If you have a boat and some basic fishing knowledge, there is no need to pay big prices for a captain’s platter at a seafood restaurant. After a long growing season, the sea’s bounty is ripe for the picking during fall, with Georgia’s mile after square mile of productive marsh pumping out a smorgasbord. While seatrout and redfish come immediately to mind as peak fall bites, with a moderate investment you can also harvest crustaceans and lesser-known fish to round out a fall seafood feast.
Seatrout: Seatrout are (in my opinion) the sweetest tasting of our inshore fishes. A fried filet cooked just hours after the fish ate your lure is hard to beat. Starting this month, most of the trout have migrated from their beachside spawning locations to coastal rivers to gorge themselves on shrimp and baitfish. Your offering should be (or mimic) one of those two.
My favorite way to catch seatrout is with artificials, as my bass fishing background has me bent toward that presentation. A Cajun Thunder or Equalizer Float with a Saltwater Assassin Sea Shad suspended underneath is my go-to rig for high numbers of trout. I typically tie about 24 inches of Vicious Elite Fluorocarbon as leader material between my jig head and float. Fluorocarbon is a critical link, as it is much more abrasion resistant than monofilament. I use 20-lb. test almost all the time, but you can use 25 (if around extremely heavy cover) or even get away with 17-lb. test (in open areas). Fish the rig over oyster-shell mounds or in creek mouths to fool them. This rig will attract the attention of trout even in stained water, as my most effective retrieve is to cast it out and let the float sit up, then give it two or three firm but short jerks to make the beads and float clack together. Then, let the float sit up again, and repeat the cadence about halfway back to the boat. Most often, the float will go under right after the float sits up. Sweep-set the hook as soon as the float goes under. You do not have to pull super-hard like when bass fishing, but a quick hookset is imperative.
While many different lures will work on the Equalizer rigs, I have settled on the Assassin Sea Shad. I tried the others for years but routinely had the best success on the 4-inch Sea Shad. It is the perfect size for our coastal fish and has a tremendous number of color options to meet all conditions.
In clear water, my best colors over the last year have been goldfish (hands-down the best), new penny, glitterbug and greenback shiner. In stained water, the best colors during the last year have been Texas roach, electric chicken, Calcasieu brew and candy corn.
I usually try to find cleaner water if the area I am fishing is muddy, but if I have to fish it, I usually use limetreuse, cantaloupe or morning glory. I usually switch within those categories until I find the color they want. Some days they will hit whatever color you throw at them, but more times than not they are selective about which colors they will eat.
Live shrimp also work great for trout, and the majority of fish on our coast each fall are fooled with the live crustaceans. A long balsa float (rigged slip-style with a bobber stop above it) weighted heavily with a kahle hook on the business end is the traditional rig, but Cajun Thunder Floats have gained popularity in the last decade. Early in the fall, make sure to get a few quarts of shrimp at the start of the trip, as “bait stealers” are common. As the water cools in late fall, many of the pests will be gone. The advantage of the large balsa float is you can adjust your depth and fish very deep, if necessary. Often anglers will have their best success on the drop-offs near the channel around low tide and then shallower around oyster bars when the tide is high.
Redfish: Hard-pulling redfish are a blast to catch and usually roam around mud flats in large schools during fall. Their larger, firm filets are great grilled, fried or baked. Most of the fish you will catch inshore are less than 10 pounds, because the bigger spawners are in the sounds and beaches creating the new crop of reds. To find spottails, search for complex creek systems. My best spots are mud flats less than 3 feet deep with several little feeder creeks dumping out onto them. The second half of the ebb tide is by far my best time to catch them. I stake out with anchor pins or ease along with my trolling motor and cast across the flat. Oyster mounds improve a spot by providing ambush spots and areas where baitfish and shrimp will hang around. A chunk of baitfish or a dead shrimp on the bottom will fool them, but again, I prefer to chase them with artificials. In-line spinners, such as Flats-Stalkers or bass-style spinnerbaits like the Thunder Spin (Colorado blade) or Cajun Flash (willowleaf blade) are primo lures to chase redfish. They do not snag often, and the blade provides lift to keep them shallow. Simply reeling a Sea Shad on a light jig head is another presentation that works great for redfish. Shallow-diving crankbaits, such as a Mann’s Baby 1-Minus, also work well.
Flounder: Flounder are hard to beat for those who like an extremely mild-flavored fish. They are fantastic when stuffed with fresh crab meat, topped with parmesan cheese and broiled. My most effective way to catch them is to hit the mouths of small feeder creeks on the outgoing tide. A simple Carolina-rig with a foot-long leader and a 1/0 or 2/0 kahle hook is an excellent rig to fish a live mud minnow or mullet (3 to 4 inches long is perfect for average inshore flounder).
When you feel the flounder bite your minnow, do not set the hook. Wait for the fish to move off with it before sweeping a hookset. Other effective options are to drag that same rig near rocks near jetties. The biggest flounder of the season are generally caught between Thanksgiving and Christmas near inlets while they are migrating to nearshore reefs to spawn. If you have a row of docks near your favorite fishing area, you can skewer those same mud minnows or finger mullet on a jig head and pitch to pilings.
The St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island piers have produced excellent flounder catches so far this summer and early fall. Our state record flounder, a 15-lb., 10-oz. doormat, was caught from the Jekyll Island Pier in 1990. Think about ambush spots when targeting flounder. They will get behind or in front of objects that cause a current break and just lie there buried in the sand, waiting for a hapless baitfish or shrimp to wash by.
Whiting: Whiting filets are hard to beat for firm texture and mild flavor. What they lack in size, they make up in taste. The most effective way to catch them is bottom fishing with a small (about a half to third of a medium-sized shrimp) piece of dead shrimp. Carolina-rigs are the standard, but I have had excellent success with a double dropper rig (Stealth Rig) that I make. I like giving the fish a second option if they steal the first bait, and you can even catch two at a time when you get in them. Along with whiting, it is common to hook up with croaker, spot, yellowtails (silver perch) and quite a few “what is that” fish. That is part of the fun of bottom fishing… seeing what kind of weird-looking species you can pull up.
Fish the holes at the mouths of feeder creeks and sandbar drops in the various sounds for fall whiting. I have frequently caught some huge whiting by bouncing curly tailed grubs along bottom while trout fishing.
Shrimp: The shrimp you buy from the grocery store seafood counter are tasty, but there is nothing like a freshly caught Georgia shrimp boiled or fried that night for supper. Now that modified nets are again legal in Georgia, you do not have to be a cast-net expert to catch your own. The tape or other webbing material will open your net as it falls. Find a deep hole (in most areas that means 15 to 30 feet deep) the shrimp fall back into around low tide, and cast into the hole. Early in the fall you can catch them upriver, but spend most of your time closer to or in sounds after cooler weather arrives.
You can make your own “taped” net by using a couple rolls of duct tape and running a continuous strip of tape around the circumference of the net about 8 to 10 inches above the lead line. You can also purchase an already taped net for not much more than a regular cast net. If you cannot find modified cast nets at your favorite bait-and-tackle dealer, you can get them online at www.wingesoutdoors.com. The nets sold at Winge’s come with instructions and an ingenious little belt clip that holds a portion of the lead line while you throw it so that you do not have to put the lead line in your mouth.
Blue Crabs: Blue crabs are a delicacy that I developed a taste for while growing up in Maryland. With the Chesapeake Bay nearby, our family’s summer tradition was to spend an afternoon eating a bushel of the steamed crustaceans underneath a backyard shade tree. You can catch your own by actively crabbing with a hoop drop net or closeable trap or by throwing out “commercial” style crab pots and then retrieving them after you are finished fishing.
Put a chicken neck in the bottom of the hoop net or closeable trap, or fill the bait area of a commercial-style trap with fish remains to bait the crabs. Each angler is allowed to fish up to six crab pots under their recreational license. While fishing commercial-style crab pots, do not be surprised if a stone crab wanders in your trap, as their population has expanded in recent years. Check the fishing regulations available at www.gofishgeorgia.com for other requirements regarding setting crab traps.
Oysters & Clams: These are my least-favorite items on a captain’s platter, but both are abundant and easy to collect on our coast. This is the first month to meet the criteria of the old adage to eat oysters in months that have an “r” in them, but the season for oyster collecting does not reopen until Oct. 1 due to concerns about vibrio, a bacteria that can affect you if you eat raw oysters. I have friends who routinely collect oysters and clams during the cold months. They usually drift in their jonboat around oyster-shell mounds chipping off the legal-sized bivalves.
For clams, they muck around until they bump a clam with their feet (they wear water shoes or dive boots). There are many specifics about what sizes of oysters and clams you can collect and what areas are open for harvest. For a map of open areas and all the other details about collecting bivalves, look in the sportfishing regulations and the Coastal Resources Division website at www.CoastalGADNR.org.
To describe what I mean by going after the bounty of the sea, let me chronicle a trip a friend and I made last September. We launched at the Crooked River State Park ramp on the last of the outgoing tide. Our first stop was one of my consistent redfish holes. We cast Sea Shads for about an hour across the mud flat and caught five redfish (three were oversized and were released) before the tide turned.
As the tide started flooding, we moved several miles south and pulled out the cast nets. By the time our shoulders were sore a few hours later, we had a half-cooler full of medium to large shrimp. Stowing the cast nets, we bounced around from creek mouth to oyster bar and managed to land 28 seatrout up to 22 inches on Equalizer-Sea Shad rigs. In a tide cycle and a half we had the makings for a feast.
During fall, you can choose what type of seafood you want to harvest and go after it. If we had just thought to throw out a few crab traps at the start of our trip, we would have had a sure enough grand-slam captain’s platter.