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by Capt. John Kumiski

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    "I HAVE A FISH!" came the proclamation. I whipped around to see five year old Alex clutching his straining fishing rod, the last two feet of which were pulled entirely straight. Determination gripped the child's face. Line was melting from his little reel, and he was visibly struggling to keep from being pulled out of the boat. How this particular battle between a little boy and a big fish would end was very much in doubt.
    About the Cumberland Island
 

 

 

Guides

Fishing Guides Anglers could trailer their boat to St. Marys and do some exploration on their own. Be sure to bring NOAA chart 11489. Or they might wish to hire a guide for a day or two to more quickly learn their way around.

Capt. Russell Tharin
(904) 825-7982. Tharin specializes in sightfishing, especially sightfishing with fly tackle, in Cumberland Sound and around Amelia Island.

Capt. Lamar Wainwright
(912) 729-4114. Wainwright mostly fishes offshore for cobia, dolphin, kingfish, and bottom species. He grew up here and has fished here all his life.

   

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 


One in a long string of barrier islands protecting the southeastern seaboard of the United States, 16 mile long and three mile wide Cumberland Island sprawls along the southern Georgia coast. St. Andrews Inlet, Georgia's largest, lies to the north. St. Mary's Inlet slices Cumberland Island from Amelia Island to the south. Cumberland Sound and thousands of acres of fertile salt marsh separates Cumberland from the Georgia mainland.

As you approach Cumberland Island from the mainland the expanse of this salt marsh impresses you with its size and subtle beauty. The island cloaks itself mostly with dense live oak forests, which blend into the dune and beach areas along the ocean side. Some of the dunes rise as much as 50 feet above sea level. Although the island has a long history of human settlement, today it is mostly uninhabited. Walking along the old roads you'll get a true feeling of wilderness, especially when you see some of the plentiful wildlife the island supports.

In the 1500's the Spanish released horses on Cumberland. There are still about 200 wild horses there today, roaming freely as they wish. It's a strange feeling to be surf-casting off the beach and see (and hear!) these large beasts grazing along the dunes behind you.

Calusa Indians had settled on Cumberland at least 3,000 years ago, attracted by the rich fish and shellfish resources of the island, marshes, and surrounding waters. Many of their middens remain, composed primarily of oyster shells, and identifiable by the alkaline loving cedar trees which grow around them. Farming, logging, and other commercial activities on the island ended in 1972 when the National Park Service began administering it as a national seashore.

  The Salt Marshes
 


Late one autumn afternoon, a spring tide begins to flood the grasses of the salt marsh. A fiddler crab leaves its burrow and climbs a cordgrass stem, searching in the leaf nodes for the bits of organic matter it uses as food. Intent upon its feeding, it fails to notice a redfish working its way through the flooded grasses. The redfish detects a bit of movement, and in an instant the hapless crab disappears into the redfish's maw, its fate sealed by the crushers in the fish's throat.

The salt marshes provide one of the most unique fly rod fisheries imaginable on spring tides during the late spring, summer, and early fall. Hungry redfish enter the flooding marsh searching for crabs. As they wallow through the grass, they can be sightfished. Although most any fly will work, crab patterns are the fly of choice. These fish average from six to eight pounds.

Redfish, seatrout, and flounder can all be caught in Cumberland Sound and the many tidal creeks that flow through the marsh. The water is loaded with sediment and is quite dark, so flies which push water or make some type of noise are preferred.

Those with a taste for blue crabs can catch them in the marsh, too. A fish head or a chicken back tied to a line and tossed into the water will attract the crabs. Slowly pull the line in until the crabs are in net range and scoop them up with a deft move. Five or six big ones, boiled in a little seawater, will make a gourmet appetizer for two people for most any meal.

These salt marshes on the western side of Cumberland Island (over 10,000 acres of them) are one of the most productive habitats on earth, with ten times the fertility of an equal area of cultivated wheat. The prodigious growth of Spartina grasses support a vast and commercially valuable fishery and shellfishery, as well as an incredibly diverse number of air-breathing vertebrates. Cumberland Island is on the Atlantic Flyway and from fall through spring the marshes are alive with migratory shorebirds. Dolphins, mink, raccoons, and other mammals are found here as well. Due to the exceptional fertility of this marsh an angler will find an exploration of this area well worth his time.


The Beaches
 


Schools of finger mullet stream along the beach, turning the water black as they head south in response to shorter days and cooling waters. Hungry predators follow- jack crevalle, king mackerel, redfish, sharks, and others. At frequent intervals hundreds of mullet leap skyward in terror, showering out of the water, trying to escape the death that lunges after them from below.

Sadly, (from an angler's perspective, at least) the beach at Cumberland slopes rather gently. Consequently surf fishing there usually is not what it otherwise might be. During the mullet run though, the waters teem with fish. I've seen kingfish skyrocketing mullet within casting distance of the beach. Jacks are frequent catches. Redfish make up part of the catch, too. We got plenty of action from jacks with popping bugs and from reds with the various large streamers.

Cumberland's beach runs the length of the island. The dunes lining the western side of the beach are incredibly beautiful, especially around sunrise and sunset. Already mentioned are the horses that graze on the beach, ignoring you while you fish or look for shells. The horses prefer the beach during the spring and early summer to take advantage of tender new growth sprouting from the dunes.

Other animals also use the beach. Various shorebirds including terns and black skimmers nest there. Loggerhead sea turtles also nest on Cumberland's beaches. Wading birds feed in the surf. Ghost crab holes are common, and you will see plenty of raccoon tracks and maybe a marsh rabbit as you walk along.

Four hundred feet above the water's surface an osprey soars, searching unceasingly for a fish with which to feed its young. It spies a school of mullet near the surface and pauses, gauging the wind and direction of the fish. Tucking its wings the bird stoops, accelerating until just before hitting the water it thrusts out its talons, crashing into the water with incredible force. Feet strike scales and talons close, trapping one of the mullet in a vise-like grip. The osprey struggles for a moment, trying to get airborne again before finally lifting with its prize. Slowly gaining altitude, it pauses to shake off some excess water before it heads back to its nest.

Extending seaward from Cumberland's southern end like a long bony finger is the jetty that protects the ship channel running the length of Cumberland Sound. The submarines based at the Kings Bay Naval Station, located on the western side of the sound, need a deep channel for access to the Atlantic. In addition to providing egress for these subs, the jetty and channel serve as the finest kinds of fish attractors.

    Seasons of Cumberland
 
Getting there

Short of using a helicopter or skydiving Cumberland Island's only access is by water. Those towing their own boats can use the excellent municipal ramps in St. Marys. You reach St. Marys by taking Georgia exit 2 off of interstate 95. About a five mile trip east on Highway 40 will bring you to St. Marys' waterfront. You'll need NOAA nautical chart 11489, St. Simons Sound to Tolomato River.

Those without boats need not despair. The Cumberland Queen runs reasonably priced scheduled trips to Cumberland Island from the national seashore office in St. Marys. Call (912)882-4335 Monday through Friday between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM for more information or to make reservations. For those who enjoy camping, the National Park Service maintains two different kinds of sites on the island. The developed campground at Sea Camp Beach has drinking water, restrooms, and cold water showers available, and campfires are allowed in the fireplaces provided. The backcountry camps at other numerous locations on the island only provide drinking water, and do not allow campfires. You must bring a portable stove. Reservations are required at all Cumberland Island campgrounds, and can be made by calling the number listed above.

Those wishing to stay in a hotel on the mainland will find plentiful accommodations, especially near I-95 in Kingsland. I've stayed at the Quality Inn there and found it quite nice. You can get more information by calling the Kingsland Tourism Authority at 1-800-433-0225.

 


Sheepshead, black drum, flounder, redfish, and seatrout all provide a year-round fishery around these rocks. The redfish are often big breeders and sometimes top 40 pounds. Most of the local anglers fish with shrimp or other bait around the rocks and often do quite well. Flycasters will need at least a 400 grain sinking line, a big fly, and a plentiful supply of perseverance here.

Fish move through on a seasonal basis, too. Big oceanic jacks show up during the summer and can top 40 pounds. Fly tackle provides maximum sport, although a large hookless popping plug may be needed to excite them into striking.

Tarpon patrol the jetty all summer long, with some fish exceeding 100 pounds. Only a few locals try for these fish, usually by using mullet for bait. I imagine that these fish could be chummed up, although I don't know of anyone who has tried this here.

Spanish mackerel, bonito, and bluefish all show up at various times. The bonito are summer visitors, the blues prefer the cooler months, and the Spanish mackerel like the transition seasons. All of these species are excellent fly rod fare. There's also excellent fishing offshore for kingfish, cobia, dolphin, and other species which I haven't sampled. The island is big and I've yet to explore it all. I've never even visited St. Andrews Sound. Here the Cumberland, Satilla, and Little Satilla Rivers all join and empty into the Atlantic, forming the largest inlet in Georgia. You don't need a Ph.D. in fisheries science to realize that an inlet like this will attract a lot of fish. Maybe you and I will meet up there.

Alex's fish never slowed in its run. His line suddenly went slack. He told us that the fish was gone as he reeled in his line. The hook had just pulled out.

Alex wants to go back to Cumberland Island for that fish. I want to go back, too. Anyone who loves natural places and the beauty, respite, thrills, and memories they provide owes it to themselves to visit Georgia's coastal gem- Cumberland Island.

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