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.

3 days ago

Amendment 50 gives Gulf states stable snapper season

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

After a three-year struggle, saltwater anglers are on the cusp of a stable red snapper season with the approval of Amendment 50 by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

Amendment 50, which goes into effect in 2020 with the approval of the secretary of Commerce, gives the five Gulf states control over each state’s snapper season, and it allows leeway in size and bag limits within certain federal guidelines.

“All of the Gulf states are excited to finally have this solidified and move forward with the management plans for the individual states,” said Scott Bannon, Alabama’s Marine Resources director. “It’s a win for the red snapper stock and a win for the states.”

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Bannon said state control of the snapper fishery was brought before the Council in 2016 to manage the recreational sector, which would have included the private recreational sector and the federal for-hire (charter) sector.

The 2016 and 2017 snapper seasons were painfully short under federal control. As a way to alleviate the impact on anglers and the Gulf Coast economies, the Gulf states were issued an exempted fishing permit (EFP) for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and states were able to set their seasons under a total allowable catch for each state.

Alabama originally set its 2018 season at 47 days, but near-perfect weather and an increased enthusiasm for catching the state’s signature saltwater species forced Marine Resources to reduce the season to 28 days, which ended in an almost perfect catch-to-allocation result.

The way Alabama was able to ensure there was no significant overrun on the quota was through the Red Snapper Reporting System, more commonly known as Snapper Check. The mandatory reporting system allowed Marine Resources to monitor the catch and close the season in response to the larger-than-expected harvest numbers.

The success of the Snapper Check monitoring paved the way for the Council to approve Amendment 50.

“I think the fishery benefits from Amendment 50 because we have the ability, as individual states, of not exceeding our allocation of the quota,” Bannon said. “If you look at it from a stock perspective for the Gulf of Mexico and you were managing it as a whole and you had a perfect season, like last year, you had no way to put the season in check. Alabama alone would have consumed nearly half of the entire Gulf allocation if we had fished the whole 47 days. We would have fished it really, really hard, and the amount of fish we would have caught would have been tremendous. As it was, we closed it when we met the number of pounds and showed that we were responsible. I think this is much better for the anglers and the snapper stock. I think the EFP showed the states could come to some decisions about allocations, and that the states could manage seasons within pretty close tolerances.”

Bannon said the Gulf Council faced two challenges with state management of red snapper. First, where do the federal for-hire boats fit into the program? The Council decided to not include the federal for-hire in Amendment 50 and consider other options in the future if conditions change for the federal for-hire boats. Second, what allocations could the five Gulf states live with?

“These allocations were based on different factors like biomass and historical landings,” Bannon said. “So, the state directors used the EFP allocations as a starting point for Amendment 50.

“The EFP only allowed us to set the season within our allocation. Under Amendment 50, we received an increase in allocation from 25% to 26.298%, and that increase will be permanent. We also have in Amendment 50 the ability to set size and bag limits within certain parameters. Those are management tools to maximize the benefit for Alabama.”

When the initial EFP allocations were proposed, the totals did not equal 100% of the total allowable catch. Bannon said Florida was given the extra 3.78% because they were the final state to apply.

“They amended their EFP to get that extra allocation,” Bannon said. “We felt like that extra allocation should be negotiated. In the end, Alabama and Florida split that 3.78% under Amendment 50 because we’re the two largest consumers of red snapper. The other states were comfortable with that. It seems to be fair and equitable.”

Under the new amendment, each state creates their own plan. Alabama’s plan includes a 10% buffer as opposed to the 20% buffer under the federal system. The federal for-hire sector has not exceeded its quota for several years, and its buffer was reduced to 9%.

Alabama’s allocation of red snapper for the 2019 private recreational season under the EFP is 1,079,765 pounds. Alabama’s allocation for the 2020 season increases to 1,122,661 pounds if the private recreational sector doesn’t exceed its quota this year.

Bannon said most red snapper anglers are happy with the upcoming season, and he anticipates there could be some season adjustments when Amendment 50 goes into effect.

“Most of the responses I’ve received for the 2019 season is they were happy to get the June and July seasons and that the season was spread out enough that if the weather was bad they could go another weekend,” he said. “We know we still have concerns from the public that they would like more fishing time during the week. As we move forward in state management, that is always a possibility because we now have the flexibility to set the seasons.”

The 2019 season length is tentatively set for 27 days, starting June 1 with three-day weekends (Friday-Sunday) except opening weekend (two days) and July 4 week, which will be four days (Thursday-Sunday). The size limit and bag limit remain the same at two fish per person with a minimum size of 16 inches total length.

Bannon is planning to ask snapper anglers for assistance to keep Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef program at the top. The loss of funding for research in those reef zones will prompt him to ask the Conservation Advisory Board to implement a reef fish endorsement beginning in 2020.

“The reef fish endorsement is set up to help fund some of the research conducted in the reef zones, because we’re losing some of the funding used for that research,” he said. “The research needs to continue, and we also need funds to support programs like Snapper Check, which we hope to expand into a better program. It’s designed as a user-based system that applies to the people who are participating in that fishery, including private recreational, charter for-hire and commercial fishermen. Another aspect of it is it defines the user group. It gives us a better idea, especially among private anglers, of how many people are fishing for reef fish off Alabama. That way we can have better directed surveys, which are targeted at people who participate in the fishery instead of just people who have saltwater fishing licenses.”

The endorsement fees would be $10 for private recreational anglers and $250 for commercial fishermen. The charter for-hire fees would depend on the size of the boat and number of passengers the vessel can carry.

As for Amendment 50, Bannon said Alabama has already shown state management will work. The public is supportive, and he thinks that Secretary Wilbur Ross will quickly approve.

“As I said on the radio the other day, Alabama has 3% of the Gulf coastline and will receive 26.298% of the total allowable catch for the 2020 season and beyond,” Bannon said. “I think Amendment 50 is a success for the fishery, and I think it’s a success for the states because the states can now manage the seasons, size limits and bag limits that best suit their anglers.”

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 week ago

Ultimate jugging produces catfish feeding frenzy at Millers Ferry

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

Thank goodness some members of the younger generation still enjoy the outdoors. If not, Joe Allen Dunn and I would have been ripe for the making of a comedy video of catfishing bloopers.

Fortunately, Dunn’s son, 19-year-old Hayden, was there to save two old dudes with bum knees from stumbling around the boat as the catfish went on a feeding frenzy. Hayden was netting fish, rebaiting and tossing jugs as fast as he could go.

Dunn and James “Big Daddy” Lawler developed what they call “Ultimate Jug Fishing” for Millers Ferry on the Alabama River. Last September I made a trip to the (Dannelly) reservoir for hot-weather catfishing in deep water using sections of pool noodles as the floats with long lines to reach the fish in 20-30 feet of water.

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Dunn invited me back for the spring catfishing bonanza when the fish move onto the shallows during the spawning run. This time, the lines were 3-4 feet long rather than 30. Instead of pool noodles, the floats are 20-ounce Gatorade or Powerade bottles. A 30-inch section of green nylon string is tied to the bottle. A half-ounce lead weight is added before a swivel. About 18 inches of 40- to 50-pound monofilament line is tied on before being snelled to a circle hook. Dunn said snelling the hook is important to get the circle hook to function like it should. He has also revised his recommendations on hook size. After a big catfish straightened out a 3/0 hook, he now sticks with 5/0.

“You catch a lot of medium-sized fish, but every once in a while, you’ll catch a 15- to 20- or 30-pounder,” Dunn said. “If you’re trying to fight him around to get him in, he’s going to straighten that 3/0 out. I’m just going with a heavier hook from now on, and you’ll still catch the smaller fish on the bigger hook.

“The thing about the bottles is when the wind gets a little brisk, the bottles will turn and draft. They don’t catch the wind as bad, so you get a slower drift. You want a little wind for the drift, but you don’t want to be chasing your jugs all over the place.”

Dunn buys bicycle tire inner tubes and uses scissors to cut 1-inch bands to slip over the neck of the jugs. This allows the lines to be wrapped tight so the lead won’t be slapping the bottle during transport, and it gives a place to stick the point of the circle hook to make sure it doesn’t get dull.

The places Dunn looks to deploy the jugs are flats off the main river channel with 2½ to 6 feet of water. After cleaning the fish, we realized why the catfish were on one particular flat. The fish stomachs were full of juvenile mussels.

“These fish are up there feeding and getting ready to spawn,” Dunn said. “The fish will stay in the flats the whole spring and the early part of the summer. When it gets hot, the fish will move out to the river channel.”

Dunn prefers skipjack herring and threadfin shad for catfish bait. He uses a cast net to catch the shad and occasionally lucks up on a school of skipjacks along the river banks. Right now, he said the best way to catch skipjacks is to cast Sabiki rigs below the dam. Depending on the size, he uses a whole shad or cuts them in half. The skipjacks are cut into chunks. When he has a good bait run, Dunn has a specific way to freeze the bait for future use.

“Don’t take a gallon bag and pack all you can in it and zip it up,” he said. “By the time you get them all thawed out like that, the bait gets mushy. I take a gallon bag and put enough bait in it to make one layer. I mash it flat and zip it up. The last time we put up bait, we counted how many we had in one layer, and it was about 50 baits. That’s working out real well.”

Back to the feeding frenzy we had last week, the blue cats (and occasional channel cat) were hungry. We baited the circle hooks and started tossing out jugs about 25 yards apart and let them drift down the flat. Within five minutes, the action was non-stop, and we worked Hayden non-stop. As soon as a fish was thrown in the live well, another jug would start bobbing.

“Every flat is not going to be like that,” Dunn said. “We hit it perfect. You may pick up one or two or nothing. You then pick up and move. You keep going into the flats until you find them. Make sure when you throw out the jugs that you get a good drift either across or down the flat. We hit it perfect last week. We were chasing jugs for an hour and a half. It was on.”

After we had a nice mess of catfish in the box, I insisted we try to find a few crappie. We hit the banks for a couple of hours, but the fish were not in the shallow water. A couple of days later, Dunn found out the fish were in a little deeper water.

Gerald Overstreet, a Millers Ferry crappie guide (251-589-3225), said the receding water is the reason the crappie are not in the super shallow water.

“I’ve seen it for the last several years,” Overstreet said. “What happens at Millers Ferry is when the water is up, the fish will get right beside the bank and will get really shallow, like 1 or 2 feet of water. They’ll get right in the bushes and brush that’s flooded.

“When the water drops back to normal pool and drops out of those bushes, the fish will pull back off the bank. When the water levels settle down, those fish will be in anywhere from 3 to 6 feet of water. They’re still spawning. They just move back. A lot of the stuff they were spawning on when the water was up, unless it’s laying in the water, they’ll move off of it. With the water at normal pool, they’ll find the wood, the laydowns and stumps and things that are in 3 to 6 feet of water.”

Overstreet said he keeps the boat in a little deeper water to fish on the edges of the flats where the water gets deep enough that you can’t see the bottom.

“From that point where you can’t see the bottom on out to about 6 feet of water is where those fish will spawn,” he said. “They’re still on wood and brush, or there may be a laydown tree.”

Overstreet is using a variety of fishing techniques to put crappie in the boat.

“We’re doing corks and minnows,” he said. “We’re trolling some with minnows. And we’re pitching with 11-foot B&M poles and using a small cork with a 1/32-ounce Mid-South Tackle jig. On Millers Ferry, black and chartreuse is about as good a color as you can get.

“We usually pitch it to where you can just see the bottom and work it out. Just let it sit for a second and let that light jig flutter down. Then bump the cork to make a little noise and then let it sit still. That gets the fish’s attention. They hit violently without even a minnow on it.”

If the bite is kind of tough, Overstreet tips the jig with a minnow or a piece of Crappie Nibbles (scent cubes) for extra enticement.

“The problem lately is getting minnows,” Overstreet said. “The folks around the lake are selling out of minnows two or three times a week.

“A lot of people are fishing because the crappie spawn is in full swing right now.”

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

Steve Barnett mentors turkey hunt before retirement

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

Steve Barnett, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s turkey expert for the past two decades, now has more time to spend in the turkey woods.

Barnett, who has been with WFF for 32 years, transitioned to retired status this week as Alabama’s spring turkey season heads toward the peak of breeding season. Barnett actually spent his last weekend serving as a turkey hunting mentor for the Adult Mentored Hunting Program for his last day of official state service.

Barnett recently received the Henry S. Mosby Award from the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) for his work in turkey conservation. Mosby’s research during the mid-1900s set the standard for wild turkey management. Mosby helped found The Wildlife Society and won its Aldo Leopold Medal.

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“When I received the award, I said that the individual recognition was really defined by the folks that I work with and the folks I’ve associated with over the years,” Barnett said. “Obviously, that includes my colleagues in Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, the NWTF Alabama Chapter and the USGS Cooperative Research Unit at Auburn University, just to name a few.”

Barnett, who will return to WFF on a part-time basis later this year, has both feelings of encouragement and concern about the Alabama turkey population.

“The promising thing is we’ve seen a lot of jakes this year, so it looks like we had a good hatch last year as our brood survey seemed to indicate for 2018,” Barnett said. “The brood survey number was up. It’s still not up to what we want it to be, but our trend is showing just under two poults per hen. That is for all hens, including hens that don’t have any poults. That’s what drives the numbers down. The broods, hens with poults, was still good with a little more than three poults per brood. That seems to be the trend. Hens with broods seem to be doing pretty good. What’s driving the potential for population growth down are the hens that have no poults.”

Nest predation is one limiting factor on population growth with the significant downturn in the number of people trapping furbearers like raccoons, foxes and coyotes.

“And we have a fairly new critter in the landscape that is becoming widespread called feral pigs,” Barnett said. “They are known to eat the eggs. If they can catch the hen, they’ll eat the hen. If they can catch the poults, they’ll eat them too. And they destroy the habitat in the process.”

WFF’s publication Full Fans and Sharp Spurs summarizes the brood survey and the Avid Turkey Hunters Survey. The latest report is at the printer and should be available soon.

The Avid Turkey Hunters Survey enlists turkey hunters who spend a significant time in the woods to report several turkey activities – the number of gobblers heard, the number of gobbles heard, the number of hens and gobblers observed and the harvest data.

“That’s something we ask the public to assist us with,” Barnett said. “The larger our sample size is, the better the data will reflect what’s going on across the state. We need a lot more hunters participating. We’ve got a little more than 400 folks enrolled. In 2018, about 240 submitted data. If we had about 10 percent of our turkey hunters participate, we would have much better data. Our hunter survey shows we have about 30,000 turkey hunters in Alabama.”

Barnett said concern still exists in the Southeast that the turkey population continues to decrease across the region.

“The biologists in the Southeast Wild Turkey Working Group still think habitat is the key, having quality habitat to meet wild turkey needs,” he said. “Very important is nesting and brood-rearing habitat.”

Brood-rearing habitat is typically grassy areas where sunlight penetrates the forest canopy. The sunlight stimulates the growth of grasses and forbs, which attracts the small insects the poults depend on for forage for several weeks after hatching. Habitat management includes prescribed fire in mixed pine-hardwood stands and managing soft and hard mast-producing trees.

Barnett said the turkey group is also concerned that hunting seasons may start too early in some areas. Alabama changed its opening day from the traditional March 15 to the third Saturday in March. This year, that date fell on March 16.

“The group has concerns that gobblers are being harvested before they have a chance to maximize their breeding potential,” said Barnett, who teamed up in 2009 with his biologist wife, Victoria, to write The Wild Turkey in Alabama, a publication available for download at www.outdooralabama.com.

The turkey working group and researchers at Auburn University are investigating the impact of different season and bag limits on the turkey population.

“A model gives us a forecast of what turkey numbers are going to look like down the road, say 10 years, under various scenarios of seasons and bag limits,” Barnett said. “The key elements in this model are survival, reproduction and harvest rates. According to data from Alabama, statewide, the average peak laying period is about the middle of April,” he said. “We have some that are laying at the end of March and some still laying at the end of April. The Avid Turkey Hunters Survey and Game Check are showing that many gobblers are being killed well before peak laying begins.”

Barnett said hens will lay one egg per day for 11-12 days. If the nesting is successful, the hen takes the poults to a grassy area to feed.

“The farther that hen has to travel to brood habitat, the more likely the poults will succumb to predators or exposure,” he said.

Barnett participated in last weekend’s Adult Mentored Hunt at the Portland Landing Special Opportunity Area, his last duty as a full-time employee.

At the Adult Mentored Hunt, one gobbler was harvested and another missed. Barnett said the weather seemed to have unfortunately dampened the gobbling activity as well.

Unfortunately, the gobbling activity I heard last week was worse. Hunting with Larry Norton, Mark Williams and Doug Shearer in Wilcox County, I didn’t hear a single gobble in two days.

Norton, a two-time World Champion turkey caller who has been hunting Alabama’s tough turkeys for more than 40 years, thinks the dreary February with lots of rain and overcast skies altered his turkey hunting early in the season. Most of Alabama’s rivers were in flood stage from late February through mid-March.

“Where we normally have turkeys this time of year, they’re not there,” Norton said. “Not only were the rivers flooded, there was so much rain there was a lot of standing water. Areas where we would normally have hens with two or three gobblers, the birds just aren’t there.

“I think that has the turkeys dislocated, and they just haven’t started gobbling, at least where I hunt. I’m not even hearing that one dominant gobbler yet. I can remember in the past when we had a lot of rain and dreary days in late January and February that it took forever for the turkeys to get in the mood.”

Barnett said numerous factors are involved in turkey breeding activity, including the length of daylight (photo period) and weather.

“During cold temperatures and windy weather, turkeys don’t gobble as well,” Barnett said. “Environmental factors play a role. Just because turkeys start gobbling doesn’t mean the hens are being bred right then. The hens dictate the breeding activity.”

Barnett said he is getting mixed reports of gobbling activity across the state.

“Where I am in south Alabama, the turkeys are gobbling pretty good,” he said. “I’ve got a cousin who hunts in the northwest part of the state, and he’s not hearing much of anything.”

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

Alabama fishing returning to normal after flooding

(Bass Pro Shops Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail)

Thankfully, the late-winter deluges have transitioned into a spring dry pattern that has allowed the flooded rivers in many portions of Alabama to return to more normal levels.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee River system in Alabama was at its highest levels in about three decades, which made it difficult on anglers who normally enjoy a fishing bonanza in February and early March.

Jimmy Mason, a fishing guide and professional bass tournament angler from Rogersville, said the river levels are starting to get back to normal after some epic high water in February.

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“I was on Wilson the other day and they actually shut the spillways off for the first time since the second week of February,” Mason said. “On Pickwick, we had the most current ever, and it was the second-highest level ever. The only time it was higher was in 1897.”

According to a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) document, the greatest flood on record in the lower Tennessee Valley occurred after 21 straight days of rain in 1897.

Mason feared a repeat of the historic rainfall when between 12 and 13 inches of rain fell in north Alabama in late February. Anglers were basically shut out of normal fishing patterns during one of the most productive times on the Tennessee River lakes of (east to west) Guntersville, Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick. The other rivers in Alabama, like the Coosa and Tombigbee, were not spared from high water and the resulting damage to boat ramps and other facilities. Weiss Lake and Logan Martin Lake on the Coosa sustained damage to campgrounds and boat ramps. The Tombigbee reached its highest level in 28 years.

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division is currently traveling statewide to determine how much damage was done by the high water.

“Significant damage from the floods occurred to the ramps on Weiss Lake and really all over the state,” Blankenship said. “Our staff has been out assessing the damage and trying to make emergency repairs where possible and will be bidding out repairs as soon as we can.”

Mason said the high water impacted Pickwick the most on the Tennessee River.

“Tuesday was the first day that McFarland Harbor boat ramp was open since early February,” Mason said. “It was underwater for several weeks, so everything electrical will have to be replaced. It damaged a lot of the roads and concrete pads. It will take a while to get everything cleaned up and repaired. It’s the same for all the chain, but Pickwick was the one with the most damage.”

Because of the swift current, Mason had to reschedule many booked trips because of the safety factor. When he was able to safely get back out, his fishing strategy was totally different.

“There was so much current that everything changed,” he said. “The current was so strong that the fish couldn’t hold in it. They had to find places to get out of the current, and we had to adapt to that. Basically, we were looking for the biggest eddies because there was so much current. Even the creeks had a lot of current. Traditionally, there’s a lot of offshore fishing for staging pre-spawn fish. This year, the fish were all on the banks because they couldn’t handle so much current. I had to switch to a lot heavier weights to get the bait down. I had to go to one-ounce and ounce-and-a-quarter jig heads. It was all about figuring out ways to play the current.”

Mason said anglers will likely have to be flexible in the coming weeks and figure out what the bass are doing in terms of spawning activity. Water temperatures are hovering around the 60-degree mark. Spawning activity usually starts when the water temperature hits the 62- to 63-degree mark.

“The next week or so is going to be interesting,” he said. “It could be that the pre-spawn fish will be biting, or those fish could go straight to the beds. We will have to prepare for both scenarios. We caught a couple the other day with eggs oozing out of them. It may be that the spawning is more of the deal than the pre-spawn feed. I heard someone say this may be a lost year for the pre-spawn bite. If we have a warm-up in the next week, I think there is just going to be a giant wave of bass that get on the bed at one time.”

Mason said the crappie fishermen have suffered a similar fate because of the high water.

“Normally, this time of year you see the crappie fishermen on the brush tops offshore,” he said. “This year, I haven’t seen hardly any crappie fishermen. About all I’ve seen are the guys with the bigger catfishing boats. Now, those guys are catching some good fish.”

In fact, at the Cabela’s King Kat Tournament on Lake Wheeler recently, a monster blue catfish hit the scales at 114.96 pounds, the largest fish ever weighed in that tournament series.

Mason is optimistic that fishing for the rest of spring will return to a normal pattern, but he will never forget how high the water got in February.

“At one point, they were releasing 550,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) through the dam,” he said of Pickwick. “That’s just unbelievable. One of the older fishermen said it got up to 500,000 in 1990. Since 1990, the highest it’s been was 325,000.”

On the other end of Alabama’s Tennessee River chain, Mike Carter guides on Guntersville Lake, a sprawling 67,900-acre impoundment that is perennially rated as one of the top bass lakes in the nation.

Carter said during the worst of the high-water period that the mid-lake area at Guntersville was up between 2 and 3 feet and up more than 3 feet upriver, which is the highest he’s seen it since 1990.

“Back then we were catching fish in people’s pastures and up in the woods,” Carter said. “The fish were schooling in the pastures because of all the food that was in there. I didn’t go into the pastures this time because I didn’t want to go through the woods to get there. Guntersville can hold a lot of water, but it was tough during that time. We had to move up shallow. Instead of the fish being on the outside of the grass lines, they were between the bank and the grass line. We still caught some good fish on chatterbaits and square-bill crankbaits. I fished a lot of primrose that I normally can’t fish, but the water was so high I was able to catch a lot of fish around the primrose.”

Carter expects the bass spawning activity to be wide open in the next few days with water temps approaching the magical low 60s mark.

“I found several beds this weekend,” he said. “Fish are moving up into 2 and 3 feet of water to spawn. We saw beds and some buck bass cruising around. They’re getting ready to do their thing. We finally got some good sunshine weather to move them up there.”

Carter expects the spawning activity to last through April because Guntersville’s bass usually move up in stages.

After the fish spawn, they move to the river ledges and will be looking for something to eat.

“When the fish get out on those ledges, they will gorge heavily,” Carter said. “We’ll use a lot of swimbaits and, on calmer days, jigs. We’re looking for deep shell beds. They’re a lot easier to pattern at that time, and we catch some good fish.”

Guntersville is known for its abundant grass with hydrilla mats and abundant Eurasian watermilfoil. Carter is somewhat worried high water may have altered the grass dynamic.

“The high water and heavy current cleaned out a lot of the grass,” he said. “I think a flushing every once in a while helps, but I’m afraid that it’s going to allow the eel grass (tape grass) to take over. Milfoil and hydrilla provide a lot of filtration, and they hold more oxygen than eel grass. Eel grass will smother out milfoil and hydrilla. I hope that doesn’t happen.”

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

Marine Resources Division considering changes to flounder, trout limits

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

Alabama’s inshore anglers are aware that fishing for two of the most popular species – southern flounder and spotted seatrout – has not been up to normal Gulf Coast standards in the past few years.

The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) is seeking public input on how to mitigate this downturn in the abundance of the two species. MRD recently held public meetings with commercial and recreational anglers to discuss what management measures would be supported.

“I was very appreciative of the number of people who came to the discussions about the possible changes, and that’s important,” MRD Director Scott Bannon said. “It’s important to us, and it’s important to them.”

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Anglers who came to the public meetings at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center last week heard Bannon and MRD Chief Biologist Kevin Anson present the current status of flounder and trout. MRD is considering options to help the fish stocks recover, including a reduction in bag limits, increased size limits and possible closed seasons.

“I’m kind of surprised by how many people are supportive of a reduced bag limit as a management tool,” Bannon said. “I’m very pleased with the feedback from people about what they see when they’re out fishing and what they think might help. Coupling that with what our science says, I think we’re going to be able to make some decisions that are going to be helpful for the resource but also still work with what our fishermen want in Alabama. Believe it not, one of the comments that I’ve received several times is that, even though people understand there is going to be some change, they appreciated the state’s effort to get the public’s opinion. As one person said, it shows we really do care.”

Of the two fish species, flounder is MRD’s biggest concern because of reduced harvest by both commercial and recreational anglers in recent years. The estimated harvest during the past 15 years shows a harvest of about 350,000 flounder in 2002 to about 150,000 in 2017. A significant spike in harvest occurred during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill because of a shift in angler effort from offshore waters to inshore waters.

“I think it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach both to recreational and commercial fishing to assure the stability of that fishery,” Bannon said. “These are hard decisions. On the commercial side, this affects income, but we want to sustain their income long-term.”

Bannon said about 30 commercial fishermen are targeting flounder with gillnets, while a small percentage are reporting harvests using gigs. Bannon is concerned that some giggers are skirting the reporting law.

“There is only a small number of people with commercial licenses who are reporting harvests using a gig,” he said. “All commercial harvests are required to be reported. But we think a number of people are recreationally fishing under a commercial license, and those fish aren’t getting reported. They purchase a commercial license to exceed the 10-fish bag limit.”

Bannon said the only management tool that would restrict this practice is a daily bag limit for those who hold a commercial license. Recreational anglers currently have a 10-flounder bag limit with a minimum size of 12 inches total length.

“Some people are truly commercially fishing,” he said. “They are using it to make a living. Others are just exceeding a bag limit. Gigging is a very effective fishery. The technology is helping them with better lights and better boats, like with most fisheries. We are going to work with the industry to see what’s a realistic bag limit, looking at the landing numbers. We could be looking at a combination of bag limits, size limits or a seasonal closure.”

MRD data shows that November is a month with a high commercial harvest number because flounder migrate to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn.

“Any time you have fish that have a specific spawning run, it’s beneficial to allow them to make that run, and with flounder, the females do come back inshore,” Bannon said.

Anson said Alabama is not alone in terms of a foundering flounder fishery.

“This isn’t just an Alabama problem,” Anson said. “Other states have seen reductions in flounder landings as well, both commercial and recreational. It just seems that we are ground zero as far as seeing the largest drop in landings.”

Fisheries managers use spawning potential ratio (SPR) to determine the health of a fish stock. For flounder, the target SPR to maintain the population is between 25 and 30 percent.

At the current harvest rate, if the minimum size for flounder remains at 12 inches, the population will not be able to sustain the target SPR. An increase in size also increases the number of eggs the females release during the spawn.

According to MRD data, an increase in the minimum size to 13 inches would allow 20 percent more fish to remain in the water. An increase to a minimum size of 14 inches would allow 38 percent more fish to remain in the water.

MRD’s Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores is also gearing up to spawn flounder in recently purchased tanks and equipment. Bannon said they hope to eventually release between 50,000 and 60,000 flounder fingerlings annually.

For spotted seatrout (speckled trout), a recent MRD assessment indicated recruitment of juvenile trout back into the fishery has been below traditional levels.

Bannon said a seismic shift in fishing effort has played a role in the fishing pressure on speckled trout. High fuel costs and restrictive bag limits on reef fish species caused many offshore anglers to start fishing inshore waters.

“We went from 50,000 inshore fishing trips annually in the early 90s to more than 500,000 in 2011,” he said. “That’s a ten-fold increase in fishing effort. That’s a concern. All of our habitat is accessible to fishermen. It’s a popular fish, so there’s a lot of effort focused on them, partly due to the short federal fisheries seasons.”

The annual harvest during that time increased 600 percent, and a downturn of landings in 2014 suggests the fishery is unstainable under that intense fishing pressure.

Bannon said anglers who target speckled trout, which has no commercial harvest because of its game-fish status, have indicated support for a reduction in the current 10-fish bag limit. Anglers have also indicated support for a slot limit and/or an increase in the current minimum size, which is 14 inches total length. The red drum (redfish) fishery has a slot limit of 16-26 inches with an allowance of one oversized fish.

“If we do go to a slot limit on trout, there will be an allowance for one oversized fish,” he said. “Most anglers who target these fish understand there are some concerns and agree that if we act responsibly now we will be in better shape. The goal is for anglers to catch larger fish more consistently.”

Anson said increases in size limits that MRD is considering include a bump in the minimum length to 15 inches, which would allow more than 227,000 trout to be returned to the water annually. An increase to a 16-inch minimum size would mean more than 400,000 could be returned to the water each year.

MRD will hold a meeting with the charter-for-hire operators on March 27. Bannon said, depending on feedback from the public, MRD may decide to hold another meeting before finalizing its management proposals.

Bannon said MRD welcomes comments on the proposed changes to the regulations on flounder and trout. Send comments to scott.bannon@dcnr.alabama.gov or kevin.anson@dcnr.alabama.gov by April 13 to ensure the input will be considered before the next Conservation Advisory Board meeting, scheduled May 4 at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel.

“After we complete the meetings and compile the public input, the staff will have discussions, followed by discussions with the Commissioner (Chris Blankenship),” Bannon said. “Then we will develop a proposal for the Conservation Advisory Board on May 4.”

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

Advisory board gets crash course in chronic wasting disease: ‘Alabama does not have CWD’

(Wisconsin DNR)

The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board received a crash course in chronic wasting disease (CWD) at the Board’s first meeting of 2019 last weekend in Montgomery.

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Assistant Director Fred Harders explained the severity of the disease and why WFF has done everything possible to keep it out of Alabama.

“The first point I want to make is that Alabama does not have CWD, contrary to what you might have read, heard from a buddy or whatever,” Harders said. “We do not have chronic wasting disease.”

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Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Industries, started sampling deer in 2002. To date, more than 8,000 deer from around the state have been sampled and no CWD has been detected.

“Since Mississippi and Tennessee have found CWD, the Division is intensifying its sampling effort,” Harders said. “About 1,500 deer a year will be sampled with an emphasis around those areas near Mississippi and Tennessee.”

Harders said rumors about new theories that blame CWD on a bacterium are circulating on social media. These rumors also include that a CWD-detection kit will be available to the public and that a couple of years from now a vaccine will be available for all captive and wild deer and other members of the deer family, cervids.

Harders noted that while these theories may sound good, “The vast majority of scientists and researchers who have been working on this disease and continue to work on this disease don’t accept those theories.”

CWD is a fatal neurological disease, called transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), that affects the deer family and causes lesions on the brain. As the disease progresses, the affected animal will develop holes in the brain and eventually die. Infected animals may not show symptoms for two years.

The first case of CWD was discovered in Colorado in 1967. Over the next 30 years, the disease spread very slowly, only taking in a 15- to 20-county region on the CO, NE and WY borders.

Then, in the late 90s, CWD was detected in Saskatchewan. That incident was traced to live elk from South Dakota that were transported to Canada.

Human movement of live cervids or infected carcasses has contributed to the exponential spread of the disease over the past decade.

CWD continues to spread and now has been found in 26 states and three Canadian provinces. Harders said South Korea and Norway also have detected CWD. South Korea’s CWD-positive animals can be traced back to the live transport of deer from infected areas.

Harders said the disease is spread by bodily fluids – saliva, urine and feces. The infectious agent, called a prion, can survive outside the animal’s body. It can be in the soil and can be taken up by nearby plants through their root systems.

Harders explained that a prion, which cannot be destroyed by cooking, is a misfolded protein.

“Proteins are the molecular machines of our bodies,” he said. “They do just about everything.”

Although no case has been confirmed where CWD has been transmitted to humans from the consumption of venison from an infected animal, Harders pointed out, “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) doesn’t recommend eating venison from infected deer. And to be careful when you’re gutting that deer or handling any parts.”

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

“That is why we’ve had officers monitoring the highways and giving tickets to people who were bringing field-dressed deer in from out-of-state,” Harders said. “The officers asked why the hunters brought those deer in, and they responded they didn’t think it was a big deal. Now you know why it’s such a big deal.

“That’s why we have the campaign ‘Don’t Bring it Home.’ We don’t have it. We don’t want it.”

Harders also cautioned hunters who travel out-of-state and harvest a member of the deer family only to find out later that the animal had CWD. That venison should not be thrown out by the individual, but rather a WFF official or enforcement officer who will ensure its proper disposal should be contacted,

Despite the CWD threat, Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said we’re blessed to live in a great state that offers hunting for deer and turkey and great fishing in both freshwater and saltwater.

“We really have a sportsman’s paradise here,” Blankenship said. “We’ve done a lot of work the past year on CWD, trying to keep it out of our state and being able to mitigate it or contain it in the unfortunate circumstance that it does show up here.

“We’re not trying to scare anybody or to unduly concern people about consuming deer or hunting deer. We just felt it was important for us to provide that information as to why it is so important to keep CWD out of our state.”

Blankenship noted that problems surfaced with the Outdoor Alabama app during deer season. Blankenship said the Department has worked with the app developer to correct the glitches.

“They assure us this is fixed now,” he said. “For turkey season and for Snapper Check, it should work for reporting your harvest. We appreciate you reporting the deer, turkeys and snapper. It really gives us valuable information to use when we make management decisions, and it is required by rule.”

Blankenship also encouraged anyone interested in the outdoors to visit outdooralabama.com and sign up for the Department’s emails. Subscribers have the option to receive all communication from DCNR or they can check certain categories, like hunting, freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing or wildlife.

Concerning saltwater fishing, the Board approved several changes to the regulations proposed by Marine Resources.

One change was new hook requirements for certain saltwater species to be consistent with federal regulations. Anglers fishing for, retaining, possessing or landing Gulf reef fish species must use non-stainless circle hooks when using natural bait. Anglers fishing for, retaining, possessing or landing sharks must use non-offset, non-stainless circle hooks when using natural bait.

The minimum size for cobia (ling) was raised from 33 to 36 inches fork length, measured from the fork (middle) of the tail to the tip of the snout, to match the size limit set by NOAA Fisheries in federal waters.

A minimum size limit for shortfin mako sharks was established. Males must be 71 inches fork length and females, 83 inches fork length. Visit https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/atlantic-highly-migratory-species/atlantic-highly-migratory-species-fishery-compliance-guides for information on shark identification and compliance.

A table listing regulated reef fish species was added to allow anglers to identify which species are included in management plans.

Shrimping regulations were updated to prevent the use of any form of trawling, not just for shrimp, in nursery or permanently closed areas.

Once the regulations become effective, the outdooralabama.com saltwater regulations page will be updated and the full text will be available at www.alabamaadministrativecode.state.al.us/docs/con_/220-3.pdf.

The next Conservation Advisory Board meeting is scheduled for The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, in Gulf Shores on May 4.

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

Mobile’s Three Mile Creek undergoing dramatic renovation

(David Rainer/Contributed)

Once upon a time, a beautiful creek ran through the middle of the city of Mobile. Unfortunately, that creek was neglected during urbanization and the important waterway became an eyesore, not to mention a source of water-quality degradation.

Fortunately, the tide has turned, and the revitalization of the Three Mile Creek watershed has become a priority for a wide variety of citizens, environmental organizations, governmental organizations, the University of South Alabama and the City of Mobile.

Roberta Swann of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) met recently with project partners, including the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), to determine how best to spread the word about the lofty goals of the Three Mile Creek watershed improvement plan.

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Those goals include:

Develop 10 miles of continuous greenway and restore natural channels and establish riparian buffers where possible

Determine Total Maximum Daily Loads, which is the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed in a body of water during water quality restoration

Improve the watershed’s water quality standards to “warm water fisheries” status. The current water quality is suitable for agriculture and industry only

Eliminate all known illicit sources of sewage

Reduce the amount of trash in the waterways by 75 percentMaintain flood protection

Install environmental education signage at current parks and proposed parks along the waterway

Control or eradicate invasive flora and fauna where possible

The event that gave all the project partners the impetus to continue occurred in 2011, according to Swann, with the “Clean Up the Bottom” event that invited citizens to help reduce the trash in the watershed.

“We had almost 400 people come out on a cold Saturday morning to help,” Swann said. “Some of the people had historical ties to the area, and about 80 percent of the people who showed up were African Americans.

“There was a lot of excitement. We got into kayaks to clean up One Mile Creek, and we got out into the neighborhoods. People came out onto their porches and asked for bags to help us clean up. It was a great experience frankly.”

With the enthusiasm from the community, MBNEP raised funds to perform a comprehensive watershed management plan. A successful project with the d’Olive Creek watershed in Baldwin County served as a template for the Three Mile Creek plan.

“When we do our watershed planning, it really is community involvement at the local level,” Swann said. “We have 16 community meetings throughout the watershed to find out what was good and bad about the watershed and its biggest challenges.”

The Three Mile Creek watershed plan was published in 2014 with the goal of establishing a trail along the creek from the University of South Alabama to the Mobile River as a key component to reconnect the communities along the waterway.

“What we found out during planning was that people just treated it like a stormwater ditch,” Swann said. “Very few people had any interest in engaging with the creek itself. We felt that was a calling for us to go out into the community and use our watershed plan to educate people on how a watershed functions, first of all, and how the trash aggregates at the bottom of the watershed. I think a key point of education was the trash came from all points along the watershed.”

Swann said the bottom third of the watershed is at sea level and inhabited by mostly low-income residents.

MBNEP enlisted the help of the MLK Redevelopment Corporation to conduct a leadership academy as well as hire a conservation corps of mostly young adults from the area to perform clean-up tasks.

“These were truly urban heroes,” Swann said. “They worked tirelessly. These were people who had never been on a kayak before who were kayaking a mile into the lower reaches of the creek to do invasive species management and trash clean-up. While that was going on, RESTORE grants were being made available. We worked with the City of Mobile to get a grant for the trail.”

Swann said the plan is so much more than the trail. It includes water quality restoration with drainage improvements all along Toulmin Springs Branch, the City of Mobile doing stormwater mapping, and addressing sediment issues in the upper watershed. It also includes opening the historic creek channel for a kayaking loop as well as the acquisition of the wetlands in the area where the creek flows into Mobile River.

“Three Mile Creek runs through the heart of Mobile,” said DCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “It touches so many neighborhoods and a large percentage of the population. Providing outdoor recreational access to all these people right where they live is so important to their quality of life. DCNR is proud to partner with many others to facilitate this restorative effort.”

During a short tour of access points and trail greenways last week, Rick Frederick, MBNEP Community Relations Manager, said the watershed improvements could have a significant impact on Mobile County.

“We want to get people out and show them how this project could revitalize Mobile’s ecotourism,” Frederick said. “This will provide a beautiful urban walkway, hiking, biking trail and canoe/kayak route right through the middle of the city. Once people start using it, they are going to want to take care of it.”

RESTORE funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement will be used to finish the greenway and trail, to restore Twelve Mile Creek for sediment load reduction, and to dredge Langan Park Lake. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants will be used to restore the historic Three Mile Creek channel.

“MAWSS (Mobile Area Water and Sewer System) has been a fantastic partner,” Swann said. “They have improved the sanitary sewers in the watershed with increased-size trunk lines and constructing a new storage tank. Also, the University of South Alabama has recently completed stormwater mitigation projects in the parking lots and has adopted low environmental impact development throughout the campus.”

Although $10 million has been approved for construction of the trail, Swann said the challenge has been to wait for the RESTORE money to actually materialize.

A kayak launch has been constructed at Tricentennial Park, where the 2019 Creek Fest celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on May 11. Creek Fest is a family-oriented event with live music, food and kayak rides at the park near Mobile Infirmary Hospital.

The City of Mobile will begin its next segment of trail construction in a few months to go with the mile of track that is already in use. Other projects that will be underway this year include construction on the headwaters of Twelve Mile Creek to Langan Park Lake and Alabama Power working with MBNEP to install rain barrels in the Prichard area to mitigate stormwater runoff.

Swann said when the work is completed, the Mobile area will have a “transformational greenway along Three Mile Creek with a corridor that extends a mile on either side of the creek that brings community together around this environmental gem.”

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

Marine Resources honors partners in world’s top artificial reef program

(Billy Pope/Contributed)

If any doubt existed that Alabama has the best artificial reef program in the world, Chris Blankenship made an emphatic declaration last week that Alabama’s artificial reefs are unparalleled anywhere on the planet.

Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), made that unabashed statement at The Lodge at Gulf State Park during a naming ceremony for seven new artificial reef zones in nearshore waters off the coast of Alabama and the renaming of one existing offshore reef zone.

“We live in an extremely beautiful state,” Blankenship said. “God has really blessed us with the beach, the mountains, the Black Belt and all the areas in between. We have some of the best hunting and fishing, and I get to go around the country and talk about all the wonderful things we have in Alabama. But there is nothing that I’m more passionate about than when I get to talk about the artificial reef zones and the artificial reef work that we have in Alabama.

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“When I go places and tell people that Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the world, a lot people scratch their heads and look at me like, ‘We didn’t even know Alabama has a coast. What do you mean you have a great artificial reef system?’”

That is when Blankenship backs up his claim with the facts, including the more than 1,100 square miles of artificial reef habitat, the 15,000 or so artificial reefs and the variety of reef structures that are deployed off the Alabama coast, including ships, barges, bridge rubble and other reefs designed specifically to enhance the marine habitat.

Blankenship, the former Marine Resources director, said last week’s ceremony was an opportunity to recognize people and organizations that have been instrumental in helping Alabama to build the world’s largest artificial reef system.

“One of the things that I am most proud of when we talk about the artificial reef program and the reason we’ve been so successful in Alabama is there are so many partners involved in the work that gets done out there,” he said. “And nobody cares who gets the credit. I think that’s why it’s been so successful. I can honestly say that with the artificial reef program in Alabama, there has been more concern about doing the good work, building this habitat and building this fishery we have and a whole lot less concern about who gets the credit.”

Despite the humility, Blankenship said ADCNR wanted to take the time to recognize those people and organizations that have made the lofty status of the Alabama artificial reef system possible through decades of partnership work.

The seven new reefs that were named are located in the new nearshore reef zones that were finally approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year.

Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon read proclamations from Gov. Kay Ivey that highlighted the contributions of each of the honorees.

“This day has been a long time coming,” Bannon said. “We’ve been working these artificial reef zones. Alabama has arguably the largest artificial reef zones in the world. We’ve expanded into the 6- to 9-mile range. We knew we needed to honor some of the people and organizations that helped make this happen. That also included our staff. We have a great staff at Marine Resources.”

One of the nearshore zones was named for the contribution of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, which helped develop the Alabama Artificial Reef Development Plan. The plan has helped to secure $35 million in funding for inshore and offshore artificial reef zones.

The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of Alabama contributed to reef construction and enhancement after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 by providing financial and logistical support for artificial reef work both inshore and offshore.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has been a contributor to conservation research in Alabama since 1984 and provided about $34 million in recent years for the expansion and enhancement to Alabama’s artificial reef program.

The Alabama Charter Fishing Association, formerly known as the Orange Beach Fishing Association, actually started the artificial reef work off Alabama long before any other organization. The association has worked with the State of Alabama for the past 60 years to make the artificial reef zone the best in the world. Those reefs allow the Alabama charter boats to take thousands of people each year from across the country and world to enjoy phenomenal fishing for species like red snapper.

The Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation was created to enhance the diving and fishing opportunities off the Alabama coast with fundraising for the deployment of the 271-foot ship “The LuLu” in 2013 and the 128-foot party boat “Capt. Shirley Brown” in 2015. The foundation also worked with Marine Resources to establish the Poseidon’s Playground, where novice divers can gain experience in nearshore waters. The foundation continues to work with Marine Resources to develop plans for additional reef deployments and also works with the dive community to monitor the health of the reefs and remove invasive species like the lionfish.

Dr. Stephen Szedlmayer, a professor at Auburn University’s School of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures, has been studying reef fish, especially red snapper, off the Alabama coast for the past 25 years. Szedlmayer’s research has contributed to the recognition of oil and gas platforms as significant habitat for juvenile reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. His research has also led to a better understanding of the life cycle and longevity of red snapper off the Alabama coast.

The other new reef was named in honor of Dr. Sean Powers, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama (USA) and senior scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Powers, who succeeded Dr. Robert (Bob) Shipp as head of Marine Sciences at USA, has researched reef fish habitat in the Gulf since 2003. His current research is focusing on the abundance of reef fish off the Alabama coast.

“Before, we had to learn a lot about the life history and reproductive strategy of red snapper,” Powers said. “That’s what we have learned from Dr. Shipp and Dr. Szedlmayer. Now we need to move it to more quantitative, to actually use the research to estimate the abundance of red snapper so we (Alabama) can manage our own fishery.

“We have a lot of red snapper off Alabama, but we harvest a large amount of red snapper too. It’s a delicate balance, but I think it’s one that we’ve achieved. Like last year, we (through Snapper Check) realized how many snapper were being caught and the season was shortened. That gives me a lot of confidence in the new system.”

Dr. Shipp, professor emeritus at USA, has been studying red snapper off the Alabama coast since 1973 and has been instrumental in the development of the Alabama Artificial Reef Program. Dr. Shipp has served more than 20 years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, including three terms as chair. At last week’s ceremony, the Don Kelley North General Permit Area was renamed the Dr. Robert Shipp Reef Zone.

“I think it’s just great that Chris and the State of Alabama recognize how valuable the red snapper resource is,” Shipp said. “They’ve done a great job of creating this reef system. I will say this – I’ve said it before – we’ve got to have state management (for red snapper). If we had state management, we could have a six-month season with a two-fish bag limit, and it wouldn’t make a dent in our population.”

Blankenship said that Alabama is blessed to have three great marine scientists in Drs. Szedlmayer, Powers and Shipp.

“They have dedicated so much of their careers to the work done off the Alabama coast,” Blankenship said. “Their work is known as the gold standard of red snapper research anywhere in the world. Largely, it is because of these three people that we have been able to expand the artificial reef program and build such a great fishery here in Alabama. And I want to say, we’re not done. When you have the success we’ve had in building reefs off Alabama, there’s a tendency to become complacent or think you’ve done enough. We don’t feel that way at all. We’re going to make sure we continue to have the best artificial reef program in the world.”

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

Mentored hunts renew enthusiasm for mentors

(C. Sykes/Contributed)

One of the mantras adopted by those who love the outdoors is “pass it on,” which means introducing somebody to hunting, fishing or other outdoors activities when you get the opportunity.

For the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, one facet of that effort comes in the form of the Adult Mentored Hunting Program, where seasoned hunters take new or inexperienced adult hunters to one of WFF’s Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) for a weekend in the woods hunting deer, turkeys or small game.

What WFF has realized is the mentors, who have many years of experience in the hunting field, are benefitting from their role as much or more than the folks who are being mentored.

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One case in point is Bill Gray, Supervising Wildlife Biologist in WFF’s District IV. The longtime WFF biologist was admittedly reluctant to head out just before Christmas to fulfill a mentor’s role at the hunt at the Portland Landing SOA.

By the end of the weekend, Gray had a new outlook on the experience, and he had gained a new friend.

“When you’ve hunted for a long time, you take a lot of things for granted,” Gray said. “You kind of lose the magic like when you were young and first learning to hunt. Through the progression over the weekend, I got to watch him (James Hopper) learn and be excited and notice some things that were special to him.”

One example was how excited Hopper became when he viewed a deer for the first time through a riflescope.

“That was an eye-opener for me and how important this program can be and what a great opportunity we have to share our world as hunters,” Gray said. “Really for me, it was a way for me to bring back some of that wide-eyed wonder and true joy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy hunting anymore. I do. I love it, but you get kind of numb to some of the things that are old hat to you. To these guys, it’s not. And to see how excited they get has renewed my interest in hunting and being able to usher more people across that threshold who may be interested in becoming a hunter.”

On Hopper’s first hunt, the deer came in late and were too far for his comfort zone in terms of making a quality shot.

On the second day, a buck came through about 35-40 yards from the blind, but Gray had to make sure the deer met the minimum requirements for harvest. By the time Gray saw the deer, it was weaving through the trees and disappeared.

Gray said Hopper couldn’t hide his disappointment on Sunday morning when the rest of the hunt’s participants were busy cleaning deer and feral hogs.

“I said I’ve got to try to help this out,” Gray said. “We exchanged phone numbers. I got him down to my place the first week in January. He drove five hours south to my place in Barbour County.”

One of those aspects of hunting that experience often mitigates turned into the deciding factor on the Barbour County hunt.

“He came very close to taking a deer,” Gray said. “But he spooked the deer with the safety. He was using the safety like he was taught on the range. When he clicked that safety off, he said the deer trotted away and didn’t look back. I didn’t think to show him how to put some downward pressure on the safety and slide it forward real quietly. As much as he has to learn about being a good hunter, I have as much to learn about being a good mentor.

“But he was very excited and not dejected about not getting a buck for the second time. I sent him home with some deer meat, and they loved it.”

Since then, Hopper purchased a deer rifle similar to the one he used on the mentored hunt to get ready for a new season.

“Part of my experience was I felt like I made a new friend,” Gray said. “We weren’t able to get together before the season ended, but I’m as excited about being there with him when he gets his first deer as he is about getting his first deer.”

As unlucky as Gray’s hunter was, Drew Nix had the opposite experience on his mentored hunt at the Cedar Creek SOA.

Nix, the WFF Forester, has been mentoring hunters for many, many years and has recruited quite a few people into the realm of license-buying hunters. Nix said those people he introduced to hunting included youth, adult non-hunters and physically disabled individuals.

His hunter on the Cedar Creek SOA happened to be a person who was very familiar with firearms, a retired Army guy who now serves as a military contractor to teach marksmanship.

“He was from rural New York and was very well-versed in firearms, but he had never been hunting,” Nix said. “During his active duty, he never had the opportunity to pursue hunting.”

On the adult mentored hunts, the person who draws the spot is allowed to bring a hunting companion. However, sickness forced the hunter’s companion to drop out. The hunter was then given permission to bring his 11-year-old son.

On the first hunt, several deer came into one of the fields that had recently been constructed on the SOA, including one buck that met the criteria for permissible harvest.

“I told the gentleman it was a legal buck, but I would wait because we were sitting on an exceptional piece of property,” Nix said. “He held his composure. After about 10 minutes, no other deer came in. He said, ‘If you’re telling me that’s a legal deer, I would like to go ahead and harvest that deer.’”

Nix said when the hunter got the rifle up he noticed a significant anomaly.

“It cracked me up,” he said. “From the waist up, he was rock solid. From the waist down, it was like a small earthquake was going on. His legs were vibrating the whole blind. But he took a good shot and made a clean kill. The deer ran out of the food plot about 5 yards. He and his son were really charged up and wanted to put their hands on the deer, but I told them to wait and see if a doe came in. Sure enough, he took a doe later that afternoon with another clean, ethical shot. They were just ecstatic.”

The hunter even added another doe to his take before the weekend was over, which meant he went home with a cooler stuffed with venison.

“When we were butchering the deer, the guy I mentored let me get finished with half of the first deer and then he took over,” Nix said. “He pretty well cleaned and quartered the rest of the deer. Then he called his buddies and had a processor lined up in Pelham before he left Cedar Creek.”

Nix admitted to the group of hunters at dinner one night that he wasn’t too enthusiastic to miss rutting activity where he hunts, but that he had a “great” time as a mentor.

“The big takeaway from this is this used to be done by family members – dads, uncles or grandfathers,” he said. “In today’s world, we’ve kind of skipped a generation of folks who did not hunt and are not hunters. That seems so foreign to us. For someone who has been hunting for a long time, you may not see the value in doing this until you’ve done it.”

Justin Gilchrist is the wildlife biologist in charge of the Dallas County SOAs, Portland Landing and Cedar Creek, and he is grateful to see a lot of hard work reach fruition during the mentored hunts.

“For me, these hunts have been very rewarding,” Gilchrist said. “We put in a lot of time managing the resources and getting things ready for the hunts. Getting to mentor these people who have never been in the woods in their life is very special to me. We get to take people out and teach them about firearms and hunting. We show them deer sign and what to look for when scouting, like a hard mast (acorns, etc.) crop. Nothing compares to watching their reaction when a deer walks out. Then you watch them be successful and get excited about their first deer. To see them take a deer on land where we’ve done a lot of work is very rewarding. It pumps me up.”

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

2 months ago

Alabama leads way with Walker County archery park

(Contributed/B. Pope)

Along with Alabama’s sparkling Gulf waters and beautiful mountains, our great state has another strength you may not have heard as much about: Alabama’s Community Archery Parks program ranks No. 1 in the nation.

The state’s 16th archery park, the Walker County Community Archery Park, was dedicated last week on the outskirts of Jasper on the banks of beautiful Walker County Public Fishing Lake.

Stuart Goldsby, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, has been instrumental in the spread of the archery park phenomenon in Alabama. Goldsby said the Walker County park has taken a while to complete, but it has been worth the effort.

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“We’re very excited about this,” Goldsby said. “This is No. 16 for the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To be able to lead the country in developing grassroots, community archery locations, where school groups or clubs or retailers can use it to benefit the community with that life skill of archery, is very exciting for us.”

The Walker County park has covered shooting areas with targets at known distances for both adult and youth shooters.

The unique aspect of the Walker County park is that it is the first state-operated archery park in the nation with a wheelchair-accessible elevated shooting platform.

Ed Poolos, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner, said the new archery park is special to him for several reasons, including its location.

“I am a proud citizen of Jasper and Walker County, so this is home,” Poolos said. “I am glad this is here. The goal for the Department of Conservation on this project is to partner with local governments and foundations to make the Walker County Public Fishing Lake one of the best state fishing lakes in Alabama. At the same time, we want to bring people to the outdoors to enjoy the natural beauty of Alabama. Projects like this allow us to do that.”

Poolos highlighted the positive impacts that archery and bowhunting can have on individuals and communities.

“Archery is a sport that requires and teaches precision, focus, accuracy and determination. It teaches all those things, but the great aspect of archery is that, no matter your age, gender or ability, archery can be enjoyed by everyone. So we’re really proud to bring this park here.”

Poolos also recognized the contributions of two Boy Scouts, Mason Woodman and Jaylan Banks, who aided in the construction of the archery park as part of their Eagle Scout projects.

Jasper Mayor David O’Mary said the area where the archery park is located was annexed recently by the City of Jasper, which will allow city resources to be used to help operate the park.

“I’m an outdoor enthusiast,” O’Mary said. “When you put in an archery range of this quality, that is a recipe for a lot of fun for a lot of people.

“We at the City of Jasper can bring on board the administrative side of our Parks and Recreation to look after tournaments and events here. Our equipment and our labor will be available to support this.”

Jenny Short, chair of Walker County Health Action Partnership’s Livable Communities Priority Group, said, although it took a great deal of work to complete the park, it was a labor of love.

“This project is a perfect example of a true private-public partnership,” Short said. “We had so many partners in this project. As we say, this was ‘built by our community for our community.’ We’re really proud of that.”

Alabama residents ages 16 to 64 must have a hunting license, Wildlife Management Area (WMA) license or Wildlife Heritage license to use the range. For non-residents 16 and older, an annual WMA license or non-resident hunting license is required. Licenses are available from various local retailers or online at outdooralabama.com. Use of the archery park is free for those under 16 years of age or Alabama residents over 65.

“Alabama leads the nation in having the most community archery parks. That’s one thing I’m proud Alabama is first in,” Chuck Sykes, WFF Director, said. “There is a very important reason why a license is required to use the park. We receive no money from the General Fund, so none of your tax dollars go out to provide services we provide for the citizens of the state. The way we fund that is by people buying hunting and fishing licenses. We encourage you to come out and shoot the range and fish the lake. Matt Marshall, our State Lakes Manager, and Marisa Futral (Hunter Education Coordinator) and Stuart are doing a wonderful job as well as our state biologists. So, come out and buy a license and have fun.”

Sykes said the Archery Trade Association (ATA) and its president, Matt Kormann, are huge supporters of DCNR, and the Department is grateful for their partnership.

The ATA represents manufacturers of archery and bowhunting equipment, pro shops and retailers of archery and bowhunting equipment.

“As president of ATA, I have seen a lot of archery ranges,” Kormann said. “I can say I’ve never stood on one as gorgeous as this one. I hope y’all know how lucky you are to have this park in this surrounding because it is unique.

“I’ve also been able to see in my job a lot of public-private partnerships. I can tell you, there is not any like there is in Alabama. To see this all come together so that more folks can come out and experience archery and possibly get into bowhunting, there’s not a better feeling in the world.”

Kormann said the ATA’s board of directors and members have made a commitment to promote and assist in the construction of public archery ranges throughout the nation.

“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to get more folks out shooting and bowhunting,” Kormann said. “There is a lot we need to do to ensure the health of those sports. This really revolves around the ‘R3’ triangle of recruiting new folks to come out, retaining the shooters we have and reactivating folks who might have lapsed. The opportunity to come out in a setting like this with high-quality equipment makes it easier to get folks to come out to shoot.

“What archery teaches and what it gives back is hard to find in other sports. It doesn’t matter what your skill level is. It doesn’t matter what your physical abilities are. Anybody can learn this sport pretty quickly. Beyond all of that, the sense of community and the sense of family in this sport is really unmatched.”

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 Council plans April vote; Alabama sets snapper season

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

One casualty from the recent partial federal government shutdown surfaced last week when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met at the Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Ala.

Because of the shutdown, the Gulf Council was unable to publish a notice in the Federal Register on a pending vote on Amendment 50, the state management of red snapper. The Council voted to call a special meeting for February to vote on the measure, but that effort was canceled because of logistics problems.

The Council will vote on Amendment 50 at the next regular Council meeting scheduled the first week of April at Biloxi, Miss.

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In the meantime, Alabama set its 2019 red snapper season, which is operating under the final year of an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP).

The 2019 Alabama red snapper fishing season for anglers fishing from a private vessel or state-licensed guide boat will be three-day weekends (Friday-Sunday) from June 1 through July 28, 2019, including Thursday, July 4. Except for the opening weekend, which begins on a Saturday, weekends are defined as 12:01 a.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Sunday. This does not apply to for-hire (charter) boats with federal reef fishing permits. Charter boats will operate under federal regulations in 2019.

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon said a vote on Amendment 50 at the April meeting should provide enough time to get the rules changed for the 2020 season.

“We should we able to get it done, but we don’t need any more delays,” Bannon said.

Amendment 50 shifts red snapper management to the states and allots each state a share of the red snapper quota. The preferred alternative will give Alabama a 26.49-percent share, while Florida’s share is a little more than 44 percent.

The 2018 and 2019 snapper seasons in the Gulf are operating under an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) that allows the states to set the snapper seasons under the catch limits. Last year, a 3.78-percent share of the quota was left after the pie had been divvied up. NOAA Fisheries (National Marine Fisheries Service or NMFS) gave Florida that 3.78 percent last year.

That 3.78 percent will be split between Florida and Alabama in the preferred alternative for Amendment 50.

“The eastern Gulf is where most of the harvest of red snapper is occurring,” Bannon said. “That is why we think that percentage should be split.”

Bannon said currently there are no plans to include for-hire (charter) boats in any of the state management plans.

Bannon expects Amendment 50 to pass in some form at the April meeting.

“Right now, I’m confident we will have a state-managed season for 2020,” Bannon said. “Allocation was the biggest concern with the options available. I think we will pass it at the next meeting.”

During the 2018 snapper season, the first under the EFP, Alabama set an optimistic private recreational season of 47 days, mostly on three-day weekends.

However, a renewed enthusiasm for snapper fishing and excellent weather conditions forced Marine Resources to shut down the season after 28 days.

“We will again be evaluating the season as it goes along through Snapper Check,” Bannon said. “We have the option to add days if we feel it’s appropriate, based on the harvest rate.”

Of course, that harvest rate will likely be weather-dependent.

“The weather last year was almost ideal throughout the entire red snapper season, and I think that contributed to the increased harvest rates,” Bannon said.

Plus, Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zone provides easy access to anglers who want to catch a limit of two red snapper with a minimum length of 16 inches.

“In the Alabama reef zone, we feel we have a very healthy population of red snapper,” Bannon said. “They are relatively accessible, and the size of the fish caught has been larger over the last couple of years. That also lends to reaching our allocation of pounds earlier.”

Dr. Bob Shipp, professor emeritus of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, has been studying red snapper off the Alabama Gulf Coast for decades, and he’s happy to see that the excellent health of the red snapper stock is finally being recognized.

NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Director Dr. Roy Crabtree acknowledged at the meeting in Orange Beach that the red snapper fishery is rebounding at a much faster rate than expected.

“The recovery of red snapper has been very robust,” Crabtree said. “There’s no evidence that it’s not going to continue. It’s a remarkable success story.”

Shipp applauded Crabtree’s confirmation that red snapper resiliency is far greater than NOAA scientists and their computer models predicted.

“I was delighted to hear Roy say that,” Shipp said. “Roy has been aware that the recovery is a lot faster than the models projected. That’s good news. I think everybody is on the same page now in terms of the status of the red snapper stocks. The species is very, very healthy. All the testimony we get from Texas all the way to the Keys is that snapper stocks are really strong.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress passed the Modern Fish Act, which was lauded by the recreational fishing community. However, the effect of the Modern Fish Act is not yet fully understood.

“There are provisions in the Act for the National Academies of Sciences to study the fisheries management plans,” Bannon said. “It also directs the Comptroller General to study the allocations, ensuring they are utilizing all the appropriate data that may be provided by the states and other entities. It’s really an outside look to make sure we’re using all the pertinent information to make management decisions. There are some pretty tight timelines, so they’ll have to quickly develop plans to present to NOAA and the regional fisheries management councils.”

In other action by the Council last week, Amendments 41 and 42, which deal with headboats and charter boats, respectively, were postponed until electronic log book data becomes available.

Right now, the charter industry in Alabama will remain under federal guidelines, which is fine with Capt. Johnny Greene, who runs the Intimidator out of Orange Beach Marina.

“Last year, we fished about 50 days, and we may get about 60 days this year with the reduction of the buffer because we stayed within our sub-quota for the past three years,” Greene said. “The buffer was reduced from 20 percent to about 10 percent. When you get 10 percent more, that is significant, especially at that time of year (tourist season). At the end of the day, it’s all about the people on the back of the boat who are really going to benefit from this. For the non-boat-owning public, this is their best avenue to reap the rewards of the expanded 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

Landowners’ help needed to count gopher tortoises

(B. Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division and Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) are on an enlistment drive to help count one of the iconic species in Alabama’s longleaf pine forests, the beloved gopher tortoise.

Considered a keystone species of the longleaf ecosystem, the gopher tortoise is crucial for the survival and health of a variety of animal species, including the federally threatened Eastern indigo snake. In fact, more than 360 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are known to spend all or a portion of their lives in either active or abandoned gopher tortoise burrows.

The reason the agencies must ask for help to estimate the population is that the vast majority of gopher tortoises live on private land in Alabama as well as throughout most of its range in the Southeast U.S.

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The gopher tortoise is already listed as federally threatened in three Alabama counties – Washington, Mobile and Choctaw – and a decision on a possible listing as threatened in other parts of Alabama is expected in 2022. WFF, AFC and other partners are working together to determine if the population is large enough to preclude the gopher tortoise’s listing as federal threatened.

WFF and the AFC teamed with other concerned partners to conduct a series of presentations in south Alabama to encourage landowners to participate in the survey program. These workshops were funded by the American Forest Foundation.

Ericha Shelton-Nix, WFF’s Gopher Tortoise Program Coordinator, said the presentations focused on several issues, including whether gopher tortoises can be protected without further regulation.

“We have surveyed most of the public lands in Alabama managed by the ADCNR,” Shelton-Nix said. “More than 95 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private ownership. So, there’s pretty much nothing more we can do as a state agency to catalogue the population of gopher tortoises without private landowners stepping up. We have to know where gopher tortoise populations are and assess the populations to see what the status of the species is. We need to assess the populations on private lands. We discussed conservation efforts taking place across the range. We went over all the conservation efforts taking place in Alabama.”

She added, “The big take-home message is that we as state and federal agencies, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), have done all we can do without private landowner help.”

Different agencies are offering cost-share for habitat management – incentives for habitat management like prescribed burning. WFF, AFC and other partners have secured grants to provide gopher tortoise surveys on private land free of charge. Several agencies and organizations offer technical assistance on improving habitat.

The verified gopher tortoise populations in Alabama are in the Conecuh National Forest and Fort Rucker near Enterprise, Ala. A follow-up survey is ongoing on Fort Rucker.

“Conecuh has one viable population and Fort Rucker has one,” Shelton-Nix said. “Those are our largest, most contiguous blocks of land with high-priority gopher tortoise soils. It is likely there are others that have yet to be identified in Alabama, but we are working on it.”

Gopher tortoises are mostly limited to deep, sandy soils that make construction of their burrows easier.

The preferred gopher tortoise habitat is open-canopy pine forests with no mid-story growth that allows light to reach the forest floor to promote an abundance of herbaceous ground cover for tortoise forage.

“A species that becomes reproductively mature that late in life, combined with high nesting and hatchling predation rates, creates a long lag time for a tortoise to contribute to a population,” Shelton-Nix said. “In poor habitat, we see small isolated islands, like wildlife openings and roadsides, with only a handful of tortoises. Remember this is a long-lived species. As habitat quality decreases, tortoises will move to areas with food availability. They will survive, but they are not reproducing, therefore, not a viable population. That’s why the social structure is so important.”

The USFWS will consider the three Rs – representation, redundancy and resiliency – during deliberation on the gopher tortoise listing status. Representation covers where it is important to have tortoises on the landscape factored with population level. Redundancy refers to multiple populations that are needed per unit to protect against unit-wide extirpation (local extinction). Resiliency refers to populations large enough to protect against extirpation by catastrophic events.

Shelton-Nix said owners who agree to participate should expect a site visit from biologists to determine suitable habitat.

“We have a limited amount of survey dollars,” Shelton-Nix said. “We need to determine the percentage of suitable soils. We are looking for landowners with 50 or more burrows, so we can be efficient and get the most bang for our bucks.”

If the property is deemed suitable for a survey, the WFF grant will cover the cost of a consultant to conduct a survey, using the Line Transect Distance Sampling method. Each burrow that is found is scoped with video equipment to check for the presence of animals, which helps determine density rate.

Shelton-Nix said the number of burrows doesn’t translate to the number of tortoises.

“Each gopher tortoise can make three to five burrows,” she said. “If someone has 10 burrows on their property, most likely they have two to three tortoises.”

Shelton-Nix said 140 folks attended the four workshops with 30 landowners who were interested in being surveyed.

“We received great feedback,” she said. “But we’re still finding people who didn’t know they are being considered as a threatened species. The gopher tortoise is a very charismatic species, and people who have them love their tortoises.”

The exception are cattle and horse owners who are worried about the burrows.

“There are easy fixes around that,” Shelton-Nix said. “If people call me, we want to help people find solutions to their problems. It is illegal to move them. Another thing unique about gopher tortoises is they have a homing instinct. If you move them, they’re just going to try to go back home and may end up squished on the highway.”

Ray Metzler, who is the AFC’s threatened and endangered species coordinator, said the effort must overcome the concern from citizens when they hear, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

“We do have ways to provide the information to the USFWS without actually sharing names and addresses,” Metzler said. “We can just tell them that Landowner A has 175 tortoises in Escambia County with a density of whatever. That’s not intrusive and doesn’t share any private information.”

Metzler said the impact of the USFWS decision on the gopher tortoise can’t be determined right now.

“We don’t know if they (USFWS) would limit activities related to the tortoise,” Metzler said. “There might not be any impacts. We really don’t know. The USFWS won’t say until they review the information provided by the states to make the decision. Our goal is to keep it from being listed.

“We are trying to get more private landowners engaged in the process and hopefully allow us to come to their property and do a survey.”

Metzler hopes to acquire more grant money for more outreach to the affected landowners later this year.

“Our first four meetings led to more landowners finding out about the need for this program,” he said. “We’ve actually been on a few pieces of property that we didn’t know existed, that have good habitat and have some tortoises. If we have a few more meetings, it might lead to a few more properties like that.”

Although current research sets a viable population at 250 animals at a certain density, Metzler thinks support populations could have considerably lower numbers.

“You might have a support population at 50 tortoises,” he said. “There’s probably a lot more properties that have 50 tortoises as opposed to 250 at the appropriate density. And we need to find those properties.”

Visit here for a variety of information, including on the Alabama Tortoise Alliance, which will meet February 28 in Andalusia.

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

Life hunt participants bag bucks of lifetime

(David Rainer)

Aaron Causey of Riverside, Ala., has been all over the world to hunt, but he considers none of his hunts more special than the Buckmasters Life Hunt Classic last week at Sedgefields Plantation.

Causey’s world changed in 2011 when an improvised explosive device (IED) left him clinging to life in Afghanistan. A member of the military bomb squad, Causey had to undergo more than 40 surgeries. He lost both legs above the knees. He has recovered to the point that he has resumed his favorite pastime and joined in the Buckmasters hunt, which hosts wounded veterans and others with disabling injuries or illnesses.

“This is an amazing hunt,” Causey said. “It’s not just about the deer. It’s about the people you’re here with. It’s talking to people and getting to know everybody, especially watching these kids come out here and bring home a deer. Oh, that’s amazing. And I’m an avid hunter. I’ve hunted Africa, Montana and Wyoming.”

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Causey also managed to bag one of the largest bucks, an eight-point, taken during the Buckmasters event.

Causey’s buck played hide-and-seek for a while before he committed to coming into the field where the blind was erected.

“We watched four does probably for about three hours,” Causey said. “At about 3 o’clock, this massive buck came into the field, looked around and disappeared. He came back, stared straight at us and disappeared again. He was about 250 yards at the first sighting and about 225 yards the second sighting. The first sighting, it was too tight of a shot between the trees, and I wasn’t going to take a chance.”

A couple of hours later, does were still in the field when several bucks started to file into the area. A pair of six-points came in first, followed by an eight-point. Causey and his guide were about ready to take the eight-point when they had a change of mind.

“My guide said, ‘Wait a minute. Let me scan the field with my binoculars,’” Causey said. “Then he said, ‘Look to the right.’ I looked out and there was that big boy coming back in.”

Causey and his crew had to wait for the big buck to get a little closer and get in a position where he was comfortable with the shot.

“He kept walking toward us and wouldn’t give me a broadside,” Causey said. “He finally kept coming and gave me a broadside. He was 120 (yards) when I shot him. He went about 35 yards into the woods. The guide immediately went out in the field to check for blood. It was pretty wet back there, so we went and got the (blood-trailing) dog. The dog went up the field and he was already on the deer before anybody had a clue. He went straight to my deer.”

One of the first deer taken at Sedgefields last week was by McKenzie Clark, who is dealing with giant axonal neuropathy. It also happened to be her first deer ever, which left her dad, Shannon, a little teary eyed.

Clark, who is from Woodville, Ala., and crew had been sitting on a green field for about 2½ hours before any deer showed up.

“We saw about six does,” she said. “The buck I shot came in about 5 o’clock. My guide, Jay (Hatcher), said since it’s your first one you can shoot or you can wait. I said, ‘I’m gonna shoot it. I’m not gonna wait.’

“I had the gun up, looking for the deer. But I was shaking. I told them they were going to have to give me just a minute. I found the deer in the scope and squeezed the trigger real slow.”

Her dad will now have to look for ways for McKenzie to continue to hunt.

“She’s already confiscated my deer rifle,” Shannon said. “But that’s okay.”

During the photo session back at the camp, Shannon had to wipe away a few tears.

“That one is more special than any I’ve ever killed, and I’ve been hunting since I was 14,” he said. “My first buck was a spike, so she really outdid me on that. I think I’ve got a hunting partner for life. I was just happy. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

This wasn’t the first Buckmasters Life Hunt Classic for Brandi McCormack of Northport. She had bagged a nice buck several years ago but requested a return trip.

McCormack, a paraplegic who was injured in a fall from a balcony, got treated to some deer-camp shenanigans on her hunt. She had previously worked for her guide, Robert Almon, and he knew she was a good sport.

“There were so many deer in the field, you couldn’t even count them,” McCormack said. “Halfway across the field you’d lose count. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was unreal. And seven or eight were bucks. We had one deer right in front of us chewing on a vine, looking straight at me.”

Almon recounted the episode, saying, “We’re in a ground blind, and a group of does fed up to within 10 feet from us. There was one right in front chewing on some leaves. She looked up straight into the blind, and Brandi said, ‘I think she’s looking straight into my soul.’ The buck we want to kill is 75 yards away standing broadside, and we can’t take a shot. We can’t move an inch. Finally, a little nub buck came in and ran the does out from in front of the blind, so we could get the gun up.”

When the does finally moved, McCormack said she remained calm and practiced her breathing before she put the crosshairs on the buck.

When she squeezed the trigger, the buck bolted. That’s when Almon and the cameraman got a little mischievous.

“I was afraid I missed, but Robert said he was sure I hit it,” McCormack said. “They went out and started looking for blood. I couldn’t hear their conversation. They got further and further away. Then they started hanging their heads low, shaking their heads. I was sick to my stomach. They came back to the blind and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to be quiet and see if anything else comes out.’ I said ‘Huh-uh.’ Then they told me they found the deer. They got me. They got me good.”

A couple of baseball celebrities made return visits to the Classic. Relief pitcher David Robertson from Tuscaloosa, who just signed a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, and Craig Kimbrel of Huntsville, who was a relief pitcher with the World Champion Boston Red Sox last season, showed up to help the Classic participants celebrate being in the great outdoors.

This year’s event was particularly poignant for Kimbrel, who missed last year’s Classic because of his daughter, Lydia Joy, who was born with heart defects.

Lydia Joy has had a couple of surgeries already and another is planned soon.

“Going through some difficult times with my daughter and spending a lot of time in the hospital gives me a new perspective,” said Kimbrel, who is exploring the free-agent market after completing his Red Sox contract. “I’ve been coming for quite a few years, and I get to hear these families’ stories about the struggles they go through. And then I go through something similar last year. It was tough. You learn from it. You grow from it. We got a beautiful daughter out of everything we went through. Now she’s doing great. She acts like surgery is no big deal.

“But it is special to come out and help these hunters do something different. I’m sure it’s fresh air to be able to do something they don’t always get to do and be able to do it in the outdoors.”

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 WFF Ramps Up CWD Sampling Effort

(Billy Pope)

With positive tests for chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Tennessee and additional positives in Mississippi, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has ramped up testing in north Alabama.

WFF officials set up manned sampling stations in Hackleburg the first weekend of the new year and followed with sampling last weekend in Waterloo.

Self-service sampling stations were recently set up by WFF in north Alabama to accommodate drop-offs 24 hours a day.

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WFF Director Chuck Sykes said testing for the always-fatal disease, which is caused by a rogue protein called a prion, has been ongoing since 2002, but the positive tests in neighboring states caused WFF to increase its sampling effort.

“The Mississippi positives made us test more in the areas that joined Mississippi,” Sykes said. “When the deer in Tennessee tested positive, it prompted an increased level of testing where it fell within the response zone. Those positives just prompted us to increase our surveillance in those areas.”

Sixteen deer were brought in for sampling at the Hackleburg station, but Sykes said the interaction with hunters who didn’t harvest deer may have been the most productive aspect of the manned sampling station.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but I consider it a success for a volunteer check station,” Sykes said. “More important than the 16 deer brought in, we had two times that many hunters stop by and ask questions. It was a really good way for our staff to get in front of the public, and the public to be able to ask questions one-on-one.”

Sykes and the WFF staff discovered that, although the Division has been immersed in the CWD Response Plan, it has yet to be widely discussed in the public.

“We (WFF) are up to our eyeballs in CWD,” Sykes said. “Even though we’ve offered seminars, done articles and put up billboards, a lot of people don’t pay attention until it hits close to home. A lot of the questions were just basic CWD knowledge that the average hunter in Alabama doesn’t understand. What is it? Why is it a problem? What makes it different from other diseases? These were very positive interactions. There was nothing negative about it.”

Sykes said the self-service sampling stations are part of the standard protocols of the CWD Response Plan (https://www.outdooralabama.com/deer-hunting-alabama/chronic-wasting-disease-what-you-should-know).

“With the positives in Mississippi and Tennessee within 50 miles of our border, that prompts us to do more testing in those areas,” he said. “It’s been shown time and time again that hunter-harvested deer and road-kills are the best ways to achieve samples and to get the most out of those samples. Just going in and randomly shooting deer is okay, but in areas that have had CWD for a long time, there is a higher predominance in road-kill deer and hunter-harvested deer because they lose their sense of wariness. The most effective way to sample is by hunter-harvested deer and working with ALDOT (Alabama Department of Transportation) to identify road-kills.”

Above all, Sykes said he wants hunters to continue to pursue deer just like they always have.

“Again, this is not something to cause people to quit hunting,” he said. “We need them to become educated on what CWD is. Don’t rely on what they’ve heard at hunting camp or what they saw on Facebook. Talk to us to try to understand the disease and what we’re doing to try to prevent it.”

Sykes reiterated how hunting, especially deer hunting, is a cornerstone in Alabama’s culture and economy. Hunting has an almost $2 billion impact annually on Alabama’s economy.

“This is not a hunter issue,” he said. “This is not even a deer hunting issue. This is a State of Alabama economic issue and a way of life issue. We need people to understand what’s going on, and we need their assistance to gather these samples in the most efficient way so we can stay on top of it. Heaven forbid, if it does get here, we will be prepared to mitigate the risks as much as possible.”

Previously, tissue samples had to be sent out of state to be tested for CWD. In 2018, WFF provided funds for the Alabama Department of Agriculture to purchase CWD testing equipment, which was set up at Auburn University. The equipment and technician have been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and can test up to 90 samples per day.

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said the new CWD testing equipment speeds up the state’s response time considerably.

“We don’t have to wait on anybody,” Blankenship said. “We take our samples to the Department of Agriculture lab at Auburn University. We will get those test results quickly and be able to respond as soon as possible.”

The freezers for the self-service sample stations are located in Fayette, Lamar, Marion, Franklin, Lauderdale, and Colbert counties and are available to receive deer head samples 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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 will take the bottom receipt portion 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.

Locations of the self-service CWD drop-off sampling sites are:

Fayette County, Fayette County Extension Office, 650 McConnell Loop, Fayette, Ala., 35555

Lamar County, Hunter’s Gold Processing, 11634 County Rd. 9, Millport, Ala., 35576

Marion County, Watson’s Grocery, 5658 State Highway 19, Detroit, Ala., 35552

Franklin County, Fancher’s Taxidermy, 715 Newell Rd., Red Bay, Ala., 35582

Lauderdale County, Florence Frozen Meats, 1050 South Court St., Florence, Ala., 35630

Colbert County, Yogi’s Texaco, 17750 US Highway 72, Tuscumbia, Ala., 35674

Hunters can also have deer sampled at any WFF District Office (www.outdooralabama.com/wildlife-section) or at the WFF office in Marengo County at 1105 Bailey Dr., Demopolis, Ala., 36732, phone number 334-289-8030. WFF offices are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Before dropping off the sample, hunters should call ahead to make sure a biologist is available.

Sykes said the test results will be emailed to the hunter within three to four weeks.

Currently, self-service freezers are located throughout northwest Alabama only because of the increased surveillance samples needed in the response zones of the CWD-positive locations in Mississippi and Tennessee.

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

Chocolate lab Coco on point in Bobwhite Quail Fields

(David Rainer)

Without a doubt, the sometimes heated argument of who has the best hunting dog came up during the holidays and almost certainly continues today at hunting camps throughout Alabama.

To Yano Serra of Bayou La Batre, there is no argument. Serra says his chocolate Labrador retriever is a wonder dog that deserves special recognition for what he calls his “universal” hunting companion.

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I’d seen numerous photos of Coco on social media with tons of ribbons she’d received during numerous field trials, but her versatility wasn’t evident until Serra called me one day.

“Ever seen a Labrador point a quail?” Serra asked.

“Not lately,” I responded, trying to remember if I had ever seen a Lab point a quail.

I’ve always appreciated a quality pointing dog. My late father was an avid “bird” hunter and always had at least a couple of quality English pointers and/or English setters for his numerous bobwhite excursions back during the days when wild quail were still abundant.

When Serra got Coco from Steve Layton of Brewton, he didn’t know he was getting a pointing dog. He wanted a Lab for his frequent trips to the marshes and brackish water of Mississippi Sound south of Bayou La Batre to hunt ducks, mainly bluebills (scaup), redheads, scoters and an occasional canvasback.

“I knew the mama dog, and I called Steve when I found out she was going to have a litter and told him I wanted the female runt,” said Serra, who guides hunting and fishing trips. “The reason I wanted the runt was I wanted a small dog. I do a lot of duck hunting. I’ve had big Labs in the past. My last one was over 90 pounds. He was a good dog. He’d jump through fire to get a duck, but when you had to get him back in the boat, it would almost take two people to get him in the boat. Then when you got him in the boat, you’d have to turn the bilge pump on.”

Coco weighs in at 52 pounds, which Serra considers the perfect size.

“She can pick up a goose,” he said. “She can pick up a duck, and she can pick up a dove.”

At four months old, Coco’s whistle training started. Serra said Coco went everywhere with him, and he used the whistle to make her stop and come. Retrieving everything from sticks to bedroom slippers followed before Serra got into obedience.

“I would spend from 30 minutes to an hour each day on ‘heel’ and ‘sit’ and ‘stay,’” he said. “Then we got into force fetch (making the dog reliable on bird/bumper handling and retrieve). That took about a month, and then we worked on force-to-pile (bumper). That’s when you teach them to go straight back. They’re not going to go right or left. They’re just going to go.

“Some of my buddies told me I needed to take her to some hunt tests. She blew right through the hunt tests right off the bat. When she was a year old, she already had her (Hunt Retriever Club) senior title.”

Next up for Coco was the AKC (American Kennel Club) Master Hunt test. Coco passed with flying colors again.

After Coco added an Upland title, Serra went in a new direction – finding deer antler sheds. He trained Coco to “find the bone.”

Coco’s quail hunting ability came about quite by accident. Serra’s friend, Keith Walker, owns and operates Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve in south Mobile County. Taylor Creek offers sporting clays, quail hunts and pheasant shoots on acreage not far from Bellingrath Gardens. Serra had been using Walker’s property to train Coco and a couple of other dogs because the ponds on the preserve were perfect for water training. He found out Coco would point a quail quite by accident.

“Keith told me if I wanted that I could come out and he would teach me about guiding quail hunts,” Serra said. “I came out with my pointer and left Coco in the truck. After we did a little training, Keith told me to let Coco out. He said, ‘You’ve already got her trained to sit. See if she’ll do it on a quail.’ She did, and then Keith wanted to see if she would flush. I let her flush the bird, and she chased it. When we came walking out, we looked over on this little hill and there was Coco locked up on full point with her right leg in the air, nose in the air and tail stuck out. There was a quail about 4 feet in front of her. After that, she just started pointing. From then on when she’d get birdy, I’d tell her ‘easy’ to calm her down because she gets so excited.”

Serra has trained Coco to hold birds as well as circle around birds to push them in certain directions to keep them from flushing into thick cover.

“And she loves to duck hunt,” he said. “When you’ve got her in the boat, you won’t even know she’s in the boat. She just lays there. Every duck she picks up is strictly a blind retrieve because I keep her in the boat. She doesn’t see them fall. She’ll go right on through the decoys to the bird, strictly on hand signals.

“She’s great in a dove field. She won’t go after other people’s birds. I take her fishing all the time. She’ll hold a rod and reel in her mouth. If a fish flops off in the boat, I’ll tell her to fetch it up.”

Serra admits the key to a good dog has breeding involved, but a lot of it is in the training. Repetition is the key.

“Some people think it’s hard to train a dog, but it’s really not,” he said. “It’s really fun to me. When you train a dog to really listen to you, you enjoy working with the dog. The first two months is the hardest. Then you start coming down the hill. When you get that force fetch, a lot of the obedience is already there. She’ll tree a squirrel or blood-trail a deer. If I put her on a trail, that’s where she’ll go. Everybody loves that dog. I take her everywhere I go.

“She’s just a universal dog. She just turned four, and she’s getting better and better.”

Go to this link for more information about the full-day and half-day quail hunts and pheasant shoots at Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve.

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

Kelly gains valuable experience at mentored hunt

(John Kelly)

John Kelly decided he needed an early Christmas present after enjoying an Adult Mentored Hunt at the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s Portland Landing Special Opportunity Area (SOA) near Camden.

Kelly, an electrical engineer who works in the defense industry in the Huntsville area, said the experience at the mentored hunt inspired a desire to continue his hunting career. He just ordered a crossbow.

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“I’ve been trying to learn how to hunt this year,” Kelly said. “I was on the outdooralabama.com website, just looking at hunting regulations, and I lucked onto a link about the mentored hunts. I thought, ‘Perfect.’ I had looked at websites and read books about hunting. There is only so much you can read. You can read two books and still not learn what you can by spending an afternoon in the deer blind with someone who knows what he’s doing.”

Kelly has family who own farms, but nobody in his family is considered a hunter. After his grandfather passed away, he started exploring the farm where his parents and grandmother live.

“There are these great wild spaces where I’ve never even wandered around or appreciated that much,” he said. “I’m just trying to connect with nature.”

Instead of going on a hiking trip and only observing nature, Kelly wanted to interact with nature, become a part of the cycle.

“When I got the email that I had gotten drawn, I was bouncing off the walls,” he said. “It was great. When I got there, I was expecting to get some educational stuff, like how to shoot, hunt and some demonstrations on how to field-dress a deer. That was the stuff I expected even though it was better than I thought it was going to be. But I think the thing I didn’t expect was how much I would connect with everybody there. I was expecting kind of an outdoor class, but I got really more of an emotional experience that I hadn’t expected at all. I really connected with the instructors and other mentees. It was very unexpected how close you can get to people by spending a couple of days in the woods with them, and just how open, warm and nice the people who were volunteering their time were. They were so incredibly welcoming and happy to have us there.

“It wasn’t like the camp-counselor vibe where the counselor says, ‘Welcome to Camp Idon’twanna. Over here we have the archery range.’ They were the nicest, warmest people. They were treating us like family. And we were so happy that they wanted us there. It was beyond my wildest expectations.”

Kelly showed up at Portland with no experience with rifles either.

“I’d never shot a rifle before, unless you count video games or virtual reality,” said the 32-year-old Kelly. “It was loud and fun. It was definitely less intimidating than I expected. I hadn’t been around them before, so I wasn’t super comfortable. But after spending a day on the range with the instructors, I said, ‘Oh, these are fine.’”

In total, Kelly fired the rifle nine times and discovered he became sufficiently proficient on the rifle range.

“I shot eight times on the range, and the ninth shot went straight through the heart of a doe,” he said.

Kelly said the prequel to the shot at the doe was enlightening as well with the quiet stalk into the woods to the blind, the watching and listening to nature unfold and spying the animals that inhabit the Alabama forests.

“You think, okay, it’s just an animal, like a squirrel at the park,” he said. “All of a sudden, these deer, like ghosts, appeared silently in front of you. You can feel your heart rate pick up. It was surprisingly exciting to see them show up.

“When I actually got ready for the shot, I got calm and focused and took care of business. Everything else, like sitting there watching nature, watching the birds feed and listening to my instructor tell me about the wildlife and plants, that was such a fantastic experience.”

Because of his lack of hunting experience, Kelly wasn’t positive he had hit the doe where he wanted. But they quickly picked up the blood trail and didn’t have to go far to find the deer.

“When I saw the deer lying 10 yards in the woods, it was more of a relief than anything else,” he said. “I was afraid I might have just injured it. To find it quickly was a very nice feeling.

“Now I understand that feeling, thinking about future hunts, that I want to make a clean shot or no shot. I understand a lot better now why people say that.”

With the doe retrieved and back at the lodge, the instructors went through the field-dress procedures and how to skin and quarter the deer.

“I came home with a cooler full of deer and wild boar,” Kelly said. “We decided to butcher it ourselves. It took three solid afternoons to finish butchering that deer and boar. I watched a YouTube video and this guy does an entire deer in 20 minutes. It took me a lot longer, but we got it.”

Kelly then shared his bounty with his family just across the Alabama line in Tennessee.

“We went to my parents’ house and grilled venison tenderloin,” he said. “Then we cooked a pot roast. My mom showed me her recipe for pot roast. I put in the venison and we cooked it and I got to serve it to them. That was an unexpected, awesome feeling to be able to serve the thing I’d had a hand in harvesting. It was hands-on all the way from field to table.”

As Kelly put on his Facebook page, “I finally understand how Granny felt all those times she would fix us a meal and tell us ‘these beans are from the garden’ or ‘this squash is from the garden’ or ‘this beef was raised here on this farm.’ It really is just a totally different feeling!”

Kelly wasn’t sure how his family, which also included an aunt and an uncle, would react to the venison.

“My parents told me they were prepared to grit their teeth and smile and say, ‘Oh, it’s delicious,’” Kelly said. “But it was a hit all the way around. They asked for seconds. I got good instruction on how to preserve and prepare it too. Plus, it was a tender doe. My family was pleasantly surprised at how delicious the venison was.”

Kelly’s experience is exactly what Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries had in mind when they established the Adult Mentored Hunting Program. Go to this link and this link to learn more about the adult mentored hunts and the Special Opportunity Areas utilized to host them.

Working for the U.S. Army, Kelly said his main job is to “go out in the desert and blow stuff up and do all kinds of cool things.”

His leisure time, however, will include more deer hunting. His Army credentials allow him to hunt Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, which is one of the areas he plans to explore.

Kelly and his hunting partner, Dianna Valdez, are already figuring out where their next hunt will occur. Valdez took some of the wild hog and prepared it for her family.

Because of the weapon restrictions at the Arsenal (archery and shotgun only), Kelly opted to purchase the crossbow to continue his deer hunting.

“I can hunt the Arsenal, and I’ve been looking up information on the WMAs (Wildlife Management Areas) and public land near me,” he said. “Yeah, we’re already planning where we can go next. I’m hooked.”

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

Alabama duck hunters hope for repeat of last season

(Seth Maddox)

The snowstorm that skirted just north of the state recently should be good news for Alabama’s duck hunters.

The waterfowl seasons in Alabama are always weather-dependent. If it’s cold and snowy north of us, the birds will migrate in significant numbers into Alabama. Without the cold or precipitation to cover their food sources, the birds won’t make it this far south.

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Seth Maddox, Migratory Gamebird Program Coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said duck numbers should be increasing soon even though the numbers were down when the annual aerial survey took place the week before the season opened.

“We were down a little bit on our preseason counts,” Maddox said. “We had a few cold fronts and a lot of rain. That spread the birds out a lot. I think it pushed some of the early migrators further south.

“That left us with a decent amount of birds, but not a good number for opening weekend. On opening weekend, people killed birds but it wasn’t a great opener. When the season opened back up, it got better. Most of the birds are just a little north of us. I hope with another cold front or two, it will push birds into Alabama. We got a small push from that snowstorm, but I hope we get a larger push soon.

Maddox said the long-term weather forecast bodes well for waterfowl hunters in Alabama.

“It’s shaping up to be similar to last year,” he said. “They’re predicting several disturbances up in the Arctic region with some polar vortexes, which will give us some cold weather. Last year, we had some sub-freezing temperatures, below average temperatures, for a week or so throughout the season. I think that’s going to end up giving us a season similar to last season.”

That would be great news for waterfowlers, considering the harvest for the 2017-2018 season was up 85 percent over the similar period a year earlier.

“That’s a significant increase,” Maddox said. “We had about 14 days during the season where temperatures stayed below freezing. That cold weather and snow north of us really pushed birds into Alabama.”

Maddox said the wood duck harvest last season was especially high, which means a good many woodies came from the north.

“The cold weather pushed lots of wood ducks down,” he said. “We get some migration of wood ducks from northern states every year. Sometimes our wood ducks will move further south, but most of the time they hang tight here in Alabama.

“What we do see, when we see a lot of wood duck migrants from the north, a lot of our males will pair up with northern females. The males will follow the females back to their breeding grounds in the spring because the females go back to the same breeding grounds every year.”

Maddox said the banding program that the WFF conducts annually on wood ducks gives him the data needed to come to those conclusions.

“A lot of our male wood ducks get killed north of us,” he said. “For example, I had one that I banded in Jackson County a couple of years ago that was killed in Ontario (Canada) earlier this year. We had one of our males killed in Minnesota as well.”

Back to the preseason survey, the survey team looks for dabblers (mallards, gadwall, teal) and divers (canvasbacks, redheads, scaup) during the flyovers.

Gadwalls led the count with 12,000 observed statewide, although the survey covers only a small portion of the state. The mallard count totaled 1,500, followed by 1,000 green-winged teal. The total dabbler count was 15,651.

The diver count turned out to be a pleasant surprise with 7,000 birds counted, which is higher than the five-year average.

“There were a bunch of canvasbacks here early,” Maddox said. “Ringnecks led the way, as they usually do. We also had scaup and redheads.

“The migrant geese don’t show up until the middle of December, so you might be able to get a Christmas goose here soon.”

Mike Carter, a renowned fishing guide on the Tennessee River lakes, switches to waterfowl hunting in north Alabama this time of year and keeps an eye on the duck population by regularly looking for ducks at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Carter is expecting a big increase in duck numbers any day now.

“We got some gadwalls and ringnecks, but we haven’t gotten a big push yet,” Carter said. “I’m expecting the ducks to show up really soon. We’ve got ice and snow north of us. I do my scouting by watching the Refuge, and I haven’t seen a big increase yet.”

Carter would be a happy duck hunter if the current season matches last year’s.

“It seems the ducks got here a little quicker last year,” he said. “Last year was great. I think we’re going to get that at some point. We’ve got flooded timber and buckbrush, so they’ve got plenty of places to feed and find cover. We’ve got a lot more water this year, so I think it’s going to be even better when the ducks finally make their move.”

The most likely duck spots in Alabama include the Tennessee River basin in north Alabama, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in south Alabama as well as the Lake Eufaula area and west central Alabama in the Demopolis area and other lakes on the Tombigbee River and Millers Ferry on the Alabama River near Camden.

The number of duck hunters in Alabama has apparently peaked with no downturn in the past several years.

“The number of licensed duck hunters seems to be holding steady around 30,000 for the last 3 to 4 years,” Maddox said. “That’s a good thing.”

Maddox said WFF has plans to expand enhancements for the waterfowl population in the coming years.

“We’ve got big plans ahead, partnering with Ducks Unlimited, to spend some substantial expenditures over the next several years on waterfowl habitat management,” he said.

WFF manages several public hunting locations in north Alabama, the Jackson County Waterfowl Areas. Waterfowl hunting is allowed on Mud Creek, Raccoon Creek and Crow Creek, although special seasons and restrictions apply. No waterfowl hunting in Mud Creek (Wannville) and Raccoon Creek dewatering units or Crow Creek WMA on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. All activity is prohibited in these locations on those days. The drawing for the limited quota hunt units on the Crow Creek Special Opportunity Area has already been held.

A limit of one 25-round box of shells in possession is in effect on all Jackson County WMAs while waterfowl hunting. No gasoline-powered motors are allowed in Mud Creek (Wannville) dewatering unit and Raccoon Creek dewatering unit (North of Hwy 117). Visit this link for more information.

“Most of the people we talked to are happy with these restrictions that allow the birds to rest for a few days,” Maddox said. “The 25-shell rule cuts down on the extra shooting, the sky busting. People perceive that as a good thing.”

For the Mobile-Tensaw Delta/W.L. Holland Waterfowl Management Zone in south Alabama, one new restriction is in place for the current season. The use of gasoline motor prohibition zone that was in effect for Big Bateau Bay last year has been expanded to include Bay Grass. A no-hunting refuge zone remains in effect in the area west of the Apalachee River, occupying the area between the Causeway (Battleship Parkway) and I-10 to its intersection.

Hunting in the Waterfowl Management Zone is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Hunting is allowed from a half hour before sunrise until 1 p.m. on Wednesdays through Sundays during the season.

Go here for the 2018-2019 Alabama Waterfowl Hunting Guide.

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

5 months ago

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries enforcement increases deer carcass surveillance

(Billy Pope)

Hunters who travel out of state should be aware that the Enforcement Section of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has significantly increased its surveillance of roads along state borders, looking for persons illegally importing deer carcasses.

The regulation that banned the import of cervid body parts from states known to be CWD-positive was enacted three years ago to safeguard against disease transmission. When a Mississippi deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD) earlier this year, DCNR was already in the process of expanding its prohibition of the importation of carcasses of white-tailed deer and other cervids (elk, mule deer, moose, etc.) to include all states.

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“Those thoroughfares in close proximity to the state borders are where we have concentrated our efforts,” WFF Enforcement Chief Matt Weathers said. “This is important for the defense of the state – though it is a labor-intensive undertaking.”

Weathers said the surveillance puts extra pressure on the Enforcement Officers, who still must perform other duties.

“It is the middle of deer season, so we’ve got lots of other tasks and calls to conduct,” he said. “But keeping CWD out of Alabama is extremely important, so we’re conducting details on the state lines to attempt to ensure no deer are brought into Alabama from other states.

He added, “We are concentrating our efforts to match those peak hunting seasons in the West and Midwest when people would be bringing deer carcasses into the state. To some extent, it will go throughout the entirety of our deer season.”

Since 1907, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has been tasked with protecting Alabama’s natural resources on behalf of its citizens. The Alabama Legislature recognized that commercial exploitation was having a significant adverse impact on the state’s natural resources and founded the ADCNR. Although some exploitation of resources continues today, it has been minimized by the promulgation and enforcement of laws that protect those natural resources.

Although the ADCNR’s basic mission has changed very little over the last eleven decades, the types of threats facing Alabama’s natural resources have changed.

Today, the largest threat is CWD and the impact it could have on Alabama’s hunting industry and our hunting heritage.

“If you hunt deer in Alabama, enjoy watching deer in our state, or if you benefit from the nearly $2 billion industry that exists in Alabama surrounding these activities, you should be aware that your very way of life could change greatly in the coming years if we all do not work together to keep CWD out of Alabama,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship.

CWD is a 100-percent-fatal, communicable disease that is very similar to Mad Cow Disease in cattle. The prion that causes CWD can be found concentrated in the brain, spinal cord and bone tissue well after the infected animal dies.

“If those infected parts are brought into our state and thrown out where deer from our herd can come into contact with them, we could become a CWD-positive state overnight,” Blankenship said.

One of the disconcerting aspects of the new regulations is the attitude of hunters toward those restrictions. A case in point occurred when Alabama and Tennessee wildlife officials conducted a joint operation at Alabama’s northern border.

That effort resulted in six citations for hunters bringing back field-dressed deer into Alabama from other states.

Alabama’s Enforcement Section has made several other cases since, and there seems to be a disturbing thread.

“We’ve got guys bringing deer back to Alabama that originated many states away,” Weathers said. “Many, if not all, of the states they passed through have similar regulations. For the limited amount of time we’ve conducted this operation, it is a concerning number of violations. It speaks to the volume of the problem.

“We’ve had several folks we questioned who were as aware and fluent in the law as we were. They just thought that it didn’t matter. It’s troubling that not everybody takes this as the serious issue it is.”

WFF has long recognized the potential threat of CWD and started testing deer in our state in a preemptive manner in 2002. To date, WFF has tested more than 8,000 deer with no positive CWD samples found.

“This is NOT something that you can pour bleach or Lysol on and make it no longer a threat,” Weathers said. “It’s going to be there beyond any kind of chemical you pour on it. And time doesn’t seem to have any effect on it either.”

This past August, ADCNR unveiled an extensive advertising campaign to educate those hunters who travel to hunt out of state. Billboards and various other informational materials were placed along highway routes at state lines providing information about CWD and the regulations regarding the importation of deer parts returning from a hunting trip out of state. The regulations require that all deer meat be deboned and only cleaned skull plates with bare antlers without visible brain or spinal tissue can be imported. Raw capes with no visible brain or spinal tissue can be brought in as well as upper canine teeth with no root structure or soft tissue present. Finished taxidermy products and tanned hides can be imported. Velvet-covered antlers are prohibited unless they are part of a finished taxidermy project.

“Despite our best efforts at education, unlawful import of those prohibited parts remains a problem,” Weathers said. “ADCNR has gone to great lengths to provide a sustainable white-tailed deer herd for the citizens of Alabama to enjoy. Today, however, simply providing this herd isn’t enough. We must protect it. We protect it not only for ourselves but for those who will come after us. I once heard someone say, ‘In the gravest of situations, doing your best isn’t enough; you must do what is required.’

“So, when you see your local Conservation Enforcement Officer patrolling near a state line, know that what you are actually seeing is the front line in the fight against CWD.”

WFF Director Chuck Sykes has been in Washington, D.C., meeting with Congressional staffs about the CWD threat, as well as other issues.

“Senator Doug Jones is co-sponsoring a bill to provide funding for more CWD research and more money for the states to manage it,” Sykes said. “CWD is a big deal. Once it’s here, it’s here forever, so our best strategy is to keep it out. One of the best ways to keep it out is to not bring carcasses back from any other state.”

Alabama’s CWD Response Plan has response protocols established to delineate those out-of-state cases using concentric circles around the positive test site in increments of 25 miles, 50 miles and more than 50 miles and to implement specific action plans accordingly.

When a case of CWD in a 1½-year-old buck was confirmed recently in Pontotoc County, Miss., portions of three counties in Alabama fell within the 50-mile-radius protocol – Franklin, Marion and Lamar counties.

Sykes said Mississippi is getting pretty good compliance at their drop-off stations and with hunter-harvested deer for sampling.

“But it’s a scary thing,” Sykes said. “I was with some of the legislators from Mississippi at a conference I just attended. It’s a concern for our way of life and a huge economic driver in our states.”

Sykes said the most disappointing aspect of the CWD threat is the nonchalant attitude of hunters who were caught bringing deer carcasses into the state illegally.

“Everybody we issued citations to knew they were breaking the law,” Sykes said. “Nobody pled ignorance. Their attitude was, ‘Ain’t no big deal.’ They knew what they were doing. You just don’t want to be that guy. Why would you take a chance in bringing something into Alabama and the CWD transmission being credited to you just because you didn’t take a few extra minutes to do things right? I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.”

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

5 months ago

Alabama Gulf Seafood shines at WFC

(David Rainer)

’Tis the season to loosen those belts and locate the sweat pants in preparation for Thanksgiving week. Of course, by the time the weekend is here, everybody will likely be tired of turkey and the leftovers.

Fortunately, we folks in Alabama can easily find fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico to provide a delicious change in the menu.

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Speaking of being fortunate, I can attest to how mouth-watering fresh seafood can be after serving as one of the judges at the World Food Championships (WFC) held earlier this month in Orange Beach. One of my duties was to judge the signature dish round of the seafood competition.

I know, I know. How did I get that job? Judging the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Wild Game Cook-Offs for the past 20 years helps as well as hanging out with folks like chef Chris Sherrill, who helped me achieve EAT judging certification, and Mobile Press-Register food editor David Holloway.

Alabama Gulf Seafood was one of the sponsors of the seafood competition, which meant the chefs had the freshest Gulf seafood available to prepare the dishes.

When the difficult judging (in terms of distinguishing between the delicious dishes) was finished, chefs from Alabama held three spots in the top ten. Matt and Regina Shipp of Orange Beach took fourth place, followed by Tuscaloosa’s Paul Kerr in fifth and Orange Beach’s Haikel Harris in sixth.

Talk about accidental contestants, the Shipps, who operate the Fin and Fork restaurant in Orange Beach, didn’t have WFC competition on the radar until their culinary skills were on display at a local fundraiser, which also happened to be a WFC qualifier.

“We didn’t go into Uncorked for the competition,” Regina said of the event at The Wharf to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “It’s a fundraiser and we did it to help the community.”

For the structured dish, the cook teams were required to prepare mahi mahi on a cedar plank. The Shipps tested their creation the day before the competition.

“Regina asked me if I had ever done that dish,” Matt said. “I said, yes, about 15 years ago.”

The two stopped at Publix, purchased cedar planks and soaked them to get ready for the test run. The Shipps scored a 96.25 out of 100 on the mahi dish.

“That’s why it’s exciting,” Matt said. “I think I bring a certain talent to the preparation of the dish, and Regina’s creativity brings the dish to 100 percent.”

For their signature dish, the Shipps stuck with one of their favorites, yellowtail snapper.

Whole Yellowtail Snapper

to 1½-pound yellowtail snapper

4 cups rice flour

1 cup red chili flakes

1 tsp baking powder (for crispness)

Salt and pepper to taste.

Marinade

2 cups unsweetened coconut milk

1 cup dark rum

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup lime juice

½ cup sliced red bell peppers

½ cup sliced yellow bell peppers

½ cup sliced green bell peppers

½ cup red onions

Fresh cilantro to taste

Scale and score the yellowtail snapper and marinate the fish for several hours. Reserve half the marinade.

Combine rice flour, chili flakes and baking powder. Roll scored snapper in the rice flour mixture. Drop in 350-degree oil for about 6-7 minutes, depending on the size.

While the fish is frying, take the reserved marinade and simmer until reduced by half to make the finishing sauce. Remove the fish from the fryer and let it drain on a rack momentarily. Plate and spoon plenty of sauce over the top.

After making the finals, all the contestants were required to use grouper filets in the deciding dish.

Fin and Fork Grouper

1 6-ounce grouper fillet

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup Panko bread crumbs

2 Tbsp oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Salt and pepper fillet, roll in flour, dip in buttermilk and roll in Panko bread crumbs before sautéing in skillet until brown on both sides. Transfer to 500-degree oven to complete cooking with cook time depending on the thickness of the fillet. Cook in oven for 10 minutes for a 1-inch-thick fillet.

Lemon Beurre Blanc Sauce

½ cup lemon juice

½ cup white wine

1 Tbsp heavy cream

½ pound unsalted butter

Combine lemon juice, white wine and heavy cream. Simmer to reduce by half, and slowly add cold butter one pat at a time to make the beurre blanc sauce.

Topping

½ cup of lemon beurre blanc sauce

½ cup diced red onions

2 cups sliced button mushrooms

8 deveined Gulf shrimp

1 cup white wine

½ cup lump blue crab meat

Heat beurre blanc. Add onions and heat until translucent. Add mushrooms and shrimp until shrimp are about halfway cooked. Add cup white wine and simmer to reduce until shrimp are just done. Do not overcook or the shrimp will be tough. Add crab meat and combine.

Take fish from the oven, plate, and spoon over a generous portion of topping with crab and shrimp over fillet.

“For us to finish fourth for our first time, that was pretty awesome,” Matt said. “The competition was really close. Between the winner and fourth place was just a little over a point.”

Close behind was Harris’ team from the Flora-Bama Yacht Club with its Margarita Mahi and stuffed grouper finale. However, the team’s success was not because of a lot of practice.

“We didn’t get to put a lot of prep into it this year because we’ve been so busy with all the evacuees from Hurricane Michael coming over,” Harris said. “So we got a little behind. I got an email from World Food Championships to turn in my recipes ASAP; the deadline was near. I ended up putting the recipe for the first round together in less than two hours to keep from getting disqualified.”

Margarita Mahi

1 6-ounce mahi mahi fillet

Cavender’s Greek seasoning to taste

1 Tbsp sesame oil

Cedar plank

Brush seasoned fillet with oil and slow-roast seasoned mahi on cedar plank on grill away from direct heat until fish is done, 15-20 minutes.

Margarita Rice

¼ cup diced yellow onion

2 ounces unsalted butter

1 cup jasmine rice

2 Tbsp lime juice

2 Tbsp lemon juice

2 Tbsp orange juice

Zest from half of each fruit

1 ounce tequila

½ ounce triple sec

Sauté onions in butter until translucent. Add remaining ingredients and cook until all liquid is absorbed by the rice and rice is tender.

Citrus Beurre Blanc

½ cup diced yellow onions

2 Tbsp diced garlic

1 Tbsp olive oil

1½ cups white wine

1 cup lemon juice

¼ cup orange juice

1 pound unsalted butter

Sauté onions and garlic until translucent. Add wine and fruit juices. Simmer to reduce by half, and slowly add cold butter on low heat until incorporated.

For plating, add layer of Margarita Rice, top with mahi fillet and ladle beurre blanc over top.

Boursin and Boudin Stuffed Grouper

2 links boudin sausage, casings removed

5 ounces Boursin cheese

2 ounces Panko bread crumbs

1 6-ounce grouper fillet

1 pound unsalted butter

3 ounces jumbo lump crab meat

Flora-Bama House Rub

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp ground mustard

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

Béarnaise Sauce

¼ cup shallots

6 cloves black garlic

1 Tbsp unsalted butter

½-cup white wine vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon

12 egg yolks

½ tsp cayenne pepper

½ tsp white pepper

½ tsp salt

1 pound melted butter

1 sprig tarragon, minced

Combine boudin, cheese and Panko to make stuffing. Cut pocket in grouper filet and fill with stuffing. Rub Flora-Bama House Rub on each side of fish filet. Sauté butter until brown. Reserve half and add fish fillet to remainder to brown on both sides. Transfer to 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.

Sauté jumbo lump crab in reserved brown butter.

To make sauce, sauté shallots and garlic in butter. Add vinegar and juice from half lemon. Simmer to reduce until thick syrup and set aside. In double boiler combine egg yolks, cayenne and white pepper, salt and remainder of lemon juice. Slowly heat and lightly whisk until egg mixture starts to thicken.

“Thicken the eggs to where when you drag your whisk through it you can see the lines left in the eggs,” Harris said.

Pull egg mixture from the heat and slowly fold in the pound of melted butter. Fold in the white wine vinegar reduction. Fold in minced tarragon to complete the sauce.

Plate fish fillet. Top with sautéed crab meat. Liberally spoon Béarnaise Sauce over top.

Mouth drooling yet? Mine is, and I’m not even hungry.

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

5 months ago

Alabama officials closely monitoring contaminated deer found in Mississippi

(Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism)

While Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) officials continue to do all they can to keep chronic wasting disease (CWD) out of Alabama, unfortunately the latest news from our neighbors in Mississippi is not good.

Another deer in the lower Mississippi Delta in Issaquena County, a 2½-year-old doe, tested positive for CWD last week. The initial CWD case in Mississippi last January was also in Issaquena County, confirmed in a 4½-year-old buck.

These are in addition to the Mississippi deer in a different county that tested positive for CWD about two weeks ago. A 1½-year-old buck tested positive in Pontotoc County in north central Mississippi, about 200 miles from the initial case.

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WFF Director Chuck Sykes is watching and analyzing all of these developments very closely.

“These last two cases are concerning,” Sykes said. “Typically, you think of CWD as being found in older age-class males.”

Also gaining Sykes’ full and immediate attention, the Pontotoc County CWD-positive deer was within 50 miles of Alabama’s border.

“With the Pontotoc deer being within the 50-mile radius of Alabama, we’re doing exactly what we said we would do in our response plan,” Sykes said.

The section of the Alabama CWD Response Plan that deals with out-of-state cases uses concentric circles around the positive test site in increments of 25 miles, 50 miles and more than 50 miles. With the case confirmed in Pontotoc County, portions of three counties in Alabama fall within the 50-mile-radius protocol – Franklin, Marion and Lamar counties.

“We have met with DOT (Alabama Department of Transportation) engineers to help us in locating road-killed deer that will be tested,” Sykes said. “Our technical assistance staff will continue their efforts in working with hunting clubs, taxidermists and meat processors in those counties to collect samples.

“I don’t want people to panic, but they need to understand that we’re doing everything we can to keep it out of Alabama. The main thing I want to get across is that we are not targeting any one particular group. This is not a deer breeder versus a non-breeder. This is not a high fence versus a no fence. This isn’t a dog hunter versus a stalk hunter issue. Honestly, this isn’t even just a hunting issue. This is an Alabama issue concerning the protection of a public-trust natural resource. We really need people to focus on facts about CWD, not what they hear about or read on Facebook.”

Sykes said deer hunting is such a cherished thread that runs through Alabama’s heritage and way of life that any effect on that endeavor could have far-reaching consequences.

“Whether you hunt or not, the economic impacts of deer hunting generate more than $1 billion annually into Alabama,” he said. “In one way, form or fashion, most everybody in the state is positively impacted by deer hunting. So, we’re doing everything we can to keep it out of Alabama.

“In the chance CWD gets here, we have a plan in place to mitigate the risk. It’s all in black and white on outdooralabama.com. What I need the public to know about this is that we have had a CWD response plan in place since 2012. It updates constantly, based on the latest scientific research. I have a whole team that works on this. It’s not done by one person behind closed doors in Montgomery. It’s done on a national level. We look at what works, what doesn’t work, what states have tried and what states have failed–the good, the bad and the ugly.  This is a methodical process. Our plan is based on the latest nationwide scientific research.”

Sykes said there is no way to know what will happen in Alabama if CWD is confirmed.

“It’s hard to say how Alabama will be impacted compared to other states,” he said. “Each state is different.”

At a recent Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA) Law Enforcement Chiefs meeting, a conversation between WFF Enforcement Chief Matt Weathers and a member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission highlighted the vulnerability of Alabama in this situation.

“Northwest Arkansas has a high prevalence rate of CWD,” Sykes said. “Chief Weathers asked his Arkansas counterpart at SEAFWA how CWD was impacting their hunting licenses and budget. In Arkansas it isn’t a major concern because their agency gets one-eighth of 1 percent of sales tax. It does matter to us because we don’t get that. We can’t handle people not deer hunting, not eating deer meat and not buying hunting licenses. It will change the ability of our agency to manage and enhance wildlife and fisheries in Alabama forever.

“I don’t want people to think we are never going to deer-hunt again, that all the deer in the state are going to die. That hasn’t been shown to happen in the CWD-positive states. However, they never go back to the same. We will have to adjust to a new normal. But, we want to prevent it as long as we can. In the event it does come here, we are fully prepared to address it to minimize the risk.”

Alabama has tested more than 8,000 deer during the past 15 years, and no deer has tested positive for CWD.

“We don’t have our heads in the sand,” Sykes said. “We’re doing everything we can. That involves making rules and regulations that are, at times, unpopular. It’s been illegal to bring a live deer into Alabama since the early ’70s.  However, we caught someone in 2016 bringing in deer from Indiana for breeding purposes.  It’s been illegal to bring a carcass in from a CWD-positive state for three years. This year, we had to ban carcasses from every state. That’s an inconvenience on everybody, us included. A lot of us hunt out of state, so it’s impacting us as well. But it’s something we have to do to protect the natural resources of Alabama because not every state tests for CWD as judiciously as we do.

“We had a joint law enforcement detail with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency along the Tennessee-Alabama state line on Sunday November 11th, checking for illegal carcasses being brought back into Alabama. We made six cases on hunters bringing back field-dressed deer into Alabama from Kansas and Kentucky. In all six arrests, the individuals knew it was illegal to bring the carcass through Alabama. In addition to violating Alabama law, they also violated Tennessee law. Several of the carcasses were destined for Florida, jeopardizing yet another state.”

An old friend, Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland of Mossy Oak camouflage fame, has been directly impacted by the positive CWD test in Pontotoc County, Mississippi.  Strickland has a farm in Lee County, Mississippi.

“This is a black cloud, no doubt,” said Strickland, who sits on the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) Board.  “My farm borders Pontotoc County.  We’re just outside the containment zone, but I’m afraid it’s just a matter of time.

“You think that it’s something that’s going on somewhere else, like Colorado, where it started. Or Wisconsin or Wyoming.  Then, bam, it’s in the Delta, and now Pontotoc County.  It’s happened so fast, it’s kind of scary.”

Strickland said it’s difficult for the average hunter to determine how CWD is going to impact hunting in the South because of the wide range of reactions.

“On one end of the scale, you have people saying the sky is falling,” he said.  “On the other end of the scale, depending on who you talk to, they say, ‘Aww, it’s been around for a thousand years.’  I’m assuming it’s somewhere in the middle as to where the truth lies.

“I don’t know if people are taking this as seriously as I have. We’re kind of in the hunting business at Mossy Oak.”

Strickland has been taking his grandson, who has been affectionately nicknamed Cranky, on a variety of hunting adventures in recent years. Strickland doesn’t have any inclination to alter their behavior.

“We’re going to continue to hunt,” Strickland said. “I’m going to assume the people that really attack this and know what they’re doing are going to lead us down the right road.”

Strickland is concerned the CWD threat will have a detrimental effect on the recreational opportunities that have so positively impacted his way of life.

“Hunting license sales are already down,” he said.  “This is just another hurdle. We’re battling more than just CWD.  We’re battling time, more than anything.  The new people, the 30- to 40-year-olds with kids and everything, are having trouble finding time to go hunting.  There’s a lot chipping away at our lifestyle.

“Hunting is what we lived for when I was growing up.  I used to could sleep like baby the night before Christmas.  But the night before hunting season opened, I literally would lie down with my hunting clothes on to make sure I wouldn’t be late.”

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

The Lodge at Gulf State Park opens with great fanfare

(Billy Pope)

The fanfare that accompanied last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, was unprecedented, a fact affirmed by a pair of experts in the field of lodging and hospitality.

With Governor Kay Ivey headlining a long list of dignitaries at the grand opening of the long-awaited facility, the Gulf Shores High School marching band played the National Anthem as Gulf Shores Navy JROTC cadets presented the colors in front of the large crowd that gathered only steps from the white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

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One of those dignitaries was Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Herb Malone, who was curious if other venues celebrated the opening of similar facilities the way Alabama did last week.

“I asked the head gentleman from Valor Hospitality and the head gentlemen of Hilton Hotels if they had ever been to a ribbon-cutting where there was this much passion, love and energy behind a project,” Malone said. “They both said never, ever have they seen anything like this.”

Malone said he knows of several groups that have scheduled conferences at the new Lodge, including Jon Hand, CEO of Electric Cities of Alabama, a group that represents municipally owned utilities that serve about 1 million customers in the state. Hand jumped at the chance to book a conference at The Lodge.

“To my knowledge, we were the first group to sign a contract with the resort,” said Hand, whose organization is based in Montgomery. “And, we were the first to sign a multi-year contract.

“I grew up in Gulf Shores. We went to the State Park a lot growing up. So, we were really excited about the completion. I think it’s going to be great for Alabama. The location of the resort is great for us. The way the resort looks – it’s beautiful. It’s a great asset to the state. Whenever we can do business in Alabama, we like to do so. Our 35th anniversary will be our first conference at The Lodge.”

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the decision was made to forego the typical soft opening that new facilities hold before a general opening.

“Many of us were not sure if this day would ever come,” Blankenship said. “It has been a long journey, and I’m so glad to share this with you as we celebrate the work of so many who made the opening of this lodge a reality. This is truly a spectacular place.

“With the project’s high visibility and excitement in this community for the return of The Lodge, we wanted to open it as soon as possible to give the communities an opportunity to participate in the rebirth of this place. So, we opened the doors at the first possible moment.”

The Lodge will accommodate up to 1,000 people for conferences and conventions with a 350-room hotel that includes 20 suites. The beach-view ballroom is 12,160 square feet with an adjacent 7,500-square-foot outdoor terrace. Several other smaller meeting and conference rooms are available. A Gulf-front infinity pool will have a pool bar and grill. Meanwhile, a Gulf-front restaurant features terrace seating and a private dining room that will serve house-prepared dishes sourced from regional suppliers, including fresh Alabama Gulf Seafood.

The Lodge has been constructed under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) protocols. The Interpretive Center is pursuing certification under the Living Building Challenge, a designation currently afforded to only 16 buildings in the world.

“We are caretakers of this creation,” Blankenship said. “The sustainable construction and the environmentally friendly management of The Lodge show how serious we are about that responsibility. We are very excited about how we can have this beautiful facility and still protect our environment.”

Most of the dignitaries who spoke at the ceremony were able to share memories of cherished family time spent at previous versions of the Gulf State Park Lodge, including Alabama U.S. Congressman Bradley Byrne, who marveled at the hotel facilities.

“Did you see the suite with the separate room with bunk beds and a TV?” Congressman Byrne asked. “That is perfect for a family. I wish they had had those when we used to stay at the park when my children were small. We definitely would have taken advantage of that.”

State Representative Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, who represents the district that includes Gulf State Park, said he is greatly relieved to see the new facilities open because of the numerous hurdles that had to be overcome to rebuild the lodge after Hurricane Ivan destroyed it in 2004.

“It’s just a dream come true,” Rep. McMillan said. “It’s better than I ever envisioned that it might be. And one thing most people don’t realize is that we came within three days of having to shut down construction while we waited on a court ruling. The judge finally ruled in our favor, and here we are today.

“I never had any idea we would have anything like this. It’s just unbelievable.”

Alabama Speaker of the House of Representatives Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, reiterated how the resort facilities at Gulf State Park factor into the economic well-being of the rest of the Alabama State Parks System.

“When the resort was here, and the lodge was up and running it was an economic engine to help all our state parks,” Rep. McCutcheon said. “So, when we lost this facility, it had a huge impact on our parks. When we came for a tour of the construction site, we walked out on the dunes, and I remember my children being there on the edge of the water when they were very, very little. Deb and I made a trip down here, and we stayed at the lodge that was here at the time. That was the first time my children got to feel the sand between their toes and feel the waves wash up on them. We built sandcastles. That was the first time for children who were raised in red land cotton fields to see what it was like to stand on the side of the Gulf of Mexico. That’s a great memory.

“Our best days are ahead of us in Alabama, and this great facility is symbolic of that.”

Governor Ivey echoed the sentiment that the opening of The Lodge has been a study in perseverance.

“I’m thrilled to be here to have this grand opening that we’ve been waiting a long time to have,” said Governor Ivey. “There’s just no more beautiful place than Alabama’s Gulf Coast with the white sand and sparkling waters. That’s why I made it my mission to protect this part of the state and grow it. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan came through and damaged parts of our great state. It also destroyed a very special spot on the Gulf Coast – the lodge. However, in the resilient spirit of Alabama, we find a way to make good out of a bad situation.

“And here we are today. I am proud to be with you for the ribbon-cutting for The Lodge at Gulf State Park. This will be a centerpiece for this area but also for the great state of Alabama. We’re located on the doorstep of the Gulf, and this will be a way to show a piece of Alabama to the world. Creating a new conference center has long been a part of discussions throughout numerous administrations. As Lieutenant Governor, I was a member of the Gulf State Park Committee. Today, I’m proud to take us across the finish line.”

Ivey said The Lodge’s partners, Valor Hospitality and Hilton Hotels, will help make The Lodge at Gulf State Park a world-class destination.

“There is so much to love about this state,” Governor Ivey said. “In this area, it’s our beautiful natural resources, especially our people. I really want to thank the locals in this area, who year-round, continually welcome visitors to our great state.

Governor Ivey said that more than 20 years ago Mercedes became the game-changer for our automotive industry, and she expects the same impact from The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

“Gulf State Park will be a world-class place to visit, and it will be the crown jewel of tourism,” said Governor Ivey, who presented Gulf State Park Project Manager Tye Warren with a certificate of commendation during the ceremonies. “People from around the world will want to come experience what we have in Alabama. I look forward to continued growth in the tourism industry. Thank you for allowing me to join you for this great event. May God continue to bless each of you and the great state of Alabama.”

After he was presented with the certificate from Governor Ivey, Warren’s young daughter jumped into his arms.

“As I hold my daughter, I will tell you there have been a lot of people who helped raise this place,” Warren said. “Thursday night, I listened to Valor Hospitality’s CEO talk to 200 employees, and the feelings I had were closure and complete comfort in what this is going to be. And I hope when my daughter marries that I have the same feeling on that day. I feel great about where this is going.”

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

ADCNR officials, program honored by peers

(Outdoor Alabama)

October has been a special month for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) in terms of recognition from its peers.

Both the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA) and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council held significant events a few blocks apart last week in Mobile.

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The Gulf Council met at the Renaissance Battle House Hotel to discuss a variety of issues, including state management of red snapper. During that meeting, the Gulf Council presented Alabama Marine Resources Conservation Officer Kyle “Bull” Rabren with the 2017 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award.

The Gulf Council award “acknowledges service above and beyond duty requirements and recognizes distinguished service, professionalism, and dedication to enforcing federal fishing regulations in the Gulf of Mexico.”

A three-year veteran of Marine Resources, Rabren is a patrol officer in Baldwin County. In 2017, Rabren conducted 810 hours of patrol on federal fisheries enforcement. He participated in 817 vessel boardings, intercepted nearly 3,000 commercial and recreational anglers and assisted in 107 state and federal citations or cases. Rabren was involved in citing multiple commercial fishing violations, including over the limit of large coastal sharks. In one incident, Rabren seized 88 sharks totaling 2,733 pounds. Rabren charged the same individual with subsequent violations, which resulted in $2,700 in fines and the forfeiture of boat, nets and equipment valued at about $100,000. Rabren, 33, also identified an unpermitted charter vessel operating in federal waters as well as numerous vessels in violation of season or possession limits of red snapper.

“With the little bit of coastline we have in the state, I really wasn’t expecting to bring this award home to Alabama,” Rabren said. “You go out and put the hours in in the heat and freezing cold. You really want people to do the right thing, but you know some people are not going to abide by the rules. I really just want to protect the resource.

“My son (JT) is 3 years old. I really want him to have something that’s worth fishing or hunting.”

Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon said Rabren put in extra effort to rearrange his schedule to specifically monitor certain illegal fishing activities.

“I’m extremely proud of Bull, as we affectionately call him,” Bannon said. “He worked very hard on several federal cases. Some of the activity was taking place at all hours of the night, so he adjusted his patrol efforts to determine if the law was being broken. He made some great cases, and he gets along great with the rest of our officers. They work together and work hard.”

Rabren charged one individual with seven federal charges and four state charges. The charges included possession of prohibited species, over the limit twice, obstruction of justice, two counts of (shark) finning, fishing with a gill net and possession of 20 game fish (red drum).

“He was targeting an illegal activity,” Bannon said. “It just happened to be the same person conducting the illegal activity more than once.”

Bannon said Alabama’s Marine Resources has the least number of enforcement officers on the Gulf, which makes maximizing the patrol time a priority.

“Because of our numbers, our (18) officers have to work extra hard,” he said. “We can’t throw a lot of people at a problem. They have to come up with creative solutions to address illegal activity.”

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship, who was recently presented the Lyles-Simpson Award by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission for lifetime achievements in marine fisheries, said he was elated to find out that Rabren would be the first Alabama officer to receive the award.

“I’m so proud to see one of our young officers recognized by the Gulf Council for their hard work,” said Blankenship, who started his ADCNR career as a Marine Resources Enforcement Officer in 1994. “We have so many good officers in the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. When one of them is recognized, it shines a great light on the people we have and the dedication they show doing their job every day. I’m really happy for Bull.”

As for the Lyles-Simpson Award, Blankenship said, “I was very honored to receive that award. When you look at the men and women who have received that award in the past, they are pillars of the fisheries management world. To be included in that list is quite an honor.”

Down the street at the Renaissance Riverview Hotel, SEAFWA’s annual conference resulted in another honor – the 2018 SEAFWA Diversity and Inclusion Award – for the ADCNR’s Collegiate Mentoring Program, which assists minority students who want to work with fish and wildlife agencies. The program provides those students with hands-on experience in a variety of outdoor activities beneficial to the pursuit of a career in those fields.

“Students majoring in various natural sciences and conservation fields are being introduced to hunting, fishing, camping, canoeing, firearm safety and habitat management and participating in discussions on current issues facing conservation with practicing professionals,” said Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes, who is also the current SEAFWA President. “We recognize the challenges that many minority students face in trying to find mentors and opportunities to engage in such experiences, and we want to make it easier for those interested in the conservation profession to do so.”

Since its inception at Tuskegee University in 2016, more than 80 students have participated in the program. Participants in the ADCNR program are encouraged to engage with the SEAFWA Minorities in Natural Resources Committee (MINRC) as well.

SEAFWA, which represents 15 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, noted that ADCNR fostered legislation to reduce out-of-state license fees for college students as well as establishing special opportunity areas (SOAs) for hunting and the Adult Mentored Hunting Program for adults with little or no hunting experience.

“ADCNR, along with its nongovernmental organization partners, has been instrumental in providing educational equipment, training and opportunities to people who otherwise would not have much exposure to the outdoors,” MINRC Chair David Buggs said. “We commend their efforts and look forward to the growth of the program.”

ADCNR has plans to expand the Collegiate Mentoring Program to Auburn University, Troy University and Alabama A&M University.

SEAWFA also honored Vance Wood as the Alabama Enforcement Officer of the Year during the awards ceremony.

Meanwhile, back down the street at the Gulf Council meeting, the Council did not finalize Amendment 50, which would allow for state management of red snapper, for 2020 and beyond. The exempted fishing permit (EFP) will remain in effect for the 2019 season.

Alabama’s proposal to adjust each state’s allotment of the red snapper quota was rejected by Florida and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Bannon said a follow-up proposal, which would distribute the quota among the five Gulf states, was presented as an alternative and will be voted on at the January 28-31, 2019, Gulf Council meeting at Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach.

“This puts us on a very tight timeline to complete all the requirements to have a state-managed 2020 season,” Bannon said. “But if we get everything done in January, we should make it. If we don’t approve something, potentially, 2020 becomes a federally managed season again, and we don’t feel that is going to benefit our anglers.”

After receiving a great deal of public input concerning the cobia fishery, the Gulf Council also approved an increase in the size limit of the fish, also known as ling, to 36 inches fork length, measured from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail.

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

Dentons complete Alabama Scenic River Trail journey

(Will Denton)

Adventure apparently has no time constraints for cousins Will and John Denton, who decided to make the 650-mile journey along the Alabama Scenic River Trail recently after answering two questions.

“John was just finishing up hiking the Appalachian Trail, so he had the camping experience,” said 79-year-old Will. “But, he didn’t know if he could paddle that far. I’ve been kayaking for about 40 years, so I knew I could do the paddling. But I didn’t know if I could sleep on the ground.”

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Even though John was not an experienced paddler, he was considering a trip down the Mississippi River before Will found a better idea.

“I allowed I had given that some thought, and I might be interested in doing that with him,” said Will of the trip down the mighty Mississippi. “About the same time, I found out about the Alabama Scenic River Trail (ASRT), and I suggested we try that first.”

The two decided to combine their skills to start the paddle about 4 miles from the Alabama line in Georgia.

The fact that Will’s home on Lake Martin wouldn’t be that far away should something go awry also contributed to the decision.

Will had only paddled a few miles of the ASRT, Moccasin Gap just below Jordan Dam to Wetumpka, and had no idea what to expect on the rest of the trail.

“Except for Moccasin Gap, it was all new to both of us,” Will said.

Will loaded up his trusty kayak with supplies for the trip while John, 66, opted for a Verlen Kruger vessel, kayak-canoe hybrid. They paddled across the state line and headed down through the six lakes on the Coosa system.

“It took us five or six days to kind of hit a rhythm and find a pace that was comfortable,” Will said. “We could paddle about 3 miles an hour with no more exertion than if you were walking. We were comfortable paddling at about the same speed.”

The paddlers saw a variety of wildlife during the trip, although Will admitted that John was more inclined to notice because of his passion for hunting.

“John is a big turkey hunter,” Will said. “He spent more time looking for stuff along the bank. He would call my attention to some things. Sometimes we paddled side by side. Sometimes we were on opposite sides of the river. We were looking for eagles quite a bit.

“On our (Coosa) lakes part of the trip, we averaged seeing about an eagle a day. By the time we got to Wetumpka and Montgomery, we didn’t see any more from there south.”

Will said the biggest interest from friends and family he’s told about the trip, which began September 1, is the numbers of snakes the duo encountered.

“I saw one cottonmouth and John didn’t see any,” Will said. “He saw six alligators when we got to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. He pointed two of those out to me. He saw a bobcat. We heard a bunch of hogs at night. We saw deer, and we saw a lot of fish-eating water birds. Interestingly, we saw more of those in the upper end.”

Will, a former public health administrator, and John, a retired farmer from the Mississippi Delta, had only a couple of episodes of difficult paddling during the adventure.

“Really, we had one day on Logan Martin when we had an afternoon trying to get to School Bus Island,” Will said. “We paddled into a strong headwind for two or three hours to get to the island, which was a wonderful campsite. It was about our only option to camp on the lower end of the lake because it is all developed down there. Until we got to Mobile Bay, that was the hardest day of paddling.

“When I look back at the pictures I took on the way, the water was as slick and calm as it could be. The water conditions were wonderful.”

During the time on the Coosa section, rainstorms popped up all around them, but they encountered only a couple of light showers. It turned out to be the calm before the storm.

“We didn’t hardly get the tents wet until we got into the Alabama River,” Will said. “We were below Montgomery when we got caught in a storm. The people who had invited us to stay with them that night saw the storm coming and came out in a pontoon boat and towed us back to their house.”

The other significant storm the Dentons weathered was during a stay above Claiborne Lock and Dam at the Isaac Creek Campground lock. Fortunately, they had their tents up when the rain started about 4:30 that afternoon.

“It rained hard until about 10:30 that night,” Will said. “When we got up the next morning to go through the lock, that lock drop is usually about 30 feet. But the drop that morning was only 15 feet because the river was already up 15 feet below the dam. We had that extra push all the way until we ran into some tidal situations in the Delta. We made much better time than we normally would have.

“And I really didn’t have a problem sleeping on the ground. I guess part of it was we were pretty tired at the end of the day.”

The Dentons’ routine was to paddle all day and get camp set up in time to eat and be in the tents before the mosquitoes came out in force at dusk.

“We really didn’t have a major mosquito problem like John is used to in the Mississippi Delta,” Will said. “One time early in the trip, we couldn’t find a place to camp on the upper end of Lay Lake. We finally found a creek and went way back up the creek. We finally did find a place and got our camp set up. The mosquitoes weren’t bad at all.

“Afterwards, John told several folks, ‘We were so far back in woods, the mosquitoes hadn’t even found that place.’”

Will said the ASRT has identified a significant number of campsites on their website that paddlers can take advantage of, including those on the Bartram Canoe Trail in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

“One of the things that stands out to me is the Alabama Scenic River Trail Association has what they call river angels, like the Appalachian Trail,” he said. “Their names and phone numbers are listed on the website. When we started working on this trip, some of the ASRT people contacted some of the trail angels along the way.”

Denton said two couples on the Alabama River sent word that they wanted the paddlers to stay overnight with a hot shower, supper and bed at their disposal.

“These couples could not have been nicer,” Will said. “The visits were delightful. One lady in Fairhope moved one of our trucks for us, twice. The couple from Selma drove one of our trucks to Fairhope so it would be there when we got there. These are people with knowledge and interest in the trail. It really was one of the neatest things about the trip.”

After a rather leisurely paddle on most of the trip, the Dentons didn’t realize how they would be tested once they hit Mobile Bay.

“Probably the only uncomfortable moments we had were when we were paddling in the bay,” Will said. “Going from Fairhope to the Nelson Shipyard in Bon Secour, we had a dead headwind. I keep my phone on a lanyard around my neck. I got two or three texts that I couldn’t answer. If I had stopped paddling to check the texts, I would have been going backwards. I paddled for all I was worth for about three hours. I slept well that night.

“There were a lot of things that I will remember. The difficulty of the last two days was memorable. The only whitewater we had was at Moccasin Gap, but we had whitecaps on Mobile Bay.”

On the 34th day of the trip, the Dentons paddled from Oyster Bay to Fort Morgan to complete the adventure. Will said he is proud of the accomplishment, but he doesn’t want people to focus on his age.

“I really don’t think my age has any bearing on it,” he said. “It’s a function of what kind of condition you’re in. I’ve got friends older than I am that are in better shape than I am. Some folks tend to slow down when they get to some magic number and don’t stay as active. I just paddled 650 miles, so, yeah, I feel good about that. Being gone 34 days, if my wife (Charlotte) had not been supportive, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I’m glad I did it. I feel good I did it.

“I would tell anybody who thinks they want to do this trip that they can’t do it any younger than they are right now.”

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

Summit provides updates on RESTORE progress in Alabama

(Marine Resources, David Rainer)

Although the inaugural Governor’s Restoration Summit had held a firm spot on Governor Kay Ivey’s schedule for months, Hurricane Michael required a change of plans for Governor Ivey as the devastation left in its wake called for her immediate attention.

Fortunately, Governor Ivey was able to leave the important business of the Summit under the leadership of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship, a man very familiar with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that initiated the 8-year path to the Summit.

The Summit, held last week at the Spanish Fort Community Center, provided updates on the progress of restoration efforts related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as well as the opportunity for public input on proposals for work that will continue for the foreseeable future.

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“On the Alabama Coast we all know how it is to go through such a traumatic storm event.  Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of Florida, Southeast Alabama and Georgia and Governor Ivey as they deal with the aftermath of the massive storm,” Blankenship said as he opened the Summit.

“The most exciting thing to point out from the Summit is that 122 projects valued at more than $711 million of restoration efforts have occurred or are underway so far in Alabama,” Blankenship said. “We’ve done good work in all these restoration projects, but there is still more work to do. It’s important to have events like this to hear from the public about what’s important to them and what type of projects we need to do moving forward to continue to restore Alabama.

“The settlement from BP will continue to be paid out over 15 years, through 2032, so it’s a long process where we will be doing restoration work, and we want to continue to stay engaged with the public. We want to make sure we provide information about projects that are being done, how those projects are going and listen for what we can do better in the future.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that occurred in 2010 forever changed the way of life along the Gulf Coast from the economic impact to the curtailment of recreational opportunities and property access. In 2016, a settlement was reached with BP to fund restoration efforts and recover economic damages for Alabama and the rest of the Gulf states.

“Each of us has a special interest in preserving our state’s natural resources,” Blankenship said. “I love our coast and what it means to our way of life and quality of life here. This is my home and, for most of you, your home. As Commissioner, I commit to you that we will strive to ensure that our state remains Alabama the beautiful.”

Blankenship said the interest citizens have shown in the state’s natural resources continues to demonstrate that the state’s most valuable resource is the people of Alabama.

“It warms my heart to see so many people who care deeply for Alabama and its natural resources,” he said. “Gov. Ivey also cares very much about the restoration work underway and what still needs to be done.”

Blankenship shared the successes in Alabama from the $711 million allocated for 122 restoration projects to date.

“With these projects, we are improving water quality in Mobile Bay and protecting the Grand Bay Savanna,” he said. “We are protecting oyster habitats, turtle-nesting habitats, bird-nesting habitats and other wildlife. We are restoring the marsh and shoreline at Lightning Point in Bayou La Batre.

“We are expanding public fishing opportunities by restoring the fishing pier at Fort Morgan. We also have the beautiful new Lodge at Gulf State Park that will open on November 2. We are promoting growth in south Alabama’s economy with important infrastructure projects.”

Other types of restoration projects include oyster management, artificial reef construction and research, ecosystem research and improving the stranding response network for marine mammals.

“In case you’ve never heard me say this before, Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the country,” Blankenship said. “Through this funding, we have been able to build more artificial reefs and do research around those reefs that will continue to provide habitat and production for decades.

“And everybody loves oysters. A lot of work has been done and will be done to restore oysters.”

Regarding community resilience, Blankenship said the goal is for a community to use available resources to respond to, withstand and recover from adverse situations like natural disasters and environmental catastrophes.

“Coastal Alabama is all too familiar with being prepared when disaster strikes,” Blankenship said. “As we saw with the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle and southeast Alabama, coastal resilience is vitally important.  It is not a matter of if but when our coast will be impacted by a tropical storm or hurricane.”

For economic development and enhancement, the projects include an Africatown Museum and Welcome Center as well as various road and highway improvements, Port of Mobile enhancements and water system improvements in coastal Alabama.

With RESTORE funding, Alabama has been able to acquire more than 4,000 acres of environmentally sensitive coastal habitat. So far more than $100 million has been designated for land acquisition and conservation.

“ADCNR, in close coordination with the Forever Wild Land Trust program, as well as state and federal partners, has invested and will continue to invest in land conservation and other restoration efforts across coastal Alabama,” Blankenship said.

The Commissioner said watershed management plans are a foundational piece of the restoration strategy with the goal of improving water quality.

“Clearly, we are making progress, but we’re not stopping there,” Blankenship said. “We need to do more. I’m grateful to our federal partners and local partners on each of these projects.”

The Governor’s Office and ADCNR recently produced the 2018 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Restoration Progress Report that highlights the progress through the middle of 2018. Go to this link to review the complete report online.

The Restoration Progress Report is grouped by restoration project types:

–Replenishing and protecting living coastal and marine resources
–Supporting and enhancing community resilience
–Providing and enhancing economic development and infrastructure
–Restoring, conserving and enhancing habitat
–Providing and enhancing recreation and public access
–Restoring water quality
–Providing planning support
–Conducting science, research and monitoring

“The Governor’s Restoration Summit is the first opportunity we have had to put together a document that has all the projects showcased in one place, regardless of funding source,” Blankenship said. “When all the projects are grouped by restoration type it shows that, overall, restoration projects for Alabama cover all restoration types pretty fairly and that when aggregated it is over 120 projects and $711 million, which is pretty impressive.

“The important part is these projects come from you (the public). These projects started with a suggestion from somebody – a group, an organization, a municipality, a county or state agency. That is the primary reason for this summit – to hear from you on projects from ‘Bucket 2’ of the federal RESTORE Act. Restoration is definitely a team effort. The Governor’s Restoration Summit further proves the power of working together.”

Over the next 15 years about $1.4 billion is allocated to Alabama for restoration projects related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NRDA, NFWF and the Alabama RESTORE Council. About $1.6 billion will be allocated by the federal RESTORE Council gulf-wide from Bucket 2. That money is not distributed or divided to each state by any formula. All five Gulf states and six federal agencies will work to put together a plan that meets project needs in each state. Ben Scaggs, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, participated in the Summit and shared with the attendees plans and timelines for developing Funded Priorities Lists by the federal RESTORE Council over the next two years as well as over the next couple of decades.

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.