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October 14, 2013

Georgia Coastal Tarpon

In southern Georgia, giant-tarpon fishing is outstanding in early fall.

Watching 8- and 10-foot alligators basking in new-day light isn’t typical to a day of ocean tarpon fishing, but we spotted plenty of the toothy ­minidragons as Capt. Greg Hildreth ran his 20-foot Action Craft bay skiff east on the Altamaha River, near Darien in southeast Georgia, just north of Brunswick and the famed Golden Isles resort area. On board was my ­daughter ­Lindsey and her friend Alex Johnson. We’d put the boat in at first light in the freshwater reaches of the lower ­Altamaha River, a short ride to the Atlantic.

Let ’Er Rip

As the sun touched the horizon, we entered the ocean and started looking for menhaden schools to cast-net for bait. The tide had just turned to ­falling, and rips formed in the slow-swelling summer sea. ­Menhaden, or pogies — as they are called in the Deep South — flipped near the surface. A few tosses with an 8-foot heavy, mullet-style cast net produced several dozen fresh, lively baits, and our tarpon search was now underway.

Hildreth drifted, watching the tide-line rip formed by the dark river water in the clearer ocean. We were less than a mile offshore, and the color change was dramatic. 

“Tide’s falling hard, and that rip is where tarpon feed. We’ll set up just a little offshore, and let it come toward us,” Hildreth said as he positioned his skiff and rigged 8-foot boat rods with hand-size menhaden.

Hildreth set things up with the speed and skill drawn from 20 years of guiding on the Georgia coast, while I watched the approaching rip. Menhaden flipped near the froth of current on the color change. Then there was a heavy splash, a nearby crash, and bait blew up helter-skelter as a 100-pound tarpon clobbered them for breakfast.

I pointed to the tarpon and baitfish carnage, and the girls went nuts, with the tide line and the feeding 100-pound fish fast approaching.

Staggered Baits

Hildreth set out three fresh-dead Menhaden baits, positioning them a good distance ahead of the advancing rip. One bait was hooked through the nose and tossed far astern, a second bait was rigged with a float to keep it a few feet below the surface, and the third was fitted with a 1-ounce egg sinker to get it down near the bottom 30 feet below.

“I try to cover the water column because you never know at what depth the tarpon will be feeding and where they will want a bait on any given day,” said Hildreth. “It would be nice to fish more baits, but multiple hookups and line tangles can get pretty exciting with 100-pound tarpon. Three outfits is best to avoid ­problems.”

As the rip neared our baits we fell silent, tensed for what we hoped was the inevitable. The rip pushed through our baits and lines, and crept slowly toward us. Suddenly several free-swimming menhaden flipped within arm’s reach and ­— KABLAM! — a tarpon slammed into them, spraying water head-high into our boat. The girls screamed, and an 8-foot rod spooled with 65-pound braid bent over as a fish took one of our baits.

“Get the rod! Get the rod!” Hildreth yelled. Lindsey struggled with the bucking rod, but there was no reason to set the hook. The fish was barbed solidly with a circle hook at the take. But when she put some muscle behind the rod, the tarpon went airborne 50 feet from the boat, then took off fast, pulling line from the reel for 100 yards. Thirty minutes later, Lindsey brought the fish boat-side, and after a quick picture, Hildreth removed the circle hook, and the tarpon kicked its tail and was gone.

It was only 8 a.m.