We have all heard the old saying, “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” but what about when life gives you strawberries?
Rutland Farms, located just outside of Tifton, can answer that question. You make syrup, jams and jellies, and as a aside you create one of the best small-lake and farm-pond fishing destinations most anglers probably never heard of.
Rutland Farms has been going strong now as a family business for more than a hundred years, growing anything and everything, but known especially for their amazing jumbo strawberries and super fresh produce. With all of the produce farming at Rutland Farms, there is a constant need in south Georgia’s hot and dry climate for a water supply, and that brings us back to the fishing.
As the farm really began to grow in the middle part of the 1900s, Bruce Rutland began to dig pond after pond to meet the growing need for irrigation on the farm. Unknown to him at the time, he was creating what would become what may very well be the best small-lake bass fishing destination in Georgia.
As the fish populations continued to grow in these irrigation lakes, so did requests from neighbors and passers-by wanting to fish. That’s when one day Bruce’s son, Greg, came up with the idea to let anyone and everyone who wanted to fish pay a fee to do so. That fee could then help pay taxes and other expenses associated with maintaining the ponds.
So just how good is the fishing at the 14 ponds and small lakes at Rutland? Well, there have been two bass pushing 16 pounds caught in recent years, and more 10-pounders have been caught over the years than could ever be counted. The even better news is that those bass are all still there due to Rutland’s strict catch-and-release policy on all bass.
Several bass clubs host tournaments at Rutland each year, and regularly it takes 18 pounds or more—with a three-fish limit—to even have a chance at the money.
Great bass fishing aside, the farm also boosts some excellent panfishing opportunities. Bluegills up to a pound and shellcrackers even larger are the norm. And if you’re a fish and grits lover, you can keep up to 20 of these jumbo panfish a day.
When I made a trip to Rutland Farms a month ago to work on this article, Greg Rutland was happy to show me around his farm, pointing out some of the best fishing holes as of late. With 17 ponds to choose from, where to start is definitely a hard decision. Several of these ponds have concrete boat ramps that offer access to even the largest of bass boats, and all ponds offer good access to bank bound anglers.
I ended up fishing three different ponds at Rutland that day, and despite a cold front and 15 mile per hour winds, I managed to land 50 bass up to about 2 pounds in six hours of fishing. I also had a couple of really nice bass come off at the boat. Though I didn’t wind up catching a trophy fish that day, the fishing was nothing short of phenomenal, and a return trip is already on my mind.
I decided to try my luck in the Sunset Pond first, and though it only had a dirt ramp, I launched my 15-foot bass boat with no problem. After a few casts with no results, I threw my weightless Bruiser Rad Shad in baby bass (a fluke-style bait) up tight to some shoreline grass, and after a quick boil on top of the water, my heavy-action Vexan Rod and Abu Garcia reel was putting in overtime to bring the fish to the boat. Moments later I released the fat 2-pounder, and a few casts later I repeated the process. This continued for a couple of hours. When I pulled my boat out of Sunset Pond, the fish were still biting.
The key to fishing Sunset is to fish extremely tight to the shoreline weeds and use weightless lures to stay out of the grass. Other anglers also have great success throwing buzzbaits and spinnerbaits, particularly early in the morning.
The next lake I had to give a try was what locals simply call the Powerline Pond due to the massive set of powerlines that run directly overhead. As I was preparing to launch my boat, I could see a nice set of 3-pounders cruising the bank. Ready for action, I quickly backed down the lake’s concrete ramp and unloaded my boat. Due to the pond’s extremely clear water, I elected to throw a Bruiser Super Swimmer swimbait in the smoky-shad color on a black 1/8-oz. jig head.
About 100 yards from the ramp, I came to one of the transformer poles located in the lake and threw my swimbait just past it. After three turns of the reel handle, I was greeted with a strike that almost took the rod clean out of my hands. I had a nice 4-lb. fish tail-walking beside the boat, and due to some slack in the line, or maybe the fish being plain lucky, he managed to throw the hook right before I could lip him.
I didn’t manage to stay upset for long because minutes later another good fish slammed the super swimmer, and he wasn’t as lucky as his friend. After releasing the fish, I worked around the pond catching fish after fish on the swimbait. As I approached the far end of the Powerline Pond, a huge grass mat caught my attention. I grabbed my 7-foot, 4-inch heavy-action Vexan rod and slung a Bruiser Kickin Frog parallel to the grass. As soon as the frog hit the water, a fish exploded on it, and after a whole lot of acrobatics, I grabbed the lip of another solid bass. I proceeded to catch five more bass on the grassy end of the Powerline Pond by throwing the Kickin Frog, and just like at the Sunset Pond, I left the fish biting.
Like all good things in life, I saved the best pond for last. And by best I mean a pond that has been on the farm for more than 80 years and has never been drained. The Granddaddy Pond is a bass fisherman’s dream—black water, thick grass and lots of bass that are above 10 pounds. Many local anglers believe due to this pond’s age, it may be holding a 20-plus-pound bass.
This pond also has a concrete ramp, but after launching my bass boat, I realized that a kayak or small jonboat would be a better option due the lake’s dense grass growth. Nevertheless, I began to push my way around the pond. On the end of the pond where the dam is located, there is a huge section of grass that comes well out into the lake.
I first fished the outside edge of the grass with a junebug-colored Fatso Stick made by Bass Addiction Gear, and I managed to land several quality bass in about a half hour. Due to the sun rising higher in the sky, I decided to push my way a little farther into the grass and try my hand at punching the vegetation. Rigged up with some 40-lb. Goat Rope braid, a 2-oz. Flat Out tungsten sinker and a Bruiser Baits Intruder worm in watermelon-red, I began to work the holes and pockets in the grass. One thing that really helped was to spray both my Intruder bug and braided line down with Java Reelsnot. This is a relatively new product that works great at helping to manage braided line, and the java scent helps bass to hold on a little longer when they inhale the lure.
A few hours of punching yielded terrific results, with me catching close to 20 bass and straightening a heavy-wire 5/0 hook on what I can only perceive to be a real monster bass.
As I loaded up the boat and headed toward the Rutland Market store for a cold drink and a well-earned snack, I ran into the primary caretaker of the fishing on the farm—Greg Rutland’s brother John, aka Big John.
Big John gave me some background info on the farm and told me that in April, especially early on, lots of the biggest bass in the ponds would still be on the beds. He recommended throwing soft plastics to bedding fish and spinnerbaits to postspawn fish. He also said that right toward the end of April, the bream fishing would be awesome with lots of action close to shore. He said to pitch crickets under corks or cast Beetle Spins to bedding fish. For the best panfishing, Big John recommended giving the Shellcracker Pond a try first, and then working your way around each pond to find bream fishing that suits you.
When I got done talking to Big John, I headed into the Rutland market store and was amazed by the vast selection of products they carry. You’ll find fresh produce, syrups, jellies, jams and a host of other items, including some of the best homemade strawberry ice cream in the deep south.
If you’re planning on making a trip to Rutland Farms this April, they are not hard to find. Located just off I-75 at exit 55, you can follow signs to the farm as soon as you exit. They are open six days a week (closed Sundays). For store hours or questions, call (229) 386-5111 or visit http://rutlandfarms.com.
For fishing on the farm, you need a Georgia fishing license, and the Rutland fee is $20 per person for a full day of fishing or $10 to fish from 1 p.m. until dark. Kids 6 and under are free.
Just past the market to the left there is a strawberry barn with a sign-in sheet and an honesty box where you can pay your fishing fee. There are also maps available, so you can easily locate all of the ponds. You can fish most of the ponds with any size boat, but a small jonboat is ideal if you have one.
This is a great destination to bring your entire family for a day or the weekend, as Rutland also has a petting zoo, playgrounds and you-pick vegetables. The Tifton area has many hotels, campgrounds and restaurants, making for a great early summer getaway the whole family will enjoy.
I’m willing to bet that if you spend a nice spring day down at Rutland catching trophy bass and exploring all the farm has to offer, you will have a blast. And if you try the strawberry ice cream, you might just not ever want to leave!