For most of us land-locked Georgians who spend our time fishing lakes and rivers, a 5-pounder is a BIG fish. Well, what if there were a place where 5-pounders, and up, are commonplace, and a fish under 20 inches is too little to keep?
There is such a place, and though a pretty well-kept secret, its popularity is increasing rapidly as more folks discover this coastal treasure. That’s right, we are talking about the Georgia coast. Even though it is a short stretch of shoreline compared to the vast expanse offered by its southern neighbor, Florida, the Georgia coast between Savannah and St. Marys offers some excellent inshore and offshore fishing opportunities year-round.
We recently had the chance to talk with a veritable charter fishing icon from the Savannah area, Capt. Judy Helmey of Miss Judy Charters. Judy has been in and around the Georgia coastal fishing charter business for years, and over that time she’s perfected a method for how to specifically target and catch big red snapper off the Georgia coast during the summer months.
Judy’s father Sherman Helmey started the family charter fishing business in 1948, more as a hobby than anything else. He began taking friends fishing on his private yacht for fun. His trips soon became so popular that he started charging guests five dollars a head and then modified the yacht so it could accommodate more anglers. The business began to thrive, and he never looked back.
Judy began fishing with her dad when she was about five years old. She inherited his love for the sport and developed a deep knowledge of the area through his constant coaching. At 18 Judy qualified for her captain’s license and was reportedly the first women in the United States to do so. She has been taking people fishing ever since.
Aboard her 33-foot sport fisherman, Miss Judy Too, she explained the fishery known as the “snapper banks” off the coast from Savannah. Judy describes the snapper banks as “fish cities” that are located offshore in about 100 feet of water.
“These ‘cities’ provide everything that a fish needs to live comfortably,” said Judy. “There is plenty of food available, cover for protection from predators, and the fish will stay in the area almost indefinitely.”
The banks are located about 30 miles out from the mouth of the Wassaw sound. So they are relatively accessible to hopeful anglers.
A typical day for Capt. Judy starts very early as she and Captain Ali, who serves aboard as her first mate, assist the clients on board. The boat leaves the dock around 6:30 a.m.
Heading out the Wilmington River the first stop is in the Wassaw sound where the crew keeps a watchful eye for the telltale signs of menhaden flipping their tails on the surface.
“The menhaden are great baits, and they are plentiful in the sound this time of year,” said Judy. “When we locate a school, we approach slowly and throw a cast net over them. Under good conditions a couple of casts is all you need to get a good supply of bait for the day.”
Judy says that diving pelicans are also a good sign that menhaden are in the area. These small fish are a favorite food source for the big birds.
With menhaden in the bait tank, Capt. Judy heads offshore to the first of the artificial reefs. These reefs are about 15 miles out from the sea buoy and are marked clearly with floating buoys of their own. Here more bait will be collected in the form of cigar minnows. At least that is the target as delicate multi-hooked rigs called Sabiki rigs are dropped over the side on 20-lb. line and a long rod. These rigs come complete with multiple light wire hooks dressed with small pieces of fish skin.
“Once the rigs are dropped over the side you won’t have to wait long,” said Judy. “If there is bait in the area you’ll have one on every hook almost immediately. Usually you’ll get hit before the rig even gets to the bottom.”
Judy warns that there is no need to set the hook as the baitfish will hook themselves. Setting the hook will just tend to straighten out the thin hooks and allow the fish to get off. In addition to the cigar minnow, which is a favorite of big snapper, you’ll also likely catch sand perch, rock bass, and small vermillion snapper with the Sabiki rig. Most of the time, you won’t have any problem catching sufficient bait for the day in just a few minutes.
“One of the keys to catching big snapper is having good bait,” says Capt. Judy. “The cigar minnow has a lot of flash in its sides when it is lively, and that attracts the fish.”
Judy keeps her bait fresh in a re-circulating bait tank on board. The tank pumps in fresh water from over the side and drains water out through a port on the side of the tank near the top. This provides a constant supply of fresh water in the tank, and the bait stays fresh and lively throughout the day.
There are basically two types of live bait that are commonly used at the snapper banks. One group, which includes fish like the sand perch and small vermilions, has an air bladder. Judy tells us that the bladder must be punctured before the fish is dropped over the side. Otherwise the bladder will inflate and kill the bait in the deep water. The cigar minnow, on the other hand, doesn’t exhibit the bladder problem and can be fished anywhere in the water column without an issue.
Well-equipped with plenty of bait, the Miss Judy Too heads out to the snapper banks for some action. The banks are about 30 miles offshore and are normally in 100 feet of water. There are three main areas that are used as reference points for the banks, making a northern, middle, and southern zone. The zones can be identified by the Navy towers that are located in each of them. The northern zone is marked by the R7 tower, the middle by the M2R6 tower and the southern zone by the R2 tower. Once you get to one of these towers there are multiple stretches of live bottom in the general vicinity. These live-bottom areas consist of coral and plant vegetation that make up the “fish cities” as Judy calls them, and they hold large numbers of fish on a consistent basis.
Another key element in offshore fishing comes into play at this point, electronics.
“A GPS navigational system is an important factor in fishing the snapper banks,” said Judy. “Thirty miles offshore everything looks pretty much the same, so a GPS can mean the difference between catching fish or not.”
The bottom in this area is mostly sand with relatively small patches of live bottom. Once you find an area of live bottom, mark the coordinates so you can return to it next time. There aren’t fish everywhere along the ocean floor. Judy says that the live-bottom areas concentrate the fish in small areas, and if you aren’t in the right spot you aren’t likely to catch fish.
To get you started Judy was kind enough to provide a GPS location for a live-bottom area in each of the zones. In the northern zone go to N 31º 44.27 – W 80º 13.68. In the middle zone try N 31º 35.21 – W 80º 22.94. In the southern zone try N 31º 24.49 – W 80º 36.39.
From each of those locations you should be able to drift an area with a radius of between a half and quarter mile and still be over live bottom.
If you get a strike, it is a good idea to mark the spot immediately with the GPS so you can return to the area for the next drift. If there is one fish in the spot, there are likely more.
Even when you know the starting points like the ones identified above, you still need to look for additional locations periodically. Since the sand shifts with the winds and strong tides of storms, what was live bottom last month may be covered with sand the next time. So when you get in the area where you believe the fish will be holding, set up your drift and mark any location where you get a strike. This may be the next hot spot for the season.
When moving from spot to spot, particularly if you are moving slowly, Capt. Judy recommends that you always keep a line over the side. This could be a free line with live bait, a big swimming plug like a Rapala, or a skirted trolling lure. There is always the chance that a big king or ‘cuda may take your offering.
Once the Miss Judy Too is positioned over an area of live bottom, the engines are shut down and the boat is allowed to drift with the current. This drift will provide a greater area of coverage and put the bait in front of more fish than a stationary boat at anchor.
There are a variety of choices when it comes to rigs, but Capt. Judy typically uses three for her live- and cut-bait offerings.
First is the standard two-hook bottom rig. This old standby has two 4/0 long-shank hooks on short droppers off the main line with a sinker of up to 16 ounces at the bottom of the rig. Capt. Judy’s rigs are handmade from 80-lb. monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. These rigs are tied onto 80-lb. test monofilament line spooled on a 4/0 reel coupled with a stand-up boat rod. The rod is short and beefy with a lot of backbone to bring big fish up from the bottom.
Another favorite is a Carolina-style rig with an egg sinker and bead on the main line followed by a hefty snap swivel. The snap is connected to a barrel swivel at the top of a leader of five to 10 feet of mono or fluorocarbon, again in 80-lb. test. The leader is terminated by a 14/0 circle hook. Judy likes these hooks because they set themselves in the fish and the strike-to-catch ratio is high, even with inexperienced anglers. Use up to an 8-oz. sinker, depending on current and wind conditions.
In both of these cases the baits are hooked though the lips, backs, or tails on various lines to determine which action the fish prefer on that day. Judy advises to let the rig drop to the bottom, then let out an additional four feet of line and leave it alone.
“The drifting boat provides enough movement that there isn’t any need to pull the rod up and lift the rig off the bottom,” says Judy. “If you just leave the bait in place, the fish will generally hook themselves.”
Judy soaks her sinkers in saltwater or vinegar water to dull them and remove any shine.
“Fish will attack shiny objects in the deep water,” says Judy. “If the sinker is shiny, they will often strike it and miss the bait. So take the shine off, and your results will improve.”
The egg-sinker rig allows the hook to float above the bottom several feet and gives the bait more freedom to swim. This can be a deadly combination for big snapper, according to Judy.
A third lighter rig is also configured in the Carolina style with an egg sinker and barrel swivel. In this case use a 1/2-oz. weight, a 20-lb. test leader and 10/0 circle hook. Judy calls this rig a “floater rig” because is floats down slowly to the bottom. A small piece of cut bait completes the offering, and the rig is fished on light tackle spooled with 20-lb. test line. Judy says that the floater rig is a great option for catching big vermillion snapper on the banks.
If you are an artificial-bait lover, jigs can also be very productive. Judy fishes bucktail jigs in various colors in sizes from one to three ounces depending on wind and current.
“The jigs can produce a lot of fish, especially when they are tipped with a piece of cutbait that waves like a tail as the jig is pulled along,” says Judy.
The jigs are allowed to sink to the bottom then pulled along with a lift-and-drop bumping action as the boat drifts.
No matter which of the methods you choose you are bound to catch fish if you position yourself over a live-bottom area. There are huge quantities of fish in these locations, and Judy tells us that catches of 100 fish are not uncommon in a day’s fishing. Red snapper will average seven to eight pounds with an occasional fish in the 30-lb. class.
The Georgia coast offers a variety of fishing opportunities including the snapper banks, trolling the Gulf Stream and a wealth of inshore marsh fishing in the sounds and numerous creeks and rivers. If you are inexperienced, however, it is best to go with someone who knows what they are doing. The ocean looks very big when you are 30 miles offshore and storms can come up quickly. Also, locating fish in this large expanse of water can be a challenge to say the least.
Capt. Judy Helmey has the expertise and experience to ensure that you have a great trip and, who knows, you might catch the fish of a lifetime. Give Miss Judy Charters a call at (912) 897-4921 or visit the website at <www.missjudycharters.com>.
If you need a place to stay overnight, the Desoto Beach Hotel on Tybee Island is a good choice. It provides ocean-front and ocean-view rooms and is an easy drive to Miss Judy Charters. Since it is on the beach it might be a great idea to bring the family and let them enjoy the beach and pool while you fish for big snapper. Visit their website at <www.desotobeachhotel.com> or give them a call at (877) 786-4542.