Of all the places I have paddled in the southeast, the Okefenokee Swamp stands as both the greatest and worst of all time. I can’t really complain though, the Okefenokee almost killed us but gave us stories to tell for a lifetime. As rookie swampers, we had no clue what we were in for as we paddled away from the landing that sweltering June day. As soon as the swamp enveloped us we were met with a humming noise coming from the trees. Just bugs….. nothing to be worried about I told myself. Little did I know these were not ordinary bugs.
These were evil, hell spawned critters with titanium needles on their faces and the ability to wade through 100% Deet like it was a kiddie pool. Yella flies, as they are called by locals, have been known to suck a man dry in 20 minutes flat and leave him looking like a dimpled piece of beef jerky. We paddled for 11 miles in the broiling heat with enough gear to live for a month while the insect swarm had their way with our tender bodies. We ended up at a “chickee”, a raised platform in the swamp that was to be our base camp barely able to move to set up the tents. In the evening, what had been the most brutal place turned into one of the prettiest places I have ever seen. Fish jumped out of the lily pads to crush any lure that hit the open water. We caught chain pickerel (called jackfish) , bowfin ( blackfish) and a beautiful panfish called a flier. As evening progressed we found out why the yella flies had started leaving us alone. The darker it got, the more scared they were of the biblical plague of mosquitoes that was coming! Please don’t let me scare you from the swamp, if you pay attention to temperatures and times of year, there is no other place as enchanting as the black water Okefenokee. We have since been back on several occasions and I have to admit there are few places I would rather paddle than there. You have a few options for paddling, camp on one of the 5 platforms out in the swamp (requires a permit) or day trip out of one of the few launches. Our favorite is Stephen Foster State Park in Fargo Georgia. You can camp in the park and day trip out into the swamp via Billie’s Lake. The one downside to doing this is you must be off the water by 5 so fishing till sunset is out of the question. During cooler months, you will see otters swimming and plenty of bird life and the ever present gators will be warming themselves in the sun. The gators will not usually bother you until the warmer months because they cannot feed till it gets hotter. The main concerns with gators are paddling over them in shallow water; this will result in 2 explosions, one of water and lily pads, the other usually in your underwear! Seriously, we have never had a problem other than lost fish but always remember to give them plenty of room, especially during mating season. The fishing in the swamp has been off due to the drought but now that water levels are raising it should return quickly. Anything Yellow or shiny works and jigs pitched into the pads will make the bowfins and pickerel go crazy. Remember when dealing with these 2 species to keep clear of their jaws, both can deliver a nasty bite with their razor sharp teeth. The Okefenokee will get deep within your heart when you see her treasures. It is the kind of place that keeps you dreaming of return trips. The bellowing alligators and barred owls hooting, pig frogs grunting and splashes of various critters will echo through your mind till you can get back to her. Paddle the Okefenokee if you ever get the chance, it is an adventure you will talk about for the rest of your life.