The barrier islands on the southeast Georgia coast are paradise for an outdoors enthusiast. They vary from the private and pristine to federally and state-protected reserves, but all share a degree of raw beauty that is tough to beat. In addition, they offer great recreational options for the locals as well as the hordes of tourists that frequent the area.
I had the pleasure of experiencing some great early season angling action with a local family who spends a lot of time in these waters. The Rykard family, of Colonels Island, spends much of their free time on the water, and once the early spring temperatures start to rise, they are likely to be headed out most weekends.
I met Mitch and his daughters Caroline, 13, and Caitlyn, 11, on a cool morning in mid-March at the Half Moon Marina not far from their Colonels Island home. Also aboard was Paul Raudenbush, of Jacksonville, Fla., a friend of Mitch’s and one of my frequent fishing companions.
We all loaded up in Mitch’s 20-foot Grady White center-console and headed east toward St. Catherine’s Sound.
“This early in the season we are likely to catch whiting,” said Mitch. “While we may pick up a flounder or two, the whiting are usually the first to move in as the water warms.”
Typically the water temperatures would be moving well into the 60s by mid-March, but as we headed out, the surface-temp gage read 56 degrees. The long and harsh Georgia winter had definitely made its impact.
“It could be tough in this cold water, but maybe we’ll be able to pick up a few,” said Mitch.
After about a 30-minute ride, Mitch pulled back on the big outboard and steered toward a narrow cut between St. Catherine’s Island and Bird Island.
“This area generally holds a lot of fish,” said Mitch. “The current running through this cut seems to stack the fish up, and the action is heavy when the conditions are right.”
Mitch maneuvered the boat into position over a sharp drop in about 12 feet of water. He told us that the whiting will be somewhere between 12 and 20 feet deep, and he just moves around and tries different spots until he connects.
With the boat in position, we began setting up rods. The gear was light to medium open-faced spinning tackle spooled with 10- to 15-lb. test monofilament.
The terminal was a Carolina rig consisting of a 1/2-oz. egg sinker, bead and barrel swivel and an 18- to 36-inch fluorocarbon leader of about 20-lb. test with a circle hook attached at the end.
Mitch likes the spinning gear because it is easy for the girls to cast and handle while still being stout enough to manage a big fish if it gets on the line. While he most often uses a 1/2-oz. sinker, he may go a little heavier if the current is stiff. It is important for the rig to stay on the bottom. Mitch said the circle hook has two advantages. The fish virtually hook themselves (almost always in the corner of the mouth), and the design folds the point of the hook inward, making it more difficult for the kids to accidently hook themselves.
Dead bait is the choice for this bottom-fishing action. We had both shrimp and squid aboard for a little variety. Mitch fishes the shrimp headless and peeled because he feels it provides more scent to attract the whiting. He cuts the squid up into bite-sized chunks. Mitch said he’ll also often bring raw chicken along.
“It makes excellent whiting bait but can also attract crabs,” he said.
With the boat set up, we all made casts into an outgoing tide and let the baits settle to the bottom. Mitch said the last half of the outgoing tide is usually the best, but the incoming tide can also be productive. There is usually very little action during slack water.
It didn’t take long to connect. Caitlyn hooked up first and swung a small whiting aboard. Caroline struck pay dirt with a small whiting of her own, as well as a blue crab. Even though the action was slow, and the fish were small in the cold water, everyone managed to land something, and the fishing will only improve with the warming temperatures.
In addition to the area we fished around, St. Catherine’s, Little McQueen’s and Big McQueen’s are also good targets. Mitch likes to hit the beaches on those islands when the water is warmer and trout and flounder can be caught in the surf on live bait. It is also pretty well known that Sapelo Sound will produce some of the biggest whiting you’ll find in the area during late April and May.
“We fish this whiting pattern in the early spring when nothing much else is going on,” said Mitch. “The fish are small, 10 to 14 inches, but the fishing is relaxed and easy, the girls really enjoy it, and on a good day you can have all the action you want.”
Mitch pointed out that there is no creel limit or length limit on whiting, and 50-fish days aren’t unusual. The small fillets are excellent table fare as well.
Mitch said this pattern will continue to be productive through April and into May. By that time, other species, such and weakfish and flounder, will become more plentiful, and spotted sea trout will start showing up.
“The amount of action and variety of species just increases as we move into early summer,” said Mitch.
In addition to the excellent angling in the area, Mitch and the family will mix it up and take advantage of the other recreational opportunities that the barrier islands offer. They will break up a typical Saturday with fishing, tubing behind the boat and visiting one of the many isolated beaches for a little swimming and perhaps a good lunch.
If you haven’t ever visited Georgia’s barrier islands, I strongly recommend that you give them a try. It is an excellent fishery with lots of variety, and it is one of the most scenic costal regions you are likely to find in this part of the world.