilla River catfish caught during a trip with the author on April 13.

“I don’t know how they manage to do it sometimes, but these big cats can get off a hook. You win some, and you lose some when it comes to limb-lining,” said Van.

When we got back to the ramp and finished out our day, we had five good catfish on 20 hooks, and more importantly a month or two worth of delicious catfish nuggets. As we talked some more before leaving, Van said, “I love this river and catching flatheads. There is nothing in the world like fighting a big catfish on a limb-line. It’s the biggest rush you’re going to find,” said Van.

For anglers making a drive to try their hand at flathead fishing, the Satilla has large beautiful sandbars where you can set up camp for the weekend. If you prefer a bed and air conditioning, nearby Brunswick has plenty of hotels. 

I’m already planning a trip back with Van soon, and after you load your plate up with cheese grits and catfish nuggets, I’m sure you will be planning a return trip, too.

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