If you’re a crappie fisherman in Georgia, I think you would agree that December is undoubtedly one of the very best times to get the rod bent and load the cooler down with these tasty fish. Whether you fish Sinclair, Oconee, Lanier, Eufaula or anywhere in between, success is bound to be had.
What about southeast Georgia though? With the nearest major reservoir a lengthy drive away, you have to go about things a little differently to target crappie, or as we call them, specks.
I’ve fished all over Georgia, and I’m here to tell you, the Altamaha and Satilla rivers aren’t just the best places to target crappie in south Georgia, they are some of the very best our great state has to offer. With that said, you’re not going to catch an ice chest full of 2-lb. fish. However, you can have a great time with a constantly bent rod and get to see what in my opinion may be two of the most beautiful rivers the good Lord ever created.
The even better news is you won’t need any high-end equipment to come catch them. A small jonboat with a 9.9-hp. motor will get you around the Altamaha, or a small boat equipped with a trolling motor or a kayak will do great for getting around the often-shallow Satilla.
Starting with the Altamaha River, you can expect the crappie fishing to be well above average this year. When I spoke with Don Harrison at the WRD Waycross Fisheries Office, he was excited about recent electrofishing numbers on the river.
“We haven’t seen numbers of crappie like this in a long time. And they’re literally scattered up and down the river,” said Don.
River crappie key in on areas of slack water, and the Altamaha has hundreds of lakes, creeks and sloughs that offer prime habitat. Wood cover is also a good target, particularly in cooler months.
“In my opinion, the lakes near the Altamaha Regional Park boat ramp would be the very best areas to fish this winter. This area of the river has a large number of lakes and creeks that are filled with crappie. Find some wood cover in these lakes, and get ready to go through some minnows,” said Don.
Minnows tend to be the choice of local anglers, and it’s hard to go wrong fishing one about 20 to 30 inches under a weighted float. A No. 4 gold-colored hook works great. Just hook your minnow through the lips with no weight other than the cork. There is no need to get fancy with the rod and reel selection. A Zebco 33 combo or other medium-light action outfit works fine for this style of fishing. Keep in mind the Altamaha is a blackwater river that often has a muddy stain to it, so there is no reason to go too light with line selection. Using 10-lb. test works great, and I wouldn’t recommend going lighter than 8-lb. due to the many snags.
The key is to not spend too much time in one area, waiting no more than 15 minutes without a bite. Most of the time, if there is a school of specks around, they are going to bite hard and fast.
“Trashpiles formed in the current almost always hold fish, especially large piles. The shade created keeps the water underneath cool, causing fish to feed even during the middle of the day,” said Don.
Don recommended fishing a minnow on the bottom around deeper piles. A simple split-shot large enough to hold the minnow in the current works great. Be sure to leave about 24 inches between the weight and the hook, so the minnow can work its magic.
For those who prefer artificials, you can try casting small curly tail jigs on 1/16-oz. heads to laydowns along the bank. Chartreuse is a go-to color, as well as white. You can also try trolling jigs slowly in the oxbows. Just be sure not to let them drag the bottom as you will spend the better part of your day re-rigging.
Altamaha Regional Park doesn’t charge a fee to launch your boat and has a bait store on site. Campsites are also available at reasonable rates for those planning a weekend trip. For those with questions, you can reach the park at (912) 264-2342.
Next up, the Satilla River offers some fine crappie fishing in its own right, and as many of y’all know, I’m a little partial to it. Growing up along the river, I learned not only does the Satilla have a good population, they are not targeted heavily by anglers.
“The population we sampled this year is pretty average. There are plenty of fish in the 9- to 11-inch range that are perfect for the filet knife,” said Bert Deener, region supervisor at the WRD Waycross Fisheries Office. “You can catch them up and down the river, but Burnt Fort is where you will find the highest numbers of fish.”
The many lakes near the Burnt Fort Landing offer some excellent crappie fishing, and the best way to target these fish is by slow trolling minnows about 3 feet under corks. Using your trolling motor to work four or five poles spread around the boat often yield large catches of fish. As soon as you get a bite, try to ease back from that spot so you don’t spook the rest of the school, as usually you can pick up several more fish from one spot.
“You can expect the mouths of the lakes to be very productive during December, and trolling your minnows slowly around the mouths of these oxbows will often result in high catch rates,” Bert said.
For anglers who like artificials, try trolling the lakes with jigs suspended about 3 feet from the surface. You can’t go wrong with a black/chartreuse or chartreuse/glitter offering. To target larger fish, try ripping these jigs with minnows.
If you get on Google Earth and look far upstream of Burnt Fort, specifically around Waycross, you will probably wonder how there’s enough water to hold crappie or any other fish for that matter. I’m here to tell you that the often ankle-deep water in this stretch of the river not only harbors a good population of specks, but they are super easy to target and catch. The key is to adjust your tactics to target these skinny-water fish.
From the Highway 84 boat ramp upstream, the river constantly changes, going from 10 feet deep to as little as 2 inches in 10 yards or less. For this reason, I recommend a small boat and an outboard for navigating the river. The main thing is whatever you plan to fish out of, be prepared to drag it some.
In this stretch of the Satilla you will not find many oxbows, therefore trashpiles are the prime target to load the cooler down with specks. The best strategy is to anchor upstream about 25 feet from the pile and let the current carry your cork and minnow to the fish. The cork will stop right when it hits the trash, and it won’t take long for a crappie to inhale your minnow. For this reason, I don’t like anything less than 12-lb. test for this type of fishing. When a big crappie bites, you need to be able to pull him away from the garbage quickly to avoid him hanging you up.
If the river is running lower than 6 feet at the Waycross gauge, then a kayak can be used as a crappie fishing machine. That’s right, I did say kayak… in December. I’m not going to lie, it’s a little on the nippy side, especially on some of December’s frosty mornings, but you can sure load the yak down on a float trip this time of year.
A float trip from the Jamestown ramp in Waycross to the Highway 84 bridge ramp between Blackshear and Waycross is a perfect way to spend a Saturday chasing specks. This trip will take between six to eight hours if you drift with the river’s current. I like to float it with a friend, and we will leave a vehicle at both ramps.
You can leave the minnow bucket at home on your kayak trip, opting instead for a small, chartreuse/glitter curly tail pegged 24 inches under a small float. As you drift along, throw this rig to laydowns, cypress knees, trashpiles and any other structure you come across.
I like to throw it on a light-action spinning combo, and I work the jig by twitching the cork and then pausing for two to three seconds. When the cork goes down and you land a crappie, it pays to make several more casts to that spot as you can often pick up a few more fish.
Small Beetle Spins also work well and often produce some bluegill along with the famous Satilla River redbreast. I’ve found when you fish for specks with lures on the river that you won’t catch as many fish, but they seem to run a little bigger than those you catch with live bait.
Hopefully with everything going on this busy holiday season, you can give one or both rivers a try. If you try a kayak trip down the Satilla, I can promise it will be one you won’t forget.
Merry Christmas, God bless, and tight lines!