Earlier in the year, Crooked River State Park in extreme southeast Georgia won the “Most Outstanding Park Operations” award for a combination of being run efficiently, as well as having outstanding interpretive programs and facilities. With such an awesome assortment of parks and historic sites across our great state, that is quite an honor. A decade ago, it was a regular occurrence for my father and I to rent the Crooked River State Park cabins for a few days when he visited, and we would fish for trout and redfish. Since my parents moved to Waycross, we now typically drive to the park to fish for the day and drive home again. During spring break in early April, my family and I decided to stay in the cabins again and sample many of the fun activities the park and area have to offer.
Knowing that we could not check into our cabin until the afternoon, we sidetracked into the city of St. Marys for the early afternoon. We had a great lunch in a café in the historic downtown section, dining on the patio overlooking the St. Marys River. I was glad we did not fish that day, as the high winds whipped the outgoing tide to a froth. After lunch, we headed to the Cumberland Island National Seashore visitor center to plan details for the next day’s trip to the island. We obtained Junior Ranger booklets for our kids and paid the visitor fee for the next day. Once everything was lined up there, the kids played on the fun and modern playground in the adjacent city park. Next, we were off to the state park.
Before we checked into our cabin, we decided to walk one of the shorter trails along the marsh, the River Trail. I had seen anglers fishing for sheepshead along the rocks at the trail, but nobody was fishing that day. My 7-year-old son Timothy especially enjoyed the rugged trail, pretending that he was one of the adventurers in his Lego sets. We caught fiddler crabs and saw interesting animals and plants along its quarter-mile course.
Back at the office, the helpful and friendly staff got us squared away, and we made the 192 trips back and forth to the cabin with our stuff (our family simply does not pack light… for anything). After supper, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset, which we watched from the bluff overlooking Crooked River. The sun dipped below the pine-strewn horizon, reflecting gold, orange, and red hues on the calm river. Our front-row seat to the beauty was only a few steps behind our cabin. Timothy had a blast playing with his action figures in the spacious living room, while our daughter Ellie cherished quiet time rocking and reading on the screened-in porch. We turned in early, as we knew we had a big day ahead of us.
After breakfast, we launched my Mako bay boat at the park ramp and headed down Crooked River and south on the Intracoastal Waterway and docked at the Sea Camp Dock on the west side of Cumberland Island. Ellie had been talking for days about seeing horses on Cumberland Island, and that continued during our short walk across the island. Huge Spanish moss-draped live oaks with palmetto understory lined the trail. We did not see any horses during the walk, but we saw “evidence” that horses were around.
We discussed several of the activities in the Junior Ranger books as we transitioned from the forest to the dune portion of the island. As soon as we stepped onto the beach, we looked south, and five wild horses greeted us just a few feet from the wooden walkway across the dunes. Used to humans, they just walked around the dunes, frolicking and sunning themselves while we marveled at them. I was surprised that nobody got too close to them, which is a common occurrence when visitors do not respect them for the wild animals that they are. We spent several hours on the beach, digging in the sand, watching horses sunning on the beach (and laying in the surf), eating lunch (you have to carry everything to the beach with you and all of your trash out), and splashing in the waves.
While my family explored the Dungeness Mansion ruins, I set out to catch supper. I fished small pieces of shrimp on my two-hook Stealth Rig and drifted until I caught my first fish. The depth of that first hook-up close to the dock was 24 feet, and that is where I threw my anchor. The bite was slow, but every now and then one of my two poles would double over with a nice whiting. I managed five whiting from 10 to 12 inches in the short hour that they explored the ruins, just enough filets for supper, when added to the sides we already had. Their exploration of the Dungeness ruins was highlighted by a half-dozen turkeys feeding near the ruins. The best quote of the trip came while Timothy was watching the turkeys mill around.
With all of his 7-year old wisdom, he proclaimed to Teresa, “Mommy, I should get a stick and go over there and kill a turkey for supper so that daddy doesn’t have to catch fish.”
We settled for fish. On the boat ride back to the state-park ramp, we were treated to seeing one of the Trident subs that calls Kings Bay Naval Base “home” docked in the bay. After cleaning the whiting at the cleaning station at the ramp, we headed back to the cabin to relax. The kids played and read while Teresa and I whipped up our family’s favorite fish meal— sautéed filets. Another gorgeous sunset greeted us for dessert before we retired for the night.
The final morning’s plans included my fishing with Capt. Andy Gowen while Teresa and the kids poked around the St. Marys Submarine Museum in downtown St. Marys. Andy picked me up before sunrise, and we headed to see what we could catch on a beautiful spring day. Our first stop on a flat known for redfish produced no spottails, but an 18-inch trout inhaled Andy’s Bomber Badonkadonk topwater. We moved to another area to cast jigs into a deep hole for trophy trout, but we could not manage any. Andy had an idea that with the calm winds we should head to the St. Marys jetties to check out the big redfish, so we ran about 10 miles south.
When we arrived at the rocks, we tied on a pair of my 1/2-oz. jigheads (with 5/0 Gamakatsu hooks), and Andy threw a Gulp shrimp while I used a Texas roach Assassin Sea Shad. A few hang-ups after we began fishing the rocks, I set the hook on what I thought was a small fish. It shook its head but came right to the surface. My eyes bugged out when I saw the behemoth, a 40-inch-class redfish that did not realize it was hooked until it was on the surface. A blistering second run while I frantically tried to loosen the drag ended in a “Ka-Pow,” with my leader breaking. I was disgusted that I did not check my leader more often when I hung in the rocks. Hindsight is 20-20, though. I mumbled and retied (including a new leader).
Andy swept a hookset and fought a beautiful flounder, an 18-incher, boatside. We missed a couple of other small bites and boated a small bluefish, which helped us identify the little pests nipping our lures. Just a few casts later, I bowed up on another big fish. This one fought immediately after my hookset, and I knew it was a pretty solid fish. With a leader in good shape, I was able to work the fish boatside for a photo-release. The bull redfish measured 29 inches, not nearly as big as the one I broke off, but still a great fish. We eased along the jetties for almost an hour with no more success until Andy announced that the tide was right to try for big black drum in Crooked River. So, we ran the 10 miles back north.
We anchored in the channel where several black drum had been caught recently and put out some crabs, cut bait and shrimp to try to fool a trophy black drum. We also dropped small bottom rigs for whiting. We fished about an hour without a run from a big fish, but we did manage a few black sea bass and sharks with the small rigs. We were amazed that we were not able to coax any whiting from the area. On the way in, we checked two areas with Equalizer Float/Sea Shad rigs and fooled eight seatrout. Goldfish was the only color Sea Shad we could get them to eat. We mused that the shallow trout bite was excellent, while we struggled for bottom fish that day. Often, the opposite is the case. All of our quality fish were fooled with artificial lures.
We met Teresa and the kids at the ramp and learned about their fun morning at the St. Marys Submarine Museum. They had fun learning about submarines, playing on the various simulators and looking through the real periscope that let them scan downtown St. Marys. We were all sad that the fun had to end as we headed west back to Waycross.
If you have not been to Crooked River State Park lately, you will be impressed with the improvements. Last year, the office was renovated, and now there is a very nice gift shop/camp store as you enter the office. A new bait-and-tackle shop is being built in the corner of the parking lot at the boat ramp, and it should be open by the time you read this. They will have live and dead bait, as well as a wide array of lures and bait rigs. One of the many family activities coming up at the park is the Family Nature Quest, and it will be held from 10 a.m.-noon on the first Saturday of each month until the end of 2013. The park is taking reservations in advance, and the cost is $10 per family (pay at the office), and the $5 parking fee applies.
With the high price of gasoline, many families are opting for vacation destinations closer to home, and our state parks scattered throughout the state are perfect. Fort McAllister State Park in Richmond Hill near Savannah is another coastal state park with fishing access, cabins and camping. Many of the other parks and historic sites around the state have ponds, rivers, creeks and other locations with excellent fishing options. Each offers its own unique experience.
Crooked River State Park offers fishing packages. They are quite a deal, including two-night accommodations in the park cabins and a half-day guided fishing trip with guide Capt. Andy Gowen. Options are not limited to just trout and redfish, as other “fishing” choices include bull redfish, shrimp cast-netting and flounder gigging. Prices vary based upon the length of the trip chosen and the type of trip. For details about fishing packages or any of the amenities at Crooked River State Park, check out their website at www.gastateparks.org/info/crookriv. 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 (912) 729-1958. For information about Capt. Bert’s lures and bottom rigs, give me a call for a catalog or information at (912) 287-1604 or e-mail me at email@example.com.
The award-winning Crooked River State Park will provide your family an awesome experience, whether you use it for its comfortable lodging as a jumping off point for area attractions or as your sole destination for relaxation and events on the park.