The sun appears a particularly fiery red as it glimmers just below the horizon east of Fort McAllister Marina. It’s not high enough yet to reflect off the water, casting only a brilliant sheen on the glassy Ogeechee River and Ossabaw Sound beyond. Glassy is a good thing; last time I was here, there was quite a bit of bouncing, hanging on to boat rails and looking up at waves.
But not today.
In setting up this trip, my old buddy Capt. David Newlin asked if 7 a.m. was too early a start. Uh, no. There’s no such thing for a fisherman as going out too early, especially when I know David has put in hours studying charts and beating around inshore ahead of our arrival.
As a point of reference, should you decide to make this trip, be advised that my striper-fishing compadre Steve Brown and I eased onto I-16 at Exit 54, near Dublin, at 4:20 a.m.
One slight right turn to merge onto I-95 south, off at Exit 90 and a left back over 95 headed us through Richmond Hill. We breakfasted at McDonald’s and then rolled a couple miles to a lone convenience store on the left. Turning onto Fort McAllister Road, we were 4 miles away. So other than on and off interstates, there’s only one turn. The trip takes less than two hours from mid-state, breakfast included.
David lives close enough to the marina to have ridden there on his 4-wheeler. The coast is his life, having been born and raised there. David is a full-time professional boat captain, and with 35 years and more than 4,000 trips under his belt, he knows these waters like no one else. The area’s colorful history rolls off his tongue throughout a day’s trip; there’s always something or somewhere he’s picking out, pointing out and being informative about. All in all, David is a pretty good old knucklehead to hang out with. But we’re here to fish. And he’s the best at that.
Simply because I’m a hard-headed, dyed-in-the-wool bass fisherman, I brought my favorite baitcaster mounted on its 42-year-old, 6-foot, Lew’s No. 6 graphite Speed Stick rod. It’s not really needed, because David provides everything required as far as bait and tackle and licenses go, but I have my quirks, and that old reliable security blanket of an outfit will come in handy.
One more thing. I hope I don’t have to tell you that summer on the ocean can be a special kind of hot, especially if there’s no cloud cover. There’s always a cooling breeze, but any exposed skin is likely to be redder than that dawning sun by trip’s end. I don’t care for sunscreen—and neither does live bait. To that end, a wide-brimmed flop hat, polarized sunglasses and a long-sleeved shirt will save you a lot of pain and discomfort later.
We didn’t have any problems with insects, other than a couple of sand gnats early, but keep in mind that bait likes insect repellent even less than suntan lotion. You don’t want that smell transferred to the bait for fish to turn up their noses at.
There is a very effective spray that can be used to drive biting flies and gnats clear into the next county. David, however, made me promise not to tell what it was. He’ll have it onboard. But if you fall out of the boat laughing the first time you see it, don’t say you weren’t warned.
The spanking-new Evinrude 150 behind the 25-foot Carolina Skiff hums rather than roars into life.
Easing out among the emptying of the Ogeechee River into the Atlantic, you could almost feel life’s everyday stress melting away and splashing into the placid water. It’s as much therapy as fishing. Steve is not many months removed from heart surgery, and I figured this would fit in well with his recovery program. Before the day was out, that thought would be proven true.
David, as he has for years, knew what I wanted to catch, and I knew what David wanted me to catch. You got to remember that this is a guy who can put you on a freshwater catfish or a 125-lb. blacktip shark, like he did my son Myles several years ago.
But I’ll gladly drive two hours in the dark in order to catch one redfish. Call it what you will; you’ll likely recognize it at first pull. If there is a single drawback to reds, it’s the 14- to 23-inch slot limit for keepers, which is certainly no fault of the fish. Take my word for it: easing a 40-inch redfish back into the water will hurt your feelings. On my bucket list is a 50-incher—even if photos are all I leave with.
David’s pick is likely the most popular and best-eating fish: the speckled trout. A battered and fried fillet from a trout caught only hours before is about as good as it gets.
“Fry your good fish, and bake or blacken your trash fish,” David quipped, knowing I’d eat blackened sidewalk.
Thing is, you never know what’s down there. The variety of species we caught on this day was fairly amazing, and we saw a lot of stuff we didn’t land. But that’s not all bad; there’s nothing like a manta ray with a 6-foot wingspan coming head-high out of the ocean and splashing back down 50 feet away to keep you on your toes…
Now. Where to fish?
Truly, it all looks the same to freshwater guys, like Steve and me. What is it that differentiates one weed bed or oyster bar from another? What does it matter if the tide is coming in or going out? Water depth? Wind direction? Sun? Cloud? Current?
The list goes on and on. That determining factor is where the fish are. And David knows.
I never fail to be amazed by his “spots.” Oh, it’s not simply this bar or that grassbed or creek mouth; it could be maybe a 10-foot circle on those areas.
“Throw in that spot about 6 feet off the end of the grass, and let it drift with the current…”
If that sounds simple, it’s because it pretty much is. We’re tossing live shrimp under a popping-cork rig. Hook your shrimp just behind the head in the tough collar between the black spot and the neck.
Depth is adjusted using a slip knot in the line above the cork. Every 20 seconds or so, wrist-snap the rod to make the cork bloop on the surface, attracting attention from whatever is swimming underneath. This requires free-spooling of the line, and that’s where the baitcaster comes in handy.
With an open-face spinning reel, the technique is to keep the bail open, and then flip it shut to set the hook when the cork disappears. It takes some getting used to. As it does with the baitcaster, but with the reel in my left hand and a controlling thumb on the spool, I’m gently stripping line as the rig slides across the water. If the cork plunges, it’s fairly simple to lock down that thumb while in the same instant engaging the right-handed reel handle for a hookset.
The basic rig is a 7 1/2-foot medium-action rod, reel of choice equipped with 50-lb. test Power Pro line and a 30-lb. fluorocarbon leader. A 1/2-oz. sinker keeps the 2/0 kahle hook properly underneath the popping-cork rig.
First fish of the day, best I recall, was a flounder, and Steve caught it.
“A fish half that size stuffed with a little crabmeat will run you about $65 a plate at some of these Savannah restaurants,” David said with a laugh.
We would wind up with a pair of $130 fish, among many more.
Another of the good captain’s tricks is to glance at your rod tip immediately after a strike and tell you what kind of fish is down there. It’s uncanny. If it jumps three of four times, that’s a trout. Straight pull is a red. Or maybe a flounder. Or shark… He’ll let you know.
Not only do we fish a very specific spot, but the water needs to be a certain depth, as in, “The tide’s not in quite enough yet. When it hides the end of that bar and gets halfway up on that grass at the point, the trout will be here. Pick up, and let’s run to another spot, then we’ll come back in about 30 minutes.”
Or if the cork movement is not to his liking: “Need a little more current. This ain’t cricket fishing; if that shrimp’s just sitting still and not moving along naturally, fish won’t give it a second look.”
Changing areas seldom entails more than a 15-minute run. And all the while, you’re being regaled about the surroundings. There’s the story of the small island nesting site for thousands of birds; it looked like a massive pillow fight after Hurricane Matthew passed through, and the population hasn’t recovered.
Or the rows of seven-figure homes sitting vacant; who wants to pay a quarter-mil yearly for flood insurance?
How about the massive red-and-black tub powered only by a pair of hopelessly small outboards? Seems an elderly couple from up North spent months aboard it as the huge craft wheezed its way down the coast. Word is that one of them experienced health problems not long after arrival. Now it just sits.
Possibly the best thing about easing into the day and watching David and Steve catch fish while I took notes and photographed was allowing the banter to build. And then catching the first 4-lb. trout of the day.
If you want to see David Newlin go hopping for the dip net, let him spy a big trout on the hook.
“We can come out here 30 or 40 trips and not see a trout that big,” he said when the speck was safely aboard.
A peek into its Crayola-yellow mouth was proof that this was indeed a gator trout. Within the next 15 minutes, two more just like him came from the same point off a reed bed, fishing about 4 feet deep, and another joined the bunch later in the morning on down the coast. When your top-four trout of the day pull the scales past 15 pounds, chalk that one up on your calendar.
Trout are delicious to eat, but just know that they must be 14 inches in total length before you can keep them.
As for the you-never-know department, immediately following my third speck, my rod tip went down and this time there was no jumping. At first feel, my immediate thought was, “Loosen the drag.”
Up until this time, probably an hour in, we had boated flounder, trout, (aggravating) ladyfish, (more aggravating) stingrays and other throwbacks I had never seen or heard of. But this was different. And muscular.
I noticed David wasn’t making any predictions as the rod doubled, line stripped, and I waltzed from boat front to back then made a return trip. He grabbed the net before exchanging it a couple minutes later for a gaff when I brought a keeper bonnethead shark (must be 30 inches to fork) to the surface. And he didn’t like it there.
Following a couple laps around the boat and as many dives to the bottom, he was eventually persuaded back to the surface. The first swipe of the gaff was a whiff, but in David’s defense that was one ticked-off shark. The second caught him amidships, and it was all over, except maybe for some rather brisk flailing and a little skipping on our part once he hit the deck and impressively demonstrated his displeasure.
Upon closer inspection, it was observed that the hook never went into the shark past the barb. The least slack on the line, and he would have tossed free. As a postscript, I can honestly relate that with a little salt, pepper, butter and Louisiana Wing Sauce, the fillets baked up just fine, thank you.
Need to get a word in here about those stingrays, especially if you plan to take a child along on one of these outings. David is all about pleasing his clients, doing his dead-level-best to ensure the best possible day on the water. The last thing he wants is for somebody to get hurt. Imagine a braided leather whip, heated near bursting into flame, then drawn slowly across your forearm. And left there. That’s what a stingray with a hook in its maw wants to impart. All he has to do is tag you with that barb on its tail. It hurts, brother, and it don’t quit hurting for a while! So when you hook one—and you will in these waters—stay away and let David handle it.
As the sun gets higher, you’ll likely move out to the center of the sound for some bottom fishing. My light outfit—12-lb. test rigged with heavier leader, hook and an 1 1/2-oz. sinker—pitched a chunk of shrimp out mere seconds after we anchored. A hard bump came just as it settled, the rod near-doubled, and the reel screamed as something shot out straight behind the boat. All I can tell you is that it was considerably heavier than a bonnethead. And faster.
After the hook simply pulled loose, I looked at David and said, “I really would like to know what that was.”
“Me, too,” he quietly replied.
I’ve never fished the ocean without at least one of those episodes; you probably won’t either.
Not long afterward, we upped anchor and motored to a big grassbed—my kind of place. Yep. First cast.
Perfection is a 22 1/2-inch redfish exploding on a shrimp so hard that the big cork pops a foot straight up out of the water. David’s hustling with the net; he wants to boat it quickly so we can catch some more, because that’s how he makes his living. I just want to play it.
But I got what I came for, and not long after the tide turned and the fish moved out with it. We’re back at the dock by 2, and David and I fillet and ice the catch in about 30 minutes. That’s what a half-day on the water with Capt. David Newlin is like. All in all, I’ve never had a better one on the coast than this trip.
You can check him out online, including viewing over 300 photos, at CaptainDN.com. Or call him up, (912) 756-4573. If he’s on the water, and he probably is, he’ll call you back and invite you down. Don’t go unless you want to catch fish.