Locals describe them as being “as big as a dinner plate” and they’ve been in short supply for a few years as an invasive and voracious catfish took a literal bite out of the population of the sunfish.
But a state Department of Natural Resources effort to wipe out the catfish, known as flatheads, apparently has taken hold and redbreast fishing is good again along the winding, 235-mile course of the blackwater stream.
“I fish when they’re biting, and they’ve been tearing it up,” Mike Edgy said. “They’ve gotten a lot bigger, too.”
Edgy, a timberland owner and Brantley County commissioner, fishes in the river where it borders his property. He gets in his boat, motors upstream and drifts back, slowly dragging his cricket-baited hook in the water.
“Once I get a hit, I’ll anchor out and fish there for a while,” he said.
He’s been doing less drifting and more fishing lately, he said.
So have a lot of other people.
The Satilla draws fishermen from all over the state, and they spend money on bait, food, fuel and beer.
“Beer does real good up here,” Edgy joked.
The point is, he said, good fishing puts good money into the rural county’s coffers.
“The river brings a lot of people in,” he said.
Flatheads, which are native to western rivers, were illegally introduced into the Satilla in the mid-1990s, feeding on and quickly reducing the redbreast population.
The DNR out of its Waycross office has been trying to get rid of flatheads for seven years. Crews go out on the water in the spring and summer electro-fishing, shocking the fish so they rise to the surface in a stupor.
Then they’re scooped up and hauled off to a landfill. Their flesh has too much mercury to eat safely.
“I would hate to see what the redbreast sunfish population would look like if the removal process for flatheads had not begun,” said Tim Bonvechio, senior fisheries biologist and leader of the flathead removal project.
“And it is a great reward to hear about anglers reporting impressive stringers of large redbreast sunfish, including reports of some 10-inch ‘roosters’ caught in the heart of the flathead catfish removal area,” he said in a DNR release.
Bonvechio’s crews have shocked and removed 42,800 flatheads weighing 102,000 pounds.
Mother Nature has also had a hand in improving sportsfishing on the Satilla.
The river stayed high through the spring and summer, spreading spawning fish into the flooded nutrient-laden lowlands.
“The river reached flood stage at least twice during the summer and it’s a healthy ecosystem when it floods like that,” Satilla Riverkeeper Ashby Nix said.
Unfortunately, flatheads flourish under those conditions, too, and they likely never will be completely eradicated, so the DNR project needs to be maintained, Nix said.
“You can’t really skip a year,” she said. “These flatheads grow really big really fast.”