Georgia is blessed to have an estuary system that blankets its entire coastline. From the barrier islands all the way back into the salt marshes, fish and marine life are abundant and are relatively untouched by the masses of fishermen found in other locations.
These estuaries, fed by a mix of ocean water and fresh water coming from the numerous rivers up and down the coast, provide a fertile habitat for a variety of fish. Perhaps the two most popular fish in this area are seatrout and red drum.
Jim Pierce, of Middleburg, Fla., and I took a trip along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in April, 2007 looking for some of these trout and red drum. The ICW winds its way along the coast inside the barrier islands, providing navigable waterway for larger recreational and commercial vessels, including some barges. It also provides easy access to numerous tidal rivers, creeks and sloughs — easy access for both the angler and the fish.
We fished the southern reaches of the coast, concentrating on the smaller, less-obvious areas along the ICW, areas that are usually bypassed and receive little fishing pressure from most anglers. These are the areas that can hold fish, and they are areas that you can easily reach in a small boat.
Reds and trout are dependent on the tide for almost all of their feeding activity. They seek water that holds bait either on an outgoing tide or an incoming tide. In either case, the tide almost always needs to be moving. The tides play an important part in your fishing plans for trout and reds. Tides along the Georgia coast can be significant. A difference of up to 7 feet in depth between high and low tide is not unusual, depending on the moon. When the moon is full and again when it is new, it is lined up either directly in line with the sun or directly opposite the sun in relation to the earth. These positions exert the most gravitational pull on the tides, causing higher highs and lower lows. More moderate tides are felt when the moon is half full waxing or waning. The sun and moon are at that point sort of fighting against each other for control of the water.
Why do we need to know about some of the technical aspects of the tide? It’s because many of the creeks we might fish could be empty of water on certain outgoing tides, leaving you high and dry for several hours. This kind of fishing requires that you watch the tide very closely.
We started our trip on a high tide, just after the high slack. The moon was half full and waxing, so we knew how much water we could expect back in some of the creeks on low tide.
Heading out from the city dock at St. Marys at daybreak, we made an almost immediate stop at the two small creeks just past Point Peter Creek on the left. Most of the creeks and sloughs we fish are unnamed on any map.
These creeks don’t go far back into the marsh, but they do seem to hold bait on a high tide. Remember, bait is what sends the fish back into any creek, and bait is what we look for when we target a creek.
The first creek had a few minnows flipping at the mouth — a good sign — so we quietly eased an anchor over the side and began fishing. Sometimes we have to study a creek mouth for a few minutes to determine whether bait is present. We don’t always see the bait, but we often see the evidence of bait.
This early in the morning, a top- water plug can be awesome. Bait is moving in the mouth of the creek, the sun is coming up over your back, and the quiet water seems to beckon for a noisy bait.
I pitched a blue-and-silver Rapala stickbait far back into the mouth of the first creek. I had moved it only twice with a couple of twitches when the water erupted, and the plug disappeared. Not a monster by any measure, a 15-inch trout came with head thrashing on top of the water toward the boat. A quick net and a few minutes spent getting hooks off the face of that trout had my Rapala back in the mouth of the creek again.
Often we catch a number of trout on topwater early in the morning. Today, this was the only one willing to take the hard bait. But, as I worked the topwater, my partner worked a plastic grub. Using a Saltwater Assassin grub in either electric chicken or white/pink tail color, he hit a fish on about his fourth cast and brought another nice legal trout to the boat.
Here we were, literally just outside the no-wake zone at the ramp, two minutes from the dock, catching fish. On the coast this time of year, that is not unusual.
We probably could have caught a limit of trout right there in this creek, but we were gathering information for this article, so we moved about 50 yards north to the second creek. We have caught fish here in the past, but today we saw no signs of bait working in the mouth. We made some casts, but as we expected with no bait present, we got no hits.
Creeks and sloughs up and down the ICW can be like that. At some point they hold the bait and consequently the fish and at another point they hold nothing. Having a successful day depends on your ability to move and find the areas that hold the bait, because bait is the key to catching fish.
From there we came back out into the St. Marys River and headed almost due east to Cumberland Island. We were trying to cover as many creeks as we could on a now outgoing tide.
Up in Beach Creek, which heads into the marsh on the southwest corner of Cumberland, there are several small sloughs and creeks. The mouth of Beach Creek, like many of the creeks along the ICW, is relatively shallow, but it drops off to deeper water after you get past the “hump.”
We idled into the creek and used our trolling motor to approach some of the small creeks that were now dumping water off the marsh into the larger creek. Using our plastic grubs, we cast up into the sloughs and brought the grubs back into the creek. It took about three casts before my partner hooked and landed a nice red drum.
Not every slough had fish, and some sloughs had only one fish. The fish seemed to be holding at the mouth in the current running off the marsh. They willingly ate our baits as they came out with the current.
Beach Creek is one that you need to get out of before the tide gets too low. The mouth of the creek can be too shallow for a lot of boats to exit at low tide. Take heed.
Our next stop was farther north in the ICW. North of Crooked River between marker 50 and marker 46 there are several small creeks. One runs off the west side of the channel and several others run off the east side. Access to the west side creek is right on the ICW. Access to the east-side sloughs and creek is a bit tricky and requires that you approach them by heading south from marker 46.
We fished the mouth of each of these creeks, catching some trout and a bonus of two flounder. We used the same tactics, pitching grubs into the mouth and retrieving them.
At this point we changed tactics, looking to enter some of these creeks and find some fish back in the creeks themselves. The creeks we fished had no depth markings on any charts. That fact is both good and bad. It’s good because most fishermen will generally avoid or skip over these creeks, thinking they hold no water. It’s bad because it could lead adventurous anglers like us into a creek that actually has no water in it at low tide. Being stranded for several hours awaiting an incoming tide is no pleasure.
The trick to finding a creek that can be safely fished is to approach it at dead low tide. If you can get over the hump at the mouth and find some deeper water — deeper is a relative term at low tide — then you can safely fish that creek on an outgoing tide. But this time we planned to fish the incoming tide back in the creek.
Because we could enter and fish only one creek on any dead-low tide, we searched the mouth of several creeks for a sign that one of them would hold fish. That sign was once again bait.
Some of the creeks we approached looked dead. Several of them looked to have baitfish moving in the mouth. We chose one that appeared to hold some water behind the entrance hump and used our trolling motor to enter.
Once in the creek we found water 2 to 3 feet deep in the middle of the creek that deepened to about 8 feet deep on some outside curves. It is on these outside bends that we expected to find fish.
Understanding the physical aspects of a creek will make you a better angler. Knowing what the bait and fish are doing on a particular tide stage means the difference between a limit of fish and an empty ice chest.
All of these small creeks and sloughs feed the tidal marsh. They carry baitfish and crustaceans with the tide off the marsh and into the creek. As the tide rolls out, the baitfish and predator fish move out with them, leaving a creek almost void of fish at dead low tide. Fishing an outgoing tide means targeting these fish that are leaving the marsh.
Fishing an incoming tide means getting back into a creek, setting up quietly, and awaiting the arrival of fish back into the creek. This is exactly the tactic we counted on at low tide.
We changed baits up in this creek, turning to live shrimp. We could have caught some fish on artificials, but we wanted to use the shrimp with a float- rig technique. As we waited for the tide to begin running in, we tied on a Thunder Chicken float rig. Under the float we tied a leader about 5 feet long with a small 2/0 Kahle hook. We use small hooks with live shrimp because it allows the shrimp to swim more naturally.
These Thunder Chicken floats are like a lot of other rattling floats except these have a built in 1/2-oz. weight. This weight allows the float to stand up in the water and makes the entire rig easier to cast.
Once the tide started running in, we hooked a live shrimp on the Kahle hook and tossed it up current. We watched the float as it moved in with the tidal current past the boat. The float moved into the outside bend we fished and as it moved by the boat, it went under. Bang, a nice trout was hooked up — then another, and another as we continued to fish. We caught trout almost as fast as we could get a bait in the water for about an hour. Then we headed out — leaving the fish biting — to look for yet another creek before the tide came in.
These small creeks are located all up and down the ICW. And at any of these creeks, you can do the same thing we did on this day. On any given day, you can get into numerous small unmarked creeks on a low tide. But, the key to finding and catching fish is to find the bait. If bait is present in the mouth, fish are likely to be in the creek.
You can also find fish on a high outgoing tide by doing the same thing — look for the bait.
Remember the limits on seatrout and reds. Seatrout must be now be 14 inches long, and the daily limit is 15 per person. Redfish, or red drum, must be between 14 and 23 inches in length with a daily bag limit of five fish.
In all your creek fishing one thing has to be kept in the forefront. You have to watch the tide, both from a fish-finding standpoint and from a safety standpoint. If you don’t pay close attention, you will find yourself stranded for at least a few hours while you wait for the water to re-float your boat. Trust me — I am a voice of experience on that point!