Eastern Fly Fishing

Southern Charm in the Georgia Lowcountry
By Jason Stemple

Living and fishing out of Charleston, South Carolina, for more than a decade, I had long itched to fish our sister city of sorts, nearby Savannah, Georgia. The two historic port cities share a common history, and both embody the charm of the Lowcountry. While I know Charleston’s waters well, I had only heard tales of Georgia’s fishing, but it was time for that to change. I religiously follow a number of guides’ fishing reports around the country and had been paying special attention to the variety of fish being caught on flies just two hours to the south. So, I contacted Captain Scott Wagner, www.savannahfly.com, to talk about the fly-fishing opportunities around Savannah and he invited me down for a little exploring. Unfortunately, it was winter, and I would not be able to chase tarpon or triple-tail on this trip, but I would be sure to pick his brain on those two fisheries and make plans for a summer excursion.
   I met Wagner on a cold December morning and, accompanied by Mark Nutting, one of his regular anglers, we headed out toward the chilly sunrise. The tide was fairly high, so the plan was to head up into the rice canals and blind-cast for trout until the water dropped enough to move to the flats for the main event: big schools of redfish. 
   As we ran through the receding darkness in Wagner’s Hell’s Bay skiff, I took note of the differences from and similarities to my home waters. Much of it was familiar: the shrimp boats, spartina marsh, and bridges that repeatedly span the Lowcountry cities’ waterways. But there was a different feel, a slightly different look to the marsh. As we neared our destination, we weaved through the canals’ last few perpendicular turns before finishing the journey under the stealth of electric power. The rising sun welcomed us, as did the sounds of trout popping bait in the distance. We began with heavy Clouser Minnows, fishing them deep and slow where the heavy current was obstructed by structure. The air was warming, but still quite cold, so very slow retrieves were best. After a bit of experimenting, Nutting was tight to a nice fat trout. It’s amazing how fast a bent rod can take the chill off.
   We played with the trout for a bit before they moved off with the tide and we decided to make the long run from the canals out to the flats. Again, I took the opportunity to get the lay of the land, or water, while we ran. As a marsh connoisseur, I was interested in the subtle changes in habitat, from the rice canals through the city’s waterways out to the flats at the edge of the ocean. As a fisherman, it was easy to see that there was a lot of water to fish and that local knowledge would be key.
   We arrived at the chosen flats as the tide was just pulling out of the grass. Despite a cold, steady wind, the water was crystal clear and the oyster bars stood out from the muddy bottom. We poled the edge for a bit before we saw the first redfish working in and out of the grass in a small, shallow cove. My first cast went unnoticed and the fish disappeared, before reappearing in a patch of thick grass. My next cast was on target. The fish pumped its tail once and flared its gills, inhaling the fly. It worked me over in the thick grass for a minute or two before we poled over and spooked it out onto the open flat, where we could resume the battle. A few minutes later we brought the 6-pounder boat-side for a quick photo shoot and release.
   Once the tide drained out of the grass, we began seeing more and more fish as they could no longer hide in the vegetation. With the tide now low, we repeatedly poled to just within casting distance of a school of several hundred redfish, trying to pick one off the edge each time. Every hooked fish or rejection would send the whole school packing in a huge muddy explosion. Big puffs of mud would erupt below the boat, and you could feel the thump of thick fish squeezing under the boat in just 6 inches of water. A few minutes later the school would re-form, and a few minutes after that they would be approachable again. We took turns catching 2-foot-long fish for a while before deciding to move on.
   After another run through various creeks and rivers, we pulled up to a riverside flat where we would finish the day. Unlike the previous flat, this was a narrow strip of shallow water lining a popular waterway. The sun was low and the golden marsh grass reflections made it hard to see the fish, but they were there, and we managed to catch two more nice reds to finish the day with the setting sun.

 

Redfish, the Daily Staple
Although for much of the year there are other options for fly anglers, redfish are the most common target year-round. Most of the sight-fishable redfish in the Georgia Lowcountry are between 20 and 32 inches, but Wagner has also been targeting bull reds in the summer: 20- to 30-pound fish in shallow water. Most of the redfishing, though, is for the juvenile fish, before they move out to deeper water to spawn. They roam the shallow mud and oyster flats and creeks at lower tidal stages and move up into the grass when the tide allows.
   In the summer they are spread out; singles, doubles, or small schools are the rule. The warm summer water is generally off-color due to mud and algae blooms. Sight-fishing is therefore often less about seeing fish in the water and more about seeing exposed backs and tails, or casting at wakes and nervous water. Redfish enjoy the shallowest of water, using it to escape their worst predators: dolphins and humans. The shallows also allow them to push bait against the edges, cutting off several angles of escape. 
   But the shallow water also exposes the fish to anglers with a trained eye. When the fish are feeding at low tide, they often tail and crawl with their backs exposed. Low-tide tailing or crawling fish are great targets. You can usually judge their speed and lay your fly out a few feet in front of them. If you place your fly accurately, usually a few little twitches is all it takes. A reaction from the fish, good or bad, is always a learning experience; no reaction means the fish didn’t see the fly.
   Redfish spook for a number of reasons, but one of the more common seems to be too much fly movement. I like to use flies that have a lot of action from soft materials so that the movement you impart to the fly can be minimal. Fish that are cruising and pushing wakes can be a little more difficult to pinpoint, and you might need to experiment a bit more in your presentation. The size and speed of the wake can help you read a fish’s attitude and location. Remember that the fish is at least a body length ahead of the wake, so be sure to lead a waking fish by quite a bit and try to match the speed of your fly to the speed of the wake. When a fish’s wake is screaming off across the flat or through the grass, that fish is spooked, so don’t bother casting to it.
   When the tide floods, redfish follow the rising water to the edge of the grass and beyond. When the water is just tickling the edges of the marsh, the fish stick to the edge and can be very catchable. Once they move up into the thick grass, they are hard to find and presentations become extremely difficult. High tides range from 6 to 9 feet; the lower highs leave redfish foraging in the thickest grass, which is less than optimal for fly anglers. Twice a month the tides cycle higher, and when these spring tides approach and eclipse 8 feet, the water floods the hard-bottomed grass flats where fiddler crabs are abundant. In the warmer months (April through October), the fish push out of the thicker grass to hunt fiddlers and can be found tailing.
   You may have heard about these tailing tides, and for good reason. Redfish tailing on grass flats are great targets and just plain fun to watch. Sometimes they crawl in the shallowest water they can find, with backs and tails exposed, and other times they do complete headstands as they attempt to suck a fiddler crab from its hole.
   Weedless flies are key in the grass, as are accurate casts. Crawlers and cruisers must be led, just like low-tide fish, but tailers are pretty well occupied and may tolerate a tight shot. Their field of vision is small, filled with mud and grass, so a fly that sits wiggling in their face is more likely to be eaten than one that is pulled away too quickly. Many anglers like to stalk tailers on foot in the grass; I enjoy the platform and extra elevation of a silently poled skiff.
   Summer patterns persist into October and beyond in warmer years, but with winter looming, the fish become ravenous. Much of the bait moves offshore or migrates south in the winter, so growing schools of redfish gang up on shrimp and mullet. Schools actively chewing their way across a flat are easy targets for anglers who can get a fly out ahead of the action. Be patient and let the school get to the fly before bumping it along, then hold on.
   Cooling temperatures clear up the water and prompt the fish to begin schooling up more and more as the season progresses. By December the larger flats hold big schools of fish in shallow, clear water. It’s not uncommon to pole up on a school of several hundred redfish. These winter fish are on edge, hunted daily by pods of vicious dolphins. They often retreat to the shallowest edges of the flats or hide against oyster bars. On calm, clear days, the big schools can be seen from a distance, as color blocks or large areas of nervous water. A stealthy approach is necessary, because hundreds of eyes are on the lookout for danger. This is when long casts, light fluorocarbon tippet, and small flies help. Along with the daily dolphin attacks, many of these schools deal with heavy angler pressure. The easier-to-find schools get hit hard all winter by the spin-fishing crowd, so sometimes it’s better to just move on if a school seems overly sensitive.

 

Winter Options
Sea trout are always available and can save the day when conditions or tides aren’t in your favor. Trout are schooling fish, and when you locate a hungry school, the action can be nonstop. Trout like current, and deeper water than redfish, so weighted flies and/or sinking lines help to get the fly down to them. Simple baitfish patterns, such as Clousers or Deceivers, usually do the trick. Once you figure out the bite, you can wear them out, as they are usually stacked up and do not spook off too easily. 
   Low light conditions, such as early mornings and overcast days, can bring explosive top-water bites on poppers or gurglers. Schools of 16- to 18-inch trout are common, and you can run into trout over 20 inches at any time.
   Historically, striped bass have been one of the most popular fish in the brackish Georgia waters. While still popular, they are somewhat less reliable in the Savannah River due to changes in the flow that originated when a tidal gate and canal were installed in the Back River years ago. The resulting change in salinity nearly collapsed the fishery, but annual stocking efforts have been helping the population rebound. In the winter months stripers migrate downstream into the estuaries surrounding Savannah, where fly anglers can target them. They orient to structure and current, but locating schools is usually a matter of finding the bait. Look for birds on bait that the stripers are pushing to the surface and cast appropriate-size bait patterns into the melee.

 

Summer Migrations
The warm summer breezes and rising water temperatures bring a number of summer visitors from the south. Redfish are still the main attraction for most fly anglers, but in the heat of summer there is something for everyone, from ladyfish to tripletail to tarpon.
   For just plain fun on a light rod, it’s hard to beat the action of schooling ladyfish. They generally crush whatever you throw at them, including poppers, and they fight like crazy, living up to their nickname, the “poor man’s tarpon.” Although their appearance is often sporadic, they can show up anywhere at any time, so when you find them, you might as well enjoy it.
   Spanish mackerel can be found slashing bait in inlets and nearshore areas throughout coastal Georgia. Look for birds working over deeper water. Once you get close, you’ll see the fish ripping through schools of small baitfish or even skyrocketing like their bigger cousins. Use speedy retrieves with small, sparse bait patterns tied on long-shank hooks. Spanish mackerel have sharp teeth that will cut the line; a wire bite tippet prevents this, but also results in fewer bites. Long-shank hooks help prevent cutoffs and don’t bother the fish at all.
Tripletail show up early and are one of the most underrated game fish available. They are an odd, prehistoric-looking fish out of the water and even odder in the water. They like to float, often on their sides, near the surface around structure, including crab pot buoys. To a baitfish they look like a piece of structure, a safe sanctuary, and they are definitely not that. Tripletail are not shy about eating a fly, and they are perfect for sight-fishing. Top that off with being incredibly strong and growing to upwards of 30 pounds and you have a great fly-rod fish.
   Jack crevalle are found randomly roaming the coastal waterways, but if you do find them you had better be armed with the proper gear. These are not the 1-pound schoolies that inhabit south Florida waters; these are full-grown migratory bruisers—reel-smoking, knuckle-busting, rod-breaking monsters that reach at least 30 pounds. Sometimes they are found inshore or nearshore, destroying schools of bait or, on calm mornings, finning down waterways. Again, birds often reveal fish attacking bait schools; cruising slick waterways at daybreak and scanning the surface for wakes or nervous water is the way to find finning schools. Big poppers or baitfish patterns get their attention, and speed and commotion get the bite. Hookless teaser plugs can be used to get jacks fired up and close if they are not cooperating. Don’t bring anything lighter than a 10-weight to mess with jacks, or you and what remains of your gear will regret it.
   Cobia, too, show up at random inside the inlets or just offshore and are a great target for fly anglers. By nature, they are curious and aggressive creatures that aren’t afraid to swim right up to a boat, looking for food. To cobia, your boat is just floating structure that could be holding baitfish. Like jacks, cobia can be seen cruising just under the surface of inlet waters by scanning the surface for wakes or nervous water on slick, calm mornings. You can also target them specifically as they swim around open-water structure, such as channel markers. Many cobia range from 20 to 30 pounds, but a 60- to 70-pounder can pop up at any time. Large baitfish imitations that mimic menhaden can prompt aggressive bites. As with the jacks, cobia demand 10-weight or heavier tackle.
   Fly fishing for tarpon is the newest emerging fishery in the area. Tarpon flood into the Lowcountry in the summer months and have long been targeted on bait, but Wagner and a few others have been chasing them with fly rods recently and are starting to hook up regularly. This is not the chum-and-drop-back method that’s been around for a while; this is stalking rolling and feeding fish off the beaches or inside the inlets. Heavy rods and big flies are the ticket, as these are full-grown migratory fish that are here to feed on mullet and menhaden. Wagner uses sinking or intermediate lines when targeting the rollers. Most of the fishing is in 6 to 10 feet of water, but he says he also finds the occasional fish laid up on the edge of the grass. I will definitely be back in summer for laid-up tarpon in
the Lowcountry.

 

Southern Hospitality
Savannah’s charm and hospitality are well known throughout the world and make it a thriving tourist destination. Much of the city’s dining, lodging, and attractions are in the quaint historic downtown area. Here you will find waterfront dining and shopping along the Savannah River. From there, climb the steep steps up to one of the nation’s largest historic landmark districts and explore the city’s 22 historic squares.
   If you prefer the beach, Tybee Island is a short trip across the marsh from the city. The barrier island, once known as Savannah Beach, looks out over the Atlantic and the Savannah River inlet. You’ll find a wealth of dining and lodging options here as well, and the backside of the island boasts views of the expansive marshes you may be fishing.
   Savannah and the surrounding Georgia Lowcountry have vast expanses of marsh to explore and numerous targets for fly casters. The history and the hospitality only sweeten the deal. Whether you’re looking to warm up a bit in the winter with some clear-water sight-fishing or want to tackle some of the area’s summer variety, Savannah is a great place to visit.

 

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