After a decade, it still stands as one of the best fishing experiences of my life, and it happened in the middle of winter.  Here’s a hint about an off-season road trip that could be just as good for you.

(Ed. Note:  We’re always privileged to have free-lance outdoors writer Tom Cappell contribute one of his stories of adventure growing up on the prairies of the Midwest.  A dedicated conservationist, his perspectives on the outdoors are both respectful of the American tradition of hunting and fishing, and modern questions over why we do it.  His short stories of days in the field are among the best.)

By Tom Cappell

About a decade ago, around 2008 as I remember now, my long-time fishing buddy Dan Bailey rang my house one February night and laid his miseries on the line.

“Tom, I’ve had all the winter I can stand.  I want to go fishing.   You in?”

“When?  Where?”  I asked, as mentally the only fishing I could fathom was ice fishing, and there wasn’t ice within a thousand miles of my home outside Columbia, Missouri.

“We’re exactly a two-day drive from the Georgia-Florida border,”  Dan gushed.  “And I’ve been doing some research.  Called the state wildlife department in Georgia this week and they gave me a couple of suggestions.  It beats sitting in the house watching it rain.”

I’d never considered a winter fishing trip, outside of some frozen lake action in Iowa and southern Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes.  But the weather that winter had been tiresome – cold, more snow than usual, and enough moisture as to limit even upland hunting to just a few precious days.  The more I thought about it, the more a change in scenery made sense.  Besides, if I could get a story out of it I could write it off.

“Long County, Georgia,”  Dan said with assurance.  “They tell me that fishing on the Altamaha River is one of the best-kept secrets in the South.  It’s a bout a 14-hour drive with the boat and trailer.  We could be there in two days, fish three, and be back a week from today.  So I ask you again.  You in?”

“I’ll be packed in an hour,”  I promised.  “Leave at 5 am?”

At 5 the next morning Dan’s Suburban was parked in front of my house, trailer and Ranger boat snugged up behind it.  We were on the road within minutes, heading east.  The weather was great and by noon we were deep into Tennessee.  By sundown we were deep into Georgia.  Exactly 14 hours after leaving home, we were parked outside the Holiday Inn in Ludowici, Georgia, the county seat of Long County.  At a diner across the street we got some good southern cooking, and the local take on where to catch some fish.

“Might be a little early for bass, or maybe not,”  said an old-timer cuddled up with an endless cup of coffee.  “Weather’s been warm and they’ve been active.  But if I were going I’d be fishing for shellcrackers.  Fun to catch and the best eatin’ on the river.  You catch ’em right and you’ll catch some two-pounders.”

Shellcrackers, to the uninitiated, are bigger, different colored bluegill.  And we have ’em in Missouri – had caught ’em for years in Shaner’s Creek, a tributary that bisected my Uncle Mel’s farm in Boone County.  But never a two-pounder!

By 8 am the next morning we had bought licenses at a local hardware store, and by 9 we were putting the boat in the nearby Altamaha River, just upstream from the local pulp mill.  Logging was a big business up and down the Altamaha, a crooked piece of river about a quarter mile wide and deep enough to hold every species of freshwater fish you could name.  It didn’t take long to get lucky.

They’re really red-eared sunfish (look close and you’ll see why), but the locals down South call them ‘shellcrackers’.

Fishing with some bright-colored jigs, we hooked into some healthy sunfish, or bream, or bluegills…I would have called them back home.  But to the locals up and down the Altamaha they were shellcrackers.  Dan caught the first one, a handsome specimen that easily tipped a pound, and twelve inches.  It took me a little longer, fishing off the back of the boat, but my first one was easily the same size.  There weren’t any two-pounders, as the man at the diner had mentioned, but there were a lot of them.

In four hours we had boated nearly fifty, and at least a half dozen bigger than twelve inches and a pound.  The best part was they were fun to catch, bending rod tips on our light gear as they stripped five-pound test line.  We kept the best ones, and threw the others back, and changed baits at one point to see if we could boat a few bass.

The bass were slow, but where we could find structure we did find some action.  Dan caught a nice one that went three pounds, and I caught a couple more that were a bit smaller.  But every time you dropped one of those quarter-ounce jigs with a wax worm in the water…there was a hungry ‘shellcracker’ waiting.

It was good on our second day, as well, an almost identical result about a mile farther downstream.  The sun was out, the temperature was about 65 degrees, and thoughts about snow and cold back in Missouri were the farthest thing from mind.  “I wonder what the shut-ins are doing back home?”  Dan laughed.

But on our third day it was a different matter.  A front came in overnight, the thermometer dropped twenty degrees, and we fished for two hours to take a half dozen fish.  Good as it was, winter fishing on the Altamaha was consistent with fishing anywhere.  It followed the pattern of the weather.

By four that afternoon we were on the road for home, disappointed in our last day’s luck, but euphoric over a great road trip and two days of unbelievable fishing action.  I’m here to tell you that it’s there for anyone, if you want to take the time, and trouble, to find some warm weather and an old-timer at the local diner that knows his way around.  We’ve gone back a half dozen times over the years, and while you take what you get with weather, we’ve never regretted the trip or the time.

If you’re tired of being cold at home…you might find some hot fishing!

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