Pap! Up in the thick canopy of the late summer’s oak leaves, I could see the ol gray chatterbox’s flared tail cork-screwing. Perfect shot! Two seconds later, the ever familiar thud on the forest floor. Squirrel No. 12. Time for the second stage of my hunt—piney rooters.
Beached on a small cut in the old dead river lake, I quickly knocked the bark off the fat bushytails, rinsed them in the backwaters of the mighty Altamaha and chunked ’em on ice.
Now, with .22 mag in hand, it was time to head to the far side of the peninsula, which is actually almost an island, only not so now because of the summer’s low river levels.
Following fresh pig sign for nearly an hour and fresher by the minute, I came upon a deep interior slough along the myriad of countless finger sloughs and small lakes. Wow, if the irrigating forces of the river rose 2 feet, this WMA would literally be composed of hundreds of islands, a real kayaker or canoer’s hunting paradise. Even now, a hiking fisherman’s dream. Fish swirling everywhere.
Nearby was a deadfall covered by a viney thicket in which the fresh rootings entered. Circling slowly around, I sensed something was fixing to happen. Coming into view was the edge of a large wallow created by the tree’s upturned roots.
A muddy blur of snout and fur rocketed out onto the hardwood plain. I raised the bull barrel and prayed for that one pause they’ll usually give if they’re unsure of what flushed them. He did. Quartering away. Last rib. Pap! A few kicks doing “snow angels” in the leaves and all was quiet. After a prayer above for a clean kill on a healthy animal, I quickly quartered the meat in the midday August heat.
Back at the boat, I tossed the meat in the livewell to rinse while I trolled back to the landing.
Relaxing back in the soft padded boat seat, I reflected on the day’s blessing. What a place, and it’s loaded full of squirrels and hogs to boot. No other hunters, other than my friend William farther down the bottom. The virgin land is now known as Morgan Lake WMA. At the time of my hunt, it was under nearby Griffin Ridge WMA regulations. For decades, it was primarily a private fishing retreat.
William and I returned the next weekend for a limit of squirrels each, and I killed another hog. The third weekend my son, Corey, and I doubled on hogs, while I took a few more squirrels on the way out. We were very fortunate to enjoy rimfire use that summer in 2014, as the next season, Morgan Lake became an archery-only area. I can just imagine the squirrels and hogs now.
Morgan Lake and the narrow run to the dead river, which ultimately arrives at the river over a mile away, has some astounding fishing. During those trips in the afternoons, we caught a lot of panfish, with a mix of all species, keeping only enough for a fish fry at camp each evening. This 1,117-acre WMA in Long County is a super combo setup for a hunting, fishing and camping retreat.
With hog meat soaking in the livewell and cleaned squirrels on ice, I dropped the trolling motor and began skipping a plastic worm under the willows in my new found paradise. As I worked around a sharp bend with a leaning willow, I could overhear some folks in a boat talking. Judging from their accent and mentions of home, it was easy to determine they were northern folks.
As they came into view, they became a beautiful portrait of an entire family enjoying the outdoors together. Father, mother and grade-school kids, a brother and a smaller sister. It reminded me of the little sticker families you see on the back window of a mini-van. Upon suddenly seeing a full-camo’ed redneck pop into view only a few yards away, their attention quickly focused on me.
Drifting by, I smiled and nodded my head. The father spoke out, “How are you doing? Any luck?’’ I had just cast ahead in the center in the run, letting my worm flutter to the bottom.
Engaging the reel, I said, “Yep, been a good day.’’ Raising my rod while reeling the slack in, I further replied, “Got muhself a wild hog soakin’ in the livewell and a mess of squirrels on ice, heading in now.’’
All got silent, and I noticed strange looks on their faces, which remained until I could no longer see them over my shoulder as I drifted by. It then dawned on me that there were no dead critters in view, and my gun was cased, lying flat in the bottom of the boat covered by my leafy suit. You don’t think they… Certainly not? All they did see though, was a feller with a rod and reel working a plastic worm who gave an answer they were not expecting.
It gets better. I rounded the next bend of willows and began working a rooty bank. I overcast my worm onto the bank. I jiggled the worm to get it loose among some broken twigs. Before the cast, I had seen a squirrel a few feet beyond feeding on the ground. I figured he would run off upon casting, but for now I held his interest as he was raised on his back legs. I jiggled the worm again.
Vroom! A blur and the little sucker attacked my worm. He sat up quickly and began chawing on it like it was corn on the cob. I was stunned for a couple seconds. Whoa! I snatched it away.
I looked back at the squirrel only 5 yards away now as the boat drifted near the bank. Maybe it was a wishful look for I had taken its treat away. I know it was wrong to do, but biting the hook off, I nosed up the worm. I wanted to see how close I could get him to the boat for a photo, which was now against the bank. I could jerk it away before he got it. I chunked it halfway between him and the boat. Jiggle, jiggle, and the little furry rocket was on it again. Quicker than me. I applied tension on the rod to pull it away. Little joker dug his heels in and was actually reared back in a game of tug of war. At that time, I heard the family around the corner drop their anchor in the boat and proceed back in my direction.
I pulled the rod back even more, which was now bent sharp. The little bugger had his heels dug in, and I thought I saw biceps on its little front legs. As the family drifted by me, they still hadn’t noticed the squirrel. I guess they assumed I was hung on the bank. As they passed my bow, I put my fingers to my lips for a “Shhhh” and pointed toward the end of my bent rod. I saw all their heads rotate the same direction, following my bent rod, then down the glistening line to a flat-footed reared-back squirrel 10 feet away, clamped down on a jiggly tailed worm. I remember all their mouths dropping open in unison, stair-stepping from the largest to the smallest throughout the entire length of the boat.
I stated, “I just can’t go wrong today. They hitting all colors!’’
I expected a comment for that funny remark, but their mouths were still open as they drifted around the bend. I lifted my thumb off the spool, and the squirrel catapulted up the nearest white oak. From somewhere in the lofty treetop it spit the bait out.
I wonder what that family discussed when they got back home? Maybe around the lines of “You won’t believe how they fish down there,” or “He must’ve had braided line for cranking that wild hog in amongst all that structure.’’
When I told others at work about the trip, they asked why I didn’t take photos. Well, on the next weekend I did just that. Trying to replicate somewhat, I tied a harvested squirrel to a stump protruding out over the water, plastic worm and all.
Finishing the last knots, I overheard a boat drifting up behind me, almost silently. Two elderly guys floating and casting along. This don’t look good. A lot of these older deep South folks are very superstitious down here. Not to say they practice voodoo, but they do believe in bad mojo. As I twisted around to see who it was, I exposed the view of the squirrel. One of them got the first word of “Hey’’ out before cutting it off. Both of their mouths dropped open and the white of their eyes became bigger than golf balls. Pretty shocking I suppose, following my out-stretched arms to a dead animal tied up over the water. Being the jokester I am, between my feet lay a turkey feather I had found earlier. I picked up the feather, projected it out from me, raised it up above my head and then back down, left and right, all the while chanting an Indian saying, “Yo-Ha-To-Hay, Ish-Ka-Nay.’’
I ain’t never heard so much clanging in a boat. Turning around, I saw the feller in the back jump up flat-footed and snatch on the pull rope so hard the prop cleared the water and sputtered to life just as it splashed back down, shooting out the first-ever rooster tail I’d ever seen from an Evinrude 9.9. Then in a blast, they were gone. Last thing I noticed was the the feller up front knuckle-gripping the gunnels and leaning way forward like a bird dog on point, “Go, Go, Go!!”
This huge fishing area is full of one of the best areas I’ve ever seen for a combo camping, fishing and/or hunting family outing. Not only do you have the huge oxbow lake at Morgan Lake WMA to fish, but the narrow run that connects it to a large dead river lake that is the gateway to the mighty Altamaha River. Miles of even more fishing opportunities. For the more adventurous, there are many hidden sloughs and small lakes teeming with fish just a short walk out onto the swamp floodplain. Bluegill, shellcracker, redbreast, warmouth, crappie, bass and catfish are the primary species sought here. There is also great mullet fishing out in the river.
In discussing Morgan Lake with DNR’s David Mixon and Hal Wiggins, they both agree it remains a strong panfish destination, especially for bluegill and shellcracker. In August, most bream will be caught in 6 to 10 feet of water on the first ledge off the bank. When fishing the narrow-connecting slough between the main lake and the old dead river, stay in the center. The sweet spot will be any shelf in 5 to 8 feet of water right after a deep hole.
Crickets and worms fished on or near the bottom with a slip cork works well. Some of the largest bream will suspend at those same levels in the fallen treetops in deeper water. On the last half on the left side of the old dead river lies a submerged sandbar. Keep the boat out from the bank at least 75 yards. Drift with telescopic poles and slip corks until you find the fish in a stretch and then anchor.
Besides Morgan Lake archery hunting, hunters who camp or embark here will have the added bonus of being on the doorsteps of thousands of more hunting acreage. These will include Griffin Ridge and Townsend WMAs, each accessible by land or water.
For the 2016-17 hunting seasons, state season dates will apply for deer, turkey and small game. Hogs are included during all hunt dates and a WMA stamp is required for hunting. Remember the WMA is archery only. Squirrel season starts Aug. 15, which will allow bowhunters the chance to get after a late-summer hog.
For camping or fishing, you’ll need a GORP pass.
Any amenities you may need are just around the corner in Ludowici or Jesup. There is a shady primitive campsite right at the ramp.
Right before the ramp is a private campground called Morgan Lake Wilderness Campground and RV Park. They have hookups, plus they have some pay-to-fish ponds. Morgan Lake Campground can be contacted at (912) 545-9026. You can check them out at http://morganlakecampground.com.
In closing, do not feed the wild animals, nor tease them. They can be really quick. Keep your little worm where it’s supposed to be—in the water. Hope to see ya there!