Adventures in Gator Country
A trip through the Okefenokee means fishing primeval.
Alligators are diving under our canoe as black currents carry us down a narrow water trail between old-growth cypress trees dripping with moss. As the first gator hole approaches, I yank my paddle up out of the water, grab my fishing rod, and cast. Made by the nesting reptiles, these 15-foot-deep depressions in the water approach 30 feet in circumference and are some of the best bass-holding structure in Georgia’s 353,981-acre Okefenokee Wilderness Area.
We’re in the middle of a three-day backcountry trip, paddling a network of water trails through North America’s largest blackwater swamp, and getting a good dose of adventure with our bass fishing. After all, peak fishing on the Okefenokee coincides with another natural phenomenon: alligator mating season, when an estimated 10,000 gators are on the move.
Your Private Wilds Long before Okefenokee became popular as a paddling destination, it earned fame as a fish camp. Back in the 1960s, anglers pulled 15-pound largemouths from these waters, and nowadays you can still find 10-pounders if you know where and when to look. The action starts getting good in March and peaks in April and May after bass leave their beds and start feeding hard.
Fishing here is on the upswing. Last year, the swamp came off a five-year drought. There was a productive spawn, and all signs point to another this spring. The beginnings of a great boom in bass populations seem well under way.
In addition to largemouths, prehistoric fish crowd the water: serpentine bowfin measuring 2 feet long; Florida gars 3 feet long, with hard needle-nose snouts that are nearly impossible to hook. Chain pickerel, yellow-bellied catfish, and perch are abundant, easy to catch, and tasty.
On our trip we paddled over 10 miles each day, sleeping atop 20-square-foot wooden platforms completely surrounded by water. One of the greatest things about fishing the Okefenokee backcountry is its air of exclusivity. Your required permit is tied to a particular date, shelter, and geographic area. Once you get a reservation, the place is yours. No other visitors to that portion of the refuge are allowed. You essentially rent out your own private section of wilderness swamp-complete with the water trails you paddle on and the shelters you sleep in-for just $10 per day.
Creature Features We came for the fishing, but the primeval nature of the swamp may be Okefenokee’s most powerful attraction. Snakes dangle from overhanging branches. Spiders capable of spinning webs 15 feet wide-easily long enough to stretch across the trails-scamper across swollen tree trunks. Bobcats scream in the night. Hundreds of black bears roam the deep woods. Four-foot-tall birds lurk in the shallows. Pig frogs holler with such volume and intensity that you occasionally have to communicate with your angling companion in the front of the boat by shouting. But it’s the swamp’s most famous residents that really make the fishing interesting. You and the alligators are in the business of angling together. You watch where they go to find the productive holes; they watch you for an easy meal. When you get a bite, set the hook and reel fast; gators will gobble up overplayed fish in the blink of an eye. Drop your catch in a cooler or back in the water, but don’t let fresh meat dangle in front of your boat.
Males of the species let out deep, fluttering groans that carry through the swamp as if they were digitally created for a horror movie and then piped into the woods using Dolby surround sound. It’s usually a mating call, but it can also be a sign of aggression. Guidebooks claim that alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp leave humans alone. Pamphlets published by the National Wildlife Refuge System say the same. Park employees say that no one has died as a result of, or even been attacked by, an alligator in the swamp. But all claims come with substantial lists of things not to do. Swimming is outt. Feeding the alligators is frowned upon. Getting out of the canoe in any other place but a shelter in the backcountry is strongly discouraged. Dragging caught fish on a stringer behind your boat is prohibited.
My partner and I had no desire to swim or otherwise bait the gators during our trip. Instead we focused on tempting the bass. We caught them with soft plastics, spinnerbaits, and topwater plugs, and after our three days of battling largemouths in one of the most unique fishing spots in the country, all we could think about was securing our permits for next year.