This summer’s record-high fuel prices and associated rise in the cost of living are making life tough for anyone who uses a boat for business or recreation. Saltwater anglers are really feeling the pinch since, on average, the boats, engines and fuel tanks are larger. That’s why many coastal fishermen are looking at their small boats with new respect.
Having begun my saltwater-fishing career in a small Mako center-con- sole boat owned by a friend, Gordon Rogers, I’ve always appreciated the utility of a small boat for coastal fishing. We custom-rigged the boat with navigation and fish-finding electronics, a flow-through bait well, extra rodholders and other features to maximize her fishing power. She may have only been 17 feet long, but she fished like a much bigger boat. We even ventured out into the open Atlantic Ocean, when the weather permitted. Everything from smoker kings to tarpon to whiting came across the gunwale of the Bwana III, as she was affectionately known.
In the years since, I’ve used several makes and models of boats for work, competition and pleasure, most of which were larger than the Bwana III. Yet, I’ve never strayed from belief that a properly equipped small boat has a place in Georgia’s coastal waters.
That’s one of the reasons my wife, Chris, and I purchased a 15-foot War Eagle jonboat to go with our primary saltwater boat, a Pathfinder 2200 XL Tournament Edition. Besides giving us another option for saltwater fishing, it comes in mighty handy for redbreast fishing and duck hunting.
Sure, you’ve got to have good judgment, a healthy dose of common sense and an extra measure of caution when deciding where and when to fish coastal waters from a small boat. But, the fact is, a small boat can be a safe and economical way to reach places inhabited by a Who’s Who list of saltwater rod-benders. In fact, many coastal Georgia boat ramps, such as those found along roadside right-of-ways at highway bridges, are only suitable for small boats. This means the small-boat angler often has access to waters off the beaten path where the fish are less pressured. A small boat with a shallow draft can also be an advantage for navigating skinny water where bruiser redfish and other popular species are often found.
Small But Sophisticated
The technological advances of the past 20 years have spawned a new generation of small boats that have little in common with the wooden bateaus and heavy fiberglass runabouts of yesteryear. The boats themselves are marvels of design and construction, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any wood. There are numerous makes and models in the 15- to 20-foot range suitable for saltwater, including several produced by Georgia-based companies like Carolina Skiff, Key Largo, Palm Beach, Sailfish and Sundance. Even aluminum jonboats and bass boats with high gunwales can be safely operated in coastal waters, particularly in the more protected tidal rivers and creeks.
Many models of small fiberglass or composite-material boats leave the factory with all the necessary features for saltwater fishing, while others require some after-market improvements. Standard features to look for include: anchor locker, running lights, built-in and plumbed baitwells, storage space with lids, gunwale rodholders, bilge pumps, built-in fuel tank, gun- wale cleats, bow and stern lifting eyes, and seats or a leaning post. Aluminum boats are more sophisticated than ever but will usually have fewer of these saltwater-friendly features as standard or optional equipment. You may have to spend a few more dollars after the purchase to make the boat safe and functional for coastal fishing.
Our 15-foot War Eagle jonboat came factory-rigged with a re-circulating baitwell, running lights, a 12-volt accessory plug, swivel seats and a courtesy light. I added a 20-hp Mercury four-stroke outboard engine, a 3.5-gallon fuel tank, a cranking/deep-cycle battery, a 55-lb.-thrust Minn Kota Riptide transom-mount trolling motor, a Lowrance depthfinder, an automatic bilge pump and rodholders. With these features, the boat is ready for every- thing from live-bait fishing to trolling artificials for wintertime trout.
While fishing features are optional, the following equipment is mandatory when operating in coastal waters: fire extinguisher (on vessels with gasoline engines), basic hand tools, the boat registration card, a first-aid kit, flares, a whistle, insect repellent, sunblock, navigation charts for the area and a throwable flotation device. Since I don’t have extra room to store personal flotation devices, we each wear a suspender- type auto-inflate PFD. Check state and federal laws to make sure you have the required safety equipment for your class of vessel.
Although not required by law, a handheld/waterproof GPS and a hand- held/waterproof VHF radio are both wise investments that can make the difference between inconvenience and tragedy. Mobile telephone service is better than ever along the Georgia coast, but a mobile phone is not a replacement for a VHF radio, which allows one to communicate directly with the U.S. Coast Guard or another boat with a VHF radio during times of emergency.
Last, but certainly not least, you’ll need to carry an anchor with at least 50 feet of nylon line. On the jonboat, we carry an 8-lb. mushroom anchor and a Cajun Anchor — a solid piece of stain- less-steel bar that may be stabbed into the bottom <www.cajunanchor.com>. By using these two anchors to hold the bow and stern, I can position the boat so all aboard can effectively fish structure like oyster shell reefs. The hydraulic Power Pole system <www.powerpole.com> is growing in popularity with small-boat owners since it gives at-your-fingertip convenience for pinpoint positioning in water up to 8 feet in depth.
I admit to having a particular fondness for our official state saltwater fish, the red drum, but I’m also quite partial to its cousins, the speckled trout and the southern kingfish, also known as whiting. Guess I’m not alone since these species rank as the top three targeted by coastal Georgia anglers. Their popularity comes from the fact they’re found in areas within easy reach of the small-boat angler, they’re pleasing to the eye, and they make a fine meal. Most importantly, they’ll usually respond aggressively when you get the bait or lure in front of them.
During the summer, yearling reds spawned the previous autumn can be found in dense schools at the mouths of small tidal creeks and around oyster reefs. Most of these fish measure less than the 14-inch minimum length limit until September or October. Slot-size fish (less than 23 inches in length) are often found in the same areas, especially those places where the flooding tide gives them access to the high marsh where they forage on small crabs. Flooded-marsh fishing is one area where a small, shallow-draft boat is a necessity. The daily limit is five fish per person, but remember you’re harvesting immature fish. So, take only what you can use and release the rest to fight another day.
Every year, Georgia anglers catch a few hundred thousand speckled trout from barrier-island beaches, natural structure like oyster reefs and marsh grass points, and around man-made structure such as rock jetties. Since trout school, you’ll usually catch several if you catch one. Summertime fishing produces many undersized (less than 13 inches) trout but, on the positive side, it also produces some very large trout, most of which will be spawning females. Although Georgia doesn’t have a maximum length limit for trout, many anglers and guides are voluntarily releasing these large fish in the interest of conservation. The daily possession limit is a generous 15 fish per person, but don’t hesitate to practice catch-and-release as scientific studies show properly handled trout have a good survival rate when released.
There’s not much catch-and- release when it comes to whiting fishing. That is, unless your catch is small- er than the 10-inch minimum-size limit. Considered by many to be the best-tasting fish in coastal Georgia, whiting are targeted by small-boat anglers fishing just off barrier-island beaches, in the deeper portions of the lower estuary and in the channels of tidal rivers. Although you can legally keep a 10-inch whiting, many anglers prefer to upgrade to at least a 12-inch fish. Georgia has no daily limit for whiting, but don’t give in to the temptation to take more fish than you need.
Live bait, mainly shrimp, finger- size mullet or mud minnows, account for the majority of the redfish and trout catch each year. Dead bait like shrimp and squid take the lion’s share of whiting. The tried-and-tested method for presenting live natural baits in tidal currents is a depth-adjustable float rig. A two-hook bottom rig is the preferred terminal tackle when fishing natural baits for whiting.
Soft plastics and biodegradable scented artificials like the Berkeley GULP! Alive product line are claiming more and more redfish, trout and even whiting. The swimming mullet and shrimp patterns are most effective when presented on a jig head under a rattling float, while the peeler-crab and jerk-bait patterns are best rigged on a weedless hook or a Carolina rig. Chartreuse, new penny, nuclear chick- en and molting colors are popular with Georgia anglers. Spinnerbaits such as the Booyah Samurai Blade and Berkley Beetle Spin Mullet can also be deadly for redfish. Both reds and trout will take hard baits that mimic mullet, menhaden or anchovies.
Most ocean-going striking fish are beyond the reach of the small-boat owner with one exception — the Spanish mackerel. During the summer- time, they can be found just off the beach ravaging baitfish. Look for dip- ping and diving seabirds to find the mackerel schools. The flesh of the Spanish mackerel is very tasty when broiled or grilled with some light seasoning and lemon juice. The minimum size in state waters is 12 inches, and the daily limit is 15 fish per person.
Lures that imitate small baitfish are effective whether trolled or cast. The key to an effective presentation is moving the lure fast so it resembles a panicked baitfish. The Clark Model RBM spoon in Size 00 is a popular lure, but the Sea Striker Got-Cha jig and even a homemade lure made from a section of plastic drinking straw claim their share of mackerel. Like their larger cousins, the king mackerel, Spanish have an impressive set of teeth that can make short work of most fishing lines. You can opt for heavy monofilament as leader, but that often- times compromises the action of the lure or spooks the fish. The best approach is to put a 6-inch piece of light wire between the main line and a 20-inch piece of 10-lb. test fluorocarbon leader. A landing net is the safest and most effective way for getting these feisty fish in the boat.
Loved by many but understood by few, flounder are often an incidental catch of fishermen targeting trout and redfish. Because of their firm texture and mild flavor, flounder are excellent table fare, making them a pleasant surprise any time they show up on the angler’s hook. If you like to combine hunting and fishing, gigging — the practice of spearing flounder at night — is still a small-boat tradition along the Georgia coast.
When fishing, juvenile flounder are found in tidal creeks and rivers throughout the year, but legal-size fish (longer than 12 inches) migrate out of inshore water during the winter. The bite of a flounder is subtle, and many fish are lost as anxious anglers try to set the hook prematurely. A stunned baitfish with diagonal tooth marks near its tail is a sure sign you’ve missed a nice flounder. Dogged opponents on light tackle, flounder will often jump from the water during a fight. A landing net is an important accessory for inshore saltwater fishing, but it’s particularly important for getting those “doormats” to the boat and maximizing the chances of catching your daily limit of 15 of
these tasty flatfish.
Black drum and sheepshead are sometimes a pleasant surprise for the inshore angler fishing around structure, but create confusion because of their close resemblance to each other. The easiest way to tell the difference is to look at the mouth. Black drum have visible barbels under the chin; sheepshead have none. Sheepshead have prominent incisor teeth; black drum have none. Sheepshead reach a maximum weight of about 15 pounds, while adult black drum can tip the scales at 80 pounds.
Black drum don’t have the reputation of their cousins the red drum because they’re not a common catch, and they don’t put up the same bruising fight on light tackle. But don’t let that fool you into thinking they’re a pushover. A 5-lb. black drum will get your heart pounding, and it yields some very tasty fillets. By contrast, the sheepshead has a well-earned reputation as a thief because of its uncanny ability to steal bait while barely moving the rod tip. Sharp hooks and rods with a fast tip will help defeat this “convict” fish as it’s known along the coast. Like black drum, the sheepshead makes excellent table fare. Fishing regulations for the two species are identical — 10-inch minimum size and 15 fish per day.
On a recent seatrout trip, I had the mixed blessing of encountering two exciting but unappreciated fish species — bluefish and ladyfish. Both provided a bonus in the form of an exciting fight but did some damage to my terminal tackle in the process. As the name implies, bluefish are colored blue or greenish-blue on their backs with silvery sides, large mouths and prominent sharp teeth used with great effect on a variety of prey and occasionally on an unsuspecting angler. While bluefish are highly prized as table fare in the mid- Atlantic, they are usually not harvested by Georgia anglers.
When compared to the bluefish, the toothless ladyfish seems rather harmless. This slender silver fish typically measures a couple of feet in length with a pointed head and large eyes. This lack of teeth doesn’t prevent them from being voracious predators like the bluefish. Once hooked, lady- fish go airborne like their cousin, the tarpon. At boat-side, these tarpon wannabes have a nasty habit of getting slime and tiny fish scales on anything within a few feet. They have no food value so it’s advisable to release them as soon as possible.
Fishing the inshore waters of Georgia coast during the late summer is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get. A live shrimp drifted by a marsh-grass point may produce any- thing from a trout to a ladyfish. A piece of squid soaked on a bottom rig yields a whiting or maybe a black drum. A trolled spoon draws strikes from Spanish mackerel and bluefish. A small boat and adventurous spirit is all
you need to get in on the action.