Roughly 25 years ago this spring, I made my first cast into the Satilla River with my grandpa by my side. Moments after my cork hit the water, it abruptly disappeared, and the fight was on.
As I frantically turned the handle on that Zebco 33 while my grandpa cheered me on, an addiction was born on that sandy shore. And as I swung my very first redbreast onto the bank, I just knew life couldn’t get any better.
Now years later, my love for the Satilla is still strong, and though my grandpa has since gone home to be with the Lord, I can still feel his presence anytime I stand on the river’s edge.
I have fished nearly every major river and lake within our great state, and I’m here to tell you, if there is a body of water that offers up a better variety of fishing than the Satilla, I have yet to find it.
Though numerous species of fish are abundant in the Satilla, I have chosen to highlight the three most popular for this article—redbreast,catfish and largemouth bass.
The redbreast is undoubtedly the No. 1 target of Satilla River anglers, and for good reason. Nowhere else in the state will you find a more abundant population of 3/4-lb. and up roosters, as they are called by the local folk.
“The Satilla is tops in south Georgia for both numbers of fish and the really nice trophy-size redbreast everyone loves to catch,” said Bert Deener, a WRD fisheries region supervisor.
“In April and May, catches of 100 fish or more are fairly common, and lots of the fish you catch will be in the 8- to 10-inch range.”
Redbreast are found nearly the entire length of the river, but the most productive area to fish tends to be from the Highway 158 bridge downriver to the Highway 82 bridge in Atkinson. This area is accessed best by small jonboats, and when the water gets really low, you’re better off with a canoe or kayak.
Redbreast are far from picky eaters and will consume a variety of artificials and live bait. Worms fished on the bottom of deep holes on the outside of sharp bends work well, as do crickets suspended about a foot under corks near heavy cover.
As the water warms this month, expect the artificial bite to pick up tremendously. Top lure choices include Beetle Spins and a local favorite, the Satilla Spin. The Satilla Spin is a small spinnerbait that drives redbreast wild. Top colors include red/white and crawfish. These lures are available in south Georgia tackle stores.
A good ultralight spinning outfit spooled with 6-lb. test line aids in making long casts and will make for a good fight with these fire-bellied fish. Just remember to set that drag a little loose, as a 1-lb. fish will break you off in a hurry.
If you make a trip to the Satilla this spring or summer in hopes of catching a 1-lb.-plus trophy redbreast, a bug on top is the way to go. No other technique proves to be as effective at catching 10-inch-plus roosters than this. This tried-and-true method for fishing the Satilla is referred to as “buggin” by local anglers.
Tools of the trade are rather simple. All that’s needed is a 10- to 12-foot Bream Buster with a matching length of 12-lb. test monofilament and a bug. When it comes to what type of bug to use, the choices are plenty, but bugs with long rubber legs tend to work best at luring up big redbreast. A variety of colors work well, with hues of white, chartreuse, black and orange tending to be most popular among local anglers on the river.
Last year, I designed a new bug called a Swamp Spider that immediately caught on along the Satilla River. The Swamp Spider tends to produce some really big fish, and the long legs are what I believe to be the main reason. I believe that a redbreast pushing a pound isn’t just looking for a snack, and that’s where this bug’s large profile comes in.
Fish the bug next to fallen timber and cypress knees, and be sure to key on shady spots, especially during midday. Two popular colors are white and black with neon green legs. Color isn’t nearly as important as the action, and that makes working the bug crucial. Use gentle twitches to make the legs quiver, followed by three- to five-second pauses for best results.
Swamp Spiders are available at tackle stores throughout south Georgia. Both Bowman Outdoors in Waycross and Pa’s Place Bait & Tackle in Hoboken carry a full line of Swamp Spiders and other Satilla fishing gear.
The river also harbors a healthy population of catfish just waiting to be a guest at your next fish fry. Try targeting channel catfish in the upper river around Waycross by fishing shrimp, worms or chicken livers in deep holes that are found on the outside of bends in the river. This stretch of the river at normal levels is normally fairly shallow, and the current isn’t too strong.
Medium-weight tackle and 12-lb. test work great. Just tie on a No. 2 hook, and pinch on a couple of sinkers, and you’re in business.
The not-so-heard-of white catfish is also plentiful, particularly in the marshfilled Woodbine portion of the Satilla. These catfish are often mistaken for blue catfish, and they are in fact very similar, with the exception of their smaller size averaging less than a pound. What white catfish lack in size, they make up for in numbers. A day can often yield 100 fish or more. Focus your efforts on creek mouths as the tide is falling, and set several poles out baited with shrimp for optimum success.
Unfortunately, flathead catfish are also becoming more abundant in the Satilla, with the greatest impact being felt in the Brantley County portion of the river.
“Flatheads are detrimental to the redbreast population and need to be removed from the river,” said Bert. “We have crews working on it year-round at the DNR, and so far, we are keeping their population under control.”
To do your part and target flatheads, the Highway 82 bridge is a good place to start, and limblines are the way to go. Set out 10 to 20 lines, keying on the deepest holes you can find, particularly those with submerged logs present. You can’t beat a live, hand-sized redbreast for bait, so plan to get to the river early and catch a few, and then work your lines every few hours during the night.
Last but certainly not least, the largemouth bass deserves an honorable mention. In recent years, the fishing has been nothing short of excellent. Alan Mai, of Waycross, targets Satilla River bass in the river year-round, but he said April is about as good as it gets, especially for big bites.
“This month, when the water jumps into the 70- to 75-degree range, get ready for some awesome bass fishing,” said Alan. “I’ve had days where I catch 25 fish, with lots of quality bass in the 3- to 4-lb. range. My biggest Satilla bass to date was 8.5 pounds, but trust me, there are some way bigger.”
Alan went on to mention that to have success when bass fishing the Satilla, you have to be willing
to put in some work to get away from the boat ramps that are heavily fished.
“The Highway 84 bridge between Waycross and Blackshear is a great place to put in a small jonboat. Just be ready to drag it some to get away from the more pressured areas,” said Alan.
Alan targets shallow areas that drop off abruptly with a Zoom Trick Worm in the merthiolate color rigged weightless on a 4/0 wide-gap hook. This setup enables him to fish through and around the Satilla’s dense cover without hanging up constantly.
Another favorite lure of Alan’s is a Gold Digger buzzbait. He mostly fishes the black version but throws firetiger when the water is dingy. He likes to retrieve the buzzbait as slowly as possible, mainly targeting trashpiles and cypress knees in search of big bites.
“You won’t catch as many fish as you will throwing a Trick Worm, but you can expect some bigger fish on top,” said Alan.
To avoid break-offs, Alan uses 65-lb. PowerPro braid in the Satilla for all presentations, and pairs it with an Abu Garcia Revo Rocket and a medium-heavy Duckett Ghost rod, so he can quickly drag fish away from heavy cover.
“They don’t seem to mind the braid in the river’s black water, and you definitely need it when a big one bites next to a log pile. Even with the braid, there’s no guarantee you’re going to be able to drag the really big fish away, but it sure is fun to try,” said Alan.
Be sure to check the Satilla’s water level if you get to make a trip down this month. Heavy rains can bring the river out of its banks and make it virtually unfishable. Water levels at the Waycross gauge of 5.5 to 8 feet are good for fishing, and you can check the current level at https://waterdata.usgs.gov/ga/nwis.
If the river gets below 5 feet, you can expect to do a lot of dragging, and if it’s above 8 feet, expect the current to get on the swift side.
Hopefully, you can make it down to the Satilla this month and enjoy a long weekend out on the river targeting a multitude of species and enjoying what I believe to be the most beautiful river in Georgia. The Satilla has always been in my blood from that very first redbreast, and for that I can thank my grandpa.