St. Marys River Panfish
This river along the Florida-Georgia line offers good fishing for a wide variety of fish species.
When I think of panfishing on the St. Marys River, my friend Brentz McGhin of Blackshear immediately comes to mind. For years I have seen photos of trip after trip where he caught a mixed bag of panfish from the coffee-colored waters of this border river. The St. Marys River stretches 130 river miles from the Okefenokee Swamp at its headwaters to the Atlantic Ocean at its eastern terminus. Brentz spent his youth about halfway between the two, catching just about every species of fish inhabiting the river. Last month, I was able to peek into his past, as his 6-year-old son, Alex, Brentz, and I headed south for an afternoon of panfishing on this scenic blackwater river.
The forecast was ominous with strong winds spinning off the first named storm of the year, but due to Alex having his tonsils removed two days later, we had to fish that day. We headed south from Waycross with Bream Buster rods, cups of worms and 300 crickets. Of course, the crickets serenaded us the entire trip. We launched at Temple Landing between Folkston and Kingsland off Ga. Hwy 40 as the tide was almost high. Looking west we could see huge plumes of smoke from the monster wildfire burning in the Okefenokee Swamp near Folkston. Brentz catches fish on all tides, but he typically does best on the outgoing tide. The St. Marys River is tidally influenced all the way up to Traders Hill Landing above Folkston.
We ran just a short distance upstream and tucked in a little cut lined with overhanging trees, a very typical scenario on the St. Marys River. After checking for wasp nests, we tied up to the overhanging limbs. A strong cold front had dropped air temperatures 20 degrees, but the water temperature was still 75 degrees. As we extended the telescoping Bream Buster poles, Brentz shared some stories of the great catches he has made in that particular cut and other similar ones along the river.
“At high tide this creek does not look like much, but there are stumps and limbs all over the bottom,” he said. “High tide is the most difficult time to catch fish because the fish scatter out in the flooded brush.”
Brentz’s method was for each of us to put out a couple Bream Busters with crickets suspended under a small float and a spincast outfit baited with worms on the bottom. His Bream Busters were rigged with 8-lb. test Sufix Siege monofilament. Onto the line, he thread- ed a small foam float and pegged it about 6 feet up the line. Next, he tied on a No. 4 gold thin-wire hook and then crimped a small split-shot about 6 inches above the hook. In the blackwater, Brentz likes the little bit of extra flash that a gold hook offers. The thin wire hook is crucial because it will bend before breaking the line if it snags on the wood-strewn bottom. His bot- tom rigs consisted of the same hook with two medium-sized split-shot crimped 6 inches above the hook. The larger weights keep the baits near the bottom. His is a simple system, but each component is chosen after years of trial and error.
Brentz prefers the typical bait-store-variety crickets, but he chooses a special worm. In the Waycross area, a worm called a “Jolly Green Giant” is available. These plump worms have been dyed chartreuse, and Brentz believes they attract more attention and catch more panfish than normal pinkish-brown worms. We did not have a bland version to compare, but the bright worms worked.
We were not anchored long before one of the bream busters went taut and the line began to sing. Alex sprang into action and worked the fish to the boat like a pro. A nice coppernose bluegill went in the livewell. For those who are not familiar with coppernose bluegill in blackwater rivers, there are no prettier fish. In south Georgia rivers, big bluegill have bright purplish-blue cheeks, dark black vertical bands, and the namesake copper-colored stripe on their foreheads just above their eyes. They look as if they would be more appropriately dis- played in an aquarium than on a dinner plate.
As the tide was almost slack, Brentz snatched the spincast outfit and laid back into a solid fish. Alex passed on fighting this strong fish and cheered as Brentz tugged. A short battle later, and a sassy bowfin was boatside. Not considered worthy table fare, the fish was released after Alex admired it and asked a series of questions typical of a 6-year-old. As the tide began to recede, the bites continued for the next hour. We caught more bluegill and were able to add warmouth to the species list for the day. While tucked in our little hidey-hole along the river, a pair of majestic swallowtail kites swooped near our boat, hunting for food after their long spring migration. Part-way through the tide, Brentz decided to try his other favorite method, “pitch fishing,” so we untied from the bushes.
We fired the engine and headed upstream to another similar-looking cut in the bank. We slowly eased along the bank using the trolling motor, one of us dabbling a cricket on a Bream Buster and the other casting a Beetle Spin on an ultralight spinning outfit. White with a red dot and black with yellow stripes are the most productive colors of Beetle Spins for Brentz. Blowdown trees, vegetation edges, docks and old pilings are some prime targets to pitch to. A pitched cricket added a new species to the list, a spotted sunfish, locally known as a stumpknocker. Most spotted sunfish are only a few inches long, but the one Brentz caught was a beautiful 8-inch specimen. Besides their scrappy fight, the most notable attribute of these pan- fish are their bright blue eyes.
After a few-dozen unsuccessful casts, Brentz switched to one of his favorites on a tough day, a yellow 1-inch curly-tailed grub pegged on a 1/32-oz. jig head. He cast the lure to the edge and swam it back, just like the Beetle Spin. On the end of a tree-top he watched a 1/2-lb. crappie inhale the offering. That fish added our fifth species for the day. A few fish later, a hungry hand-sized redbreast ate the little grub, making our sixth species of the day. The redbreast sunfish in the St. Marys, just like the other south Georgia blackwater rivers, are spectacular. The blood-red bellies of larger fish stand out against the dark upper side.
Variety is the norm on the St. Marys River. Along with a host of pan- fish species, an occasional largemouth bass will take your offering, as well. Brentz has even caught mullet on worms. He bragged on the consistency of panfishing on the St. Marys.
“The bite is not generally hot and heavy, but it is steady. By the end of the day you usually have a nice mess of fish,” he said.
And we did. Crickets caught the most fish and the biggest bluegill, worms caught their share of smaller panfish and bowfin, but the little grub caught most of the larger fish. We were surprised the fish did not bite a Beetle Spin that day, but the crickets and little yellow grub were “steady.”
Four generations of McGhins have fished the St. Marys River, and during our day on the water, Brentz’s love for the river was obvious. He shared a few tips during the day that may help your trip be more productive. June is a great month for panfishing the river, especially for bluegill. Look for spawning peaks around the new (June 15) and full (June 1 and June 30) moons in June. At high tide when the fish scatter out, anchor or tie to the bank and fish worms on the bottom. When the tide starts pulling back out of the trees, resume fishing the tree edges. He believes the fish pull out and hold on the edge with the outgoing tide and are very susceptible to an aptly placed cricket or artificial. Fish until dark… there is usually a good bite the last hour of daylight. Enjoy the spider lilies… the large white flowers are scattered along the river edge.
Our fishing location for the day was the Temple Landing section of the river, but good fishing exists from the saltwater interface all the way upstream to its headwaters. Upstream of Traders Hill Landing, the river is narrow and winding, with numerous sandbars and blowdown trees. To illustrate how sinuous the river is, there are 130 river miles from the headwaters to where the river empties into the Atlantic, but the two points are only 40 miles apart, as the crow flies. There is very little public access in the upper part of the river, and this section is most easily traversed by canoe. With the current drought, even in a canoe you will likely have to get out and drag in the upper reaches. Downstream of Traders Hill, the river opens up and is much wider and deeper, with only occasional navigational hazards. We fished out of a jonboat, but could have easily taken my 18-foot Mako bay boat. Because of the deeper water, jet skis and large cruising boats can be a nuisance to fishing on busy weekends. So you may want to take that into account when planning a trip if you do not like company. We fished on a weekday and only saw a couple other boats.
Due to a reciprocal agreement between Georgia and Florida, Georgia anglers may fish either side of the river with a Georgia fishing license. However, you cannot fish up in tributaries to the St. Marys on the Florida side without possessing a Florida fresh- water fishing license. Additional details regarding the reciprocal agreement may be found in the Georgia Sport Fishing Regulations guide, which is available from any license dealer or online at <www.gofishgeorgia.com>.
A River Guide to the St. Marys River is available by calling the Waycross Fisheries office at (912) 285- 6094. This high-quality, glossy guide provides a relatively detailed map of the river, access points, history and other information about the St. Marys. For those who prefer to camp, Traders Hill Park (912) 496-3412 near Folkston offers tent camping and RV facilities.
To determine the tides along the St. Marys River, visit the website http://saltwatertides.com/dynamic.dir /georgiasites.html#cumberland. As a frame of reference, the Kings Ferry tide site is on the Florida side of the river, just upstream of Temple Landing.
Whether you are looking for a scenic float fishing trip or a motorboat trip, the St. Marys River is a great pan- fishing destination in June. On our recent trip, the fishing was steady, but the gorgeous spider lilies and the close encounters with swallowtail kites made the trip exceptional on our less- er-known border river.
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