Savannah River Striped Bass
A fishery on the brink has made the ultimate comeback. Striper fishing on the Savannah River may be Georgia’s best-kept secret, and now for the first time in decades, you can keep a couple.
I’ve fished for striped bass for about the past four decades. Mostly I’ve chased the freshwater, landlocked version. These stripers are reared in hatcheries and released in freshwater lakes, where they feed on shad and grow to a size equal to any native striper found in saltwater. My biggest freshwater striper was a 33-pounder that came from Lanier, but I’ve caught more than a score from lakes and rivers that weighed more than 30. While freshwater striped bass can out pull any other gamefish that roam those lakes with them, they can’t hold a candle to their kin in the salt.
My first trip for coastal stripers was to the Savannah River in December 1995. As luck would have it, the area where we fished that weekend, east of I-95 downriver to just below Savannah, is just about the best area on the entire Savannah River for striper fishing. Since that first trip, I make several trips there each year, and the fishing has clearly improved as time has passed.
In this area, the Savannah is actually three rivers, each with its own character. The Front River is the southernmost and carries the most water. Man’s influence is prominent in many ways due to the changes made to facilitate the oceanic shipping that utilizes the docks along its southern banks. In many ways, much of it is like a canal, made to carry water and ships to and from the sea. Dredging has deepened and homogenized its bottom so that the only distinctive structures are the manmade docks and wharves along shore. But despite disturbance to the river, my biggest Savannah stripers have come from here.
The Back River is the farthest north, and its centerline marks the border with South Carolina. It drains thousands of acres of freshwater marsh as it winds from its beginnings just wide enough to allow two boats to pass at its western origin to almost a quarter-mile wide where it joins the Front River downstream of downtown Savannah. This site is traditionally known as great striper fishing, and in terms of numbers of fish, it is the better of the three channels. The water here is shallow, enough so that at low tide you can run aground on any of several bars that extend almost all the way across the river. The shore has evidence of man’s influence but is mostly marsh now. There are lots of old pilings, stumps and even a few old shipwrecks.
Between the Front and Back rivers is, of course, the Middle River. It’s the shortest of the three and drains the marsh that separates the other two. Like the Back River, it is shallow and looks more natural, bordered by marsh. It’s so short that it lacks the amount of fishable structure of its two neighbors, but where it flows into the Front River just across and slightly upstream of the Georgia State Docks is a prime spot.
The habitat of the Savannah is tough on fish and fishermen. The tidal current runs hard, harder than most rivers you’ll ever fish. If that weren’t enough, it changes directions and runs just as hard the other way every six hours or so. I’m sure this has a lot to do with the rugged physique of these saltwater stripers. Making a living here is no picnic. Any fish that survives has muscle and grit. But the cost of living has its rewards. Shrimp, crabs, pogies and other bite-size morsels are produced in abundance by the nutrient-rich waters of the big river and its extensive freshwater marsh.
Understanding the current is key to understanding the stripers that live here. While the current makes life tough, it also carries with it all the prey items that stripers need. Stripers take advantage of breaks in the current to conserve energy. Rather than swimming in the open current as the potential prey whizzes by, stripers will hold on structure that breaks the current. Pilings are the primary visible objects that fit this description, and fish will hold in the cushion of water on the front side of a piling waiting for prey to come tumbling by.
The current makes it tough to fish effectively. In most situations, an experienced fisherman will retrieve their lure with the current to make it seem more lifelike. But the swift tidal flows on the Savannah make it all but impossible to fish with the current. It simply runs faster than you can keep up with your bait. Rather, you have to position your boat upstream of the area you want to fish, then cast down current and work your bait upstream. The current then tends to keep your lure near the surface, away from the more productive water near the bottom. To solve this obstacle, heavy, quickly sinking baits are the best.
Stripers are a handful anywhere, but especially so in this tidal water. The strike is no different than a freshwater lineside, but the speed and strength immediately thereafter is nothing short of shocking. I’ve seen many an experienced fisherman think he had just hooked a striper of 20 pounds or better find out after an extended battle that the one on his line doesn’t even break double digits. When you combine this strength with the proximity of pilings and strong current, it’s no wonder that Savannah striper fishermen will break off probably close to a third of the fish they hook.
Over the past three years, fish between 6 and 8 pounds have dominated my catch, but it’s a rare trip when I don’t see at least one or two fish in the teens. My biggest was a 26-lb. brute that hit a bucktail streamer one evening in late November near Port Wentworth. I put as much pressure on him as my 10-weight fly rod would allow. My brother cranked the big engine as we chased him upriver through a bridge and then scrambled to follow him back down through a different span of the same bridge. We didn’t get our hands on him for almost 45 minutes after dark, and we were a half-mile downriver from where he was hooked.
It wasn’t many years ago when the Savannah River striper population seemed doomed to disappear forever. In an effort to reduce the cost of dredging the Front River to allow access for ocean going vessels, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a tide gate on the Back River in 1977. The tide gate opened during the incoming tide, allowing the Back River to fill as always. But on the outgoing tide, the gate closed, forcing the water through a manmade channel and out through the Front River.
There were several unintended consequences of the gate’s operation that hurt the ecology of the river and striped bass in particular. One was that the flushing outgoing flows of the Back River were eliminated, and it began accumulating silt. This reduced flows even more. Another effect was that the saltwater that came in could not get out as readily. Much of the extensive freshwater marshes that contributed such a rich food source were killed. Striped bass reproduction was almost eliminated, and the population declined dramatically through the 80s, and in 1988 Georgia instituted a moratorium on striped-bass harvest. South Carolina followed this lead a couple years later.
In 1991, because of the clear evidence of the ecological damage it had caused, the tide gate was decommissioned. While the concrete structure still remains, the massive steel gates have been removed so that the tidal flows can pass through. But the recovery of the river has come more slowly. The striped bass that we catch there now are not the result of the tide gates removal
The decision was made to try and rebuild the striper population through stocking, and the results were immediately evident. The first stripers were stocked in 1989, and by 1991 those fish were dominating the population. Despite a few setbacks as biologists learned how to most effectively stock such a complicated ecosystem, by the late 90s the abundance of adult striped bass was once again at pre-tide gate levels. The news is good for big fish as well. By 2000, the numbers of 20-lb. plus fish had also recovered from the two-decade slump. Stripers are now so abundant again that the river re-opened to the harvest of striped bass in October 2005. The minimum size limit is 27 inches, and only two fish may be taken daily.
DNR biologists have confirmed the comeback with their sampling results. My catch has improved in much the same manner with each succeeding year. But I’ll never forget my first time to hook one of these coastal linesides.
I was anchored just upcurrent of the decommissioned tide gate and had been casting a white bucktail to the swirling currents alongside the concrete structure for about an hour. The current had been flowing in hard for several hours and was just slowing as it reached high tide. Suddenly, I felt a thump on my jig, and at the same instant caught a glimpse of a medium-sized striper near the upstream edge of the concrete abutment. When I set the hook, I knew the fish wasn’t all that big and that I could relax and enjoy a short battle. Imagine my surprise as the rod reversed direction and it was all I could do to hold on. The fish stretched the 20-lb. mono as the drag whirred resistance; this despite the strong tidal current in my favor. But that didn’t last long. In less time than it takes to tell it, that fish turned and reversed direction and came down the opposite side of the concrete abutment. As the line contacted the concrete, it parted and I was left to wonder how such a small fish could have such power. That battle is typical of Georgia’s coastal stripers. They fight at least as hard as their freshwater brethren twice their size.
The best fishing spots almost always have two characteristics in common. One is that they are exposed to the direct tidal current. Stripers, especially small ones, will sometimes be found in backwater areas. But the bigger fish will rarely be more than a foot or two from the strong tidal currents. The other factor to look for is an object to break the current flow and provide an ambush point where the big predator can hold without expending any more energy than necessary. The most common structures are pilings. Navigation pilings, dock pilings, and bridge pilings, either concrete, wood or metal, are all good. Just be sure that they are exposed to the current.
The tidal current plays a big factor in an angler’s ability to put a bait in front of these fish. When it’s really running strong, in or out, during the middle half of the tidal cycle, it can be extremely difficult to fish and present your bait effectively. Holding the boat in such current and maneuvering around the bridges and docks is difficult at best. Most trolling motors simply don’t have the strength to buck the full force of the tide. Anglers are forced to anchor and this limits your range to just the spots within reach of the boat.
The current flow is less near the bottom, and that’s where the stripers are most likely to be, but getting a lure down to that depth in the current is next to impossible.
For these reasons, the best fishing is usually at the beginning or the very end of a tide. The first hour or so on either side of high or low tide has a more modest current flow. Slack tide at either low or high is not usually very good. The current needs to be moving so that the fish will be holding on structure rather than roaming the trackless acres of the river channel. In the slower current the stripers are less hesitant about coming up to shallower depths or out from behind a piling to chase a bait.
This habitat is not the place for ultralight gear. Outfits, either spinning or casting, should handle 20-lb. or larger line and have enough backbone to handle fish of over 30 pounds. I like a Berkley flippin’ stick and an Ambassadeur 6500 spooled with 25- or 30-lb. test P-Line. Don’t bother throwing small baits here. Poor visibility and hungry bass call for big, visible lures. You really only need one bait, a white bucktail jig with nice long hair, in either 1/2- or 3/4-oz. size. A good second choice would be the same weight heads with either a six-inch Berkley Power Pogy or a Storm Swimmin’ Shad. Plugs will work well, especially when the current slackens considerably. It’s hard to find one better than a chrome saltwater Rat-L-Trap.
The Savannah’s stripers, especially the bigger ones, spend most of the hot summer months upriver near Augusta where the temperatures are closer to their preference. But the river up there doesn’t have forage in the quantities needed by these hungry predators, so by the end of summer they are often in poor condition. About early November, as the coastal temperatures cool, they begin moving back downriver to the Savannah area. When they reach Savannah, they’re hungry. Some of the best fishing of the year is in November and December.
The remnants of the old tide gate on the Back River is perhaps the most widely known hotspot. Here the current is especially swift and fishing is very difficult, but some of my biggest Savannah stripers hit here. It’s a popular place for live-bait fishermen, who anchor upcurrent and drift a live shrimp from a cork back with the current. Hits almost always happen as the shrimp reaches the concrete abutments.
Another great spot for big stripers is where the Front and Back rivers meet downstream of downtown Savannah. There is a stone jetty that separates the rivers at the confluence, and a strong rip forms here on both tides. I can never drive past this spot without giving it at least a few casts.
There are a number of docks spread along the south side of the Front River between downtown Savannah and the Houlihan Bridge in Port Wentworth, and those that are exposed to the most current will all hold fish. Many of these are almost impossible places to land a fish unless you can get them to chase your offering outside the maze of pilings.
The three bridges that span each of the three rivers in succession where Hwy 25 crosses into South Carolina are excellent for stripers. Fishing the bridges looks deceptively simple, but precision casting is called for so your bucktail swings in the current just in front of each bridge piling. A cast too long and you hang on the concrete, too short and the fish never sees the bait.
On the Back River, there are two excellent bridges between State Route 25 downstream to the tide gate. Both are very long bridges that have enough pilings to occupy you for hours if the fish are there. The first is a concrete railroad bridge that rarely sees a train anymore. Underneath this concrete structure is the remnants of an old wooden-piling trestle that is virtually invisible in the turbid water except at low tide. These wooden pilings really stack up the current and the fish. Within sight downriver is the long Route 17 bridge coming out of downtown Savannah. It’s bridge across the Back River is pretty deep in comparison to the other Back River spots.
Savannah River stripers may be one of Georgia’s best-kept fishing secrets. Recovering from the troubles of the 70s and 80s, both the numbers and trophy potential have returned to a level that my generation of fishermen have never experienced. The experience of Savannah stripers is one you shouldn’t miss.
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