Beyond the Beach: Playing in Georgia's Salt Marshes
I can still recall the first time I ever walked in flooded Spartina like it was yesterday. Overwhelmed with excitement to be exploring a new place, my 11-year-old-self ignored the pluff mud covering my brand new tennis shoes and the dozens of periwinkles digging into my ankles. I was on a field trip to the Jekyll Island 4H Center to learn about coastal ecology. I remember the sulfurous smell of a freshly disturbed patch of pluff mud. I remember our guide teaching us about oysters and detritus, and convincing us to sample the edible sea pickles growing in the marsh grass. Most of all, I remember the unadulterated sense of wonderment I discovered in the marsh that day.
As a kid from the North Georgia foothills I had never experienced anything like the salt marshes that expand the roughly 100-mile stretch of Georgia coastline. Unfortunately, it was over a decade before I ever returned to explore the marsh again. However, in recent years I have spent a considerable amount of time in the marsh, and it has become one of my favorite places in the state to "play."
An interesting characteristic of the marsh is that a majority of the people who drive past it write it off as a wasteland or an untouchable place. Think about it; how often do you actually see people out in the marsh when you drive by? I attribute this phenomenon to the fact that most people simply have never been in the marsh. To many, the flooded landscape looks like an inhospitable place filled with murky water, and if they were to walk through it, they would most certainly be attacked by an unknown creature or sink in a pit of quicksand. The fact is, all one really needs is a solid pair of shoes they don’t mind getting wet and/or muddy and a preferred method of keeping periwinkles out of your shoes. One could even kick it up a notch and wear waders if they prefer to stay bone-dry. Aside from the occasional tidal creek crossing, pluff mud or oyster bed (oysters are razor sharp – hence, the sturdy footwear), walking in the marsh is as easy as walking down the sidewalk.
Personally, fly fishing has brought me back to the marsh. As an avid fly fisherman, sight-fishing for red fish is one of the most exhilarating types of fishing I pursue. Until fully mature, juvenile redfish live in the creeks and rivers that wind and weave their way through the salt marsh. It takes up to 3 to 5 years for a redfish to mature when they move out of the marshes to live in near-shore waters. Redfish between 1 and 3 years of age are often between 5 and 10 pounds and can reach an excess of 30 inches in length. These fish are the target of my marsh, sight-fishing pursuits.
The reason it is called sight fishing is that you stalk the marsh until you see the fish "tailing" and then cast to them in attempt to catch them. "Tailing" occurs when high tides flood areas of marsh that are not often inundated under normal tide conditions. Redfish push up out of the tidal creeks and into the newly flooded shallow marsh flats in search of ghost crabs and shrimp. Redfish search for food by excavating mud and sand with their large heads in attempt to turn an unlucky crab or shrimp up and into their mouth. Their method of digging for food, combined with the shallow water allows for their tail to be exposed and visible above the water, thus the name "tailing." Stalking the marsh in search of tailing reds combines aspects of hunting and fishing that are an adrenaline rush to an angler like me.
To take part in sight fishing for tailing red fish all you need is:
- a sturdy pair of shoes or boots
clothes you don’t mind getting wet or muddy
- I prefer waders for the added feeling of invincibility
- a high tide – usually at least 7.5 feet in Georgia
fishing tackle – rod, reel and some sort of lure that mimics a shrimp or crab
- If fishing with conventional tackle, you just need to make sure the drag system is sealed, so that saltwater doesn’t corrode your gear, and you have strong enough line to handle a 10-pound fish (along with ripping a lure through thick marsh grass).
- If fly fishing, 7-9 weight rods are most suitable with a shrimp or crab pattern fly.
- I use an 8 weight rod with a 16-pound, 9-foot tapered leader.
Other fun ways to explore the marsh include kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) through the tidal creeks, bird watching or simply hiking. I am most familiar with the marshes around St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island, and there are some great local outfitters to rent boats and SUPs like Southeast Adventure Outfitters in the St. Simons lighthouse village or SSI SUP near Redfern Village.
The fish are what bring me to the marsh, but more often than I care to admit I end up doing more hiking and less fish catching. Whether you are chasing tailing redfish or simply wanting to explore a new place, I guarantee you will have a hard time finding a better place to escape the pressures of day-to-day life. In Georgia, we are fortunate to have one-third of all the salt marsh on the East Coast of the United States. From Savannah to St. Marys, there are 100 miles and nearly 400,000 acres of salt marsh for you to enjoy. I encourage everyone to spend more time in this plentiful and ecologically significant resource we are so fortunate to have.
I almost forgot about the sunrises and sunsets! Actually, I’ll let you discover those on your own. Enjoy.