“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
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 m
atter 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.
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.