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.
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.
Follow the Rip
Quickly we readied rods and baits and maneuvered the skiff farther offshore beyond the east-moving tide rip. A few hundred yards from the water-color change, we set out our baits and waited for the rip to creep our way.
We did this several times, and occasionally we’d see tarpon crashing bait on the rip line to one side of our boat or the other. When that occurred we pulled in lines, cranked the motor, worked well out and around where we’d spotted the tarpon, and set up another drift with bait to intersect tarpon feeding on that portion of the rip.
Three drifts through the rip and a half-hour later, another tarpon hit but threw the hook. Then a third fish struck, and Alex stepped up. This tarpon was bigger than the 120-pounder, because we saw it clearly when it leaped high twice. The fight was short, however, as 10 minutes into it, the hook pulled.
After that, the pace slowed.
Hildreth suggested we liven things up by catching a few sharks, so we ran north to several shrimp boats dragging their nets in the ocean just off a deserted beach. We pulled up and drifted a short distance behind a shrimper, tossed out a couple of menhaden baits as we’d done for tarpon, and found ourselves immediately into blacktip and spinner sharks.
Usually sandbar, dusky and bull sharks are among the species that hang behind the shrimp boats and offer reliable sport. But that day, high-leaping and hard-fighting spinners and blacktips were all we caught, and they quickly wore out the girls. So early that afternoon, we headed back into the Altamaha, spotting two big gators sunning on a marsh bank as we came within sight of the boat ramp.
“Just another day in paradise,” Hildreth said as we loaded the boat and headed for home. “That’s pretty much how a day of our tarpon fishing goes. It’s often great at dawn, or when a tide rip is just right and there’s plenty of bait around. And we can always load up on sharks if people still want a tough fight. Those blacktips and spinners are plenty game, and they sure are fast, and can jump too.”
While we hooked only four tarpon that day, I’ve had days on that stretch of the Georgia southeast coast when we’ve hooked a dozen fish, and landed four tarpon from 80 to 130 pounds.
In truth, the Georgia coast has some of the best overlooked tarpon fishing in America. It peaks in late summer, and in recent years, the catches have been remarkable.
During a recent two-day tarpon-fishing tournament, 41 anglers in 11 tournament boats hooked an estimated 195 tarpon. They caught and released 61 fish weighing from 40 to 180 pounds. The winning boat landed a dozen silver kings. Second place had 10 legal tarpon releases.
That’s great tarpon fishing anywhere, yet most anglers are unaware that Georgia has such superb fishing for such an oversize, world-class hard-fighting fish.