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Early Spring For Okefenokee Trophy Fish

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This is a great time to get your name listed in GON’s Georgia Lake and River Records list under its new category, the Okefenokee Swamp.

Chain pickerel, warmouth, flier, bullhead catfish, bowfin… not exactly the who’s who of well-known sport- fish. But, in southeast Georgia, they are a unique assemblage of species, which make up the potential new lake-record list of fishes for the Okefenokee Swamp in GON’s Georgia Lake and River Records.

While the various species can be caught 12 months out of the year, the spring months are the best time to catch the trophy specimens. The Okefenokee is no stranger to record fish, as it holds the state record for one of the lesser- known species. The state record bowfin, or mudfish as it is often referred to in south Georgia, was caught from the Okefenokee Swamp by Charles Conley in 1976. It has been a long time since that catch, and no doubt someone has caught bowfin close to that size, not realizing it could be a potential state record. The February issue of GON notes Charles’ state-record catch, but all of the other categories are open.

In looking over my fishing log, March has been a fantastic month for big fliers (a panfish that looks like a crappie with a smallmouth). Large chain pickerel and bowfin have also frequented my catch during the month of March. Catfish and warmouth fishing will pick up later in the spring as the water warms, and they become more active, but do not be surprised if one eats your offering this month.

There are three primary entrances for the public to the Okefenokee Swamp. The first is on the east side near Folkston. The east entrance is headquarters of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and has a full-service outfitter, Okefenokee Adventures.

The west side near Fargo is home to the Stephen C. Foster State Park, <www.gastateparks.org/info/scfoster>. The park facilities include cabins, a campground, store and boat ramp. Both motorboats and canoes are available for rent at the park.

Kingfisher Landing, off Highway 1 between Folkston and Waycross, is the third access. This access has a boat ramp and access dock. This entrance is not staffed, so you must have the  required passes before arriving.

Each entrance is unique and has its own charm. The east entrance has a long, man-made canal off of which various trails meander. There are large “prairies” or weedy, shallow-water flats on either side of the canal. Wildlife and wildflowers on the prairies can be spectacular if you time it right. For a list of what to look for each month, check the refuge website. At the west entrance, you are in the headwaters to the Suwannee River. The blackwater flows through cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, creating a very picturesque setting. Kingfisher Landing is a deep canal, which was dug out for the peat it contained. At current water levels, it is very difficult to fish anywhere except the canal.

I was able to sneak out between cold snaps twice to Stephen C. Foster State Park during January before my article deadline. The first trip was a cool, windy, cloudy afternoon. A friend and I worked a short stretch of lily pads and cypress trees in Billy’s Lake and caught 51 fliers on yellow and orange sallies. During a full-day trip, my brother-in-law and I worked Billy’s Lake and Minnie’s Run out of the state park and caught 3-dozen fliers and a nice chain pickerel, all on yellow sallies. We trolled lures along the weedlines in hopes of catching a quality pickerel, but that method did not produce. Occasional rain showers dampened our feet but not
our spirits. The fliers bit best for the hour after the rain stopped while clouds still snuffed out the sunlight. During these two trips, fliers up to a half-pound ate up my hand-tied yellow sally flies, but the trophy-sized fish eluded us. As the shallows warm and the big fish move in to spawn, fliers up to a pound are possible.

Flier: The best description I can think of for a flier is that it looks like a crappie with a small mouth. The emerald-colored iri- descence on these fish is beautiful. To set the new flier record, you have a good chance at either the
east or west entrances. I have caught fliers on small tube lures, Beetle Spins and inline spinners, but the best method, by far, is pitching yellow sally flies either with a bream-buster type pole or on a fly rod. A yellow sally is a small, yellow sinking fly available only in tackle stores around the Okefenokee. The perfect rig consists of a 9-foot Wonderpole with an equal length of 8-lb. test Vicious fluorocarbon. The fluorocarbon is much more resistant than monofilament to abrasion, a common occurrence when fishing around cypress stumps and lily pads. You can fish the yellow sally weightless and let it slowly sink through the water column or crimp an extremely small split-shot (No. 10 clam shot is my favorite) above the lure to get it down more quickly. The weighted version is my preference on windy days.

Make sure to wear polarized sun- glasses so you can cut the glare and see into the water to keep track of your yellow sally. Most bites occur as the lure drops about a foot, right at the level you cannot see it without polarized sun- glasses. My Tifosi Open Water Green Fototec lenses fit the bill perfectly for this presentation. When you see the fly disappear, flick your wrist to set the hook, and hang on. Fish as small as 2 inches grab the fly occasionally, but you are in for a battle on the light pole when a 10-incher eats it.

Chain Pickerel: From my experience, the best shot at a trophy-class chain pickerel is Billy’s Lake on the west side. Billy’s Lake is the big lake you enter immediately after idling through the short canal at the state-park boat basin. This lake has a little bit of current and contains expansive lily pad flats in the sloughs off the main channel. Over the years, big pickerel have succumbed to minnow-plugs and inline spinners trolled slowly along the edge of the vegetation. To me, the most exciting method of pursuing pickerel is to go into the weeds and try to make them bite. I use unweighted soft jerk- baits, such as Bass Assassin 4-inch Charm worms, and twitch them quickly through the pads. Bright colors, such as pink or chartreuse have been my most productive colors. Pickerel will sit in skinny water waiting for baitfish to pass by, so do not overlook the really shallow areas.

Small, unweighted soft jerkbaits are difficult to cast, so light-action spinning or spincasting tackle is in order. A great outfit for fishing any technique in the swamp is a 5 1/2-foot light-action Ugly Stik paired with a Shakespeare Agility 830 spinning reel. I spool up with 6-lb. test Vicious Ultimate Monofilament to keep the fight sporting, and so I can cast light lures. I prefer monofilament on spinning or spincasting outfits because the stretch in the line allows a little margin for error when fighting a fish and also allows soft jerkbaits to work back and forth better than other low-stretch lines. If you are not willing to break off a few pickerel, you can rig a short 6-inch wire leader in front of your lure to prevent the pickerel’s teeth from severing your line.

Warmouth: Warmouth are a challenging species to target. The population of big warmouth has declined over the last two decades, but quality fish are making a rebound in Billy’s Lake. The bigger fish are typically caught later in the spring and are usually caught from the west side, which has the best warmouth habitat (cypress stumps). Warmouth can be caught by dab- bling live crawdads in and around the stumps. A bream- buster pole easily deploys the crustacean, or you can back up and cast to the stumps with spinning or spincasting tackle. A No. 4 or No. 2 aberdeen hook with a BB split-shot crimped a few inches above the hook is a good rig for warmouth. If casting, a float will help prevent snagging the stumps and cypress knees. Warmouth approaching a pound are possible from Billy’s Lake.

Bullhead Catfish: Bullhead catfish do not grow very big, but what they lack in size, they make up in edibility. Kevin Hart, a Fargo native, is a catfish specialist. He usually fishes the Suwannee River below the Okefenokee, but he has wet his hook for years in Billy’s Lake.

“The key to catching catfish is to find deeper holes. If the holes have wood cover, that is even better,” Kevin said.

Shrimp is Kevin’s favorite bait for catfish. He buys several pounds of shrimp at a time from the grocery store and freezes individual baggies with about 30 shrimp each. When he is ready to use them, he cuts each shrimp into about three or four baits. He anchors his boat upstream of a deep hole and lets his lines swing down into the hole. Because the current keeps his lines tight, he can more readily detect strikes. Kevin fishes shrimp on a Carolina rig with a 6-inch leader between the swivel and hook. He uses as light of an egg sinker (usually 1/8- oz. will do the job) as possible to hold bottom. A No. 4 or No. 2 blue-aberdeen hook works well, so that you can bend the hook if you hang up. Also, 10- or 12-lb. test monofilament works best for bottom fishing since lighter lines weak- en quickly when contacting obstructions. You will have to wade through quite a few half-pound catfish before you catch a trophy 1-pounder, but the  bigger fish are around.

Bowfin: That brings us to the species for which the swamp already holds not only the lake record but the state record, as well. Bowfin are probably the most ubiquitous species in the swamp. You can catch them in the deep runs, shallow flats, lily pads, open water, treetops, or any other type of habitat you can find. And, they bite spinners, minnow plugs, worms, yellow sallies, cut bait, or about anything else you throw at them. The best way to catch a bowfin is to fish for something else! They are famous for interrupting a great flier bite or jumping on a trolled plug before a pickerel eats it. When trolling with inline spinners, if you troll fast then pickerel hit better, but if you slow it down, bowfin will jump all over it. If I were going to target bowfin, I would fish the lily pads at any of the three entrances with the same Assassin soft jerkbait I use for pickerel, except I would slow it way down and let the bowfin get a good look at it. If I wanted to throw bait for bowfin, I would  bottom fish a cut-bait at the edge of a lily pad flat. If you are chasing the new state record bowfin by bottom fishing, leave the light action rods at home. A 6 1/2-foot medium-heavy action All Star rod is in order. My choice for line would be Vicious Braid in the 30-lb. test version. From the swivel to the No. 2 stout hook, I would rig with 20-lb. test fluorocarbon (for its abrasion resistance). If you are serious about a state record, use 15-lb. test wire leader between the hook and swivel.

If you happen to land a potential record fish, the easiest way to get it certified is through the process for certifying angler award fish through the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. Go to www.gofishgeorgia.com, and then click “Fishing,” then “Angler Awards Program” at the bottom. The February issue of GON each year gives details about GON’s Georgia Lake and River Records program.

As part of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System, the Okefenokee Refuge has some special regulations. The entrance fee requirement may be met in several ways. The $5 per car weekly entrance fee can be paid at either the state park or refuge entrances. Alternately, a Federal Duck Stamp, Refuge Annual Pass, or other Federal Recreation Passport suffices for the daily entrance fee. A Georgia state fishing license is required to fish in the Okefenokee, and statewide size and creel limits apply. Several special regulations exist, but the two that anglers will be most interested are the the prohibition on using live fish for bait and the 10-horsepower maximum on outboard motors. The perfect swamp rig is a lightweight jonboat with a 9.9-horsepower outboard and a trolling motor. If you do not have the necessary rig, you can rent one (minus the trolling motor) from either the east or west entrances.

Additional regulations apply, so I suggest that before venturing into the swamp, you call the refuge office (912) 496-7836 or visit the refuge website.

Armed with these tips and techniques, you can set the bar on these new lake-record species this spring. My children and I will be right there with you this March.

Editor’s Note: Bert’ s hand-tied yellow sallies are available for purchase at Okefenokee Adventures at the east entrance or by calling him at (912) 287-1604.

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