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Anglers, sightseers celebrate partial Gulf State Park Pier reopening

That old adage about making lemonade when you’re presented with a difficult situation applies perfectly to Alabama’s Gulf State Park Pier.

Just as one of the Gulf of Mexico’s premier piers was set to reopen after a substantial renovation last September, Hurricane Sally made a direct hit on the Alabama Gulf Coast and the pier was significantly damaged. A 200-foot section near the octagon on the end of the pier collapsed.

Thankfully, the Alabama State Parks staff went to work on the portion of the pier that could be safely repaired, and in January the pier past the middle restroom section, called the T, was reopened to anglers and visitors.

“I am very glad to get a portion of the pier reopened after the damage caused by Hurricane Sally,” said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). “A walk out on the Gulf State Park Pier is a time-honored tradition of locals and visitors alike. A trip to the Gulf is not complete without experiencing the sights from the pier. I am really glad for the fishermen to have access again. Not everyone has a boat. The Gulf State Park Pier provides quality recreational angling for thousands of shore-based fishermen each year. From the red drum in the fall, whiting and sheepshead abundance in the winter, spotted sea trout and pompano in the spring to king and Spanish mackerel runs in the summer, with an occasional cobia catch mixed in, the pier offers excitement for fishermen during every season.”

After Sally hit, ADCNR had the damaged assessed by engineers for guidance on how to proceed. Displaced floor panels, plumbing, electrical wiring and lighting had to be repaired or replaced.

“Obviously, we were disappointed in the damage to the pier right before we were set to reopen after a $2.4 million renovation,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “The damage was caused by events outside our control. Hurricane issues are just a part of life on the Gulf Coast. As always, we will regroup and bounce back. We quickly got the contractor back in to repair what they could on the portion of the pier that was still standing. We had to make sure it was safe.”

Lamar Pendergrass, Alabama State Parks South Region Operations Supervisor, said although the pier was built for the deck panels to dislodge to save the infrastructure, Sally’s incessant pounding took its toll.

“The panels were designed to be blown out,” Pendergrass said. “As long as Sally sat there with her wind, waves and storm surge, the panels did their job. We actually recovered about 99 percent of the panels that had just been restored and placed on the pier. We had the same contractor, Mike Thomas, come in with his crew and we reopened as much of the pier as we could safely reopen. In some areas, large sections of the handrails were gone. We had to redo the deck panels. Some of them had to be repaired or replaced. We had lighting, electrical and plumbing that had to be repaired. It was almost a rebuild after the rebuild.”

Pendergrass said assessments by engineers deemed about 175 feet past the T was safe to reopen, but a section near the collapsed portion sustained damage, which limited the area that could be safely accessed.

Despite the limitations of the reopening, dedicated anglers, like David Thornton, were elated to get back on the pier.

“It was great,” Thornton said. “I know the crowd on opening day was just ecstatic to be back out there again. The fact we caught fish that day was really the icing on the cake. Right away, people were reconnecting with friends they hadn’t seen in a while. There were guys there I hadn’t seen since last spring. It was almost like a reunion.”

Thornton, known to the online crowd as Pier Pounder, said discussion focused on what the fishing would be like with access only to a portion of the pier.

“On the Gulf Shores Pier Fishing Forum, I changed my avatar to read ‘Half a Pier Is Better Than No Pier,’” he said. “That’s the way I feel about it. The part of the pier that was reopened looks so good. Everybody was appreciative of the effort that had gone into getting it ready for the fishermen.”

When the pier was reopened, Thornton said anglers were catching whiting, sheepshead and a few pompano and a few redfish. A cold front moved through and slowed the fish, but with the spring warmup, fishing is getting better every day.

“When it started to warm up, the fishing opportunities really opened up,” he said. “The sheepshead are in spawn. They’ve even been biting on days when water has been rough. Pompano are showing up, and the Spanish mackerel bite has been pretty good. Inshore species like speckled trout will start showing up when the water temperature gets up to about 70 degrees. They’ve got the lights under the pier working, which will bring in the bait and bring in the trout. The pompano bite is just going to get better. The full moon will be the peak of the sheepshead spawn. The sheepshead will then taper off, but then more Spanish, more pompano and specks will show up. Redfish and whiting will come and go.”

Thornton said anglers and sightseers have been very good about adhering to the COVID-19 protocols. The pier is limited to 200 people, 125 anglers and 75 sightseers. Visit www.alapark.com/parks/gulf-state-park/fishing-and-education-pier for more information.

“People still have social distancing in mind, trying to be as safe as they can,” he said. “Anglers on the end will catch a limit and then they move on to the shallows to try to catch whiting or something else. Typical of what you see on the Gulf State Park Pier, there has been a really good spirit of cooperation. They’re just glad to be back out there. And if they’re not fishing, people just walk out to watch the sunset and see what everybody is catching.”

One new feature on the pier that has also been well received is the fish carcass grinder that macerates the fish remains and then transfers them to holding tanks in the parking lot.

“Everybody is using the carcass grinder,” Thornton said. “It’s really neat. It’s certainly a better solution than tossing carcasses overboard, which is what we had been doing.”

Thornton knows it won’t be the same type of fishing as when the pier was completely intact and anglers could fight a big fish around the southern octagon, but he is just glad to be back on the Gulf State Park Pier.

“We just have to keep our patience,” he said. “At least we’re halfway there.”

Commissioner Blankenship said no timetable is available as to when the pier will be completely restored, but work is already underway.

“We have contracted with Thompson Engineering, the original design firm when the pier was built in 2008, to prepare the plans for rebuilding the pier out to the southern octagon,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “With design and permitting, it will be some time before the rest of the pier can be reconstructed. Rest assured, we are working diligently to get the entire pier rebuilt and opened as quickly as possible.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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