The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

6 days ago

Alabama Bass Trail 100 registration opens June 1

(Billy Pope/Outdoors Alabama)

Tournament bass anglers who are ready to step up in competition need to mark their calendars for June 1, 2020, and set the alarm clock to 6 a.m. That date and time is when registration opens for the newest bass trail in Alabama aimed at serious tournament anglers.

The creation of the Alabama Bass Trail 100 was announced last week at beautiful Lake Guntersville State Park, overlooking the site of one of the three tournaments on the Alabama Bass Trail (ABT) 100 for 2021. The new trail is open to only 100 boats.

Those anglers who are fortunate enough to grab a slot in the new series will vie for $100,000 in total prize money for each of the three events, with $25,000 going to the winning boat.

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ABT Tournament Director Kay Donaldson said the entry fee per event is $1,000, and anglers must sign up for all three events to participate. No single entries are allowed.

The first ABT 100 tournament is scheduled for Lay Lake on the Coosa River on January 9, 2021. Lake Eufaula on the Chattahoochee River in southeast Alabama will be the site of the second event on June 5, 2021, followed by the trail finale at Lake Guntersville on the Tennessee River on November 20, 2021.

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, represented Gov. Kay Ivey at the trail’s unveiling and conveyed the Governor’s love of the outdoors.

“Gov. Kay Ivey is a huge supporter of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation,” Blankenship said. “As a matter of fact, we were at an event about a month ago, and right before it was my time to speak, she tugged on my shoulder and said, ‘Remind me to ask you something before we leave.’ She wanted to talk about bass fishing on Lake Jordan. She’s a huge supporter of fishing in our state.”

Blankenship said he is blessed to be the Conservation Commissioner of a state with such outstanding natural resources and fisheries.

“Outdoor recreation is a $14 billion industry throughout our state,” he said. “Alabama has great fishing, both saltwater and freshwater. Just fishing has a $2 billion economic impact on our state. That’s a lot of money from people out enjoying themselves. We have such a great bass fishery here in our state, from the lakes on the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, the Tennessee River lakes, like here at Guntersville, the Tombigbee River, Smith Lake, Lake Eufaula, the Alabama River, and the place I’m most familiar with, fishing for bass in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. We have unique bass fisheries from one end of our state to the other. That’s where I think the Alabama Bass Trail is so impressive. It allows people from our state and from out of state to experience the different kinds of fisheries and the different places that make up our great bass fisheries here in Alabama.”

The original Alabama Bass Trail started seven years ago with the idea of promoting bass fishing across the state with Northern and Southern divisions. That tournament trail has become so popular that the slots open for the 2020 ABT were filled in hours.

“The Department works well with the Alabama Bass Trail on multiple fronts,” Blankenship said. “The Alabama Bass Trail works with the Department to provide information for the B.A.I.T. (Bass Anglers Information Team) to provide a clear picture on what’s happening on the lakes where they hold the tournaments. Several of our staff members have been at Alabama Bass Trail events and have witnessed the extraordinary lengths the tournament officials go to to ensure the health and live release of thousands of tournament-caught bass. These efforts are important to maintain the healthy fisheries of our lakes.”

“Tournaments like this highlight the fisheries and bring more people to our state to buy fishing licenses and tackle and those type things,” Blankenship said. “That money is used by the Department to go back into building the high-quality fisheries and install boat ramps and public access areas around the state. We have more than 150 boat ramps in the state that the Department maintains or partners with cities and counties to manage. I really want to say thanks to those cities and counties that partner with us. Now we’re looking at building new ramps with big bass tournaments in mind. Kay has been very helpful in discussions about what works better for bass tournaments and helps get boats in and out of the water, parking and what helps facilitate attracting some of the largest fishing tournaments to our state. We appreciate the Alabama Bass Trail and its leadership. All that plays a role in attracting great tournaments to our state. We want everybody, when they come here, to have a good time and enjoy their fishing so they’ll want to come back and so they’ll tell other people about what great bass fisheries we have here in Alabama.”

When the ABT was just a lofty idea, Lee Sentell, Alabama Tourism Director, provided the catalyst to make the tournament trail a reality.

“I’m a member of an organization called Travel South USA, which is the 12 southern states’ tourism departments,” said Sentell, who recognized the ABT as the 2018 Tourism Organization of the Year in Alabama. “Every year I get more questions from my counterparts from throughout the South who will say, ‘Now, how did that Alabama Bass Trail thing get started?’ I tell them some people had a great idea and great vision. Great things happen when you have great talent, great resources and people who want to make a difference and bring more anglers into our state. I just want to say a big congratulations to the Alabama Bass Trail and Alabama Mountain Lakes (Tourist Association). It’s hard to believe this has been going on for seven years. But, it’s exciting.”

Sentell recalled a meeting with Don Logan, one of the people who brought BASS (Bass Anglers Sportsmen’s Society) back to Alabama, and Alabama Mountain Lakes about starting the Alabama Bass Trail. The meeting was not progressing well until Sentell stepped up.

“I said the Alabama Tourism Department will put $200,000 a year for three years into the Alabama Bass Trail, and Alabama Mountain Lakes is going to run it,” Sentell said. “They couldn’t say no to that. So, what you are doing and where you’re going next is thrilling. This is a state that is blessed with many natural wonders, and our lakes and rivers and fisheries are one of the most important aspects of the quality of life in our state.”

Donaldson said at a meeting in August 2019, the ABT board voted unanimously to pursue the idea of a new tournament series, which would become the Alabama Bass Trail 100.

“The popularity of Alabama Bass Trail was never more realized than last August, when we sold out the 225 boats for the Southern Division in three hours and our Northern Division with 225 boats in 17 hours,” Donaldson said. “People often ask how we pay back 100 percent. It’s because of our wonderful sponsors. Our title sponsor again is Phoenix Boats.”

Guntersville Mayor Leigh Dollar said she is excited that Guntersville was chosen as the final tournament of the 2021 season.

“The Alabama Bass Trail has always been a great asset to our community,” Dollar said. “They bring lots of people. It’s great publicity. We love our anglers.”

Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs, an avid bass angler who competes in the ABT South Division, echoed Dollar’s sentiments.

“The Alabama Bass Trail is a great tournament trail already,” Tibbs said. “This is just going to be an expansion of what they already do. It’s going to be great for Eufaula. We’re excited.”

Donaldson said registration is open to all anglers with no priority registration for current ABT anglers. Only one pro angler is allowed per boat. Visit www.alabamabasstrail100.org for details and rules. Tournament information will also be available on Facebook and Instagram at albasstrail100.

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.

2 weeks ago

Dwindling loggerhead shrike numbers concern researchers

(Bill Summerour/Outdoor Alabama)

Appearing like a miniature version of a mockingbird, the loggerhead shrike looks like any other songbird until you find evidence of the shrike’s lethal side.

“Some people call them butcher birds or French mockingbirds,” said Eric Soehren, biologist and manager of the Alabama State Lands’ Wehle Land Conservation Center in southeast Alabama. “They may look similar to a mockingbird, but they are very different in many ways. The shrike is a predatory songbird. They prey on a variety of small animals and can even kill birds heavier than they are. Many times, you’ll see their larders, which is where they have skewered their prey on a thorn or barbed wire. That’s where the butcher bird name comes from. It’s a songbird, but it’s an efficient killing machine.”

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Although common in the mid-20th century, the loggerhead shrike has become a species of greatest conservation need because of declining numbers throughout its range. Soehren said the bird has a very wide distribution across the continent, but numbers in latitudes north of a Missouri-Kentucky-Virginia line have plummeted. Where it used to be a common species, the birds are now only found in small and isolated populations.

Fortunately in the South, sizable numbers of these birds still remain, despite not being as numerous in places like Alabama and Mississippi.

In response to that decline, the Loggerhead Shrike Working Group was formed by researchers in Canada and the United States, made up of specialists who have studied the shrike as well as personnel from the non-game sections of state conservation agencies.

“One of their primary tasks is shrike conservation, monitoring trends, habitat management on conservation lands on a state-by-state basis,” Soehren said. “Places like Indiana, West Virginia and Virginia have contributed to this for quite some time. However, states in the Southeast have not been a part of this until more recently.”

Soehren said the group’s goal is to identify the problems affecting the shrike and why the species is declining. He said it’s likely a combination of impacts, like habitat alteration, pesticides and nest predation.

“The group is trying to use modern science on a comprehensive scale to identify these needs,” he said. “One of the biologists in Virginia reached out to us in Alabama and asked if we would participate in the group, first because we have a lot of shrikes, relatively speaking, and because they didn’t have a lot of representation in the Southeast.”

To further involve Alabama, the technical working group asked that the annual meeting be held in the state. That meeting was held last spring at the Birmingham Zoo. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was represented by Soehren, along with Carrie Threadgill and Mercedes Bartkovich from Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Non-Game Wildlife Section.

“One of the fundamental things of monitoring wildlife is to mark individuals, whether by banding, ear-tagging or radio collars in animals like deer,” Soehren said. “The idea is to see what happens to that individual animal during a course of time – their movements, their habitat use, longevity and survivorship. This has been going on all over the state.

“One of the things we’re looking at is the movements of the species. They are short-distance migrants. Birds that breed in the northern limits of their distribution range migrate south in the winter. A lot of the birds that come into north Alabama in the fall and winter are northern birds.”

Soehren said several state agencies have made a significant effort to band as many shrikes as possible. While the members of the working group are actively monitoring, the group also depends on the public to help with the effort.

“The idea is if you see a banded bird, report it,” he said.

A banding scheme with different color combinations was devised to provide re-sighting opportunities for researchers and casual observers. Birds banded in each state are assigned unique colored bands, making it easy to determine where the bird originated. A master list of color combinations for bands is compiled and managed by the group for identification.

“If a bird is sighted with color bands, there is a master list that can be used to say, ‘Oh, this bird was spotted in Alabama but banded in Virginia,” said Soehren, who said the master list is reserved for the researchers.

Another aspect of the banding is being able to identify individual birds during the breeding cycle, like a paired male and female.

“A lot of the loss is likely happening at the nest,” Soehren said. “Pairs are nesting, raising young, but one of the critical aspects is that recruitment is falling below critical mass. It looks like a lot of the birds are not surviving through the first year. They may fledge, but they’re just not surviving. To better understand what’s going on, the birds are banded and monitored through the entire nesting process. It’s kind of a laborious effort, but if you have a good eye for finding nests, it will help us monitor these nests through the duration from nest building to fledging, and watching what the fledglings do afterwards.”

The working group is also collecting feathers and blood samples for genetics work to study the complexity of shrike populations across the continent.

“Understanding what population is where and how populations are mixing has conservation merit and bearing,” Soehren said. “If a population is found to be genetically unique, it deserves more immediate protection efforts than the populations that are more widespread and common.”

The working group is also developing models for locality and habitat use that will provide information on the areas more likely to harbor shrikes so state agencies can prioritize conservation efforts.

“We’re at the beginning stages of better understanding shrikes in Alabama,” Soehren said. “We’re kind of limited by the number of people who can work with this species. The public can go out and identify these birds. What’s really been nice is eBird (ebird.org), which has been a wonderful tool. People provide sightings at specific locations. That provides a snapshot of distribution, not only in Alabama, but around the continent.”

Soehren already knows that shrike populations have significantly declined in north Alabama, compared to the numbers seen in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Something is going on in the Tennessee Valley region compared to the rest of the state,” Soehren said. “Places like the Black Belt region and along the Gulf Coast still have sizeable numbers of shrikes.”

Despite limited resources, members of Alabama’s shrike group go out and opportunistically capture shrikes under agency permits.

“We’ve taken the approach that we’re going to band birds where there are a lot of birds present,” Soehren said. “We’re going to band in areas where people can re-sight these birds and report them. We’ve talked to birders about adopting areas to monitor banded shrikes. A lot of times, they already know where paired birds nest. If the birds are banded, these birders can be our eyes and share that information with us because we do not have the staffing resources to monitor consistently. We have to rely on others to help us with that information.”

One of the hotspots for shrike activity is Dauphin Island, the barrier island south of Mobile. Dauphin Island has a dedicated birding community, and the island has numerous bird sanctuaries. Lakepoint State Park near Eufaula is also another location with a significant shrike population.

“Birds banded at Dauphin Island are a good example of the public helping with the monitoring,” Soehren said. “There are about four or five nesting pairs on the island, so there are quite a few shrikes down there.”

Soehren was on the island for an Alabama Ornithological Society meeting and took the opportunity to bring his trapping gear.

“I was able to capture and band two birds really quickly,” he said. “We banded them in October. Since that time, we’ve had two separate birders report them to the Bird-Banding Lab (www.reportband.gov), which is what you’re supposed to do when you see a banded bird.”

Although Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count has recently been completed, Soehren said anyone can help give the agencies a picture of the local bird populations during the winter.

“The Christmas Bird Count provides overall population information and reveals changes in distribution and abundance over time,” Soehren said. “Many species have declined significantly, some meriting listing on the Alabama State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). But there are also examples of increases. The North American waterfowl populations have increased over 50% since 1970 due to a lot of the management efforts throughout their range. Revenues derived from the sale of duck stamps and hunting licenses have been reinvested in land conservation. We have bigger bag limits and longer seasons as a result. What’s great about the Christmas Bird Count is it’s open to anybody and everybody interested in birds. It’s not just for experienced birders. Everybody can get involved. If you’re a retiree just watching feeders, it all goes into the big pot of information. It helps us at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resource s in our effort with non-game species.”

Visit www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count for information on how you can participate next winter.

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.

3 weeks ago

WFF’s Rut Map gives hunters useful planning tool

(Alabama Outdoors/Contributed, YHN)

Depending on where they pursue white-tailed deer, hunters in Alabama may be experiencing a wide range of deer breeding activity from pre-rut, and peak rut to post-rut.

Studies by wildlife professionals indicate that rutting activity is most closely associated with the heritage of the deer in a particular area. The diversity of breeding activity, known as the rut, is a result of stocking efforts early in the 20th century, when deer populations in Alabama were in dire straits. Overharvest and a lack of game management had isolated deer to pockets around the state, mainly in southwest Alabama.

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Restocking efforts included trapping and relocating deer from southwest Alabama, mainly from the Clarke County area, as well as bringing in deer from other parts of the United States. Deer were transported from Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

For the most part, the transplanted deer maintained their native rutting activity, which means Alabama hunters can hunt the rut in one part of the state or another for most of deer season.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has developed a resource that provides a quick guide for expected rutting activity in your particular area. The Alabama Deer Rut Map, available at www.outdooralabama.com/sites/default/files/Hunting/Deer%20Hunting/2019%20Alabama%20WFF%20Deer%20Rut%20Map.pdf provides a user-friendly way to find the timetable for rutting activity around the state.

WFF Director Chuck Sykes said the rut map was produced by WFF staff under the direction of Deer Program Coordinator Chris Cook and Assistant Wildlife Chief Amy Silvano.

“The map is based on historic stocking information, the herd health assessment we do in the spring and our fetal collections,” Sykes said. “Basically, you can look at that map, and, unlike most other states, we have multiple ruts based on our historic stocking. If you go hunt in Illinois, every deer in the state will be rutting the first 10 days to two weeks of November, depending on where you are in the state and the gene source of that herd. In Alabama, you can hunt the rut in November, December, January and February.”

Sykes said that provides Alabama hunters a unique opportunity to hunt the rut for most of deer season if they follow the map and are willing to travel to different parts of the state. Although hunters may have their own definition of the rut, whether it’s building scrapes or bucks chasing does, Sykes said the map is based on fetal studies that pinpoint when the does were actually bred.

“That map corresponds with a ton of public hunting land,” he said. “Some of the WMAs (wildlife management areas) have bonus bucks where it doesn’t count against your state three-buck limit. Some of the WMAs that have that early rut will actually have a couple of days of gun season before regular gun season comes in. There’s a lot of opportunity for someone. Honestly, you can use that map to plot your hunting for next year. You can look at the map and see when the rut is expected at the Oakmulgee and Choccolocco WMAs or Bankhead National Forest, and you can plan you some time off to hunt those WMAs during that time period. You don’t have to all your time off during January. You can take some in November, some in December and a little more in January, and you can hunt three different peak ruts.”

I received an email recently from a hunter who, after looking the rut map, wondered if he could have deer on his hunting property with different genetic backgrounds. The answer is yes.

Sykes has a perfect example of one location where deer rutted at different times on the same piece of property. Before he became WFF Director, Sykes managed a hunting plantation in Lee County on the Georgia border.

“On one piece of the property, the deer had come over from Georgia and rutted the first week of December,” he said. “Across the road on the other side of the property, it was the traditional, late-rut Alabama deer. So you could hunt the peak rut on that one 5,000-acre piece of property multiple times. You had the rut the first week of December. Then the does that didn’t get bred during that first cycle came back in during the first 10 days of January. Then the Alabama deer kicked in about the 15th to 20th of January. Even before the February extension, we could actually hunt three different phases of the rut on that one piece of property.”

Social media has once again this season been filled with photos of huge bucks that have been taken across the state, several from some of the more popular WMAs.

Sykes said most likely those big deer were taken in areas other than food plots.

“From my personal experience, we had a bumper acorn crop,” Sykes said of his hunting land in west central Alabama. “Until last week when the (Tombigbee) river came up, the deer weren’t using the food plots much. They were staying in the woods because they had plenty to eat. From what I understand, it was hit or miss throughout the state. In the areas with really good acorn crops, the people who went in the woods to hunt killed some really good deer.”

Sykes said he wouldn’t be surprised if the deer activity shifted toward the wildlife openings in the next few weeks.

“We’ve had so much water lately, and the acorns are being thinned out, so I think the activity around the food plots will kick in a little stronger,” he said. “But I’m excited about that tremendous acorn crop. The turkeys ought to be fat as pigs come springtime because they had plenty of acorns to fatten up on. And the wood ducks too. In fact, I took Syd (his dog) and killed a limit of wood ducks on a water oak flat that was under water. It was full of acorns and full of ducks.”

Thankfully, very little news has developed on chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer so far this season. CWD-positive deer have been confirmed in Mississippi and Tennessee, but Alabama is making every effort to keep the disease out of the state through strict enforcement of the ban on the importation of deer carcasses.

Alabama hunters still have the opportunity to have their harvested deer sampled at locations around the state. WFF has set up freezers in strategic locations to accept the samples. Visit https://www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling for a list of freezer locations.

The instructions to have the animal tested are:

  • To prepare the sample for drop off at one of the self-service locations, hunters must first remove the deer’s head leaving 4-6 inches of neck attached.
  • Once the head is removed, place it in the provided plastic bag and tie it closed. For bucks, antlers can be removed at the base of each antler or by removing the skull plate before bagging the head.
  • Complete all sections of the Biological Sample Tag and attach it to the bag with a zip tie.
  • Remove and retain the bottom receipt portion of the Biological Sample Tag before placing the bagged head in the freezer.

Hunters will receive the results of the samples within three to four weeks.

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.

4 weeks ago

AmeriCorps volunteers make improvements at Lakepoint State Park

(David Rainer, Kenny Johnson/Alabama Outdoors)

During this season of giving, one group of young adults donated their time, energy and work ethic to the Alabama State Parks System to help with improvements at Lakepoint State Park north of Eufaula.

As part of the AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) program, a team of young adults ages 18-25 made improvements to the bathroom facilities at the campground at Lakepoint.

AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs made up of three primary programs that take different approaches to improving lives and fostering civic engagement. Members commit their time to address critical community needs like increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, sustaining state and national parks, preparing for disasters and more.

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According to the AmeriCorps website, the program works with numerous people and groups in the following ways:

AmeriCorps members help communities recover from the damage caused by natural and other disasters.

AmeriCorps members build affordable housing units for families to increase economic opportunity for those living in poverty.

AmeriCorps members facilitate mentorship programs to connect students with community members who can help with academic performance and college preparation.

AmeriCorps members remove trash and other man-made debris from local ponds to promote environmental sustainability.

AmeriCorps members encourage community members to donate fresh produce to local schools to promote healthy futures and reduce childhood obesity.

AmeriCorps members assist veterans and military families in filing for benefits claims so that they get access to the resources they need.

Tasha Simon, Natural Resource Planner with the Alabama State Parks Division, said AmeriCorps NCCC, which focuses on young adults to promote team-building, made a visit to Alabama to explain the role of the program’s service units. Simon quickly realized how State Parks could benefit from having one of the teams donate their time and effort to make one of the parks better.

After going through the tedious application and screening processes, Simon got word that Alabama had been selected from among 50 applicants for an AmeriCorps NCCC team.

“Our project entailed restoring the exterior of the bathhouses in the picnic area of the park. Exterior siding was removed and replaced with more-durable concrete board,” Simon said. “The Lakepoint staff was excited about the scope of work completed and the quality of the work performed by the team. We all hope to have more opportunities to work with AmeriCorps NCCC on future projects in the State Parks System.”

Simon said State Parks’ experience with AmeriCorps NCCC shows this is a team full of young, service-oriented people. It allows them to do service work all over the United States and in other areas. This particular team has just come from Puerto Rico where they helped that country rebuild from the destruction of Hurricane Florence.

“This allows young adults to learn new skills so they can take those skills into their life and kind of figure out where they’re going with those skills,” Simon said. “Our staff at Lakepoint mentored them on how to use small power tools. They had never used those before. We gave them some training, and they will be able to take those skills to their next project.”

Simon was especially impressed with Eric Cullen, the team leader from Bayou One, which is based in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

“Eric has got his stuff together,” she said. “Eric has great potential in his career path.”

Cullen, who is from Albany, N.Y., said he was pleased to dispel the stereotypes of the South during his AmeriCorps NCCC work, and he especially enjoyed the mild weather. The AmeriCorps program also gave him the opportunity to expand his experience outside of his field of study.

“I was two years out of college,” Cullen said. “I had finished my bachelor’s degree. I had worked in the private sector. I was thinking about grad school. I had some friends who had done AmeriCorps. To be honest, I wanted to stay out of the office as long as I could, dodge the cubicle for another year. I thought about working with my hands for a good cause. I’m learning good construction skills. It’s not completely altruistic and selfless. It’s definitely skills I can use at my home.”

The team members who were able to finish out the project with Cullen in December were Eric Bataluna from Idaho, Julia Raup-Collado and Amy Skotek, both from Pennsylvania.

“Everyone I’ve worked with just likes helping other people,” Cullen said. “In our last project we were doing construction with people who haven’t had a functioning roof in two years. In the case of Lakepoint, it’s nice to get a project where we can get it done. It’s such a beautiful place. Some mornings when we get here, the fog is lifting off the water. We couldn’t ask for a more scenic location to be working.”

Simon said she hopes this isn’t the last State Parks will see of the AmeriCorps NCCC teams.

“We have submitted applications for AmeriCorps NCCC’s fourth round,” she said. “If we are awarded a second team, it would be the end of February through May. They will probably continue with general projects that we have at Lakepoint. That could renovate the docks or the decks on the cabins and cottages.”

In addition to learning the benefits of working together as a team, the AmeriCorps NCCC members receive other benefits such as student loan deferment, skills and training, a living allowance, limited health benefit options, an education award upon completion of service to help pay for college, graduate school, or vocational training, or to repay student loans, and career opportunities with leading employers from the private, public and nonprofit sectors.

Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs was especially appreciative of the AmeriCorps NCCC volunteer effort.

“It is an honor for our city to host you during the service project here at Lakepoint,” Tibbs said. “Lake Eufaula and Lakepoint State Park are so important to our way of life here in southeast Alabama, and to have an AmeriCorps team here is just amazing. This was a perfect opportunity for the team members to meet young people in our community and show what is possible through volunteerism and public service.”

Visit www.nationalservice.gov/programs/americorps/americorps-programs/americorps-nccc for more information.

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.

1 month ago

Adams stays on top of Eufaula’s Wintertime crappie

(David Rainer/Alabama Outdoors)

Of all the outdoor experiences my mother, now 86, enjoyed the most, it was watching a cork disappear as a slab crappie grabbed the minnow at the end of the line.

As is normal procedure, I check in on her every few days, and she wanted to know what I’d been doing.

“Catching crappie,” I said.

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“I didn’t think you could catch crappie this time of year,” she responded.

“Well,” I said, “You haven’t been crappie fishing with Tony Adams.”

Adams is the fish-catching wizard who can catch crappie any time of year on his home impoundment – Lake Eufaula.

Although Eufaula is known as the “Bass Capitol of the World,” Adams spends most of his time on the water catching crappie.

When most folks in the outdoors community are in the woods chasing whitetails or cottontails, Adams is locating the likely spots where crappie congregate this time of year. He uses his Humminbird Helix 12 bottom machine (manufactured in Eufaula) to locate the fish on the spots he has found over the years. He uses the side-scanning feature to locate the spot and then switches to down-scanning to pinpoint where the fish are located on the structure.

“I find structure in 15 to 20 feet of water,” said Adams, who manages the Eufaula Marvin’s building supply store when he’s not catching crappie. “When I see the fish on the Humminbird, I’ll drop down a minnow anywhere from 8 to 10 to 12 feet, depending on where the fish are holding.”

Adams uses 10-foot B&M poles and spinning reels with 6-pound-test, high-viz line. When the fish are deeper in the winter, he uses a No. 2 gold hook and a split-shot pinched 12 to 18 inches above the hook. If it gets a little windy, he’ll use a second split-shot to keep the bow out of his line.

The reason he uses the high-viz line is because it’s a lot easier to watch during the sunny, clear days.

“Obviously, you watch your rod tip, but I also watch that line,” Adams said. “Sometimes crappie will bite and come up with it. You can tell by the slack in the line that you’ve got a fish.”

When Adams hits the lake, he always has a bait bucket or two with plenty of minnows.

“In the summer, I’ll tip a jig with a minnow and bounce it off the bottom,” he said. “In the winter, I just use a minnow.”

Adams prefers to hook his minnow through the bottom lip and through the hard cartilage on the front of the head to allow more action from the bait.

“In the wintertime I try to keep the bait right at about the depth the fish are holding,” he said. “Then we just wait to see that rod tip bounce or go down and then pull in a slab.”

Of course, the weather plays a significant role in his fishing success during the winter, especially the wind. The cold doesn’t bother him. He just adds more clothes. It’s the wind that dictates his strategy.

“During the winter, the less wind there is, the better the fishing I can do,” he said. “You have to keep the bait in front of the crappie most of the time. The fish are in big schools on the structure. The more time you can have that minnow in front of the crappie, the better your chances of catching them.”

Adams said the wintertime pattern kicks off on Lake Eufaula around the first of December, and crappie will remain on structure until the weather starts to warm in February.

“In the middle of February, they’ll start moving into the mouths of the creeks to do some pre-spawning,” he said. “We’ll start catching a lot more fish in the creeks. Then when they move up to spawn, we’ll catch a lot of fish in the creeks. That’s when I start throwing jigs around the grass, the rocks and bridge pilings. I’ll be shooting (casting underneath) docks because the fish are getting shallow. On Lake Eufaula, it seems the bigger fish come up first. In the spring, sometimes they’re in 12 inches of water all the way down to 5 feet of water. Some of them spawn in 5 feet of water. Sometimes they’ll spawn deeper than at other times.”

Adams will do two things while the crappie are in their transition period from spawn to summer. He catches plenty of catfish, but he also makes sure plenty of structure will be available to fish for the summertime and wintertime patterns.

“While the fish are spawning, I’ll put structure out in deeper water,” said Adams, who uses mainly bamboo but will also sink crepe myrtles and small cedars. “I’ll take a 5-gallon bucket, fill it about halfway with water. I’ll pour in some concrete mix. I’ll have the bamboo already trimmed at the bottom and start sticking it into the concrete. I’ll make sure the bamboo is sticking in every direction. Then I’ll look for spots where the new structure will cover about half the water column. If I’m going to put it out in 20 feet of water, I’ll have the bamboo about 10 feet tall. ”

“Right about Memorial Day is when the crappie are back on that heavy structure in the middle of the lake,” he said.

On our trip last week, we hit the lake with a cold front approaching. It was the kind of day a bass fisherman dreams of – cloud cover with mild temperatures and the barometer falling. Those conditions usually put the bass species into a feeding frenzy.

We found out that doesn’t translate to crappie fishing. With a light fog and heavy cloud cover, the fish weren’t really in a biting mood. We’d catch two or three fish in one spot and then have to move to find a few more.

Then – cue the Hallelujah Choir – the sun broke through the clouds, and the bite began in earnest. Within six or seven minutes, we had put 10 nice keepers in the boat. That trend continued until the approaching front forced us back to the boat ramp.

“My favorite time to fish is when the sun is shining,” Adams said. “I think the fish get tighter to the structure. I also think maybe the sun shining may give that minnow a different kind of look in that deep water. That sunshine seems to kick off the bite. We definitely did a lot better when the sun was shining.”

Back to the wind, which will determine whether it’s worth launching the boat on certain days.

“On a real windy day, it’s hard to crappie fish,” he said. “Based on where you are in the lake, if you have 6- to 7-mile-per-hour winds, it could be white-capping. That will mean 15-inch to 2-foot waves. That minnow is moving up and down with the waves, which is not natural. With the crappie not as aggressive in the wintertime, they’re not going to bite something moving like that. I’m looking for 5 miles an hour or less. Calm is even better. Cold is not a problem. You can drop that minnow right in front of his face. It may take him a few minutes to hit it, but he will eventually hit it.”

Although we didn’t use any types of bobbers to catch the fish, I’m sure my mom won’t mind when I fry her up a batch of fillets from the 38 crappie we put in the ice chest.

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.

1 month ago

ADCNR officers help spread Christmas cheer at Academy Sports

(Billy Pope/Alabama Outdoors)

Imagine elves filling baskets with goodies to load on Santa’s sleigh and you get a snapshot of what it looked like last week when Academy Sports + Outdoors provided Christmas cheer for numerous youngsters who needed that encouragement the most.

At Academy stores across Alabama, youngsters were chosen to go on shopping sprees with a budget of $150 each, assisted by first responders from the local area. In two locations, Huntsville and Foley, Alabama Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) enforcement officers assisted the kids in choosing the items that were loaded into the shopping carts.

Into the baskets went bows and arrows, footballs, basketballs, soccer balls, clothing, athletic shoes, candy canes and more. The youngsters proved more than adept at keeping track of just how far that gift card would go, counting down until the funding was exhausted.

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“Academy Sports + Outdoors is excited to partner with first responders across the state of Alabama to help 150 children enjoy more sports and outdoor fun this holiday season,” said Rick Burleson, Academy’s Regional Marketing Specialist. “As the shopping destination with the most fun gifts and gear, we look forward to making the holidays merry for our local communities across Alabama.”

Chris Blankenship, ADCNR’s Commissioner, said the shopping events presented a special opportunity for outreach to the younger generation.

“I appreciate Academy Sports + Outdoors for sponsoring this program,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “Opportunities like this where enforcement officers can interact positively with citizens, especially youth, are so valuable for building trust on both sides. Our Conservation Enforcement Officers participate in many programs to promote hunting and fishing for youth. This is just another example of the good people we have in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“In the photos, you can really see the joy in the faces of the kids, the officers and the employees of Academy Sports + Outdoors. The giving spirit of Academy, our officers and the community is evident in the outpouring of support for this program. With this scene replicated at hundreds of Academy stores all over the country, good relations with law enforcement are being built nationwide and will pay dividends for many years to come. My desire to work in conservation came from encounters such as this with Marine Resources conservation officers when I was a kid. You cannot underestimate what effects the little things like this will have on a person and a community.”

At the Foley event, Conservation Enforcement Officers from the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division and the Marine Resources Division aided 10 youngsters from the afterschool program at the John McClure Snook Family YMCA in Foley.

Melissa McGhee, associate branch director of the Foley YMCA, said the youngsters ranged in age from 5 to 13.

“All the kids we chose are highly scholarshipped kids,” McGhee said. “They just don’t have a lot. For three of them, this is their Christmas. This was such an honor to be picked for this. When I talked to some of the parents, they just started crying because this is what their kids are doing for Christmas.”

Jason Ford, Academy Store Director in Foley, said providing a venue for officers and youngsters to interact in a positive way during the holiday season was well worth the effort from Academy and the associates who also assisted during the shopping sprees.

“We love that we can reach out to people in our community who are less fortunate,” Ford said. “But it also strengthens the bonds between our first responders and our community. Right now, we can use that unity more than ever. To be able to impact the community in such a positive way really goes a long way in warming my heart, and hopefully seeing the kids gets some good Christmas presents and develop some goodwill with our law enforcement.”

WFF Conservation Officer Steve Schrader wore a perpetual smile while he helped a young lady fill her basket with gifts from shoes to candy cane-shaped containers filled with M&Ms.

“This has been great,” Schrader said. “My shopper has been very generous and has bought more for her family than herself. I hope she now sees us (enforcement officers) more friendly than the other side of the fence. They can see us as real people, too. I think it went really well.”

At the event in Huntsville, Beth Morring with the Boys and Girls Clubs of North Alabama echoed the need for the sponsored kids to find out more about the ADCNR enforcement officers and what those officers actually do.

“Before they started shopping, we asked the Conservation guys to explain what they do every day,” Morring said. “The officers told them how they protected the wildlife and help those who fish and hunt and enjoy the outdoors. It was neat because our kids probably never knew these men and women existed. It was a learning experience just to meet these officers, which was great.”

Morring said 10 kids from the Seminole Boys and Girls Clubs in Huntsville were chosen for the event.

“These were the kids who needed it the most,” she said. “With $150 to shop, we did kind of steer them during their shopping, as did the officers. We started with shoes first and then went to get some essential clothing. They were able to get a goodie or two as well. It was a great time, and everybody wanted new shoes. These kids were predominantly from the public housing area where the club is located, and they were thrilled to get some new, shiny tennis shoes. In fact, some of them wore them out of the store that day, which was fabulous.”

Morring said the event was much more than just a shopping spree for the kids.

“To watch them interact with the officers and for our children to see men and women who serve and protect us, that they are good people,” she said. “Many of our children don’t have as positive an exposure with first responders sometimes. For them to be able to meet these first responders who can talk to them and realize these are dads and moms and husbands and wives – just regular people even though they might be in a uniform. So that positive interaction was so important. That was really impactful for our children.”

Morring said it was great to see the officers meet the kids on the same level.

“I loved watching these big grown-ups with these little children and them kneeling down on the floor to help them try on shoes,” she said. “Not to mention for our children, it was the first time they were able to walk into a store and have a budget for gifts where they got to make the decisions and choices. To watch these kids whose families struggle financially, for them to have $150 and then think about family members before themselves is admirable and amazing in light of their circumstances.”

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.

2 months ago

ADCNR named Agency of Year at Sportsmen’s Caucus Summit

(ADCNR/Contributed)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recently received special recognition by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation with the presentation of the State Agency of the Year Award at the 16th Annual National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses (NASC) Sportsman-Legislator Summit in Greensboro, Georgia.

“The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) is honored to recognize the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) as the State Agency of the Year,” said Jeff Crane, CSF President. “The DCNR has been a consistent supporter of CSF, NASC, and the Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus and, through this support, the Caucus in Alabama has grown tremendously to become a strong and effective voice for sportsmen and women. CSF thanks Commissioner Chris Blankenship, Deputy Commissioner Ed Poolos, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes for their continued support and steadfast dedication to Alabama’s vast natural resources.”

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Hosted by the CSF, this year’s Summit brought together 50 legislators and leaders from state fish and wildlife agencies to discuss the theme “Partners Advancing America’s Conservation Movement: NASC, Fish & Wildlife Agencies, Industry and NGOs.” Topics discussed included promoting hunting and fishing, boating access, chronic wasting disease (CWD), the spread of invasive Asian carp and a variety of other issues affecting sportsmen and women.

“This is the largest gathering of pro-sportsmen legislators who come together to discuss issues that are of great importance to our hunting and angling traditions,” Crane said. “The 16th Annual NASC Summit was successful in that it brought together our bipartisan caucus leaders and members, fish and wildlife agency leaders, NGO (non-governmental organizations) representatives, and leading industry partners to focus on how to advance opportunities for sportsmen and women and to ensure sound, science-driven conservation policies are enacted.”

DCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship said he was elated that the Department was awarded the CSF’s State Agency of the Year.

“We were very happy that we were recognized for multiple initiatives by the Department,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “The Foundation noted several reasons for the recognition, starting with Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon and all the work that has been done with red snapper. Alabama has been the leader in securing the state management of red snapper. The work we did in Congress helped inform the legislators on the issues on the Gulf Coast with the short seasons. We were able to work with the congressional delegations in Washington to implement the exempted fishing program (EFP) for the past two years and then win approval of management for the long-term.”

The EFP was in effect for the 2018 and 2019 red snapper seasons. Each of the Gulf states was given a snapper allocation, and each state managed its allocation.

Alabama’s quota was slightly more than a million pounds of red snapper in each of the two years of the EFP. The timely data from the mandatory Alabama Snapper Check program allowed Marine Resources to manage to the quota each year.

This year the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council passed regional management of red snapper. That amendment is awaiting the signature of the Secretary of Commerce and will go into effect for 2020 and beyond.

“The Foundation also recognized the work that Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes is doing with Senator (Doug) Jones (D-Alabama) and Senator (Cindy) Hyde-Smith (R-Mississippi) concerning funding for CWD research as well as the work Chuck is doing as the president of SEAFWA (Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies) on a myriad of hunting and fishing initiatives,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We have also worked with Senator (Richard) Shelby (R-Alabama) and, to a lesser extent, Senator (Lamar) Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Senator (Mitch) McConnell (R-Kentucky) on Asian carp issues. We want to reduce Asian carp populations in Tennessee and Kentucky rivers and keep them contained in the rivers upstream that flow into Alabama.”

WFF’s Sykes said a great deal of the recognition from the CSF was due to Alabama’s willingness to meet and discuss the issues that are facing the nation’s sportsmen and women.

“The Department has allowed me to come to the CSF’s Summits to share a variety of programs we are doing,” said Sykes, who also serves on the executive committee of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. “I’ve spoken at three of the last four events. The hunting and fishing days that the Department has promoted were mentioned as well as our CWD response plan and major educational campaign. The Foundation said they appreciated the time I had taken to come and participate in roundtable discussions with legislators around the country on important issues, from funding to our R3 efforts.”

The R3 effort stands for recruitment, retention and reactivation. Those R3 activities try to recruit new participants or increase participation rates of current or lapsed outdoor enthusiasts.

Sykes also said the Foundation recognized the contributions of the WFF’s Special Opportunity Area (SOA) and adult mentored hunting programs, programs in the Alabama Black Belt and the promotion of the Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Day annually to help educate legislators on outdoors issues and improve Caucus participation and increase Caucus membership.

“Our legislators were happy to see the Department recognized,” Sykes said.

Commissioner Blankenship said the State Lands Division, under Director Patti McCurdy, contributed through its efforts to expand public boating access in Alabama. McCurdy has worked with the staffs in D.C. to continue to promote recreational access funding in Coastal Alabama. Through several funding sources, improvements to boating and angling access are planned for Bayou La Batre, Dauphin Island, the Intracoastal Waterway in Baldwin County, and the Middleton Causeway site on Battleship Parkway at the north end of Mobile Bay, Foley and Daphne.

Commissioner Blankenship also cited the work of Bee Frederick, who was the CSF’s representative in Alabama until recently, for holding annual events in Montgomery to promote the Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus.

“Bee was very helpful in getting the legislators more involved in hunting and fishing issues and helping us provide the scientific and management information to make informed decisions,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “The Caucus’ legislative agenda has been very helpful for the Department and people who hunt and fish in Alabama. The award highlights the work we do in Washington and in Montgomery with the Alabama Legislature. I think those relationships we built in Washington and here at the State House are very valuable when issues come up that affect sportsmen and women. We can pick up the phone and discuss the issues with the legislators or their staff. I think we have built a great amount of trust that we will provide them with balanced information so they can make good decisions.”

Other than naming the Alabama DCNR as State Agency of the Year, the CSF handed out several other awards at the Georgia Summit.

The Friends of NASC Award went to Shimano American Corp. and Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever.

NASC Heritage Awards were presented to Rep. David Wilson (CT), Sen. Mike Bell (TN), Sen. Mark Allen (OK), and Rep. Casey Snider (UT).

During the Summit, CSF announced the signing of a partnership with Birmingham-based B.A.S.S. to further conservation efforts. Safari Club International (SCI) was also recognized for its long-standing financial support of NASC and the annual summit.

Founded in 1989, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation was formed to work with Congress, governors, and state legislatures to protect and advance hunting, angling, recreational shooting and trapping.

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.

2 months ago

Hunting and fishing boost Black Belt economy

Quail hunting is one of the staple activities at numerous hunting lodges in the Alabama Black Belt. (Alabama Outdoors/Contributed)

With other areas of Alabama enjoying an economic boon in manufacturing and industry, one well-known area of the state has discovered its treasure lies in its fertile soil and natural resources.

The Alabama Black Belt’s treasure is found in its abundant wildlife and fisheries with the multi-species hunting and angling opportunities and the significant economic boosts those provide.

At a press conference and book-signing event held at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery last week, the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association (ALBBAA) revealed the results of a study on the economic impact of hunting and fishing in the Black Belt, a swath of counties that cuts across the middle of the state.

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The Black Belt counties are Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Monroe, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter, Tuscaloosa and Wilcox.

“You may not know that hunting and fishing in the Black Belt generates $1 billion of economic impact and provides thousands of jobs throughout the 23-county area,” said Thomas Harris, ALBBAA president and founder. “There are over 11 million acres that are truly unique in this country with its abundance of wildlife, culture and heritage. These assets are on the ground and under our feet. Our mission has been to energize these assets and recruit these eco-tourism dollars to the region. This is a rural economic development program that is working. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a leadership team and dedicated team of board members who are passionate about promoting and branding nationally the Alabama Black Belt Adventures as the premier destination for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.”

Alabama State Senator Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) said the impact ALBBAA has on the area has been “tremendous.”

“Being a son of the soil, I want to thank the Black Belt Adventures for their dedication to the area known as the Black Belt,” Sen. Singleton said. “While we may not be inundated with a lot of industries with smokestacks, we are inundated with a successful industry called wildlife. As an avid hunter and fisherman myself, I enjoy the Black Belt as much as those who travel to the Black Belt to enjoy our rich culture. We look forward to hunters and fishermen who come into our area to visit our lodges, who come into the area to see and visit our historic civil rights sites. We welcome them to the area. We love to hear about that $1 billion industry in the Black Belt.”

ALBBAA commissioned Southeast Research to study the economic impact of outdoors activities in the Black Belt. The research company derived its economic impact report from data from a national study from the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the American Sportfishing Association. Hunting and fishing license holders who had shared their email addresses with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) were also polled by the research company.

The study revealed that spending by sportsmen and women in the Black Belt supports 24,716 jobs, resulting in salaries and wages of $364 million, state and local taxes of $62 million, a $28 million contribution to Alabama’s Education Trust Fund, and a total economic impact of more than $1 billion.

“Hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation are part of the way of life in Alabama, and especially important in the Black Belt,” said ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “I have enjoyed participating on the Board of Alabama Black Belt Adventures to promote this portion of Alabama. These 23 counties contain some of the best hunting land anywhere in the United States. It produces big bucks and turkeys, as well as big bass and crappie in the lakes and waterways. There are some pretty special small towns and special people in the Black Belt. I hope more people will venture out into this beautiful part of Alabama and visit the small-town shops and eclectic restaurants and attractions that really show some of the best of Alabama.”

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes grew up in the Black Belt and has witnessed its emergence as the destination of choice for hunters and anglers.

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of hunting with my father in Choctaw County,” Sykes said. “Those early years hunting and fishing in the Black Belt shaped me into who I am today. That love of hunting and the outdoors fueled my desire to attend Auburn University and pursue a degree in Wildlife Science. Since that time, I’ve dedicated my career to managing wildlife, either through one-on-one landowner consultations or now in my current position. Not only is hunting a way of life and a time-honored tradition, but I’d bet many of the little towns in the Black Belt would dry up and go away without hunters and fishermen.”

Statewide in Alabama, outdoor recreation supports 73,553 jobs, providing $1.1 billion in salaries and wages, $185 million in state and local taxes and $84 million for the Alabama Education Trust Fund. The total economic impact of hunting and fishing in Alabama is $3.2 billion.

Pam Swanner, ALBBAA Executive Director, debuted two new 30-second television advertisements that will reach a quarter of the nation’s households. Gray Television, which acquired Raycom Media early this year, will continue Raycom’s partnership with ALBBAA to air Black Belt tourism commercials on almost 150 affiliates.

Dr. David Bronner, Chief Executive Officer of Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), said the television market has been a boon for the Black Belt, and he wants to continue that outreach through the RSA-controlled print media.

“We were at 12½ percent of the American population, but now we’re up to 25 percent,” Dr. Bronner said. “With Gray Television, you (ALBBAA) are in more than the Southeast. You’re actually in Alaska. You’re in Hawaii. Right about 25 percent of the American population sees you daily. What we want to work on more is our newspaper group. We have 100 daily newspapers in 22 states, from Massachusetts to Texas basically. We can put full-page ads in those pages. We’ll be glad to help with that. For many decades we have tried to do things to impact the Black Belt. It’s extremely difficult. We’ve funded a couple of pulp mills, but when Thomas came to me with this idea, I knew it was something really special. He brought with him Mr. Deer (Jackie Bushman) and Mr. Fish (Ray Scott) – those two guys did our first ads. But I came to thank you, because doing something for the Black Belt is so meaningful for the entire state.”

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth (R-Guntersville) said the Alabama Black Belt is special to him for a variety of reasons.

“I love the outdoors,” Lt. Gov. Ainsworth said. “I love Alabama, and I love the Black Belt. I have stories that are personal to me. I was fortunate to kill my first deer with my dad, hunting in Linden, Alabama, when I was 5 years old. I killed my first deer with a bow, hunting in Wilcox County when I was 12. I got to watch both of my sons shoot their first deer in the Black Belt. When you talk about the Black Belt, it’s very personal to me. Being in the hunting industry and traveling around the country, people know about the Black Belt. Just like South Dakota is known for pheasants or other places are known for great fishing. They know about the Black Belt because of what the Association has done. I want to thank Dr. Bronner for helping us get the word out. It’s a huge industry, and we need to continue to promote it. We want to do everything we can to make sure the hunting and fishing industries in the Black Belt continue to be vibrant.”

To celebrate ALBBAA’s 10th anniversary, the new coffee table book “Black Belt Bounty” was unveiled at the press conference. Numerous contributors, including James Beard award-winning Alabama chefs Chris Hastings and David Bancroft, celebrity chef Stacy Lyn Harris, wildlife artists, wildlife photographers and outdoors writers, were on hand for a book-signing event for the deluxe hardcover book that highlights and commemorates the outdoor traditions and culture of the Black Belt. Full disclosure: I had the honor to contribute three stories for the book.

Visit alabamablackbeltadventures.org/blackbeltbountybook/ to purchase “Black Belt Bounty.” It would make a perfect Christmas gift.

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.

2 months ago

Alabama’s Fears fuels fire for dutch oven revival

(Alabama Outdoors/Contributed)

Now that the weather has finally cooled, the outdoors takes on a whole new appeal for many in Alabama. Hunting and camping are likely on the agenda, and being able to feed a delicious meal to a group of hunters or campers can often hinge on your upbringing.

If you’re like J. Wayne Fears, who calls Tater Knob in Jackson County, Alabama, home, it means breaking out the cast iron, just as his ancestors did while trapping and living off the land in north Alabama.

What Fears finds interesting is that a new generation is discovering the benefits of cast iron.

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“Millennials are discovering the advantages of cooking on cast iron,” said Fears, a certified wildlife biologist and prolific outdoor writer. “My grandma knew that. Lodge (Manufacturing in Tennessee) had to build another foundry because of the popularity of both the cast iron skillet and the cast iron dutch oven.”

When it comes to cast iron dutch ovens, two different models are available for distinctly different purposes. The flat-bottom dutch oven is made to be used on conventional stovetops, while the dutch oven with legs is designed for outdoor cooking at campfires with coals from the fire or charcoal briquets.

“For camping, you need a dutch oven with three legs and a recessed lid,” said Fears, who held a seminar recently at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association annual conference. “The legs keep the bottom of the dutch oven off the coals, so you don’t burn everything. It has a recessed lid so you can put coals on top to use it for baking.”

Fears honed his dutch oven expertise during numerous years of overseeing hunting operations all over North America, including the western U.S., Canada and Alaska.

“Especially in our remote camps, we depended on dutch ovens to do a heck of a lot of our cooking,” he said.

If you’re planning a hunting or camping trip, or just cooking on an outdoor campfire, Fears recommends certain cast iron cookware to achieve a delicious meal. If you expect to draw a crowd when the smell of the cooking spreads, Fears recommends a No. 12 dutch oven. The No. 12 is the diameter in inches of the pot. Fears said you might need more than one, possibly in different sizes.

“It depends on what you’re cooking, whether it’s a stew and a pan of biscuits. You’re going to need one for each,” he said. “For the stew, I’d recommend a No. 12, and a No. 10 dutch oven so you can cook some cathead biscuits. If you’re going to make a cobbler, you’re going to need another No. 10. You can cook all three, and all of your meal will come out at the same time.”

Fears also recommends that you don’t look for the cheapest dutch oven you can find.

“I want to stress to get a quality dutch oven,” he said. “There are so many dutch ovens made overseas that are pitted or they’ll shatter if you drop them. If you get good quality cast iron, it can be a lifetime investment. In fact, a lot of my dutch ovens are in their third generation.”

Fears doesn’t discount the value of cooking with coals from the campfire if you’re in remote locations. However, if you can take a sack of charcoal briquets with you, your meals will likely be more palatable.

“Charcoal is just better as far as consistency and heat control,” he said. “Most people who cook with dutch ovens can go either way. With a little practice and good hardwood coals from the campfire, you can cook just as good as you can with charcoal. But most people who are just camping will use charcoal briquets because it’s a lot easier to fool with and the temperature is more consistent on top and on bottom.”

Contrary to what you may have seen in western or pioneer movies and TV shows, veteran dutch oven cooks have more heat on top than on bottom.

“You want to use twice as many coals on the lid as on the bottom,” Fears said. “You’re cooking down more than you’re cooking up. Most people, when they first start, they want to stick a dutch oven right in the middle of the campfire and put a few coals on top. Generally, they’ll burn everything on bottom, and it’ll still be rare on top. That’s why you have the lipped cover so the briquets won’t roll off of the top.”

Fears admits to making a “world of mistakes” while learning the fine art of dutch oven cooking and says adjustments have to be made depending on conditions.

“You may have a recipe that says cook at 350 degrees for 45 minutes,” he said. “Well, 45 minutes in a dutch oven in Ely, Minnesota, is different than 45 minutes in Montgomery, Alabama. The wind, humidity and outside temperature have effects. You have to learn to see how the conditions affect the cooking. You’ve got to be patient and, every now and then, take a peek at what’s going on in the dutch oven so you can learn what you’re doing. And I rotate the lid about a quarter-turn every 15 minutes so that if you have any hotspots, you’re moving them around.”

Fears also said not to skimp on the amount of charcoal you light when you start cooking.

“Always have plenty of coals,” he said. “If it’s cold, like it is now up on Tater Knob this time of year, you need to have more coals waiting when the first ones are burned up.”

Fears also recommends a pair of heavy-duty gloves because just about everything you touch will be hot. He also recommends lid lifters that are capable of lifting a dutch oven filled with venison stew that might weigh 40 pounds.

“A coat hanger is not going to quite get the job done,” he said.

Fears has also learned that one of the best ways to use a dutch oven is to use it as just that, an oven. He takes a wire rack and places it in the bottom of the cast iron and uses a heavy-duty aluminum pan that fits on top of the wire rack to cook the food.

“The food doesn’t come in contact with the cast iron, and it saves you a ton of time for cleanup,” he said. “Having said that, the easiest way to get started with a dutch oven is to go to the supermarket and get a peach cobbler mix and two cans of peaches. Follow the instructions on the box and cook several cobblers in your dutch oven. You can learn more cooking cobblers than you can anything else. Once you have mastered peach cobbler, move up to stew or chili. Then when you get that mastered, you might want to make sourdough cathead biscuits. It’s not difficult. You just have to get out and actually do it. Anything you can cook in your oven at home, you can cook in a dutch oven. But I burned a lot before I figured it out.”

Fears’ “Lodge Book of Dutch Oven Cooking” is about to be translated into a fourth language. It’s filled with cooking tips and recipes.

“The book is selling really well in Japan right now,” Fears said. “They’re cooking a lot of rice dishes, and it’s easy to burn rice if you’re not careful.”

Of course, when the meal is done, it’s time for cleanup. One cardinal rule prevails when cleaning cast iron.

“Never use soap,” Fears said. “You can get these pot scrubbers that look like chain mail that work really well. If your cobbler spills over, pour hot water in it and hit it with that chain mail scrubber.”

For those looking for Christmas gifts, other than his book, Fears recommends a wire rack, heavy aluminum pan, chain mail scrubber, whisk broom for removing ashes from the lid, a small fireplace shovel to move coals around and a quality lid lifter.

“And wear some good boots or shoes,” Fears said. “No sandals or flip flops. If you do, you’re going to have some interesting scars on your toes.”

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.

2 months ago

Military active duty, veterans get extra waterfowl hunting days

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Active duty military and military veterans will have two extra days to pursue waterfowl in Alabama this season under new federal guidelines. Those military personnel and veterans will be able to hunt waterfowl on November 23, 2019, and February 8, 2020, the same dates as the Alabama Special Youth Waterfowl Hunts.

Military active duty and veterans must have proof of service and all applicable licenses and stamps to participate.

The new federal guidelines also allow states to end their waterfowl seasons on January 31 instead of the last Sunday of January. Alabama has taken advantage of this change and has set waterfowl seasons for November 29-December 1, 2019, and December 6, 2019, through January 31, 2020.

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“Some years, it’ll add 6 days at the end,” said Seth Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Migratory Bird Coordinator. “It’s a good management tool at our disposal. The only difference is the season may end during the middle of the week instead of Sunday. For the upcoming season, it ends on a Friday.”

No matter what day the season ends, Maddox just hopes we don’t have a repeat of last year’s season, which was mainly a bust for the whole southeastern U.S.

“It was a rough season, not only in Alabama but in most states,” Maddox said. “It was a mild winter with very little snow and ice cover in the Midwest. Most of those storm fronts that came through that normally bring ice and snow brought rain. That put a lot of water and flooding on the landscape. In turn, that spread the ducks out. It opened up a lot of available habitat for the ducks to utilize. It was tough hunting because the birds were never concentrated anywhere. I’d say that was true from Illinois south. Most states in the South had tough seasons.”

Maddox said conditions for the 2019-2020 season appear to be favorable right now in terms of habitat.

“So far this year, we had rain that continued into the spring and early summer, so the vegetation looks pretty good,” he said. “From late summer through early fall, most of Alabama has been in drought conditions. Parts of west Alabama have had decent rainfall. We’re probably looking at some dry conditions, at least early in the season. But the rain has picked up the last couple of weeks, and I feel pretty good about having a decent amount of water for the opening day after Thanksgiving.”

Until recently, mild conditions continued before the latest cold front plunged temperatures well below freezing in most of the state.

“We seem to be in an almost weekly pattern where a front will come through, and it will get cold,” Maddox said. “Then it will warm back up. It’s a cyclical weather pattern we sometimes see throughout the season. Right now, it’s looking good with the cold fronts pushing some birds in. We’re seeing some birds show up, so I think we’ll have a decent opener.”

The news from the annual waterfowl survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is both concerning and encouraging.

The overall number of ducks was estimated at 39 million birds, which is down about 6 percent from last year’s numbers.

“We’ve been on a slight downward trend over the last few years, but we’re still 10 percent above the long-term average,” Maddox said. “For most duck species, the numbers are looking good. They’re well above their long-term averages. But a couple of species are not doing as well. Northern pintail and scaup (bluebills) are below their long-term averages and they continue to decline. So, there’s a lot of research on those two species to see what’s causing the declines. But other species have taken advantage of these situations, like the gadwall, which is one of our bread-and-butter ducks. The gadwall numbers are 61 percent above the long-term average, and their numbers continue to grow. Green-winged teal are doing well also. Other species are filling that void left by the lack of pintails and scaup.”

Most successful hunters in Alabama will likely have gadwalls in their bag at the end of the hunt.

“Gadwalls are fun ducks to hunt,” Maddox said. “They respond to calling really well. People are pretty happy shooting gadwalls, and they taste good.”

The bellwether bird for most duck hunters and managers is the mallard. The male’s unmistakable green head makes it the most recognized duck on the landscape.

Maddox said the mallard count came in at about 9.5 million birds during the breeding survey, which is 2% above last year’s numbers and 19% above the long-term average.

“The mallard is a big, hardy duck,” he said. “They’re the last ones to arrive. It takes really cold weather to push them down into our area. They can survive and thrive in areas of cold with snow cover. We need that cold weather to push mallards our way.”

Some duck hunters have suggested a shift in duck migration patterns for a variety of reasons, but Maddox points to one main factor in either the abundance or dearth of ducks.

“Most of it is tied with the weather,” he said. “As I say every year, we are very weather dependent. We’re seeing the warming trends, and fewer ducks are migrating south. There is some ancillary data that ducks aren’t making it as far south as they once did. If this trend continues, we’re likely to see fewer ducks in the Deep South. It is a concern for us and most waterfowl managers in the South. We’ll still see birds. We may not see as many birds as in the colder times.”

The bag limit of six ducks remains the same as last season’s with no more than 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be female), 3 wood ducks, 1 mottled duck, 2 black duck, 2 redhead, 1 pintail, 2 canvasback and 3 scaup. The bag limit on mergansers is 5 per day, only 2 of which may be hooded mergansers.

Hunters must use non-toxic shot. Hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset except on special management zones, like the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. If you hunt any type of migratory bird – doves, ducks, woodcock, gallinules or cranes for example – you are required to have a Harvest Information Program (HIP) permit in addition to a valid hunting license, state duck stamp and federal duck stamp. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/waterfowl-season for specific rules and regulations.

Alabama will also have its first sandhill crane hunt in 103 years. For the first hunt since 1916, 400 hunters were selected by random drawing in September. Those selected were required to pass a test and accept the hunt. Once that was completed, WFF mailed the hunters the sandhill crane hunting permit and three tags each.

The sandhill crane season has two segments. The first segment runs from December 3 to January 5, 2020. The second segment is from January 16-31, 2020.

“We had 591 people apply for the permits, which is a few less than I would have thought,” Maddox said. “So, you had a good chance of getting drawn this year if you applied. I think people may have been hesitant to apply this year because they didn’t have any spots or didn’t know any spots to hunt. Unless you went to one of the other states that allow sandhill hunting, you have no experience hunting them. It will be interesting to see how our hunters do this year. Once our hunters get the hang of it, I think we’ll have more people apply.”

Maddox said he will be happy with “average” waterfowl hunting for the 2019-2020 season.

“We’ve been through some extremes the last few years,” he said. “We had a really good season in 2017-18 and then last year was pretty tough. Hopefully, we’ll have one closer to normal. If we get some cold weather early in January, we should have a good season.”

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.

3 months ago

Alabama snapper anglers stay within 2019 quota

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

Unlike last year when almost perfect weather during snapper season led to a faster-than-expected harvest of the quota, the 2019 snapper season reverted to normal weather conditions, leading to a longer season than initially announced.

Snapper anglers enjoyed a 38-day season in 2019 after the 2018 season had to be ended after 27 days to avoid exceeding Alabama’s quota of about 1 million pounds. Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) officials were able to add three weekend extensions to the 2019 season to fill this year’s quota.

“This season was more typical of a south Alabama summer,” MRD Director Scott Bannon said. “We had more thunderstorms and increased wave heights on some weekends as opposed to 2018, which had near perfect weather through June and July.

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“So, the effort dropped over several of the weekends due to the weather. But that is something we want to have happen; we want people to avoid going when the weather is rough or when it exceeds their boat’s capabilities and their personal capabilities. We want them to stay home during the bad weather because we will still have those pounds of fish to catch later in the year.”

Alabama’s 2019 quota was 1,079,513 pounds, and the final numbers show 1,050,651 pounds of fish were estimated to have been caught, leaving a little more than 28,000 pounds in the water. Bannon said the goal was to get as close to the quota as possible without going over.

“That 28,000 pounds is less than one good weekend day of fishing in Alabama,” he said. “I don’t think we could have done any better.”

MRD officials are able to closely monitor the snapper harvest off the Alabama coast through the mandatory Red Snapper Reporting System, otherwise known as Snapper Check.

“We were able to get that close because of Snapper Check,” Bannon said. “The more people who report, the better the numbers and the better we can predict the effort for the weekend.”

Bannon said one angler lamented that he lost 12 days to weather but only got five back. However, other anglers had the opportunity and took advantage of it.

“I explained to him that he, as an individual, lost that many days, but not everybody was like that,” Bannon said. “We had landings for every weekend, even when the tropical storm went by. I would not have recommended it on some of those days, but some people went anyway. We added some additional days during amberjack season in August and then some days on Labor Day weekend. Ultimately, we added the final weekend in October to give people enough time to plan and to have dates when people were more likely to go fishing. The 38-day season is probably more typical of what would be an average season with the weather days. I know the July average wave heights were 3 feet or higher.”

The average size of the snapper caught during the 2019 season was down slightly to 6.81 pounds, which Bannon attributed to several reasons.

“One reason was the weather,” he said. “People didn’t run as far and went to areas that are more heavily fished. Also, I think some people now are not as concerned about trying to catch the biggest fish possible. They’re just catching fish, which is what we want. High-grading or culling and discarding fish works against us if the discards don’t survive. I think more people were happy with the fish they were catching, and they felt this wasn’t going to be the only day they were going to get to go fishing.”

Alabama’s snapper seasons for 2018 and 2019 were operated under an exempted fishing permit (EFP) as the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council worked to approve a state management system, Amendment 50, which passed and is awaiting the Secretary of Commerce’s signature.

“I think the EFP worked well,” Bannon said. “Under Amendment 50, we will have the ability for the state to make adjustments to size, bag limits and season dates. We think our bag and size limits have worked well. It helps keep our data similar from year to year, and we have a good handle on effort based on that.

“So, we’re going to be cautious about making any changes. We want people to get comfortable that the states are managing the snapper season effectively. I think the EFP proved we can manage it as effectively and efficiently as possible. We have been able to give anglers more days because we’re able to account for the fish harvested during the season. The key to the success is the angler reporting the data, and that is why we have the optional reporting for greater amberjack and gray triggerfish in the app.”

Bannon took the opportunity last week to join the University of South Alabama Marine Sciences Department and Dauphin Island Sea Lab on their last red snapper research trip for the year out of Dauphin Island.

The research trip was designed to explore several artificial reefs that Skipper Thierry, captain of the Escape, discovered during his regular charter trips this past summer. Each reef was of unknown origin. On several reefs where a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was deployed the structures were chicken transport cages, which held a variety of fish species including an abundance of small red snapper.

“From a research perspective, you want to be able to sample a variety of sizes and ages of fish and reef structures,” Bannon said. “These were not public reefs that were placed out there. We don’t know anything about who placed them or when they were placed. They held a lot of younger fish, but the numbers of those fish looked good. In a management system, if all you see are older fish that’s not always a good thing. You want to see a wide spectrum of ages. You want to see the younger fish coming into the system and aging out at the appropriate time and that we’re taking the appropriate numbers.

“That’s the advantage of a program that does hook-and-line sampling along with the ROV; you get to see what’s there. That helps add to the data. It’s not necessarily that only the small fish were biting. If you sample the reef with only hook and line, you may only see one age group of fish. With the ROV, we know that particular reef had an abundance of small fish as well as larger fish. Those spots were loaded up.”

During the trip, several large gray triggerfish were landed, which is encouraging for Bannon.

“Triggerfish is definitely a species of concern for us,” he said. “These research trips have shown an increase in abundance. So, we feel good, in the Alabama reef zone, that they are rebuilding. That’s a good sign. We hope that is reflected in the next stock assessment.”

The snapper research like that executed last week will be partially funded by Alabama’s new reef fish endorsement to the saltwater fishing license that went into effect September 1, 2019.

Dr. Bob Shipp, Professor Emeritus at USA Marine Science, has been doing this snapper research for more than two decades.

“For the last 21 years, we have been maintaining a sampling program for red snapper and triggerfish,” Shipp said. “I think it’s probably the longest time-series available for those two species. A time-series really gives you trend information you can’t get any other way. What it has shown is that the availability and ability to catch red snapper have really improved since 2005. The average size has increased a little bit. When you put the ROV with the camera down on our reefs, they’re teeming with snapper. There are tremendous number of juveniles, 2- and 3-year-olds, more so than in the past. That might indicate a strong year class, but it could be an outlier on the five stations we sampled, so we’re going to be watching that. But there was an abundance of juvenile fish on the reefs we fished today.”

Shipp said the red snapper population in Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zone is in great shape.

“Our program, along with that of Dr. Sean Powers at the University of South Alabama, shows a really healthy population in our artificial reef zones,” he said. “We have 1,200 square miles of reef zone, and anybody can go out in that reef zone and get a bag limit of red snapper in about 20 minutes.”

During last week’s trip, where the anglers fished a designated amount of time at each spot, several triggerfish that weighed a whopping 8 pounds or better were hauled onboard.

“For triggerfish, the average size has really increased,” Shipp said. “We saw that today. We’ve never seen so many big triggerfish. We really think there is a problem with the data coming out as far as triggerfish are concerned. Off Alabama, we don’t see them in trouble at all.”

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.

3 months ago

CWD seminars keep public updated on disease

(B. Pope/Alabama Outdoors)

With archery season underway and the opening day of the gun deer season on the horizon, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division is traveling the state to give hunters and the general public updates on chronic wasting disease (CWD) that affects members of the deer family.

First, CWD has NOT been detected in Alabama’s deer herd, which is estimated at about1.5 million animals.

However, CWD has been confirmed in the neighboring states of Mississippi and Tennessee, which caused the WFF’s CWD Response Plan to be implemented. Positive tests near Pontotoc, Miss., and Franklin, Tenn., were within a 50-mile radius of Alabama, and a specific response plan was initiated for those areas in northwest Alabama.

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“We have had a CWD Response Plan in place since 2012,” said Amy Silvano, Assistant Chief of the Wildlife Section, at the recent seminar in Prattville. “When CWD was confirmed in Wisconsin, the first time the disease was detected east of the Mississippi, our agency started surveilling for the disease then and formalized the response plan. This is a fluid document. We are learning things every day. As we do, we update our plan.”

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/CWD-Info and scroll down the page to view the Alabama CWD Strategic Surveillance and Response Plan. CWD has only been shown to affect members of the deer family, including whitetails, blacktails, mule deer, elk, moose and caribou.

CWD is a fatal neurological disease, called transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), which affects the deer family and causes lesions on the brain. As the disease progresses, the affected animal will develop holes in the brain and eventually die. Infected animals may be 5 years old or older before they show symptoms.

“There is a lot of misinformation about what a CWD-infected deer looks like,” said Chris Cook, WFF Deer Program Coordinator. “Some of the deer that have been found positive for CWD look perfectly healthy. Most of the CWD-positive deer have been hunter-harvested deer with no outward signs of CWD.

“When the deer start showing symptoms, it can be a wide range of symptoms. The most common is just abnormal behavior. They don’t act right, because it’s a disease of the central nervous system. They have a drooping, sick posture. You will see that in a deer that’s been wounded by a hunter or hit by a car, so that alone doesn’t indicate a deer has CWD. Other symptoms include trouble with balance, excessive salivation or the loss of weight, but there are a lot of reasons deer lose weight. ”

Cook said the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) is charged with managing the wildlife resources of the state for the benefit of the public now and for future generations.

“Any disease like CWD has the potential to affect any wildlife population,” Cook said. “Anything like that gets our attention. That’s why we do all we can to head it off. And once it shows up, we do everything we can to minimize its impact. It not only affects the wildlife resources but also our hunting heritage. A lot of rural areas in Alabama depend heavily on income from hunters and hunting-related activities. Hunting generates an impressive $1.8 billion economic impact in Alabama.”

The first case of CWD was discovered in Colorado in 1967. Over the next 30 years, the disease spread very slowly, only taking in a 15- to 20-county region on the Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming borders. In the late 90s, CWD was detected in Saskatchewan. That incident was traced to live elk from South Dakota that were transported to Canada. CWD continues to spread and now has been found in 26 states and three Canadian provinces. South Korea and Norway also have detected CWD. South Korea’s CWD-positive animals can be traced back to the live transport of deer from infected areas. Over the past decade, the movement of live cervids or infected carcasses by humans has contributed to the increased spread of the disease.

Alabama has long had regulations that banned the importation of live deer. The regulations were amended a couple of years ago to prohibit the importation of deer carcasses from all states and countries. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd for regulations about importing deer parts from out-of-state.

Regulations allow for the importation of certain parts of the deer but not whole carcasses. Permitted parts include:

  • Meat from the family Cervidae (white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose, fallow deer, red deer, sika deer, caribou, reindeer, etc.) that has been completely deboned
  • Cleaned skull plates with bare attached antlers, if no visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present
  • Unattached bare antlers or sheds
  • Raw capes, if no visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present
  • Upper canine teeth, if no root structure or other soft tissue is present
  • Finished taxidermy products or tanned hides
  • Velvet-covered antlers are prohibited unless part of a finished taxidermy product.

The disease is primarily spread by body fluids such as saliva, urine and feces. The infectious agent, called a prion, can even survive outside the animal’s body.

Cook said there is no evidence at this time that CWD can be transmitted to humans.

“Officials have been following hunters who have been hunting in these CWD areas for a long time and, to date, there has not been any connection between human illness and consuming venison from CWD-positive deer,” he said. “We are not a food safety agency. We defer to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations.”

The CDC recommends that hunters who harvest deer in areas with CWD should have the deer tested for the disease before consuming the meat. If the test comes back positive, the CDC recommends the proper disposal of the venison. That venison should not be thrown out by the individual; rather, contact a WFF official or enforcement officer who will ensure its proper disposal.

The WFF’s sampling program will include hunter-harvested deer, roadkills and reported sick deer with a goal of testing 1,500 animals for CWD. WFF is working with Cornell University to help identify areas with the highest likelihood of infection.

Hunters can aid the WFF sampling program by dropping off their deer heads at the WFF CWD Sampling Station freezers located around the state. The goal is to have at least one freezer in each county.

“Our district offices will have freezers,” Cook said. “A lot of our WMAs (wildlife management areas) will have them. People who want to have their deer tested can bring the heads with 3 to 4 inches of the neck intact. The antlers can be taken off. For deer the hunters want to mount, they can go ahead and cape it out. The samples that we use come from the lymph nodes in the upper neck.”

Hunters who drop off deer heads are required to fill out tags that include contact information and location where the deer was harvested. A tear-off tag has an identification number that the hunter should retain. A list of locations will be posted on the CWD page on outdooralabama.com.

“We also started the Sick Deer Report last year,” Cook said. “If you see a sick deer or a deer that doesn’t look or act right, call our district office and give the information to the people who answer the phone. Provide your contact information, location and the symptoms you observed. Somebody will follow up to see if that deer can be sampled.”

Lt. Michael East, the WFF officer in charge of the game breeders program, said the disease is an issue that affects both captive deer and wild deer.

“CWD does not discriminate,” East said. “We have to protect the resource for all involved.”

East said a recent case was made in 2016 for the illegal importation of live deer in Alabama, and the violator was fined $750,000 and lost his game breeder license.

The WFF Enforcement Section has also implemented procedures to intercept the potential illegal importation of deer carcasses into the state with surveillance along state borders in an effort to keep CWD out of the state.

Florida is the latest state to implement a deer carcass importation ban. With exceptions for Alabama and Georgia, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner (FWC) issued an executive order that bans the importation of deer carcasses, effective Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. The executive order allows exceptions for white-tailed deer legally harvested in Georgia or Alabama with certain requirements. The person who harvested the deer must possess an FWC Georgia/Alabama Carcass Importation Permit prior to the carcass being imported into Florida. The hunter must report the carcass importation within 24 hours of entering Florida using the FWC’s online Georgia/Alabama Carcass Importation Reporting Form and must dispose of any remains using FWC-approved disposal options outlined at www.myfwc.com. Also, white-tailed deer legally harvested from Georgia or Alabama properties that are bisected by the Florida state line and under the same ownership are exempt from importation permit, reporting and disposal requirements.

Meanwhile, the Alabama WFF Division is promoting a campaign titled “Don’t Bring It Home” to highlight the ban on the importation of deer carcasses.

Concerned citizens have numerous opportunities to come to a town hall-style meeting to ask questions concerning CWD. Go to www.outdooralabama.com/node/2747 for a list of upcoming CWD seminars.

As WFF Assistant Director Fred Harders said earlier this year, “We don’t have it. We don’t want it.”

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.

3 months ago

Fishing at Gulf State Park Pier on fire

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

Those who love to fish the Gulf State Park Pier should not hesitate to head down to Gulf Shores-Orange Beach right away. Judging from what I witnessed last week, the fishing is on fire, especially for Spanish mackerel.

Anglers were reeling in Spanish after Spanish on the Gulf’s premier fishing pier, which juts some 1,540 feet into Gulf of Mexico waters. Throw in redfish (red drum), king mackerel and huge ladyfish, dubbed the poor man’s tarpon, and you can see how much fun the pier anglers are having right now.

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Fortunately, Tropical Storm Nestor sailed quickly past the Alabama coast, and fishing is back to its fall peak with the migration of kings and Spanish on their way back to wintering grounds in south Florida.

Another reason not to hesitate is that the Gulf State Park Pier will likely be closing sometime this winter for renovations. The closure is tentatively scheduled to start on January 15, 2020. The treated wood decking, which is showing the wear and tear of 10-plus years in the rugged saltwater environment, will be completely replaced with composite boards that are designed to hold up for decades of great fishing. During the projected closure of about 2½ months, the pier’s bathrooms, offices, lighting and bait shop will also be refurbished. Ashley Connell, acting pier manager, said the new composite decking will solve the current problem of the deteriorating wood planks and make it a more enjoyable experience for the pier anglers and sightseers. The pier is 20 feet wide and boasts 2,448 feet of fishing space.

An educational component is available all along the pier with signs that provide information on native fish, birds and other wildlife in the area.

“Gulf State Park Pier is such an asset to Coastal Alabama,” Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said. “Hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the pier every year for fishing and sightseeing. I would bet 80 percent of the people who vacation in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach visit the pier at least once during their stay.”

Speaking of the fishing, Steve and Stephanie Langston said they and other regulars on the octagon at the end of the pier are starting to see that mackerel migration.

“The kings are just starting to show up,” Steve said last Thursday. “I hooked two, but one got sharked. I had two other hook-ups. They’re catching slot reds (16 to 26 inches) and bull reds (longer than 26 inches) all up and down the pier.”

Stephanie added, “They’re just slamming the Spanish right now.”

Steve said the cooler weather should be a boon for mackerel fishermen. He said the water temperature last week was 81 and falling.

“When the water temperature is between 67 and 80 degrees, that’s when the kings will be coming through,” he said. “The bait (mainly alewives) is all balled up around the pier now, so the fish will be here.”

Another regular, George “Haywire” Carlton, flopped another Spanish on the pier deck as I walked up. He also said bait is the key right now.

“Spanish are biting, and there are a lot of small alewives to hold them,” Carlton said. “Most of the Spanish are being caught on small alewives, just free-lining them or on bubble rigs. Now that the weather has cooled off a little, it should just get better.”

A bubble rig consists of a float that can be partially filled with water to increase casting distances with a 2- to 3-foot piece of wire or heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon leader (Spanish have sharp teeth). A Gotcha lure with its colorful plastic tube with a treble hook on the end is the go-to rig, but some people make their own lures with a piece of McDonald’s straw.

John Giannini, a pier regular and also co-owner of J&M Tackle in Orange Beach, said he hopes the weather will cooperate during the pier renovation work.

“We can get a lot of nasty weather during the winter at times,” Giannini said. “Hopefully, there won’t be any delays.”

Now that the cooler temperatures have finally arrived, Giannini said plenty of fishing opportunities will be available before the pier renovation work starts.

“It’s been such a warm year that fishing is pretty darn good right now,” he said. “The fish (mackerel) are starting to get active as they move east.”

Giannini suggests taking advantage of the mackerel bite as long as possible because a little break will follow before the shallow-water species start biting. After the mackerel migration has ended, Giannini said most people will be fishing closer to the shore for other species.

“There will be a little lull before we start getting into the whiting, pompano and sheepshead fishing,” he said. “During the colder months, sheepshead is the targeted species. From the end of November through Christmas, people will be out on the octagon catching sheepshead.”

Giannini is glad to hear about the renovation project.

“That pier has taken a lot of wear and tear since it was opened in 2009,” he said. “With all the people who walk the pier, whether fishing or just looking, and the service vehicles, the decking is showing the effects of that and the weather. The composite boards should help tremendously. I’m out on the pier quite a bit, and the wood is in pretty rough shape in places. Some of the boards have been replaced, but it will really be great to have all new decking.”

The pier’s decking is built-in panels that are designed to be dislodged during any type of tropical weather. Instead of a steady pounding from the huge waves produced by the storms, the panels are blown out, saving the basic infrastructure of the pier.

Giannini hopes the pier renovations will be completed on time because the spring fishing on the pier is excellent.

“When we get those days in March when you want to be outside, that’s when the spring pier fishing starts to get good,” he said. “With the renovations, we’ll miss a little bit of fishing next spring, but maintenance has to be done. The pier has a lot of traffic and something has to be done before it needs a major overhaul. That pier is a giant draw from all over the nation. Some people come down here on vacation just for that pier. It’s just a great atmosphere. I have heard from many customers that we have, by far, the nicest, most helpful group of regular pier fishermen. It’s just a great group of regulars that fish that pier.”

Fishing licenses are required on the pier and sightseeing permits are sold at the pier office. Visit www.alapark.com/parks/gulf-state-park/fishing-and-education-pier for more details.

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.

3 months ago

Alabama spearfishers cash in on lionfish money

(Craig Newton/Contributed)

The red lionfish population off the Alabama Gulf Coast is a little smaller now that the second of two spearfishing tournaments finished a two-week run, with the final weigh-in last weekend at Tacky Jack’s in Orange Beach.

An invasive species from the Indo-Pacific, lionfish have spread throughout Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic waters. Lionfish compete with native reef fish for food resources, and holding spearfishing tournaments is one way to mitigate the invasion.

In 2019, the Coastal Conservation Association of Alabama and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians served as sponsors and provided $10,000 each for the lionfish tournaments. The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) and Alabama Spearfishing Association provided support, while the Alabama Reef Foundation distributed the prize money. The tournament payout was based on the number of pounds of lionfish harvested during the event.

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Josh Livingston was the top spearfisherman in the lionfish category at the most recent event and took home $1,779 for bringing 279 pounds of lionfish to the weigh-in. David Murphy was the overall Master Spearfisher at the Orange Beach Open.

Livingston spends a great deal of time diving for lionfish, harvesting for the commercial market and research work for several educational entities.

Livingston brought in about 650 pounds of lionfish at the first tournament in the spring. He said the number of fish he spotted over this past weekend was definitely reduced. An ulcerative skin disease has been observed in lionfish, especially in Florida, and Livingston thinks that may be a reason for the reduction.

“Normally, we see 30 to 40 fish per site,” Livingston said. “We’re seeing 15 to 20 now or less. That’s great news. They’re still out there, just not as many. But I did shoot 79 fish on one dive during this tournament.”

Livingston has no doubt the increased prize money will boost participation.

“If there is money involved, people are going to go after them,” he said. “If they can subsidize what they’re doing, paying for fuel or buying a new speargun, they’ll do it.”

Chandra Wright of the Alabama Reef Foundation said the foundation understands the threat lionfish pose to the native reef fish species in the Gulf.

“They are voracious eaters and are competing with our commercially and recreationally important species, like red snapper, grouper and gray triggerfish,” Wright said. “We want to do as much as possible to protect our reefs and native species. So having great partners, like the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and CCA Alabama who donated $10,000 each, gives us a great incentive for divers to bring in lionfish.”

Chas Broughton of the Alabama Spearfishing Association sees a great future for the lionfish tournaments when more divers find out about the cash prizes.

“I believe the new money incentive is helping to bring in more divers,” Broughton said. “If we can do it for another year or two, I think we’ll see it grow much larger. We just need to get the word out to more divers. We probably picked up 10 or more divers for this tournament.”

Craig Newton, MRD’s Artificial Reefs Program Coordinator, said lionfish were introduced to the south Atlantic waters in the late 1980s when Hurricane Andrew caused significant destruction in south Florida. One or more homes in Andrew’s path had aquariums with red lionfish. Andrew swept away the homes and the lionfish were released into the wild.

“Through DNA genetic work, the lionfish population we have in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic is traced back to about eight females from that initial release,” Newton said. “So, the thousands and thousands of lionfish we have today in the Gulf and South Atlantic originated from that handful of females.”

The red lionfish first showed up off the coast of Alabama in 2009. Although there had been rumors of lionfish, the first hard evidence came when a diver speared a lionfish at the Trysler Grounds about 25 miles south of Orange Beach.

Starting in 2013, Marines Resources began directed monitoring efforts to get an idea of how many lionfish actually existed in Alabama waters.

“The trend is that the majority of reefs that are deeper than 100 feet of water have lionfish,” Newton said. “They do occur in waters shallower than that but not in alarming numbers. We have a few documented cases of lionfish inshore around Perdido Pass and Old River. Typically, the turbidity of Gulf waters just offshore of Mobile Bay tends to push the lionfish away from the mouth of Mobile Bay. They prefer higher salinity and clearer waters. They don’t seem to be extremely tolerant of sudden changes in water temperature. Lionfish can be found 1,000 feet deep. Those waters are real cold, but they’re real stable. Inshore, the water temperature changes pretty quickly. In the winter, those inshore temperature changes will cause them to leave or die.”

The MRD monitoring started with SCUBA diving surveys and evolved into diving and ROV (remotely operated vehicle) surveys that could monitor much deeper water.

“The high definition cameras on the ROVs allow us to not only evaluate the reef fish population but also include lionfish,” Newton said. “Over the past couple of years, we have seen a significant trend. From 2009 to 2016, there was a significant increase in the abundance of lionfish from year to year. Then from 2016 to present, those numbers seem to have stabilized.”

To mitigate the invasion of lionfish, the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission has marketed the table fare of lionfish with its white, flaky meat. The lionfish filets can be prepared in variety of ways from raw, sashimi-style, to battered and fried like white trout, for example.

Participating in lionfish tournaments is also part of MRD’s mitigation effort. Newton said more research will have to be done to determine how effective these methods are.

“The lionfish tournaments and marketing of lionfish for table fare could have had an effect on the population, or it could mean the lionfish have reached carrying capacity within our waters,” Newton said. “The predator fish have not evolved to prey upon the lionfish with their venomous spines, so the carrying capacity is related to food resources and habitat rather than any control from predation.

“They do compete with our native reef fish. They eat a lot of the same items that vermilion snapper, lane snapper and red snapper do. They do eat crustaceans, but a large part of the diet are small finfish, just like the snappers. The lionfish is something we’re going to have to learn to live with. We’re never going to get rid of them. We’re just hoping we can handle the impact from them.”

Newton said lionfish spawn numerous times and release the eggs in a gelatinous mass that is poisonous. The egg mass floats in the current until the fry disperse to the ocean bottom. As they near maturity, they move to some type of structure, whether natural bottom or artificial reefs and petroleum platforms.

Lionfish don’t get nearly as large as the snapper, topping out at about 3 pounds. Typically, a mature lionfish will range from ¾ of a pound to 3 pounds. Obviously, it’s the number of lionfish on each reef that becomes a problem. That is one reason the tournament organizers decided to change the format for the last tournament of the season.

At the spring tournament, prize money went to the first three places and in a random drawing for any spearfisher who brought in a certain amount of lionfish.

“The strategy for the second tournament was to incentivize more people to target lionfish,” Newton said. “The idea was that the average diver who may not shoot lionfish would be encouraged to shoot lionfish. This tournament was based on a bounty. Prize money, $10,000, was awarded based on the number of pounds of lionfish weighed in. This way, each competitor would get some type of prize money. The rate of return would basically be how much effort you put forth to shoot lionfish. This prize structure enables even the novice spearfisher to target lionfish to pay for gas or entry fee money or tank fills. We had 45 competitors and some of those wouldn’t have targeted lionfish at all if it hadn’t been for the prize money provided by CCA Alabama and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.”

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.

3 months ago

Wheelchair-bound Stone bags gator at Eufaula

(Alabama Outdoors/Contributed)

Mandy Stone worked hard as a paramedic in Roanoke, Alabama, which often required a weekend away to decompress. Stone was on one of those getaways when her life changed forever.

“Ten years ago, I went to north Georgia for the weekend,” Stone said. “On the way home I hydroplaned, went down in a ravine and spent the next two-and-a-half months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Everything changed in just a split second.”

The accident impact crushed numerous vertebrae in her back. She was left paralyzed from the waist down.

However, the accident did not crush her spirit or her love for the outdoors. Not long after she was discharged from Shepherd, a world-renowned rehabilitation center for people with spinal cord and brain injuries, Stone went to one of her happy places.

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“Hunting season is my favorite time, and I think it always has been,” she said. “I’ve been able to go hunting ever since I got hurt. I hunt deer and squirrels mostly. I have one of those Action Trackchairs, and I’ll ride around and shoot them from it.”

The shooting houses on her mom and dad’s property as well as shooting houses on property Stone and her sister own nearby were made handicap-accessible.

The first time in a shooting house after her accident was truly special.

“It was great,” she said. “My mom made sure I had plenty of cover, which was good. It was actually awesome. I think I killed one that day. I know I killed three or four that season.”

Not content to allow any barriers to stop her hunting passion, she decided to kick it up a notch and pursue an alligator during Alabama’s late-summer, early-fall season at Lake Eufaula in southeast Alabama.

“I’m all about hunting everything,” she said. “I told my dad, ‘Look Pop, we’ve got to go alligator hunting.’”

Stone had applied for several years for a tag at Eufaula, which has only 20 tags available annually. The points system, which applies points for each year the applicant is unsuccessful, finally paid off for Stone.

After receiving her tag, Stone went to Lake Eufaula to look around because she didn’t know anything about the reservoir that serves as a border between Alabama and Georgia. Stone emailed Chris Nix, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Alligator Program Coordinator. Nix got Stone in touch with WFF Biologist Richard Tharp, who connected her with guide Mike Gifford, otherwise known at Gator Mike.

“I was talking to Mike, and he was telling me about his alligator hunting, and it sounded great,” Stone said. “Then I told him I was in a wheelchair and asked him if he had ever taken anybody in a wheelchair. He said, ‘Oh, I’ve never done that.’ I asked him if he was willing to try, and he said he was and when did I want to go.”

Although Gifford has been guiding alligator hunts since Alabama started its season in the late 2000s, he said this was his first outing with someone in a wheelchair.

“I’m kind of old school and think things happen for a reason, that we’re drawn to people for a reason,” Gifford said. “I felt like, no matter what, I was going to make it happen. It’s not common for somebody in her condition to want to do that, but it inspired me.”

With the obstacles Stone presented, Gifford figures divine assistance helped to make it happen.

“What’s really crazy about this is I’ve only got X amount of space on my boat, and I want her to be up on the bow so she can do everything,” he said. “I didn’t want her just riding along watching somebody else gator hunt.”

Stone gave Gifford the measurements of her wheelchair, and he headed to his boat with a tape measure.

“In a custom-built Ranger bass boat, they have what is called a locker-bar system,” he said. “All the deck lids are aligned. In the locker-bar system, a stainless-steel bar goes across the lids, and you can put padlocks on it so none of the deck lids can be lifted. I put the locker bar in and started measuring. This is why I believe things happen for a reason. When I measured for that wheelchair, I didn’t have a half-inch of extra space. When that locker bar went in there, the back tires backed up to it perfectly. The front of the wheelchair lined up perfectly to be tied off to the front pedestal, so I could lock her in there.”

The boat ramp, which she had used on two previous trips, was the perfect height for Stone’s wheelchair to roll onto the boat’s front deck.

Gifford thought about idling around near the boat ramp to try to bag the first gator they found, but when he got Stone fitted with a life jacket and locked in the boat, he changed his mind.

“I felt like I had her in there good enough, and that she was strong enough that I thought about getting the boat on plane,” he said. “I told her I was going to try and for her to give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I got on plane slow and easy. She gave me a thumbs up, and I knew we were in business.”

A large gator was spotted that was estimated at 12 feet, but he gave them the slip.

The gator hunters found smaller animals, but culling is not allowed during alligator season and they would have failed to reach the 8-foot minimum in effect at Lake Eufaula.

After they spotted another gator they felt would surpass the minimum size, Gator Mike got a hook in the animal and handed the rod to Stone.

“I wanted her to feel the full effects of the hunt,” he said.

“He let me do some of the reeling, which was not easy,” Stone said. “We went in a circle for about 30 minutes with this 8½-foot gator. We finally wore him down, and Mike handed me the harpoon to stick him with. That was a huge challenge. But I got the harpoon in him. Mike got him, taped his mouth and got him into the boat.”

Instead of shooting alligators to finish them off, Gator Mike prefers to severe the spine with a knife with the gator’s head immobilized.

He handed the knife to Stone, who applied the coup de grace.

“It was just as quick and simple as shooting one would be,” Stone said. “I’d never taken anything like that, but it was just as quick. It was done. I had been grinning the whole time after the gator was hooked. I was all smiles from there. It was awesome.”

Whooping and hollering and rounds of high-fives went around on both boats after the gator was dispatched.

Gator Mike had lined up a chase boat, which allowed Stone’s mom and dad to join the hunt.

“That was awesome that they got to be there too,” Stone said.

The gator is at the taxidermist for a full-body mount. The meat has been processed, and Stone will make a trip soon to pick it up.

“We hope to get together and have a big alligator cooking celebration,” Stone said.

After time for reflection on the successful hunt, Stone admitted it was harder than she expected.

“Had it not been for Gator Mike, I don’t know if I could have done it,” Stone said. “He makes it look easier. He was so good at slipping up on them. The biggest thing was the harpoon. That was hard for me. I was very ill-prepared for that. It was fun nonetheless, but there were no easy tasks.”

Although Stone achieved her ultimate goal by bagging the gator, it doesn’t mean her love of the hunt is completely satisfied.

“I’m happy with one, but I intend to apply again,” she said. “I’m definitely hooked now.”

Gifford said he has relived that night many times and still wonders why he was fortunate enough to be the guide.

“I just hope this inspires other people with handicaps to want to go and do it,” he said. “You can do it. There’s no doubt. Mandy had a will to do it, and she did it. This was the most gratifying hunt that anybody could have ever done.”

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.

4 months ago

Tackling litter with new law, coastal cleanup, Litter Gitter

(ADCNR, David Rainer/Contributed)

Very few things irritate me more than litter, especially when the litterbugs toss their trash on public land or in public waterways.

The Conservation Enforcement Officers at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) are in a constant battle to deal with litter on public lands and waterways.

Hopefully, a new law sponsored by Rep. Margie Wilcox of Mobile will provide a deterrent for those who toss their trash without regard for the environment or fellow man.

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The law, which went into effect this month, increases the fine for the first offense of littering to up to $500. The second offense includes penalties of a fine of up to $1,000 to $3,000 and up to 100 hours of community service picking up litter along the highways or waterways. The law also changes violations from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor.

The law kicks in additional penalties for certain types of littering from a vehicle or vessel, including tossing cigarette butts, cigars, containers of urine and food containers. Those violations will cost you an additional up to $500.

“The genesis of this is I used to live on Dog River, so I saw first-hand the litter I had to clean up on my own property,” Rep. Wilcox said. “I’ve been a longtime member of the Dog River Clearwater Revival. When I read the (previous) law, I felt like the fines for some of these offenses were horribly inadequate. An important thing that came out of my discussions from the public was that they wanted people punished by making them pick up the litter. That was my favorite part of the bill. On the second offense, you have to start picking up litter. It’s great that we have people volunteer for the coastal cleanups, but people need to be picking up their own litter.”

Speaking of the Alabama Coastal Cleanup, which was held last weekend, Angela Underwood of the ADCNR’s State Lands Division said that close to 5,000 showed up to pick up trash along waterways, rivers, lakes, beaches and bays. While most of the work was concentrated in Baldwin and Mobile counties, she said that other volunteer groups picked up trash in the Montgomery and Troy vicinities. Between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds of trash were picked up.

“We always have great support from groups that cover all ages,” Underwood said. “We get a lot of Scout groups, student groups, individuals and corporate and business partners. For example, Airbus had supported the cleanup in the past, but they wanted to take on a zone of their own this year. So, we established a new zone in Mobile County where Airbus took the lead. Alabama Power helps us along the Causeway (Battleship Parkway) with their boats. We have great support from the community and within our own agency and division.”

Underwood said Don Bates, who developed the Litter Gitter trash collection device, Thompson Engineering and Weeks Bay Foundation have partnered with Coastal Cleanup to oversee the recycling aspect of the cleanup.

“Those three partners really take the lead on getting volunteers at each site to hand out recycling bags and talk about what can and can’t be recycled,” Underwood said. “Then they sort through the recycling material to make sure the things the volunteers are putting in the bags are what we want and that it’s clean enough to be recycled. Plastics and such, if they’re not relatively clean, can’t be recycled.”

The recycling partners then collect all the potential recyclable material at the end of the day, sort it, and transport the material to the proper recycling facilities.

Speaking of the Litter Gitter, Underwood said one of the sites monitored by the City of Mobile has installed a device to capture litter coming down 3 Mile Creek.

“I talked to one of the people in charge of monitoring that site, and they said that since the Litter Gitter had been installed they are finding less garbage there during Coastal Cleanup,” Underwood said. “From our perspective, it would be better if we had enough outreach to prevent people from littering in the first place.”

Meanwhile, Bates is busy with his company, Osprey Initiative, and updating his Litter Gitter at a new facility in Mobile. Most of the previous Litter Gitters were made of PVC; the new ones are being made of aluminum.

The Fairhope resident, who gave up an executive position with Thompson Engineering to start this venture, said he’s been working as a volunteer for many years to pick up trash, mainly in waterways.

“I grew up in the swamps of south Louisiana. I’ve been playing in ditches my whole life,” Bates said. “I’m really tied to the water. Three years ago, working with the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (NEP) on a volunteer cleanup on Maple Street in Mobile, I had the idea of a small, tactical trap that you could place where the litter is entering our waterways and collect it closer to the source.”

Bates started working on a prototype with the support of the City of Mobile.

“We put a prototype at the exact spot on Maple Street right before it flows into 1 Mile Creek, and it just worked,” he said. “It was amazing. We had some rain events, and it captured a lot of the litter that would normally have been flushed downstream. I was able to get in there and clean it out before any went into the waterway.

Bates won grants from the Mobile Bay NEP and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to install the Litter Gitters at 10 sites in the 3 Mile Creek watershed.

“Our role is to help these areas that are concentrating on restoring their urban waterways,” he said. “These waterways are at your back door and you should be able to enjoy them. We’re playing a role in attacking the litter in those watersheds and promoting their resurgence. I think that’s a critical gap for what we’re doing.”

Bates said his team is working with Dog River Clearwater Revival on a project in Dog River, while four Litter Gitters have been deployed in Decatur, Ala., as well as several in Atlanta. Bates expects Cincinnati and Charlotte, N.C., will be the next to get Litter Gitters.

The first Litter Gitter was basically a wire cylinder, which couldn’t hold up during significant rain events.

Bates reached out to Brunson Net Company in Foley for help, and netting material was incorporated into a PVC frame. The latest Litter Gitter is made of aluminum fabricated by Custom Metal Fabricators on Dauphin Island Parkway.

“We are working out the final details, but a neat thing is we might be able to take the aluminum we’re collecting and get the material recycled into ingots in Robertsdale,” Bates said. “Then there’s a company in Gulfport (Miss.) that will make the ingots into roll aluminum. Then Custom Metal Fabricators will make the traps out of that roll aluminum. Hopefully soon, we’ll be making our devices out of aluminum we’re pulling out of our waterways.”

Bates sure hopes this venture is the wave of the future for mitigation of litter in the environment.

“I sure hope it is,” he said. “I quit my job of 19 years as an executive vice president with Thompson Engineering. It’s a great company. Three years ago, I never intended to leave Thompson. As the Litter Gitter took off, I left Thompson last spring. I still support them, and they support me. This project just stirred an entrepreneurial spirit. This gives me the opportunity to live my passion in a different way than Thompson. We’re talking to four or five other states, so the energy is there. I decided to take a shot.”

Bates has six employees in Mobile with a new warehouse facility and actually does more than deploy litter traps.

“I was trained by Thompson to be very adaptable,” he said. “It’s bigger than litter traps. We actually help by assessing where the litter is, developing litter removal plans, and we actually help handle the material after we clean it up. Our plastic from the Alabama Coastal Cleanup will be going to a facility in Atlanta that makes graduation caps and gowns out of recycled plastic. We started a little company in south Alabama from a vision that is really getting lot of attention across the country.”

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.

4 months ago

New technology changes anglers’ perspectives on fish activity

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

While perusing social media during this seemingly endless summer, I kept seeing photos of slab crappie that were coming from the Alabama River.

Wait, I thought those slabs were caught in the spring when the crappie are spawning or in the fall when the weather and water temperatures have considerably cooled.

Turns out, these anglers were taking advantage of the latest technology to defy the common theory that big crappie are hard to catch during the dog days of summer, which appear set to last into October this year.

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I remember well the first Humminbird flasher my late father installed on his boat and how it helped him locate his favorite structure. It was a big deal way back then.

Considering we hold far more computer power in our hands when we are using our smartphones than the entire Apollo space program had during their trips to the moon, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the latest fish-finding technology could change the way anglers approach a day on the water.

When I asked Joe Allen Dunn how in the world they were catching those slab crappie, he responded, “You need to come see for yourself.”

That’s exactly what happened. While other anglers are using the Humminbird HELIX and Lowrance HDS, Dunn and Brent Crow, a bass-fishing guide and tournament angler on the Tennessee River, opted to go with the Garmin Panoptix with LiveScope.

When Dunn eased his boat into one of the many flats off the main Alabama River at Millers Ferry, I couldn’t imagine crappie of any size would be anywhere but deep water during this oppressive stretch of hot weather.

I was wrong, completely. Over went the trolling motor and Dunn began scanning for the structure that are typically crappie havens during cooler weather, or so I thought.

Rigged with 16-foot poles and spinning reels, we attached minnows to the double-hook rigs with either bare hooks, jigs with curly-tail plastic baits or Road Runner lures.

We dropped the bait about 8 feet down and started easing toward the structure as Dunn eyed the screen.

While I watched the rod tips on my side, Dunn watched the screen as we approached the structure.

Suddenly, a rod tip flexed and the hook was set on a nice crappie.

On the next approach, Dunn said, “You can even see your minnows, look here.” I looked at the screen and, sure enough, I could see the minnows dangling above the structure.

Then I saw something that I never expected. I saw a swirl in the structure and the fish came up and grabbed the bait. “Holy mackerel” was my response as I set the hook.

We started our venture at first light because of the heat and called it a day 4 hours later with 10 nice crappie in the livewell. About twice that many had been caught and released.

“We’ve been trolling for a long time,” Dunn said. “Everybody thinks the slough fish or shallow-water fish are gone or they don’t bite anymore. We proved today that the fish are still there, and they will bite. A lot of people don’t get in the sloughs this time of year and look for structure. Live bait is a big factor until it cools off.”

Dunn said before he was introduced to the new technology, the traditional way to catch crappie was to hit the deep river ledges, bouncing baits off the bottom when power production from the dam created current.

“It all revolved around when they were pulling water,” he said. “For river fish, you have to have that moving water. It keeps them tight to the wood, and you can do better. This new technology is not going to make fish magically appear in front of you. You’ve still got to work to find the fish. The down- and side-imaging helps you locate these fish. But you had to fish so hard to find them. Now, I can hit the GPS and mark it. I can drop a buoy and get the boat situated to face into the wind, and then you use the LiveScope to move back and forth on the structure. You don’t have to troll all over the place to find it. It keeps you from disturbing the fish. That’s the key to it. You can keep your bait in the strike zone all the time now.”

Dunn learned about the technology from James “Big Daddy” Lawler, who had been out on crappie guide Gerald Overstreet’s boat equipped with technology.

“I’ve been fishing for crappie for 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lawler said. “It’s totally changed the way I look at crappie fishing. I went into Pine Barren Creek and caught fish in 5 feet of water. I never would have believed that.”

Dunn said crappie anglers don’t have to adopt the new technology and will continue to catch fish, but it certainly has changed his thought process.

“Used to, we would just give up on these fish when it’s hot,” Dunn said. “We wouldn’t go into these sloughs and work to find them. Now I will. This is all new to me. Each phase of the season will be a new learning experience. Once the water temperature changes and the fish move around, I’ll have to use this to see where they go.”

Typically, Dunn said when temperatures drop in the fall, crappie anglers are hitting river ledges that are 18 to 20 feet deep. He can’t wait to find out if that pattern is the only way to catch fish when fall finally arrives.

“These fish in the sloughs and creeks, I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Dunn said. “They might not even move until it’s time to spawn.”

In the lakes in north Alabama, Crow obviously targets black bass, largemouths and smallmouths.

“When you see a fish within 30 feet of the boat, you can see his tail and fins as he swims with LiveScope,” Crow said. “I’ve been running Panoptix and LiveScope for three years. I can’t fish without it. It’s not just seeing fish. It also shows you stumps, grass, drop-offs and ledges. You know exactly where you sit. It eliminates a lot of the guesswork in positioning your boat. For suspended fish, it’s just remarkable. I have caught so many fish that I would never have thrown at without it. I would never have had a clue those fish were there. But even at places that are shallow, like Guntersville, it’ll show you the eel grass. You see the edges or isolated clumps of grass. You don’t have to guess.”

Crow said there are limitations for this technology during certain times of the year.

“You’re not going to see them if they’re spawning in 3 feet of water,” he said. “Any other time – the summer, winter and fall – it works. At Smith Lake or Lake Martin, you pull up on a point and look with the LiveScope. If there’s not any fish there, you don’t have to spend 15 minutes casting to find that out. You can see it in 30 seconds. It makes you way more efficient. You can learn about fish behavior too. They don’t necessarily sit still. You can catch one and see that all the rest of them have moved. Sometimes it’s frustrating because you can watch a fish follow your bait to the boat and never bite. It’s an eye-opening deal. If I get in somebody’s boat that doesn’t have it, I feel like I don’t have a chance. I’m kind of lost.”

Crow said the technology is especially impressive when he’s casting surface lures.

“When I’m fishing topwater, you can see your bait on the surface, and then you see the fish come straight up and eat it,” he said. “It’s awesome. When I’m guiding, I’ll watch the client’s bait and see the fish coming. I tell them, ‘He’s fixing to get it.’ They set the hook and say, ‘How’d you know that?’ I had one guy who told me, ‘Don’t tell me that. I jerk too quick.’”

Of course, the new technology is not for everybody. It’s expensive, but that seldom stops anglers. Crow recommends a graph with at least a 9-inch screen, which will cost you about $1,000. The LiveScope tacks on another $1,500. For Crow, he says the benefits far outweigh the cost.

Crow said he also found out the technology works in muddy water after a tournament on Toledo Bend on the Louisiana-Texas border.

“The water looked like chocolate milk,” he said. “Every fish I caught during the tournament I saw on the graph. It gives you so much of an advantage over somebody who doesn’t have it, it’s unreal.”

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.

4 months ago

Calhoun youth dove hunt draws largest crowd yet

(David Rainer/Contributed)

Tucked in the foothills of the Appalachians in north Alabama was a sight to behold: More than 80 youngsters were gathered in one of the many fields carved into the rolling hills, and not a single eye was glued to a smartphone.

Other activities occupied their minds as the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division readied the crowd of young hunters, parents and mentors for the annual Calhoun County Youth Dove Hunt.

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Before the hunt started at noon, the young participants had their choice of shooting Daisy BB guns at the National Wild Turkey Federation-sponsored shooting range, learning to throw a hatchet, or testing their skills at the ever-popular cornhole toss. Those activities preceded a hamburger-hot dog lunch and safety instructions from WFF Conservation Enforcement Officer Ben Kiser, who along with WFF’s Ginger Howell went to great lengths to continue the hunt’s tradition as one of the top youth events in Alabama’s great outdoors.

Kiser and Howell engaged the nearby Calhoun County communities to support the event, and the response was sufficient to supply plenty of food and drink as well as an abundance of outdoors-related door prizes.

“Ever since I became a game warden, my goal has been to introduce youth to what Alabama has to offer in the outdoors, whether it’s hunting or fishing, getting them off of cellphones or the internet and putting them in a treestand or blind, in a dove field or fishing on the bank or in a boat,” Kiser said. “I want to show them there’s more to offer instead of sitting at home in front of a TV or computer screen.

“I remember growing up hunting with my dad. There may be a lot going on in these kids’ lives, and this is a way to get them away for a few hours.”

Kiser and Howell want to make the event sufficiently special that the youngsters will never forget the day.

“If we can bring kids out here and give them a door prize or present, we can help them make a memory,” Kiser said. “Then a few years down the road, when they get old enough to hunt and fish on their own, they will remember this and be more likely to buy that license and hunt or fish. Our Department (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) depends on getting people out here and being involved in what we do for a living.”

Kiser and Howell started working on the youth dove hunt about three months ago, reaching out to the landowner to get the fields prepared for the hunt as well as local retailers who might be willing to support the event.

“We started going around to local businesses and vendors, people who had expressed interest in helping us put on one of these events,” Kiser said. “We ended up getting three shotguns donated, two of which were donated to us from Exile Armory, a Yeti cooler, several Moultrie game cameras and other items. We got a lot of help from the ACEOA (Alabama Conservation Enforcement Officers Association) and Superior GMC-Cadillac in Anniston. They were big in making this event bigger than last year. We got items that we thought the kids would be more apt to use instead of what the adults would use. Then we got out and hit the pavement. We put up signs everywhere – in store windows, Jack’s, gun shops, Academy. We posted the hunt on social media. I talked to several people who had been here before and got it out by word of mouth. There’s a lot that goes into an event like this.”

Howell added, “We made sure we had plenty of food, and we made sure every youth here got a door prize. This hunt allows families to spend some quality time together and bond.”

The local NWTF chapter brought its shooting sports trailer with a blow-up BB-gun range and a hatchet-throwing game. The BB-gun range introduces the young hunters to gun safety and keeps them engaged.

Obviously, the first step in holding a youth dove hunt is to secure a place to hunt, which is where Randy Martin of Calhoun County stepped forward.

“I love to see all these young’uns come out here,” Martin said. “I think we live in a culture where these kinds of events can help establish a moral foundation and bring them into God’s creation so they can get a little different perspective on life. We’re trying to use our farm in ways that not only benefit us but allow others to benefit. That’s why we’re holding this dove shoot. I feel like my part is the easy part. The organization and fundraising that Ben and Ginger take care of is what takes all the time. I’m very appreciative of these people. I think they have the same goals for the youth that we do.”

One of the adult hunters, WFF Enforcement Section Chief Matt Weathers, brought his son and his son’s friend to the youth hunt. Weathers relayed an interesting incident that occurred on the way to the hunt.

“We stopped at Jack’s for breakfast on the way up here,” Weathers said. “The two little boys with me were both wearing camouflage. We were sitting there eating. After they finished, they got up to go to the bathroom. One of the guys sitting in the booth behind us, an older gentleman, was getting up to leave, and he turned around and came back to me. He said, ‘You know, you don’t see little boys wearing camouflage anymore. Most daddies don’t take their kids hunting anymore.’ I told him that we were going to a youth dove hunt in Calhoun County, and this daddy takes kids hunting, some that are not mine.”

Weathers said the conversation progressed into a discussion about how priorities are changing as well as the role of the father in families.

“He was in his late 70s, and he talked about how he had taken his children hunting all their lives,” Weathers said. “From my standpoint, I talk about that a lot. I bring that subject up, but seldom does the public come to me with the subject that I’m so familiar with. The gentleman had no idea I was the Game Warden Chief. He just knew he and I shared the same views on passing our hunting heritage along. I thought that was an interesting conversation on my way to a youth dove hunt where the sole focus is to introduce the next generation to hunting.”

Each registered adult hunter was required to bring one or two youths 15 years old or younger. The adult, who was allowed to join in the hunt, had to remain within 30 feet of each youth at all times when the participants reached the dove field.

Although the weather was hot for a typical mid-September day in north Alabama, the young hunters spread around two fields, some near round hay bales, and watched the skies for any sign of doves.

Although the doves waited very late to fly because of the heat, the hunters were able to shoot enough to make the shotshell manufacturers happy, not to mention those 80-plus young hunters.

The youth dove hunt program has provided a continued opportunity for youngsters to enter the ranks of hunters. This hunt highlights only one of the 28 youth dove hunts hosted by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries across the state. If you’re interested in attending one of them, visit https://publichunts.dcnr.alabama.gov/Public/AvailableHunts/6 for a list of youth dove hunts still available. But don’t hesitate because very few hunts remain.
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.

4 months ago

Complacency often leads to treestand, firearms accidents

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Hunter Education Program wants to teach old hunters new safety tricks. Actually, these are not new safety tricks, but experienced hunters seem to be failing to follow them, according to last year’s hunting accident reports.

During the 2018-2019 hunting seasons, 15 treestand accidents were reported, and more than half of those individuals were age-exempt from having to complete a hunter education course. Of the five who did take the hunter ed course, all under the age of 40, only one of those was wearing a full-body harness when the accident occurred.

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“That full-body harness probably saved his life or saved him from serious injuries,” said Marisa Futral, Hunter Education Program coordinator. “He fell asleep in his stand, but he lived to see another day. He did everything he was supposed to do, excluding the falling out of the tree part. Three of the 15 accidents were fatalities. Still, a lot of these injuries could have been prevented with a full-body harness.”

For those born on or after Aug. 1, 1977, must complete the hunter education course before they can purchase a hunting license. However, Futral urges everyone who plans to pursue game this fall to take the hunter ed course.

“Even if you are grandfathered in, there’s always something you can learn,” she said. “I’ve noticed over the years that it is the hunters who don’t have to take the course are the ones having the accidents.

“I think the mentality is they’ve been hunting their whole life and get complacent. But those older hunters could learn a lot by taking the hunter education course, which is a lot more than firearms safety. The No. 1 hunting accident is falling out of trees. That is covered extensively in the hunter ed class.”

Of the three fatalities, none were wearing a full-body harness. Two of the fatalities were using climbing stands, while the other was in a hang-on stand.

The accident reports indicated one fatality occurred when the hunter was using a climbing stand and was about 21 feet off the ground when the straps on the stand broke.

The other fatality using a climbing stand also fell 21 feet when rusty connectors broke as he was sitting in the stand.

“One of the problems is that people aren’t inspecting their equipment before they climb,” Futral said. “You cannot leave your stands in the woods all year and expect them to be safe.”

The hunter who was using the hang-on was killed when he apparently fell as he climbed into the stand.

“If they had been wearing full-body harnesses, they would probably still be alive,” Futral said.

Futral also stresses that hunters should be connected to the tree in some way when they are climbing and descending the tree. Several accidents have occurred when hunters have been wearing safety harnesses but fell going up or coming down the tree. Several products are available that keep hunters attached to the tree at all times.

Of the non-fatal treestand accidents, the 11 who were not wearing full-body harnesses suffered a variety of injuries, including broken bones and internal injuries.

“Again, the guy who wore a harness had no major injuries,” Futral said. “You don’t have to suffer the consequences of a major injury.”

WFF Hunter Education stresses the following 11 guidelines for using a treestand safely:

  1. Always wear a safety harness, also known as a fall-arrest system, when you are in a treestand, as well as when climbing into or out of a treestand. Statistics show that the majority of treestand incidents occur while climbing in and out of a stand.
  2. A safety strap should be attached to the tree to prevent you from falling more than 12 inches.
  3. Always inspect the safety harness for signs of wear or damage before each use.
  4. Follow all manufacturers’ instructions for use of a safety harness and stand.
  5. Follow the three-point rule of treestand safety. Always have three points of contact to the steps or ladder before moving. This could be two arms and one leg holding and stepping on the ladder or one arm and two legs in contact with the ladder before moving. Be cautious that rain, frost, ice or snow can cause steps to become extremely slippery. Check the security of the step before placing your weight on it.
  6. Always hunt with a plan and, if possible, a buddy. Before you leave home, let others know your exact hunting location, when you plan to return and who is with you.
  7. Always carry emergency signal devices such as a cell phone, walkie-talkie, whistle, signal flare, PLD (personal locator device) and flashlight at all times and within reach even while you are suspended in your fall-arrest system. Watch for changing weather conditions. In the event of an incident, remain calm and seek help immediately.
  8. Always select the proper tree for use with your treestand. Select a live, straight tree that fits within the size limits recommended in your treestand’s instructions. Do not climb or place a treestand against a leaning tree.
  9. Never leave a treestand installed for more than two weeks since damage could result from changing weather conditions and/or from other factors not obvious with a visual inspection.
  10. Always use a haul line to pull up your gear and unloaded firearm or bow to your treestand once you have reached your desired hunting height. Never climb with anything in your hands or on your back. Prior to descending, lower your equipment on the opposite side of the tree.
  11. Always know your physical limitations. Don’t take chances. Do not climb when impaired by drugs, alcohol or if you’re sick or unrested. If you start thinking about how high you are, stop climbing.

Alabama hunters also had several firearms-related accidents during the 2018-2019 season with three fatalities and two non-fatal incidents.

Two of the fatalities were self-inflicted. One was in a shooting house when the accident happened. The other occurred when the hunter fell, and his handgun discharged. One fatality occurred when a hunter was mistaken for game.

One of the two non-fatal accidents happened during a dove-hunting outing. The shooter covered another hunter while swinging on a dove. Failure to check beyond the target, a deer, resulted in the second non-fatal accident.

When I write about having a safe and enjoyable hunting season, I always list the 10 commandments of firearms safety:

  1. Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
  2. Control the muzzle of your firearm. Keep the barrel pointed in a safe direction; never point a firearm at anything that you do not wish to shoot and insist that your shooting and hunting companions do the same.
  3. Be sure of your target and beyond. Positively identify your target before you fire, and make sure there are no people, livestock, roads or buildings beyond the target.
  4. Never shoot at water or a hard, flat surface. A ricocheting bullet cannot be controlled.
  5. Don’t use a scope for target identification; use binoculars.
  6. Never climb a tree, cross a fence or jump a ditch with a loaded firearm.
  7. Store guns and ammunition separately. Store firearms under lock and key, and use a gun case to transport firearms.
  8. Make sure your barrel and action are clear of all obstructions.
  9. Unload firearms when not in use. Never take someone else’s word that a firearm is unloaded. Check yourself.
  10. Avoid drugs and alcohol when hunting or shooting. Even some over-the-counter medicines can cause impairment.

Even if you’ve been hunting all your life, Futral urges both experienced hunters and young hunters to complete the hunter education course for a variety of reasons.

“You don’t have to wait until you’re 16 to take the hunter education course,” Futral said. “You can take it as early as 10. Don’t wait until the last minute. For the older hunters, there’s always something they can learn. You may have been hunting all your life, but there may be one bit of information that you hadn’t thought about that could save your life. Take a young person to hunter ed class and sit in with them. It’ll be a good experience for both.”

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.

5 months ago

Bait privilege license opens opportunities for deer hunters

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed, YHN)

Now that the 2019-2020 hunting licenses are on sale, many hunters are pondering whether to take advantage of a new opportunity or maintain the status quo. That opportunity is the inaugural bait privilege license that allows hunting for white-tailed deer and feral pigs with the aid of bait.

Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said hunters need to remember that the bait privilege license was an act of the Alabama Legislature and not a regulation set by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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“The baiting privilege, first and foremost, was something that was legislated,” Sykes said. “It was not something the Department pushed or something that we crafted. This came from the Legislature. Their constituents wanted to hunt over bait. So, good, bad or indifferent, we’ve got it.”

Sykes explained what the Alabama legislators included in the bait privilege legislation.

“Anybody who wishes to hunt over bait must have a bait privilege license,” Sykes said. “A lot of people think that’s just corn. Some people are calling it the corn stamp. That’s not true. It includes a protein feeder, mineral blocks, juices and sprays. All of that is considered bait if you’re going to hunt over it. If you are going to do that, you have to buy a bait privilege license.”

While Alabama requirements for hunting and fishing licenses have age exemptions and landowner exemptions, the bait privilege license does not have exemptions.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re 7 or 107 or a private landowner hunting on your own property,” he said. “There are no exemptions provided in the legislation. So, everyone who hunts over bait will have to have that license.”

A conversation that occurred at the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division booth at the Buckmasters Expo in August explained why most deer hunters should consider purchasing a bait privilege license as a form of insurance.

The hunter said one member of his hunting club was adamant that he was not going to hunt with the aid of bait, and he wasn’t going to buy a bait privilege license. However, the other members of the club are going to purchase bait privilege licenses and hunt with the aid of bait.

“Guess what? That one guy who doesn’t have a bait privilege license and is a member of a club that chooses to bait is putting himself at risk to get a ticket,” Sykes said. “Here’s the way I’m looking at it. Whether I like it or not, whether I, Chuck Sykes, personally agree with it, I bought one the first day. Now anybody I choose to go hunting with, I don’t have to worry whether they put feed out and it’s been gone for 10 days. I don’t have to worry if their feeder is 90 or 100 yards away and out of the line of sight according to the ‘area definition’ regulation. Whether I hunt over feed or not is irrelevant. It is a $15 insurance policy, so I don’t have to worry about it. People who are in these big clubs, there’s always one in every crowd. Even if the club decides they’re not going to feed, there’s going to be one guy who does it. Fifteen dollars is a lot cheaper than a $250 ticket.”

For those who insist they are not going to hunt with the aid of bait and are not buying the bait privilege license, Sykes said that’s perfectly fine.

“It’s not mandated that you have to hunt over feed,” he said. “You can hunt oak trees or food plots. Or, if you want to feed, make sure you’re more than 100 yards away and out of line of sight because of natural vegetation or natural terrain. The area definition is still in effect.”

Sykes offered an example of his father, Willie, who lives and farms cattle in Choctaw County.

“This is Chuck talking. My daddy has not killed a deer in over 40 years,” he said. “But he loves to feed them. I only get to hunt two or three days a year on my family farm. There have been more times than not that I have been denied that opportunity because when I get home on a Friday afternoon, I’ll ask Daddy, ‘When was the last time you put feed out?’ He’ll say, ‘Oh, I just put a 5-gallon bucket out the other day. I’m sure it’s already gone.’ Now that I have a bait privilege license, I don’t have to worry about it. Does that mean I’m going to have a feeder stuck out in the middle of the food plot? No. But, if I have the opportunity to come home and see Daddy, I don’t have to worry about it. I know a bunch of people who are looking at it that way. I bought Daddy a bait privilege license the other day on one of the inaugural hard cards for the first year of the license. He turned 77 on August 3.”

Sykes said one of the most common questions that comes up about the bait privilege license is, “What do you mean my grandson has to have a bait privilege license?”

“If the 7-year-old grandson is sitting in a shooting house with Granddaddy, and there’s a 30-06 and a .223 in that box, and there’s a feeder in the middle of the field, Granddaddy and his grandson both need to have a bait privilege license,” he said.

When the Alabama legislators asked for Sykes’ input on the proposed legislation, he said a provision that allows the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) to manage the feeding of wildlife in the event of a disease outbreak made the bill much more palatable.

“That the Commissioner can manage the feeding, to me, that makes us a stronger agency now that we have the statutory authority to manage not only baiting but also feeding of wildlife in the event of a disease,” Sykes said. “I think, as an agency, we are better off now than before it passed. And that has nothing to do with hunting over bait. When I explain that to the naysayers, they still don’t like hunting over bait, but they understand that, as an agency, we were not going to oppose that bill because it gave us the statutory authority to manage feeding.”

Sykes said quite a few bait privilege licenses have been sold, and he expects a rush right before deer season opens.

“We’re doing everything we can to get the word out about the bait privilege license,” he said. “We’ve had it on radio, newspapers and magazines, and it’s in the Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest. One of the problems with this is the resident landowners have done the same thing for so long that many of them don’t pay attention to any changes. Their deer season has been basically the same for 40 or more years. I’m sure it’s going to take a little while to the get the word out to everybody.”

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.

5 months ago

Alabama wildlife art hard licenses now on sale

(ADCNR/Contributed)

Want a beautiful piece of wildlife or nature art that you can carry with you wherever you go? Plus, you get a heck of a deal. You can get that piece of art for just $5 when you take advantage of Alabama’s new hard-card licenses that went on sale this week for the 2019-2020 hunting and fishing seasons.

For an additional $5 fee, purchasers can select from eight different cards that depict a variety of outdoors scenes. The art scenes include deer, turkey, freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing, wildlife heritage with an indigo bunting, sandhill crane and shooting sports. A deer and feral hog adorn the inaugural bait privilege license.

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A total of 32 license privileges are eligible for purchase as a hard card, including annual hunting and fishing licenses for residents and non-residents, state duck stamp, Wildlife Heritage and bait privilege licenses. Trip licenses, lifetime licenses and no-cost privileges are not included in this feature.

“We worked so hard for years to get away from a paper license to something electronically so people could have it on their phones,” said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). “That’s been really good for a lot of people, but we get a lot of requests for a hard-card license that people can put in their tackle boxes or keep in their wallets, so they can have that with them if they don’t have their phones or whatever reason.”

Blankenship said other states have seen collectors’ markets develop for similar hard licenses with a variety of outdoors scenes.

“We had seen in Florida and some other states where the hard cards have become collectible,” he said. “We wanted to create hard cards with multiple wildlife and nature scenes that people could choose from. If they love saltwater fishing, they can pick a saltwater species. If they love freshwater fishing, they could choose a freshwater fish. If they hunt deer or turkey, they can get those. Particularly for our Wildlife Heritage licenses, we wanted to create a card for bird watchers or people who may not hunt or fish but enjoy using Forever Wild lands or State Parks. They can support the Department by purchasing the Wildlife Heritage license and the hard card that goes with that. So, we have a hard card that fits just about everybody.”

Blankenship hopes people will embrace the hard cards here as they have elsewhere.

“From what we’ve seen in other states, a lot of people like to buy the whole set that is available for that year,” he said. “They might have their license privileges added to one card and then buy the others so they can have a hard card without a license privilege attached to it. While that option is not available this year, we’ll see after this year what the demand is for that.”

With all the distractions of the modern world, from computer games to smartphones, license sales for outdoors activities have been struggling to maintain status quo. Blankenship said the general public doesn’t really understand the importance of license sales to conservation and wildlife and fisheries management through the ADCNR.

“We are a self-funded agency, so license sales and Parks revenue fund all the work that we do at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources,” he said. “That’s why we think the Wildlife Heritage license and the hard card that goes with it might be a good way for people to support the Department. We can match those license sales with federal funds and do good work for the resources of our state.”

ADCNR receives three-to-one federal matching funds for licenses sold through the Sport Fish Restoration Act and the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act.

The Sport Fish Restoration Act levies an excise tax on manufacturers, producers, and importers of sport-fishing equipment as well as small engine and motor boat fuel taxes paid by recreational anglers and boaters. A 10% tax is levied on sport-fishing equipment, while a 3% tax is paid on electric (trolling) motors. Tax is also levied on motor boat and small engine fuel, and other import duties are levied on boats and a variety of fishing equipment.

Those funds are distributed according to the number of licenses sold and land mass. The number of licenses sold determines a 60% share of the funding, and 40% percent is based on the land and water area in a particular state.

The Sport Fish Restoration Act requires that 15% of all restoration money be spent on public boating access. It also requires Alabama and other coastal states to fund marine recreational fisheries projects at a ratio determined by the number of resident freshwater to saltwater anglers.

Pittman-Robertson funds are derived from an 11% federal excise tax on the manufacturers of sporting arms, ammunition, and archery equipment. Handgun manufacturers are taxed at a 10% rate. One-half of the excise tax on handguns and archery equipment must be used for hunter education and shooting ranges.

For hard-card collectors, Alabama’s wildlife and nature images will change annually. After this inaugural roll-out of the hard cards, Blankenship said there is a possibility that the photos of the winners of the annual ADCNR Photo Contest could be used to adorn each year’s edition of hard cards.

“We have a lot of ideas about what we can do with the hard cards,” he said. “Really, we decided to do the hard cards for two reasons. One was to meet the demand for people who wanted a hard card to put their license privileges on, and the other was to find ways for other people to support the work of the Department.”

The easiest way to obtain a hard license with the wildlife and nature scenes is to purchase a license online and click on the link to purchase a hard license. Buyers can choose one or all eight of the cards at $5 per card. License purchasers who use retail outlets can also obtain a hard license. For those who want to get a hard card after a license has already been purchased, go online and use the “Replacement/Additional Hard Card” link to purchase any or all of the eight cards.

After purchase, the hard licenses will be mailed to buyers within 10 days. If you plan to hunt or fish before you receive your hard card, be sure to keep a paper copy of your license or have it available on your smartphone.

For deer and turkey hunters as well as red snapper anglers, don’t forget that when you purchase a hard card, you still must comply with harvest reporting requirements. Hunters who hunt deer and turkey should report through Game Check, while red snapper anglers should comply through Snapper Check. The easiest way to comply is to use the Outdoor Alabama app. Otherwise, hunters must retain a paper record of their harvests.

The new Reef Fish Endorsement is now available for purchase and will be required beginning September 1 to possess any reef fish species in Alabama waters. Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director Scott Bannon said enforcement will be out educating the public regarding the endorsement.

“Anytime we have a rule change we generally try and make efforts to inform the public about the change and allow some time for adjustment to the rule,” said Bannon.

Another option for those who purchase licenses for the 2019-2020 seasons is the ability to round up their purchase to the next nearest dollar. If they choose, that extra money can be designated for research in wildlife, freshwater fishing or saltwater fishing. Also new this year is the ability to opt-in for annual auto-renewal of licenses.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/license-information for more information on available licenses.

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.

5 months ago

Andrews’ AJ breaks 38-year-old Alabama record

(Alabama Outdoors/Contributed)

The 127-pound, 12-ounce amberjack that reigned atop the Alabama state records for 38 years was landed before Brian Andrews was born.

Marcus Kennedy of Mobile, who caught the big amberjack on June 19, 1981, saw the last of his state records fall on Friday, August 23, when Andrews’ 132-pound, 12.8-ounce fish takes its place after the record certification process is complete.

Andrews was aboard Capt. Bobby Walker’s Summer Breeze II soon after the amberjack season in the Gulf of Mexico kicked back in on August 1 a few weeks ago.

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Walker, who has been fishing the Gulf as a captain or deckhand for 50 years, went to a special amberjack (AJ) spot and his anglers started to hook nice fish.

“I couldn’t have had a better angler,” Walker said of Andrews, who hails from Citronelle. “I couldn’t have drawn it up any better. He was a big, strong, strapping guy. You talk about a guy working on a fish, he could do it.”

The 37-year-old Andrews is no neophyte angler. He has previously owned his own private Gulf boat and had some experience fishing offshore. He said the trip on Summer Breeze II started out in rough seas but turned into a nice day for fishing. After catching a few beeliners on two-hook rigs, the anglers got down to serious business at the amberjack holes.

When Andrews hooked up, he wasn’t sure what was on the other end of the line. He had caught a 70-pound amberjack earlier in his fishing career, but this one was different.

“I was trying to be positive, but several people were telling me it was a shark,” Andrews said. “He was pulling like a shark, but you never know. He made at least three big runs. It took at least 30 minutes to get him in. When he makes a run, all you can do is hold the rod and watch him go. When he starts peeling drag, you just hold on. When he stops peeling drag, you have to start taking some of the line back.”

The main thing the boat captain was worried about was the number of sharks that were hanging out in the same vicinity as the AJs.

“We had caught so many big bull sharks,” Walker said “I was hoping to goodness it wasn’t a shark. We had already caught two or three good jacks off that hole and broke off a couple. I was just hoping we weren’t wasting time reeling up a big shark. I hollered down to Paul (Resmondo), my deckhand, to let me know when he could see the fish and tell what it was. He said, ‘Bobby, he looks like he’s 40 feet down, but I can tell you it’s an AJ, and he looks huge.’”

When Andrews finally reeled the big fish to the surface, the deckhands gaffed the fish and struggled to get it into the boat.

“When that fish hit the deck, his mouth flopped open, and I said he looked like he could swallow a basketball,” Walker said. “His head was huge. I told them I’d lay money that the fish was at least 100. I didn’t think any more about it.”

Andrews said it was time for a break after the fish was finally on the deck and the deckhands were in charge.

“We admired him for a few minutes,” Andrews said. “We took a few pictures and got him on ice. I went inside for some AC (air conditioning) after that. After about 45 minutes, I was ready to catch another one. It took me a little while to recoup.”

The boat came back in and docked at Zeke’s Marina. Walker was busy squaring away the boat for the next trip when he heard something that got his attention.

“Then I heard people hollering and raising Cain and wondered what was going on,” he said. “They had hauled the fish up on the scales. When I saw it, I said, ‘Whoa.’ Tom Ard looked at me and said, Bobby, you’ve got a state record.”

The big fish measured 65 inches from the tip of its snout to the fork of its tail and sported a 40-inch girth.

Obviously, when you spend as much time as Walker on the Gulf, plenty of big fish are going to hit the marina dock.

“I’ve caught plenty of big amberjacks during my day,” he said. “I think that was the third one over 100 pounds. Believe it or not, we caught a 109 and a 111 on the same day about 10 years ago.”

When Kennedy, 17 at the time, caught the long-standing AJ record, he said big amberjack were more common during the late ’70s and early ’80s, and he was definitely gung-ho when it came to targeting big fish.

“We had caught several fish over 100 pounds back then,” said Kennedy, who held the Alabama blue marlin record for 26 years before it was broken in 2013. “I had previously held the record at 102 pounds. Some of my high school friends and my dad (the late Rod Kennedy) were out fishing. We actually caught that big fish (the record) on the Edwards Liberty Ship. I think I caught it on a small, live king mackerel, but I can’t remember 100%. I definitely was using a 6/0 reel with 100-pound test line and a Ross Hutchisson custom rod. That was my big amberjack rig. Back then, that’s what we fished for. We won the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo on a regular basis with big amberjack. When we got that fish in the boat, I knew it was significantly bigger that the 102-pounder that I’d caught before. We got him to the boat in 15 to 20 minutes. We fought them hard, and I had a good, strong back back then.”

Now that his last record is off the Alabama record books, he’s not worried about getting back on the list. He’s going to leave that up to his 28-year-old son, Tyler, who already owns three state records for other saltwater species.

“If I catch a record fish, it’s going to be something smaller,” Kennedy said. “It’s not going to be an amberjack or blue marlin. I’ll leave that up to Tyler and Ryan (Kennedy, his 20-year-old nephew).”

Walker said amberjack are usually around some kind of structure – wrecks, petroleum rigs or big rocks on natural bottom – and can be anywhere from 50 feet to 300 feet down. He said it’s easy to distinguish between the different snappers and the amberjack. He marks AJs on his bottom machine and tells his anglers how far to drop.

Although a lot of anglers will use big jigs for amberjack, Capt. Walker likes to use live bait for the big fish.

“Hardtails (blue runners) are probably the best bait,” he said. “Jigs used to work great, but AJs are just not as plentiful and are harder to catch. We just like to drop a big, live bait down and see what’s down there. The secret to catching a big AJ is having the right tackle. You’ve got to go pretty heavy. You can’t catch one like that on light tackle. First, you’ve got to get him away from the wreck or the rocks. You’ve got to have some pretty strong tackle to do that. If you can get him away from the structure, you’ve got a good chance of catching him.”

Walker said amberjack fishing has been a little slow so far, but he knows fishing success is cyclical.

“One year it’s great, and the next year you’re wondering where the AJs went,” he said. “This has started out like one of those years that’s down a little.”

Walker said the demand to catch amberjack doesn’t compare with red snapper. He fished 55 of the 62-day snapper season for charter boats.

“People like to catch amberjacks, but it’s nothing like the bookings we get for snapper,” he said. “We tell them we can also catch beeliners (vermilion snapper) and maybe a scamp or a grouper. I’ve got some more 12-hour trips coming up. I’m probably going to the amberjack hole. I want to see if lightning strikes twice in the same spot.”

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.

5 months ago

Buckmasters longest-running hunting show on TV

(Buckmasters/Contributed)

As a teenager and young adult, one TV show I did not miss was “The American Sportsman” with host Curt Gowdy. The highlights were the bird-hunting trips with Phil Harris, Bing Crosby and the legendary Bear Bryant. Gowdy’s show was one of the longest-running TV shows that featured hunting on a regular basis.

However, at 23 years, “The American Sportsman” does not come close to the longevity record.

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That honor belongs to Buckmasters, which is in its 33rd season on the air with Montgomery, Alabama, native Jackie Bushman as its main host.

“We’ve been chasing whitetails for 33 years on major cable television,” Bushman said with the 2019 Buckmasters Expo set for Friday through Sunday this week at the Montgomery Convention Center. “Just to watch how it’s changed from the cameras, the female hunters and new hosts, it’s amazing where it’s come in 33 years. I’m very, very proud of being a part of it.”

Bushman said his inspiration for Buckmasters was Ray Scott, who elevated bass fishing to elite status through Bassmasters, the organization Scott founded.

“Way back, Ray Scott was a good friend, and I watched what he did with Bassmasters,” Bushman said. “But bass fishing and deer hunting are two different sports. There are some things you can do in bass fishing you can’t do in deer hunting. I remember the hardest thing getting started was the cameras and light-gathering capabilities. That’s probably the reason nobody did a whitetail show. With the old cameras, I just wanted to pull my hair out. The most common two words from my camera guy were, ‘Don’t shoot,’ because there wasn’t enough light.”

When Buckmasters started, the cameramen were lugging around 25-pound cameras that cost $45,000 each. The evolution in video equipment to today makes it much easier with handheld cameras with high definition that cost $3,000 to $4,000.

“It’s amazing how far the technology has come since we started,” Bushman said. “And the light sensitivity allows us to hunt in conditions that we used to never dream of.”

Bushman said he really can’t pinpoint a time when he knew Buckmasters was going to be a success, and he could quit teaching tennis at Lagoon Park.

“I was doing the consumer shows, trying to sell Buckmasters, and still teaching tennis,” he said. “When we got to go to TNN (The Nashville Network), we went from 10,000 or 12,000 subscribers to 80,000. Then it just kept taking off from there. That was the biggest catalyst to get us going to the next level. For five years, we were the only hunting show on any of the major networks.”

When TNN was sold and the new buyers didn’t want any hunting or fishing programming, Buckmasters spent a couple of years searching for a new network home before settling in at the Outdoor Channel, its home for the past 16 years.

The TV show’s content has also changed over the years from strictly hunting whitetails to hunting a variety of big-game species.

“When it was all whitetails, that put a lot of pressure on us because you’ve got only X number of weeks to hunt to get original footage,” Bushman said. “We started mixing in elk hunts, caribou hunts and bear hunts. But it’s still 80-85% whitetail, because that’s what most people want to watch. When you go on location for 4½ days, you’re trying to get 17 minutes and 40 seconds of editorial content to fill up a TV show. I always tell everybody that if you see a lot of talking on the show, we had a bad week. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

Over the years, Bushman introduced new features to the show, including Officer Rusty, a genuine Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Conservation Enforcement Officer, Rusty Morrow. A puppet character named Shotgun Red was also added.

“I always wanted to have something for the kids,” Bushman said. “For the 33 years, it’s always been about the kids and getting the new generation going. I was on ‘Nashville Now’ with Ralph Emery. We were talking about the new season of Buckmasters, and Steve Hall, who was Shotgun Red, was listening.

“Steve Hall said to me, ‘What you said about hunting and conservation, that’s the coolest things I’ve heard on national TV.’ I told Ralph that if it wasn’t for the hunters and fishermen, we wouldn’t have the abundant wildlife we have today.”

Bushman said anyone who loves to see and experience the wildlife and natural resources Americans enjoy should consider buying a hunting and/or fishing license regardless of whether they hunt or fish.

“I tell people, I promise that money will go toward conservation projects,” he said.

Shotgun Red quickly became a part of the Buckmasters TV show and was an instant hit. One promotion promised a Shotgun Red doll for youngsters who wrote into the show. Demand quickly outstripped supply.

“Kids loved Shotgun Red,” Bushman said. “I didn’t have a clue of how big it was going to get. I’ve had grown men come up to me and say, ‘I never got my Shotgun Red doll.’ It’s funny how it touched a lot of people.”

Another celebrity soon joined the show. The Buckmasters Classic was a huge event at Southern Sportsman’s Lodge outside Montgomery that combined deer hunting and a wide variety of celebrities who competed in all sorts of games. Jim Varney, the rubber-faced comedian of Ernest fame, came to Buckmasters Classic one year and asked how he could help promote the outdoors lifestyle.

“We couldn’t use Ernest, so we had to come up with another character,” Bushman said. “We went to an outdoors store, and Jim started trying on hats. He looked like Elmer Fudd in one hat, but then we found an orange hat with ear flaps. He put one flap up and one down, and he looked in the mirror and said, “Bush, this is it.’ From that day forward, he was Bubba. When we put Shotgun Red and Bubba together with me in the middle, it was a huge, huge hit. Now I’ve lost both my co-hosts. Jim Varney passed away when he was 50, and Steve Hall passed away this year.”

Bushman said Varney also helped him with his on-camera presence.

“He told me one day, ‘Bush, you look mad,’” Bushman said. “I said, ‘Jim, I ain’t mad, I’m scared.’ He taught me so much about the camera. He said, ‘The camera is your best friend. It’s not your enemy. When you’re talking to the camera, it’s got to be your buddy.’ I’m still not great, but I’ve learned to relax a little and be more myself.”

Bushman still marvels at the reach of the Buckmasters TV show.

“I’m just a country boy from Montgomery, Alabama, doing a hunting show,” he said. “You walk through an airport, or you walk on a beach, or you’re in a restaurant, and people come up and tell me they love the show. I never fathomed that so many people would watch the show. And believe me, the show was not about me. It was about getting people ready for deer season. I promise you, there are a lot better deer hunters out there than me. There are a lot of deer running around out there laughing at that part of it. I could do a three-year series on just missed deer.”

Bushman said his goal for the show is to project their love of hunting and try to point out the positive aspects of the outdoors experience.

“You know, bird watching is the fastest-growing sport in the nation,” he said. “What people don’t know is who funds the conservation efforts so that we have abundant wildlife of all species. The hunters fund it. But we want you to come hunting and be a part of our fraternity. A part of it is access to hunting land, but a lot of kids these days are in single-parent homes. If everybody in a hunting club took a kid or an adult newcomer hunting, it’s a pretty simple equation. We have 11 million hunters. If everybody took a kid hunting who didn’t have access to it, we’d double our numbers. If we don’t do that, our numbers will continue to decline.”

This weekend, Bushman will be hanging around the Buckmasters booth at the convention center with a variety of activities going on around him. More than 300 exhibitors will have the latest hunting equipment. The Brewster buck, the new world record whitetail, will be on display. Hunting celebrities will be available for autographs as well as the usual indoor archery championship. New this year will be the Buckmasters collegiate fishing competition.

Visit www.buckmasters.com/resources/expo for more information. Entry fee is a can of food that will be donated to the Montgomery Area Food Bank.

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.

6 months ago

Alabama sets first sandhill crane season in century

(David Rainer/Contributed)

Alabama hunters will have their first opportunity in 103 years to hunt a migratory bird that has been making a steady comeback for the past few decades.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division will conduct a draw hunt of 400 permits to hunt sandhill cranes, becoming the third state east of the Mississippi River to hold a sandhill hunt.

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“The last sandhill crane hunting in Alabama was in 1916,” said Seth Maddox, WFF Migratory Game Bird Coordinator. “This is the first time in 13 years that we’ve had a new species open to hunting. The last was alligator in 2006. It’s pretty exciting.”

The sandhill crane season will be split with the first segment from December 3, 2019, to January 5, 2020. The second segment will be January 16-31, 2020.

The daily, season and possession limit will be three birds per permit. Hunters can harvest all three birds in one day if they choose.

“This sandhill crane season came about through the feedback of hunters,” Maddox said. “They started seeing increased numbers of sandhills while they were out hunting other species, especially waterfowl. Hunters wanted the opportunity to hunt this species in Alabama. They’d heard about the seasons in Kentucky and Tennessee from their friends. Hunters have paved the way for the species recovery of sandhill crane. We want to provide hunting opportunities when they are available.”

In the early 2000s, discussions began about possible sandhill crane seasons in the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. In the Eastern U.S. the subspecies is called the giant sandhill crane.

Maddox said by 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) approved a sandhill crane management plan that included a hunt plan for the Mississippi Flyway, which includes Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

“Kentucky was the first state to take advantage of that,” Maddox said. “They opened their season in 2011. Tennessee opened their season in 2013. We’ll be the third state east of the Mississippi to have a sandhill season this year.”

Thirteen states west of the Mississippi River have sandhill crane hunting seasons.

“We started counting sandhills in 2010 in conjunction with our aerial waterfowl surveys,” Maddox said. “We conduct the aerial surveys each fall and winter. Since 2010, we’ve seen a 16% increase on average per year in the state.”

In 2016, WFF staff began discussions about the possibility of a sandhill season and began the tedious process to get a hunting season approved by USFWS.

“We had to go through the Flyway (The Mississippi Flyway Council) process, just like any other state that wants to add a new season on migratory birds,” Maddox said. “We began discussing that with the Flyway. We gathered all of our data and put together a proposal for a hunt plan. It took a couple of years to get through that process.”

When that effort was completed, Alabama was granted a three-year experimental season, beginning in 2019.

WFF opted to make the season a limited draw with 400 permits that will be issued through a computer-controlled random draw. Those drawn must complete the process. Once approved, each permittee will be issued three tags for a maximum total harvest of 1,200 birds.

The registration process is limited to Alabama residents 16 or older or Alabama lifetime license holders. Applicants must have their regular hunting license and a state waterfowl stamp to apply.

Maddox said the registration process will open in September and be open for several weeks. The drawing will occur in October.

However, the process is not complete even if you are lucky enough to be drawn.

“If drawn, they will have to take an online test that includes species identification and regulations,” Maddox said. “Once they pass that test, we will issue the permit and tags. Then they must purchase a federal duck stamp and HIP (Harvest Information Program) license, and if hunting on a WMA (wildlife management area), a WMA license. Once they have all that, they are good to hunt.”

Maddox said the number of permits was derived from the number of sandhill cranes counted over a five-year average. The guidelines under the hunt plan allow a state to harvest 10 percent of that five-year average.

“Our five-year average is 15,029 birds,” he said. “For the experimental season, we elected to keep the harvest below 10 percent because we wanted to take it slow and ensure hunting will not be detrimental to the population.”

Maddox said the majority of migratory sandhill cranes are found in the Tennessee River Valley with some birds wintering in Weiss Reservoir on the Coosa River.

Sandhill cranes prefer wetland habitat with emergent vegetation. Unlike other wading birds, sandhills don’t target fish or other aquatic species for forage.

“Sandhills mainly eat small grains,” Maddox said. “You see them feeding a lot in harvested grain fields, corn fields particularly in Alabama. They normally roost near water and forage during the day in the harvested grain fields. They typically roost in water to stay away from predators. But they roost in large numbers to give them more eyes to watch for predators.”

Sandhills stand 4 to 5 feet tall with a wingspan of 4 to 6 feet. Maddox said those who have harvested sandhills rave about the taste of the bird, although he’s never eaten it.

“I know they call them the ribeye of the sky,” he said. “They’re known as one of the best-tasting migratory birds out there.”

Hunting will be limited to north Alabama in a zone that runs from the Georgia state line down Interstate 20 to Birmingham, then north of I-22 to the Mississippi state line.

Maddox said the typical migration route for sandhills is to enter north Alabama before moving east into Georgia and then south to Florida.

“There are areas south of Birmingham associated with non-migratory populations in southeast Mississippi and in Florida,” he said. “Those birds are protected. That’s why we chose to keep it in north Alabama.”

After the season, all permit holders will be required to take a postseason survey provided by WFF. If those permit holders fail to complete the postseason survey, they will not be eligible for the drawing in the future. WFF is required to provide that information to USFWS to continue the experimental seasons.

As expected, Maddox said WFF received some negative feedback when the sandhill season was announced.

“We have received some negative feedback,” he said. “Mainly, the callers did not know much about the species. We try to provide them with information about what the hunt is going to be like, the data we have collected, and the vetting and thought process that has gone into this. Conservation efforts funded mostly from hunters is one of the main reasons for the rebound of the crane, similar to many other species of wildlife. Most of the people I have talked to have changed their minds by the end of the conversation, or at least been okay with it. There will still be people who are not going to be swayed because they don’t want to see this species hunted. But sandhills are like any other game species. A hundred years ago, deer and turkey were rare in the state. We had to build those numbers back up. It just took sandhill cranes a little longer.”

Maddox said this likely won’t be a slam-dunk for those who get permits.

“Sandhills have great eyesight and are pretty wary,” he said. “It can be tough hunting. Some people will pass-shoot them and others will use blinds and decoys. It will be interesting the first couple of years to see how hunters adapt.”

A friend of mine from Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., just outside Chattanooga, shared some insights on the Tennessee seasons, at least the first five. To his chagrin, he didn’t get drawn for last year’s season.

Tony Sanders, an outdoor writer and radio host, said, without a doubt, it’s the most exciting hunting he’s ever done.

“I’ve hunted two ways, and both are fun,” said Sanders, who also is the District 4 Wildlife Commissioner for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “I’ve hunted just pass-shooting, coming off the water going to the fields to feed. It was almost like a big dove shoot. But sandhills are deceptively big and extremely tough. I didn’t realize that the first year. I feel like I’m a pretty good shot. There was a group of five birds coming by. I’m on the first bird in the group. When I shot, I dropped the third bird. It didn’t make any sense. Ten minutes later, I walked to my car parked in a small food plot. The birds were flying over, and I realized how fast they were flying. These birds are so big and deceptively fast.”

Sanders most often opts to hunt cranes another way, which is in a blind with a decoy spread.

“The second way is more fun,” he said. “You set up a decoy spread and call them in. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see them cup their wings several hundred yards away, knowing they’re coming to your spread. But they are extremely wary birds. They’re like ducks on steroids. Everything has to be right, and you’ve got to be hidden. I hope the people of Alabama really love it. I can’t wait for our drawing. It’s our anniversary. I told my wife I had to be at the drawing. She’s great. She understood.”

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.