Georgia Coastal Fishing

Georgia’s coastal fisheries have been discovered. How should the resource be managed, post-golden era?
By Terry Gibson,

Of all the shallow-water angling destinations I’ve had the privilege to visit, at least those in the Lower 48, coastal Georgia, hands down, is my favorite escape. Truth be told, one reason I make two or three trips a year to Savannah is to wet lines and raise hell with a favorite brother of the angle, SWA regional editor Capt. Scott Wagner. Scott’s an experience all his own, and his stomping grounds can’t be beat. He lives in a place where you find yourself in a fascinating, inviting strangeness, where unique natural and cultural resources blend into an exotic mash. In December, Scott invited my new bride, Ericka, and me up for a weekend of fishing and Savannah excursion. When I came home Friday at lunchtime, Ericka was amped, packed and ready, fly rod in one hand, dress bag in the other.

Six hours later we rolled into Savannah and were greeted warmly by Scott and his fiancée, Rocksan, a.k.a. the Big Rock. We merrily floated on down to Il Pasticcio, a swank eatery in downtown Savannah. Scott is friends with the owner and the bartender and longtime waiter, Kim.

“Don’t even bother to order,” Scott said. “Kim will bring out the goods.”

First, Kim delivered a heaping plate of calamari with a round of drinks. Then he returned with a platter proudly upheld. With a flourish of the arm, he placed the dish on the table, and announced, almost triumphantly, “spot-tailed bass.” The barely legal redfish was fried whole, head intact, with the eyes staring directly at Scotty. I think Kim would have gotten less of a reaction from Scott if he’d served one of Scott’s pet cats fried whole, instead of putting Scott’s livelihood on the table to stare back at him, dead.

The Big Rock looked slightly aghast, not because of the fish eyes but for fear of what Scott would do next. I figured I could sneak in a few bites before Savannah S.W.A.T. arrived to quell the situation.

It is, unfortunately legal to sell wild redfish in Georgia. There’s some commercial hook-and-line fishing for the species, and an unfortunate few kill a disproportionate number of fish with gigs and sell them to restaurants. But according to local fish markets, many of the fish sold in restaurants are either imported from the Chesapeake Bay or sold by local anglers. Obviously, the commercial sale of red drum is not good for the fishery or the cascading tourism dollars that the fishery generates. Fortunately, Scott has mellowed somewhat (thank you, Big Rock), and that was the line of reasoning he delivered to his restaurant friends. Instead of getting tossed, as I half expected, we were served a divine meal. We left a generous tip that reflected the quality of the meal and service, and to reinforce the significance of recreational fishing tourism.

Scott recovered from seeing one of his “pets” staring back at him, dead. But the incident skewed the weekend’s conversation toward conservation issues. The level of frustration evident in his tone made us understand how worried Scott is about the state’s coastal fisheries.

I’ve logged at least 50 days fishing in Georgia waters since 2000 and have noticed that the fishing is getting tougher, especially for reds. But it was tough to believe that the fishery is in trouble. Scott took us back into the canals that the Gullah dug back in the 18th century along the Ogeechee River, to irrigate the rice plantations that helped make Savannah an economic powerhouse. Using a plastic-tail jig, Ericka put us on the board first with a fat trout. The morning was warm and gorgeous and we took turns catching trout and reds as the skiff wound deeper into the canal system. We never saw a soul. But by the way Scott talked you’d think the red drum fishery was getting as crowded and difficult as Florida’s Mosquito Lagoon.

Scott’s operation is strictly catch and release, but he doesn’t begrudge anglers for taking home a fish or two for dinner. It’s Georgia’s limits, which by any standard are generous, that really bother a growing constituency of experienced guides. Although Georgia’s 80-mile coastline boasts nowhere near the acreage of Louisiana’s estuaries, Georgia anglers can keep five redfish per day, just as anglers in Louisiana can, versus a 3-fish limit in neighboring, environmentally similar South Carolina where there is a dedicated stocking program. As in the southwestern bayous of Louisiana, you can keep 15 trout. But there is no upper end to the slot to protect large females in the Peach State.

Scott and other guides I interviewed point to weekend visitors from inland cities that want to bring home a mess of saltwater fish, as well as bass fanatics and tournament pros who’ve recently caught the redfishing bug.

“The mentality that the ocean is too big for the fishery to be impacted is still strong here, so four or five guys load up in a boat and fill each of their limits,” said Capt. Greg Hildreth, of St. Simons.

It seems to be an awareness issue and possibly an issue of “shifting baselines,” one that pits the perceptions and knowledge of local watermen who have spent 300-plus days on the water for more than a decade, against new visitors amazed by an apparently infinite resource that may have declined in productivity. Their respective notions of a “good day” are relative to the extent or limit of respective experience.

“When you come here, you need to realize that this is a small pond, too,” Hildreth implores.

The complaints of these veteran guides are not falling on deaf ears in the managerial ranks.

State and federal regulators are undertaking a national trout and redfish population assessment, and the data should be compiled by 2009.

“When that assessment is complete,” said Spud Woodward, Assistant Director of Marine Fisheries for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), “Georgia DNR will use the data to decide whether size and creel limits need to be changed.”

When asked if he personally thinks red drum are being overfished in Georgia, he says he’s concerned but that he won’t know until the assessment is complete.

“When you ask me if red drum populations are unhealthy in Georgia, I have to ask, ‘What’s your definition of healthy?’ Do you mean one that’s not able to reproduce at a rate greater than the level of mortality due to natural causes or human take? The answer to that is we don’t know, except that our data shows that juvenile drum populations have fluctuated, but not dramatically. Now if you mean healthy by a fisherman’s definition of healthy, one based on catch per unit of effort, well…there’s been a sudden surge of pressure.”

Still, a growing number of guides and veteran Georgia anglers would like to see DNR reduce the redfish limit to two or at the most three fish, pronto, as DNR did with tripletail.

A few years back, Georgia DNR placed a 2-fish limit on tripletail, which were virtually unregulated and just about unstudied. The species remains federally unregulated, partly because of the paucity of research on the spawning productivity, migration patterns and spawning locations of this unique pelagic animal. In the spring and summer, tripletail line the waters of South Georgia like an unending line of leaf litter. Folks were pounding them, and the state stepped in.

“Because so little is known about tripletail, because they aren’t federally regulated, and because they seem to be exhibiting spawning behavior—daisy chaining—off the Georgia coast, we felt it was appropriate to invoke the precautionary principle,” said Woodward.

But the DNR thinks following suit with redfish could jeopardize long-term management strategies, given that the life history of the species is well understood and that the census will be complete in the next 18 months.

“We have to give the process a chance to work,” insists Woodward, and DNR has good reason to be cautious. Making fisheries management decisions without good data is a terribly slippery slope. Commercial interests and the more extractive subsets of recreational anglers can judo flip the argument for caution and accuse the state of responding to a loud minority of elitist, alarmist fish-huggers without adequate data.

So, re-examining bag limits and slots for redfish and trout in Georgia will have to wait until 2009. That doesn’t mean conservation-minded Georgia anglers should sit on their butts and complain until then. In 21st Century America, constant education via both formal and informal outreach is vital to sustaining any fishery. I suggested to Scott that a little diplomatic outreach by the more progressively minded guides and industry leaders could help tremendously. Guides who have a sound historical perspective of the fisheries, could expand efforts to speak at bait-and-tackle stores, fishing clubs and other venues, where they could share advice about how to catch fish and ensure you keep catching fish in Georgia’s estuaries.

Florida, indeed, where inshore saltwater fishing generates billions annually, should serve as a cautionary tale. As evidenced by a recent FWC economic impact survey, enthusiasm is waning slightly and the decline in enthusiasm is partly due to the slow economy, partly to diminishing access and partly declining quality of the experience.

In many Florida waters, the limited number of redfish caught has less to do with the number harvested and more to do with the way anglers pursue them. Along Florida’s southwest coast, chumming keeps reds in heavy pressure areas and turns them into Pavlovian zombies that almost will not eat unless chummed. The practice of running flats to find schools by spooking them, then chasing them down has virtually ruined sight-fishing opportunities in hard-hit areas of the Mosquito Lagoon. Some anglers get up on a flat, stomp on the hull and give chase. Using those deplorable tactics, you can’t hope for a school of reds to stay in the area, much less remain approachable. But these tactics are being used in Georgia.

Woodword is a major proponent of education as a means to augment management, and he says the minds of Georgia anglers are more open than ever to the concepts of fair chase, self-regulation, and a community that helps police itself.

“Twenty years ago, when I started with the agency, it was bloody. The attitude was, ‘How dare you tell me what I can take out of this big ole ocean.’ But over the last ten years the sporting ethic has progressed substantially. For the majority, taking home less quantity of fish or no fish at all is just as valid as going back to the dock and having a body count.”

Outreach and education are critical, but like any state Georgia has its share of stubborn scofflaws. To a man, the guides I’ve spoken with say that much better enforcement of existing regulations is needed to ensure sustainability. They’re outraged by all the poaching that goes on, especially by the gigging and sale of fish by folks without commercial licenses. Bycatch is another serious issue, and some blame the decline of gray trout (weakfish; Cynoscion regalis) populations in Georgia waters on shrimp trawling as well as high mortality of redfish, spotted seatrout and other species. Shrimpers are allowed to drag right up to the beach, and though they’re not supposed to drag in the sounds, there’s so little enforcement some scofflaws allegedly do it anyway.

As always, it comes down to funding, and funding for anything wildlife related is a battle in any state. Georgia CCA is pushing a stocking program based on South Carolina’s relatively successful program and a pilot stocking project called the Peachstate Reds Initiative is underway. Some anglers, such as Wagner, feel the money would be better spent on enforcement and that reducing the limit to two fish per day with strong enforcement would preclude the need for artificial enhancement. They’ve got a point. But in an ideal redfishery, you’d have fair but conservative limits, strong enforcement and stock enhancement. Since Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue is an avid sportsman and has committed to funding a legacy program for hunting and freshwater fishing in the state, perhaps it’s a good time to make the Perdue Administration keenly aware of the value of the state’s estuarine recreational resources, and that investing in it is a wise investment. Georgia’s coastal rivers and estuaries are unique American treasures, and with proper stewardship the Peach State can avoid many of the mistakes that have hurt recreational fishing in other states and resulted in the need for expensive restoration efforts.

Recommendations for Sustainable Coastal Georgia, from an informal survey of Georgia anglers.

• Give red drum gamefish status in Georgia. The fishery is only a sideline for but a few commercial fishers, and numerous economic impact studies show that individual fish are worth orders of magnitude more when pursued recreationally. • Allow the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council survey’s time to be completed and review stock assessment, but consider the precautionary principle. • Implement size limits to protect large female spotted seatrout. • Establish a scientifically sound stock enhancement program with a dedicated funding source. Meanwhile, increase funding significantly for additional enforcement personnel via increased fines for violations. • Develop an education program that encourages catch-and-release fishing and the proper handling and release of gamefish. • Create and enforce a 3-mile limit for shrimp trawling. • Establish scientifically derived minimum flow levels for key watersheds that incorporate sea-level rise projections. • Force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the Savannah River tide gates, which continue to silt up the back river. • Using respected independent researchers, carefully monitor the impacts of “beach nourishment” projects for impacts to water quality and beach infauna. This is a warning from Florida’s experiments with the practice. State and federal monies could be better spent on enforcement and estuary health. • Strengthen habitat protections guaranteed by the Coastal Marshland Protection Act