The 100-Fish Days On The Okefenokee Swamp

A trip to the Okefenokee should be on your bucket list regardless; catching fish left and right just makes it more attractive.

Capt. Bert Deener | February 3, 2015

How many locations do you fish where it is common to catch more than 100 fish in an outing? How about a four-hour outing? Believe it or not, those are typical numbers when fishing in one of Georgia’s most unique resources, the Okefenokee Swamp. But you cannot show up with baitcasting gear and your favorite plastic worm and do so. The key to awesome catches in “the swamp” is to get as basic as possible… a telescopic bream pole (without a reel) and a little fly called a sally.

The Okefenokee Swamp is one of the crown jewels in the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System. Sprawling across the southeast Georgia and extreme northeast Florida landscape, the myriad canals and shallow lily pad flats provide perfect habitat for a small panfish called a flier. The flier grows to about a pound and has a black back and emerald green sides.

Warmouth are another panfish species available. The black-and-orange mottled fish hits like a freight train. Bowfin (mudfish) and chain pickerel (jackfish) are the main predators in the swamp. Once you understand the fish that you are chasing, you can adapt your tackle accordingly.

The species I typically target are fliers simply because there are millions of them in the swamp (I like setting the hook). The panfish are numerous, aggressive feeders and will bite in all water temperatures. The best part is that they will bite just seconds after kids beat and fram in the bottom of the boat. If God made a more kid-friendly fish species, I have not fished for it.

What makes fishing in the swamp so much fun for everyone is the intrigue of your surroundings. Alligators ease off the bank and disappear as you motor down the canal. Spanish moss draped over the tree limbs billows in the breeze. The call of distant Florida sandhill cranes echoes across the prairies. It is simply an awesome place to be. The extraordinary fishing is a bonus.

The traditional presentation for fliers is a small, yellow fly suspended under a float and pitched with a telescopic fiberglass “bream buster.” My favorite is a 9-foot model because it is more manageable than longer poles. My line is an equal-length section of 10-lb. test Trilene XT monofilament line threaded through the loop on the end and tied directly to the pole. You can use either a small balsa float that threads on your line or a Styrofoam float that can be taken off. I prefer the latter for its versatility. Finally, I tie on a small clip so I can change colors quickly, and I snap on a fly.

While the standard in the swamp is a yellow version, I have caught more fish on pink than all of the other colors combined over the last few years. There are days when they are picky about color, and other days they will eat anything you pitch at them.

Fliers do not bite like a typical bluegill, sinking the float with reckless abandon. Instead, they usually ease up to the sally and inhale it. If you are using a float, that translates into an extremely subtle, but discernible “tick” of the float. Quickly set the hook or they will exhale the sally. As the water warms and the fish become more active, I usually remove the float. My favorite way to catch them is to pitch the sally without a float and simply let it sink. Just before it sinks out of sight, give it a twitch, and it will rise back up in the water column (try to only move it 5 or 6 inches forward). Let it sink again, and repeat this cadence. When a black-backed swamp fish eats your sally, it simply disappears, kind of like fishing a floating worm for bass.

An extremely important addition to a sally is a “maggot.” When I first learned of this trailer, I figured that I would pass on swamp fishing because I was not interested in threading housefly larvae on a hook in order to catch a fish. Fortunately, the maggot is made of plastic! A little piece about the size of a third of a grain of rice is the ticket. Thread the little white trailer on the hook, and let it ride on the bend of the hook. Many, many times I have been going down a bank whacking fliers, and the trailer came off, unbeknownst to me. The bite stopped. When I discovered the missing trailer and replaced it, the bite resumed. I believe the contrasting trailer gives the fish a target to aim for as they approach the fly, and the hook awaits it.

Fliers are not the only species available in the swamp, and all of the swamp species will eat a sally. Chain pickerel, bowfin and even catfish are numerous enough to fish for. On a trip in January, Daniel Hampton, of Waycross, caught a 4-lb. bowfin from the same spot where we had just caught several fliers. The largest pickerel I have caught with this method is a 20-incher from Billy’s Lake on the west side of the swamp.

There are two main entrances to the approximately 700-square-mile Okefenokee Swamp. The east entrance is the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area off GA Hwy 121 near Folkston, and the Stephen C. Foster State Park near Fargo is on the west side of the swamp. Each has a boat ramp and boat rentals. Both entrances have impressive visitor centers, and both offer boat tours of the swamp for a fee. Cabins and camping are available at the state park and may be booked through the Georgia State Parks central reservations number at (800) 864-7275.

As part of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System, the Okefenokee Refuge has some special regulations. The entrance fee requirement may be met in several ways. The $5 per car weekly entrance fee can be paid at either the state park or refuge entrances. Alternately, a federal duck stamp, refuge annual pass or other federal recreation passport suffices for the daily entrance fee. A Georgia state fishing license is required to fish in the Okefenokee, and statewide size and creel limits apply.

Do not hitch up your bass boat and drag it to the swamp, as there is a 10 hp maximum on outboard motors. The perfect swamp rig is a lightweight jonboat with a 9.9-horsepower outboard and a trolling motor. If you do not have the necessary rig, you can rent one (minus the trolling motor) from either the Folkston or Fargo entrances. Additional regulations apply, so I suggest that before venturing into the swamp, you call the refuge office (912) 496-7836 or visit their website at http://okefenokee.fws.

Whether catching lots of fish or just fishing in an awesome location is your objective, the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia is a great wintertime destination. If you have kids to entertain, flier fishing in the swamp is unparalleled.

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