Early spring finds wading and water birds of all kinds moving back into the marshes and creeks of Georgia’s coastline. In its relatively short 100 miles—as the crow flies—of coastline, Georgia has more estuary and marshland and more actual shoreline than any other state on the Atlantic coast, sans Florida. That fact is the reason there are so many saltwater fishing opportunities in Georgia. It’s something that has gone relatively unnoticed to most anglers over the years.
Just as the birds and wildlife return in March, big redfish begin their migration from offshore wrecks and reefs back into the creeks, passes and marshes up and down coastal Georgia. Smaller redfish from the previous year’s spawn, having stayed the winter in the creeks and passes, have grown to almost legal size. We have had a comparatively warm winter, and while the bulk of big reds will make their appearance in April, the move is on this month, and the reds are coming into the sounds.
This is March along the coast of Georgia, and we made a couple of trips to look for these hungry, returning and resident redfish. We fished out of St. Simons Island and launched our boat at the public ramp on the east end of the St. Simons causeway bridge over the Mackay River. This ramp is accessible by turning into the Golden Isle Marina and then taking the service road west to the ramp. From this central launching point, we have access to fishing to the north or fishing to the south of Brunswick. So, on day one we fished south; on day two we fished north.
We decided to run south first to find a creek holding fish. As we made our way across the inlet at St. Simons Sound and headed for Jekyll Island, we could see the wading birds along the shoreline. Long mud flats, beginning to be exposed by what was an outgoing tide, were showing a few small oyster bars. These mud flats line the waterway channel on both the east and west sides of the ICW. The wading birds were standing in 6 inches of water along the edges of the mud flats, looking for baitfish.
We watched the birds, particularly the white egrets, to see any signs of baitfish or of redfish. The round nose of a redfish swimming in shallow water pushes the water up and out, creating a distinctive wake that anglers call “pushing water.”
We particularly watch the white birds because they seem to hang with the redfish, and if we see several birds up on a mud flat, we usually will stop to watch for redfish moving. More likely than not, there are feeding redfish on that flat when the birds are there. We watched, but it appeared the birds were simply waiting on the reds and baitfish to show up and were not feeding.
Our first stop was just before the entrance to the dredged ICW channel headed down the west side of Jekyll Island. We actually stopped at ICW Marker 3; the dredged channel begins there. The rocky spoil from the dredging is piled up along the west side of the channel. We went around the west side of the spoil and began fishing the shallow edge of the rocks. Small oysters are in and around the rocks, and lots of crustaceans—small crabs in particular—inhabit these rocks. Be aware that these rocks can also hold sheepshead, trout and flounder, mainly on the high, outgoing tide. You may be able to fish the east side of the spoils, but on a weekend, boat traffic makes it difficult.
We worked the edge of the rocks with both a Booyah Samurai Blade and also with a jig head with either a Saltwater Assassin Sea Shad in their new elite-shiner color or a Gulp, 4-inch, Swimming Mullet. Rather than take a chance on live bait being available, we decided our trip would be an artificial day. Live shrimp are hard to come by in the colder months.
These rocks on the west side of the channel provide food for baitfish, then small fish and then larger fish as the food chain moves up. Reds can often be found along these rocks.
Slightly farther to the southwest is the entrance to a couple of small creeks. Oyster rakes are prevalent here at 31°05’04.92”N, 81°26’48.31”W. On a high tide, you can make your way into this creek, but on a low tide, you quite easily will be stuck. Leave enough water to get out on a dropping tide. Most creek mouths along the Georgia coast are so shallow at low tide, and if they have a bar across their mouth, boats have a hard time getting into them.
Most anglers, when quizzed about redfish tactics, will opt to fish on an outgoing and down to a low tide. The idea is that redfish feed up in the grass and on the flats when the water is high and move off the grass down into the creeks when the tide starts moving out. But don’t quit fishing when the tide starts back in.
Stop and think about it. On a low tide, these fish have been out of their feeding territory for several hours. They have to move back into the creeks and onto the grass marshes to feed. It makes sense that they would be just as likely to feed on the incoming tide when they are hungry as they are on an outgoing tide moving off the flats.
Here’s an important message to all anglers: Sometimes we fail to wait for the tide and assume there are or will be no fish in a given area. Tide moves the water; water moves the bait; and, fish will follow the bait. Sometimes we are too impatient and leave an otherwise good fishing spot because “they aren’t biting.” Remember that tidal current plays a key role in any angling opportunity.
Almost any small creek can hold redfish. The key is a combination of proper salinity, tidal current, bait and stealth. Without any one of those four elements present, the likelihood of finding redfish in a small creek drops significantly. Just a note here—if there has been a significant amount of rainfall, choose creeks closer to the sound. The salinity level will be higher there than back in the marsh creeks.
We finished up Day 1 with four redfish, all keepers. The minimum size limit in Georgia waters is 14 inches, and any fish long than 23 inches must be released unharmed. The bag limit is five redfish per person.
On a second trip we launched at the same location, but this time, we fished from the ramp and moved north. We first fished Hawkins Creek, almost a stone’s throw north of the Golden Isle Marina. We also fished some small creeks off the Frederica River, like Dunbar Creek. The myriad of small creeks on the backside of Jekyll and St. Simons Islands all have the potential to hold redfish.
We stuck with the artificial baits, even though we learned that live shrimp were available at the bait shop. We added an unweighted, red shad fluke to the offerings and caught one nice red on that particular bait.
We could specify many creeks for you to fish, but it would be hit or miss. Redfish are a moving fish. They seldom stay in one area very long. So, the fish you catch today could—and probably will—be gone tomorrow.
When choosing a creek to investigate, don’t look for the wide, deep, easy-to-navigate creeks. Most times, the smallest most unlikely creek will be your best investment in time. Make sure the right combination we talked about earlier is present, and then ease into the creek. Fish the bends in the creek. Look for shell bars along the bottom that will direct the redfish route. On an outgoing tide, look for the tops of oyster rakes to begin showing. These are excellent locations for a redfish to feed.
One good method to avoid being stuck in shallow water in a creek mouth at low tide is to make an exploratory trip on a dead low tide. Follow your chart, and hit the mouths of as many small creeks as you can. Some of those creeks have enough water at low tide to easily float your boat. Make note of them for future trips. If you go at high tide into one of the creeks you marked, you can rest easy that you will be able to get out at low tide.
The mud flats we mentioned can be found directly across the ICW from Jekyll Island. As we said, look for the birds wherever you fish. This is an area to fish as the water rises on the mud flat, but only if the birds are present. Look for redfish pushing water, and cast ahead of them.
Areas abound to the north of Golden Isles Marina, including the Hampton River and the dozens of small creeks that run into the marsh there. The marsh areas around Little Egg and Big Egg islands will also hold fish. Look for the baitfish. Remember, where there is bait, there will likely be fish.
As far as naming a specific creek, at some point in time we have fished any and all of the little creeks we mentioned; it all depends on that right combination. Having planned our trip based on water salinity and tide conditions, we head out. If we go to one creek and the combination is not there, we simply head to the next one on his list. You can easily do the same thing. Don’t be surprised if, after doing your homework, you find yourself in the same creek with us. If you do, say hello!
Pay attention to the bait. As you approach a creek mouth, look for activity. Sit quietly for a few minutes and look for any kind of movement in the water. Small grass shrimp, even white shrimp can sometimes be seen flipping on the surface. A school of mullet, particularly finger mullet, is another good sign. If you sit quietly for a few minutes at the mouth of a creek and see no activity, it is likely you won’t find fish back in that creek. There’s no guarantee that you will find fish when there is activity, but your chances are far greater with baitfish present. Look for birds at the water’s edge. They are there because they saw something that interested them. Smaller redfish will school in these areas, so if you catch one, you will likely catch more. Larger reds tend to be loners most of the time inshore.
Our advice to you is to plan your trip ahead of time. Take notice of what the tidal situation will be. Use a chart, like the NOAA Chart 11506, and mark some likely places to try. We like to plan a route that we run, stopping at creek mouths and oyster rakes along the way. If the right conditions aren’t there, we move to the next location on our route. It’s almost like freshwater “run-and-gun” fishing for bass, only much slower. Also take note of the moon phase. On a full moon or a new moon, the tides will be both higher at high tide and lower at low tide than any other times. Gravity from the sun and moon pulls harder on the water on these moon phases and a creek where you may have been able to get in and out of at low tide on another trip may leave you stuck for a few hours.
March is the beginning of spring, a great time to fish the Georgia coast! Protect our resource, and observe the rules. Leave fish for others, and enjoy your spring fishing.