Satilla River Redbreast Smackdown
Bass, stripers, redfish and rainbow trout steal the headlines in most print, but there is little that rivals the sheer fun of using ultralight tackle and catching panfish after panfish from a slow-flowing, blackwater, south Georgia river. After over a year of flooded rivers and very little fishing pressure, the overall fish populations in south Georgia rivers are primed for the best fishing in the 20 years that I have been in Waycross.
How can I make such a bold claim? Let us analyze the situation. River levels came up during the winter of 2013, a condition that increases fish survival and growth rate. Then, water levels only came down to allow anglers a couple of weeks of good fishing last spring, and just about the time the river got “right,” rains came and pushed the rivers back into the floodplains for the entire summer. Finally, the waters receded to fishable levels again for a period in the fall before easing back up into the floodplain for the entire winter.
WRD biologists conducted an age and growth study on redbreasts in the early 2000s and learned that the conditions we have experienced for an entire year provide a substantial bump up in panfish populations and the size of individual fish. In that study, the Satilla River, with its expansive floodplain, was in the top tier of rivers for producing the highest redbreast sunfish growth rates after high-water events.
So, if you like catching redbreasts, you cannot go wrong by fishing the Satilla this spring. Even if you have never done it, a trip to this southeast fishery will surely turn you into a redbreast fanatic.
Water levels and temperatures are going to dictate the best way to approach the river. At the time of writing this article, the river is still well up in the floodplain, a great thing to keep the fish fat and sassy until it warms up. With the brutal winter temperatures we have had, I am glad the river has stayed high. Crappie anglers fish the mouths of oxbows and sloughs with minnows and jigs when the river is like this, and they typically catch a few to a dozen fish per trip. By the time you read this, barring some big rains, the river should begin dropping. As soon as the trees start budding out, the water demand increases, and the rivers usually start dropping. As I look out the window, I can see dogwoods blooming, so I expect small rains to have a much lower effect on river levels than they have all winter.
Once the river level hits about 9 feet at the Waycross gage, redbreasts should start biting. That is the key level where the water starts leaving the floodplain, and the fish are all forced back into the main river. That should happen about the time this magazine hits the newsstands. The water temperatures have also started climbing and have stabilized in the upper 50-degree range. Hopefully by April Fool’s Day the temperatures will have pushed over the 60-degree mark, and the bite will be on!
Early birds typically fish shoreline cover in sloughs and the deep holes on the back side of sandbars. Worms and crickets fished on the bottom is a great approach for these early fish. Redbreasts love current and cover, but these early season fish are hanging out in slower current locations until their metabolism picks up. I like to use an anchor pin in the sand to keep my boat in one place and then cast out a couple of lines. A simple No. 6 or 8 bronze or blue aberdeen hook with a split-shot crimped a foot above and a cricket or worm is all that you need. It is a very simple way to fish for them and is very relaxing.
A great spinning rod for this is a 5 1/2-foot, ultralight Berkley Cherrywood rod paired with a small spinning reel like the Pflueger Microspin 4410X. The new Pflueger President spincasting reels have received excellent reviews from the anglers I have talked with who have tried them. I like 6-lb. test Trilene XT for bottom fishing setups because I want the stretch that monofilament provides.
Once the river level at Waycross drops to about 7 feet and the water warms into the 70s, the bite will fire off in earnest. At this level and down to about 5 feet, you can get a jonboat around sandbars pretty well in the upper river. From 5 to 6 feet is the range where you will likely get out of the boat occasionally to pull across shallow spots. The key is going to be that the river level does not drop too fast, as that will cause the water to be dingy.
A long-time Satilla River aficionado described to me that the perfect water clarity looks like coffee without cream. If the river drops too fast or if rains cause a lot of runoff, then the water will have a murky appearance, and the fishing will be slower than optimal.
When the river is in this range and the fishing is peak, a whole host of approaches will fool panfish. The most common is to pitch a cricket with a rod and reel or bream-buster pole. The rigging is essentially the same as bottom fishing, except you add a small float a couple of feet above the hook. As mentioned previously, redbreasts love current, and those are the kinds of places to focus on. A fallen tree on an outside river bend is a prime location for redbreasts. Little eddies downstream of the limbs offer perfect ambush spots. Undercut banks are another place to focus some casts. Fish will sit back in the root wad and charge out to eat your offering.
For those like me who prefer casting artificials, Beetle Spins and small spinnerbaits are hard to beat during these conditions. The original Beetle Spins in the 1/32- and 1/16-oz. sizes in the white-red dot, black-yellow or black-chartreuse are the most popular plastic-bodied offerings. Small spinnerbaits like Spin Dandy and Satilla Spins have gotten a lot of attention lately because they have produced some phenomenal catches. Crawfish, red-white, and black-yellow combinations of the miniature spinnerbait have produced best during the short windows when the river was fishable. The advantage of the little spinnerbaits is that you do not have to constantly replace bodies. Once you buy the lure, you can catch dozens of panfish on them. When getting bites on every cast, the low-maintenance lures excel. Beetle Spins and spinnerbaits are so effective because their design minimizes hang-ups, which allows you to cast them into the heavy cover, locations where big “rooster” redbreasts live.
The 1/16- and 1/8-oz. size Satilla Spins are the most popular for Satilla panfish. When the water is really swift, the 1/8-oz. size stays down in the strike zone better and is by far the best option. In slower waters or when the river drops out to base flows, the 1/16-oz. version shines because you can work it very slowly to trigger bites.
While the vast majority of anglers on the Satilla use spincasting gear, I prefer spinning tackle for the casting accuracy, retrieve speed and excellent drag. My favorite outfit for flinging Satilla Spins is a 5-foot, 8-inch ultralight Fenwick Elite Tech River Runner graphite rod with a Pflueger Purist No. 1325X spinning reel. Another favorite (and more economical) outfit is my 5-foot ultralight Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2 paired with a Pflueger President No. 6920X spinning reel. I spool my spinnerbait reels with 8-lb. test Spiderwire braided line. I like the power and no stretch of braid, and the ultralight action of the rod provides the give to keep from pulling hooks out. A 2-foot section of 8- or 10-lb. test fluorocarbon completes the setup. With braid, you have to get used to just reeling into a fish instead of setting the hook hard.
When the water drops below 5 feet at the Waycross gage, it is time to break out the paddle crafts. Float trips between landings or simply paddling and fishing from one landing is a great way to catch a good mess of fish. For a guide to Satilla River boat ramps, contact the Waycross Fisheries Office at (912) 285-6094.
Once the water reaches 80 degrees, then pitching “bugs,” or topwater poppers, is another great approach. Find a shady shoreline with overhanging limbs, fling the bug on a fly rod or bream buster, and hold on. With the higher metabolism during the warmer times, a big redbreast will crush a topwater offering. Orange and chartreuse poppers will work if the fish are rising to the top.
My mind wanders back to a day last fall when the water was too low to get a motorboat up and down the river, so a friend and I floated in a canoe. It was the day after the first strong cold front of the year, and Justin Bythwood, of Waycross, and I slipped our canoe into the river shortly after daylight. Temperatures started near freezing but were forecasted to warm into the 70s. The water temperature was still high, in the mid-60s, and the river level was about 5 feet. The river had the characteristic black-coffee look, and we were hopeful that we would fool some photo-quality fish. Even in the cold, it did not take long for the first redbreast to load our rod. I started flinging a 1/8-oz. black-yellow Satilla Spin, while Justin opted for a 1/16-oz. crawfish Satilla Spin. We figured that we would change as the need arose, but we did not have to change our tactics all day. Justin started catching fish at a rate of about four to my one on his crawfish color (brown, yellow and orange), so it did not take me long to switch to an identical spinnerbait. Our tally of fish caught and released was 103, with eight species being represented. The majority were redbreasts, but we had a dozen crappie and almost 20 big bluegills as well.
Panfish are not the only species available in the Satilla. Catfish anglers can put a shrimp, chicken liver or worm on the bottom and catch channel cats, white cats and bullhead catfish. The setup is as simple as a hook and split-shot, but use a more stout hook than the panfish rig. After almost two decades of flathead catfish removals on the Satilla, WRD staff have continued to keep the number of the big, invasive, predatory catfish in check to protect the native fishes. The number of larger flathead catfish will also increase with the high water, but the folks from the Waycross Fisheries office will continue removing them once the water warms.
Bass anglers should not abandon the Satilla. I like to have a floating worm or jig on stand-by in my boat for mouths of cuts or blowdown trees. When you see prime bass habitat, it is worth making a few casts with a bass lure. My biggest bass from the Satilla is a 6-pounder, but there are much bigger fish swimming in the black water.
Whatever species you choose to chase, the Satilla is going to be an awesome destination if the water levels cooperate this spring. You know that you are fishing a great resource when a couple of dozen fish during a trip is a slow day. I expect the spring of 2014 to linger for decades in the memory of anglers who are fortunate enough to fish the Satilla River during what I believe will be one of the best bites in recent history.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Bert is a freelance writer from Waycross. He has also been making quality lures (both freshwater and saltwater) under the name Bert’s Jigs & Things since 1987. Give him a call for a catalog or information at (912) 287-1604 or e-mail him at [email protected].
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