Withlacoochee River, Georgia’s December Bass Destination
The author, a seasoned river angler, says the Withlacoochee could be the best river for bass fishing south of Macon.
Another year comes to a close this month, as the dreaded month of January looms in the not-so-distant future. North to south, east to west, if you’re in the state of Georgia, you can look at December as a “last chance” kind of month.
The hype of deer season has all but faded away, and bass fishing is the same way. It won’t be long before many north Georgia anglers will be peering at a frost-lined Livescope screen, while juggling a HotHands packet and a jigging rod in 20 mph winds. However. there is a place where the bass are still aggressive and the afternoons are still warm. Deep in south Georgia, you’ll find a river that offers up some of the best December bass fishing in Georgia, and you’ve likely never even heard its name.
The Withlacoochee River originates northwest of Nashville, Ga. and then quickly snakes its way into Florida on the way to its journey to the ocean. It’s relatively easy to find on a map, just look directly south of Valdosta right on the Florida line.
Now that the geography mumbo jumbo is out of the way, let’s get back to fishing. I’m gonna get this party started by saying the Withlacoochee could possibly be the best river for bass fishing south of Macon. Period.
Now, before you start screaming at the magazine, hear me out for a minute. I’ve spent the past 30 years fishing the rivers in southern Georgia. I’ve been down the Altamaha, Flint, Ogeechee, Alapaha, Canoochee, Satilla and pretty much every other river, creek or ditch that holds enough water to float a kayak. But the Withlacoochee is something truly special in its own right.
Giant bass and numbers alike can be found in this blackwater river. Not to mention the elusive crawfish-eating machine known more commonly as a Suwannee bass that calls these waters home.
The fishing is fun and easy. Navigating the littered shoals in the river can be challenging, but I promise the reward is worth the effort, and time is running out. The cold days of January are coming, and this is your last chance to experience what the Withlacoochee has to offer before winter rears its ugly head.
Navigation and Access: There are a few public access points on the Withlacoochee, but for the purpose of this story, I’m going to talk about the stretch of river upstream of the Clyattville Nankin Road Boat Ramp.
Located about 8 miles or so to the west of the tiny town of Clyattville, what makes this ramp special is actually the lack of public access.
This lack of access isn’t due to the boat ramp or parking lot. As a matter of fact, this launch is one of the nicer public river launches in south Georgia. The lack of public accessibility comes from a series of shoals that stretch from just past the boat ramp for a couple hundred yards upriver. When water levels are low, as they typically are in late fall and early winter, you can’t get any boat over these shoals without physically dragging it. This cuts off access to most any vessel other than tiny jonboats, kayaks and canoes. And this means little to no fishing pressure, especially during the cooler months of the year.
When I plan a trip to this stretch of the river, the first thing I always do is check the water level. The river gauge I use is located near Quitman and can be found in the following link: waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/02318500.
I’ve found that a gauge height of 1.75 to 3.25 feet is best for kayak fishing in the river. When the river falls below 2 feet, expect to drag over more rocks, and if it’s closer to the 3-foot mark, you can expect the current to be much stronger, especially close to the launch.
To keep from paddling in the swift waters located close to the ramp, I like to put my kayak in and paddle upstream just past the bridge, staying on the left-hand side of the river. When it starts to get shallow and rocky, it’s easiest to get out and walk your kayak the 150 yards or so through the shoals. This only takes a few minutes and surprisingly the rocks aren’t that slippery. Just be sure to wear a good pair of wading shoes to protect your feet from the rocks.
Once past the shoals, navigation becomes much easier, as the current slows down drastically. I normally start fishing a few bends up from the shoals and work my way a mile or two up the river. When floating back down, a useful tool for your kayak is a drag chain, which is nothing more than 15 feet or so of rope with a few links of chain attached. This will enable you to control the speed of your float and enable you to control your kayak as you fish.
Though I didn’t have a chance to do it before press time, another option is a float trip from the next boat ramp up (Knights Ferry) to the Clyattville Nankin Landing. For more info on this float, checkout the awesome story Bert Deener did way back in 2006 at GON.com/fishing/float-trip-withlacoochee-river.
Locating Fish: This is classic power fishing at its best. Downed trees, the backsides of shoals, submerged timber and anything and everything that looks like you should fire a cast to will likely hold fish.
Water clarity plays a big factor as to where fish will hold in the river, and I’ve noticed the lower and clearer the water gets, the deeper and tighter to structure the fish will be. Likewise, the dirtier the water, the bass will tend to relate to shallower areas, especially in the warmer parts of sunny December afternoons. The key is to pay attention to each bite, and ask yourself where the fish was and why. By doing this, you can establish a pattern in a short amount of time, and once you know where the fish are holding, it’s easier to catch a lot more of them.
Lure Selection: When I’m fishing rivers, especially in the warmer climate of south Georgia, I almost always use a top-to-bottom approach. I normally begin each trip throwing a buzzbait and then work my way down the water column until I find what the fish want that particular day.
As long as the water temp is above 50 degrees, bass will readily hit a buzzbait, especially if fished slow. If you don’t have electronics on your kayak or small boat, a good way to be certain of the water temp is to bring a meat thermometer from home. I keep one in my kayak, and it is a useful tool for determining the water conditions you’re facing.
The buzzbaits I prefer to fish this time of year are the GA Boy Lures Blackout Buzzbait and the Wild Thang Buzzbait in the voodoo color. The compact 1⁄4-oz. size seems to work best for me this time of year.
My family produces these buzzbaits, so naturally they’re going to be my favorite to throw, but anglers will do just as well in the river fishing their favorite buzzbaits in similar color patterns.
When I throw a buzzbait, I’m trying to fish it as slow and subtle as I can make myself do it. It’s been the popular notion since its creation that bigger and louder is better when it comes to buzzbait fishing, but I don’t believe this to be true. I think the slower and quieter a buzzbait is, the more likely to draw a strike from a wary or sluggish fish.
My favorite setup for fishing a buzzbait is a 6-6 to 7-foot, medium-heavy rod with some good flex and a 7.2:1 baitcasting reel spooled with 30-lb. PowerPro braided line. I’ve tried a lot of different setups over the years, but after a whole bunch of trial and error, I feel like this particular combination of tackle gives the greatest balance of castability, durability and power.
If the fish won’t bite a buzzbait, a weedless wacky-rigged worm is a good choice for sluggish fish. The wacky rig is generally a tool for springtime fishing, but it’s equally effective when fish shut down after cold fronts and other similar weather. The key to effectively fishing a wacky rig is to get the right setup to do it.
I prefer to use a medium-action spinning rod in the 6-6 to 7-foot range paired with a 2000 series size reel spooled with braided line in the 10- to 20-lb. range. If the water is dirty and stained, you can get by without a leader, but if it’s pretty clear, it’s best to attach 6 feet or so of 12- to 15-lb. fluorocarbon line to the end of your braid. An important note is to make sure your drag slips a little when fighting fish to keep from overpowering and ripping the smaller wacky hook free.
There are literally a thousand different brands, sizes and colors of stick worms, but my favorite size is the 5 inch, and I keep color selection simple. Almost 100% of the time if I’m throwing a wacky-rigged worm, it’s going to have some kind of yellow and brown in it. Don’t ask me why, but it just flat catches fish. I use a 1/0 VMC Weedless Neko hook to rig the worm and really like it due to its fiber-optic weed guards that help keeps it from getting hung up.
I fish the wacky rig by casting to cover and allowing my worm to sink 2 to 3 feet. I then slowly work it back to the boat by using small twitches, pausing for a second or two after each one. It’s important to pay attention to your line because bites are often subtle.
My last and least favorite way to fish the river during early winter is to dead stick a weightless, Texas-rigged stick worm to visible cover. This involves casting the worm out, allowing it to slowly go to the bottom, then waiting 15 seconds or so before giving it a small, subtle twitch, this process is repeated all the way back to the kayak and I promise it’s just as boring as it sounds. However, it will catch fish.
I use the same spinning setup as I do with my wacky rig, and I opt for a 3/0 wide-gap hook to rig the worm. When it comes to the color selection, I like to go darker when fishing the bottom, opting for colors like black with blue flake, green pumpkin and junebug.
Hopefully by now, you’re already out of the recliner readying your gear for a trip to the Withlacoochee, or at the very least you’re checking the calendar to see if you can squeeze in a day to make a trip happen. Either way, you better make a trip quick. December is the last chance to get in on some of the best river bass fishing of the year!
God bless and Merry Christmas!
Author Sets Bar For Suwannee Bass Record
If you haven’t caught one already, Suwannee bass have likely been on your bucket list for a long time. I was lucky enough to catch the new GON river record while working on this story, but I can assure you there are plenty of fish way bigger to be caught. Local anglers say that there have been Suwannee bass close to and over 3 pounds that have been caught and released in the river. To target these fish specifically, small crawfish-imitation soft plastics fished along the bottom are hard to beat.
Interestingly, we managed to catch a few Suwannee bass (including the new river record) while working on this story on purple-bladed buzzbaits. This was a strange occurrence as Suwannees are not known to be prolific topwater feeders.
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