I had meticulously calculated tides, checked sunrise times, and pored over my fishing log trying to choose a time that would maximize our chance of catching the seatrout bite just right to have a triple-digit day. The unknown variable was wind, but I had even rearranged my schedule to allow four days where the tide was right, and we could just pick the best day for winds… all for naught. As winds and rain from Tropical Storm Alberto, the first of an ominous 2006 hurricane season, lashed the side of my house in Waycross, the four-day window of opportunity slammed shut.
Seatrout fishing on the beach is one of the most rewarding but most weather-dependent bites there is. Trout fishing is all about finding the fish, and if you learn the trout’s seasonal migrations, you can catch a bunch of them. You may ask why in the world I would run around into the ocean and back against the dangerous breakers when you can catch some trout along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). The answer for me is that the bulk of the adult trout population is along the beach spawning during summer. My most productive month fishing on the beach has been July, but fish begin arriving in the surf as early as May, and stragglers are still around well into August. I target the ocean side of Cumberland Island, which is well known for producing great catches of seatrout.
Two days before this article deadline, I gave a last-ditch effort to fish the Cumberland Island breakers. The tides were not timed ideally, but it was worth a try. Yet again, the wind was my foe. Knowing that getting to the beach was very doubtful with a forecast of 15 knot east winds, I hoped the forecast would not materialize and winds would stay light. Early the next morning when Justin Bythwood, a fellow Waycrossan, and I checked the winds and learned the weather forecast came to pass, we fell back to “Plan B.” This plan involved staying on the west side of Cumberland Island and fishing for prespawn seatrout that had not yet made their migration to the beach. We knew that even with 15 knot winds, the inland waters are fishable.
We launched at Crooked River State Park and ran out to fish the myriad creeks and flats along the Intracoastal Waterway.
We managed 26 seatrout, with two measuring 20 inches, all on artificial lures. The larger trout were obviously prespawn females, as their swollen bel- lies looked as if they were about to pop. Two redfish were mixed in with the trout, one a legal 21 inches, and the other an oversized 31-incher, which we quickly photographed and released.
The two presentations that fooled the most fish were Bass Assassin jerkbaits and 4-inch Sea Shads fished about 18 inches under an Equalizer float. In the stained inshore waters, the best Sea Shad colors were Calcasieu brew and glow/chartreuse tail. In the couple places we found clearer water, we caught fish on new penny Sea Shads. The best jerkbait colors were clown, silver/black back, and gold. Offshore Angler Laser Eye Minnows are your best choice if you want your jerkbait to get deeper than 2 feet, while Bite-A-Bait Fighters get the nod when you want your lure near the sur- face or when you want a shorter, more subtle offering. We also caught a couple trout on the new Shrimp Cocktail lures from Saltwater Assassin in the Chandeleur Isle color and fished under an Equalizer float. Considering that the inshore option was even not our trip of choice, we had a great day.
If you have to settle for an inshore trip because of stiff winds, you may want to try some of these presentations, but the place to be for seatrout in July is the beach. Fishing the beach is a whole different world than the nice, calm inshore rivers. Cumberland Island is a premier location for beach trout, but I am sure similar conditions exist farther north on Georgia’s coast.
The first thing you will want to look at when planning a surfbound trout trip is a tide chart. If you do not have a chart available at your local tackle store, you can check the tides online at www.saltwatertides.com. My favorite situation is when low tide falls shortly after daylight. My most productive trips begin with a pre-daylight launch from the ramp in downtown St. Marys or a new ramp in the North River (on your left off Ga. Hwy 40 when entering St. Marys). I carefully navigate with a spotlight around the St. Marys Jetties and back along the beach. Do not attempt this if you are not intimately familiar with how the rocks are positioned, or you could add your craft to the list of shipwrecks on the navigation charts. If you time it right, you will make it around the end of the jetties and back to the beach about the time there is enough light to see. Because the beach is constantly changing, I like to run close to the beach on my way to Stafford Shoals, halfway up Cumberland Island, looking closely for runouts. Runouts are cuts through the sandbar where the water returns to the ocean after washing up on the beach. Runouts are like small ponds oriented parallel to the beach with a cut in the middle of the dam. Since it is low tide, you can see the runouts and mark them on your GPS so you can come back later in the morning to fish as the tide floods over them. Almost all predatory fish gravitate to the edges of these runouts to nab helpless baitfish as they wash seaward.
If you run close to the beach, do not be surprised if you miss the slight bend in the island that indicates you are at Stafford Shoals and end up at Christmas Creek about three-quarters of the way up the island. I did that several times before I became more familiar with the terrain. Most of my fish over the years have come within a mile either side of Stafford Shoals. If you want to bypass running the beach after you round the jetties, you can go direct- ly to the Stafford Shoals area at GPS (WGS84 Datum) setting N 30o 49.77 – W 81o 25.87. The attraction of the area around the shoals is the steepness of the drop-off. Most Georgia beaches slope extremely gradually and are very shallow, and it is unsafe to get close to the beach due to breakers. In the Stafford Shoals portion of the Cumberland Island beach, your boat usually sits in 5 or 6 feet of water, and you can lob a cast to the breakers. Reaching the breakers with your cast is key, as trout roam up and down the breakers while in spawning mode.
Most Georgia trout anglers load the livewell with live shrimp first thing in the morning, anchor up within cast- ing range of the breakers, and suspend the live crustaceans under a foot-long cork waiting for a bite. While this approach will bring home the main course for many a fish fry, I prefer a more adventurous approach. I put my trolling motor down, stay within casting range of the surf, ease along until I find concentrations of fish, and then try to stay with them. My 82-lb. thrust Motor Guide Great White has enough power to move me quickly seaward if I get a little too close to the breakers. If you hop from runout to runout that you located earlier in the morning, you will likely stay on seatrout.
By far, my most effective rig when fishing the beach has been a Saltwater Assassin Sea Shad fished under a Cajun Thunder float. Spotted seatrout are my most frequent catch on this setup, but I have also caught bluefish, jack crevalle, whiting, Spanish mackerel, weakfish, gafftop sailcats, and sharks on this combination. When fishing the beach, I use the large 2 1/2-inch oval Cajun Thunder because I want the float to produce as much noise as possible. In the noisy surf environment, a smaller float just will not get the attention of the fish. The Cajun Thunder float actually calls the fish to the area, and when they see the Sea Shad they eat it.
To rig up, you will need a Cajun Thunder float, a piece of florocarbon leader material, a jighead, and a Sea Shad. The Cajun Thunder float is constructed with a stainless-steel wire run- ning through plastic beads on the top to produce a raspy clicking noise. Brass beads below the float provide weight for longer casts and cause the float to sit upright when at rest. Make sure to tie your main line to the swivel on the end with the plastic beads. Next, tie an 18- to 30-inch piece of florocarbon leader to the swivel under the brass beads. Florocarbon is the material of choice, as it is virtually invisible to the fish, and it is much more abrasion resistant than monofilament. I typically use 20-lb. test leader material, but I switch to 17-lb. test if the surf is espe- cially clear. When several anglers are fishing from my boat, I rig each rod with a slightly different leader length to try to determine what depth works best, and then we switch all rigs to the most effective length. To the other end of the leader, I tie my favorite, 1/8-oz. Bass Assassin spring-lock jighead. This is my go-to jighead because it has a premium hook, and the spring holds the lure snug for many more fish than the traditional push-on jigheads. Twist on a Sea Shad body, and you’re ready to go.
Do not underestimate the importance of how well you assemble your rig. A Sea Shad with a kink, too short or too long of a leader, bent wire on the float, or other subtle changes from the correct setup, and you could reduce your catch considerably. I have seen a small setup change make a huge difference in the catch rate time and time again, especially when winds are calm and the water is clear.
Georgia coastal waters typically have a little stain. Under typical conditions, there are a few colors that excel for me. Candy corn, Texas roach, lemon candy, cee biscuit, and Calcasieu brew will trigger strikes in stained water. If I could only have one color for beach trout, it would be Calcasieu brew. The avocado/red glitter bottom is a very effective color that became even more deadly with the addition of a chartreuse back. The folks from Saltwater Assassin created a win- ner in this color! If the water clears, greenback shiner, shrimp, and mirror green will typically outfish the brighter hues.
To work the bait, heave a long cast to the breakers and give the float two slightly downward, forceful backhand snaps to make it chug. Let the float stand up and pause for a few seconds. Many times the float will go under after the first chugs. If it does not, keep working the bait back toward the boat. Vary the length of the pause and the number of chugs until you find the combination that works best. Some days the fish are active and will strike a quick retrieve, but other days it takes longer pauses and a slower cadence to coax the fish into biting. My favorite rod for lobbing a Cajun Thunder rig is a 7 1/2-foot, medium-action Inshore Extreme spinning rod. The longer rod reduces the probability of sticking a jighead in your ear during the cast! Since long casts are a necessity, I prefer no-stretch braided line, such as 20-lb. test Sufix Performance Braid.
Typical coastal winds during July and August (when tropical systems are not in the picture) include a gentle off- shore breeze in the morning with a moderate sea breeze in the afternoon. These conditions are desirable for get- ting safely to and from the beach. You must always keep an eye to the sky, though, because thunderstorms are a frequent nemesis in the summer. If the wind forecast is from any eastern quad- rant at more than 10 knots, you may want to finish chores at the house and wait for a better forecast, as the surf will likely be uncomfortably rough. Last summer I was thrown from the front casting deck onto the floor of the boat by a rogue wave when I was not paying close attention, so make sure to always be wary.
My 18-foot Mako bay boat with its 90-hp Mercury outboard is about as small of a boat as I would want to venture out into the ocean and 15 miles up the beach. Many trips during the week you will not have company fishing the beach, so you will want to have communications in case of trouble. You definitely want a vessel equipped with a VHF radio, and bring your cell phone. I can usually get Alltel service while fishing the beach.
Beach fishing for trout is not for the squeamish. If you are prone to sea- sickness, stay inland, but if you are looking for an exhilarating trip that might produce some of your most numerous trout catches, give it a try.