Imagine yourself deep in a swamp surrounded by open prairies of lily pads, meandering creeks lined with gargantuan cypress, and even man-made canals carved through the living landscape. Enormous, red-headed Pileated woodpeckers knock away at the bleached skeletons of ancient trees long dead. Herons and ibis stalk the edges of the waterways in search of their next meal. The swish of the paddle or the near-silent prodding of the push pole the only form of locomotion through the black waters of this remarkable place. Suddenly, mere feet from your small aluminum Jon boat, a massive scaled head emerges from the nearly opaque waters.
An alligator, the swamp’s largest and most physically intimidating inhabitant. These overgrown lizards eye you with some amount of casual boredom, recognizing themselves for what they are, the apex predators of their environment. It can be hard to appreciate the scene that envelopes you. It isn’t quite like anything you have ever seen before. Mostly unchanged for thousands of years, the Okefenokee swamp carries on the traditions of the ancient world in it’s own simple ways. The swamp has seen early native inhabitants, the endurance of European settlers, and the steady creeping of the modern world nearer and then receding again. Despite plans to drain the swamp, create farm and pastureland, and log the primordial cypress with their heavy beards of draping Spanish moss, the swamp survives. The Okefenokee endures.
The name of the swamp translates to “trembling earth” and characterizes the nature of the ‘land’ that makes up much of the region, peat moss. Mounds of this floating and decaying vegetation give the appearance of solid ground until the observer notices its slow movements in the current or how they rock when presented by a passing boats wake. Frequently as deep as 12 feet and even capable of supporting a grown man’s weight, these moving islands give the landscape the appearance of a living thing. In a place where the plants eat the insects and where the fish and animals all evolved to eat each other, even the land doesn’t want to remain still for too long. It’s a hostile environment, full of life and yet not altogether welcoming. The dark, tannic waters that make up the life-blood of the swamp seem intent on keeping its own secrets mired beneath the black surface.
This trip has been a long time coming for us. I journeyed here once before but, due to an unfortunate accident while camping, was forced to cut my trip short before I was able to catch bowfin. Having survived my self-inflicted 2nd and 3rd degree burns, I needed to return to prove to myself that I could deal with whatever the swamp might throw at me.
Years ago I had heard about the incredible fishing in the Okefenokee for a species that was unfamiliar to me, bowfin. Living dinosaurs, the native bowfin have lived in still waters throughout North America for tens of millions of years. The last of their family of fish, the bowfin are most similar to the gar that are still found throughout the continent. Both bowfin and gar are capable of breathing air and surviving in the acidic and low oxygen levels of the swamp in south Georgia. They are known by countless names often localized to specific regions; I have heard them called, grinnel, dogfish, blackfish and in Georgia they are most often referred to as mudfish. Call them what you will, these living fossils are miraculous for their tenacity and ability to survive.
Many however, view this species as a “trash” fish due to the poor table fair it provides. Luckily, some fly fishermen out of Atlanta had made it their business to promote this amazing fishery and this species that was being needlessly treated so poorly. The guys at Winged Reel ended up creating an epic video about the swamp, its surroundings and its toothy inhabitants. They named their video “One Man’s Trash” as a reference to the maligned bowfin of south Georgia. This video inspired me to pursue these fish and proved to be one of the most invaluable resources I had when planning our trip here. Even better than the video though, one of the Winged Reel founders was actually going to come with us too! I had met Justin in the Fall while guiding some business companions of his. After he and I discussed my intentions on returning to the Okefenokee, Justin decided he would take the weekend and join us on our bowfin quest. A knowledgeable and extremely experienced fisherman, we were thrilled to have his companionship on our trip.
The swamp does contain other species that are capable of surviving its acidic waters and its top predators and these other fish are much more likely to be targeted by locals generally because they make better eating. After all, the Okefenokee can often be seen as a place where things are done more out of necessity than simple sporting intentions.
Chain pickerel are toothy predators that live in the lilies and channels of the prairies and canals. Their smaller cousins, redfin pickerel, make their homes in the little tributaries that feed the swamp. Many species of bream and catfish abound. Flyer are the preeminent panfish in the swamp and resemble something mixed between a bluegill and a crappie. Warmouth represent the next step up in size from flyer. They are similar to the rock bass that are spread throughout the U.S. and southern Canada. Bullheads are in the catfish family and are famous scavengers living in some of the deeper waters in the area. Finally, Florida gar make the swamp their home just like their bowfin cousins. They are most similar to spotted gar both in size, coloration and habit preference.
My cohorts and I pulled into our Folkston campground around 1:30 on Saturday morning. Eager to hit the water, we awaited daylight with baited breath. We awoke to a surprisingly crisp morning that might have touched into the upper 50 degrees. Knowing that bowfin prefer warmer water, we met with Justin a littler later on giving the water a chance to begin to warm for the day. With little to no information regarding bowfin angling, Justin had assured us in the weeks prior that “flashy flies” were the ticket to scoring numbers of bowfin. With this information in mind we reached out to Adam Hudson at BlueLine Co. and gave him free rein on a handful of custom tied flies specifically made for bowfin.
With rods rigged up we launched from the Suwannee canal ramp just before 09:00 with attentive eyes searching for gulping bowfin coming up to the surface for a quick breath of air. We meandered past canoers, kayakers and perhaps a dozen jon boats filled with fishermen looking to fill their coolers. We pushed on past this crowd looking for solitude and bowfin, undesirable as a food fish and thus overlooked by pretty much everyone besides our motley crew.
Justin and I took the lead in his boat and he poled me through one of the narrow canoe trails allowing me my first casts in the swamp in years. Justin regaled me with some of his personal experiences in the Okefenokee while I threw casts to structure and then again into the open channel ahead of us. It didn’t take more than perhaps 20 minutes until a solid thump transmitted through the fly line and into my hands, fish on! A vicious 30 second battle brought a dark, scaly fish to my hands.
As I carefully worked to avoid her jagged teeth, Justin snapped a few quick shots of my fish. She might not seem particularly noteworthy to a local or even to many others who have caught bowfin but hell, I wanted to catch her so badly. This little bowfin was amazing to me. It represented years of anticipation finally come to a head. I finally got to hold one of these amazing native fish in my hands after years of planning. The slimy mucus that sloughed off in my hands was a trophy to remind me of my little success that meant such a disproportional amount to me. Mere moments later while passing along some information to Collin and Chad behind us, I hooked up again. This bowfin was a tad larger and hit my fly with the same ornery disposition as his sibling! The fight of a bowfin is remarkable. They hit a fly like a Northern Pike, seeking to do as much damage as possible on initial contact. However, the fight doesn’t stop there as a hooked bowfin will twist, roll, dig and jump to escape being pulled up into the boat. These fish put on a battle to rival any other close quarters competitor in freshwater fly fishing. They may not peel line off of a reel like a common carp but they refuse to come to an angler without using every trick at their disposal.
With just two small bowfin in the boat, my trip was completely made. I was surrounded by an amazing eco-system, with great friends, catching a unique species that has haunted me for years. Just an hour in the swamp, I found my contentment. I spent much of the rest of the day either poling or utilizing our trolling motor to slowly maneuver our boat in the calm waters. While Chad and I plied the current for flyer, warmouth and whatever else may bite, Collin was busy having the time of his life catching monster fish in what we came to call “Bowfin alley”.
Collin was fortunate enough to hook into several excellent fish while we were away. He and Justin battled fish of 6, 12 and even possibly as much as 15 pounds! It’s even possible that Collin’s largest fish could have been a potential state record fish for a fly rod! We may never know though as Collin’s big fish was smart enough to dig itself deep into one of the peat mats. Despite his best efforts and stout 20 pound fluorocarbon, we fishermen never stood a chance against that monster bowfin! I’m sure that Collin’s taste with glory on just our first morning will have him coming back for years to come.
While Collin and I had both found the success we were looking for, Chad was yet to put a fish in the boat. Justin being the congenial fishing partner that he is, had Chad hop in his boat and patiently poled our friend through some excellent looking water. Collin and I looked on as Chad hooked multiple bowfin and Florida gar just to have them come off at some point during the fight. We playfully joked with Chad though our confidence never wavered that he would catch a great fish. Finally, as Collin and I were quietly stalking gar, we heard the water erupt with a leaping fish nearby the second boat. As the battle raged, on we watched Chad and Justin fight the fish into open water before landing a hearty bowfin! Later on, Chad finished our fishing on day one with his first ever chain pickerel. That fish shot out of nearby lilies and ripped around under the boat before being wrangled inside. All in all, our fishing was a tremendous success due in no small part to how much Justin assisted us with poling the boat and locating the fish.
To conclude our day we hiked the nearby boardwalk to an observation tower overseeing much of the eastern side of the Okefenokee. We watched the sun begin to set and took in the majesty of this enormous natural resource that remains so poorly known even today.
Day two we were entirely on our own schedule. Justin was on his way back to Atlanta and we three humble fishermen had decided to fish the same stretch as yesterday. We only had a few hours to fish so that Chad could return home to central Alabama. Despite my fears regarding putting three of us in my 12 foot jon boat, my 50 year old flat bottom handled the situation with aplomb. We cruised out to our spot and went about the process of carefully fishing out of our heavily laden craft. Collin was hunting for gar while Chad shot film and I blind casted for bowfin.
I managed to pick up a few including two “buzzer beaters”. As we were wrapping up for the afternoon I gave myself 5 more casts. On number 4, my Blue Line Fly got nailed by a healthy mid-size mudfish. Lastly, on our way out of Bowfin Alley I was trolling the fly some 55 feet behind the boat. Maybe 3 minutes into my doing this my fingers suffered some line burn as a fish ripped line out of my hands! Unexpected but no less welcome! Chad even got on the board with his own buzzer beater as we were nearly out of the canal when he hooked another excellent pickerel like his final fish the day before! With his giant teeth, this fish looked like his much larger Pike and Muskie cousins. Another great day behind us, it was time to enjoy one of our fishing traditions; a trip to the local Mexican restaurant for cerveza and queso.
The swamp is full of life and needs to remain that way forever. Bear, deer, and scores of birds and amphibian species round out the incredible eco-system that has survived and adapted to live here. Although attempts have been made to destroy the Okefenokee before, the swamp outlasted its detractors. Now though, another issue has arisen on the swamp’s borders. Twin Pines Mine stands poised to do irreparable harm to the headwaters that feed and support the swamp’s unique ecology. With the weakening of watershed protections over the last few years, the Okefenokee now finds itself in a precarious position. Is the risk of short-term resource extraction worth the long-term benefits of a healthy eco-system? Please read up on the issue and consider taking a stance in favor of protecting the mighty Okefenokee. This amazing place deserves our greatest protections to ensure that it can be seen for generations to come.
Click here to learn more about the “Fate of Okefenokee / Twin Pine Mine” – You can also send an email to the Georgia DNR to voice your opinions and concerns regarding the proposed mine. We have prepared a pre-written email that can be copied and pasted and sent to TwinPines.Comment@dnr.ga.gov
“Attention: Gov. Kemp, Georgia EPD and Georgia DNR Officials
We cannot allow the destruction of the wetland ecosystems that are a part of the Okefenokee Swamp System. The natural balance of such an ecosystem has developed over thousands of years to serve a precise purpose for the filtration of water that is supplied from the river basins that flow into and out of the Okefenokee. We cannot start down a path for the purpose of corporate profits that will lead to a situation with negative results similar to that of the Everglades. Our swamps are a precious natural resource deserving of our respect and protection.
This project should be halted and the land in question preserved.
Thank you for your consideration and for halting this project.
Custom Flies from BlueLine Co. – Blue Line Flies
One Man’s Trash – a film by Winged Reel