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ALTAMAHA ADVENTURE

by Ron Morris (aka Altamaha Jones)

Editor's Note: GRF member Ron Morris and Jason Strickland recently took a five day fishing trip on the Altamaha River and was gracious enough to write up a story about it complete with some great pictures. Enjoy.

May 1, 2004

    The SS Disaster launched from Bell’s Ferry Landing on the lower Oconee at approximately 2:30 pm Saturday afternoon.  It was a long awaited beginning to a trip that had already been postponed for a year and was once again threatened by excessive rain. The participants of this excursion consisted of myself (Altamaha Jones, above right) and my fishing partner of nearly twenty years the Warden, Jason Strickland. Jason and I had seriously considered another postponement due to an increasingly deteriorating forecast calling for thunder storms stretching into mid week. We had both monitored the forecast via the internet and the Weather Channel as well as the local news until we were convinced we were facing the storm of the century. We had experienced plenty of ill-fated camping trips together before, and seemed to think that by now we should have learned that sometimes you must choose the more intelligent choice. A weekend camping trip in the rain can be miserable enough but a week long trip would try the stamina of even the most seasoned adventurer.

    I went along with a temporary postponement until Saturday morning. When Jason called I had come to the realization that, rain or shine, I needed to go ahead, or in all likelihood my marriage would never survive the weekend. I was growing grumpier and more discontent by the moment. I told Jason I was ready to go and I thought as long as we got somewhere before the rain started and got set up we could ride it out till it passed. He said it was already raining at his house and he felt we should give it another day. The discussion continued and we came to a point where if we could not begin before the weekend was over we would be forced to put it off until the following week because we’d have no one to drop us of at the launch site. I was almost convinced until the subject of fishing came up. “You know if it rains like they’re predicting, the rivers going to be rising by then and be muddy and fishing will be shot.” That was the turning point for us both.

    I drove the seventy five miles to his house in record time. I noted along the way that though it had rained over most of the area the night before it did not appear to have rained that morning. I still felt like we had a chance to get on the river and get camp set up before the rain returned that afternoon. We hurriedly loaded the gear into his boat and were on the road shortly after noon. We made a quick stop for bait and to top off the gas tanks in  Hazelhurst before we got to Bell’s Ferry. It seemed as if the sky cleared almost immediately when we got on the water. I had no doubt we had made the right choice.

    Neither of us had ever been on the Oconee and were pleased to find it reminiscent of the Altamaha, which should have been no surprise since we were only a mile above the confluence with the Ocmulgee and the beginning of the Altamaha.  The first order of business was to toast the beginning of the trip with a cold one then begin trying to catch some fish before we were off the Oconee. Within a hundred yards of the landing I caught a small ten inch bass and felt this was a good omen of things to come. By the time we reached the Altamaha I had caught another bass, a channel cat and a half dozen redbreast on a beetle spin. Jason had done equally well pitching crickets.

    I had high expectations of what the three river junction would be like and was surprised that there was little or no turbulent flow at the junction. The entrance of the Ocmulgee could have been the entrance to an oxbow or large creek. I suppose at higher levels it would be more evident that this was indeed another free flowing river. We were well past the junction before I remembered I had brought my camera and got it out to get some photos of the beginning of the mighty Altamaha.  Our plan was to go down river and camp in the vicinity of Benton Lee’s Steakhouse which is located at Gray’s Landing right on the Altamaha. It’s a deservedly well known place to dine and we planned to indulge ourselves with a good meal to kick of the beginning of this long awaited sojourn. I was certain we could easily make it that far down river but we fired up the motor and began to look for a good sandbar to camp on.

    We passed the 221 bridge and I told Jason some tales of times I’d spent on this portion of the river as a teenager. Soon Gray’s landing and the steakhouse came into view. We went on down river a couple more bends and picked a sandbar to set up camp. It was a long sandbar with several little points extending into deep water and a big cove on the back side of the lower end leaving sort of a peninsula surrounded by deep water. The cove side was still and calm and the river side had a clear breakline and back eddy formed by one of the protruding points up river. It looked like a good spot to catfish from at night and had access to both moving and calm water of good depth. We set up our tents and stowed any gear that we didn’t want to get wet. The afternoon had turned out beautiful and there was little threat of any rain but showers have a way of popping up out of nowhere. We gathered some wood for a camp fire and inspected our site for potential fishing. After we got things situated I noticed some disturbance in the water right off the sandbar at the camp site. I retrieved my light rod with the beetle spin from the boat and on the first cast caught another little ten inch bass. And to think just a few hours earlier we had almost decided not to come. Things were definitely looking brighter.

    It was a little after 7 pm when we decided to head back up river to Benton Lee’s and eat. Being unfamiliar with the river it seemed like a good idea to make the trip back up in the light. We had gotten about midway up the sandbar to the point extending into the main flow of the river when we saw the obvious signs of a striper feeding frenzy going on in the cove formed below this point. We hastily tied on some minnow type lures and I hooked up on the first cast into the midst of them. Jason was trying to hold the boat in position and fish which was difficult in the swift flow. I managed to get what I guesstimate was a 5-6 pounder to the boat but lost him when I tried to hoist him into the boat by the line rather than lipping it. Jason had his hands full and eventually we ended up running into the school which seemed to spook them. Neither of us got any more strikes and all the activity stopped. I was grinning from ear to ear when we arrived at the steakhouse.

Sunday, May 2

    I got up about six AM and got out the makings for a pot of coffee and put it on the trusty Coleman stove. About the time it began to perk, I saw the stripers feeding off the point again. We grabbed our rods and ran across the sandbar to cast into them from the point. I landed a small two pounder, then a couple more four or five pounders back to back and eventually one more smaller one. Jason caught the biggest one and lost a couple more before the action stopped abruptly. We released all but the biggest and took it back to weigh it. It measured twenty two inches and weighed just shy of six pounds. I thought I had a picture of Jason holding this fish but it did not take. I can’t describe the feeling I had having caught four stripers before I’d had my morning coffee. The coffee turned out fine, by the way, and we enjoyed a cup as we each gave our accounts of the landing of each striper we had just caught. I’ve got to learn more about fishing for them. Until this year I’d never caught anything but really small ones sometimes while catfishing. These fish are remarkably strong fighters and will not give up at all.

    We found a deep ledge along another large cove across the river from camp and we fished the blowdowns along the bank and caught a few small bream. We then tied off on the upper end of the cove at the edge of the flow and tossed out some wigglers along the deep ledge. While waiting for some catfish to bite I caught a few more bream under the willows we were tied off on. We each landed a 2-3 lb flathead, which surprised me because I’ve always been told they would only eat live baitfish. I suppose that may be true for the larger ones but I guess live wigglers qualify for fish of this size. We caught several pan size channel cats and were content to have that night's supper taken care of already. We tried a few more spots and returned to camp for a light lunch. By now the sky was darkening and we could even hear some thunder rumbling in the distance. We decided to try a little more fishing but by the time we picked a spot and had gotten situated, the bottom fell out, and we high tailed it back to camp.

    We quickly donned our rain gear and secured several items, including my tent, which the gusting wind seemed determined to blow into the river. The rain continued and sent us scurrying for the shelter of our tents. As the wind and rain raged outside I snacked on some granola bars and began to record some of the events in my journal. There were a few lightning strikes and thunder booms near enough to make me a little uncomfortable, but it all passed quickly, and though the sun never came through completely, it was obvious that the worst had passed, at least for the time being. As Jason pumped the rain water from the boat, I prepared the grill to cook our supper. We dined on grilled fish and fried taters.  It looked at this point as if the rain was over. About the same time as the evening before, the stripers feeding at the point started up, and again we raced to the point and began to cast into them. Jason landed one and hooked and lost a couple, one of which he swore had to be much larger than any we had caught so far.  I had changed lures earlier and couldn’t get anything interested in what I was tossing.  When the action stopped I kept giving Jason a hard time about losing the “big one” mostly to divert his attention from the fact that I had not even hooked up at all. After we had bedded down for the night the rain returned with a vengeance. It poured off and on throughout the night but really wasn’t a problem since we had already turned in.

Monday, May 3

    I awoke and got up early again. The sky was dark and grey and it looked as if we were in for a long, wet day. I started the morning coffee again keeping an eye out for the stripers. I don’t know if the rain or what was the reason but they did not return that morning. After coffee and a bite to eat I went and cast off the point for a while in a light drizzling rain. I did catch one small striper and a largemouth before heading back to camp. We talked about staying put since the rain appeared to be set in and everything was wet. Again Jason pumped out the boat while I checked over some other gear that needed to stay dry. Then, at about 9 AM, the sun appeared out of nowhere. In no time at all it cleared and we decided if we could get the gear dry enough to pack we would load up and head on down river. We were loaded and set out drifting by noon.  The next couple of landings were not too far down river, but once we passed the US 1 Bridge it was a long way to any other landing to which either of us were capable of giving anyone driving directions.  We cast for bass as we drifted along. Though the sky had cleared, there was still a strong wind, and it pushed us down river along with the current at a pretty good pace. We fired up the motor a couple of times in some places where the river narrowed and the flow was swift and there were many blowdowns to navigate through. We ate lunch while drifting past Plant Hatch and joked that we might start catching some bigger fish below the nuclear plant. There were very few boats on the river and we were still being pushed along by a stiff breeze, hoping to make up some time since we stayed two nights at our first stop.

    We were hoping to get to where the Ohoopee empties into the Altamaha just above the 169 bridge, which appeared to be about the half way point. We also decided we would stay two nights again, then split the second half of the trip with the remaining night. We were soon past the area I was familiar with and it was difficult to judge how far we’d gone or how far we had left to go. At about 6:30 PM we started looking for a spot to set up camp. We looked for a sandbar with deep water access to allow getting the boat near the bank and also a spot that had some potential for fishing nearby. Our reason for staying two nights was so we could fish all day Tuesday, since setting up and breaking camp took up the best parts of the day for fishing. We found a nice place that met all the criteria and as a bonus had a large dead tree about thirty yards from the rivers edge which provided a good supply of dry firewood. We ate light that night and got a good nights rest for the following day of fishing.

Tuesday, May 4

    We rose early and headed straight to a slough just below camp that we had spotted the evening before. We started right off catching several redbreast and bream but they were small so we decided to move on. We attempted to go up in the slough, but turned back after a short distance because it was too difficult to navigate in the shallow water and numerous stumps. It looked like it might open up and we talked about coming back later in the day and wading it to see if there were any deep holes back in there. We went back up river from camp to a creek mouth we had passed, and tried some catfishing again. We caught a good mess of pan sized channel cats as well as several bream.

    Around mid-morning we moved again, and found one of the best fishing holes I’ve seen on any river. It was the on the lower end of a sandbar that extended along an outside bend in the river for probably 50-75 yards.  The sandbar formed a ledge following the bend but left a channel four or five deep and twenty feet wide between it and a bank of over hanging willows. About mid-way was the mouth of a slough with several deadfalls and cypress stumps at it’s entrance. We could toss a cricket anywhere in the channel and catch redbreast one right after the other. I also caught several running a beetle spin along the edge of the willows. Again, they were mostly small fish, and the bite eventually slowed. We decided to go to camp and cook some catfish for lunch so we’d be free to fish the late evening. After another good meal of fish, taters & fried biscuits I pulled my chair to the edge of the sandbar and napped while soaking the sunburned tops of my feet in the cool water.  After a short nap I took a quick dip to wash away a couple nights worth of smoke and grime.

    As evening approached, I told Jason I wanted to go back to the place we had fished that morning and wade the sandbar ledge and use the flyrod to pitch back under the willows. We anchored the boat on the lower end and began to work our way slowly upstream. Jason continued to use crickets and I started out with a popper. It was soon obvious the fish were not there, or at least not biting like they had that morning. Eventually the Warden found one little spot he could catch fish from every time he tossed a cricket into it. I switched to a small beadhead nymph GoneToSeed (GRF member Steve Rushing) had sent me last year when I first started with the flyrod. Soon I found a similar spot, and as long as I could place my cast within about an eighteen inch area, I too could catch one fish after another. We probably ended up with thirty five fish between us before it was over. We released everything we caught except the few catfish we kept each day to cook.

    We returned to camp tired but satisfied. We’d spent the better part of the day on the water and figured we’d caught sixty or seventy fish between us. Our ice was fading fast by now, but all we had in the cooler other than beverages were some eggs and bacon so we decided to cook that for supper. I don’t see how we could have been hungry after the fantastic lunch but we devoured a half dozen eggs and pound of bacon. We stoked up a nice campfire and spent the evening talking of the day’s success and making plans to continue downriver the next day. So far everything had gone wonderfully. Luckily the SS Disaster was not experiencing anything the name implied.

Wednesday, May 5

    We got up and broke camp, getting an early start that morning. The next known landmarks were Tippen’s Lake, a private lake that a friend of the Warden said we should fish, and the mouth of the Ohoopee. We drifted a good ways but our pace was much slower since the wind that pushed us along before had calmed. It was during this time we encountered a gator that drifted lazily along side of us for a good ways but finally submerged as we kept inching closer to take pictures. We got to the lake and Jason called his buddy on the cell phone. He insured him we should fish up in there and just tell anyone that questioned us he had invited us. His exact quote was,“ Mention my name and they’ll treat you like a king.” That should have been enough to make us know better but we entered past the posted signs and were promptly made aware that we not welcome by the first fellow we encountered. Apparently the Warden’s buddy neglected to mention he had been exiled.

    Shortly downriver we came to the mouth of the Ohoopee. It was much more obvious than the Ocmulgee had been. Here there was a distinct mud line caused by the currents of the two rivers coming together and the water darkened noticeably the further up the Ohoopee we went. We still had long ways to go since we still were not quite half way but we wanted to try to catch at least one fish from the Ohoopee. We spent as long as possible but were unsuccessful and finally had to move on. By now I was beginning to experience some equipment failures. My ultra light, with which I was doing most of my fishing,  had run out of line and I had not prepared for this. We continued to cast for bass and troll behind the boat as we drifted, but had no luck at all. I think I remember Jason missing one strike during the entire length. We asked a couple fellows how far we were from the 169 bridge. One told us maybe a mile and the next one said about five miles. Obviously they were no better at judging river distances than we were.

    We continued to drift, confident that we had enough fuel to reach the end from 169. But when we determined the remaining beer was getting warm, we decided to make up some time and try to reach Beard’s Bluff, which used to be a fish camp and campground. There we could get more ice and would be back into familiar water. We could spend the last night along there and easily finish the remainder of the trip by late Thursday afternoon when Jason’s wife was supposed to pick us up. Well to our surprise, the camp had changed hands and they no longer operate the store. You can still use the ramp for a fee but the store had closed over a year ago. We choose a sandbar just below there to camp our remaining night. I worked on my reel and spooled it with some 4 lb line Jason found on his boat. We ate another fine catfish supper with all the trimmings and washed it down with the remaining beers while they were still cold enough to enjoy.

Thursday, May 6

    The river begins to change noticeably below 169. The steep banks and rock formations characteristic of the upper part of the river are no longer evident. Increasingly, the willows overhang the edge of the river along the shallower side. The flow is noticeably slower as the river widens. As the surrounding terrain flattens out there are more sloughs and oxbows along the river. There also seemed to be far more boats on the river at this point. Occasionally there is a high bluff, but they are not nearly as frequent as on the upper part.

    We were well into familiar territory for the Warden, and we fished several spots for redbreast and bream. By now I had completely forsaken the cricket fishing and was having a ball pitching beetle spins under the overhanging willows. We continued to catch good numbers of redbreast and bream and I caught several more small bass. I lost one I think might have gone over a couple pounds after a long battle that ended when he got me wrapped around the anchor line. Four lb test line really doesn’t allow you to control a river bass. We reached the original take out point by early afternoon and still had a couple hours before Jason’s wife could pick us up so we continued on down river to the next landing. We pulled out of the river about 3 pm.

    Overall the trip went really well. Not a single thing went wrong and we had a great time. I would love to do it again, but I’d want more time to allow for more exploration of creeks and oxbows. I’d want to travel lighter so relocating each day would be less time consuming. I know I’ve left out many details like being serenaded to sleep by whip-or-wills and the gentle rippling of the river passing along the sandbar edges. Another thing that I can’t describe with words was how the full moon illuminated the sandbar each night so well that we never even lit the lantern after the first night. I think I only got a flashlight out once and that was only to work on a reel one night. We talked of going the rest of the way to the coast next year and definitely plan to make more trips of this length and duration.

 

 

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