Savannah River Largemouth
Brian Gunn specializes in catching tidewater and oxbow bass.
World-class bass fisheries such as Clarks Hill, Russell, and Hartwell steal most of the article headlines on the Savannah River, but the flowing part of the river boasts high-quality bass fishing also. The once-sinuous river has been straightened, but the oxbow lakes now provide slack-water bass opportunities. In April, those oxbows are the place to be for a great bite.
One of the most knowledgeable bass anglers on the Savannah River is Capt. Brian Gunn, a Savannah native. Brian began fishing the river with family and friends when he was a lad. He got serious about bass fishing when he was 12 years old, and has been tournament fishing since the age of 18. At only 30 years old, he already has an impressive list of tournament accomplishments, including qualifying for the Georgia State Team through the Georgia B.A.S.S. Federation Top Six Tournament for three of the last four years. In 2001 he qualified for the Walmart Bass Fishing League Regional Tournament. He not only consistently catches big limits of bass on his home waters, but he has also proven his ability to catch bass on lakes and rivers throughout the Southeast. I was fortunate enough to fish with Brian on the Savannah River during early March.
His true understanding of the Savannah River was evident as we planned for the trip. Early in our discussions, he mentioned that he would like to launch at the Clyo ramp and fish the oxbow lakes in that area, because the oxbows are the place to be in April. As our chosen date approached, weather conditions deteriorated. During the previous week cold weather dominated, and significant rains caused the river to rise two feet above flood stage.
Under those conditions, Brian figured that water would be flowing through many of the normally still-water upriver lakes, thus ruining the bite. Therefore, he decided to launch at a ramp in the tidewater section and fish the more predictable tidally-influenced portion of the river.
On the morning of March 4,2005, I met Brian at the Port Wentworth boat ramp. I climbed aboard his Nitro 901 bass boat, and we pushed off. I shivered when I looked at the 49-degree reading on the thermometer built into his Zercom flasher unit. The cold water and flooded river conditions conspired against us. Being somewhat familiar with fishing tidal rivers myself, I was expecting a nice boat ride. I reminded myself that I was with one of the best bass anglers on the river.
“We’ll try the tidewater this morning during the first of the incoming tide and then run to an upriver lake this afternoon. Even with the high water, the lake we’re going to will not have flowing water,” said Brian.
After a very brisk short run, we dropped off plane on a bank where he has caught many limits of bass. It was a non-descript bank with clumps of grass and occasional wood cover. The most obvious cover was a dead tree that had sloughed off the bank as the water eroded its root system.
“The root system of this tree is great cover. Bass hold in it and ambush bait as it washes by with the current,” he said.
Brian started with his Savannah River confidence bait, a six-inch black/chartreuse tail Tournament Series Squirmin’ Worm impaled on an XPS 3/0 black-nickel, straight-shank worm hook and Texas-rigged with a 3/16-oz. worm weight. He fished the worm on a seven-foot medium-heavy action Johnny Morris Rod and matching reel.
“Any time I’m fishing plastics in tidewater, I use a worm with a bright tail. Occasionally I fish a worm with a pearl or fire tail, but usually I use a chartreuse tail,” he said.
After only a couple pitches to the root wad, he set the hook on a fish, but the fish came unbuttoned. We fished around that tree for several dozen more casts before moving on down the bank with the aid of the incoming tide and his trolling motor. He alternated between the worm and a 1/4-oz. brown/green flake Stacey King Lazer Eye Casting Jig with a brown plastic crayfish trailer fished on a seven-foot medium-heavy action Bassmaster Professional Series rod and Professional Plus baitcasting reel. He spooled both outfits with 14-lb. test XPS Signature Series green monofilament. As we eased along the bank, he pitched to any current break he encountered. At one of those current breaks, I pitched a 3/8-oz. green pumpkin jig and felt a tap as I pulled the jig over a submerged tree limb. Surprisingly, the 3-lb. bass we landed had stripes on its sides. My first striper on a bass jig! After a quick photo, it was released.
As the incoming tide strengthened, Brian decided to run upriver to an off-river cut that would not have current. When we entered the embayment, the thermometer showed a 51-degree surface temperature, two degrees warmer than the river.
“Two degrees can make all the difference in the world, at times,” Brian commented.
He noticed that the fiddler crabs were beginning to creep out of their holes under the sunny conditions, a sign that things are warming up. We slowly worked around the slack-water embayment, a plunge pool from the waterfowl-management impoundments on the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. The first couple circuits of the embayment produced a couple bites but no fish. The water warmed to 52 degrees and the bite turned on like flipping a light switch. Unfortunately, the bites were mostly of the toothy variety. An 8-lb. bowfin inhaled Brian’s worm and peeled off drag as it fought its way across a shallow mud flat. Minutes later, he landed and released the fish. Several more laps of the embayment, and a couple bowfin, and a longnose gar later, Brian set the hook into the first largemouth bass of the day. The 1 1/2-pounder ate his worm as he worked it at the current/slackwater interface at the mouth of the cut. A couple more circuits, and Brian decided it was time to try an upriver oxbow lake.
As we left the cut, Brian pointed out, “When fishing tidewater, don’t give up after fishing an area once. It is common for bass to bite after you think you have already worked an area thoroughly.”
We stowed our equipment, donned our jackets and life vests, and headed upriver. On the run upstream, I felt like I was on a Grand Prix road course. Brian maneuvered his Nitro with the skill of Mario Andretti through the cuts, canals, and narrow, winding channels that make up the Savannah River estuary. Once upstream of the I-95 bridge, the braided channels merge into a single channel. It was an exhilarating 20-minute run upstream with his Mercury XR6 wound up to full song. As we dropped off plane at the mouth of his chosen lake, my face resumed its normal shape and the tears dried from my eyes.
I could see the anticipation on Brian’s face as we idled into the mouth of the lake. This lake looked like ones I fish in the Altamaha River so much that I was wondering if we had not made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in the Altamaha.
“In April the fish stack up in this lake,” he beamed.
Just as he had predicted, there was no flow through this lake, even with the flooded conditions. As we readied our tackle for fishing, he noted that as long as you can find some bank, you can catch fish, even when the river is flooded. At one point on the run upriver, I noticed the water temperature was 46 degrees, about as cold as it gets in south Georgia. A quick check of the thermometer as we idled into the lake indicated that we were fishing the warmest water of the day, to that point, 53 degrees.
The entrance to the lake was only two boat lengths wide, but after about 100 yards opened into about a 10-acre lake. Flooded trees and shrubs, prime pitching cover, rimmed the lake. At the mouth, Brian started with a Rattle Shad, to see if he could get a reaction bite. After a few casts he switched to a brown jig and pitched to flooded bushes. Only a couple pitches later, he felt a telltale “tap” and ended up swinging another 1-1/2-lb. bass over the side.
“That one bit as I was shaking the jig in that bush,” he commented.
Just a few yards down the bank, I swung on a good bite and landed a chunky 2-pounder. The bass hit my green-pumpkin jig as I worked it between flooded bushes. I had just completed a quite unlikely Savannah River slam with my green pumpkin bass jig — a striper, a gar, and a bass.
We continued working around the lake, pitching to cover, but were unable to get any other bites. Brian mentioned that he has caught several good limits of bass from this and other oxbow lakes like it during April.
“The bass will spawn in the backwaters of these lakes, so you have a chance of catching some large females, as well as average-sized bass,” Brian noted. “But, don’t expect to sight fish here, as the water is almost always too dingy to see the fish.”
Another hour passed without a bite, so we decided to head back to the tidewater to see if we could catch a couple more bass as the sun neared the horizon. Brian repeated his Mario Andretti impersonation, and we arrived at a different small embayment off the Back River. About half the size of the first cut we fished, but even more protected from the cold river water, the surface temperature of this cut reached 57 degrees in the back. During a single pass, we were unable to convince a bass to bite, but that magical green pumpkin jig caught me another striper, a 4-pounder. We moved back to the original cut for a last-ditch attempt at more bass, and another 1 1/2-lb. bass succumbed to my green-pumpkin jig. Our final tally of bass was four keepers which weighed 6.5 pounds, not bad for a day with flood conditions and extremely cold water temperatures. It was a much larger weight than I expected as the day started.
As we reflected on the day, Brian explained his approach to April fishing on the river.
“If we have a cool March and early April, and the river is still above flood stage, tidewater will be the place to fish. But, if we have the typical warm weather in April, and the river level drops below flood stage, upriver lakes will be the prime locations to catch large limits of bass,” he explained.
His approach also includes trying to figure out the pattern for the day. He will try to determine a specific combination of cover, water clarity, depth, temperature and where the fish are biting and then duplicate those conditions in different locations of the river. He has become so familiar with the river that once he patterns the active fish he can put together a “milk run” by fishing similar spots all along the river. If you put in the time to familiarize yourself with the river, you too will learn where the different cover types are located and will be able to stay on biting fish.
Brian is very involved in the fishing industry. For the last two years, he has been a member of the Bass Pro Shops Pro Staff. He frequently gives seminars perched atop the fish tank in the Savannah store, sharing his knowledge of bass fishing with the customers.
The Savannah River is ripe with history and beauty. This April, if your business or pleasure brings you to “Georgia’s First City,” give the bass fishing a try. While not as well publicized as the fisheries upstream of Augusta, you will be impressed by the fat, hard-fighting bass.
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