Okefenokee Swampin' on the Fly

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Fargo, Georgia feels a lot like the middle of nowhere. The cell phone signal is weak in the southeastern part of the state. Surrounding roads wind through sprawling stands of loblolly pines, in many places so thick you cannot see more than a dozen yards beyond the first line of trees. Cypress heads spread out along creeks and low areas. Other than the no stoplight town with its one gas station, Dollar General, and a couple of local restaurants, there are few signs of human inhabitation for miles. The Southern culture warmly welcomes visitors.

When my friend Elijah and I wandered past the Suwannee River Café on a recent April morning, we were pleased to find the cook, Buddy, sitting at a table waiting for the morning’s first customers. The posted hours said it would not open until lunch, but he was ready for business and gladly ushered us in for breakfast. We gratefully obliged. Everything was wooden and finished by hand, lined with sturdy old tables topped by paper towel rolls, prepped to alleviate frier grease from your fingertips. The walls were covered in taxidermy mounts, old time photos, and crosses.

“Yessir, we’re open. What’ll you have? Got three breakfast items here,” Buddy shared as he pointed to the writing on a whiteboard posted at the entrance. A classic breakfast, omelet, or pancakes. We took the first option: eggs, grits, bacon, toast. It came out as 1-part grits, 1-part butter, and 1-part everything else. Buddy made a mean breakfast. After enjoying the Southern fare, we struck up a conversation.

“What y’all doin’ down here? Fishin’? What you usin’?” We explained that we were fly fishing. For bowfin.

“Oh, y’all won’t have no trouble catching any of them. They’re everywhere in the Swamp.”

That is, the Okefenokee Swamp. Arguably Georgia’s, if not one of the southeast’s, greatest wildlife and ecological resources. This 438,000-acre wetland is a rich ecosystem, home to endangered species including the red-cockaded woodpecker and indigo snakes, reptiles such as the keystone gopher tortoise, birdlife, and a variety of fish. There are few places like it.

Adventuring into the Swamp is much like getting into Marty McFly’s time machine and spinning the dial way back. It feels prehistoric. Including the bowfin, many of the Swamp’s inhabitants are dinosaurs, especially the thousands of gators that slide from grassy banks into the black waters. They are your only company as you pole between cypress knobs and lily pads. It is a place of serene silence to the modern world. Other than the occasional hum of a motor near one of the boat landings, it is possible to go an entire day without hearing a mechanical noise. At night, the sky is barren of light except for the brilliance of thousands of stars showing themselves through its emptiness. Many journeys into the Swamp are absent of a single interaction with another human being. It is amongst the last of the truly wild places in Georgia, a perfect escape for any naturalist our outdoorsman, and a critical space for native flora and fauna.

Elijah and I were in pursuit of the native bowfin, known for their aggressiveness, sharp teeth, and prehistoric figure. They are called by many other names: mudfish, swamp donkey, and trash fish. That is what many people consider them. A trash fish. Why? Because according to local experience, you cannot keep them off your lure. They do not eat well but they often hit the bait before other target species, and then they tear it to shreds. Bowfin are dark, mean predators evolved, along with all the other local species, to blend with the dark water they inhabit. While few target these fish, I have been told by some that they put up an epic fight against a fly rod, smashing the fly with immense veracity before running around stumps, logs, and grass beds. They have the makings of a spectacular game fish.

I cannot say, though. I have never caught one.

Elijah and I met the previous winter interning for Bonefish and Tarpon Trust in the Florida Keys, but our tenures only crossed for a week before I left for another opportunity. We found ourselves to be likeminded fisherman and hoped to spend some time on the water together for a future reunion. That time came much sooner than anticipated as we talked on the car ride through Fargo, up a long road into the Swamp toward the Stephen C. Foster State Park in late April.

During our short stint together in south Florida, Elijah told me about fly fishing for bowfin. He had put together a camping trip with some friends during the pandemic, canoeing through the Swamp, and taken a 9 wt. with some flashy streamers during his journey. There are a series of creeks and campsites accessible only by canoe throughout the Swamp, providing for a trip through seemingly untouched and otherwise untouchable landscape along fields of carnivorous pitcher plants, century old cypress trees, and yes, clouds of mosquitos. It was during this expedition that Elijah first handled a bowfin. As the saying goes, he remarked that he was “immediately hooked,” calling them, “one of the ultimate predator fish. I mean they are really little dinosaurs. They are mean, have nasty teeth, and tear a fly to shreds. Awesome fish!”

Elijah was first tuned into the bowfin fishery by a handful of others who have also pursued this unsuspected target for a fly rod. The team at Winged Reel in Atlanta have been chasing and writing about bowfin in the Swamp for years. They have written on their personal blog as well as released a film, “One Man’s Trash,” with the intent of turning others onto the amazing resources that exist within the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge and bringing greater attention to this truly epic fishery with the hopes of maintaining it for future generations.

Other than Elijah, a few of his buddies, and the guys at Winged Reel, I do not know of many others that fly fish the Swamp. Many locals depend on the Swamp as a source of protein, with the majority of recreational anglers throwing spinning tackle for jackfish or bream. In fact, when Elijah and I were making our way up a small canal on the south side of the park, we met a kind, local schoolteacher and fisherwoman, Dawn, who was surprised to find anyone casting a fly on the Swamp’s dark waters. “Didn’t expect to ever find anybody fly fishing. I saw you two fellas when I was driving the school bus yesterday and saw you putting together your rods and I thought to myself, ‘Those boys are goin’ fly fishing.’ Then when I saw y’all out casting ahead me just a minute ago, I thought sure enough they are fly fishing. I am happy to see it because nobody does it around here except me and my husband.”

After sitting side by side in our Jon Boats for some time, hearing her stories about years of exploring, fishing, and harvesting many meals in the Swamp, Dawn asked us what we were after. When she heard our answer, she raised her chin and nose. A look of disgust came to her face. “Bowfin? YUCK! I hate those things. You can have ‘em all.” Dawn was on the hunt for jackfish, or pickerel, a relative to pike, which she claimed were the best eating fish you can find in fresh water. “If you know how to do it right,” she added.

While we had solicited advice from Dawn, Buddy, two of the park rangers, and an old gentleman sporting a cane pole, our target remained elusive. We had been told we would have no problem catching them, that they were all over the Swamp, and that they will eat almost anything. We seemed to be doing something totally wrong. We threw floating lines and sinking lines. White flies, crawfish flies, grey, orange, chartreuse, poppers, and even a jig. Nothing would do it. And the craziest part was that we caught everything else that swims in the Swamp.

Pickerel were soaring out of the water to smack a popper. A red and white popper cast near the base of a cypress would often induce their strike, regardless of whether they successfully ate the fly. The sun belly bream ate flies a quarter of their size. And we even had a run in with a young gator on the fly…but the bowfin—the ‘trash’ fish—turned up their noses.

We chalked it up to high water levels and the bowfin preferring areas we could not access with our boat. Regardless, it seemed to be an anomaly for the Swamp. In two days of fishing, we hooked one. Many fishing stories have a catch or redemptive moment when the target species was finally landed after hours of effort, sweat, run ins with other critters, and the like. This one does not. We had all the makings of an exploratory trip turned successful—the scenery, the other and unexpected species landed, and the gator. But we really did not catch one. True story.

Regardless, it was no trip wasted. For me, it was a maiden voyage into one of my state’s most precious resources—the largest blackwater swamp in North America, currently up for review as a World Heritage Site for its “outstanding universal value.” I witnessed pristine stands of cypress standing resolutely above beds of lily pads, with gators and turtles swimming unthreatened throughout. I landed my first pickerel and warmouth and learned an immense amount about a new fishery from a new partner. The Swamp offers an experience like few others, with such unparalleled habitat and a high density of wildlife, along with a unique variety of warmwater species that can be pursued on the fly.

Like many places fostering such natural richness, the Swamp has come under threat. Twin Pines Minerals, an Alabama mining company, has pursued regulatory permission to exploit titanium deposits on the bank of the Swamp. A large, natural dam known as Trail Ridge, runs along the east side of the Refuge and is vital to maintaining the hydrology of the Swamp. A proposed mine on a 12,000-acre tract of the Ridge threatens to undermine the geology of the region, altering the berm’s hydraulic properties and allowing ground water to escape. Unnatural fluctuations in water level and flow put the entire ecosystem at risk, compromising the Swamp’s ability to sustain itself and altering the natural functioning of the system as it has existed for thousands of years. Water levels may be changed, turbidity and surface water quality could be affected, groundwater flows will be disrupted, and the frequency and intensity of fires may be worsened due to hydraulic changes. This would all lead to habitat destruction and fragmentation, not to mention greater noise and light pollution due to the mine’s proximity.

Another mine. The fly fishing community has experienced the same frustrating threat by the Pebble Mine, which poses grave danger to the greatest wild sockeye salmon run in the world. We have seen how altering the hydrology of a wetland system can completely alter and even destroy fisheries with the historical changes to flows out of Lake Okeechobee, harming the Everglades and surrounding region of south Florida. While the Okefenokee is certainly less highly regarded in the fly fishing community, it is of equal environmental, conservation, and wildlife importance as these and many other watersheds facing similar threats. The fishery is by no means developed like Bristol Bay or the Everglades and Florida Keys, but the fly fishing community has witnessed and been pained by similar perils to America’s fishery resources. While not a destination, it is many anglers’ home water. It must be protected.

Thankfully, this time conservation efforts have triumphed over the forces that conspire against the fishery. On June 3, 2022, the EPA declined Twin Pines’ request for a permit having failed to consult with the Muscogee Creek Nation, who holds rights to some of the wetland area. This was a win for the Swamp, the Tribe, the state of Georgia, and all who enjoy those magical, dark waters. But while this most recent effort for a mine has been declined, the area lacks permanent protection. Twin Mines is not finished. New proposals will be made, and other environmental harms will endanger the wonderful resources of Okefenokee and its likeness in other parts of our resource rich nation. These ecosystems are immensely resilient, but also sensitive to the intrusion of human tampering. They need permanent protections. And it is the resources users—the anglers, birdwatchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts—who have most at stake and must take up the banner to fight against threats to our precious fisheries and other outdoor places.

Though the not so elusive bowfin successfully evaded Elijah and me, my hope is to return someday soon to pole the shallow creeks and ponds and throw flies back into the darkness. Even as a young angler myself with little experience fishing Okefenokee, I hope that I will someday be able to share its mysteries with my children and grandchildren. I hope that Dawn, Elijah, the crew at Winged Reel, and others who have enjoyed fly fishing there will continue to pursue bowfin and other species on the fly. It is a precious resource and fishery. Like many others, it ought to be protected.

To learn more about the Okefenokee Swamp and proposed Twin Pines mine, visit ProtectOkefenokee.org.


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