Suwannee River Warmouth
Fishing for panfish on the west side of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Tap, tap! The underwater thumps on my little plastic 4-inch offering resonated down the graphite rod to my hand. I pointed the rod tip to the water, took up the dip in the line, and drove the thin-wired, razor sharp 1/0 Gamakatsu home. Shortly after crossing his eyes, and sharp as a ray of sunshine shooting through a hole in a cloud, a gold belly rolled to the top of the black tannic water. It’ll be the first thing you notice on a strawberry perch, also known as a warmouth, when the surface breaks.
As most fish in waters fed by the Okefenokee Swamp, their backs and upper sides will be dark brown to black. Once in your hand, a compliment of many other colors on its sides will appear, mottled and polka-dotted together in a digital camo pattern.
The opening scenario above didn’t happen once but dozens of times throughout a recent day of fishing on the river. My friend, Donald Wood, of Brunswick, accompanied me here for his first trip to the beginning leg of the Suwannee formed by the Okefenokee Swamp. All but 35 of the 246-mile Suwannee River flows in Florida, but in my opinion, Georgia has the very best stretch for fishing and enjoying its beauty, a wild remoteness undefiled by civilization.
I’ve been coming here off and on for more than 40 years, so this river is definitely entombed in my heritage, and I’ll use any opportunity to share my love for it.
That afternoon, we hurriedly set up camp at Lem Griffis Fish Camp, located on Highway 177 on the left just before the entrance into Stephen Foster State Park. The park is one of the gateways to the expansive and unique Okefenokee Swamp. The park is a wonderful place to stay, as well, with a lot of amenities to offer. However, at Griffis Fish Camp, I feel more harmonic in a sense, blending peacefully with the quietness, remoteness and a deeper feeling of one with nature. Once you walk under the camp’s live oaks, a trip down the shady lane to the camp’s launch site on the white sands of the Suwannee, you’ll feel the magnetism, as well.
Griffis offers water and electrical hook-ups, bathrooms, showers and a screened porch with a chimney fireplace. Launch fee is $2 per boat, whether you launch or take out there. Some anglers will do float trips and only take-out at Griffis ramp.
Above the Griffis ramp, and just inside Stephen Foster State Park, you can turn left onto Suwannee River Sill Road and access a ramp on the right that will allow you to access to the headwaters of the Suwannee River. This ramp is only a few miles above the Griffis pay launch site and gives you ample time to fish between the two points.
For more info on the Griffis Fish Camp, call Al Griffis at (912) 637-5289.
If you have time during your visit, sit a spell with Mr. Griffis and have a chat of swamp tales of long ago. No one is better informed about the history and folklore of the area. Check out his little museum full of artifacts, memorabilia and old taxidermy work. Al’s father, Lem Griffis, was well-known for his writings, spinning yarns and tall tales in the early and mid-20th century while running this camp until his death in 1968. Google the name and enjoy what I dubbed the “Jerry Clower of the Swamp.”
My grandfather fished this area a lot. He drowned in the Suwannee in 1970. He was probably good friends with Lem Griffis. I was only 3 years old then and never accompanied him, so I find it amazing that I was drawn here as well, and I inadvertently began carrying on a family tradition.
“Most people picture the Swamp as being a stagnant place and a drainage basin full of muck,” said Al Griffis. “But to the contrary, the Okefenokee is at a higher elevation than the surrounding areas. It’s descending flow spawns two of the cleanest rivers in the state, the Suwannee and the St. Mary’s. Pure and healthy waters without any residue build-up or environmental issues such as pollution from big factories or run-off from metropolitan areas.’’
I’m thinking maybe that’s why all these fish taste so good.
That evening we put in at the concrete boat ramp on Suwannee River Sill Road. Driving toward the ramp, the adjoining woods on the sides of the river were teeming with deer and longbearded gobblers like we were at a petting zoo. They even gobbled as we left the ramp.
It was already after 6 p.m., so we planned just to fish a short distance downriver. The river was on the low side, exposing the beautiful white sand banks and dry swamp floodplains.
One purpose of this trip was to find out if a new-found lure was just as awesome here as it was on the east side of the Swamp at the Suwannee Canal near Folkston. I made three trips there this year, and I absolutely tore up the warmouth, catching limits in less than a couple hours. It beat live worms, crickets and small crawfish that friends, seasoned locals and I used comparatively on the same trips. It’s not the Suwannee River on the east side, but we’d be fishing the same water that is fed directly from the Big Swamp and has the exact swamp fish present.
The float would be a test run for the long-planned day tomorrow. My rig consisted of a Lew’s Speed Spool baitcaster and a 5-6 Berkley Lightning rod spooled with 12-lb. Big Game mono. A double Trilene knot attached my green-pumpkin 4-inch plastic worm. Don had two Zebco ultralight spincasts, lined with 8-lb. Seaguar fluorocarbon and set up on 5-foot Blaze rods, one rigged with a crawfish-colored 1/8-oz. Satilla Spin and the other with a 1/32-oz. white red dot Beetle Spin, both proven lures here.
Just downriver past the first cut-off on the right which circles back to the Sill, our first targets of tree-lined banks began. Because of the low river level, it was mostly a myriad of root systems spreading into the black water. The area was mainly tupelos with a few cypresses spread along, which would have their strands of cypress knees jutting into the water, resembling the top of a dinosaur’s back.
It didn’t take but a couple of casts before I felt that familiar thump that so many bass worm fisherman are familiar with. My pulse did a double-pump, slack line take-up, rear back and BAM! A tight line and a bent rod. Fatty warmouth in the boat. Inside his huge maw for such a little fish, the plastic bait was coiled neatly in a circle, and the entire thin wire 1/0 Gamakatsu was engulfed, as well. Man, they love that little worm. It’s soft and designed so that it collapses well. It’s spongy and salty tasting, so they will hold on to it. What surprises me is the bite to hook-up ratio is in the upper 90% range. Using a baitcaster and bass gear for panfish, who’d figure?
In the next few yards, the little worm picked up several more. Past the second opening of a small lake on the right, the shaded banks began again, and we picked up at least two dozen more warmouth and two hand-sized stumpknockers. Don was bringing up the rear with the Satilla Spin and was absolutely hammering the bluegill, stumpknockers and an occasional warmouth. As far as warmouth, he was fishing used water. The little green-pumpkin worm was seining ahead of him.
We stopped 200 hundred yards downriver, knowing the river section was going to be prime in the morning. We would put in at Griffis and fish up to this area. We went back upstream to the first turn-off I mentioned earlier.
Try this area. Face upstream and within sight of the break in the cement flood gate on the sill. The downstream side entering is the best side. It’s a little deeper and provides more shade. This is a hot spot for chain pickerel. My favorite lure for them are Dura-Spins and a topwater wood prop bait called a Zip ’n Sam, handcrafted by Sam Griffin. For now, both Don and I were focusing on warmouth, catching a few more nice ones at that spot.
As you progress around the curve to the right and through a straight run portion, there will be a short slough spur to the right. The banks to the left and right at the junction are two more jackfish hotspots.
If you can’t find a Zip ’n Sam or Dura-Spin, I’ve also did well with similar prop baits, such as a Devil Horse or a Dying Flutter. Dura-Spins can be found in many south Georgia tackle stores. Satilla Marine in Waycross has a huge assortment of Zips. Otherwise they can be ordered. I always bring several different Dura-Spins, as there always seem to be a daily preference of the fish, whether being a change of skirt or blade color.
As you enter this little slough, the warmouth becomes ruler here. The right bank was the ticket when we fished, especially where the large cypress trees are out from the bank. Don and I caught several of the bucketmouth slabs on each side of it. At the left-hand curve ahead, the outside bend is a deeper pool, where we gathered some more large ones. This is also a great catfish hole. Simply drop a live worm or a piece of shrimp. These yellow bullhead catfish from the Suwannee and the Swamp are the tastiest I’ve eaten anywhere in the state.
We stopped fishing for the evening at that point, ready to get back to camp and rest for the knowingly beautiful day tomorrow. We caught and released approximately 40 to 50 panfish, primarily warmouth, not bad for 1 1/2 hours.
At 7 the next morning, we launched from the launch site on the campground property, dropping the trolling motor and immediately beginning to fish. Being I couldn’t get Don to throw anything else but the little plastic worm now, I picked up the Satilla Spin. On my second, third and fifth casts I put two bluegill and a large stumpknocker in the boat. Don soon caught a couple nice warmouth, which prompted me to pick up my worm rod for our primary target of the day.
Every tree or trashpile we tossed to had at least a couple of warmouth on it. A lot of trees were out of the water, but their countless roots and tussock mats fed well out into the water. After a couple hours, we noticed the larger 1/2- to nearly 1-lb. warmouth were coming off the very last tree right before a mudflat, sandbar or slough opening. Also, the warmouth seemed oblivious to any disturbance of the boat, catching many with a short toss only a few feet away. This is how I caught our biggest warmouth of the day on one of those last trees before a flatwater section.
Another tip for fishing here is to work the worm all the way back to the boat if you don’t get hit near the bank cover. The fish may be a few yards out in the river if current and deeper water is present. Unlike bass where most strikes will be on the fall or the first drag, warmouth will hit it all the way back to the rod tip, so work it patiently if the spot looks good. They’ll even hit it dead-sticked on the bottom.
By 2 p.m., the bite had slowed, and we figured we had enough warmouth for the day. Don was ready for a swim back at the landing since the sun had been relentless. However, before taking a dip in the Suwannee, we had to see if the jack (chain pickerel) and bowfin wanted to eat. You can usually count on at least one of them biting when the sun is beaming and the air is steaming. I release all bowfin, but I always keep a few jacks. Other than the butter cats (yellow bullheads), they are the tastiest fish of the bunch. Simply make quarter-inch gashes apart the length of the fish, fry and enjoy those big white flaky chunks.
While covering water fast with Dura-Spins, I caught two small bowfin and lost a huge one on the Dura-Spin, but the jacks were hitting with a fury. They offer very exciting strikes as they’ll hit wide open and fast, often becoming airborne. These toothy missiles will put on the most acrobatic fight of all the swamp species and are very fun to catch. Reel as fast as you can, keep pressure and use a stiff rod because they will sling those treble hooks back at you.
In the next few minutes I caught six and had several of the hard-tooths sling my lure out. The last one weighed 2.29 pounds and ended the day. Well, that and a dip in the river.
Tally for the trip taken home was more than 60 panfish (mostly warmouth), six jackfish and two bass. Add in the bowfin and several bass released, we had a 100-plus fish day.
Besides the Suwannee Sill Landing, there is another public landing located just out of Fargo on 441 South.
Please be aware that if you put in at the Sill, there is a 10-hp limit for a short distance down the river, which is the portion inside the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge. There will be signage posted.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to experience a guided fishing trip in and around the Okefenokee Swamp and on the Suwannee River, call the author Glen Solomon at (912) 253-9801 or email him at [email protected].
The Magic Warmouth Worm
In general, Glen said he doesn’t like keeping secrets. However, he only chose to reveal the exact make and model of the 4-inch warmouth worm to those in the GON Family, those who support GON magazine through a membership. Glen has tried a number of different brands and styles of worms, but there is only one green-pumpkin worm that has been crushing the warmouth like none other. He reveals that exact bait in the video below. You can Buy the Magic Warmouth Worm HERE.
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