Bull Reds on the Satilla Shoals

Every autumn, giant redfish gather at the mouth of the Satilla River. Here’s how to get in on the action.

The name on the cell-phone dis- play brought a smile to my face. The caller was Glenn Durden, a die-hard outdoorsman and avid conservationist from Vidalia. I expected the usual you- should-have-been-there-yesterday report from his most recent trip, so I was a bit surprised when he started the conversation with an invitation.

“Can you get off work tomorrow?” he began, in his usual animated manner. “The big reds are in the Satilla. I caught a half dozen two days ago. The boat’s in the water; all you have to do is show up.”

After a glance at my calendar and about five seconds of debate with my conscience, I decided a morning of catching 30-lb. redfish wasn’t really playing hooky for a DNR fish biologist, especially since I’d be tagging any we caught. The conversation quickly turned to tides and weather. The tide table predicted a 7:45 a.m. low tide at the mouth of the Satilla River, meaning we’d be able to fish the incoming tide throughout the morning. A cold front had just passed over the coast, so we knew wind was going to be factor.

Instinctively, I looked at the tree- tops when I came out the door the next morning. The Weather Channel said northeast wind at 5 mph in Brunswick, but what I saw looked much stronger. By the time I got to Dover Bluff Club in north Camden County, it was obvious that Glenn and I were facing a building nor’easter. If our destination
had been the typical autumn bull-red- fish habitat — beachfront shoals and sandbars — we would have aborted the trip then and there. Hoping the strongest wind would hold off until afternoon and armed with the knowledge the lower Satilla River would be in the lee of the nor’easter, we stuck with our plan.

Carefully maneuvering past the crab-trap floats in Dover Creek, Glenn piloted his Edgewater center console to the shortcut connecting the creek with the Satilla River. Ten minutes later we reached our destination — a shoal near a green navigation marker numbered 7. A ragged line of turbulent whitewater — something we call a rip — defined the exact location of the shoal. Glenn maneuvered the boat to the up-current side of the rip, and I eased the anchor into the green water. Fortunately for us, the northeast wind and incoming tide were in harmony, and the boat swung into position perpendicular to the edge of the shoal.

It’s Shoal Time: Despite recent setbacks from droughts and invading flathead catfish, the Satilla River still has a well-deserved reputation as one of the premiere redbreast fisheries in the Southeast United States. At the river’s terminus, tannin-stained waters push up against the green brine of the Atlantic Ocean to form the St. Andrew estuary. Bordered by Jekyll Island on the north and Cumberland Island on the south, this estuary is home to a thriving population of a red of a different kind — the red drum, also known as spottail bass or redfish.

Inshore anglers catch small- to medium-sized redfish around the oyster-shell mounds, marsh-grass islands and creek mouths that dot the shoreline at the mouth of the Satilla River. Names like Rattlesnake Creek and Twin Palms are legendary in the lore of coastal Georgia fishing. Those with larger boats and sea legs find the sand- bars and shoals off the south end of Jekyll Island and the north end of Cumberland home to adult redfish in the 20- to 40-lb. range from late September to early November.

Back in the early 1990s, anglers targeting tarpon in the lower Satilla during the early fall found large and hungry redfish in the vicinity of Horseshoe Shoals — an area approximately 2 miles long with an upstream boundary near green channel marker No. 7. Seems these reds couldn’t help but crash the party to take advantage of the fresh-caught menhaden. What first appeared to be coincidence proved a predictable event, and soon anglers were targeting these fish, especially on days when the wind made the outer shoals an uncomfortable place.

Horseshoe Shoals is constantly changing in response to the effects of river discharge, tide and wind. Persistent high river flow also freshens the water at Horseshoe Shoals, causing the redfish and their food supply to seek saltier areas of the St. Andrew estuary. However, if river flow is slightly above average, average or below average look for the bull reds to be at the shoals throughout October and into early November.

Mullet vs. Whiting: Reaching into the bait cooler, Glenn pulled out a 10-inch whiting and a 12-inch mullet.

“I caught whiting on that last trip and decided to keep some on ice in case I was able to get back down,” he said. “Last night, I got some nice mullet with the cast net. Let’s see which turns out to be the hot bait for today.”

As Glenn chunked the bait with his knife, I attached weights to the terminal tackle on the spinning outfits — 4-oz. pyramid sinkers on two outfits and 3- oz. surf sinkers with wire prongs on the other two.

After threading the head of the mullet onto the circle hook, I cast an outfit rigged with a pyramid sinker to a spot about 50 feet astern and slightly to the starboard. After checking the drag, I set the rod in a starboard gunwale holder. Next, I took an outfit with the surf sinker, baited it with mullet and cast it about 75 feet directly off the starboard side of the boat. A few twitches of the rod tip buried the wire prongs in the sand, holding the bait in position despite the current. This rod went into a holder on the boat’s T-top. Glenn mimicked my actions off the port side of the boat using whiting to tip the circle hooks. We had two baits in the shallow water on the port and starboard sides of the boat and two baits about 25 feet apart in the deeper water astern.

Our offerings were in the water no more than a minute before the rod in the port-gunwale holder bent violently, and the drag began making its own unique brand of music. Standing with- in a few inches of the rod, Glenn snatched it from the holder, made a slight adjustment to the drag on the Penn reel, and began to follow the fish to the port side of the boat. I quickly pulled the rod from the starboard hold- er and began to retrieve the bait, careful to keep an eye on Glenn’s fish, which thankfully seemed content to stay
behind the boat.

I left the two shallow baits in position hoping for a double. My wish came true a few seconds later when the port T-top rod convulsed twice before arching toward the stern. Thanks to the holding power of the circle hook, I was able to clear the other T-top rod before I pulled the bent rod from the holder and joined Glenn in battle.

The two fish used the strong cur- rent and their broad tails to maximum advantage as they sought to rid them- selves of the annoying hooks. To the untrained eye, I’ m sure the scene would have appeared comical as Glenn and I went from bow to stern and back again trying to avoid tangles. Despite their best efforts, both fish came boat- side within 10 minutes. Glenn handed me his rod as he reached for the large landing net in front of the center con- sole. Fighting to keep the two fish from tangling, I guided Glenn’s fish head- first into the net, which he lifted over the gunwale and onto the deck. After gently easing his fish out of the landing net, he leaned over the gunwale and deftly scooped up my fish.

I quickly grabbed the tagging kit and handed Glenn the slate on which to record the length and tag number. His fish measured 42 inches, and mine was slightly smaller at 40 inches. We estimated both fish at 30 pounds or more. Obviously an aggravated male, my fish drummed loudly as it lay on the deck. I inserted a Georgia DNR yellow plastic tag below the dorsal fin of each fish.

Putting aside the tagging gear and slate, we each picked up a fish by placing one hand under the head and one hand at the base of the tail. Lowering the fish into the water, we moved them back and forth to pass water over the gills. It took less than a minute for each fish to recover and swim away. We wasted no time for reflection or congratulations but immediately reached for the cut bait.

This scenario was replayed several times over the next three hours. We had another double, but most fish were singles. Glenn and I successfully boated, tagged and released a dozen fish by the time the tide had reached half-flood stage and the northeast wind reached the 15-mph mark. Most of the fish came from the deeper water astern of the boat, but we also managed to catch a few with the baits positioned on the top of the shoal. Oh, and whiting won the day as the bait of choice accounting for eight of the 12 reds.

Anchored Up, Hooked Up: The key to success at Horseshoe Shoals is boat location along the edge of the shoal. Successful anglers can read the water when deciding where to drop anchor. They use the visible clues of current rips formed at the edges of sub- merged shoals and turbulent water on tops of the shoals.

Big redfish are not bashful about turbulent water. They can be found adjacent in the shallows or cruising along the deeper down-current edge of the moving water. Proper boat positioning allows you to put baits into both areas. If you set up in such a spot, but fail to draw strikes, don’t hesitate to make adjustments in your position. As the tide rises and falls, fish will change locations based on subtleties in the cur- rent and bottom structure that we humans can’t sense.

Like many of the best coastal Georgia fishing destinations, Horseshoe Shoals is not an easy place to reach. The closest public boat- launch facility is the ramp at Jekyll Island State Park. Be advised this boat ramp is currently undergoing a renovation but should be open for use by early October. The public ramp on the MacKay River, accessible via the causeway to St. Simons Island is an alternative. If you prefer to have your boat hoisted into and out of the water, the closest facility is St. Simons Marina located off Arthur Moore Drive on St. Simons Island. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway on the inland side of Jekyll Island and the navigation channel in the lower Satilla River are marked with the characteristic red and green markers. Still, both areas are subject to have shoals, so use caution, especially at low tide.

Tangling with bull reds in the strong tidal currents of the lower Satilla River is a test of angling skill and tackle. I use a mix of spinning and casting reels spooled with 30-lb. monofilament or 50-lb. superbraid. Instead of the 8- to 10-foot rods we typically use when fishing from the beach, I opt for 7-foot rods rated for 30-lb. test line. Such rods are long enough to work a fish around outboard engines and over anchor lines, but not so long as to be cumber- some when maneuvering around T- tops, center consoles and other anglers.

For terminal tackle, use a Carolina rig with a 4-oz. egg sinker or a fish- finder rig paired with a 4-oz. pyramid sinker or 2- to 4-oz. wire-prong surf Sinker known as a Sputnik.

For either rig, you’ll need to finish the main line with a 150-lb.-test coast- lock snap swivel so you can attach a 24-inch length of 80-lb.-test fluorocarbon finished on one end with a surgeon’s loop and on the other end with a circle hook. The style, color and size of the circle hook can be a matter of personal choice as long as it has a mini- mum of a 1/2-inch gap between the point and shaft. Avoid using offset circle hooks since they’re more apt to snag a fish in the throat.

My personal favorite is the Eagle Claw Octopus Circle hook in an 8/0 size. This hook features a turned-up eye, which allows for snelling, my preferred way of connecting hook and leader. It also has a larger gap than a typical circle hook making it easier to attach large chunks of cut bait. Best of all, the hook sets itself, allowing anglers to fish multiple rods and increase the chances of a strike.

I carry at least a dozen pre-made leaders, so I don’t lose time rigging when the bite is on. Even though circle hooks typically snag in the corner of the fish’s mouth, there are times when the fish feed very aggressively and the hook lodges in the soft tissues of the throat. In those situations, I simply cut the leader as short as possible and leave the hook in the fish. Numerous studies have proven that hooks will eventually corrode and fall out.

Chunks of whiting, mullet and menhaden are tempting offerings for big redfish. Use pieces large enough to cover the hook, but be sure to leave the point exposed. Another effective bait is a blue crab with the claws and legs removed and the carapace broken in half. Thread the point of the circle hook through one of the leg openings. Redfish love crabs, but so do lots of other bottom feeders so you’ll have to replace the crab bait more frequently than cut fish. While fresh, natural bait is preferred, scented synthetic baits like Berkeley Saltwater GULP will also attract the attention of redfish.

While the future of the Satilla River’s most famous “red,” the red- breast sunfish, remains uncertain, the future of the “other red,” the redfish, looks very promising. As long as we protect fish habitat, abide by the harvest regulations and use good fish handling techniques, we can expect the shoals to come alive each autumn. See you on the ragged white line where the big fish are biting.

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