Every saltwater angler worth his or her salt knows the best all-around fishing is to be had in either the spring or the fall months. If it’s too cold, fish seem to acquire a case of lockjaw. And if it’s too hot, they seem to just disappear. Well, July is here; it’s hot, and the saltwater fishing will be completely shut down. Those were my exact thoughts as I drove to Richmond Hill to catch up with Capt. David Newlin.
David runs his inshore/offshore charter business out of the Fort McAllister Marina on the Ogeechee River. His 25-foot Carolinas Skiff boat is fine for offshore trips on good days, and yet its draft is shallow enough to allow plying the narrow, often shallow inshore creeks and cuts.
We originally planned on this trip to look for tarpon and show you how to catch a big silverside in July. In past years, the tarpon were in the sound and off the beaches by July, and they may very well be out there this year. But, our trip to locate them was in middle June, and they had not shown themselves yet.
Tarpon, like a lot of other fish, migrate north and south with the changing of the seasons. In the fall, they will move south to warmer water, and in the spring and summer, they migrate north, arriving off the Georgia coast around July. Their migrating patterns depend on food. They are following the baitfish—huge schools of menhaden shad (pogies) and mullet as they move up the coast from south to north.
As we left the dock, David talked with me about the tarpon fishing. He had seen only one small tarpon this whole year. It was the week before we fished, and it ate a live shrimp under a float while he was fishing for sea-trout. He explained the reason they are scarce—the baitfish have not arrived. He said the tarpon will begin showing up in numbers during July, but that for right now, with no bait available, we would not find a tarpon.
So, what’s an angler to do? It’s summer; there is little to no bait visible in the water; and, the fishing prospects looked awfully dim. At least to me they looked awfully dim.
David grew up right in this area, fishing from small skiffs as a kid. He knows the creeks, the rivers, the sound, the salt marsh—well, he knows how to find fish, even when it looks like there are none to find.
We left the dock, headed out the Ogeechee River on a calm day in late June. If we saw any bait, like a big school of pogies, the plan was to stop and try to locate a tarpon. But we saw no bait—actually no swimming bait of any kind in the sound.
David was not phased. He’s been fishing these waters for almost 50 years, and he knew where we could find some fish.
We stopped first on a point in the Ogeechee where another smaller creek emptied. The tide was outgoing and fairly strong, a result of the moon phase. He was concerned about the tide and the water clarity.
“These rains over the past several days have really muddied up the water. If it rains when the tide is low, like it has the past two days, it washes a lot of mud off the exposed banks into the river,” David said. “We have got to find some water that has more than the 6 inches of visibility we have right here.”
We fished this particular point where an oyster rake bordered an underwater drop off. We were looking for seatrout and fishing with live shrimp for bait, and we did manage a couple of small trout along with a bluefish.
The tide was outgoing, about half way down, and the mud banks were exposed on both sides of the river. As I looked at the mud banks, I realized that the movement I saw was coming from fiddler crabs—thousands of fiddler crabs. David said we needed some of them for bait, and as I took the helm and idled over to the bank, he readied his cast net.
He threw the net over a whole herd of fiddlers on the bank, and drug the muddy net back to the boat. He has a large 150-quart ice chest that he uses for bait. Were we tarpon fishing this morning, we would have filled it with pogies to use for chum. After swishing and washing the mud out of the closed cast net, he dropped it into the chest, and viola—we had fiddlers for bait. One additional cast on the bank provided us with plenty of bait. I didn’t understand how we would catch trout on fiddlers, but, hey—I’m not the expert; David is!
We eased along the river watching the bank as the tide fell. David headed for a small outflow that came off the marsh. As I positioned the boat, he threw the cast net into the shallow water. Live shrimp! What we caught with several casts of the net were live, white shrimp—small enough and perfect size for seatrout.
David said from late June and for the rest of the summer, you can use a cast net at low tide in the mouth of an outflow or small creek and catch enough live bait to fish with all day.
When I asked David about the fiddlers, he said, “We need a variety of bait on ‘pot luck’ days like today.”
What he meant was that we would be looking for a variety of fish, and they prefer different baits.
We ran up into the Odingsell River and Wassaw Creek past the Federal docks and back to a private dock on Wassaw Island and found some clean water. Our plan was to find some sheepshead around the dock pilings, but two ladies were already fishing from the dock. We asked permission and promised them we would give them the fish we caught, and they were cooperative in helping us tie to a piling.
Using fiddlers and fishing straight down around the pilings, we caught six sheepshead there as the tide came to a complete stop. With no current, the bite slowed, but as the incoming tide began moving, the bite picked back up. That’s something to remember—the fish bite will slow and stop when the current stops moving. David lost a nice, big sheepshead right at the boat. He would have easily gone more than 5 pounds.
Now that the tide was moving, David said, “I know where the trout will be on the ‘coming in’ tide,” so we ran through some creeks and rivers in the myriad labyrinth of the salt marsh that I would simply not be able to find on my own.
We came to a point where the incoming tide was split and moving in the main river and also into a branch off the main river. We anchored the boat at this point using the Power Pole on the stern and began fishing with the small live shrimp we had caught.
The standard rig that David uses consists of a sliding popping cork on the line above the swivel. He uses a “stop knot” that can be moved up and down the line to adjust the depth he will be fishing. Below the swivel is a weight heavy enough to turn the float vertical in the water and a fluorocarbon leader tied to a long shank 2/0 hook. David catches most of his fish with this rig. Occasionally he will put a Gulp Swimming Mullet on the hook under the float, but the best bait for trout is shrimp in his opinion. I tend to agree, although I have caught a ton of fish using that swimming Gulp bait.
When he is fishing for trout, he uses the small live shrimp. I pulled a much bigger shrimp out of the livewell, and he told me to put it back.
“Those big shrimp scare the trout off,” is what I heard several times. Later we fished with the larger live shrimp as David talked about the redfish we were after.
On this particular point, we began catching seatrout one after another. They weren’t huge, but they were plentiful, legal size, and they would be dinner that night. We dropped our floats and baits in the water at the boat and allowed them to run with the current. Every time the floats reached a place off the edge of the creek, we got bit. We caught 15 trout in a 30-minute span as David explained we would only be able to catch trout there for 30 to 45 minutes. Just like the fish had a clock, the bite died after 45 minutes.
We also caught a number of poor man’s tarpon (ladyfish) there. We kept them all because David is an expert shark fisherman and cut ladyfish are a preferred bait for him. In the fall, he says that a chunk of ladyfish filet fished on the bottom in the sound is one of the best baits around for big redfish.
As the tide continued coming in, we moved out to the Ossabaw Sound. Running the north edge of the beginnings of the Ogeechee River, we found a sandbar off the north bank about 200 yards out. This bar stretched for several hundred yards, and waves were breaking on top of it, a sure sign that the water was shallow.
We eased over the bar with the engine tilted up as David explained what was on the other side of the bar. Once we cleared the bar, the water depth dropped, and we eased slowly over toward the bank. The plan was to find a redfish. We had our trout and sheepshead, and a redfish would make a perfect addition to our pot-luck day, what we call an inshore slam.
At this location, we used the larger live shrimp—remember that David uses the live shrimp sized according to the fish he is trying to catch. With the same float rig, this time shortened to about 3 feet, we cast up toward the bank. Under the surface we could see the oyster rake, and we kept the float rig off the top of it.
The beauty of this float rig is that if you have it set too deep, the float will lie over on its side as the weight sits on the bottom. For seatrout, David likes to fish as deep as he can without dragging the bottom.
But, here we were looking for a redfish in shallow water. We did not find a redfish, but we did manage a flounder. That flounder made the pot-luck day a success!
We learned several things that day from David. First, look for clean water. If the water is muddy, it will be hard to catch fish. Second, use the right bait for the right fish. We caught trout on small, live shrimp, sheepshead on the fiddler crabs, and although we did not catch a red, we used the large, live shrimp for redfish. It was a good pot-luck day fishing with someone who literally knows this area better than anyone we know. As an added bonus, David is quite a historian and knows the history of the whole Ossabaw Sound estuary.
David guides out of Fort McAllister Marina and is available seven days a week for offshore bottom fishing, shark fishing and inshore fishing for trout, redfish, flounder and sheepshead. He will plan a trip for you based on your own personal preferences. You can reach him at (912) 756-4573 and find out more about him through his website at www.donwatford.com/captaindn. Tell him what species you want to catch, or simply tell him you want the pot-luck special! You won’t be disappointed.