All of us like a good deal. Whether it’s a good price on your buddy’s boat or a BOGO on your favorite lure, we perk up when we see a money-saving opportunity. For anglers, one such vacation opportunity exists in the southeast corner of our great state at Crooked River State Park.
The combination of discounted lodging at a state park cabin overlooking the expansive coastal Georgia marshes and a guide trip with Capt. Andy Gowen is the kind of deal that piques my interest. Capt. Andy has lived his whole life in southeast Georgia and knows how to catch just about all the critters that live in the brine. Everything from shrimp to whiting to redfish to tarpon have come over the gunnels of his boat. And, he is more than willing to take you and help you catch them, as well. Andy is an accomplished redfish tournament angler, most recently placing third along with Capt. Justin Paulk in the Inshore Fishing Association (IFA) Redfish Trail Pro Series event in Jacksonville. I have fished a few other times with Andy, and he has always put us on fish.
In mid-May, I was able to take a trip with Andy. We discussed the options and settled in on working the St. Marys jetties for sheepshead, redfish and flounder. Visions of baked sheepshead or crab-meat-stuffed flounder or golden-brown redfish fingers danced through my head before I shook myself back into reality. The wind forecast that day was a little iffy, but we decided to try it, as we had thousands of acres of marshes filled with seatrout and redfish if our primary plan got blown out. What a back-up plan!
As the sun approached the horizon creating a collage of reds and oranges, I loaded my gear into Andy’s Maverick flats boat. In a moment, his 250 horsepower Yamaha SHO outboard roared to life. As we motored toward a mullet flat, I learned that the sheepshead portion of the trip was off because he could not find the big shrimp that he was seeking. So, we were down to targeting the other two species—not a problem. We eased up to the mouth of a creek that had just started ebbing, and Andy flung his cast net a few times and added some 6-inch mullet to the livewell. He fired the Yamaha, pointed the bow east, and we were off to the jetties.
In case you have never been there, the St. Marys jetties are comprised of massive boulders that are placed amazingly straight and jut 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. They create an unfathomable number of crevices, nooks and crannies that support the entire food chain. As we idled down the rocks looking over the situation, only the top link of the food chain was going through our minds.
“The water is still a little high to anchor up and put out bait, so let’s fish artificials to start with,” Andy announced.
So, with that, I grabbed my confidence lure, one of my hand-tied 1/2-oz. bucktail jigs in a mullet color, and began casting. Andy started with a 3/8-oz. black jig head and a Gulp! Shrimp.
He explained that his plan was to work lures until obvious blow-throughs (actual discernible little rivulets of current through the rocks) started to develop. We started out at the “low spot” in the jetties (an area where the rocks are only exposed during low tide) as the rocks were just becoming visible.
It didn’t take long before a rod was doubled and a hard-fighting jack crevalle was stripping drag. After a couple-minute fight, it circled its way up to the boat. A few photos later, the beautiful, yellow-tip finned fish was diving toward freedom. Jack crevalle are really hard fighters and are a blast to catch, but only the small ones are decent table fare. We were both surprised to catch a jack this early in the season.
“The jacks don’t usually arrive until the pogies show up on the beach, and they haven’t arrived in big numbers yet,” Andy said.
A few jacks and ladyfish later and it was obvious that the larger bucktail was getting their attention better than the smaller offering. The next thing I knew, Andy was doubled over with a freight train headed east. The drag on his reel was screaming, and we both knew that he had a hold of the spot-tailed beast like we had dreamed of on the morning run out. I grabbed the net and prepared the deck for the tussle ahead of us. Andy backed off the drag and expertly played the fish in what looked like a ballet for several laps around the boat, avoiding outboards, trolling motors and various other obstacles.
Once I was in position to net it, the giant copper-colored fish still made several more dives before I was able to secure the net around its head. Half its body was still outside the net, so it was a two-man job to wrestle the behemoth over the side. Several quick photos and the insertion of a Georgia Coastal Resources Division tag in its back later, and we revived the big fish and watched it dive back to the rocks. The redfish was 42 inches from snout to tip of tail and weighed at least 30 pounds. It was the fattest redfish I had ever seen. It had 25 spots on one side, but we did not take the time to count the spots on the other side. An epic fish like that makes an entire trip! A few fist bumps later, and we were back at it.
Only jack crevalle and ladyfish ate our offerings before the tide got right to put some bait on the bottom for redfish. Andy maneuvered the boat toward a close-by blow-through, and he anchored us with that GPS-controlled feature on his Motor Guide XS trolling motor.
“You know when the tide is right for anchoring out when the boat stops moving away from the rocks because of the high water velocity coming over and through them,” he said.
Andy sent a live mullet to the bottom while I continued casting lures toward the rocks. It wasn’t long before a bluefish or crevalle bit the tail off the mullet. He put another down with a similar result within minutes. Since we only had a few live mullet, he put some cut ladyfish down to try to hook the bait-killer. A keeper-sized black sea bass is all that would sniff the cut bait, so he sent another live mullet down and returned with a tailless baitfish. The cat-and-mouse game continued a little longer, while I caught a couple more ladyfish and jacks on bucktail jigs. During the process, we saw a tarpon in the 75-lb. class roll between the boat and the rocks and two others busting bait in the area. We were hoping that one of our offers would interest them, but it was not to be. The northeast wind started building, and our protection from the rock jetty was evaporating by the minute due to the rising tide. After a few more minutes, Andy conceded that redfish weren’t in big numbers that day, and we decided to go closer to the beach to try for flounder.
We headed west and stowed our redfish rods in exchange for lighter-weight spinning outfits suited for smaller baits. Andy’s rod was one of his Tail Chaser custom rods built on a G. Loomis blank. The sensitivity of that high-quality blank makes a difference when fishing for the soft-biting flounder. Andy flung a white, 4-inch curly tailed grub on a red, 1/4-oz. Flashy Jighead, while I opted for an Assassin Sea Shad in the space-guppy color rigged on a chartreuse, 1/4-oz. Flashy Jighead. The little willow blade underneath that jig head gives enough flash to get a flounder’s attention. I have caught flounder up to 5 pounds at Crooked River on that setup.
We started fan-casting toward the rocks and retrieving it out over the sandy bottom. After a few minutes, Andy reared back on a nice fish and called for the net. A flat fish came boatside and in usual fashion hit full-reverse when it saw the boat. After several repetitions of that move, I was able to slip the net under an 18-inch flounder.
By then it was getting hot, and we decided to call it a day. In just a half-day of fishing, we had landed 3-dozen jack crevalle and ladyfish, a big black sea bass, a doormat flounder and a trophy redfish. We were pleased with the catch, and the bite will only get better as the water warms this summer.
The redfish-flounder trip that we made or seatrout, tarpon, sharks, sheepshead, whiting, shrimping or even flounder gigging are available through Andy and Crooked River State Park. The discount is generally around 10 percent off the price if you would book a guide trip and a cabin separately. The price of the package depends upon which fishing/shrimping trip you select. Discounted camping-fishing packages are also available. In order to book one of these trips, you will do so through Crooked River State Park directly at (912) 882-5256, not through the state parks central reservations system.
There are lots of things to do at Crooked River State Park and in the surrounding area. There are events scheduled all summer at the park, so check out the event calendar on their webpage for more details. The park has several trails, group shelters, a nature center, boat tours (both history and sunset tours) and interpretive programs, as well.
For anglers, the North Star Bait and Tackle (912) 729-8018, operated by the park, has all the gear and bait you will need. They also have two rental boats (14-foot Carolina Skiffs with 25 horsepower motors) available, so you can fish on your own schedule if you would like. You must make reservations ahead of time for the rental boats.
Cumberland Island National Seashore (CINS) is the large island separating the marshes from the Atlantic. It is a fun place to explore and was one of my family’s favorite destinations the last time we stayed in the cabins of Crooked River State Park. We took our own boat, paid the entrance fees at the CINS office at the waterfront in St. Marys, tied up at the dock and explored the island all day. The Spanish moss-covered live oaks lining the roads were beautiful, but the beach was especially fun. We saw wild horses several places on the island, which was very intriguing to my daughter. There is a ferry (for a fee) that takes tourists without a boat over to the island. For all the details, check out the CINS website and the site for the Cumberland Island Ferry.
Whether your whole family fishes or just a few of you, I am sure you will have a great time fishing and relaxing in the outdoors at Crooked River State Park this summer.
Editor’s Note: Visit the Crooked River State Park website at gastateparks.org/crookedriver. If you are interested in just a trip with Andy, you can check out his Tail Chaser Charters website at www.andygowenfishing.com or call him at (904) 383-0866. Also check out the lures used on this trip at Bert’s Jigs & Things on Facebook.