Backwater Bowfin Blitz in the Liska, Part I

“Want to go fish the Okefenokee Swamp in February?”

Teammate Matt Cunningham’s words sat in my ears. To the swamp? Like, the alligator-infested, bugs-that-will-carry-you-away deep southern Georgia swamp where even the *plants* are carniverous? Hm. Being a bass-fanatic, my immediate internal response was to wonder if any trophy bass had been pulled out of that black water. Venturing 400 miles south and east in the dead of winter seemed like a good idea, so I agreed to the trip.

Our fearless leader and resident swamp expert Chris Funk gave us a briefing. Bass would not be our target species, but rather a prehistoric beast of many names. Bowfin, grinnel, mudfish, choupique, dogfish, cypress trout… this one wears the title of ‘trash fish’ like a badge of honor. This was the creature that, in a tannic lake in central Florida two years prior, turned toward Matt when he had landed it and tried to bite him like a dog.

Chris let us know “anything red or yellow, bring it. Supplies: NOTHING is close, by the time you pass Valdosta it’s a LONG way back to reload.”

I figured I’d be okay with my medium-heavy bass fishing rigs – one baitcasting rig set up with 30# braid, the other with 15# mono, paired up with plenty of Rage Tail 7” Anaconda Worms in Red Shad. Also in queue were a spinning rod, medium action with 8# mono and an ultralight in case we caught up with some fliers & warmouth.

We didn’t.

And that was okay.

Researching ‘fishing for bowfin in the swamp’ on the seven-hour drive south from middle Tennessee produced multiple tales of alligators hot and heavy on the trail of fish floundering on the end of anglers’ hooks… to the point where they were breeching the gunnels of folk’s boats.

They weren’t kayaks, either.

Visions of creeping lizards sneaking into our campsite under the cloak of night entered my head. Maybe a venomous snake or two… giant poisonous spider… this was truly the WILD. Notions of what was to come *on the water* were even worse for this non-gator fishing female.

We were slated to land at Stephen Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Swamp. Final preparations were made in Valdosta, including loading up both our 35 and 55q Orion Coolers with fifty pounds of ice and a quick top-off of the gas tank.

Good thing we did.

Nearly an hour later we pulled through the town of Fargo, GA and its population of 321. Turning left onto GA-177 from Fargo posted a sign that let us know that this road ended in a Dead End.

We passed an occasional logging truck and an abundance of saw palmetto, longleaf pine, turkey, deer and other birds as we arrived to set camp. Our cell phones stopped talking to the outside world. Latest weather update? Rain sometime Friday morning and again Sunday at some point. Temps ranging anywhere between 35º for a low and 65º for a high.

We had a small space heater for our tent, so surely we’d be okay.

After setting camp in Area 51, we broke out rods and started rigging. Chris announced it would be a good idea to walk (in the dark) toward the Boat Basin to try landing a couple fish.

I popped up my headlamp and started walking with the crew, two rods in hand.

Ethan (Chris’ son) flashed his headlamp on the basin area after a half-mile trek to find glowing eyes shinning up at him. Baby gators … and Mom there protecting. He and Matt took a couple steps closer, only to draw a hissing lunge from Mom.

We snuck out of that area and struck out to the floating dock at the Boat Basin. After appraising the situation… I realized we were perhaps 10” from the surface of the water. And grumpy mama was right… back… there.

No fear.

We launched some lures toward the back corner of the Basin, unsuccessfully. We decided to call it and head back toward camp for a (hopefully) sound night of rest.

On the return stroll, we flicked our headlamps off. The Okefenokee is the first International Dark Sky Park in Georgia. The night horizon before the large winter moon rose had the stars… and that dark sky accolade on full display.

Pic: Chris Funk

Tomorrow would be our first full day of fishing, and I would be blind on that black water for the first half of it.

Pic: Chris Funk

Part two soon.

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