Floating and Bumping The Canoochee River

Catching postspawn, cork-shy river bream takes a finesse approach.

Wow, about dried up! Only a foot or 2 deep, just inches in some places. The far bank a few yards away seems a little deeper. Wading forward until I was knee deep, I still couldn’t see the bottom, which was shaded by the mirrored reflection of a leaning cypress above the shiny, black water. A little snap-whip of the rod sent the tiny spinnerbait sailing away, landing softly enough I could see the gold blades fluttering downward amid the rings on the surface. A flash of orange, and they suddenly disappeared.

The hop of the line sent a twitch all the way to my palm. The little whippy rod doubled as a speeding blend of colors cut z-patterns in the water. A moment later I was holding my first Canoochee bull redbreast of the summer.

These are the prettiest fish I have ever caught, a seemingly Photoshopped rainbow of colors—orange, red, yellow, olive, blue, bronze and more. Awesome! God is quite the artist.

Are there anymore? “Too late. It’s been fished out. No more bedding fish. Nothing but butterbeans.” Not! I’ve heard those comments for years, and they’re wrong.

Due to my work travel, I rarely get to fish Georgia’s black-water streams during the first low levels of summer, the period when the bream really turn on to feed, and especially stack up to bed. I began to believe the above comments until I changed tactics. Still, on every trip I may not catch stringers full of bull bream, but I will catch a mess. Nowadays, I’d just as soon be a late-season panfisherman. What I enjoy most of mid and late summer is the smorgasbord of panfish species I will encounter, never knowing what color of the rainbow just chomped down on my bait with the low water bunching ’em up in deeper holes.

My usual target species along the Canoochee, and other tannin-stained stream waters, is the redbreast sunfish. It’s the prettiest of all the panfish, and a fat little booger to boot. All the others, which are nearly as delicious, will bite the same baits and are always welcome aboard. Other native panfish in my creel may include bluegill, shellcracker, warmouth and stumpknockers.

The Canoochee River is my new favorite black-water spot to fish. I discovered it while stalking its banks for hogs on Fort Stewart, the sprawling 280,000-acre military reservation. The Canoochee forms 12 miles southeast of Swainsboro in Emanuel County. It flows for 108 miles before dumping into the much larger Ogeechee River, which is within sight of the I-95 bridge, 15 miles southwest of Savannah.

The Canoochee flows through or along the edges of Candler, Evans, Liberty and Bryan counties. I believe the best fishing lies within the boundaries of Fort Stewart with its multiple ramps and landing sites. All that is required for access is an annual $30 pass. These can be obtained at the Pass and Permit Office located on SR 144. For info and directions, call Pass and Permit at (912) 435-8061, or simply Google Fort Stewart Fishing.

The Canoochee is full of white-beach sandbars through miles of undeveloped land. The dark, tea-colored waters reflect the images of virgin timber along its banks, such as gum, cypress, tall pines, tupelos and Spanish moss-laden oaks. Their welcoming shade makes it more comforting than an open-water environment. The water seems black from a distance but is surprisingly clear when you look down into it.

There is an approximate 10- to 12-mile stretch of the Canoochee that lies within an off-limits artillery impact area. This long stretch of unfishable waters means the river will never be fished-out, having an undisturbed and constant recruitment of fish populations.

I put my boat in along the upper stretch located west of Hwy 119 above the artillery impact area (Landings 13, 14, 14B, 27, etc.).

During the low levels of late summer, your distance up and downstream will be determined by deadfalls, large logs and cypress knees. To start with, I will run and gun with an artificial lure. It will either be a white with a red dot or crawfish-colored Satilla Spin with gold blades. I will hit the banks and centers, slow-rolling the deeper portions. There will also be some fish scattered outside the deep holes, and if it’s a good day, you’ll land a few aggressive fish.

Remember, these waters have been hammered the last two or three months and fished out like some say with only a few butterbeans remaining. I agree the numbers are lower and the largest survivors have adapted to the pressure, especially those along the banks where most folks generally fish. I won’t stick with the lures long in the navigable sections. Boat-wise, I quickly go to my meat-and-taters routine for the pressured stretches that boats can reach.

Leave the cricket cage at home. Corks stay in the tackle box. I don’t focus on the bank, unless there is a deep hole there. I bring live bait in the form of worms, mainly the larger pinks or reds. I will rig an ultralight spinning or casting reel loaded with clear, 6-lb. test seated on a short 4- to 5-foot rod. A black or blue No. 6 Tru-Turn hook tied with a Trilene knot with a No. 5 or No. 6 split-shot sinker pinched on 6 to 8 inches up the line. It’s sort of a bare-bones Carolina rig.

I will use the whole worm and hook it a quarter inch from the end only a couple of times, going in and out but not threading it up the hook. The light line, thin-wire hook, small weight and a long, dangling worm in the gentle flow allows the worm to fall slowly and seductively. If there is a big bream near, he will be the first to hit it.

If the first cast yields a peck or butterbean, keep drifting or trolling. With bedding over, it means the larger ones will be scattered, so staying on the move will yield better results.

Placing the boat midstream, I will run upstream first, running the trolling motor at a creep and casting ahead, letting the worm flutter to the bottom, if it makes it that far. Upon settling, I will “bottom-bump” it, snapping the rod up a few inches with a flick of my wrist, bouncing the weight and worm off the bottom. I will do this for several seconds before reeling in. If there is even a butterbean there, he’s gonna hit it.

The bottoms of these twisting, small rivers have constant changing contours that run rollercoaster-style, up and down. I tend to find most fish in the deeper holes in the middle of the stream, usually just past a bend, although this can depend on river levels, current, water clarity, time of day, etc.

These areas will average in the 8- to 10-foot range. There is less fishing pressure in these areas, as most folks like to cast at visible targets and beat the banks.

As I drift back downstream, only bumping the trolling motor to stay in the middle or to slow down, I will cast only a few feet to each side of the boat. If it is 5 foot or deeper, I will drop down right beside the boat and bottom bump as I drift along. Bump it three or four times, and reel it on in.

Speaking from my experience of fishing late season, the larger redbreast seem to prefer worms over crickets. A large meal perhaps. I believe, too, by past fishing pressure, that these panfish become “cork-shy.” Another reason I prefer worms over crickets is that they are usually favored more by shellcrackers and warmouth, which will increase your total catch. Many late summers on these type waters, I have fished behind locals cricket-corking, and I was the only one having success.

Also, any thick structure such as fallen treetops or logjams that are in water deep enough I can’t see the bottom, I will lower my bait straight down in the tiny holes amongst the limbs or trash. Bottom-bump a few times, and move to the next opening. Bring plenty of hooks. This effort has saved the day many times, catching half a limit or more. Most fisherman will just hit the edges because of the likelihood for getting hung-up. That’s why I opt for a quality 6-lb. line over 4-lb. test. It’ll straighten most of the thin-wire hooks out before breaking.

Now to the more inaccessible stretches farther up, beginning at Landing 15 and ending upstream of Landing 19. I will be enjoying an old-school technique that not many folks do anymore—wade fishing. It’s not as boat friendly there, as it is much narrower (15 to 30 feet across), allowing falling timber, logs and ancient stumps to choke the main channel. The lower the water, the more jams you will encounter with no floatable water to circle around, just a big white sandbar where the water used to be at higher times. Late-summer water levels are usually perfect for wade fishing. Most trips I’ll never get over knee deep, hop-scotching from sandbar to sandbar.

Landing 15 upstream all the way to the boundary is my favorite stretch, and here is where I feel much more in my element. This area is a lot more remote with several miles of wading and bank walking. Being it holds such an aura of scenic beauty and mystery around countless bends and over every sandbar, I go really light on gear. It is more about the experience and solitude. It’s hard to stop exploring, wondering what portrait of God’s nature you’re going to view for the first time, and what new honeyhole may be around the next bend.

The more remote you get, the higher chances of increasing catches, so cull accordingly or catch and release. One rod, a stringer or floating fish basket and a pocketful of Satilla Spins, and I’m equipped for fishing this stretch. Well, there is one more item, my GPS. Got to mark those fresh hog rootings in the adjacent swamps for a return trip hunting, right?

Before fishing, check the river levels at waterdata.usgs.gov/ga/nwis/rt. Click on Statewide Stream Flow Real-Time Table. Scroll down until you see Canoochee River at Fort Stewart Bridge 38. Being that most banks of the Canoochee are 3 to 8 feet deep, it is prone for flooding after large rain showers. Recommended levels for boating will be 2 to 5 feet. If it’s over 6 feet it will be in the trees, so plan another day. If the river is on a fast fall, I’d wait a couple days past it becoming stable.

When you obtain a permit at the Pass and Permit Office, make sure you get a map. They’re only $5 and very detailed. It shows you what training areas the river flows through, and also all the boat ramps. Find the area you want to fish, and check the area status sheet on the website to see if it is open for the date you plan to come.

Don’t take to heart the above tactics are necessarily the best methods. At times they may be, but I just wanted to share how I like to fish and enjoy my day crunching sand between my toes. Simply add it to your arsenal of knowledge. You can also use these methods on other Georgia bream streams. Just float and bump bottom.

Also, there are some upper landings to access the Canoochee outside Fort Stewart. However, these will dry up to a trickle, so you need to watch the gauge, and hit them when it’s right. Some ramps above Fort Stewart are located off Hwy 169 East, “The Rocks” at Hwy 301 north of Claxton, Rodgers Bridge at Nevils-Daisy Road and Moore’s Bridge off Hwy 280. Four miles below Hwy 280 the Canoochee enters Fort Stewart. Miles of uninterrupted wading and exploring await you.

If wading and banging the boat in tight water is not your cup of tea, then hit the Canoochee below the artillery impact area. After flowing 12 miles through the no fishing zone, the river takes on a much different appearance, becoming wider (40 to 120 feet) before dumping into the Ogeechee, even bigger water and tidal influenced. There are multiple ramps north of Hwy 144 a very short distance as you travel eastward toward I-95 and Richmond Hill.

If anyone is interested in a guided fishing or fish/hog combo on the upper Canoochee, shoot me an e-mail at huntingonthefly@yahoo.com or a private message to the same user name on the GON forum. Thanks for reading, and God bless!

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