Most Peach State anglers agree that the best three months to catch redfish along the Georgia coast are September, October and November. Not only are the fish there and cooperating, particularly the redfish, but the weather has turned much nicer. It’s a lot more comfortable to fish when you aren’t sweltering in the heat of a summer afternoon.
Unfortunately, along with the good fishing, these are the last three months of hurricane season. While our coastline is not regularly hit by these storms, it can be devastating when one does hit. I give you Hurricane Matthew as a perfect example.
We always try to fish as close to our print deadline as possible to give you the advantage of being able to fish where we fish and catch what we catch. But, this time, waiting too long to fish put us on the water right after the hurricane, and suffice to say, we had a tough day. I say we, but it was actually only me. My fishing buddies all had damage to curtail, and my guide friends were not on the water. I had the areas I fished all to myself.
I was looking to put you on some redfish in November, so I chose to launch at the ramp in Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River. I had to do a little clean-up work at the ramp to be able to launch, but I did get the boat in the water.
The water level was extremely high; my guess is that it was about 3 feet above the normal high tide level. This is at once good and bad. When the water is that high, it floods the marsh areas that are not normally holding water, and that provides some new territory for redfish to patrol looking for food. The bad part is that I could not get back into some of those flooded areas where I knew a redfish would be waiting.
The wind was blowing from the northeast around 25 knots with higher gusts, and on an incoming tide that means even higher water. Conversely, on the outgoing tide the wind is going to push and prevent water from leaving the creeks and rivers. Finding oyster bars would be a problem.
The water was high because of the torrential rains that hit the entire coastline of Georgia. The Ogeechee was not expected to crest for another two days from when I fished.
The most interesting part of all of this was the storm surge. The winds from Hurricane Matthew blew from the east and then from the north as it passed along the coast. Those winds and the cyclone of weather build a big surge on the water, and that surge comes ashore almost like a tidal wave. Water just starts rising, and you very shortly find yourself in water that was 5 or 6 feet shallower only a few minutes before. This storm surge comes in with the storm and then recedes. It’s the water that moves back out after the surge that concerns us anglers. It moves out quickly, and the currents caused by this huge volume of water will make new cuts and run-offs as it recedes.
I headed out from the boat ramp toward the sound and decided to take Harvey’s Cut through the creek to get to the Little Ogeechee. The water was high enough to easily traverse the cut, a comparatively deep creek that cuts through the marsh grass.
At the mouth of Harvey’s Creek where it intersects the Little Ogeechee, there are some oyster rakes. Both sides of the creek have shell bars and a few live oyster rakes. On an outgoing tide, redfish will be patrolling these shell bars searching for food. But this morning, the tide was more than high, and if I didn’t already know the oyster bars were there, I would not know it today.
There are two ways to look for redfish this month. The most popular for catch-and-release anglers is to look for behemoth, breeder reds in the mouth of or just outside the entrance to the sound. This applies to all of the sounds along the Georgia coast. These huge fish, some as big as 70 pounds or more, spend most of their time offshore. In September, October and November, they make their way into the sounds to spawn.
Fishing for these huge reds involves heavier tackle than would be needed for inshore redfish. These fish are big and powerful, and bringing one to the side of the boat on light tackle will wear both the angler and the fish out. Heavier tackle will get the fish to the boat before it literally fights itself to death. These are brood stock, the future of our redfish fishery. We need to take care of them.
I like to use my Penn Slammer rod and GT330 reel spooled with 30-lb. test line. This rig is fairly easy to handle, yet strong enough to get a bruiser to the boat. I use a fish-finder terminal rig with an 8/0 hook and enough weight on a pyramid sinker to keep my bait on the bottom.
I move out into the mouth of the sound, maybe just a little bit to the outside of the sound. I locate the channels that are bordered by shallower sandbars and anchor the boat so that I am able to fish the edge of the channel. They call these fish channel bass for a reason; they love to follow these channel edges.
For bait, I use either blue crab or cut bait. For the cut bait, I will stop before I get to the channels to catch some whiting. A fresh filet of whiting is awfully good bait for these big reds.
The standard bait for me is usually a blue crab. Depending on the size of the crab, I will cut it in half or quarter it. I’ll use small blue crabs whole with the top of their shell removed. Larger crabs get cut up depending on size, but I want a bait that’s about 3 inches by 3 inches in size. In all cases, I remove the claws, the legs and the top half of the shell. This allows the smell of crab meat to permeate the water, drawing the big reds in to your bait.
You will want to have a large net for these fish. Please do not attempt to use a gaff on them. You must release them, and the gaff only imparts more injury to the fish. Make sure you check to see if the air bladder has pushed the stomach of the fish into its mouth. If it has, you will need to vent the fish with a venting tool. Once again, in all cases you need to revive the fish at the side of the boat before actually releasing it. I accomplish this by putting one hand under the belly of the fish to keep it upright in the water while holding it by the tail. Then I slowly move the fish forward and backward to force water through its gills. It only takes a few minutes before the fish kicks away from your grip and swims off.
These bruisers are there in the mouths of the sounds and should be there through the end of November. However, on this day I couldn’t even get to the sound because of the high winds. As the weather improves, the fishing will be great.
So, you want to catch some redfish to take home? OK, we need to stay inshore and in the creeks and rivers. When I fished it was the right day to do that because of the wind.
I fished the edges of the oyster bars at the intersection of the Little Ogeechee and Harvey Creek. I used a watermelon-green Zoom Super Fluke with no weight. This is the very best artificial redfish bait in my opinion. For live bait, I prefer live shrimp on a jig head.
This particular corner on the Little Ogeechee has historically produced a lot of redfish for me; and, although I did not find a red here, you should be able to find one this month. In addition to post-hurricane conditions, my problem was compounded by all the dirty water.
From there, I moved into Crooked Creek just to the northeast. This is a small creek that has some oyster bars back in its reaches. What I found in the creek was high water everywhere. The marsh was flooded, and the fish were probably exploring new territory.
During the fall and winter months, the smaller redfish that don’t migrate offshore will be looking for warm water. On a high tide you can find sometimes a whole school of reds in the shallows of a flooded marsh. That shallow water warms much quicker than the surrounding, deeper water. All of the marshes were flooded, and I had no way to get back into them.
On a more normal day, I can usually find an accessible, flooded, marsh flat that holds a few fish. Tailing redfish are easy to spot. Casting to them accurately is another story. Practice makes perfect as they say, and over time you can learn to place your bait very gently and close to the fish.
Later in the day as the tide was running out, water from those flooded marshes came back into the creeks. What I noticed was that in several area locations I fished, the storm surge had created some new run-off routes for the marsh water to exit. Millions of gallons of moving water are a powerful tool for creating new run-offs.
Run-offs are ideal locations to target on a falling tide. First the fish come off the marsh followed closely by the baitfish. Reds will come off the marsh and stage where these run-offs exist. They are looking for an easy meal, but they won’t hang around very long if the food is not there.
Flounder generally do not school. They find a spot and sit on the bottom waiting to ambush a meal. If several flounder are in the same location, they are there because the food will come their way, not because they are schooling. Trout tend to school together and will often inhabit a single location such as a deep bend in a creek or river.
While redfish do school, particularly the smaller ones, they don’t tend to stay in one location. The entire school will be moving, usually with the tidal current. Larger reds tend to be loners, but the smaller ones can be found in numbers.
I like to fish the last of the outgoing tide in these creeks and rivers, looking specifically for oyster bars. A small school of reds can often be found working the edge of the oysters. They are feeding in this instance and can be readily caught on artificial and natural baits.
This is another brand of sight fishing. I troll along watching the oysters and looking for fish pushing water ahead of them or tails sticking out of the water. I’ll carefully cast ahead of them so that they come to the bait rather than the bait coming to them.
These fish spook easily. They are in shallow water along that edge, and any noise or commotion will send them out to deeper water. They may not re-emerge for some distance down the creek. Wherever they appear, be assured they will be moving. Catching one redfish on an oyster bar is no guarantee that others can be caught there. You may need to move with the current to stay with a moving school.
The weather completely skunked me. I went to locations where I caught fish in the past and blanked. But I am sure you can hit these same places and do well this month. That is as long as another hurricane does not come along!
Georgia’s redfish must be between 14 and 23 inches to be kept, and the limit is five fish per person. Please remember to take care of the fish you release. They are the future of our fishery.
Ron Brooks is an award winning outdoor writer, having published in print and online more than 1,000 articles over the past 20 years. He has fished all over the southern U.S. and written about almost all of those experiences. He is a member and past president of the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association (GOWA) and the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA). His new book, Born with a Silver Fishhook, is available on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions.