Mid-afternoon under a searing August sun is no time to fish the lower Satilla River.
But Jim Page, Jason Mitchell and Ed Zmarzly aren’t exactly fishing. With long-poled nets and boats trailing voltage-packing cables, the DNR crew is searching for an aquatic invader: flathead catfish.
Flatheads are an apex predator: hungry, fast-growing and capable of topping 100 pounds. The unauthorized release of the species into the Satilla in the 1990s sent the river’s prized redbreast fishery into a tailspin, until DNR’s Flathead Removal Project began netting out the big-mouthed cats by the thousands.
The redbreast have rebounded. Yet continued monitoring and removal of flatheads is necessary, even on the lower river, where panfish are less prevalent.
The Satilla winds 260 miles from Ben Hill County to the ocean near Woodbine. Much of the free-flowing river is blackwater and tree-lined, prime redbreast territory. Yet south of 3R Fish Camp near White Oak, Atlantic tides gradually reshape the Satilla. The waterway broadens. Water salinity edges upward. The tree canopy gives way to marsh grasses and remnants of rice plantations.
Page, a fisheries biologist who leads the flathead project, said flatheads in this tidally-influenced section can migrate into blackwater sections of the Satilla. Keeping them in check roughly between 3R Fish Camp and Woodbine benefits redbreast upstream as well as native fishes in the lower river.
Sampling season peaks June through September. The flathead crew focuses on holes and other catfish haunts, usually with two boats – a shock boat with cables that send an electrical charge through the water and a catch boat that scoops up stunned flatheads.
On a sweltering day last month, Page and company worked the river just north of Woodbine. Mitchell’s boat led. The loud beeping of an electrofishing unit served as a reminder that a field of charged water reaching from the stern to horse-tailed cable-ends 40 feet behind was alive and well.
Page and Zmarzly followed, Page on the bow with net ready, Zmarzly gunning the boat toward any glimpse of a flathead rolling white belly up or thrashing on the surface, as if raging against the temporary stun of the electrofisher.
Flatheads caught were plopped into long white coolers. Analysis would follow at the office.
Mitchell has been doing this since DNR formed a full-time flathead crew in spring 2007.
“It used to be crazy,” he said, eyes scanning the brown water, sweat creasing his face. “We’d have six or seven of these coolers slam full of fish.”
This year’s catch isn’t crazy but it is on par with last year, Page said. Better, the average fish size is slightly smaller. “All are a lot smaller than when we began in 2007. That’s telling us we’re doing our job.”
That job may be expanding. The crew is catching more non-native blue catfish this year, about 160 in July and August. One was a pregnant female, the first gravid blue that DNR has recorded on the Satilla.
Page says blue cats, which might have reached the Satilla from the Altamaha River delta during a high-water event, can grow “well over 100 pounds.” “Just like flatheads, they don’t belong here.”
For more information on the flathead removal project, see http://georgiawildlife.com/Conservation/FRP.