Welcome to Fargo, Georgia. Enjoy the Okefenokee, Suwanee River and the Sill for a 1-2-3 punch.
Magnetism. Remoteness. Mystery. Its own aura and a feeling like you have stepped back in time. To feel it, deep down in south Georgia near the Florida border is the tiny town of Fargo, a nearly hidden gateway to the largest swamp in North America—700 square miles of an untamed wilderness called the Okefenokee Swamp. This nature lover’s paradise will surround you with fascinations that you’ll not view elsewhere. This is also the headwaters of the beautiful Suwanee River, which forms after spilling through the gates at the Suwanee Sill, a large earthen dam 5 miles in length, created in 1960 by the federal government to hold water during drought times to suppress wildfire outbreaks. Didn’t work.
Stephen Foster State Park is conveniently located there, complete with all the amenities any camper, paddler or fisherman should need: boat tours and rentals, campground, lodging, fishing tackle, ice, drinks, snacks, etc. Also, it has the only public boat ramp on the west side of the Okefenokee Swamp. The only town nearby (18 miles) is Fargo, also an excellent place to stay and has a convenience store, bait/tackle outfitter, great Southern Cooking (Suwanee River Café) and the Gator Motel. For hotel reservations, call Kevin Hart at (229) 251-0274. All are within a short walking distance of each other. A mile away is a public boat ramp for accessing the Suwanee River. Being Highway 177 going to the Park is a dead end that spurs off US 441, one has to access Fargo first. You can’t miss it. Still, don’t blink.
Summers are very hot, but this is when I love to come, primarily in August. The fish will be biting, whereas other locations in the state the bite has slowed significantly. The main swamp, consisting of Billy’s Lake, Minnie’s Lake and Big Water, will be best enjoyed during the morning and late afternoon hours. The connecting runs between those swamp lakes and the Suwanee River will have ample shade, making it more comfortable while fishing during midday. However, the sun high in the sky doesn’t prevent the fish from biting, especially the bowfin. Inaccessible from the Park ramp, the Sill conveniently has its own boat ramp. If you don’t own a boat, the first third of the Sill is easily fished from the bank with a paved road running alongside and mowed banks to cast from comfortably. Just below the Sill’s gates, the Suwanee River headwaters has a boat ramp, as well.
Midday is when we spend our time cleaning fish at the park’s cleaning station or just outside the gates underneath the shady live oaks at a private campground, Lem Griffis Fish Camp. This is also an access point for the Suwanee River, only a short distance below the Sill. If anyone is intrigued by native folklore and history, look no further. Lem Griffis was well known for his writings, spinning yarns and tall tales in the early and mid-20th century, while running this fish camp until his death in 1968. Google the name, and enjoy away.
If you camp at the Lem Griffis Fish Camp, take a tour of the small family museum with its local memorabilia, artifacts and taxidermy mounts while enjoying a chat with its proprietor, Lem’s son, Al, who is still carrying on his father’s tradition. For more info, give Al Griffis a call at (912) 637-5289.
For the avid reader, the Park store also has several books on the area’s history and folklore. If you see one by Lem, snatch it up. It will be a good read, I promise.
Last August, a friend and I who both love to camp and fish the Fargo area decided that we should start planning annual week-long trips. It takes far more than a day to fully experience fishing for all our target species in all three different settings; the Swamp, Sill and Suwanee. This trio completes the paradise deluxe for what I call the swamp fish species, thriving more plentiful here than anywhere else in the state. If one was on a quest for a trophy or record fish, this is the place. Georgia DNR has an Angler Awards Program for trophy-sized fish. The species list for weight/length requirements can be found on www.georgiawildlife.com.
The primary species we target here are warmouth, flier (shiner bream), bowfin (mudfish), chain pickerel (jackfish) and bullhead catfish. We titled our annual trip, so this August, join us for the second-annual “Super Swamp Slam.” Hopefully, I can persuade other friends and family to join. Below is our fishing log from last August.
Day 1 (p.m.) Suwanee Sill: I was using an ultralight spinning rig with 6-lb. test. I fished a mini Carolina rig with a No. 6 Tru-Turn hook and a split-shot sinker placed 8 inches up the line. I used live bait—improved red worms (earthworms)—on the rig. Hook the worm once or twice on the end, and let the entire worm dangle. I fished down the center of the canal, pitching in the center of run—which averaged 4 to 8 feet deep—and close to shady banks with roots or visible wood.
I casted and let the bait flutter down. It would bump the bottom a couple times, and I would retrieve. The fish will usually hit on the fall. Keep a small dip in the line, watch for the line twitch, and set the hook. The second half of the canal before the spillway was the most productive.
William and I limited out with 100 panfish, primarily warmouth with a few large bluegill, which are uncommon but seem to be increasing. We also caught 12 bullhead catfish. Hot spots were where visible springs trickled in from the Swamp. We lost count of the mudfish we caught.
Day 2 (a.m.) Suwanee River—Lem Griffis Camp Landing: I fished an ultralight spincast on 8-lb. test. Once again, I opted for a mini Carolina rig but used a No. 4 round-bend wire hook, a small swivel placed 10 inches up the line with 1/4-oz. egg sinker. For bait, I used pieces of dead shrimp. Each shrimp would give me three or four baits.
We targeted deeper holes in eddy pockets, inside/outside bends and just adjacent to wood debris in the current. Oftentimes, we’d tie our boat to overhanging limbs and cast downstream. Just fish the bait on the bottom, and watch your line and rod tip. Run and gun until you find the holes where the fish bite quickly.
Our catch was 64 bullhead cat averaging 8 to 10 inches each. According to my taste buds, they’re the most delicious catfish that swim. We caught several mudfish.
Day 2 (p.m.) Suwanee River Headwaters—Boat Ramp Below Sill: I was all alone on this evening trip. I fished a baitcaster on 15-lb. Big Game line. I fished a Zip-n-Sam, a wooden rear prop bait made by lure maker Sam Griffin. This is a very good jackfish lure. In the second slough down from Sill, I caught five nice jackfish, with the largest weighing 2 1/2 pounds. I had several more airborne hits by the toothy missiles but no hook-ups.
Fish were located on the downstream side the first 50 yards into the slough. Jack have not been as plentiful in recent years, but they are making a strong comeback.
A bad thunderstorm with lots of lightning moved in. I had to leave while they were still biting. Running that particular stretch of bank back and forth and casting at different angles would’ve eventually caught more.
Day 3 (a.m.) Billy’s Lake—Lem Main Swamp: I fished a 10-foot bream buster pole loaded with 6-lb. clear Trilene and Bert Deener’s Okefenokee Swamp Sally No. 6 in yellow and pink. You can fish the small fly alone or with a tiny balsa float. We added fake maggots—small pieces of a white Zoom Trick Worm—to the hook.
With the cork, you have to watch closely. If the cork barely moves, set the hook. With no cork, just flip it around or lower your bait into openings in the grass or pads. Let it sink while watching the fly. If it disappears within the first few inches, set the hook. With their black backs, fliers are really camouflaged. If your fly makes it deeper, watch for a subtle line twitch. Be really alert. They can spit it out quick.
Although finesse fishing, when you find a school, it can be fast and fun fishing. The Sally would be the go-to lure in the Swamp. It will consistently catch everything in the Swamp, except the catfish. However, that can happen on occasion should you stay near the bottom for very long.
We motored a short distance to the west to a large group of cypresses in a small cove. Using the Sally in that one spot, we quickly caught more than 3-dozen flier and warmouth.
Once we thoroughly worked the cypresses and grass edges and the bite slowed, we pulled out the bass gear for some mudfish action. Mudfish were splashing and boiling the surface continuously.
William tossed a white Trick Worm, while I used a 6-inch black/white polka-dotted Fiddler Worm. Both were worked on Texas rigs with No. 2 round-bend Gamakatsu hooks and 1/8-oz. worm weights.
For the next hour, it was mudfish mayhem! Very seldom did we make a cast without getting bit. Most of the time we each had one on. These fish are such strong fighters that it didn’t take long for them to tire us out. We caught more than 30 averaging 2 to 6 pounds each. All were released.
With a mess of bream and way too much fun catching endless mudfish, we decided to try a favorite catfish hole on the other end of Billy’s Lake before the sun got too high. Along the way, we trolled jointed Rebel Minnow plugs. This is a deadly method for jackfish, but that short troll only produced eight more mudfish.
In the next hour, we dredged that hole with dead shrimp and managed 24 catfish, eight more warmouth and numerous mudfish. That was good enough. It was time for lunch and a nap.
Day 4: We slept in and cleaned the last catch. We enjoyed the afternoon riding around the Fargo area, enjoying a good dinner at the Suwanee River Café, all the antique displays and a taxidermy mount of the state-record bowfin caught from the Suwanee River.
The remainder of the day was spent at camp, being lazy and reminiscing. As you age, that becomes fun, as well.
Day 5 (a.m.) Suwanee River—Headwaters: I was fishing solo with my baitcaster and a Zip-n-Sam plug. I hit the first turn downstream of the ramp, which is a fork that winds back to the Sill at another point. The first two sloughs to the right up that fork is where I spent the morning. My goal was bass, but they are not common. I’ve only caught a few small ones over the years. I persisted because I’ve heard rumors of larger ones. A trophy bass from this area would mean more to me than one of equal size from a pond or river elsewhere.
I worked the topwater bait up the long, narrow, winding slough until it ended at the Sill. I caught and released three squeaker largemouth and four jackfish. On the way out, I Texas-rigged a 6-inch green-pumpkin Fiddler Worm, pitching tight and working very slowly around the trees. The little plastic u-tail worm produced 18 warmouth, three catfish, a couple of short bass and several mudfish. That was the end of a blessed and fulfilling trip.
The staple lures for the Okefenokee can be found in area tackle shops, many of which are on or near Highway 441. Elmos in Douglas, Winges in Waycross, Googes’ in Hazlehurst and Suwanee Outfitters in Fargo are a few shops to stock up before you go fishing.
You can also purchase the Swamp Sally by calling Bert Deener at Bert’s Jigs & Things at (912) 288-3022. Bert, who is also a freelance writer for GON, also makes the hottest new lure on the market for bowfin and jack, the Dura-Spin. This bait can withstand a lot of the abuse that you will get from these toothy heavyweights.
For a fishing report, contact Buck at Elmo’s at (912) 384-4424. He fishes these locations a lot.
Ever since I was a child, I loved this place. What draws me here? Since the feeling is almost mystical, could it be spirits of Indian ancestors welcoming me home, as I have Creek and Cherokee running through my veins? I had a grandpa who was an avid angler who frequented this area regularly and actually drowned in the Suwanee River in 1970. The only vivid memory I have of him at less than 4 years old was of him helping me down a steep bank to get into a jonboat. Perhaps, it is his presence I feel as I fish his favored waters as he looks down and smiles. Certainly, remembering that only memory at such an early age instilled something at the time. He had love and time for a child and love for a heritage that still needs to be passed on. Thanks, Grandpa!
What I do know is that only here can I find such a peace, solitude and uniqueness that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Come and visit Fargo. I can guarantee you will feel it, too.
Whoops! I can’t believe while doing an Okefenokee article that I failed to mention alligators. Yep, gators, lots of alligators. Bring a camera.
One article can never do the Okefenokee Swamp justice. This will hopefully just whet your appetite to go see it for yourself. You’ll discover all kinds of things about fishing this area, and I bet it’ll start to be one of your favorite places to fish, too.
Heat the grease up!