The Georgia coast brings to mind endless seas of spartina grass and miles of serpentine creeks and rivers. For the uninitiated, it can be very daunting to pick a good fishing spot out of the huge marsh expanses. All along the coast of Georgia you will find numerous bluffs and cut-banks of various sizes, from 6 feet to 40 feet. They have been carved out of old sand dunes and shell mounds by the huge twice daily local tidal swings, averaging up to 8 feet between low and high tide. Fish find these bluffs irresistible due to the numerous advantages they have over open water. They provide shelter from predators, wind, and current. In the winter, the water around the bluffs is warmer because the bank absorbs the sun's rays and radiates the heat back into the water. In the summer, when water temps soar over 80 degrees, a bluff offers a shady spot for a fish to cool off. This adds up to a year-round habitat that will harbor redfish, seatrout, flounder, and other inshore species.
Flippin' Timber, Bass Fishing Style
You will find three main types of bluffs on the Atlantic Coast from Northeast Florida through Georgia and South Carolina: Oyster shell banks, developed bluffs reinforced with a seawall or rip-rap, and mud cut-banks. These mud cut-banks are usually wild spots found in the interior of barrier islands or farther up in the larger estuary systems. Barrier islands like Ossabaw, Sapelo, and St. Simons have numerous creeks running into them that cut out banks up to twenty feet high at low tide. Locals keep these sheltered spots a well-guarded secret, but many of them are within a few minutes from the boat launch. As the tide eats away at the banks, trees fall into the water. It is amazing how rapidly these blowdowns will begin to attract fish. A few years ago I was fishing a cut-bank in the Savannah area and watched a large chunk of bank slide into the river carrying a small oak tree with it. Three days later I was catching trout out of that very same tree. Redfish showed up a week later.
The way I fish these trees is very similar to the "flipping" technique used by freshwater bass anglers when they are fishing timber. You will need to use braided line or heavy monofilament, paired with a fluorocarbon leader, to ensure good abrasion resistance against line-eating tree bark and barnacles. Anchor about ten yards up-current from the tree, or use a trolling motor to hold your position. I like to use a soft plastic paddle-tail or screw-tail body on a 1/8 or 1/4 ounce weedless jighead, but a live shrimp or mud minnow can also be used with great results. A three inch Gulp Alive Swimmin Minnow is excellent in this situation. Flip the bait toward the tree, letting the current drift the bait the rest of the way. When you feel the bait touch the bottom, give a few jerks of your rod tip and let it sit for a few more moments. Redfish and flounder tend to congregate on the creek bottom, inside or underneath the tree, waiting to ambush prey that falls down from the submerged branches. If you get no hits on the bottom, begin a slow, jigging retrieve back up through the tree. Seatrout will often be found suspended inside of the tree and around its edges. With such an abundance of snags, you should be prepared to lose some jigheads, but the rewards are great.
It is a good idea to scope out a bluff during a time of extreme low tide. Make a note of any normally submerged structure. Sloped or undercut bluffs, ledges, and logs are all things to look for. Redfish and flounder will hug the bank in order to corral unsuspecting prey. Redfish are chiefly in search of fiddlers and blue crabs falling off the ledges into deeper water. In mid to late summer, it is common to find juvenile reds with bright blue tails and fat bellys that have been gorging themselves on these tasty crustaceans. Around these ledges, drift a scented soft plastic, such as Berkley's Gulp! shrimp or crabs, under a popping cork with about 18 inches of fluorocarbon leader. Allow the cork to drift down-current, parallel to the bank. Feed line out slowly, but be ready set the hook when the cork goes under. Trout will tend to be found further out from the bank in a creek's main channel bottom, holding near ledges and dropoffs. If you want to go after them, set aside the popping cork and try drifting a weedless jighead with a mud minnow or Gulp! shrimp, instead. The current in the main channel will be strong, especially on an outgoing tide, but you need to keep in contact with the bottom to find fish, so you may need to use up to a 1/2 ounce jighead to keep your bait down. When you feel contact with the bottom, jerk your rodtip a couple of times to pop the bait up and let it drift a few more feet. Sometimes the strikes will be very light, so feel for any tick or sudden slack in the line and be ready to set the hook.
Spottails at the Oyster Bar
Thousands of years of shell accumulation have created huge oyster banks that rim the coastal sounds and bays along the Georgia coast. Where you find oysters, live or not, you're almost certain to find fish. These shell mounds are teeming with life, from small crustaceans and minnows, to the higher predators on the food chain. Fishing around these shell bars is always seems best during the few hours before and after low tide. Braided line or a fluorocarbon leader in the 20-30 pound range is essential in fishing around razor-sharp oyster shells and barnacles. When the water level is too low for redfish to get back into the marsh grass, they tend to gravitate to the shells in search of shrimp and mud minnows. They are the last to leave the oyster bars and the first to return. Using live bait under a slip float or popping cork is a good way to fish over the shells to avoid snags. Look for submerged live oyster reefs that jut out from the bank and fish around the edges, as the redfish will hold tightly to the structure. Reds will cruise up and down the banks in schools, so if you catch one, there's bound to be more. Black drum will make an appearance as well, and often these bruisers will top fifty pounds as they munch on crabs hiding in the shells.
Flounder and seatrout usually return to the shell banks an hour or two after low tide. While local anglers predominantly use live shrimp, I prefer live mud minnows or small finger mullet lip-hooked on a 1/8 ounce slipper jighead. Drag them slowly through the soft mud bottom potholes you will find between shell bars. While shrimp will catch plenty of trout, you'll get fewer throwbacks and larger trout on average with baitfish. As for flounder, an old salty local once told me, "A flounder will knock your shrimp out of the way to get to my polywog." I've been following his advice ever since and I've never been short on flounder fillets. At about mid-tide, another common visitor to shell bars arrives: sheepshead. Fiddler crabs are like candy to the "convict," but they are notorious bait stealers, so make sure you use a stiff, but sensitive graphite rod to detect the slightest bites.
As the population of Coastal Georgia continues to boom, a lot of property with deepwater access has been developed for residential use, and they have usually been hardened with seawalls or riprap and lined with docks and pilings. While not as pristine as some of the more remote locales, these bluffs are no less fishy. In fact, man-made structure can enhance a bluff's "fish-appeal." Rocks and seawalls warm up very quickly in the sun on a cold winter day, attracting all sorts of species. One of the prime winter seatrout spots, for both bank and boat fishermen, is the long riprap banks of the Greenwich Cemetary bluff on the Wilmington River in Savannah. Word gets out quickly when the big seatrout are on the rocks, and during the weekend anglers will be lined up on the bluff for a good chance at trout over 4 pounds. Common practice is to throw a chartreuse screw-tail soft bait on a 1/4 ounce weedless jighead. This bait is best retrieved slowly, bouncing it over and between the submerged rocks where the seatrout settle to warm up and ambush an easy meal.
Docks and pilings next to sea walls are always good fish attractants. In the summer time, redfish and flounder use shady docks to cool off, but they are still actively feeding. I like to skip artificial baits back under the docks and work them back out slowly. DOA Shrimp work well in this situation, as do weedless-rigged shad baits like a Bass Assassin. Summertime saltwater in Georgia ranges in color from tea-stained to pea-soup green, so I like patterns with a lot of contrast such as Electric Chicken or white with a red head. In the winter time the water can be nearly gin-clear, so try to use natural-looking or translucent baits in that situation. Once again, braided line is highly recommended if you want to work the fish out from heavy structure. These same docks and seawalls will also hold the odd sheepshead year round, and seatrout will congregate under dock lights at night.
Anglers often cruise right past bluffs on their way to the marsh flats, but they are missing out on an over-looked and little-pressured fishery. Bluffs provide a unique and vital habitat for saltwater species on the Georgia coast, and those who know where to look will reap the rewards.