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.

4 days ago

With piers closed, Thornton takes to Alabama’s beautiful beaches

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

With a nickname like Pier Pounder, David Thornton of Mobile has seen his favorite pastime disappear with 2020’s double whammy of hurricanes. Hurricane Sally took the Gulf State Park Pier out of commission, and Hurricane Zeta destroyed Cedar Point Pier in Mobile County.

“I guess you can call me the Pier-less Pounder because the only pier open in the Mobile area is the Fairhope Pier, and it’s closed at night because they don’t have any lights,” Thornton said.

However, Thornton has a major backup plan, thanks to Alabama’s beautiful beaches and surf teeming with a variety of fish species.

Thornton said he’s been hooked on fishing in the surf since he was 12, and a trip to Gulf State Park Pier with his buddy, Tom Allenbach, sealed his loved for pier fishing.

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“Tom was fishing a live alewife under a float,” Thornton said of the trip to Gulf State Park Pier. “He told me to hold his rod while he caught more bait. I asked him how I would know when I got a bite. He said, ‘You’ll know.’ About that time, I felt a tug and thought I was hung on somebody else’s line. Then the fish took off, stripping drag. It was about a 10 ½-pound king, and that was when I really got hooked on pier fishing.”

But for now, fishing from shore is where Thornton will be until a portion of Gulf State Park Pier is reopened sometime late this winter.

Before Thornton decides where to pursue fish in the surf, he gathers information about weather, water, wind and tide conditions.

“Know what the weather is going to be like with the marine forecast,” he said. “It’s not that I look for any certain conditions; it’s just that I want to know what to expect and adjust. I look at the tide tables. Then I’ll decide where I’m going and what I’m going to fish for based on the conditions. Ideal conditions would be 10-15 mph winds either onshore or sideshore with waves 1 to 3 feet. For shore fishing, it’s really better with a little chop on the water. I think it stimulates the fish to bite more readily. Also, you have current flow. If there is a current working over the sandbar, you want to pay special attention to the tide, especially if it’s close to a pass. If it’s too rough or too calm or with very little tidal movement, the fish don’t cooperate as well. If I’m going to fish a neap tide, I’m going to fish close to the pass.”

When Alabama’s tides come off a neap cycle, the tide swings will sometimes reach more than 2 feet from low tide to high tide. That’s when Thornton likes to be fishing the open beaches.

“That tide movement stimulates the bite,” he said. “When I go, I’m looking for a longshore sandbar. The longshore sandbar is usually 100 to 150 yards off the beach. But there are places where the longshore sandbar swings in closer to the shore. The best places are where the sandbar is within casting range. That creates a pinch point where the fish are going to be moving from one trough to the next. When the bar is closer, you can use lighter tackle and target a variety of fish. I’d much rather catch a big fish on light tackle and take a long time than catch a small fish on heavy tackle.”

Thornton casts to the inside edge of the sandbar to start the day and adjusts his casts according to the bite.

“The fish tend to feed along the edges,” he said. “They use the sandbars for protection from predatory fish. The area from the shore out to the first bar is where most of the fish live. That old adage is that 90 percent of the fish live in 10 percent of the water. It’s the same in the surf.”

Speaking of light tackle, Thornton truly goes as light as possible. Where some folks show up on the beaches with long rods with 20- to 30-pound line, Thornton fishes with line in a range from 4-pound-test to 15-pound-test. He uses his 10- to -12-foot rods with the 15-pound line for the long casts. He takes his 7-foot rods and light line for fishing closer to the shore. However, anything can bite any of his rigs.

“I’ve hooked 20-pound black drum within 10 feet of the shore, and I’ve caught whiting and pompano out by the sandbar,” he said. “The mistake I see most people make is they’ll cast out as far as they can, pop the rod in a rod holder, plop down in a chair and wait for a fish to bite. If they don’t catch anything, they say the fish weren’t biting that day. Odds are, they overcast the fish. With light tackle, I feel like I have just as much fun catching 14- to 16-inch whiting and an occasional pompano as somebody heaving this heavy tackle and waiting hours between bites.”

Thornton uses No. 4 Kahle hooks and a variety of sinkers from pyramid to no-roll egg-shaped. If he wants the bait to remain stationary, he sticks with the pyramids. If he doesn’t mind the bait moving a little, he’ll use the flattened egg sinkers or coin sinkers.

“If I’ve got a side wind that is creating current, I can also use that slow-moving bait to cover more ground,” he said. “That way, I’m not just throwing darts at the fish. If your bait is moving too fast, you may have to go to a pyramid.”

Thornton suggests forgoing the ready-made pompano rigs and sticking with lighter line.

“If you’re targeting one- to two-pound whiting and one- to three-pound pompano, even 20-pound line is overkill,” he said. “Light line allows the fish to give account of themselves. They’re really feisty for their size. When you match the tackle with the fish, you’re going to have a lot more fun, and I really think you get more bites. It seems like every time I step down in tackle size, the number of bites I get practically doubles. Whiting and pompano can be particularly line-shy at times.”

Thornton considers the Florida pompano as his target species, but he is happy as can be with what he calls the “byproduct” of pompano fishing, which is whiting, a silvery species with a black patch at the top of its tail. Known as Gulf kingfish elsewhere, whiting don’t get much larger than two pounds but are delicious table fare. Thornton said Southern kingfish, known locally as ground mullet, are common in the surf at Dauphin Island.

“Whiting, by far, is the most prevalent fish in the surf,” he said. “But you never really know what you’re going to catch.”

As far as bait, Thornton uses fresh dead shrimp with the heads and tails pinched off when he has run out of ghost shrimp, a crustacean that lives in the surf that is caught using a suction pump commonly called a slurp gun to extract the creatures from the sand. On our outing last week, the fish definitely showed a preference for ghost shrimp. Thornton also uses a product called Fish Bites, a product with different scents infused into the material.

Thornton said shore anglers will be able to catch whiting and a few pompano throughout the winter. When the water gets a little colder, sheepshead will show up around all the jetties. The pompano limit in Alabama is three fish with a minimum total length of 12 inches. The limits on sheepshead are 10 per person with a 12-inch fork length minimum. Whiting have no size or creel limit.

The best time all year to fish the surf is in the spring, according to Thornton, who keeps readers apprised of coastal fishing conditions with columns in Great Days Outdoors and the Mullet Wrapper.

“Late March through April and possibly early May is the time to fish the beach, especially for pompano,” he said. “With the lockdown this past spring, we didn’t get to fish for pompano until May. The Gulf State Park Pier was still open during that time, and the pompano catches were astounding.”

Thornton is definitely going to celebrate when the Gulf State Park Pier reopens a portion of the pier about 40 feet past the middle section with the restrooms.

“I’ll be ecstatic,” he said. “The cruelest irony of all was the pier had scheduled a grand reopening the day that Sally smashed it. I was supposed to give a little talk that day, and I was going to reminisce about walking out on the new pier after many people had been waiting five years for the pier to be rebuilt after Ivan. It took my breath away. I remember on the old pier, we would often say, ‘If it was just 100 yards longer.’ Then they built it 200 yards longer. The fishing was just outstanding. When I walked out on the pier before Sally I couldn’t help but think about all those people who helped me become a better fishermen, people like Harley Rogers and so many others. For most of the people who are regulars on the pier, they have the attitude of ‘pay it forward.’ When you see somebody struggling, you try to help them with their tackle or bait. Then you see their whole attitude change. You don’t see that everywhere. That’s one of the things that makes Gulf State Park Pier special.”

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

Parks officials working to reopen portion of Gulf State Park Pier

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Gulf State Park on Alabama’s beautiful Gulf Coast will be a beehive of activity now and into the future.

One of the priorities is to get a portion of the popular Gulf State Park Pier open after Hurricane Sally collapsed a 175-foot section near the end octagon.

Although no estimate is available as to when the collapsed portion can be replaced, Alabama State Parks officials are working diligently to open a segment of the pier as soon as possible.

Lamar Pendergrass, State Parks’ South Region Operations Supervisor, said Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) bridge inspection divers inspected the pier after Sally to make sure the standing portions of the pier are structurally sound.

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“The divers also inspected and took pictures of the collapsed portion of the pier,” Pendergrass said. “We’re going to have assess what is the most feasible way to proceed with that section. That hasn’t been determined at this point. We have damage to the main water line, a 4-inch line that went all the way to the octagon. The electrical service that supplied the up lights and down lights has been damaged.”

The good news is the electrical supply to what Pendergrass calls the T, where the restrooms are located in the middle of the pier, is intact.

“We already have the lights in that area on and working,” he said. “After inspection, it looks like we will be able to open about a 40-foot section beyond the T. We will section it off and have it available for fishing.”

The contractor who had just finished a $2.4 million renovation to the pier days before Sally hit is on-site and working to get the pier repaired.

“We have the contractor who did the remodel under contract,” Pendergrass said. “He has a team of individuals working on the pier to put back the panels that were displaced during the storm.”

The 1,540-foot pier was built with panels designed to blow out to mitigate the damage to the structure. More than 200 of those panels were recovered after Sally.

“Those workers are replacing those panels, repairing the ones that were damaged and building new ones for the panels we weren’t able to recover,” Pendergrass said. “This week, the crew that installed the handrails should be on-site and start repairing the handrails that were damaged. The handrails around the restroom area took a good bit of damage.”

Pendergrass said a definite timetable on when the work might be completed is hard to determine right now.

“It’s very hard to say,” he said. “We’re really just scratching the surface. The electrical and water have to be addressed. We’re probably looking at winter. But we don’t want to put a date on it. We’re definitely going to open as soon as possible.”

The aforementioned renovations to the pier included replacing the pine decking and handrails with ipe (pronounced ee-pay), a hardwood from South America with a projected lifespan of 30 years, compared to 10 for pine.

The grand reopening of the pier was scheduled the day that Sally made a direct hit on the Alabama coast with 105-mph winds and a forward motion of 2 mph, which caused the coast to be pummeled for hours and hours with hurricane-force winds.

Pendergrass said Parks officials heard from many pier users during the renovations and in the aftermath of the storm.

“A lot of people in this area and people who visited the area are very disappointed they don’t have the pier to come to and fish and share the fellowship with the other fishermen,” he said. “But we have the support of those people who know that when we do open the pier back up, we’re going to have a very nice facility.”

In addition to the repairs to the pier, a new $3.6-million project is starting at Gulf State Park that encompasses several areas in the 6,150-acre park.

Additional parking spaces are being added near the pier and The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

Significant upgrades are also planned in other areas of the park, including around Lake Shelby and the Beach Pavilion to the east of the main park complex.

With the exception of trail access, Lake Shelby will be closed to the public during the renovations, which are expected to be completed by the summer of 2021.

The Lake Shelby area enhancements will include a modern playground with three areas for different age groups, separate small and large dog parks with covered seating and water fountains, new bathrooms, improved parking, a new tram stop and a bikeshare station for public use within the park.

A parking area and tram stop will be constructed across from the middle beach walkover where South Campground Road intersects East Beach Boulevard.

The Beach Pavilion will be upgraded to better accommodate volunteers, staff, weddings and other events. Also, traffic signs will be updated throughout the park.

“We are pleased to announce these improvements to Gulf State Park,” Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said. “This project has been in the works for several months. Thankfully, we were able to remain on schedule as we also continue the extensive cleanup and repairs associated with Hurricane Sally. In recent years this park has become a model for how to blend environmental sustainability with public access to our beautiful coastal landscape. We are looking forward to sharing these new enhancements with the public in the coming months.”

Pendergrass said work is underway to repair damage from Sally in the Gulf State Park Campground.

“We lost several electrical distribution panels during the storm,” he said. “We should have those repairs done this week. We are checking each panel box to make sure the breakers are good and there is no water damage. We want to make sure if campers do hook up, they will have electricity. We plan to open the entire campground up this week. That will give us 500 sites instead of the 175 we had available after the storm.”

Pendergrass said the work continues to clean up after Sally. Weeks later, Hurricane Zeta came close enough to the Alabama coast to add to the cleanup work.

“We’re riding daily through the park, picking up limbs and debris after the storms,” he said.

Pendergrass was especially appreciative of the Alabama State Parks Strike Teams that came from other parks around the state to help at Gulf State Park after Sally.

“Individuals from strike teams from almost ever park came to help us out,” he said. “The Lakepoint Strike Team came twice. They cut trees and removed debris. They did a tremendous job of helping this park out. This is just something we do when we have an emergency or tragedy; we send help to each other. And it’s greatly appreciated.”

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 reports no CWD positives; Testing continues

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

With the nation focused on the coronavirus, very little has been heard about the status of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Alabama.

Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, has some cautious good news about the spread of CWD in the South.

“Despite what you read on Facebook, just because COVID-19 hit, CWD didn’t go away,” Sykes said. “We just haven’t been talking about it as much. We’re still taking samples. We had a target of about 1,630 samples last year, and I think we took nearly 1,700, covering all counties, with no positives.”

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Last year, Mississippi and Tennessee reported new positive CWD tests. That cautious good news is the infections are not spreading toward Alabama.

“Right now, we’re staying basically status quo from last year,” Sykes said. “It looks like the cases in Tennessee and Mississippi are moving northwest. We have no new zones, nothing any closer than what we had last year. And nothing has tested positive in Alabama, so we’re on the same protocol as we were on last year.”

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/CWD-Info and scroll down the page to view the Alabama CWD Strategic Surveillance and Response Plan, which establishes a CWD Management Zone around the location of a CWD positive deer and implements specific response protocols dependent on the distance from the CWD positive. Positive deer in Pontotoc County, Mississippi, and Hardeman County, Tennessee, have prompted a response affecting Alabama’s surveillance activities. Portions of five counties in Alabama – Colbert, Franklin, Lamar, Lauderdale and Marion – are within 50 miles of those positives. Sampling and testing for CWD have been increased substantially in those counties.

CWD has only been shown to affect members of the deer family, including whitetails, mule deer, elk, moose and caribou. CWD is a fatal neurological disease, a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), which 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 infected for 5 years or longer before they exhibit symptoms.

The first case of CWD was discovered in Colorado in 1967. The disease spread very slowly, only taking in a 15- to 20-county region on the Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming borders in the next 30 years. In the late 90s, CWD was detected in Saskatchewan. That incident was traced to captive 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, Finland, Norway and Sweden also have detected CWD. South Korea’s CWD-positive animals can be traced back to the live transport of captive deer from infected facilities in Saskatchewan. Over the past 20-plus years, the movement of live cervids or infected carcasses by humans has contributed significantly to the increased spread of the disease.

Regulations that banned the importation of live deer into Alabama have been in effect for many years. 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 hide

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. The “Don’t Bring It Home” campaign highlights the ban on the importation of deer carcasses.

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.

No evidence exists at this time that CWD can be transmitted to humans. However, caution is recommended when consuming deer. The prion that causes CWD cannot be eradicated by cooking.

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 as CWD detected, 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.

Last year, WFF set up self-service stations with freezers for hunters to drop off deer heads for sampling and testing. At the self-service locations, hunters must first remove the deer’s head with 4-6 inches of neck attached. For bucks, antlers can be removed at the base of each antler or by removing the skull plate before bagging the head. Hunters will then place the head in the provided plastic bag and tie it closed. They will need to complete all sections of the Biological Sample Tag and attach the tag to the bag with a zip tie. Hunters should remove and keep the Biological Sample Receipt located at the bottom of the Biological Sample Tag before placing the bagged head in the freezer. All materials needed to drop off a sample are provided at each freezer location. Hunters can check the results of their test by visiting www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling-results and entering the six-digit number found on the Biological Sample Receipt.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling for an interactive map of self-service locations throughout the state.

“We were a little disappointed about the number of samples dropped off at the self-service freezers last year,” Sykes said. “Hopefully this year it will be better. We’ve got good relationships with a lot of hunting clubs, processors and taxidermists that are helping us. A lot of our DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program) participants are helping us. But it would be nice to get more random samples from the public.”

In 2018, WFF provided funds for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) to purchase equipment to perform CWD testing. The equipment is housed at ADAI’s Thompson Bishop Sparks Diagnostic Laboratory in Auburn. The equipment and technician have been certified to test for CWD by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and can test up to 90 samples per day.

To assist with these efforts, WFF recently created the Sick Deer Report. The public can report deer acting abnormally or a deer that has died for no apparent reason at www.outdooralabama.com/wildlife-related-diseases/report-sick-deer or by calling one of WFF’s district offices. Reports should include contact information for the person making the report, location of the deer and the symptoms observed. A member of the WFF staff will follow up to determine what may have caused the illness or strange behavior and see if the deer should be tested for CWD. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunter-resources/law-enforcement-contacts for information on the five WFF district offices.

Research into CWD received a significant boost recently when the U.S. Congress passed America’s Conservation Enhancement Act. Included in that legislation is the creation of the National Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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

Feral hog population in Alabama shows no decline

(ADCNR/Contributed)

Despite an increased effort to mitigate the impact of feral hogs in Alabama, the hog population shows no indication of decline.

“Unfortunately, it appears their numbers are continuing to increase,” said Matt Brock, Technical Assistance Wildlife Biologist with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. “I’m basing that on talking to people and on reports from areas that haven’t had hogs before.”

Brock is also basing that theory on the number of feral hogs harvested by hunters during the 2019-2020 season. Disturbingly, that total exceeded the number of white-tailed deer taken during the same period. According to the WFF’s annual hunter survey, it was estimated that about 218,000 deer were harvested. The number of feral hogs taken was estimated at about 255,000.

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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), feral hogs cause more than $1.5 billion in damages to property, agricultural interests (crops and livestock), native wildlife and ecosystems as well as cultural and historic resources.

Brock said as part of the Farm Bill passed by Congress, a large, comprehensive program is underway in Alabama to try to stop the spread of feral hogs, particularly in areas of heavy agriculture. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is conducting pilot projects in the Alabama Black Belt, the Wiregrass and on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

The Black Belt Project focuses on four watersheds covering almost 85,000 acres in Sumter County. The Wiregrass Project consists of 17 watersheds in Geneva, Houston and Henry counties. The Gulf Coast Project encompasses eight watersheds totaling almost 182,000 acres in Escambia and Baldwin counties.

The projects include purchasing feral hog traps with the latest technology, which allows the traps to be triggered remotely.

“They are trapping on the properties of private landowners with a long history of hog problems around agricultural areas,” Brock said. “They are offering this service to those private landowners in the designated watersheds and have hired several technicians to operate the traps. The end goal is not just to remove those hogs but to leave those landowners with the resources and knowledge to continue those trapping efforts once the pilot project ends. That’s a pretty big deal, getting that education out to the landowners to understand how to use the latest technology. I’m very glad to see that.”

One of the problems with feral hogs is the invasive species’ ability to rapidly reproduce. Brock said a typical litter is four to eight piglets, but he has heard of litters as large as 14. Some feral hogs can reach sexual maturity at six months. The gestation period is about 112 to 115 days.

“The sows will generally be close to weaning their litter before being bred again,” he said. “In theory, sows can have three litters every 14 months. Most of the time, they have one or two litters a year. Another thing is the piglets have a very high survival rate. They have very few predators because momma can be pretty aggressive toward anything that messes with her little ones.”

Brock said the bulk of today’s feral swine population in Alabama originated from hogs brought to America in the Mobile area by the Spanish in the early 1500s. He said he has seen some indication that some areas have hybrid stock that includes Eurasian wild boar characteristics.

“That area around Mobile is one of the first places in the United States to have hogs,” he said.

“It’s ironic to me that those hogs pretty well stayed in that drainage for about 400 years until we had gas-powered vehicles,” Brock noted, referencing the fact that the spread of feral hogs was very limited until humans started to transport the swine to other areas. Currently, feral hogs have been reported in all of Alabama’s 67 counties.

“A lot of their movement in the past 30 to 50 years has been in the back of a livestock trailer and then released,” Brock said of a practice that has been outlawed in the state.

“Now, once a hog becomes a person’s possession by either capturing or hunting, it cannot be released alive,” he said. “It must be killed on-site.”

Brock said before the COVID-19 restrictions, WFF partnered with other agencies to actively educate the public on the feral swine problem.

“We had landowner workshops planned that we had to cancel,” he said. “We are going to try to get those rolling again as soon as possible. I think the workshops go a long way in providing knowledge and resources landowners need to take care of some of these hog problems.”

Brock said the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has purchased several remote-activated traps that have been deployed on public lands – wildlife management areas (WMAs) and special opportunity areas (SOAs) with feral hog populations.

“Part of the management on those WMAs and SOAs with hog problems is to try to efficiently remove as many of those animals as quickly as possible,” he said. “This trap design can be extremely effective in accomplishing this.”

For the private landowners with hog problems, Brock said the NRSC also has a program that will help reimburse the cost of equipment and resources to deal with the hogs under certain conditions.

“If three landowners in close proximity sign up, the NRSC has some cost-share programs for those landowners to collectively purchase a trap,” he said. “The landowners have to document the hog damage before implementation of the program. Then after the trapping efforts, the landowners are reimbursed for a significant portion of the equipment.”

For more information regarding this program, contact your local NRCS office.

As shown by the harvest numbers, hunters obviously remove quite a few hogs annually from the landscape, but hunting has proven to be ineffective at reducing total numbers of hogs.

“The most efficient method at reducing the population in a certain area is to remove entire sounders (family group),” Brock said. “People who are using this remote-activated design trap are seeing effective population control as a result of whole sounder removal. That is the best method available.”

It’s also important when trapping to make sure the entire sounder is inside the enclosure when the trap is triggered.

“Hogs are highly territorial,” Brock said. “Older sows develop home ranges where they forage and take their young. If you can remove a group from one area and start going along the landscape, removing groups as you come to them, you are creating a void that no other hogs are in currently. Some people trap in a shotgun approach, but if you move along the landscape in a strategic fashion, you can do real well in removing sounders entirely. That is what we teach at the workshops.”

Brock said modern technology allows trappers to be much more efficient at removing sounders.

“Monitoring with cameras and live-stream video has completely changed the game,” he said. “I can’t stress enough the importance of monitoring to know what you’ve got. If you’ve got 100 hogs on the landscape and you catch 35 of them, you think you’ve done a really good job. But if you’re not monitoring them with cameras, you wouldn’t know you left 65 out there. Not only that, you also educated them. Cameras, especially with live-streaming, have really changed the game. When hogs come to the feed, they’re constantly moving, with some running others in and out of the trap. It’s a social hierarchy thing. With just still shots, some hogs may be outside the trap when you trigger it. With live-stream, you only have a one- to two-second delay when you drop the trap. You actually get to see what’s going on at the time you drop.”

For those who prefer to leave the hog removal to someone else, WFF has a list of nuisance trappers at www.outdooralabama.com.

For those who just need information on trapping hogs, WFF has a technical assistance biologist in each district who can provide assistance by assessing the hog damage to the property and recommending a trapping program.

Brock said landowners who provide the panels to build an enclosure can purchase a remotely activated gate for about $2,000. For a complete trapping unit, expect an outlay of between $5,000 and $10,000.

Hiring a professional feral swine trapper will run between $25,000 and $40,000 annually. That may seem like a lot, but Brock says you must keep costs in perspective.

“I had a farmer tell me, he estimated the hog damage in 2019 at $140,000,” Brock said. “He looked at what it was going to cost to hire someone to trap. It was $25,000 to $28,000. To him, that was a minor expense compared to that $140,000 loss.”

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

Weekends open until private anglers meet snapper quota

(David Rainer/Contributed)

If the recent blustery weather caused anglers to forgo a red snapper trip during the weekend extensions, don’t fret. Scott Bannon, Director of Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD), assures that private recreational anglers will have the opportunity to harvest the remaining quota.

The original plan was for a three-day extension from October 10-12, but Hurricane Delta foiled that plan. With snapper remaining in the quota, Alabama Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship and Bannon amended the extension to include Saturdays and Sundays until the quota is projected to be met.

“Remember, we are fishing to the pounds available in the annual quota, not to the dates,” Bannon said. “We expected a relatively low turnout for that three-day weekend. The only day with decent weather was Monday. We decided to leave that weekend open if anybody had the opportunity to go.”

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What MRD officials discovered through Snapper Check was a few brave anglers decided to venture out in the rough seas. Bannon said there were Snapper Check reports on Sunday and Monday of the Hurricane Delta weekend.

“That was not the weather I would have fished in,” Bannon said. “Although the weather was better Monday, some people in smaller boats went out and turned around. They didn’t feel safe or comfortable. I think that was a wise decision, but they will get opportunities later. Looking at the public access boat ramps, there were a few trailers, but they were not full. I think there are some Hurricane Sally residual effects. People are still trying to clean up from the impacts, whether it’s their homes, docks or boats. Some marinas are not capable of putting boats in the water. Some of the dry storage facilities are damaged. Wet slips are not available. The two hurricanes are playing a factor in the reduced effort. I think it will be a while before the Gulf Coast is back up to full fishing force.”

Bannon said the best way to manage the season was to leave it open on weekends until the quota is met.

“This time of year, we will continue to have challenges with the weather,” he said. “People will have multiple conflicts with their schedules based on kids being in school and hunting seasons. We know the weekend effort won’t be like summertime weekends. We will keep up with the harvest through Snapper Check and post it on our webpage. We will try to give people as much notice as we can about when the quota is anticipated to be met. But I think it will take several weekends now.”

As with any hurricane makes landfall along the Alabama coast, the storm can cause artificial reefs to be displaced, which was the case with Sally.

“We are already aware that some lighter-weight material, like the chicken transport devices, were moved,” Bannon said. “Some of the state’s nearshore reefs have been moved. But they are relatively close to where they were deployed. The Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) has identified some spots that have moved. We’re doing some surveys in our nearshore reef zones to determine the impact, and we’ll do some checks of offshore reefs later. Pyramids and larger items that have been there for a while and are planted in the bottom, they’re not going to move. Some items have turned over, but that’s fine. They still provide structure. We don’t think it will negatively impact the fish. I’ve also seen some social media posts where people have been looking for spots and located them nearby.”

More good news for red snapper anglers came recently when preliminary results from the Great Red Snapper Count were presented to the U.S. Congress. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby was among the legislators who pushed a $10 million appropriation through Congress to fund the research.

“I have not seen the full report, but the estimate from the Great Red Snapper Count is that the snapper population is about three times larger than what was previously thought,” Bannon said. “One of the interesting portions of the report is the number of red snapper that are not on natural or artificial reefs. The number of snapper that are out on the flat areas, so to speak, are much higher than previously thought. Those fish are not accessed by anglers, so those fish will continue to be there based on the current fishing methods.”

Bannon said the Great Red Snapper Count information will be used by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to create an interim stock assessment for red snapper. The Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University was the lead for the Great Red Snapper Count. The work off the coast of Alabama was led by Dr. Sean Powers of the University of South Alabama.

“We’re anticipating hearing about the interim assessment in the near future, and that will impact the 2021 season for all sectors – commercial, for-hire and private anglers,” he said. “But this will not mean a three-time increase in the quota. The data from the red snapper count isn’t the only factor that goes into an interim analysis. It’s an important factor but only one source of data that goes into the analysis. However, this is excellent news. It is something we had anticipated. We expected the method used would reveal there were more snapper in the Gulf. It was a very important study, and Senator Shelby’s office was instrumental in providing funding for that.”

Bannon said the results of the Great Red Snapper Count may relate to a number of other fish species in the Gulf as well.

“What we learned from this is whether we need to change some of the analysis methods for all species – the way we conduct stock assessments,” he said. “Do we need to continue to adjust our assessments closer to this model to ensure we’re getting accurate stock assessments.”

Bannon said the research that MRD and The University of South Alabama conducts in Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones, which cover more than 1,000 square miles in the Gulf, was the genesis of the methods used in the Great Red Snapper Count.

“Because of the research done in our reef zones, we have said for the last eight years hat we had a very good understanding of the abundance of fish off of Alabama,” he said. “Now that we have that information from across the Gulf, it is good to know that the snapper stock is in better condition than some people anticipated. It’s a very positive outcome for red snapper anglers.”

Bannon said private recreational anglers can pick the days best for them to take advantage of the red snapper weekend extensions.

“We’re fishing to the quota,” he said. “If it’s not comfortable or safe to go, don’t go. The fish are still in the bank, so to speak. We will keep Saturdays and Sundays open until we anticipate the quota being met, and that could be as soon as the end of this next weekend.”

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

Wood duck mates determine migration routes

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

In the waterfowl world, Alabama’s most abundant species, the wood duck, is not known for migrating long distances.

It turns out, the wood duck migration patterns follow a “boy meets girl” scenario. Boy meets girl; girl flies home; boy follows.

When the Minnesota waterfowl season opened, four wood ducks that were banded in Alabama were harvested more than 1,000 miles from home.

Seth Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Migratory Bird Coordinator, said one of the birds harvested in Minnesota was 6 years old, banded in 2014 as a hatch-year male. The other three were banded in recent years.

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“What is interesting in our data is that our males, especially juvenile males, will pair up with migrant females and follow them back to their natal nesting ground,” Maddox said. “Our females tend to hang around where they were hatched. Whatever female a male pairs up with, he follows her.”

Alabama has been banding wood ducks since 1956. During that time, WFF has banded about 28,000 wood ducks. The band recovery rate is about 7.7 percent, which may seem low, but Maddox said that is about the national average for all banded waterfowl.

“We have recovered a little more than 2,100 bands,” Maddox said. “If you look at waterfowl overall, the band recovery is between four and five percent. Some birds are smarter than others, and others die before they are harvested. Recovery rate is pretty low for most species. About 50 percent of the wood duck bands are recovered in Alabama.”

Although the aforementioned birds traveled as far as Minnesota, Maddox said most wood ducks don’t make such a long journey.

“The states next to or near us harvest more than any other states,” he said. “We do get a good bit of band recovery in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi.”

While it’s fairly rare to have bands recovered as far away as Minnesota, Maddox said bands have been recovered in 30 different states since the program’s inception.

“We’ve had bands recovered from Maine to Florida, in Texas, North Dakota and three Canadian provinces – Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec,” he said. “More males are harvested out of state, which goes back to our males pairing up with migrant females. The males likely get killed near where the female is from or on the way back south during the next winter.”

Getting a firm count on the wood duck population is difficult for waterfowl managers because of the bird’s habitat preferences.

“We can’t count wood ducks from a plane like we do with other species,” Maddox said. “Wood ducks live in beaver swamps and wetlands. That’s why we have a banding program, so we can track harvest rates and survival and look at age ratios. With this data, we can assess what the population is doing so we can set seasons and bag limits because we can’t count them from the air.”

WFF’s banding work is conducted during the heat of the summer. Maddox said biologists look for a suitable clear spot on the edge of a pond or river. The ducks are baited with grain, and game cameras are erected to monitor the activity at the bait site over a two-week period.

A 30-foot by 60-foot rocket net is then set up and fired when the ducks congregate at the bait site. WFF officials remove the ducks as quickly as possible from the net and put them in crates before they start banding the birds.

“Our banding runs from July until the end of September each year,” Maddox said. “It’s a hot job, but it provides significant data. We age and sex the birds before we band them. We’re getting different ages because wood ducks in Alabama will nest up to three times a year. We’re getting adult males, adult females and three different ages of hatch-year birds.”

Maddox said mature wood duck hens will nest in February or March. The clutch of eggs will hatch in about 30 days.

“It takes about 45 days for those juveniles to fledge out and reach flight stage,” he said. “Then the hen will let that first clutch go, and she’s back on the nest.”

After WFF is finished with the banding efforts each September, the data is sent to the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Bird Banding Laboratory.

When hunters harvest a banded bird, the information should be reported to www.reportband.gov and it will enter the USGS’s band repository. The hunter will then receive a certificate of appreciation and information on where the bird was banded. WFF will receive a report from the USGS about where the bird was harvested.

“Overall, mallards are the most banded waterfowl species,” Maddox said. “You’re most likely to kill a banded mallard. Second most likely would be a banded wood duck.”

Alabama hunters will again have a daily bag limit of 6 ducks for the 2020-2021 season. That daily bag limit may include no more than 3 wood ducks, 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be females), 1 mottled duck, 2 black ducks, 1 pintail, 2 canvasbacks, 1 scaup, and 2 redheads. The daily bag limit for coots is 15 per day. The daily bag limit for mergansers is 5, only 2 of which can be hooded mergansers. The aggregate bag limit of 5 dark geese (Canada, White-Fronted and Brant) shall not include more than 3 Canada geese or 1 Brant. For light geese (Snow, Blue, Ross’s) the aggregate bag limit is 5. Possession limit is three times the daily bag limit.

Regular season dates for ducks, coots, mergansers and geese are November 27-28, 2020, and December 5-January 31, 2021. The Youth, Veterans and Active Duty Military Special Waterfowl Days are set for November 21, 2020, and February 6, 2021.

“Habitat conditions are looking good,” Maddox said. “It’s been a fairly wet spring and summer for us. There should be lots of water on the landscape and lots of food available. The hatch should have been good this year, so I think we’ll see plenty of wood ducks on Black Friday when the season opens this year.”

With the help of Ducks Unlimited (DU), Maddox said WFF is in the middle of a huge waterfowl habitat enhancement effort.

“This is the biggest undertaking of waterfowl projects the state’s ever done,” he said. “We started in 2019 and put together a list of 15 projects across the state. We’re going to put a little more than $1 million into habitat and restoration work on the wetland landscape in Alabama, from the Tennessee Valley all the way to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. A lot of the projects involve replacing or restoring the water control infrastructure on some of our WMAs (wildlife management areas). We will restore some habitats that have been degraded over the years and putting that back in higher productivity for waterfowl. We will create a couple of new SOAs (Special Opportunity Areas) that will be available for limited-quota hunts for waterfowl in the future in Jackson County and Dallas County.”

Maddox said new pumps and water control gates are being installed at the Jackson County waterfowl area. New water control structures and levees are also under construction at the David K. Nelson WMA near Demopolis.

Survey work will be conducted for the projects that will begin next year at Swan Creek, Swan Creek Greentree Reservoir and in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The work includes replacing dilapidated water control structures as well as aerial spraying of herbicides in the Delta to control non-native invasive species like Chinese tallow (popcorn) trees and giant cut grass to restore historical open wetlands.

“DU has assisted us with previous projects and is a long-term cooperative partner in conservation,” Maddox said. “In addition, a lot of this would not be possible if hunters weren’t purchasing state duck stamps over the years. We don’t get any General Fund tax dollars, so all of this work is paid for through license sales, duck stamps, Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration funds and partners like DU.”

“It’s good to see work being put on the ground through the use of these funds for the future of waterfowl in Alabama and waterfowl hunters across the state.”

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

Don’t get complacent about hunter safety

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Although the number of hunting accidents has held steady for the last several years, Captain Marisa Futral doesn’t want Alabama’s hunters to take anything for granted during the state’s lengthy hunting seasons.

Futral, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Hunter Education Coordinator, said accidents for the past five years have averaged about 20 per hunting season, which she considers encouraging but not the ultimate goal.

Of the 22 accidents during the 2019-2020 season, WFF staff had reports of eight non-fatal firearms accidents, one fatal firearms accident, 10 non-fatal treestand accidents and three fatal treestand accidents.

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“Of our non-fatal firearms accidents, half of them were self-inflicted,” Futral said. “The other half was failure to properly identify the target. The one fatality was failure to identify the target during turkey season. We really need to emphasize properly identifying the target before you put your finger on the trigger. And don’t get complacent. One of the non-fatal firearms accidents occurred when the hunter tripped and shot himself in the foot. Hunters need to be constantly aware of the muzzle direction of their firearm. Of the 13 treestand accidents, the victims either weren’t wearing safety harnesses or they weren’t attached to the tree. You need to be attached to the tree the entire time you’re off the ground.”

Futral said she can’t stress that last statement enough about being attached to the tree with a safety line from the time your feet leave the ground climbing until your feet touch the ground descending.

“A wide variety of accessories is available to ensure you are attached to the tree at all times,” she said. “Harnesses are much more comfortable than they were 10 years ago. They are easy to put on and are lightweight.”

Of the three treestand fatalities, Futral said the cause of one accident in Jackson County could not be determined. One fatal accident occurred in Fayette County when the victim fell out of his stand, and the other fatality occurred as the hunter was climbing down out of the stand.

Several non-fatal treestand accidents involved failures of straps or other parts of the treestand.

“Always check the condition of your treestands before you attempt to climb,” Futral said. “Treestands left out in the weather can deteriorate quickly.”

WFF Hunter Education urges all hunters to follow 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 manufacturer’s 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 fatigued. If you start thinking about how high you are, stop climbing.

“It’s so easy to get complacent,” Futral said. “Your family wants you to come home from the hunt safely. Even if you’ve been doing this your whole life, take that extra minute to be safe. Make sure you’re hooked to the tree. Unload your firearm when you cross the fence. If you think it’ll be okay, ‘just this once.’ Don’t do it.”

The one firearm fatality occurred in Jefferson County when the hunter failed to properly identify the target during turkey season and shot a member of the hunting party.

Futral stresses 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 no people, livestock, roads or buildings are 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.

Despite the accidents, hunting remains one of the safest recreational activities available. According to American Sports Data and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, hunting ranks lower than basketball, football, tennis, cheerleading, bicycling, golf and even bowling in the total number of injuries per 100 participants.

Responsible hunters who mentor others in the aspects of safety, as well as the many volunteer hunter safety instructors around the state, have contributed to the high safety record for those who enjoy the great outdoors during the hunting seasons in Alabama.
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

Despite hurricane, October snapper extension still on

(Craig Newton/Contributed)

Despite the tumult caused by Hurricane Sally’s direct hit, the October 10-12 red snapper season is still on for Alabama’s private recreational anglers.

The hurdle for many of those private recreational anglers is finding a friend with a boat undamaged by Sally’s Category 2 winds and storm surge.

“Our intention is to keep the three-day season in October open,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division (MRD). “If people have the opportunity to participate, they will. We’ll get the numbers through Snapper Check and our surveys after that. Our promise is that we want to use all of the quota we have. If the weather is bad or participation is extremely low, we could look at additional days. I think there will be enough people. Our concern is the south Baldwin folks who were on or near the water suffered an extreme amount of damage. The number of boats that are damaged is possibly in the thousands. That could have an impact on all fisheries. From a fish stock standpoint, we’re going to see the pressure off for a few weeks and that can have some benefits. For the anglers, it’s some lost opportunities.”

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For those boats that are seaworthy and return to Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones, there’s no guarantee their favorite reefs will still be in the same location, according to Dr. Bob Shipp, professor emeritus at the University of South Alabama’s Marine Sciences Department, who has witnessed the destruction of hurricanes Frederic, Ivan and Katrina as well as Sally during his tenure.

“The impact of a storm like this goes surprisingly deep,” Shipp said. “Several studies have been done, and with a major hurricane like this, the impact is well over 100 feet deep. For fisheries, what we have is the ones really impacted are the reef species. We’ve been tagging red snapper and triggerfish for years. What we found is they stay put year after year. They don’t leave the reef until there’s a storm. Then they may show up 50 miles away to another reef. The (fish) movement is usually west to east, but I don’t know if that is something we can count on.”

Shipp said some of the reef structures in the 1,060-square-mile artificial reef zones were likely moved or covered with sand.

“The pyramids that David Walter (Reefmaker) puts down seem to be pretty stable, but the smaller reefs, like the chicken coops, get blown all over the place,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting when things settle down. There’s going to be lots and lots of reefs in different locations and nobody will have the numbers. People are going to be out running over these reefs and building new sets of numbers.”

Director Bannon agreed that reefs built of lighter material will likely be relocated.

“I saw some reports of wave heights of 30 feet,” Bannon said. “That’s a lot of energy dispersed in the nearshore zones. But the pyramids have proven to be pretty resilient. The shape helps keep them in place. If they have been there for any amount of time, they have subsided, or sunk into the bottom, and that helps keep them from rolling. We have seen them turn over before, but they stay in that area. They don’t disappear.”

Shipp wants boaters who venture out to be aware of potential hazards to navigation in displaced piers, pilings and other debris.

“There’s going to be an awful lot of floating debris for a while,” Shipp said. “It always concerns me that these boats with twins or triples (outboards) can go 50 knots. If you hit something going that fast, one can only guess the results. If you’re going to be extra careful, this is the time to do it.”

Bannon added, “Anytime we have a storm event or high-water event, all kinds of debris ends up in the water. You have material blown into the water from the hurricane, and the rain dumped on the rest of the state will cause all sorts of material to come down the high rivers. Boaters definitely need to be aware of this. This is going to be an ongoing concern, potentially for the next couple of years.”

As for the inshore fishing reefs, Bannon said MRD personnel are checking the reefs to make sure the pilings and lighting remain. Sonar surveys are also planned to check that the reef material is intact.

“Our current major concern is for the oyster reefs,” Bannon said. “We are going to try to open in October. Our surveys prior to the storm showed we were going to have a productive season, more than we did last season.”

Last oyster season, about 12,000 sacks of prime oysters came out of Alabama waters. Bannon said the estimate before Sally was an increase in harvest of about two-thirds.

“But with three days of heavy northeast winds and a lot of wave action, we have concerns about the oysters at Cedar Point East and each side of the Dauphin Island Bridge,” he said. “Those oysters may have been moved or potentially covered up. We will be conducting surveys over the next couple of weeks to evaluate that. We are still planning to open up. Additionally, 100 boats of harvesters will also let us know what they are finding after we open up.”

Bannon said a great deal of evaluation work is being done on MRD facilities and boat ramps to determine the repairs needed. The MRD office on Dauphin Island suffered roof and water damage, while the Enforcement Section boat docks were destroyed.

At the MRD Gulf Shores facilities, which include the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center, minor damage occurred with the exception of the loss of four greenhouse-type structures used by MRD and Auburn University. Bannon said the MRD staff is to be commended for ensuring the many brood fish housed in the main facilities were protected.

“The facility is designed to take a certain amount of wind load,” he said. “We have an emergency generator, and it stayed on the whole time. All of the fish in the facility are still intact. I’m very proud of our staff. They were able to go in at various times to make sure the fish were fed, and all the systems were running even though they were without power in their homes and the roads were covered in downed trees and power lines.”

One challenge for the Peteet facility is having access to water with proper salinity levels. Before the storm, a pipeline from the middle of Gulf State Park Pier fed saltwater to the spawning facility. With the tragic damage to the pier, Bannon said that pipeline intake will have to be inspected and repaired if damaged.

“We did store up some water prior to the storm,” he said. “It’s an invaluable asset to have that pipeline. It is extremely unfortunate that a section of the pier collapsed, which impacts so many anglers and tourists in addition to our pipeline.”

The good news is that most of the boat ramps that the state operates only had minor damage.

Bannon said he has major concerns for the status of Alabama’s for-hire fishing fleet (charter boats) because of two factors.

“I don’t know of any marina in south Alabama that was untouched,” he said. “Most were destroyed. This will have a major impact on both the inshore and offshore for-hire fishing. First we had the impact from COVID-19 and now Hurricane Sally. It’s a double whammy. But I would encourage anyone who had a trip booked or is planning a trip to find out if the boats are running. The captains are resilient and industrious, so they are working very hard to provide service to the public. Some charters are already running again, which is awesome.”

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

Gulf State Park section succumbs to Sally’s surge

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

One aspect of living on Alabama’s beautiful Gulf Coast is the realization that the best-laid plan is no match for Mother Nature.

The original plan was to gather on September 16 at the Gulf State Park Pier to celebrate the grand reopening of the 1,542-foot pier after a $2.4 million renovation.

Although I’m a veteran of many tropical storms and hurricanes in my 28 years on the Gulf Coast, including back-to-back hits by Ivan and Katrina, the system that turned into Hurricane Sally threw me and many Gulf Coast residents a wicked curveball.

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Off to bed with a predicted peak of 85 mph winds, I was awakened by an ominous roar. With one peek through the high windows on our vibrating front door, it was obvious this was not a clone of Hurricane Danny from 1997 that dumped copious amounts of rain on the area but did not have the wind-damage potential of Sally.

As Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said, “Sally sucker-punched us.”

Sally made landfall in Gulf Shores in the early hours of September 16 as a strong Category 2 hurricane with winds clocked at 105 mph. A wind-speed detector on a nearby tower clocked a 121-mph gust.

However, Sally’s brutality was magnified by her crawling forward speed of 2 mph, which made the incessant winds seem to last forever. Like my friend Dwight Lores said, “A human can easily walk at 3 miles per hour. That’s why Sally did so much damage.”

When the first hint of sunrise allowed a minimal assessment through the aforementioned door, trees were down in every direction. Unlike many Baldwin County homes, thankfully ours was not damaged by any of the falling trees, but it was almost three days before we could even leave our driveway. On the fourth day, a utility crew from Warren County, Kentucky, restored our power, a remarkable feat considering the extent of the damage. All hail to a hot shower.

Of course, I prayed for the best for everybody on the Alabama coast, but I feared it was not going to be the outcome we wished, especially for those structures vulnerable to storm surge.

I soon got word through the little cell service available that the northern Gulf Coast’s premier fishing and educational pier, which opened in 2009 after Ivan razed the previous pier, had succumbed to the constant battering of Sally’s surge.

The section of pier closest to the end octagon was gone. The majority of the blowout deck panels were scattered all along the sugar-sand shoreline.

The good news is the new Lodge at Gulf State Park and nearby structures were relatively unscathed because those buildings were designed to withstand winds of up to 150 mph.

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), and Greg Lein, Alabama State Parks Director, were able to perform cursory assessments late last week.

“We had damage in places we didn’t expect, and in other places where I expected to have a lot of damage, it turned out to be not as bad,” said Commissioner Blankenship, who toured the area with Governor Kay Ivey last Friday. “The damage to the pier is the most obvious that everybody has seen on TV and had the most questions about. We were very surprised by the amount of damage to the pier. The cabins at Gulf State Park on Lake Shelby took a beating. I’m afraid a lot of them will be total losses. But I was pleasantly surprised by how the dune system held up on the beach. And the Lodge at Gulf State Park, which was built to fortified building standards, fared very well during the storm. The FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) administrator was there, and we showed him the Lodge. He was very impressed with the resilience of the Lodge and how building to that standard has a big impact on the recovery.”

Commissioner Blankenship said divers are scheduled to assess the damage to the pier and determine the structural integrity of the remaining pilings.

“After that is finished, we will be able to make plans to get the pier reopened at least to the part where it broke off while we repair the entire structure back out to the octagon,” he said.

Director Lein said the campground at Gulf State Park suffered quite a bit of damage.

“It wasn’t until Friday that staff was able to access all of the park and assess the damage because of the water and downed trees,” Lein said. “A lot of the electrical distribution panels in the campground were impacted. That system will have to be assessed by an electrician to see what repairs are needed. Now that the conditions have improved, we’ve been able to clear all the campsite pads. All the modern buildings at the park appear to be okay. A couple of campers that were left on the site were tipped over by the wind. A few of the campers in the storage area were pushed together, but only one was overturned.”

The cabins and cottages on Lake Shelby highlighted how construction standards can make a big difference in potential damage.

“The cabins suffered major damage,” Lein said. “They lost portions of their roofs. Some of the walls collapsed. It appeared the wind got under the roofs in the porch areas and ripped them off. On the cottages, the roofs are intact. The older cabins had significant damage, but the modern cottages were not as affected.”

Lein said the good news about the pier is that the staff has been able to recover more than 200 of the deck panels that are designed to blow out to protect the infrastructure.

“They found some about 4 miles down the beach,” Lein said. “A couple were found in swimming pools down there. It’s amazing our crew has been able to recover so many panels. The pier will be inspected. If it’s structurally okay, we’ll be able to put a lot of those panels back, and we may be able to reopen a portion of the pier. The pier house appeared to not have any damage.”

Lein said strike teams were formed several years ago in each district of the State Parks system to assist in natural disasters. The teams are comprised of employees capable of running chainsaws, skid steers, backhoes and tractors.

“We had more than a dozen strike team members down there to join the men and women from Gulf State Park, working together as one team to clear roads and paths so support personnel had access to all of the park,” Lein said. “They achieved a huge amount of relief to the park in three days. They brought generators with them to power part of the Lodge and the park office. I can’t say enough about the strike teams and how successful their deployment was in supporting the Gulf State Park staff. The crews were all fed by the chef and staff at the Lodge’s Food Craft restaurant, and that was such a morale booster for the teams to get a warm meal.”

Commissioner Blankenship said he has been impressed by the spirit of cooperation and willingness of folks who don’t live on the Gulf Coast to lend a helping hand.

“I appreciate our strike teams that came down to assist at Gulf State Park,” he said. “They have done a great job of cleaning up the park. It will help us get the park reopened a lot quicker, and it allows for some of our employees who rode out the storm to take care of their families and limit the damage done to their homes. That’s extremely important. Every single employee was without power for a certain amount of time and had damage at their residences they needed to attend to. Having people come in from areas that weren’t impacted helped those affected people. It is very important to me to have our employees taken care of.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Blankenship said the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) facilities in Dauphin Island sustained significant damage. The MRD office building suffered roof damage, and the docks at the office were destroyed.

“But Meaher State Park on the Causeway and 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center seemed to do okay,” he said. “There were trees down but not a lot of other damage.”

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

New deer zones, Hunting 101 and transfer of possession requirement

(Gary Mitchell/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

Deer hunters will find two new zones in the 2020-2021 Alabama Deer Zones map with season dates that better coincide with deer rutting activity in those areas.

Chuck Sykes, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director, said studies have confirmed that deer in Zone D in northwest Alabama and Zone E in southeast Alabama rut significantly earlier than deer in most of the state.

“We have been conducting annual herd health checks for the past 15 years. Part of the data gathered was the reproductive status of the animal. That data is what helped us move the season into February. We also determined we had deer that rutted early.” Sykes said. “We already knew this from historical stocking data, but it took us a little more time to determine some clear-cut boundaries that would take in those areas. It was pretty easy to set up Zone A and Zone B. We basically just divided the state. But D and E are isolated pockets with early rutting deer, so it took a little more time to get those boundaries defined. Once we got the boundaries defined, it was a logical step to make those new zones.”

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Sykes said in the majority of the state the deer rut considerably later, and it was reasonable to move the season dates to close on February 10. The seasons in Zone D and Zone E start early and end early.

“Because of the early rut in Zone E, some of those deer were already casting (shedding) their antlers,” he said. “So, people who were trying to fill their freezers later in the year ended up shooting 2- and 3-year-old bucks that had cast their antlers, thinking they were just shooting a big, old doe. The season comes in early to cover the rut, but it also goes out early to try to protect those bucks that had already shed.”

Newcomers to hunting or those with little experience can take advantage of the WFF’s Adult Mentored Hunts (AMH), which Sykes said has been tweaked for the 2020-2021 season. Last year, a requirement to take a one-day workshop to be eligible for an AMH event was implemented. This year, potential participants can take a Hunting 101 or Introduction to Deer or Turkey to meet the requirement.

“What we found was we had too many people backing out at the last minute,” he said. “Now, with the introductory courses or Hunting 101, people have to have a little skin in the game. Once you complete the one-day workshop, you will be eligible for one of the three-day, full-blown Adult Mentored Hunts. Last year, our participation rates went through the roof on our three-day hunts. The people who were eligible had already been to the one-day workshop, and they had figured out if they wanted to participate. Our staff puts in a lot of work and effort to make these hunts happen, and to have somebody cancel at the last minute was taxing on us. Plus, I’m sure there would have been a lot of people willing to take that slot on one of the best hunting areas in the state.”

WFF’s Justin Grider, who has been in charge of the AMH events since their inception four years ago, said the new format has achieved positive results in terms of hunter recruitment.

“We’re finding that people who are self-motivated are signing up for the Hunting 101 workshop,” Grider said. “If they are willing to give up a Saturday and learn about hunting and firearms safety at one of our public shooting ranges, we’re finding they are more likely to continue hunting as a result. Whereas, our previous format was come one, come all. Whoever wanted to apply could, and the participants were randomly selected from that pool. But we ended up with attrition rates above 50 percent. We had people who accepted a spot and then backed out. That was very frustrating and a waste of state resources.”

Grider said the new workshops not only confirmed participants’ commitments, they also reached a broader audience.

“With the AMH events, we could only accommodate a few people at a time,” he said. “With the one-day workshops, we can accommodate as many people as want to come. Last year, we had about 40 people at the workshop outside of Birmingham.”

Grider said new this year is an option to attend a species-specific workshop that focuses on deer or turkey.

“When we polled our participants in hunter education, 90 percent said they wanted to hunt either deer or turkey,” he said. “We created those Learn-to-Hunt workshops to satisfy that demand. With that, we cast a really big net to reach a lot of folks.”

The Hunting 101 workshop covers the basics on hunting safety and is geared to small game, like rabbit hunting, squirrel hunting and dove hunting.

“If you come to one of these Learn-to-Hunt workshops, we will obviously focus on the safety components of firearms and treestand safety, and then we will really drill down on the hunting of a specific species. If it’s turkey, we will go into the different turkey calls, the gear we use, patterning shotguns, how to find birds, setting up for a hunt, everything you need to know to hunt turkeys.

“With Hunting 101, you’ll have a chance to shoot a .22 and a shotgun. You’ll learn about what is good squirrel habitat or where you can find some rabbits. Then later in the day, you will have the opportunity to do a little small-game hunting or become familiar with the habitat.”

Either workshop meets the requirement to apply for the three-day AMH events. Grider also said people can come to as many of the workshops as they want.

“These are great opportunities to meet additional staff members, additional mentors and new hunters,” Grider said. “That’s the other component of the one-day workshops – it’s a great opportunity to socialize with other hunters, mentors and staff. And it’s not based on previous hunting experience. If you’ve been an avid deer hunter for 20 years and are interested in turkey hunting, come to that turkey workshop. It’s a great networking tool.”

Anyone interested in one of the workshops or an AMH event can visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/adult-mentored-hunting-program and use the interactive map to find a Hunting 101 or Learn-to-Hunt event.

Although there has been little mention of chronic wasting disease (CWD) during the COVID-19 outbreak, Sykes said WFF still needs the assistance of hunters to properly monitor the state’s deer herd.

“We still need people to help us collect samples,” he said. “Just because COVID hit, CWD didn’t miraculously go away. We’re still collecting samples. We’re still doing all of our surveillance. And we need people to participate. We installed those self-check freezers around the state for people to drop off samples. The response from the public was less than desirable. Just because we’re not talking about it every day like we have been for the past couple of years, CWD didn’t go anywhere. There’s still the threat. The numbers in Mississippi and Tennessee are still growing. We have to be diligent in doing our part so if it does hit, we can react swiftly.”

Locations of the self-service freezers are available at https://www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling.

Sykes also wants to remind deer and turkey hunters about the changes to the possession regulation for the upcoming seasons.

Hunters who harvest deer and turkeys must maintain proper paperwork when transferring possession of that animal to a processor, taxidermist or any other individual.

According to WFF’s Law Enforcement Section, the recording and reporting requirements remain the same in Game Check. The update concerns possession of the game by someone other than the hunter.

Whoever is in possession of all or part of a deer or turkey that is not their own must retain written documentation with the name of the hunter, the hunter’s Conservation ID number, the date of the harvest and Game Check confirmation number. The information can be documented on a piece of paper, or a transfer of possession certificate is available in the Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest or online at outdooralabama.com.

The documentation must be kept as long as that person is in possession of that deer or turkey. The hunter who harvests the deer or turkey is required to enter that animal into the Game Check system and maintain in his or her possession a valid confirmation number for that animal.

Hunters still have 48 hours to report the harvest through Game Check to attain a confirmation number. However, the game cannot be transferred to another individual until a valid Game Check confirmation number has been acquired.

The easiest way to comply with the requirements is to download the Outdoor AL smartphone app. The other is to go to outdooralabama.com and click on “Game Check.” For those who don’t have internet access, WFF has self-service kiosks at all district offices. The 1-800 number is no longer in effect. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/transfer-possession 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.

2 months ago

State Parks online campground reservations system goes live

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

Ready for a camping trip to one – or several – of the beautiful Alabama State Parks? Ensuring you’ll have a site for your RV, travel trailer or tent just became much easier when the new online campground reservation system (www.reservealapark.com) went live.

When ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship was appointed by Governor Kay Ivey in 2017, one of his first initiatives was to connect all Alabama State Parks to broadband internet service and to implement an online reservation system for Alabama State Parks. Parks officials spent months integrating the technology into the 17 parks the system will serve, and the new online tool will include a variety of features that park visitors have requested.

“One of the things we were intentional about providing to the customer was to look at a site’s availability for the whole year instead of one specific date range,” said Emily Vanderford, Natural Resources Planner with the State Parks Division. “This new system gives them a longer date range. If they have a favorite campsite, they can look at availability and book it. That is something customers asked for – being able to look at that site’s availability across the year.”

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Another feature of the new reservations system is the ability to book at multiple parks during one online visit.

“If someone is making a road trip and they want to book several parks along the journey, they can do that in one booking,” Vanderford said. “There are some specific features that people have wanted, like saving their bookings into their account to know which sites they’ve stayed on in the past. Also, now you can purchase a gift card and use a gift card in that same system.”

Vanderford thinks people are really going to appreciate this tool with the user-friendly online system.

“But we also want people to know that if they have questions, they can call us, and we will be happy to help,” she said.

State Parks Assistant Director Rob Grant started the work on the new online system with a Request for Proposals (RFP) last fall. After Parks officials selected a vendor, Vanderford took the lead.

“We really appreciate the hard work Emily has done since she took on the role,” Grant said. “After the RFP was finally issued, Emily joined in and ran with it. And our staff has been fantastic in navigating the new system.”

Prior to the new system, nine parks had campground reservations on an online system, but that system linked to each park separately and did not include many features.

“Before, all our parks on the online system, ran their own system,” Vanderford said. “So, if you wanted to make a booking at Cheaha, you had to go to a Cheaha-specific booking link. If you wanted to make a reservation at Lake Lurleen, you had to call that park. With the new system, we have all of the parks we operate on the online reservation system. There were multiple pieces to the puzzle. One was to transfer the old reservation system into the new system. Then we had to prepare all of the campgrounds that had been in the old system for the new system. The challenging part was to do that in a way that provided some uniformity. With this system, everything comes into one centralized source that can make a booking for any and all of our camping parks. That was one of the bigger challenges, making sure we could bring everything into one system and make it work so the customers could pull up the sites and see all of our parks.”

With the new campground reservation tool, campers can go online and find numerous options to plan a trip to Alabama’s most scenic destinations, from the Appalachian Mountains to Mobile Bay.

“Visitors may not know which park they want to go to,” Vanderford said. “With the new system, they might want to camp in central Alabama. They could type in Birmingham, and the system will pull up a list of parks in the area. Then they can book any or all of those parks from the same place. Starting last fall, there was a lot of detailed setup work for pricing and availability. All of those things have to be ready to go so the customers can book online and avoid issues for them or Parks operations. We don’t want customers showing up to campgrounds they’ve made a booking for and the site not be available.”

The 17 parks included in the online booking system had to have upgrades to internet service to ensure the parks’ offices had the computing power to integrate into the new system.

Vanderford said now that parks’ offices have upgraded internet service, the plan is to add more internet access for park users as soon as possible.

“High-speed internet is definitely something we are working towards for the campers, but it may not be distributed throughout the parks for the campers at this time,” she said. “That’s a totally different challenge – making sure there is secure Wi-Fi. We had park offices that did not have enough internet service to run the system, so we had to upgrade those first.”

Grant added, “We have been redoubling our efforts to expand the Wi-Fi access now that we have fiber to each park and the online booking system launched. This continues to be one of Commissioner Blankenship’s top priorities.”

The new campground reservations system has been online since August 19, and it appears there are many happy campers.

“A lot of bookings have been made since the system went live,” Vanderford said. “When you launch a system of this magnitude, there are always some things you have to work out. I’m invested in making sure the customers have the best experience they can. All in all, I think it has gone really smoothly. Customers have been asking for some features for a long time that we can now provide. We have staff all across the state who have done a great job of learning the new system. We will be able to answer questions people may have.”

Grant said the feedback he’s received has been positive.

“We have had some rave reviews from guests who have accessed the new system,” Grant said. “They’ve had some great comments and some suggestions. We’re still tweaking it and making adjustments. We’re adding in more and more functionality, but we’re pleased with the system and the progress we’ve made.”

Currently, the new online system includes campsites and camping cabins. Chalets, cabins and hotel rooms at the parks will remain in the legacy system for the time being.

“We are working to put everything in one system,” Vanderford said. “That’s something we will be working on this fall.”

State Parks Director Greg Lein said that this has truly been a team effort to improve services to park guests, and that the project especially benefitted from the dedication of two Parks employees over the last year.

“Rob Grant spent countless hours in 2019 researching companies and reservations systems to prepare our agency for the formal Request for Proposals and to develop the eventual contract,” Lein said. “Emily Vanderford led our efforts to review proposals and implement the transition process from the old system to the new system over the last 9 months. She has literally lived and breathed reservations over the summer to the point where they are probably part of her dreams. This work could have never been accomplished were it not for Rob and Emily’s leadership and commitment to the project and our park guests, and the support we received from Commissioner (Chris) Blankenship, Deputy Commissioner (Ed) Poolos, and our Information Technology staff.”

To look at the new online booking options, go to www.reservealapark.com. For more information on reservations, please visit www.alapark.com/reservations.

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

WFF cautiously optimistic about spread of silver carp

(USFWS/Contributed)

Chris Greene is cautiously optimistic that an invasive fish species that can wreak havoc on reservoir ecosystems has not expanded its range in Alabama’s waterways.

The silver carp, which has done noticeable damage in Kentucky and Tennessee waterways, has been found in Alabama’s Pickwick and Wheeler reservoirs.

Thankfully, the feared spread of the fish, highlighted in numerous YouTube videos for jumping when startled by boaters, has not materialized, said Greene, Chief of Fisheries for ADCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. Only Pickwick has a moderately abundant population of silver carp, and Greene hopes that population stays contained to that reservoir.

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“We’re relatively new to this situation,” said Greene. “Silver carp haven’t been in Alabama for very long. We’ve only had federal funding specific to Asian carp work since October of 2019, so we’re still in our first year of funding. So far, work has involved the acquisition of field gear, sampling equipment and staff training. We’re still awaiting our primary sampling boat, which we hope to get this fall and do more intense field sampling.”

When the new boat arrives, Greene said it will allow WFF personnel to target the collection of silver carp to determine population dynamics.

“We’ve been sampling with our standard shock boats,” he said. “The new boat will be more specialized with a rectangular frame and net attached to the front of the boat where you can actually trawl through the water. It will still have electrodes hanging down like a standard electrofishing boat. So, you’re moving through the water collecting carp in areas where they tend to congregate. It’s a learning experience. We’re learning from other states like Kentucky and Tennessee. They have been doing this a whole lot longer than us. Hopefully what we learn from them will make our sampling more effective.”

Because of the abundance of silver carp in their rivers and reservoirs, Kentucky and Tennessee rely heavily on commercial anglers to remove silver carp from their systems. Greene said those states even subsidize commercial anglers to remove silver carp to make it economically feasible.

The good news for Alabama is silver carp have had a limited range since the first one was detected in state waters about five years ago.

“Our limited field sampling has not yielded any silver carp outside of Pickwick Reservoir in Alabama,” Greene said. “From what we have been able to determine from angler catches, the farthest upstream location where silver carp have been confirmed by a commercial fisherman in Alabama is Wheeler Reservoir. Angler reports have been infrequent in Alabama. Most of those have come from Pickwick Reservoir. So, we believe the leading edge of where we have a moderately abundant population is Pickwick.”

Greene said WFF Fisheries encourages anglers to report any silver carp catches or sightings.

“We ask any anglers who are out on the water to let us know if they see a silver carp,” he said. “They are our eyes out there. We can’t always be on the water, so we ask anglers who see any silver carp or bighead carp, please report those to asiancarp@dcnr.alabama.gov.”

Greene asks that reports, locations and photos of silver and bighead carp be sent to that email address.

In an effort to deter the spread of the invasive fish, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) issued a new Wild Baitfish Regulation that deals with the capture of live bait in Alabama waters and restricts the movement of that bait to other water bodies.

“We enacted a regulation in Alabama to reduce the spread of Asian carp,” Greene said. “Young Asian carp closely resemble other live baitfish that are commonly used by anglers – skipjack herring, gizzard shad and threadfin shad. If we have anglers going out throwing cast nets and catching several species and taking these to other water bodies, it could increase the spread of Asian carp.”

The regulation states that if anglers catch bait on a specific body of water, that bait cannot be transported live to another body of water. It also restricts the import of live, wild-caught baitfish from other states.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is considering several methods to control the spread of Asian carp, including fish barriers at 10 locks controlled by the TVA. One type of fish barrier under consideration is a Bioacoustics Fish Fence (BAFF), which utilizes a combination of sound, light and air bubbles. This type of barrier is installed at Barkley Lock and Dam in Kentucky and is currently being studied for its effectiveness in deterring Asian carp. Other types of barriers used for Asian carp include the use of carbon dioxide or electricity. TVA is conducting environmental impacts on the deterrents to minimize the impact on native species.

TVA is also considering adjusting river flow rates during potential Asian carp spawning periods, which are usually during high-water events. Studies have shown that Asian carp eggs are only semi-buoyant and will sink to the bottom and die with low river flow.

“For those eggs to mature, there must be long stretches of flowing water from larger tributaries,” Greene said. “You have this series of dams on the Tennessee River, so it really doesn’t provide the habitat requirements for the eggs to mature and develop. But some of the major tributaries on the Tennessee River have long flowing stretches. The concern is if carp get up into these tributaries and we have a weather year with a good amount of rain, the potential does exist in certain places.”

Silver carp have been compared to feral hogs in the damage done to an ecosystem. Feral hogs outcompete native wildlife for food and habitat resources. When silver carp become established in an area, they interrupt the natural food chain and native species end up negatively impacted.

“Silver carp are filter feeders,” Greene said. “They are planktivores. They filter out plankton throughout the water column. This puts them in direct competition with baitfish and young game fish as species like bass and crappie are planktivores in their early life stages. There’s more competition at the base of the food chain. It also affects baitfish species as adults. You’ve only got so much biomass that particular water body can support. The more taken up by Asian carp, the less will be taken up by the native species. The problem with silver carp is once they come into a water body, it becomes a management issue. You never really get rid of them. It’s like feral hogs. You just have to manage them. You can never fully eradicate them.”

As the boaters and anglers saw in the aforementioned videos, silver carp also pose a safety issue for recreational activities on the waterways.

“Once silver carp get scared, they jump out of the water, which can be hazardous for someone in a bass boat or on a jet ski,” Greene said. “It’s definitely a safety concern.”

Alabama continues to work with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to collectively manage the spread of silver carp. Joining the fight on a larger scale is a multistate group called the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resources Association (MICRA), which includes the 28 states in the Mississippi River basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Service, TVA, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and two Native American tribes are also members of the coalition.

Several years ago, Tennessee Tech received federal funding to monitor numerous lakes, including Pickwick, for silver carp. One of the goals has been to catch silver carp and insert sonic tags to allow tracking of the fish’s movements.

“Tennessee Tech is still doing the tagging studies, and they’ve even got detectors set up on some of the TVA locks in Alabama,” Greene said. “From my understanding, none of the silver carp they’ve tagged in Pickwick and other places have gone through any of the locks in Alabama. At least that was the case just a few weeks ago. To date, we have not had any confirmed reports of silver carp in Guntersville Reservoir or Wilson Reservoir. We certainly hope it stays that way.”

Greene said concerned anglers and those interested in mitigating the damage done by invasive species can help by purchasing the Alabama freshwater fishing distinctive license plates, which recently received a new design.

“Proceeds from the sales of this license plate are earmarked for specific purposes, and one of those is the control of aquatic invasive species, including Asian carp,” he said. “We’re excited about this.”

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

Advisory board approves snapper extension, tables turkey changes

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board approved a three-day extension of the red snapper season and tabled a motion to change the season dates and bag limit for wild turkeys at its recent meeting in Mobile.

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), recommended a three-day extension of the red snapper season, which the Board approved unanimously. The extra red snapper days are set for October 10-12. The Board also voted to give the Commissioner leeway to adjust those dates should inclement weather interfere with the planned extension.

“We saw an increased participation in red snapper season,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “People couldn’t play travel ball. They weren’t going to Disney World or going on family vacations. Consequently, we saw increased participation on all weekends of the red snapper season. Because of that, we closed the season on July 3 as we were approaching the quota on red snapper. After checking the data and seeing the final landings, we have about 128,000 pounds of red snapper quota left.”

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The Commissioner said the approved extension is the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of Columbus Day weekend.

The Board heard a presentation from Mike Chamberlain, the Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia, about the decline of wild turkey populations in the South. Chamberlain’s presentation was the same one given to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which wanted to see data on how harvest impacts the population dynamics.

“Arkansas’ turkey population has been declining for a number of years,” Chamberlain said. “The trajectory of the population in Arkansas is almost identical to the trajectory of the population in Alabama, except that Alabama is about seven or eight years behind.”

Chamberlain, who is studying wild turkeys in numerous states from Arizona to North Carolina, said gobbling activity begins about 45 days before the peak of nesting.

“Gobblers become receptive well before the hens do,” he said. “We know two things drive gobbling activity. One is hen availability. As hens become less available, gobbling increases. The other is competition amongst themselves. If your buddy is gobbling, you gobble.

“What we see is that a lot of gobbling in March corresponds to no breeding activity. We also see that gobbling really picks up when hens start to nest.”

Chamberlain said what we’re dealing with in the South is an increased harvest of gobblers and a survival rate of hatchlings that is not high enough to sustain the population.

“What we see is a slow, gradual decline across all the states in the Southeast,” he said. “The survival rate of a clutch is 1 to 1½ poults per hen. That is not sustainable. So, it makes sense that the populations have slowly declined.”

Chamberlain also said his studies indicate that about 80 percent of the harvest occurs before the peak of incubation.

“If you remove four toms from 2,400 acres, gobbling decreases four-fold,” he said.

Chamberlain pointed out that the reported harvest on the opening weekend of Alabama’s 2020 season was 43 percent higher than the harvest from 2019, a trend that held true throughout the Southeast.

“We know that early in the season, the dominant birds are the ones being shot,” he said. “So that 43 percent disproportionately affects the older, dominant birds.”

Chamberlain said the result of taking the dominant birds out of the population is an increase in the length of nesting activity. Instead of most of the egg-laying occurring within a few weeks, he said the hatching of the eggs is now stretched out over as much as 100 days.

“If all of these hens drop their clutches within a couple of weeks, they will hatch about the same time,” he said. “By scattering them across the landscape across 100 days, you give predators the advantage. With all the eggs hatching at one time, predators can’t possibly find all of them. If you stretch it across three months – rat snakes, raccoons, horned owls – you’re giving them an advantage.

“The science suggests the activity we’re doing is contributing to this prolonged nesting effort.”

Board Chairman Joey Dobbs asked Chamberlain if he had suggestions on how to stop the decline of the turkey population in Alabama and the Southeast.

“There are some things we can control and some things we can’t,” Chamberlain said. “This bird, uniformly across the Southeast, is dealing with habitat issues – declining quality, fragmentation, urbanization. We have diseases that are popping up that are affecting the birds. We have predator communities that are much more diverse than they were. We can’t control any of that because most turkeys live on private land.

“What we can control is what we know impacts this bird. That is harvest. We’ve known this since the mid-’90s.”

After Chamberlain’s presentation, a motion was made to change the dates and bag limit for Alabama’s turkey season with a starting date of April 1 through the first Saturday in May with a season bag limit of three birds. The current regulations open the spring turkey season in most of the state on the third Saturday in March with a season bag limit of five birds.

Before the vote, Board Member Patrick Cagle offered an amendment to table that motion until the February 2021 Board meeting to ensure hunters in Alabama would not run afoul of a new regulation with the current regulation already printed in the Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest. The Board unanimously approved the amendment to table the motion.

When asked for a recommendation on turkey season by Chairman Dobbs, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes said the decline in Arkansas’ turkey numbers is an ominous indication of where Alabama is headed without change.

“I would ask the Board to move the season starting date to as late as possible with a three-bird bag limit,” Sykes said. “I think Dr. Chamberlain showed that Arkansas is in a bad way right now. We’re headed in that direction. The sooner we can take proactive solutions, the better. I don’t want to kick this can down the road any farther. Thank y’all for saying you will take this up at the first meeting of 2021 and make a decision. It’s time.”

During the meeting, Commissioner Blankenship provided an update on the effects of COVID-19 on the ADCNR’s operations.

“I think our people are doing their best at social distancing and maintaining the safety guidelines,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “Our State Parks stayed open the entire time, dealing with the public every day, as well as our officers and staff in the field. I really appreciate their work during this time. It’s been a testament to our employees and their passion for what we do. Governor (Kay) Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris felt like outdoors recreation was essential. I think it has been essential for people being able to get out and enjoy the outdoors when so many other things were closed. We’ve seen increased occupancy at our State Parks campgrounds and day-use facilities, our waterways and fishing lakes, our Forever Wild trails, and our WMAs (wildlife management areas). They were highly used.

“I think it shows the beautiful resources we have in our state, the wildlife and the diversity of the areas. I think people realized how fortunate we are and what a great state this is to live in. I think people got out and went to places they’ve never gone before. I think that has been good for not only physical health but mental health as well.”

Commissioner Blankenship also reported an increase in license sales, which is the main source of income for the ADCNR.

“Our hunting, fishing and Wildlife Heritage licenses were up a good bit,” he said. “Our non-resident licenses were down, as you can imagine with the travel restrictions.”

Commissioner Blankenship said a marketing campaign was initiated to target those individuals who may not hunt or fish but appreciate the diversity of wildlife and natural wonders Alabama offers.

“We are trying to increase participation in license sales for people who utilize areas of the state that don’t require a license,” he said. “They don’t hunt or fish, but they birdwatch or hike or take advantage of the recreational opportunities on the property managed by the ADCNR. We marketed our Wildlife Heritage License to the birdwatching community. We increased that license’s sales by more than 33 percent last year.

“Our new licenses are on sale now. One of the things we added this year was packages. If you want to hunt deer, you can select a hunt package. If you want to fish freshwater, you can select that package. If you want to fish saltwater, you can select that package. We wanted to make it easier for the public to go online and purchase licenses.”

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/license-packages for the license packages available.

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

Scaup limit reduced to one; Sandhill registration opens soon

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed)

North America’s waterfowl breeding population annual survey is another aspect of the outdoors that has been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

Seth Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Migratory Bird Coordinator, said virus-related travel restrictions would not allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to conduct the aerial survey of the prairie potholes regions of Canada and the Midwest U.S.

“It’s going to be an interesting season,” Maddox said. “With COVID ongoing, they didn’t fly the breeding population survey in Canada and the northern U.S. The border was closed, so we don’t have a good estimate of what the waterfowl population looks like.”

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Maddox said waterfowl specialists will have to depend on weather conditions and long-term datasets to take an educated guess on waterfowl populations.

“It’s been a fairly wet spring and summer across the U.S. prairies, which makes for really good breeding habitat,” he said. “But it has been fairly dry in the Canadian prairies, which will impact the breeding habitat there. We’ll see what the fall flight looks like. It may be a little below what we’ve seen in the past few years as far as population numbers. So, it will be an interesting year. I think the numbers will be fine. They may just be a little lower than the previous few years.”

Maddox said the waterfowl seasons in the flyways are set a year in advance. While this season’s bag limits and dates have minimal changes, he said the 2021-2022 season framework may be affected.

“This season, the only significant change is a reduction in the bag limit for scaup (bluebills),” he said. “Based on the 2019 population, scaup dropped into the restrictive package, which allows for a 45-day season with a two-bird daily bag limit and then a 15-day season with a one-bird daily bag limit. In Alabama, we decided to go a little more restrictive and go 60 days with a one-bird daily bag limit. That makes our regulations a little easier for our hunters to interpret. And it makes it easier for our Enforcement Officers as well. We didn’t want to put any hunters in a situation where they might be over the limit. We’re working on the harvest strategy at the Flyway level to get that changed so we won’t have season-within-a-season limits.”

For the 2020-2021 season, Alabama hunters will again have a daily bag limit of 6 ducks, which may include no more than 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be females), 1 mottled duck, 2 black ducks, 1 pintail, 3 wood ducks, 2 canvasbacks, 1 scaup, and 2 redheads. The daily bag limit for coots is 15 per day. The daily bag limit for mergansers is 5, only 2 of which can be hooded mergansers. The aggregate bag limit of 5 dark geese (Canada, White-Fronted and Brant) shall not include more than 3 Canada geese or 1 Brant. For light geese (Snow, Blue, Ross’s) the aggregate bag limit is 5. Possession limit is three times the daily bag limit.

Regular season dates for ducks, coots, mergansers and geese are November 27-28 and December 5-January 31, 2021. The Youth, Veterans and Active Duty Military Special Waterfowl Days are set for November 21 and February 6, 2021.

After a successful season last year, Alabama again will offer a limited sandhill crane hunt in north Alabama. The limited quota sandhill hunts will have 400 permits with 1,200 tags. The daily bag limit is 3. The season possession limit is 3. Sandhill season dates are December 4-January 3, 2021, and January 11-31, 2021.

“We had a good opening season for sandhill cranes,” Maddox said. “We harvested 291 birds, which is about 24 percent of the allocated tags. We’ll be doing the same thing this year.”

Registration for a sandhill crane permit will open September 8 and the random drawing for permits will be held after registration closes at 8 a.m. on September 29.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/what-hunt/sandhill-crane-hunting-alabama for the link to apply for a sandhill permit. A $10 registration fee applies.

“Last year’s sandhill season was very positive, overwhelmingly positive,” Maddox said. “Everybody seemed to have a good time. Several hunters managed to fill their bag limits. People are excited to have the opportunity to chase this bird in the field again this year in Alabama.”

Maddox said the sandhill crane population in the U.S. has been steadily increasing over the past few years. However, the number of sandhills that end up in Alabama is directly related to the weather, just like ducks.

“The colder it is, the more birds show up in Alabama,” he said. “We had a good number of sandhills show up last year, but with colder weather, we’ll have more birds show up.”

Maddox said the bulk of the sandhill population spends summers in the northern U.S. states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec.

“Like ducks, sandhills only want to move as far as they have to, so the more snow cover up north, the better it is for Alabama,” he said. “Sandhills are feeding in dry or slightly wet agricultural fields. Snow cover pushes them farther south. We have really good habitat in Alabama for sandhills. Most of our sandhills winter on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and along the Tennessee River. But there is a decent population on Weiss Lake on the Coosa River.”

Maddox just hopes the weather conditions change for the 2020-2021 seasons after two years of less-than-average waterfowl hunting success.

“Last season looked a lot like the previous season,” Maddox said. “It was a pretty warm, mild winter here in Alabama. And, it was pretty mild in most of the country. We never saw that late good push of ducks that we are used to when we have cold weather. So, it made duck hunting fairly tough.

“It was a fairly wet winter across the Midwest and southern United States. There was a lot of water available on the landscape that provided a lot of available habitat for birds to spread out. It was almost a mirror image of the previous season.”

Maddox said the most recent quality duck season in Alabama occurred during the 2017-2018 season.

“That was a really good season,” he said. “We had a lot of cold weather that pushed down. We had a stretch of below freezing temperatures in Alabama. We really need that in the North and Midwest to put ice on the landscape to minimize the open water. And we need snow on the landscape to cover the available food and push the birds further south into open water and good habitat.

“Overall, it’s looking pretty good for this season. As long as we stay with average rainfall, we’ll have good habitat for migratory birds that make it here this fall and winter.”

For some early waterfowl action, don’t forget about the Special Teal Season, which runs September 12-27, 2020, with a daily bag limit of six birds.

Also, the early season for geese runs September 1-30 and then October 12-24. During the September season, hunters can take five dark geese per day, but only one Brant is allowed in that bag limit. The bag limit for light geese is five per day for the entire 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 offers new options for hunting and fishing licenses

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed)

Hunters and anglers who pursue game or fish in Alabama will have new options to make purchasing licenses for the 2020-2021 seasons easier.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is offering packages that will cover license requirements when pursuing white-tailed deer and wild turkeys or fishing the state’s abundant opportunities for freshwater and saltwater species.

To make it as simple as possible, the packages can be acquired with a one-click purchase when the 2020-2021 licenses become available on Monday, August 24, 2020. All current licenses expire on August 31, 2020.

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Chuck Sykes, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director, said other states have successfully packaged licenses to take the guesswork out of the requirements.

“We’re trying to make it easier on people who are hunting and fishing in Alabama, especially non-residents or new hunters and anglers who don’t really know exactly what they need,” Sykes said. “People can go online and look for what activity they want to do, and we’re providing everything they need to do it with one click.

“I know when I go hunting out of state, a lot of times it can be fairly daunting trying to figure out exactly what licenses I need, like a regular hunting license, a WMA (wildlife management area) license or a stamp of some sort. What this does is eliminate the confusion and make it as easy as possible. When people come into Alabama and say they want to deer hunt, then here’s everything they need to deer hunt, or here’s everything they need to fish. We just want to provide easier access for hunters and anglers in Alabama.”

For the ultimate bundle, consider the new All Access Sportsman’s Package, which includes annual licenses for All Game Hunting, WMA License, Bait Privilege License, Alabama State Duck Stamp, Harvest Information Program (HIP) Stamp, Freshwater Fishing, Saltwater Fishing, Saltwater Reef Fish Endorsement, and Spear Fishing. The All Access Sportsman’s Package will cost $127.95 for residents and $533.25 for non-residents.

The All Access Hunting Package includes All Game Hunting, WMA License, Bait Privilege License, State Duck Stamp, and Harvest Information Program Stamp. Prices for the hunting package are $73.15 for residents and $407.45 for non-residents.

The All Access Fishing Package covers anglers from the abundant freshwater fishing opportunities to the bounty of Alabama coastal waters and the Gulf of Mexico. The fishing package includes Freshwater Fishing, Saltwater Fishing, Saltwater Reef Fish Endorsement and Spear Fishing. The fishing package prices are $54.80 for residents and $125.80 for non-residents.

ADCNR will offer a variety of additional packages for residents and non-residents for those who fish only in saltwater.

Anglers can purchase the Resident Annual Saltwater Pier Fishing Package, which includes Pier Fishing and the Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement. The price is $16.45. Additional permit fees apply at Gulf State Park Pier.

For those who love to catch red snapper and other reef fish in Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones, the Resident Annual Saltwater Reef Fish Package will include Annual Saltwater Fishing and Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement. The price is $34.75. A Resident 7-Day Trip Saltwater Reef Fish Package is available for $20.30.

For those who like to hunt their fish underwater, there is a Saltwater Spear Fishing package, which includes a Spearfishing license, Annual Saltwater Fishing and Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement. The price is $40.75 for residents.

“What I like about the packages is that it groups together commonly purchased licenses,” said Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon. “It helps people make sure they have everything necessary to legally participate in an activity. For instance, if you’re going to spearfish in saltwater, most people do that offshore and would need a spearfish license, saltwater license and Gulf reef fish endorsement. Using the package option makes it easier and clearer.

“With our new license purchase format that groups licenses into a drop-down menu by activity, we’re hoping to make it more user friendly for people to purchase their licenses. The packages are an extension of that. And the All Access Sportsman’s Package makes it easy for those who participate in everything we do in the outdoors in Alabama.”

Visit https://www.outdooralabama.com/license-packages for a direct link to the new license options. An auto-renew feature is also available on the licenses page at www.outdooralabama.com.

Last year, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources introduced a set of collectible hard-card licenses with a variety of outdoor scenes and wildlife. A set of six new cards will be available for the 2020-2021 license year.

The art scenes include a mature white-tailed buck, strutting turkey, crappie, redfish, wood duck, and a Second Amendment-themed card for shooting sports. 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, and Wildlife Heritage and bait privilege licenses. This feature is not available for trip licenses and no-cost privileges. Lifetime licenses will also now come on a beautiful new hard card.

To obtain a hard-card license, go online at www.outdooralabama.com and click the link to purchase a license, or request one when purchasing at a retail outlet. Buyers can choose one or all of the six new cards at $5 per card. If a license has already been purchased, those who want to get a hard card can go online and click on the “Replacement/Additional Hard Card” link to purchase any or all of the six cards.

The hard-card licenses will be mailed to buyers within 10 days of purchase. If you haven’t received your hard card before you plan to hunt or fish, be sure to keep a paper copy of your license or have it available in the Outdoor AL app on your smartphone.

Also new for the 2020-2021 hunting seasons is an updated requirement for hunters who harvest deer and turkeys to maintain proper paperwork when transferring possession of that animal to a processor, taxidermist or any another individual.

Jonathan Stone, Assistant Chief of WFF’s Law Enforcement Section, said the recording and reporting requirements remain the same in Game Check. The update concerns possession of the game by someone other than the hunter.

“What this means is that whoever is in possession of all or part of a deer or turkey that is not their own must retain written documentation with the name of the hunter, the hunter’s Conservation ID number, the date of the harvest and Game Check confirmation number,” Stone said. “That information can be on a piece of paper, or they can use the transfer of possession certificate available in the Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest or online at outdooralabama.com.

“That documentation has to be kept in possession as long as that person is in possession of that deer or turkey. It’s the responsibility of the hunter who harvests the deer or turkey to enter that animal into the Game Check system and maintain in their possession a valid confirmation number for that animal.”

Hunters still have 48 hours to report the harvest through Game Check to attain a confirmation number. However, the game cannot be transferred to another individual until a valid Game Check confirmation number has been acquired.

“Anyone who takes possession of a harvested deer or turkey, which includes taxidermists and processors, must receive and maintain documentation containing the valid Game Check confirmation number, the name of the hunter and other necessary information,” Stone said. “Those who take possession of that animal need to make sure they have that information prior to receiving it.”

Stone also wants to remind hunters that there are two ways to enter their harvests through Game Check. The easiest by far is to download the Outdoor AL smartphone app. The other is to go to outdooralabama.com and click on “Game Check.” For those who don’t have internet access, WFF has self-service kiosks at all district offices.

“The 1-800 number is no longer in effect,” Stone said. “You can go to the website or the best way is to use the Outdoor AL app on your phone. It only takes a few seconds to plug in that information and you’re 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

Private anglers to get one more opportunity at red snapper

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Just when it appeared that the 2020 red snapper season was a wrap, private recreational anglers are likely to get one more opportunity to fish this year.

Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD), said the preliminary harvest numbers for the private recreational sector indicate about 100,000 pounds remain in the quota of 1,122,622 pounds.

The red snapper season for private recreational anglers (which includes state charter vessels) was originally set to last 35 days, beginning the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. However, the season had to be shortened to 25 days to ensure the quota was not exceeded.

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Bannon said he and Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, are discussing options that would provide the best opportunity for private anglers to catch Alabama’s premier reef fish species.

“The private recreational angler season went really well even though we closed a little earlier than we anticipated,” Bannon said. “The data showed a tremendous number of people took advantage of the season, especially with the opening earlier on May 22.”

When the data from the season was analyzed, Bannon said a significant uptick in participation was quickly evident.

“The average vessel trips for the season were 713 trips per day,” he said. “That means a lot of people went fishing compared to the last two years, which had an average of about 530 vessel trips per day. I think people took advantage to go snapper fishing when they could not participate in other activities. They could not get on cruise ships. They couldn’t go to Disney. People were not playing travel sports. Boating was considered a safe outdoor activity, so I do think the COVID-19 pandemic affected the snapper season. I think it prompted more people to go snapper fishing than we had in the past.”

Bannon said the snapper season might have ended even a little earlier had it not been for Tropical Storm Cristobal, which significantly limited fishing on the third weekend of snapper season.

“Even after the second weekend, I had people tell me about the high number of boats they were seeing offshore,” he said. “They said there’s no way we’re going to make it to July 19. My thoughts were that as the season progresses the fervor dies down in July, and fishing gets a little tougher. Again, with not having other activities available, the weather outside that Cristobal weekend was really good and people went fishing.”

Bannon said anyone interested can visit www.outdooralabama.com/2020-red-snapper-landings-summary and view the catch data as well as the chart that shows the angler participation rate compared to the average wave height. The catch data in the chart has been updated to include additional reports.

“You can see in the chart that the wave height and catch effort are directly related,” he said. “The Cristobal weekend slowed down the catch effort. You can also see the weekend days had much higher catch effort.”

For the first time since the five Gulf states were granted control of red snapper management in 2018, Alabama added Mondays to the weekend to try to spread out the effort and provide more opportunities to fish.

“I think adding Mondays was a success,” Bannon said. “Some people felt that had a negative impact and reduced season length because of the Monday fishing. But if you add up all of the Monday effort, it is barely more than our peak Saturday. Mondays did exactly what we hoped it would do. It provided opportunities to avoid the Saturday chaos, allow people who work weekends an opportunity to go, and allow people who were on vacation who had to travel on Saturday to have an extra opportunity. And, if you were local, the feedback I got was they took advantage of Mondays instead of trying to fish on Saturdays when the effort was so high. They didn’t fish any more because it was open on Mondays; they just fished a different day.”

With the snapper season closing after July 3, red snapper had to be replaced with lane snapper for the 87th Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo at Dauphin Island later in July.

“I know there was disappointment that we didn’t have red snapper for the Alabama Deep Sea Rodeo, being the nation’s largest fishing tournament,” Bannon said. “With all of the other challenges the rodeo had with the COVID-19 issues and all the events that were cancelled, I think they had the best event they could under the circumstances.”

With three years of state management data and the 2020 data on Monday fishing, Bannon said the MRD staff will analyze those numbers to determine season dates for 2021.

“Our goal is to make accurate season predictions,” Bannon said. “Again, the pandemic did have an impact, and we don’t know where we will be next year with COVID. We will work with the Commissioner to see what kind of season we will have moving forward.”

The other sector that takes advantage of the state’s great red snapper fishing is the Alabama charter boat fleet, which still operates under federal management through NOAA Fisheries. The charter season opened on June 1 and ran straight through August 1.

“I think the charter season went really well, especially considering that, when the coronavirus first hit, a lot of people were canceling trips early in the year,” Bannon said. “As boating was considered a safe activity, many of the boats adjusted their capacity so people felt comfortable and safe. They lost the Cristobal weekend just like everyone else, but they got to fish pretty consistently for the 62 days they were open. From my discussions with the captains, they considered it a very good season considering the COVID circumstances. And I think they’ll have a good fall season as people still have limited outdoor activities. The charters will target other fish, like amberjack, which is scheduled to be open until October 31. They can also catch vermilion snapper (beeliners) and other reef fish species as well as king mackerel.”

Bannon was encouraged by the variety of sizes of red snapper that inhabit Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones.

“We saw in our preseason data that we had a large number of smaller fish, which we attribute to a strong year-class of fish,” he said. “Those younger fish will crowd those reefs. What you should see in the next year or two, those fish will be growing up around those reefs and then dispersing. We should be able to follow the year-class and see how it works out over the next few years. We are comfortable with the amount of fish harvested in our reef zones from all sectors. Our surveys help ensure we are making appropriate management decisions to make sure our fishery is sustainable.”

One of the ways MRD conducts those surveys and other management practices is through a variety of funding sources, one of which is the Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement that was implemented for the 2020 season. Bannon said 22,755 endorsements were obtained. The funds will be used for reef fish management.

“I feel like we had really good compliance on the Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement,” he said. “This year, our Enforcement Officers were just making people aware they needed the endorsement, which helps us identify just how many people are participating in the fishery in addition to providing funding for all aspects of reef fish management. Next year, a person may receive a citation for not having it. Also, for the fishing seasons after January 1, 2021, we’re adding greater amberjack and gray triggerfish as mandatory species for recording in Snapper Check. They are two valuable species to Alabama anglers, and we want to develop better landings data.”

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

WFF reminds alligator hunters of no-cull regulation

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

With Alabama’s 2020 alligator season only a couple of weeks away, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division wants to remind those lucky tag holders about the no-cull rule in effect.

With the exception of the Lake Eufaula Zone, tag holders are not allowed to release an alligator after it has been captured. The exception for the Lake Eufaula Zone is because it is the only zone that has a minimum size length, which is 8 feet total length. In this zone, only alligators that are under 8 feet in length may be released after capture. In all other zones, culling is completely prohibited.

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“Many folks who have been going to classes for years and are now getting the training online understand about culling,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes. “However, I think some hunters have abused our leniency in enforcing the regulation. We just want to make sure that everybody is aware that culling is not a legal practice. This is not a fishing trip where you practice catch-and-release. This is a cold-blooded animal that expends a great deal of energy during the fight and that could end up as an unexpected mortality. When you have 5,000 or so people apply for one of these coveted tags, we don’t want people abusing the process and making it look like a catch-and-release fishing tournament. We just wanted to clarify that culling is not allowed.”

Wildlife Section Chief Keith Gauldin said this regulation has been in effect since Alabama’s 2018 alligator season.

“Just as you don’t capture and release any other game animal, hunters are not allowed to practice releasing alligators unless they are hunting in the Lake Eufaula Zone, where there is a minimum harvest length of 8 feet,” Gauldin said. “A captured gator is your gator, so be sure to review the training videos on the website. The videos give you helpful tips on how to judge the size of an alligator.”

Gauldin said there is a direct correlation between the distance from the gator’s nostrils to its eyes and the total length of the animal. If the distance from the nostrils to the eyes is 10 inches, the estimated total length of the alligator would be 10 feet. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/alligator-hunt-tag-training-videos for the six training videos and one that explains the no-cull regulation.

Tag holders must abide by the rule that applies when an alligator is “captured.”

“In the past, we have seen individuals on social media posting alligators that they have captured, taken pictures of and then released,” Gauldin said “We don’t want hunters to cause any undue stress on these animals. By regulation, an alligator is considered captured once it is secured with a snare around a leg or the head and is secured boat-side and in control. It must be immediately dispatched and the temporary tag applied. We want to stress that before hunters pursue an alligator and throw a hook at it or any of the legal means of catching an alligator, they should view that gator and estimate its size closely. They need to make sure that’s the one they want to harvest.”

Gauldin said another rule that will be closely enforced has to do with boats providing assistance during the pursuit of an alligator.

“When hunting parties have multiple vessels involved, only the boat with the tag holder can have the capture equipment in it,” he said. “The other vessels that are assisting can only have spotlights but no capture equipment.”

Capture methods are restricted to hand-held snares, snatch hooks (hand-held or rod/reel), harpoons (with attached line), and bowfishing equipment (with line attached from arrow to bow or crossbow). The use of bait is not allowed.

Gauldin said the WFF’s Enforcement Section will be out in full force during the alligator season to ensure the regulations are followed.

“There is a high likelihood hunters will be checked by a Conservation Enforcement Officer at least on one of the nights of the season,” he said. “It’s a good idea to put all of your identification, hunting license and alligator tag in a Ziploc bag for easy access instead of having to dig it out of your wallet at one o’clock in the morning. Have that ready for presentation when you get checked. It will make it easier for our officers and make for a more timely check for the hunters.”

Gauldin also wants hunters to refrain from consuming alcohol during the hunts.

“We want hunters to have a good time but a safe time,” he said. “Combining alcohol and alligator hunting is not a good idea. And make sure everyone has a PFD (personal flotation device). It’s a good idea to have that PFD on if the boat is under throttle, especially at night. Obstructions are much harder to see at night. We just want them to have a safe hunt.”

The Alabama alligator season is broken into five zones throughout south Alabama, the traditional range of alligators in the state.

The zone where Alabama’s first season originated is the Southwest Zone, which has the most tags (100). The Southwest Zone includes all of Mobile and Baldwin counties north of I-10 and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84. The 2020 season dates are sunset on August 13 until sunrise on August 16 and sunset on August 20 to sunrise on August 23.

The Coastal Zone (50 tags) was created last year to address the rising interaction between alligators and the human population along the Coast, where WFF receives most of its nuisance alligator complaints. The Coastal Zone includes the private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties that lie south of I-10. The 2020 season dates are the same as the Southwest Zone.

The Southeast Zone (40 tags) covers the private and public waters in Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston, and Russell counties, excluding Alabama state public waters in Walter F. George Reservoir (Lake Eufaula) and its navigable tributaries. The 2020 season dates are sunset on August 8 until sunrise on September 7.

The West Central Zone (50 tags) includes private and public waters in Monroe (north of U.S. Highway 84), Wilcox, and Dallas counties. The 2020 season dates are sunset on August 13 to sunrise on August 16 and sunset on August 20 to sunrise on August 23.

The Lake Eufaula Zone (20 tags) includes Alabama state public waters in Walter F. George Reservoir (Lake Eufaula) and its navigable tributaries, south of Highway 208, Omaha Bridge (excluding Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge). The 2020 season dates are sunset on August 14 until sunrise on October 5. The Lake Eufaula Zone is the only zone that allows daytime hunting.

Alabama’s alligator harvest numbers have been consistent at between 65 and 70 percent of the available tags since the program’s inception.

And one never knows when another monster gator will be hauled in that rivals the current world record of 15 feet, 9 inches and 1,011.5 pounds that was harvested in 2014 by Mandy Stokes of Camden.

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

‘Hiking with Hailey’ explores Alabama’s great outdoors

(Courtesy of WSFA-TV/Outdoor Alabama)

For someone who really doesn’t care for insects, Hailey Sutton has put her fears behind her to share Alabama’s great outdoors via her increasingly popular “Hiking with Hailey” segments on Montgomery’s WSFA-TV.

Sutton, who hails from Red Oak, Texas, has been in Alabama for less than a year after her first TV gig in Montana.

The weekend sports anchor at WSFA, Sutton has a background in soccer rather than the outdoors. Despite her lack of outdoors experience, she pursued an idea of hiking through numerous Alabama State Parks and other natural wonders. That concept blossomed into weekly episodes that may turn out to be more than the summertime feature she originally envisioned.

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“This whole series is kind of funny,” Sutton said. “I don’t really like to be dirty, and I’m terrified of bugs. Living in Alabama, this has been challenging. My first job was in Montana, and their bible up there is the outdoors. I had wanted to do a similar series in Montana, but I just didn’t have the resources. When I moved here, I saw all these different parks. I was able to pitch the idea to my boss, and then the coronavirus happened. That kind of gave me a chance to step away from sports since they haven’t had as many sports going on.”

Sutton admits the series has caused her to expand her horizons to provide her viewers with snapshots of the beauty of Alabama.

“It was a refreshing way to push myself out of my comfort zone,” she said. “In this past weekend’s episode at Cheaha State Park, our guide had us eat a leaf. If you had told me three years ago that I would be on TV eating plants for my job, I would have LOLed. But it’s been really fun to do something different and push myself.”

The Cheaha State Park episode, where Park Naturalist Mandy Pearson got Sutton to sample a leaf from the sourwood tree, was the sixth in the series that started at Oak Mountain State Park.

“Cheaha was awesome,” Sutton said of the park that sits atop the highest mountain in the state. “I’d seen pictures and videos of Cheaha, but pictures and videos can’t do justice to how cool it is to get up there and be able to see all the way to Birmingham, which seems crazy to me. I’ve just been blown away by how diverse Alabama is. What we have focused on each week is trying to show something every week. We started out at Oak Mountain, which is the largest state park (9,940 acres) in Alabama. So, if you’re looking to get a little bit of everything, that’s a great place to start.”

Sutton decided to downsize the next week with a visit to the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Alabama Nature Center at Millbrook.

“Obviously, the Alabama Nature Center is smaller, but they do a lot of programs to educate kids about nature,” she said. “I thought that was really neat, especially during the summer, highlighting that this is still something available to do with your kids.”

Sutton and crew then visited Wind Creek State Park, the 1,445-acre park on the banks of scenic Lake Martin in east central Alabama.

“Wind Creek was really neat because you’ve got the forest and the lake atmosphere,” she said. “That was really cool.”

Next up was a visit to 696-acre Chewacla State Park and its iconic waterfalls that were formed when Moore’s Mill Creek was dammed to create Lake Chewacla.

“I had been to Chewacla once before,” Sutton said. “It’s just so funny. You hop off I-85 and you’re right there at the park. That’s one of the things our guide, Joshua Funderburk, said was one of the things that make this park so interesting is you’re in the middle of Auburn, but you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere when you’re there.”

Sutton found her trip to Rickwood Caverns State Park, just north of Birmingham, to be one of the most enjoyable for a variety of reasons.

“Rickwood was awesome,” she said. “That may have been my favorite place. One, it was cool in the caverns. It was 60 degrees, so it was nice to not be sweating. The other thing is it was so ‘otherworldly.’ It was just so different from anything I had ever seen.”

Sutton highlighted all of the amazing features of the caverns with their numerous formations estimated at 260 million years old. She also discussed the exit from the caverns and the number of steps involved.

“It was crazy,” she said. “Going into the cave, it’s not 110 steps down to get to the features. It was a gradual descent. Then our guide told us, ‘Oh, by the way, to get out you have to go up 110 steps. We had to sit for a couple of seconds after we got done with the steps.”

Designed to give a glimpse of the great outdoors before her busy season started, the series surprised Sutton with how quickly it gained a widespread following. She said the impact of the coronavirus will likely dictate what happens next.

“I guess it just kind of depends on what happens to football season,” she said. “It was originally a summer project. But, if there’s no football, it will depend on how busy my schedule gets. I don’t know if we have a timeline on it. To be 100 percent honest, I didn’t know it was going to be as popular as it has become. I guess as long as people are watching…”

Sutton said she is amazed at how quickly word has spread about the “Hiking with Hailey” series.

“We have people reaching out to us on a regular basis asking us to come to their park,” she said. “We had to make a list of all the places we would like to go. If we have to stop, then there’s always next summer or later in the year. It’s been good. There are so many parks and forests to explore. I’m really excited that we’re going to Bankhead National Forest in a couple of weeks.”

Visit www.wsfa.com/authors/hailey-sutton/ and scroll to find each episode of “Hiking with Hailey.” The episodes are also on the “Hiking with Hailey” Facebook page.

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

No live auction for 2020 State Lands hunting leases

(Marty Palsy/Contributed)

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the State Lands Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) will conduct its hunting lease program without a live auction for 2020.

Patti Powell McCurdy, State Lands Director, implemented a program in 2010 that aligned all leases under State Lands’ control to operate on a five-year public bidding cycle. State Lands would kick-off a new cycle by advertising an Invitation for Bids listing all the tracts available for leasing.

Until this year, potential lessees could submit sealed written bids, but they also had the opportunity to continue bidding at a live auction.

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“We had an auctioneer conducting the bidding,” McCurdy said. “If we received written bids on a tract, the highest written bid then became the new minimum at the live auction. Like any other auction, people would be raising their hands and yelling out bids. It was fun to watch.”

McCurdy said when it came time to send out the 2020 Invitation for Bids, the uncertainties related to COVID-19 presented hurdles that made it unrealistic to try to hold a live auction.

“We held off a bit in hopes that we could find a way to successfully include a live auction component,” she said. “We never really got there. The last thing I wanted was for a hunter to drive several hours and then be unable to bid at the live auction because of capacity limitations or other restrictions. I ultimately decided to move forward the best way we could. So, for the 2020 cycle, State Lands will only be accepting written, sealed bids.”

However, with the 2020 cycle providing avid hunters an opportunity to submit bids for 145 tracts across 30 counties, there is still plenty to get excited about this year.

McCurdy said the hunting lease program expands the many excellent public hunting opportunities currently offered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on the state’s wildlife management areas (WMAs), Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) and various Forever Wild Land Trust tracts.

“The leasing program gives individuals the opportunity for a totally different hunting experience – a very personal one,” she said. “Not everybody has access to family land or a hunting club. This gives the public an opportunity to lease a tract and enjoy it with family and friends. Our bidders range from hunting clubs to grandparents looking for a place to take their grandkids hunting. I suspect we might also have a few bidders who just want a place to get away and enjoy all by themselves. It’s just a different experience we can offer the public.”

One happy lessee is Marty Pasley, who leases a tract in central Alabama. Pasley said the lease allows him to take his 9-year-old grandson hunting anytime he is available.

“This has been great for me and my grandson,” Pasley said. “It’s been a godsend for me because it’s close to home. It’s been the greatest experience in the world with the way State Lands did everything they said they would do. It’s been a great setup to take kids. Almost every time we go, we see deer. I’ve really been blessed to be able to lease this property.”

While Pasley leases for his family, hunting clubs also participate in the program.

“It’s been fantastic for us,” said Brian Fulkerson, who leases land in south Alabama. “If I need any support, they (State Lands) are fantastic. We’re on the QDMA (Quality Deer Management Association) program, so we take care of our deer. I know they didn’t have a choice on the bidding process. Sealed bid is okay with me.”

Interested bidders can go to www.outdooralabama.com/hunting-lease-bid-2020 to see the 2020 Invitation for Bids, a “Complete Listing of 145 Hunting Lease Tracts” (ranging from 43 acres to 1,400 acres), maps for each hunting lease tract, and a sample hunting lease.

“I encourage everyone to first read the Invitation for Bids very carefully,” McCurdy said. “It is the official document detailing all requirements related to submitting a bid that must be followed so that the bid can be accepted by State Lands.”

Perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to submit a bid will close on July 30 at 3 p.m., the deadline for all sealed bids to be physically received at the State Lands Division office in Montgomery.

“It’s the responsibility of each bidder to make sure it reaches our office on time,” McCurdy said. “We cannot accept any bids for any reason after the deadline in the Invitation for Bids. Bidding starts at the tract-specific minimum bid amount noted in the Complete Listing.”

Each bid submitted must also include a certified or cashier’s check (no cash or personal checks) for the required bid deposit for that tract. McCurdy said the required bid deposit amount can also be found on the Complete Listing.

“We can’t consider any bid that is not accompanied by the bid deposit,” she said. “Again, it is just so critical to read and follow all the instructions in the Invitation for Bids. Successful bidders will have the bid deposit applied to the first year’s rent. Bid deposits submitted by unsuccessful bidders will be returned.”

“After the bid opening on the following day, hopefully by close of business, the highest bids for each tract will be posted at the same website link (see above),” McCurdy said.

In the event of a tie, State Lands will contact the tied bidders regarding the process for those bidders to continue the competition and arrive at the highest bid.

“If a successful bidder fails to execute the lease within the required 30-day period, we can contact the next highest bidder,” McCurdy said. “So, even if you are not the highest bidder initially, you could still have a chance to lease the tract you want.”

Interested bidders should also take the time to review the sample lease. McCurdy said it is important to be sure you are willing to comply with the lease provisions throughout the five-year lease period, before submitting a bid.

“One requirement is to maintain general liability insurance,” she said. “A successful bidder must also submit a list of the proposed hunters who will be on the tract. We do check those hunters for a record of game violations. Lessees are also required to provide some landowner assistance and generally return the tract to State Lands in as good or better condition than they found it.”

The hunting lease program is just one example of how State Lands fulfills its responsibility to manage a variety of state-owned land for the purpose of generating revenue.

“Like any business that manages real estate as an asset, State Lands is charged with trying to find ways to make these tracts a revenue-generating asset for certain state agency beneficiaries,” McCurdy said. “To some, this might sound like an unexpected role for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, but really it’s not. Employing proven conservation principles and implementing best management practices has always been directly linked to the resulting productivity of land. While you might see a one-time generation of revenue, you will never achieve the goal of perpetually generating revenue unless you take proper care of the land over the long term. So, these leases are truly a win-win for the state and hunters. They generate revenue for various state agencies, like the Department of Education and the Department of Mental Health, and at the same time allow State Lands to offer a unique hunting opportunity to anybody willing to participate in the bid process.”

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

North Zone dove season opens on Labor Day weekend

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes wants to make sure dove hunters are not caught flat-footed this September when the season opens earlier than usual.

The North Zone dove season will open on Labor Day weekend this year, a week earlier than most people are accustomed to. Sykes wants to get the word out well ahead of the season.

“Most people, me included, typically think dove season opens in the North Zone the first Saturday after Labor Day,” Sykes said. “That’s the way it’s been most years. There have been a few times since 2000 that the season has come in the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.”

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Because of a variety of opinions about when Alabama’s dove seasons, North and South zones, should be set, WFF officials decided that a survey inviting public input would be the best way to accommodate the majority of dove hunters.

“With anything we do, you’ve got some people who want the season to start early,” Sykes said. “You’ve got some who want to start late. Some want to hunt in October. Everybody has their own idea about what they want dove season to be, or any season for that matter. What that survey showed was that the majority of people wanted it to come in as early as it could in September. They wanted as many weekends and holidays as possible included where they would have opportunities to go. With Labor Day falling later this year, we had to decide if we wanted to push the season to September 12 in the North Zone or if we wanted to have it Labor Day weekend. There’s pros and cons to both sides, but we looked at what that survey said. The majority said they wanted it early, so we gave them the earliest date possible. We were also giving them an extra weekend and giving them a holiday. Those were all three things that ranked extremely high on our survey.”

The North Zone 2020-2021 season is set to start on September 5 and run through October 25 for the first segment. Hunters on opening day can hunt from noon until sunset. After opening day, hunting is allowed from one-half hour before sunrise until sunset. The daily bag limit is 15 birds of either mourning doves or white-winged doves or a combination of the two. The second segment is November 21-29, and the final segment is set for December 12 through January 10, 2021.

In the South Zone of Baldwin, Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Mobile counties, the 2020-2021 season opens on September 12 and runs through November 1. The final two segments are the same as the North Zone.

“We know we can’t make everybody happy,” Sykes said. “This isn’t something we took lightly. This isn’t something we didn’t deliberate. And it definitely wasn’t something where we didn’t listen to the hunters’ opinions. Basically, this is what the majority of the people who took the survey said they wanted. My biggest concern is that I didn’t want people to be caught off-guard. I wanted them to have plenty of time to make their plans for Labor Day weekend or vacation.”

Sykes also pointed out that hunters don’t necessarily have to plan a hunt on opening day, but it is available if wanted. Some may choose to wait until the following weekend.

Sykes and WFF Migratory Bird Coordinator Seth Maddox said the window for planting crops like corn, grain sorghum or sunflowers for doves has passed, but there is a short window for browntop millet remaining.

“You might be able to get some browntop millet in the ground in the next couple of weeks, but the time for other crops has passed,” Maddox said. “If you don’t have anything planted, the best thing to do is to bush-hog or burn off a field and prepare it by disking so that you have a well-prepared seed bed, and then top-sow some winter wheat. You can begin that as early as August, and you are allowed to plant up to 200 pounds of wheat per acre on a well-prepared seed bed.”

Anyone with questions can visit the ACES (Alabama Cooperative Extension System) website at https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/forestry-wildlife/mourning-dove-biology-management-in-alabama/ to learn more about allowed agricultural practices for dove hunting are listed.

“We see it every year,” Sykes said. “Yes, you can plant for erosion control. You can plant for winter grazing. There are agricultural practices that are legal, but simply going into a pasture and top-sowing wheat is not an accepted agricultural practice. Disking a field and spreading cracked corn is not an accepted agricultural practice. The ACES website explains in great detail what agricultural practices are allowed so that you will be legal and have a successful dove hunt.”

Landowners and dedicated dove hunters sometimes make the extra effort by adding fake power lines to attract the birds. Maddox recommends giving the birds as many places to roost and loaf as possible.

“Don’t cut down dead trees near a field,” Maddox said. “They like to have those loafing trees to sit in and check out the field before and after they eat. If you can provide a water source for them, that can make a big difference. And make sure your seedbed is disked well. Doves don’t have strong legs to scratch at the ground like turkeys do to uncover seeds. Doves are also attracted to freshly turned soil. It exposes seeds that didn’t sprout and bugs they eat as well. They pick up bits of grit for their crops to help grind the seeds. Doves are definitely attracted to a freshly plowed field.”

Dove hunting is one of the most popular outdoor activities in Alabama and the nation.

“Most people wouldn’t know that doves are the most hunted and harvested game in the United States,” Maddox said. “In our most recent survey, we had about 36,000 hunters with 200,000 days in the field and a harvest of more than 1 million birds. Most hunters don’t hunt but five or so days a year, so that’s a lot of birds harvested in the first couple of weeks of the season.”

Maddox said the annual harvest has no impact on the overall U.S. dove population of about 250 million birds.

“Doves nest seven or eight times a year here in Alabama,” he said. “They are a short-lived bird with a high rate of reproduction, so we’re not hurting the population at all. This renewable and sustainable resource continues to offer abundant opportunities to Alabama hunters.”

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

ADFSR returns to its roots for 2020 rodeo

(Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo/Contributed)

The Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR), the largest saltwater tournament in the nation, will revert to its roots for the 87th rodeo, scheduled July 17-19 at the rodeo site on Dauphin Island.

Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, the ADSFR will concentrate strictly on the great fishing along the Alabama Gulf Coast, which harkens back to the early days of the rodeo when a group of dedicated tarpon anglers assembled on Dauphin Island for the initial events.

As safety precautions, ADSFR 2020 President Cory Quint said the rodeo will not hold the Liars Contest on the Thursday night before the rodeo. Also, the sponsors’ tent and the fish viewing area will not be available for the 2020 rodeo. The music entertainment has also been dropped for this year. However, the Roy Martin Young Anglers Tournament set for July 11, 2020, will be held as planned.

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“First and foremost, we’re a fishing tournament at heart,” Quint said. “Everything else we do is what we call ‘the show,’ which means we make it family friendly and appealing to other people outside of anglers.”

Many people are not aware of how much work goes into hosting the ADSFR, which attracts more than 3,000 anglers to the small barrier island in south Mobile County. Quint said normal rodeo preparation for the next year’s event starts about a month after the rodeo has fired the cannon to signal the end to the event.

“We always try to improve some aspect of the rodeo each year by making it bigger and better,” Quint said. “In April, our mindset had to shift to how we make sure this rodeo will happen. We had all this social distancing. You had to wear a mask. You could only have groups of so many people. You had all this stuff. We worked with the Town of Dauphin Island, and they told us they were okay with us fishing, having a weigh-in and selling T-shirts. They did not want us to give anybody a reason to congregate. As much as I hate it, we had to cut out the Liars’ Contest. We had big plans to honor Mike Thompson (a multiple Liars’ Contest winner who died unexpectedly several months ago). I’ve known Mike (Captain T-Bone to the rodeo crowd) just about my whole life through my mom and dad (Jimmy and Terri Quint). I really wanted to do that personally. But, we didn’t have a choice. We couldn’t do the music. We couldn’t do the sponsors’ tent, which is about 60 percent of our sponsors. We are kind of going back to our roots as a fishing tournament. But I don’t want people to be confused about our rodeo site. It is still open. If you want to come see somebody weigh in, look at the boats or watch a sunset, you can still do that. We just can’t give people a reason to congregate. All we’re asking from the anglers is to be mindful of social distancing and be respectful of the Town of Dauphin Island. They really did do us a favor by allowing us to have the rodeo this year.”

Jeff Collier has been the Mayor of Dauphin Island for the past 22 years and knows what the rodeo means to Dauphin Island in terms of retail sales and rental income. With the exception of a couple of years during World War II, anglers have gathered on the island for fishing festivities.

“We’ve seen a lot of rodeos,” Mayor Collier said. “I was born and raised here, so I’ve seen most of the last 59 or so. That’s a lot of rodeos. This is going to be similar to some of the rodeos in the past. There’s going to be a little less activity, and we’ll be focusing on the fishing aspect of it, which is what the event was originally. Over the years, they added more events, but this year it will be back to that fishing tournament environment. We hate that for them. It would be nice to have the Liars’ Contest and the concerts, which had been well-received. Unfortunately, that won’t happen this year.

“The rodeo is such a historic event. This is the 87th rodeo. Any community would be happy to have them as part of the community. But, at the same time, we also commend them, because I think what they’re doing under these circumstances is the right and responsible thing to do.”

During a normal three-day rodeo, more than 75,000 people visit Dauphin Island for the fishing or the show. The absence of that traffic is definitely going to impact the businesses and rental properties.

“With this COVID situation, a lot of our small mom-and-pop businesses need all the help and support they can get,” Mayor Collier said. “The rodeo was one of those times they could benefit when the times were good. With a population of about 1,250 permanent residents on the island, you can see what bringing 75,000 people onto the island would have in terms of economic impact. It’s a big event. It covers as much as four days, so it has a big impact on our small community. But I do still think it will be a good event. People who do come down, we want them to act responsibly. We’re encouraging people to wear a face covering. We’re not requiring it, but we’re encouraging it. As we say, we want to be part of the solution not part of the problem.”

One change has been made in the ADSFR tournament categories. Rodeo anglers have 30 species of fish eligible to weigh in at the rodeo. However, red snapper is no longer on that list. The Alabama Marine Resources Division, which manages Alabama’s share of the red snapper quota in the Gulf of Mexico, announced this week that the last day of the 2020 season will be July 3 to ensure the quota is not exceeded. Red snapper has been replaced by lane snapper on the rodeo’s eligible fish list. Quint said that obviously also eliminates the Red Snapper Jackpot.

Mayor Collier was not shocked that the red snapper season had to be cut shorter than originally planned.

“With the coronavirus thing, people were itching to get outside,” he said. “There were a lot of boats out, and everybody I talked to had good catches. It doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

Visit www.adsfr.com for more information on the rules, categories and schedule for the 87th Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo.

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

Mid-July completion expected for Gulf State Park Pier renovations

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

Lamar Pendergrass believes in the old saying that good things come to those who wait.

The timing of the renovations to Gulf State Park Pier is not what was planned, but Pendergrass assures everyone it will be worth the wait.

“This is going to be what sets the example for any pier that is built on the Gulf of Mexico,” said Pendergrass, Alabama State Parks South Region Operations Supervisor. “If people want to see something that is state-of-the-art and done the right way, this is where they need to be.”

The $2.4 million renovation of one of the premier piers on the Gulf of Mexico is expected to be completed in July after all the decking and handrails have been replaced as the major part of the renovations.

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“The problems with the wood we’ve had in the past are rot and deterioration, the effects of weather and the elements over time,” Pendergrass said.

The treated pine timber on top of the pier decking is showing severe wear and tear with splintering and erosion to the point of being unsafe.

“It’s not just the top; it’s the understructure,” Pendergrass said. “The understructure is pine also, and it’s rotten too. We have nothing to screw the deck boards into. Even with 3-inch screws, the joists are too deteriorated to get the board secured. There’s nothing left to hold the board down. For practicality and safety issues, we couldn’t delay this process any longer.”

Instead of composite material, a sustainably sourced Brazilian hardwood called ipe (pronounced eepay) was chosen for the decking and top boards on the handrails.

“Ipe is very, very dense and very hard,” Pendergrass said. “It has to be predrilled to secure to the joists. You can’t just drive a screw into it.”

Pendergrass said screws that have been inserted into the ipe are difficult to remove.

“I tried to back out a screw that was in a piece of demo wood, and the head of the screw just popped off,” he said.

Pendergrass said ipe has a projected lifespan of 30 years compared to 10 years for the treated pine that is being replaced.

“Ipe doesn’t flake or become brittle and splinter up on you like the pine will,” he said. “It’s much harder to cut into, which should alleviate some of the incidents where people like to cut their names into the handrail or cut bait on the handrails. That means less wear and tear and less time our staff will have to use to change out boards and rails.”

Instead of the top boards on the handrails lying flat, the boards are tilted to prevent anglers and visitors from leaving material on top of the handrails, and Pendergrass hopes it will discourage birds like gulls and pelicans from using the handrails as perches.

“With the flat boards, we were constantly having to clean them and wash them down,” Pendergrass said. “This will make it a lot easier for us to maintain.”

Renovations include entirely new lighting at the pier. The current pier lighting, also turtle friendly, includes 35-watt low-pressure sodium and 18-watt high-pressure sodium lights, which are obsolete.

The light poles that currently extend about 18 feet above the decking will be replaced with poles that are about 10 feet tall. The new lights will be LED lights that are turtle-friendly and have six-inch shields to block portions of the light beam.

“We’re also going to install a dimmer, so that during turtle season we’ll be able to dim the lights even more,” Pendergrass said. “We’ll still have enough light for people who fish, but it will be turtle-friendly. The new lighting will not only be on the pier but in the parking lot also.”

Pendergrass knows that some dedicated pier anglers were not too happy when the scheduled work on the pier was delayed from last winter to this summer. He said it couldn’t be avoided.

“In a perfect world, we would have started this work in January,” he said. “That is what we had intended to do. Then we were contacted by NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) that they were going to require a biological opinion on this pier to assess impact on endangered species.”

Normally, a biological opinion takes about a year to complete. Pendergrass said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship shepherded the opinion process, and the opinion was issued in just a few months.

“The Commissioner really worked hard to get this done,” Pendergrass said.

The award conditions in the biological opinion will require Parks officials to not only maintain the pier as a fishing pier but also as an education pier. Pendergrass also said a diver will have to be deployed at least once a year to inspect the pier structure and assess the marine environment around the pier. Parks staff must also clean monofilament fishing line from the pier pilings annually.

“Visiting the Gulf State Park Pier is almost a rite of passage for people who come to Gulf Shores,” said Commissioner Blankenship when the work began earlier this year. “Because it is such an important part of our park, we are absolutely dedicated to maintaining the pier and ensuring it is safe and accessible to our many thousands of guests. We also want to make it is as environmentally friendly as possible for sea turtles and other wildlife.”

Pendergrass said new sea turtle protocols will be in place when the pier reopens to make sure any sea turtles that are hooked will be handled and released properly.

Pendergrass admitted Gulf State Park was losing significant revenue from the pier during the summer months, but it couldn’t be avoided.

“We didn’t have a choice but to shut the pier down when we did,” he said. “We had to shut it down for the safety of the anglers and visitors. We literally couldn’t keep up with the repairs. We were changing boards out every day, and we were dealing with the old lighting as well.”

In addition, the pier will get a new and vastly improved fish-cleaning station. Instead of just cleaning the fish and tossing the carcasses into the Gulf, anglers will be able to put the fish carcasses into a commercial grinder, which will masticate the remains and then pump them into two underground holding tanks in the parking lot. The tanks will have a treatment system that will allow the contents to eventually be removed through the sewer system.

“We do think by basically not adding chum to the water, we won’t draw as many sharks, and we hope to reduce the impact on sea turtles,” Pendergrass said.

One new feature of the revamped pier will be a 50-foot by 24-foot observation deck at the octagon on the end of the 1,544-foot-long structure.

“When the pier was rebuilt about 10 years ago, there were plans to have an observation deck, but they ran out of money,” Pendergrass said. “It isn’t a new idea, but it is new that we are going to expand it and make it larger than originally planned. With the education component, we felt adding an observation deck would allow the people to come and sightsee on the pier without interfering with the fishermen. This way, those sightseers will be elevated above the fishermen and can observe what is going on and get their pictures. It will be good for the general sightseer but also the school groups. Our naturalists bring a lot of school kids out during the year. Those kids will be able to step out on the observation deck in a safe manner and see the activity on the end of the pier.”

An Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) certified lift will be on one side of the observation deck with stairs on the opposite side. Pendergrass said the ADA lift will be operated only by pier personnel.

“The lift won’t be used like an elevator,” Pendergrass said. “Anyone who needs access to the lift will have to check in at the office. Our personnel will come down with a key and assist the person in using the lift. We will be there to get them up on the deck and then get them back down safely.”

Pendergrass also said the bathrooms on the pier will be renovated as well as the concession areas.

“We’re updating the bait shop and installing new counters that will make it easier for the pier personnel and the customers to communicate,” he said. “After we’re finished, it’s going to be the premier pier destination on the Gulf.”

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

Interior Secretary Bernhardt promotes outdoors opportunities during Alabama tour

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

Opening America’s vast federal lands to outdoors recreational activity is the expressed goal of David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, who visited Alabama’s Gulf Coast this week for a whirlwind tour.

Secretary Bernhardt heard a presentation about the mission and work of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) from Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship and followed with a tour of the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores. The Secretary then joined Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne for a visit to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

During his time in Gulf Shores, Secretary Bernhardt met with the different ADCNR Division Directors and Joey Dobbs, Alabama Conservation Advisory Board Chairman.

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“I was on the Virginia Board of Fish and Game and I loved that experience,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “It’s democracy. It was the most satisfying public service experience of my life because of what you (fish and wildlife officials) do and to be able to look for practical solutions in wildlife management. We feel so strongly that states are where the leadership in wildlife is, and we’re doing everything we can to protect that. We have spent a lot of time in the last four years trying to make sure that line is clear. I just want you to know I have a special place in my heart for every wildlife and fisheries manager in the states.”

Commissioner Blankenship applauded Secretary Bernhardt and the Trump administration for expanding hunting and fishing opportunities on federal lands.

“We have a proposal to expand those opportunities on 2.3 million acres this year,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “On one hand, we’ve tried to expand access opportunities. On the other hand, we’ve really worked hard to line up our regulations with yours (the states). That’s a big priority. I think we have made 5,000 reg changes to make that alignment work, because you shouldn’t need a lawyer to go fishing or hunting.”

One of the ways the Secretary started the quest to open new public lands to hunting and fishing was to utilize the hunt and fish chiefs in the 10 regions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which is a part of the Department of the Interior.

“We directed those chiefs to work within their region to identify opportunities to expand hunting and fishing or find new opportunities to allow hunting and fishing,” he said. “For example, you may have the opportunity to hunt only squirrels. I asked them to look at the possibility of deer hunting.”

Secretary Bernhardt, who served as Deputy Secretary before becoming Secretary in April 2019, sent those hunt and fish chiefs to the respective wildlife and fisheries commissions in each state to identify ideas on expanding opportunities.

“Two years ago, we put out a rule to do that,” he said. “Our first year, we proposed (expanded hunting and fishing) on 385,000 acres. Last year, we added 1.7 million acres. This year it was 2.3 million acres. That’s over 4 million acres of new or expanded opportunities. For example, all of the Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries had never been open to hunting. We had these vast spaces not open to hunting, but there was great wildlife there. We also asked each refuge manager to look at our rules and the states’ rules to see if we could line up seasons. As long as it made sense scientifically, facilitating access was really important.”

Secretary Bernhardt said hunters and anglers are the driving force behind conservation efforts through funding provided by hunting and fishing license sales and the excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, fishing tackle and other outdoor recreation items.

“The North American Wildlife Conservation Model, the most successful model on the planet, demands two things,” he said. “It requires that hunters and anglers are participating. Their activity is what really funds conservation. We want to do everything we can to make sure the future is bright for those resources to be there. We have very good science on managing our wildlife, but we have to have the participation of the people. So, we’ve tried to make things simpler. We’ve tried to make things more accessible. I’m a big believer that if people have access and opportunity, once you get them out there, you can never get them back. I take people out on my boat all the time. If I get them hooked, they’ll never tell me they don’t want to come next time. We do everything we can to get youth involved. At the end of the day, it’s going to take the collaboration of the state government and federal government to keep the public involved.”

Secretary Bernhardt said he expects Congress to pass the Great American Outdoors Act soon, which will have a huge impact on outdoors activity for the foreseeable future. The act, which passed the Senate Wednesday, would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide $9.5 billion in revenue for maintenance and upgrades at National Parks.

“I think what this whole experience we’ve had with this COVID-19 thing is that people really realize how great it is to be outside, whether it’s a bike path or a fishing hole,” he said. “This has never been done before. Congress is about to pass legislation that funds the restoration of our National Parks. Maintenance has been deferred on them. They’re crumbling down. Most of them were built from the ’30s to the ’60s. It also fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s been around since the ’60s, but it’s only been fully funded a couple of times.”

Bernhardt said the infusion of the money from the proposed act, coupled with the mandate from the John Dingell Recreation Act to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities, will be a boon for outdoors recreation.

“I think those two things together will be the most significant conservation management effort by a President and Congress in more than 50 years,” he said.

Secretary Bernhardt admitted he didn’t realize how extensive the Alabama Artificial Reef Program is until Commissioner Blankenship pointed out the more than 1,000 square miles of reef zones off the Alabama coast.

“We have everything from the New Venture, our large ship reef, to the concrete pyramids,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We have decommissioned Abrams military tanks that were deployed in the ’90s.”

Commissioner Blankenship said ADCNR works with the Department of the Interior on the Rigs to Reefs program to convert derelict oil and gas rigs off Alabama into artificial reefs at their original locations. The oil and gas companies save money by not having to haul the structures back to shore, and those companies make donations to keep the Rigs to Reefs program funded.

“I’ve been a big believer in Rigs to Reefs for a long, long time,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “I didn’t realize the scope of your reef program until I saw it (in the presentation). Everybody who fishes knows that structure is critical. Providing that structure and creating that environment is good for all of us and for the fishery.”

During the visit, Commissioner Blankenship highlighted other ADCNR-related achievements, including the designation of Gulf State Park’s Eagle Cottages as one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, and the fact that Alabama has 17 community archery parks, more than twice the number in any other state in the nation.

The Commissioner pointed out that Alabama’s biodiversity is ranked first east of the Mississippi River and fifth overall and that the Forever Wild Land Trust helps purchase and protect sensitive habitat throughout the state.

Commissioner Blankenship invited the Secretary for another visit this fall to see the habitat of the rare Red Hills salamander in Monroe County

“We appreciate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Species Recovery Grants,” he said “We’re working cooperatively to delist a couple of species. For the Red Hills salamander, through Alabama’s Forever Wild program, we’ve acquired about 11,000 acres of its critical habitat. It’s the same thing with the pygmy sunfish. Forever Wild acquired a piece of critical habitat to protect it. The other pygmy sunfish habitat is inside the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. My hope is that, working with this administration, we’ll be able to delist these two species in the next couple of years.”

On a personal note, Secretary Bernhardt grew up fly fishing in the beautiful streams around his hometown of Rifle, Colorado. Now he spends most of his fishing time in the Chesapeake Bay area in his Parker 2520 boat.

“I’m out there on that boat every chance I can be, and I’m out there with my son or daughter,” he said. “Nothing beats that for me. I fly-fished all my life. But I love to catch rockfish (striped bass). I love eating them, and my wife loves cooking them. So, it all works out perfect.”

As for hunting, Secretary Bernhardt said a huge moose rack mounted in his office reminds him of a memorable hunt in Alaska, but he returns most often to his roots by hunting elk in western Colorado.

“And I love waterfowl hunting, too,” he said. “The Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake has been very, very good to me.”
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

Scoggins brothers complete Redeye Slam in one day

(Steven and Kevin Scoggins/Contributed)

When the Scoggins brothers accept a challenge, there’s no turning back.

The firefighter brothers, Kevin at Hueytown and Steven at Hoover, revert to their roots to decompress from the stressful life as first responders. They find their solace casting flies in the many beautiful streams and creeks that crisscross the state. Native to those drainages is a fish that is the object of their affection and challenge – the redeye bass.

“Kevin and I grew up about 10 minutes through the woods from a small creek in Jefferson County,” said Steven, the eldest of the pair at 46. “We fished small creeks our whole life, and it’s pretty much molded us. Years later, we got into fly fishing. We both watched A River Runs Through It, and it weighed on our minds that we really wanted to try that. We bought a couple of fly rods from Riverside Fly Shop outside Jasper.”

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Steven said he started catching fish in the streams that he regularly visited, but he wasn’t sure what he was catching. His research indicated they might be redeye bass. The more research he did, the more he decided to focus on redeyes and the streams and rivers they inhabit. He also discovered that each drainage has a different species of redeye.

“I really started searching out those streams with redeyes,” he said. “When my son, Kaden, got old enough to go with me in 2013 or 2014, we started going to these streams. We went to the Warrior River drainage. This was before redeye fishing got popular. I remember when Kaden and I caught our first redeyes on a fly. We doubled up, and I remarked at the time that this was the hardest-fighting small fish I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re just so strong. My love for them grew out of that.”

The Scoggins brothers discovered Matt Lewis’ “Fly Fishing for Redeye Bass: An Adventure Across Southern Waters” book, which further piqued their interest.

Lewis, Drew Morgan and Jonathan Kelly formed the Redeye Fly Fishing Group and created the Redeye Slam. The Scoggins were all in.

Fisheries biologists recognize seven known species of redeyes in the South. Alabama has four redeyes named after their respective drainages and shares one with Georgia, which has two other distinct redeye species. To complete the Redeye Slam, anglers must catch each redeye species in the Mobile Basin within a calendar year. The Redeye Grand Slam requires anglers to catch all seven species within a calendar year.

The redeye species endemic to Alabama are the Warrior, the Cahaba, the Tallapoosa, the Coosa and the Chattahoochee, shared with Georgia, which also has the Bartram and the Altamaha.

Steven said between 70 and 80 people signed up for the Grand Slam challenge, but only a few people managed to accomplish it. The Scoggins brothers were the third and fourth anglers to achieve the Grand Slam.

“Kevin and I do all these adventures together,” Steven said. “The Grand Slam was a very lofty goal. In 2018, when we did it, we traveled about 2,200 miles and went through untold counties and towns we’d never seen. You have to do tons and tons of research. It’s about logistics. You kind of know where they live, but you’re on your own. We were really tickled when we got it done.”

It took the brothers from March to October to catch all seven species. But that left them without a challenge, so they stepped it up a notch.

They decided to try to catch all four Mobile Basin species in one day.

“Nobody had ever done that before,” Steven said. “Most people didn’t think it was possible, but over the years of fishing for them, we kind of felt like we knew where the different species were. When we were doing the Grand Slam, I had caught two, the Coosa and the Tallapoosa, in one day and decided to try it.”

That effort in 2018 came up one species short because of a thunderstorm and fatigue. Steven tried again in 2019 but only managed to catch two species that day.

The Scoggins brothers doubled down on their logistics and recently made their “third time’s the charm” redeye trip.

“This was all done wading,” Steven said. “We’re targeting these backcountry streams. It’s really the most beautiful parts of Alabama you’ve ever seen. What we found out is that if you find rhododendrons and mountain laurels, you can find redeye bass. The moniker for redeye bass is the Bama brook trout because they share similar locations as brook trout in the Appalachian Mountains.”

The Scoggins brothers mapped out the straightest path possible to the different species, starting with the drainage that was the least familiar.

“We started in Tallapoosa drainage,” Steven said. “Kevin caught a fish at 8:30, but I didn’t catch my fish until about 9:15. Second was a drive to the Coosa River drainage. It was an hour’s drive and an extremely tough hike to the stream. It took about three-quarters of a mile of fishing for us both to get our fish. That was about 11:30. We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to be able to do this today.’”

Next up was a trip to the upper reaches of the Cahaba River north of Trussville. By 3:15, they both had Cahaba redeyes.

“This is where the story takes a downturn,” Steven said. “We were within reach and also confident, overly confident. The last one was the Warrior River drainage. We reached an area we know like the backs of our hands about 4:30.”

The brothers waded into the stream but found no evidence that any redeyes existed in that stretch of water. They tried several patterns and couldn’t get a fish to even look at one of their flies.

“We fished for two solid hours without a single hit,” Steven said. “I was a nervous wreck. I was almost nauseated. At 6:30, I finally caught the first fish in a hole I knew held them. I got Kevin on the radio and told him to come fish this hole. He takes about a 40-minute trek to get to where I was. He starts casting. Absolutely nothing. We go to a hole with a beautiful rock wall. He fishes the whole wall as hard as he can. Nothing. We were exhausted by this time. The sun is starting to go down, and he’s thinking we’re not going to make it. The fish weren’t hitting anything.”

The Scoggins brothers use two main patterns to catch redeyes. One is the traditional topwater popper called a Booglebug in No. 8 or No. 10 and the Wooly Bugger.

“You can catch a redeye on any color as long as it’s yellow,” said Steven. “The Wooly Bugger is the quintessential fly used all over the world.”

Kevin, desperate at that point, changed flies again and still caught nothing. The brothers then headed back to the hole where Steven caught his fish.

“I said we needed to go to that hole one last time,” Steven said. “I knew fish were there. He said, ‘I’m exhausted. I’m going to cast four or five more times.’”

Casting a Peach Conehead Wooly Bugger, Kevin hooked up at 7:58 p.m.

“Get the net, get the net, he started screaming,” Steven said. “It was 8:01 p.m. when he netted the last fish we needed.”

Despite the unbelievable accomplishment, the brothers were too tired to do much celebrating.

“I had been up since 4:45 that morning,” Steven said. “We’d driven almost 400 miles across 11 counties. It was blood, sweat and tears. It all came down to a fish on our home waters we knew like the backs of our hands, and it took 3½ hours for both of us to catch a fish. That fly Kevin caught his fish on was one I got out of the dollar bin at Deep South Outfitters in Birmingham. Had I not had that pattern, we wouldn’t have finished the Slam. It was an epic finish to an epic day.”

Drew Morgan, who guides redeye trips on the Tallapoosa River with East Alabama Fly Fishing, said the Scoggins brothers are the first to complete the Slam in a single day.

“It’s quite a feat,” Morgan said. “Many have been trying, but Steve and Kevin are the first to do it.”

Steven said he hasn’t picked up conventional fishing tackle in years. Catching redeyes on fly tackle is his ultimate outdoors pleasure.

“We fly fish in North Carolina, Wyoming and Montana, but this place will always be our fly-fishing home,” Steven said. “I will always love catching redeye more than any other species. Our jobs are stressful. They’re physically and mentally demanding. This gives us a release like no other. To get into a backcountry stream with the rhododendrons and mountain laurels blooming and catch these beautiful fish, it just resets us to zero both mentally and physically. All we want to do now is catch and save our endemic species. And we want to let everybody know there is a beautiful fish you can catch that is exclusively found in Alabama.”

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.