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PANFISHING GEORGIA'S RIVERS

    If you are a native of the southeastern US, chances are good that the first fish you ever caught was a panfish, or "bream", which is the moniker many southerners commonly attach to members of the sunfish family. Panfish are found in just about every river and creek in the state (except a few in the mountains) and are usually very easy to catch and great to eat! Despite all the publicity garnered by glamour species like bass, trout, and stripers, More Georgia anglers pursue panfish than anything else. Here are some tips on tackle, tactics, species, and destinations that will help you load the cooler or simply get out and have some fun!

    The most common panfish in Georgia's rivers and streams are bluegill, redbreast, crappie, rock bass, shellcracker, warmouth, and yellow perch. As a general rule, panfish species are very prolific, which means there are lots of them. Most are normally very aggressive- especially at certain times of the year, and panfish are almost always easy to locate. Bream fishing requires no fancy equipment. While many people pursue them with a flyrod or casting gear, a cane pole works as well or better most of the time. For all these reasons, panfish are the best way to introduce kids to the sport of fishing.

    All of Georgia's panfish species offer excellent table fare, and don't feel guilty about keeping a mess now and then, because they reproduce like rabbits! Bream can often save the day when the bass aren't biting, and it's always a good idea to bring some bream gear along just in case. Many bream species (especially bluegill and redbreast) are great fun to pursue with a flyrod, and can help keep you in practice between trout excursions. Perhaps the best thing about panfishing is that everybody in Georgia lives just a few minutes away from a river or creek that is loaded with something that will stretch your line!

BLUEGILL

    Bluegill can be found in every region of Georgia and are the most widespread sunfish species in North America. Bluegill can be recognized by the powder-blue coloration near the bottom of their gill cover. Bluegills eat both aquatic and terrestrial insects as well as small minnows and prefer slow current and weeds or woody cover. Most active in water above 70 degrees, bluegills can be somewhat inactive and tough to catch during late fall, winter, and early spring. Once the water warms to that magic 70 degree mark, bluegills build nests in a couple feet of water and will attack most anything that comes near it. Nesting activity usually reaches it's peak around the full moon in May and June in northern Georgia and April and May in southern Georgia.

    Unlike redbreasts, which generally seem to run about the same size everywhere, some rivers seem to produce larger bluegills than others. While the fertile streams of middle and southern Georgia produce greater numbers of bluegills, the average size seems to be larger in the less fertile streams of northern Georgia. Wherever you choose to chase these feisty battlers, there are any number of ways to catch them. Crickets seem to be the most popular bait, with worms such as red wigglers, night crawlers, or Louisiana pinks a close second. Most fishermen prefer to fish these baits a few feet under a small bobber (use a #6 Aberdeen hook) , but bluegills will often bite right on the bottom. Whether you choose a cane pole, spin-cast, or spinning outfit is a matter of personal choice; just remember that that bluegills prefer areas of a stream with as little current as possible that have cover nearby.

    Those who prefer to fish artificial lures can have tremendous success with bluegills also. Beetlespins of 1/16 ounces and smaller work well as do small in-line spinners (such as Roostertails, Mepps, and Panther Martin) of 1/8 ounce or less. If small fish become a nuisance, try fishing a slightly heavier bait and getting it down deeper where the larger bluegills tend to live. Bluegills also offer wonderful sport to fly fishermen, and will devour small popping bugs, foam spiders, and small streamers.

    In South Georgia, bluegills spend most of their time in backwater sloughs and oxbows of the larger rivers and in the slowest sections of smaller rivers without backwater areas. While good bluegill fishing can be had just about anywhere, a few better-known bluegill fisheries are the Altamaha, lower Ocmulgee, lower Oconee, lower Savannah, St. Mary's, Ogeechee, and Satilla Rivers. In northern Georgia, the Alcovy, Apalachee, upper Etowah, Little (Putnam County), North Oconee, Ocmulgee, Tallapoosa, upper Toccoa, Towaliga, Broad, and Yellow Rivers all contain fine bluegill fishing. If we left out your local river, go catch bluegills there anyway! This list is just a few of the places Georgia River Fishing has either heard about or experienced first hand.

REDBREAST

    Redbreast sunfish can be found along the entire eastern seaboard of the US, the southeastern states, and in Texas. Like the bluegill, redbreasts can be found in just about every freshwater river and stream in the state, from the meandering blackwater rivers of South Georgia to the clear rippling streams of northern Georgia. Redbreasts are best identified by their long black earflaps and bright orange bellies. Many South Georgia rivers are legendary for their redbreast fishing, yet these tasty scrappers can be caught just about anywhere there is moving water.

    While redbreasts generally run a bit smaller than bluegills, both species live in most Georgia rivers and share many similarities. Like bluegills, redbreasts spawn when the water temperature reaches about 70 degrees (normally early to late spring) and are easiest to catch while guarding their nests. Redbreasts will hollow out nests in a couple feet of water and attack just about anything that comes near them. The biggest difference between bluegills and redbreasts is where they choose to reside in a river. While bluegills seek areas with little or no current, redbreasts prefer to live near areas of moderate or even swift current- areas that can often be waded.. Redbreasts will usually be found in small eddies or behind current obstructions in this type of water.

    Like bluegills, redbreasts are easiest to catch from spring through early fall. The same methods that catch bluegills work equally well on redbreasts. Redbreasts often show more willingness to rise to topwater poppers than other bream species, making them a favorite for flyrod enthusiasts. During cold spells and periods of high water, live worms fished directly on the bottom work well. Redbreasts also love crickets, Beetlespins and small spinners.

    South Georgia is famous for it's redbreast rivers, and just about every moving body of water south of Macon has wonderful redbreast fishing most years. Low water conditions during winter months seem to hurt redbreast populations and the illegal introduction of flathead catfish seems to have impacted redbreast populations somewhat. Some of the more famous redbreast rivers in South Georgia include the Satilla, Altamaha, Ogeechee, Ochlocknee, St. Mary's, Savannah, Canoochee, and Kinchafoonee and Brier Creeks.

    Middle and northern Georgia have some fabulous redbreast holes as well, with sizes running a tad smaller. The upper Flint and Ocmulgee Rivers are excellent as is the entire Oconee River (North and Middle Oconee, Apalachee) system above Lake Oconee. The upper Etowah, Coosawattee, Conasauga, and Broad River system are excellent as is the Chattooga (the one in northwest Georgia). Again, this list only scratches the surface of good redbreast rivers in Georgia, and no matter where you live, there is quality redbreast fishing somewhere nearby!

SHELLCRACKER

    Shellcrackers (the official name is redear sunfish) get their name from their culinary habits, which consist of grinding snail shells and small crustaceans with a set of teeth located in the throat. Shellcrackers tend to grow larger than bluegills and redbreast, and can be identified by a bright red strip around the edge of the ear flap (hence the official name). Shellcrackers like warm, slow-moving rivers, and thrive in middle and southern Georgia. It is not uncommon to catch shellcrackers weighing a pound and every year a few over two pounds are taken. Shellcrackers will often be found in deeper water than other sunfish and feed mainly on the bottom.

    Unlike bluegills and redbreast, shellcrackers do not usually respond well to artificial lures. The most popular bait for shellcrackers are worms, but they will also take crickets. The key is to fish on the bottom in thick cover with minimal current. Whether using a cane pole or casting, anchor or tie up in likely holes and get that bait on the bottom. Shellcrackers are usually willing biters, so if you don't get any takers in a few minutes, move on to another likely spot. 

    In South Georgia, shellcrackers usually bed in mid-April, and this is the best time to find concentrations of fish. While just about every river in middle and South Georgia contains good shellcracker populations, the numerous sloughs of the Altamaha River are the most famous spots to load the boat in early spring. Shellcracker beds emit a distinctive scent that tells experienced fishermen that they are near. In middle Georgia, the Ocmulgee River is gaining a reputation as a great shellcracker fishery.

CRAPPIE

    Most people don't often use the words "river" and "crappie" in the same sentence, but the crappie fishing in many Georgia rivers can be exceptional, particularly in winter and early spring. In northern and middle Georgia, crappie tend to move upstream during the first warm spell of late February and early March. A great place to find crappie in early spring is anywhere the river's flow is obstructed by a shoal or dam. Crappie tend to stack up in such spots as their upstream progress is impeded. Remember that crappie prefer the least possible current in a given area. Any river that feeds a major reservoir should also be targeted, as many crappie will actually leave the lake and head upstream, though they usually won't run as far or stay as long as white bass, hybrids, and stripers.

    The Oconee and Apalachee Rivers are excellent during the spring, as are the three main tributaries of Lake Jackson (Alcovy, Yellow, South). The Coosa River is a legendary crappie fishery between the lock and dam and Lake Weiss and a few crappie are caught in the Chattahoochee River immediately above Lake Lanier. We have heard some good reports from the Savannah River south of Augusta as well. Just about all rivers and streams in northern and middle Georgia hold some crappie, though most rivers in northern Georgia run a little too swiftly to accommodate high numbers. 

    In South Georgia, crappie fishing is pretty good throughout the winter months as well as in the spring. The Altamaha and Satilla Rivers are the best-known crappie rivers in the lower half of the state but just about all of them contain healthy crappie populations. Any slough with a bit of depth and cover is a good bet during the early spring or warm winter days. During winter, a favorite tactic is to fish just downstream of wide inside bends in the river channel where eddies can dig out deep holes. These spots can be great, particularly during periods of high water.

    During summer and fall, crappies tend to be harder to catch in rivers, mainly because they are more dispersed and deeper. During the spring, crappie are most often found at depths of three feet or less, and they are rarely by themselves. The most popular technique is to fish minnows below a cork, but some anglers prefer small tube or marabou jigs in white or chartreuse. Light spinning tackle or cane poles are both effective gear for river crappie.

OTHER PANFISH

    Warmouth perch exist throughout the southeast and all over Georgia, but the rivers of northern Georgia and the Piedmont region are generally a little brisk to support strong populations. Warmouths do better in South Georgia, where currents tend to be more sluggish and backwater sloughs far more frequent. Warmouths are normally found in water depths of three to six feet and feed largely on crayfish. If crayfish are unavailable, try fishing worms on the bottom. While warmouths prefer live bait, they will also hit small crawfish crankbaits and other bream lures fished slowly near the bottom. The Okefenokee Swamp is Georgia's most famous warmouth hole, but most rivers and streams in South Georgia contain pretty good populations.

    Rock bass look almost exactly like warmouth, but prefer the rocky, swift streams of northern Georgia. Rock bass have saved the  day on many a fruitless bass fishing trip, especially during summer and fall when they are most active. These feisty (and tasty) battlers reside in the deeper holes of most North Georgia streams and will hammer small plastic jigs and grubs hopped through these deeper pools. Like their close relative the warmouth, rock bass feed primarily on crawfish near the bottom, and the same live baits work well. While most northern Georgia streams hold good populations, the upper Toccoa, upper Etowah, and all of the Tennessee River tributaries in Georgia hold exceptional populations of rock bass.

    Yellow perch are perhaps the most popular panfish in parts of the northern US, but this cousin of the walleye is rarely pursued in Georgia. While present in most river systems in the northern half of Georgia, yellow perch are not abundant enough in most Georgia rivers to be targeted by anglers very often. Often called raccoon perch, yellow perch can be identified by their yellow bellies, green backs, and black stripes running vertically down their sides. They also have teeth, so watch out. Yellow perch feed primarily on small minnows but will also hit other common panfish baits and are most active during the cooler months of the year. The best yellow perch hole in the state is Bull Sluice Lake, which is basically a wide spot in the Chattahoochee River directly above Morgan Falls Dam in Roswell. The Chattahoochee contains decent numbers of yellow perch as does the Coosawattee River. 

 

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