September Inshore Fishing Magic In Christmas Creek
Different and at times dangerous, accessing this Cumberland Island creek can be an adventure, but the fishing is often outstanding.
As the greenish-silver tarpon broke the surface and submerged only 10 feet from the boat, I yelled out of instinct “Tarpon. Tarpon! TARPON!”
“This ought to last about 2.6 seconds if he bites,” I quipped, as I plunked my seatrout offering, a Saltwater Assassin four-inch Sea Shad suspended under a Cajun Thunder float, in front of the fish.
Our tarpon tackle was stowed, so it was either use the trout tackle in my hand or wave goodbye. Never one to choose the second option if I have the first, I cast with but a glimmer of hope. The next few moments were a blur as my float took off upstream behind a big, silver flash. I set the hook hard, all the while my mouth open in amazement. It was almost surreal as the tarpon shook his huge head and rocketed up to my eye level, only a few yards away.
I began barking commands like a general, as if the fish were hooked on tackle that might actually have a chance… “get the anchor rope”… “grab the camera.” The fish quickly brought me back to reality when it ran 20 feet and aired two more times, the second jump parting my main line. I had forgotten the most important part of landing a tarpon, bow to the king. I made the mistake of keeping the line tight when it was in the air, and the fish was able to break off by landing its 100 pounds squarely on the line during re-entry. The fight lasted more than twice my original prediction, but the short battle was the climax of an already outstanding trip to Christmas Creek, one of the most unique places on the Georgia coast.
Christmas Creek bisects Cumberland Island, separating the sparsely populated Little Cumberland Island to the north and Cumberland Island (a National Seashore) to the south. Although rich with history, I prefer to concern myself with the rich marine resources. The creek actually begins at the Atlantic Ocean and winds for miles through the island.
In late July I was fortunate enough to fish with Capt. Spud Woodward, then assistant director of the Coastal Resources Division and long-time resident of St. Simons Island. Spud has logged countless hours both inshore and offshore pursuing just about every species of saltwater gamefish. As a frequent contributor to GON, he is used to being on the other side of the pen.
Also sharing Spud’s new Pathfinder bay boat for the day were two of his friends from his days at the University of Tennessee, Steve Moore, of Sevierville, Tenn., and Jim Habera, of Jefferson City, Tenn.
Although their usual scenery is mountainous, Jim and Steve frequent the marshes. The four of us have over 160 years of fishing experience, as was evidenced by the pile of tackle awaiting Spud that morning when he arrived at the dock.
“Bert, did you bring your boat too?” Spud chuckled as he eyed the mound of tackle we hoped could find residence in the dry storage of his boat.
After culling our tackle to about half (a painful process for a tackle collector like me), we headed out to St. Andrews Sound. The tides were opposite from what Spud likes for fishing Christmas Creek, so we planned to tarpon fish during the morning before heading into the creek. We were treated to a real show, but very few hookups. One bonnethead shark and one tarpon, which jumped and then broke our line, were the only bites we could muster. Hundreds of tarpon were blowing through pogy schools, but we were unable to convince them our bait was better than the million others.
About noon we shifted gears and headed into the mouth of Christmas Creek. The tide was about half ebb. Our plan was to get into the creek before it got too low, fish both sides of low water, and head home when the water got high enough to get back out of the creek. We knew that at low water, there was no hope of getting Spud’s 22-foot Pathfinder into or out of the creek mouth.
As we idled into the creek, we noted the water temperature was 91 degrees. We were concerned that the trout, redfish, and flounder bite would be poor due to the hot water temperature, but we proceeded. After idling back in the creek, we anchored at the intersection of some oyster-shell beds and a feeder creek. While getting our trout gear ready, Spud shared some of his thoughts on timing a bite.
“According to the charts, today we have a major feed about 1 p.m. Most folks think that the feeding charts are a bunch of hooey, but I believe strongly in them. I’ve reviewed too many kingfish tournament results and have seen the pattern time and time again that the best tournaments coincide with the major feeds,” Spud said.
Spud prefers to fish live shrimp and finger mullet in Christmas Creek, but we could not bring live trout bait and still have room to keep live pogies for tarpon. Therefore, we deferred to the favorite presentation of the other three of us — artificial lures. Steve and I threw Saltwater Assassin Sea Shads under Cajun Thunder oval floats and Equalizer cigar-shaped floats, while Jim bounced Sea Shads pegged on a jighead along the bottom. We attached the lures to Bass Assassin screwlock jigheads in the 1/8-oz. version because we were fishing shallow water, less than six-feet deep. The tide was fairly slow, so we did not need much weight to keep the bait down. Spud opted for a Berkley Gulp! shrimp on a jighead. All of us threw our baits on medium and medium-heavy action spinning rods. We also all spooled with braided line in the 10- to 14-lb. range to improve sensitivity and reduce line stretch.
As the water retreated back to the ocean, hundreds of thousands of finger mullet were pulled from the safety of the grass flats into the creek channel. We could see fish slashing and bait showering, so we knew predators were around. The tarpon-pogy scenario was fresh in our head, and we hoped to not have a repeat where the predators would not be able to find our lures amongst the copious natural bait. After just a couple casts, Jim allayed our concerns with a bowed rod. A 12-inch seatrout ate his chartreuse diamond Sea Shad bounced along the bottom. Jim adjusted his lure and cast about the time Steve set the hook on a nice, 14-inch trout that inhaled a sweet pea colored Sea Shad. For the next hour we experimented with colors, and it seemed that a little bit of chartreuse in the bait was necessary to get a bite. Sea Shads in chartreuse diamond and sweet pea, and four-inch grubs in chartreuse–silver glitter seemed to be the best colors while the water was still stained during the peak flow of the ebb tide.
Spud could not stand all those finger mullet taunting him, so he grabbed his 3/8-inch mesh cast net and put a few dozen live baits in the well. He rigged the bait under a cigar-shaped equalizer float and pegged the bait to a customized hook.
“For small minnows like these, I like to take a gold No. 2 long-shank crappie hook and bend it about half-way down the shank so that it resembles a Kahle-style hook. This finer wire is perfect for allowing the small mullet to swim while it is still strong enough to land a pretty nice trout, flounder, or redfish. I also like the little bit of flash that the gold hook gives off,” Spud explained.
He drifted the finger mullet under the Equalizer near the shell bank several times but was only able to entice a barely-legal sized trout to bite. During that same time, the rest of us were able to coax about a half-dozen trout to eat our artificial Sea Shads. I believe it was a case of our lures being more obvious to the trout than the finger mullet available by the thousands.
As the tide began to stand still, we decided to try a few other places in the creek. By this time, we had boated 43 seatrout and a throwback flounder, not bad for two and a half hours in one spot. I typically use a trolling motor and move a lot, but this day staying put in this prime feeding location was the way to go.
During slack tide, we fished a shell bank toward the mouth of the creek to no avail. Then as the tide began to flood, we fished a mud-banked channel near the mouth. One of Steve’s casts was rewarded with a nice 2-lb. flounder he fooled by bouncing a pink diamond Sea Shad near the edge. A quick check of the creek mouth revealed that we were still at least an hour from being able to get over the sandbar. None of us were disappointed to return to our honey hole back in the creek.
By this time the tide had begun moving well, and little eddies were visible on the upstream side of any fixed obstruction. Just a few minutes after anchoring, we began catching trout again. This is the time when the tarpon mentioned at the beginning of the article inhaled my candy corn Sea Shad and the tranquility was broken. We were also able to boat several other nice flounder, including a 3-pounder that ate an electric chicken Sea Shad suspended under a Cajun Thunder float.
During the day, more fish were caught by bouncing the Sea Shads on the bottom, while the larger fish were attracted to lures hanging beneath the Cajun Thunder. We continued to catch fish consistently until we all had to face the reality that we had to leave or dark would overtake us. With a total of 62 trout caught, we kept about a half-dozen trout and three flounder, although several other released trout were above the 13-inch minimum. Spud’s predicted major feed was right-on, as we caught fish like gangbusters about an hour on either side of the major, with a noticeably slower bite at other times.
Christmas Creek is a prime fishing location in September and October. Along with seatrout and flounder, redfish and whiting are commonly caught. Tarpon will likely be heading south by mid-September, but a straggler is still possible. Reds and whiting will readily eat artificial lures or bait fished near the shell beds and channel banks. On an October trip several years ago, I boated more than a dozen bull whiting over a pound each that inhaled my gold-flake grub bounced along the bottom. I can only imagine how many I would have caught with shrimp fished on a bottom rig.
Inexperienced boaters should not attempt a trip alone to Christmas Creek. They should go with another boat, preferably with an experienced captain, to help if they get in trouble, or hire a fishing guide to ensure a safe trip. Remember, you are going to have to cross open water and enter a creek from the ocean side of Cumberland Island. There are two keys to making a trip to Christmas Creek safe and enjoyable. One is planning ahead, and the other is being aware of changing conditions while in the creek. Wind conditions are tantamount to safely traversing one of the most dangerous sounds on the Atlantic coast, St. Andrews Sound.
If the winds have any easterly direction to them, waves can be dangerously rough at the mouth of the creek. I prefer forecasts of five to 10 knots or less from a westerly direction. Even with a westerly wind, the sound can be very rough during an incoming tide when the wind and current are opposite each other. Once in the creek, pay attention to changing conditions. During summer, afternoon southeasterly sea breezes are common. If the sea breeze picks up speed, large waves are produced at the mouth of the creek and in the sound. On our recent trip, the sea breeze had whipped up four- to five-foot seas in the sound by the time we left the creek. With Spud’s expert boatmanship, we had no problems, but an inexperienced captain could panic and quickly get in trouble under similar circumstances.
Access to Christmas Creek is most direct by launching at the Jekyll Island ramp, running south across St. Andrews Sound, following the shipping channel out to avoid sandbars, and coming back in to the beach from several miles offshore. The run is about 11 miles from the Jekyll Island ramp to the creek entrance. Small boats need to be cautious about crossing such open waters, while bay boats over 20 feet are more suitable.
Finding and entering Christmas Creek can be a challenge. The mouth of the creek is a series of sandbars, and storms can change the configuration of the bars at the mouth of the creek.
During our July trip, the mouth of the creek was at coordinates 3051.136 N and 8123.759 W. To enter the creek that day, we had to travel straight in from this coordinate about 100 yards, make a right, and then make a long sweeping left-hand turn into the channel. This entrance was only one- to three-feet deep at the tide stage we attempted it, and the bars were dry at dead low tide.
Fishing in the typical inland coastal creeks begins to pick up in the fall. If you are looking for a unique trip, consider booking a guide or taking your rig to the mystical, ocean-fed Christmas Creek. If all the variables come together right, you will have a trip to remember.
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