The Wire

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

6 days ago

Alabama snapper anglers stay within 2019 quota

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 weeks ago

CWD seminars keep public updated on disease

(B. Pope/Alabama Outdoors)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 weeks ago

Fishing at Gulf State Park Pier on fire

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giannini is glad to hear about the renovation project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 weeks ago

Alabama spearfishers cash in on lionfish money

(Craig Newton/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 month ago

Wheelchair-bound Stone bags gator at Eufaula

(Alabama Outdoors/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 month ago

Tackling litter with new law, coastal cleanup, Litter Gitter

(ADCNR, David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

New technology changes anglers’ perspectives on fish activity

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Calhoun youth dove hunt draws largest crowd yet

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The youth dove hunt program has provided a continued opportunity for youngsters to enter the ranks of hunters. This hunt highlights only one of the 28 youth dove hunts hosted by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries across the state. If you’re interested in attending one of them, visit https://publichunts.dcnr.alabama.gov/Public/AvailableHunts/6 for a list of youth dove hunts still available. But don’t hesitate because very few hunts remain.
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

2 months ago

Complacency often leads to treestand, firearms accidents

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Bait privilege license opens opportunities for deer hunters

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed, YHN)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Alabama wildlife art hard licenses now on sale

(ADCNR/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Andrews’ AJ breaks 38-year-old Alabama record

(Alabama Outdoors/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Buckmasters longest-running hunting show on TV

(Buckmasters/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Alabama sets first sandhill crane season in century

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

NOAA’s Gallaudet gets tour of Alabama coastal culture

(David Rainer/Contributed)

One of the top officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently received a grand tour of the Alabama Gulf Coast during one of the busiest weekends of the summer.

Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, who holds a doctorate in oceanography and currently serves as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and as Deputy NOAA Administrator, was the guest of Dauphin Island Sea Lab Executive Director John Valentine.

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Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), joined Admiral Gallaudet’s visit, which included stops at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR), the world’s largest saltwater fishing tournament, as well as the Weeks Bay Reserve, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and an oyster aquaculture operation.

“We appreciated the opportunity to get Admiral Gallaudet down to the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo and showcase what great fisheries we have in Alabama and further offshore,” Blankenship said. “He’s the man who supervises the Assistant Administrator of NOAA Fisheries. He was able to see many big red snapper, tuna, king mackerel and inshore species like red drum and spotted sea trout and to talk with Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon. We were able to talk to him about our artificial reef program, state management of red snapper and the need for more timely stock assessments that come through the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Science Center. Having him at the rodeo and seeing how much fishing means to the economy and culture in Alabama helped to show him the importance of quality management and why we need them to do their part on the stock assessments.”

The 86th annual ADSFR definitely made a big impression on Gallaudet.

“I was very impressed with the Jaycees,” he said. “They were opening up the whole rodeo to science. That’s really important from a conservation standpoint. Then there is the contribution to the local economy. But it was their ethic of service that impressed me. They were just a bunch of great guys.”

Gallaudet was also able to enjoy working hands-on with the Gulf sea life.

“I held a barracuda and a huge black drum. There were speckled trout and the red snapper. They were all beautiful to me,” he said. “It was really, really interesting and fun.”

Commissioner Blankenship said the department had two main goals for the NOAA administrator’s visit.

“One of the main reasons Dr. Valentine wanted Admiral Gallaudet to see the rodeo during his visit was to see all the research that was being done at the rodeo by the Sea Lab and Dr. Sean Powers and the University of South Alabama’s Fisheries Ecology Lab,” Blankenship said. “We have the opportunity to get data on a lot of species and different sizes of those species at the rodeo. The event is a real treasure trove of data collection and scientific opportunities. I think the admiral was really impressed with Dr. Powers’ team and the students. Another area Admiral Gallaudet is responsible for is the national estuarine reserves, including Weeks Bay Reserve and Grand Bay Reserve. State Lands Director Patti McCurdy and her staff took him out in a boat on Weeks Bay to show him some of the work that’s being done to protect those areas as well as the research being done on those critical habitats. He asked a lot of good questions about the work and value of the reserve system and especially what was happening in and around Weeks Bay. It was very informative. I learned a lot too. Our staff is great!”

Blankenship also discussed how the funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement are being used to enhance marine habitat all over the Alabama coast.

“It was great for him to come for a visit so that we could talk about specifics for the needs for our area from NOAA and the Department of Commerce to help to continue to grow the $15 billion outdoor recreational and commercial fishing interests in Alabama,” Blankenship said. “We also got to talk about the burgeoning oyster aquaculture in Alabama and why we need NOAA’s support as we try to grow that industry. He was extremely interested in oyster aquaculture. One of the tenets of the ‘Blue Economy’ is aquaculture. I think he saw the possibilities and room for expansion of oyster aquaculture here on the Gulf Coast.”

Admiral Gallaudet ended his visit to Alabama with a public meeting at the DCNR Five Rivers Delta Resource Center where he talked about a myriad of issues relevant to the work taking place at NOAA.

“I want to give a shout out to Senator (Richard) Shelby (R-Alabama) for his leadership in the Appropriations Committee,” Gallaudet said. “He has taken great, great care of my organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is a partner and fan, and we are grateful for his service. I would also like to thank Dr. Valentine for his leadership in the Mobile Bay area and really nationally. He gets all around, advocating for science and conservation. He is a great partner and key ally.”

A retired rear admiral who spent 32 years in the U.S. Navy, mainly in oceanography, Gallaudet also directed the Navy SEALs during the insurgency in Iraq and served as deck watch officer on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk.

“I am having more fun in this position as deputy administrator at NOAA and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere than in the service, which I loved,” he said. “I love the Navy. But what we do is so interesting and fantastic – weather, information about fisheries and ecosystems, charts and data and information services that affect every American life every day. We also affect one-third of the U.S. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) directly.”

Gallaudet mentioned the recent celebrations around the nation of the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon and how that era of the 20th century became known as the Space Age.

He believes the world is moving into a new era in the 21st century that is a lot closer to home.

“I will wager that if you look at all the activity in the maritime domain, our oceans and coasts for our states and territories, the activity is increasing so much – 400 percent over the last two decades – that I think this first half of the 21st century will heretofore be regarded as the Ocean Age,” Gallaudet said. “In this Ocean Age, our main effort is growing the ‘Blue Economy.’ This is the area I own for NOAA.”

The ‘Blue Economy’ is the contribution from the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes to the nation’s economic health. That effort has been divided into five categories – seafood production, tourism and recreation, ocean exploration, marine transportation and coastal resilience.

“Two of these really relate to me as far as this weekend – tourism and recreation and seafood production,” Gallaudet said. “Tourism and recreation is really about protecting our natural resources and places so that people can use them sustainably. But the main element of this is recreational fishing. I definitely got an eyeful of that this weekend at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. That was really, really a joy. We do a great deal to support the recreational fishery in the Gulf and nationally. It’s big business.”

Gallaudet said commercial sales alone in recreational fishing account for $208 billion annually, generating about $62 billion in personal income. Other indirect impacts are valued at $97 billion.

Gallaudet said recreational anglers caught more than 1 billion fish last year with 65 percent of those released back into the wild.

Seafood production presents unique challenges, according to Gallaudet, because of the amount of foreign seafood the nation imports.

“We actually import 90 percent of the seafood we consume,” he said. “Half of that has been growing in a foreign fish farm. Those foreign fish farms practice some pretty sketchy protocols, which make that seafood not the most healthy or most ethical. But that is a lot of the shrimp you see in stores.”

Gallaudet said NOAA is focusing on turning that trend around in seafood production in three ways.

“First, for wild-caught, commercial fisheries, is maximizing yields in a sustainable way,” he said. “We have restored more than 45 fish stocks since 2000. This is something for the best managed fishery in the world.”

Gallaudet said NOAA is also working to streamline regulations that will make it easier for commercial fishermen to increase yields.

“We’re also trying to promote aquaculture,” he said. “This is an incredible opportunity. We have no aquaculture going on in our federal waters. Most of it is happening in state waters. I saw Andy Duke’s great (Mobile Oyster Company) farm. We basically want to clone what Andy is doing. We want a lot more of that going on, not only in state waters but federal waters. We have several successful companies who are doing their aquaculture overseas because permitting in federal waters is a mess. As many as four national agencies are involved. We are seeking to put (NOAA) as the central, one-stop-shop for aquaculture permitting. We have some of the best science in the world, so we can do this sustainably. And there’s also the export-import imbalance. We’re $16 billion in the red annually. With aquaculture, we can turn that around.”

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

Snapper Check data supports season extension

(David Rainer/Contributed)

With less than ideal weather conditions so far this summer and the ability to closely monitor the harvest data through Snapper Check, the Alabama Marine Resources Division recently announced a five-day extension of the red snapper season that runs from August 1-5.

Stormy weekends and Hurricane Barry made it more difficult for offshore anglers to head out this year compared to the 2018 season, when anglers couldn’t have asked for better weather.

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“Last year was an anomaly of a year in terms of weather,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Marine Resources Division (MRD). “I even had charter boat captains remark that they had fished every single day in June last year, and they’d never done that before. The weather was phenomenal, and people caught a lot of fish, which is good. But the result of that was we had to close the season earlier than projected because more people got to go catch more fish. I think people were excited that the state was able to manage the season. They were excited about a 47-day season. There’s no doubt there was disappointment when we closed early last year (after 27 days), but that is actually one of the benefits of the program. That is, we have the ability to monitor the catch and ensure we don’t go over. If you go over the annual quota, you’re penalized the next year.”

The traditional June 1 date for the opening of snapper season this year was similar to 2018, but weather conditions deteriorated after that.

“Opening weekend was beautiful, and (fishing) effort was very high, which was good,” Bannon said. “The effort was even a little higher than it was for some of the days last year. Since then, the weather has been more typical. We had a couple of weekends where it blew pretty good, and effort was down. When Hurricane Barry came along, the effort was basically negligible. People choose not to fish when the weather is bad and having Snapper Check in place allows us the ability to quantify how much the weather affects efforts and landings. We want people to understand that they don’t need to put themselves in an unsafe situation just to go catch fish. We have the ability to monitor the amount of fish being caught, and just as days can be removed from the season during ideal conditions, they can be given back when conditions are not favorable for fishing.”

After the 4th of July weekend, MRD staff determined that a significant portion of Alabama’s total allowable catch for red snapper remained.

Alabama was allocated 1,079,573 pounds for the 2019 season, which is operating under an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) that NOAA Fisheries granted for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

“When the catch data for the season through the Independence Day weekend was analyzed, we realized we had enough quota remaining that we could go beyond the six days remaining in July,” Bannon said.

Red snapper anglers, at the same time last year, had harvested about 360,000 more pounds of fish.

“We calculated how much harvest could occur during the remainder of the season, based on the average daily catch and weather conditions through the current fishing season,” Bannon said. “We decided we could easily add the first five days of August, which would be a Thursday through Monday. Kids wouldn’t be back in school yet, and the amberjack season would be open. It would be a combination of weekends and weekdays. We had heard from the public they would like more weekdays.”

Bannon believes the attitude of Alabama’s snapper anglers has changed since the state has been able to manage the fishery.

“I think we are past the point of what I call panic fishing – people just fished because they felt they had to because they weren’t going to get many opportunities,” he said. “Now, anglers’ attitudes are more relaxed toward snapper season, knowing they are going to be provided an opportunity to fish a specific quota and days can be added to the season due to bad weather, if necessary.”

One feature that has played a huge role in the transition to state management is Snapper Check, a mandatory reporting system that is required of all anglers who catch red snapper. Red snapper must be reported before the fish leave the water, either on the way in from the trip or at the dock before the fish are off-loaded. The good news is, it appears more anglers are participating in the system.

“The reporting rate is the highest it has been,” Bannon said. “We appreciate that, and we hope the anglers appreciate that, because it allows us to make better decisions when calculating the season length and the number of days to add to a season. Real data makes a difference. People participating in the dock-side survey helps as well. That’s where we get the average size of the fish. Average fish weight is an important part of the equation to determine the number of days in the season, which is based on effort and the average size of the fish because the quota is determined by pounds. Having Snapper Check means we’re getting information in near real-time.”

Bannon said MRD officials saw that with two-thirds of the season over, only a little more than half of the snapper quota had been caught.

“We want to fish very close to our quota, but we do not want to go over,” he said.

For 2020 and beyond, the Gulf States will transition from the EFP to a state-managed red snapper fishery with Alabama receiving an allocation of 26.298 percent of the total quota, which is an increase from 25.3 percent in 2019. It is anticipated that Alabama will receive an allocation of about 1.2 million pounds for the 2020 season.

“The in-season adjustments to both this season and last year’s season show why we worked so hard in Congress and at the Gulf Council to get state management of the red snapper fishery,” said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “The nimbleness of the state to quickly adjust seasons to protect the resource and also to provide maximum access to citizens is good for both the fish and the fishermen.”

Bannon said the new management plan also gives the state the ability to set the seasons, bag limits within certain parameters, and size limit. MRD can also implement area closures.

“For next year, we probably won’t make any significant changes to the size or bag limits,” Bannon said. “I want to be pretty conservative with changes. I want to provide some consistency, which makes anglers more comfortable and allows us to more easily compare trends in the data.”

Bannon said the 2018 and 2019 snapper seasons are proof that Alabama can manage its own red snapper season to the benefit of all involved.

“We’ve shown that we can and will work toward that allocation to the best of our ability,” he said. “That includes not going over the allocation, because that is not a benefit to the anglers. In years prior to the EFP, harvests were consistently over the quota, which slowed the recovery of the stock. We want to be close to the allocation but not over. We want to fish as many days as possible. I think that when conditions are favorable and fishing effort is very heavy or if the weather kicks up and people don’t go fishing, we have a system in place that can provide timely and realistic estimates of impacts on the harvest rates. Under the federal system, we could have never done that. During the short federal seasons of the past, people felt like they had to go, and people shouldn’t feel they have to do that. That can be dangerous and takes the fun out of fishing.”

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

Free range days set for WFF facilities in August

(Billy Pope/Contributed)

Public shooting ranges, already one of the best bargains around, are about to be even better as The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, in partnership with the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), offers free access to five several days during the month of August.

“On Free Range Days, people don’t have to have a hunting license or Wildlife Heritage license to use the range,” said Marisa Futral, WFF’s Hunter Education Coordinator. “It’s an incentive for people to come see these facilities and start using them on a regular basis.”

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As part of National Shooting Sports Month, Free Range Days will be held on three Saturdays in August: on August 3 at the Cahaba River WMA Shooting Range, August 10 at Barbour WMA Shooting Range and Etowah Public Shooting Range, and August 17 at Upper Delta WMA Shooting Range and Swan Creek WMA Shooting Range.

Futral said certified firearms instructors will be on-site during the Free Range Days events, which run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those instructors will monitor the safety of everyone at the range to ensure everyone follows the proper firearm-handling protocols.

“We’ll have instructors to help them sight-in their hunting firearms, or if they just need some help with a firearm they aren’t familiar with or got as a gift,” she said.

In addition to the help of certified firearms instructors, those who don’t have access to a firearm can borrow one from Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

“We have several firearms available for loan under the supervision of the firearms instructors,” Futral said. “We will have rifles and shotguns for them to try out.”

If you choose to borrow a firearm from WFF, ammunition will be provided. If you bring your own firearm, Futral said you should also bring your own ammunition.

“Normally, people have to bring their own targets,” Futral said. “On the Free Range Days, we will provide targets. If somebody is bringing their 30-06 rifle, we won’t have 30-06 ammunition. If they want to use one of our rifles or shotguns, we will have ammunition available for those. Also, we will have a special promotion on the Free Range Days. If you bring a new shooter to the range, you will get a free gift from the NSSF as long as supplies last.”

During the Free Range Days, a range safety officer will call whether the range is hot or cold. If the range is hot, everyone must remain seated at or behind the shooting benches. When the range officer calls for the range to go cold, all firearms are to be unloaded with actions open for inspection. All visitors should remain behind the benches until the range officer gives the okay to replace targets down range.

WFF will have eye and ear protection available, but I always bring my own for extra protection to preserve the bit of hearing I have left.

The Cahaba River WMA Shooting Range opens the Free Range Days events on August 3. Cahaba provides shooting opportunities at distances of 25, 50 and 100 yards. A shotgun range for shooting at clay targets is located east of the rifle range and is on the left side of the gravel road as you drive into the rifle range.

Located at 3956 Coalmont Rd., Helena, Ala., approximately 10 minutes southwest of Helena, the Cahaba range is open five days a week and closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

On August 10, the Barbour WMA and Etowah Public ranges will be open free to the public.

The Barbour WMA Shooting Range provides shooting opportunities at distances up to 100 yards. A small concrete pad to shoot shotguns at clay targets is located to the south of the 25-yard pistol range. The 25- and 100-yard ranges are separated by an earthen berm to allow shooters to travel downrange independently on each range.

The Barbour range is located approximately 5 miles south of Comer, Ala., at 370 County Road 49. The range is located about 1 mile north of the Barbour County Public Fishing Lake.

The Etowah Public Shooting Range, which is operated in cooperation with the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office, provides shooting opportunities at distances up to 200 yards. The four ranges are 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards and located side by side with a dividing berm to allow shooters to go downrange independently of each other. A small concrete pad for shotguns shooting at clay targets is located to the south of the 25-yard pistol range.

The range is located approximately 5 miles north of Gadsden at 8302 Owl’s Hollow Road in Etowah County.

On August 17, the Free Range Days promotion will be held at the Upper Delta WMA Shooting Range and the Swan Creek WMA Shooting Range.

The Upper Delta WMA Shooting Range has a unique configuration that uses a large, 20-foot steel tube to ensure that projectiles from firearms hit the large earthen berm at the 100-yard range. The muzzle of the firearm must be inside the steel tube before the firearm is discharged. A small concrete pad to shoot shotguns at clay targets is located to the south of the rifle range.

The Upper Delta range is located approximately 9 miles north of Stockton, Ala., off of St. Luke’s Church Road.

The Swan Creek WMA Shooting Range provides shooting opportunities at distances up to 100 yards. Ranges of 25, 50 and 100 yards are located side by side with a dividing berm to allow shooters to go downrange independently of each other. An area to shoot shotguns at clay targets is located to the north of the 100-yard rifle range. The range is operated by the WFF in cooperation with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

All Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) ranges are wheelchair-accessible and have concrete walkways for downrange access to the target lines.

License and permit requirements will remain in effect for all other ADCNR public shooting ranges.

“The mission of our ranges is to provide a safe, friendly, inexpensive place to have a great time shooting your firearms,” Futral said. “For the cost of a hunting license, fishing license or Wildlife Heritage license, we have 12 ranges where you can practice your marksmanship skills before hunting season or just have fun shooting targets. We also want to remind people that the money used to build these ranges comes from the sale of licenses. The license money is then matched three-to-one with funds from the sale of firearms and ammunition through the Pittman-Robertson Act.”

Except on the days and ranges included in Free Range Days, Alabama residents ages 16-64 must have a valid hunting, Wildlife Heritage, fishing or WMA license to use the ranges.

For non-residents, a valid WMA license is required for all range users age 16 or older.

Certain rules apply to all ADCNR ranges:

    • Guests under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult while on the property.
    • Alcoholic beverages are prohibited.
    • Any legal firearm and ammunition, except armor-piercing or tracer, may be used on a target range.
    • Keep all firearms unloaded and muzzles pointed in a safe direction when not firing. Actions on uncased guns shall be open when not on the firing line.
    • All persons are to remain behind the shooter while firing is taking place. No firing shall be allowed while anyone is downrange.
    • All firearms shall only be fired from designated stations on the concrete shooting line into the embankment at stationary paper targets, self-healing or metal automatic-reset targets. Targets must be placed so shots will impact the bottom 5 feet of the embankment.
    • Only one person may shoot from each designated location at any given time.
    • Shotguns with no. 4 shot or smaller may be fired at moving clay targets on designated clay areas only.
    • All used targets, brass, shotgun hulls and other trash shall be placed in a garbage can or removed from the range.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/activities/shooting-ranges for more information on ADCNR’s public shooting ranges including directions.

For more information about Free Range Days, contact Futral at 334-242-3620 or email Marisa.Futral@dcnr.alabama.gov.

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

State parks foundation seeks to boost Alabama opportunities

(Alabama State Parks/Contributed)

During his career, Dan Hendricks has seen first-hand the impact charitable foundations can have on a wide range of organizations.

Retiring to picturesque Florence, Ala., after a long academic career with a final stop at the University of North Alabama, Hendricks channeled his love of the outdoors and nature toward one of our state’s greatest treasures – the Alabama State Parks System.

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With an extensive background in foundation work, Hendricks led a coalition of like-minded individuals to form the Alabama State Parks Foundation, which was officially launched at Oak Mountain State Park this past spring.

“I noticed when I was planning for retirement that Alabama didn’t have a state parks foundation, and they had a beautiful state parks system,” Hendricks said. “My wife (Barb) and I love to be outside hiking. We love gardens and learning about nature. As I was planning retirement, I thought of how I was going to be of use to the community, because I was going to have a lot more time. I also noticed that there were very few states where the parks didn’t have a foundation.”

Shortly after his retirement became official, Hendricks traveled to nearby Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, Ala., and visited with Chad Davis, Northwest District and Wheeler park superintendent. That eventually led to meetings with State Parks North Region Supervisor Tim Haney and State Parks Director Greg Lein.

“I told Chad that state parks might need a foundation, and I shared my background in running foundations,” Hendricks said. “He showed interest, so I ended up meeting with Tim Haney and Greg Lein.”

Hendricks said in 2017 a design team was formed to determine the objectives of the foundation and work out requirements to reach those goals.

“One thing we wanted was a geographically disbursed state board so that all parts of the state would be represented,” Hendricks said. “We tried to identify strategic goals. One goal was to be able to mobilize park people and create a kind of park movement in the state. It was not necessarily that they would learn anything new, but they would realize something they already knew – that the state parks were a wonderful treasure for the state, and that other states had foundations that were important private-public partners with the state parks systems.”

Hendricks studied the Iowa State Parks Foundation and how it dealt with the continuing need for strong funding that makes parks sustainable, along with private-public partnerships that complement state funding.

“That is particularly important for Alabama, because the state parks system doesn’t receive much support from state revenue,” Hendricks said. “It is mostly a fee-based system, so parks are run almost like independent businesses. They rely on good business practices and fees for revenue.”

Hendricks said the Iowa Foundation developed a model to divide the state into regional cluster groups with one or more parks that highlight that particular region.

For example, among Alabama’s 21 state parks, Joe Wheeler, DeSoto and Monte Sano would represent north Alabama; Lurleen Wallace, the west; Rickwood Caverns and Oak Mountain, the Birmingham area; Cheaha, Guntersville and Cathedral Caverns, the east; and Lakepoint and Gulf State Park, the south.

“What we’re going to do is try to create working groups for each of these zones, focused on one or more of the parks in that zone,” Hendricks said. “Then we are going to invite municipalities, individuals, businesses and corporations that have the most interest in that particular park. Then we want to identify ways we can drastically improve the infrastructure of the parks to do two things – increase the number of people the parks are serving and create sustaining sources of revenue. One of the things that the research done by the Iowa foundation revealed is that cabin and primitive camping and recreational vehicle (RV) camping are services that can increase the number of people and, at the same time, generate additional income.”

Hendricks said Iowa is trying to mobilize businesses, individuals and municipalities to build cabins and amenities for their parks.

“To do that, they are emphasizing how important the parks are for quality of life, elevate the value of communities, provide recreational services for all Alabamians in our case, and they attract individuals,” he said. “If you have a great park in America, people are attracted to those recreational amenities.”

Lein, who has been State Parks Director since 2012, said the work of the Foundation will contribute to the ongoing success of the state’s treasured parks, which continue a current winning streak. Alabama State Parks earned a record 18 Certificate of Excellence Awards from TripAdvisor.com in 2019, and the Eagle Cottages at Gulf State Park were deemed one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.

“Dr. Hendricks has done a great job of researching the different foundation models that exist across the country and marrying that to how Alabama’s park system operates,” Lein said. “We are especially optimistic about the vision that he and other Board members share in pursuing financial support from other foundations and corporate entities who share our desire to make the parks better for the people. While we have made great strides in addressing the park’s maintenance backlog, we hope that financial support through the Foundation can lead to creating new programs, features and amenities within the parks. These are such positive times for the park system, and we are excited about having the Foundation as a new park partner.”

The Alabama State Parks Foundation officially launched at Oak Mountain State Park for a specific reason.

“The launch was to invite people to become part of a great parks movement in Alabama,” Hendricks said. “Like I said, it was not necessarily to redo their experience, but to simply say let’s join together to not only to preserve this wonderful natural treasure, but let’s see if we can actually expand it and make it better. From the kickoff, we’ve been able to identify people who have become First Friends and founding members of the Foundation. I think we have between 350 and 370 individuals who said they would like to do that. I was encouraged by that. Almost half of that number also have made gifts.”

The Alabama State Parks Foundation board meets four times a year with the next meeting scheduled for July to develop a corporate partners program to recruit charitable investors to help improve and expand the infrastructure so state parks can serve more people.

Hendricks, who was the Vice President for University Enhancement at the University of North Alabama before he retired, has extensive foundation experience. He was vice president at the LSU Foundation, VP and executive officer at Western Illinois University, director and chief operations officer for The Campaign for the University of Kentucky, and director of planned giving for Hanover College.

He has also been active in the Audubon Society in Kentucky and Indiana as well as serving as president of the Baton Rouge Audubon Society.

Hendricks said the geographical diversity he’s experienced during his career has given him a perspective on how the various state parks he’s visited are operated and cherished by the communities.

“Running three foundations also has helped,” he said. “I understand how they work and hopefully ways to make them successful. But it’s always difficult to start something new. Something in the charitable world is even more difficult. A lot of people have to be convinced something is valuable enough. So, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to start that park movement and inviting people to be a part of it. Historically, the formation of the parks in Alabama is fascinating. A lot of the parks were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Depression. In my speech when we kicked off the Foundation, I said we are also creating this Foundation as a tribute to the young men who built it in the 1930s and who left this as a legacy for us and the six or seven generations who have used those parks since they were built. We want to continue to leave a legacy for our children and their children.”

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

Seatrout, flounder limits change August 1

(David Rainer/Contributed)

Alabama’s saltwater anglers will soon be required to abide by changes to the bag and/or length limits on several popular fish species.

On August 1, the length and bag limits will change for speckled trout (spotted seatrout) and southern flounder, while the length limit will increase for cobia, also known as ling or lemonfish.

Jason Downey, Alabama Marine Resources’ Enforcement Chief, said the speckled trout regulations will move to a slot limit, which means anglers will be allowed to keep trout that measure between 15 and 22 inches total length with an allowance for one fish over 22 inches total length. The bag limit will be reduced to six speckled trout per person per day.

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Alabama’s inshore anglers should be familiar with the slot limit. Red drum (redfish) have been regulated for several years by a slot limit of 16 to 26 inches total length. An allowance for one fish larger than 26 inches (bull red) is included.

The southern flounder size limit will be increased to 14 inches total length, and the bag limit will be reduced to five per person for recreational anglers.

The limits for commercial anglers will be 14 inches total length with a daily limit of 40 per person or 40 per vessel.

The entire month of November will be closed to flounder fishing, both recreational and commercial. November is when flounder migrate to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn.

Marine Resources (MRD) conducted five public meetings along the Alabama Gulf Coast to discuss proposed trout and flounder changes, provide information from the stock assessments for those two fish and gain feedback from the public on the potential changes. MRD also accepted email comments from the public as well as by phone.

“In general, the public was supportive of making changes to both trout and flounder because people had noticed changes in their ability to catch these species,” said Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon. “They also realized the amount of people who are targeting these fish and how dramatically that has increased over the past few years.”

Eastern Shore resident Rob Constantine recently shared how he often watches boat after boat heading to the inshore artificial reefs to target trout, redfish and flounder.

“I used to be able to count on catching five or six speckled trout every time I went out,” he said. “I can’t do that anymore. Some days I don’t catch any trout. I’d like to be able to take my grandchildren out and catch a few trout. The future is our grandchildren, and we have to have something for them to catch or they lose interest.”

During the recent fishing event for The Fallen Outdoors, Capt. Bobby Abruscato said he welcomes the changes to the trout limit.

“The people who fish with me understand that I prefer to release as many fish as possible,” Abruscato said. “Most of my customers just want enough fish for supper, and others don’t want any fish at all. They just love catching them.”

Abruscato is one of the veteran guides who started fishing the Alabama Gulf Coast when the inshore fishing pressure was limited to a dozen or so regular guides. Those numbers have increased dramatically.

Bannon said MRD sold 269 guide licenses for boats with six passengers or less in 2018. Most of those guides are fishing inshore.

“We saw a huge increase from the early 1990s through the early 2010s,” Bannon said. “We went from 50,000 inshore fishing trips annually in the early ’90s to more than 500,000 in 2011. That’s 10 times the number of anglers targeting trout.”

Bannon said the increase in the number of inshore trips has not abated since that survey was completed.

“I tell people that a good economy translates to an increase in fishing pressure,” he said. “We’ve seen that in the last couple of years. We realize some of that comes with effort shift with the short seasons for some of the federally regulated offshore species that are highly sought after. People still want to fish, so they target these inshore species. In south Alabama, fishing is just a way of life. That’s what people want to do with their recreational time. So, they’re going to target species that are available to them, whether it’s inshore or offshore fish.”

Kevin Anson, Marine Resources’ Chief Marine Biologist, noted during those earlier public meetings that stock assessments conducted independently through the University of South Alabama indicated that both speckled trout and flounder populations are in decline. The harvest in the past five to seven years shows the trout breeding stock are not at a sustainable level. Although not as critical as flounder, speckled trout could reach that stage if changes (in harvest) are not made.

Anson said an increase in the trout minimum length to 15 inches would allow more than 227,000 trout to be returned to the water annually. The slot limit will increase the survival of the large, female trout, which account for the bulk of egg production during spawning activity.

Other Gulf states have seen reduced flounder landings and have either made regulation changes or are considering them.

MRD estimated the harvest of about 350,000 flounder in 2002. That harvest has dwindled to about 150,000 in 2017.

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, a 12-inch minimum size for flounder would not be able to reach the target SPR and achieve a sustainable population. The larger a female flounder grows, the greater the number of eggs she releases during the spawn.

According to MRD data, an increase in the minimum size to 14 inches would allow 38 percent more flounder to remain in the water.

After hearing concerns from anglers, MRD approved an increase in the cobia size limit to 36 inches fork length, consistent with federal regulations. The bag limit remains at two per person for recreational anglers.

When anglers get ready to renew their fishing licenses at the end of August, a new endorsement will be required for those who target popular reef fish.

“The Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement will be available when people renew their licenses for next year,” Downey said. “When they renew their licenses, they need to get the Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement if they plan to fish for snapper, triggerfish, tile fish, amberjack and a list of other reef fish.”

The Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement will be $10 per angler for private recreational anglers. Charter boat fees range from $150-$250, and commercial vessels are assessed at $200 per vessel.

The reef fish covered in the endorsement are defined in state law 220-3-.46. Visit www.alabamaadministrativecode.state.al.us/docs/con_/220-3.pdf for a complete list of reef fish included.

In other changes, the minimum size limit for shortfin mako shark has been increased to 71 inches fork length for males and 83 inches fork length for females, which is also consistent with federal regulations.

Also, new hook regulations will go into effect for reef fish and sharks. When fishing for sharks and all Gulf reef fish, anglers must use non-stainless circle hooks. Additionally, hooks used for sharks must be non-offset, which means the tip of the hook must be in line with the shank.

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

GSP’s Eagle Cottages gain National Geographic recognition

(Gulf State Park/Contributed)

Already a beacon of sustainability, education and eco-tourism, Alabama’s Gulf State Park is again at the forefront of providing visitors with much more than the traditional “toes in the sand” experience.

In fact, the ultimate compliment has been bestowed on Gulf State Park’s Eagle Cottages by National Geographic with a Unique Lodges of the World designation, the only such recognition for any facility east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S.

The Unique Lodges program is a highly selective process. Only 56 properties worldwide are included in the program. Only six other properties are in the United States, two in Alaska and four in the West.

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Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said he always knew Alabama was special, but he’s glad that National Geographic will now draw the world’s attention to the biological and cultural diversity throughout our great state.

“I think this is very fitting that we are recognized by National Geographic,” Blankenship said. “This is a significant milestone for Alabama. This opens us up to about 730 million people through the National Geographic magazine or their digital network around the world. A good portion of those 730 million people don’t know that Alabama has such beauty and biodiversity. This will not only be good for the Gulf State Park and the Alabama Gulf Coast, but people also will learn that we have the largest artificial reef program in the world. They will learn how special the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta are. They will also learn that Alabama is No. 1 in aquatic biodiversity.”

Commissioner Blankenship further highlighted the great range of special places in Alabama, from the river shoals that feature the Cahaba lily in Bibb County, to the Red Hills salamander habitat in Monroe County, to the beauty of the Paint Rock River Valley in north Alabama.

“Working with National Geographic has been great. They did not realize what a wonderful place the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is until they came for some site visits,” he said. “Then they looked at other opportunities in the area that included the Grand Bay Savanna and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. It was an eye-opening experience for them. We think it will be that way for so many people around the world once National Geographic starts to promote the Eagle Cottages. I can’t express how big this is for Alabama as a whole.”

Chandra Wright, Director of Environmental and Educational Initiatives at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, said the Eagle Cottages program is one aspect of the overall Gulf State Park (GSP) Project. The vision statement of Gulf State Park reads: “Gulf State Park will be an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability, demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education and hospitable accommodations.”

“A typical National Geographic traveler is looking for property committed to taking care of the environment, taking care of the resources, taking care of the local communities and making sure we preserve those assets for the future,” Wright said. “It also includes immersing the traveler in the local culture. We’re targeting a slightly different traveler than we normally target in coastal Alabama.”

With the Unique Lodges designation, Gulf State Park will have access to National Geographic resources, including training to elevate the visitor experience.

“Our staff who undergo that training will be able to promote themselves as a National Geographic guide,” Wright said. “We’ll be working with National Geographic to bring additional programs to the park. It’s exciting to see what’s going to happen over the next few years.”

“The 11 cottages fit in the concept of a National Geographic Unique Lodge, which is focused on an international traveler who wants to really engage in the local community,” Wright said. “That includes local history, local nature, cultural heritage and really getting to know the community.”

Almost a year ago, a ‘freshening’ of the facilities started that included painting, adding new furniture and replacing artwork that better reflected the local environment and heritage.

“We established a theme that the communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach grew up around, which was a fishing community,” Wright said. “So, we thought about the old fish camps that were up on stilts. That’s how the original structures were based. We had to figure out how to translate that concept to Eagle Cottages. We rebranded and made more of an authentic Alabama fish camp experience but also worked in some additional sustainability features. All the light fixtures were replaced with LED bulbs. Appliances are being replaced with more energy efficient models. We’re embracing some of the things we’re doing at The Lodge, but also we’re testing some concepts at the cottages that may translate later to the 350-room Lodge.”

One aspect that makes the Eagle Cottages so special is the goal of providing a personalized guest experience, Wright said.

“We’re putting packages together where we can get to know our guests on an individual basis,” she said. “When we find out what their interests are, we can steer them to some personalized experiences. One of the things we talk about is the amount of biodiversity on the Alabama Gulf Coast. We have relationships with outfitters in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, at Dauphin Island, down at Fort Morgan as well as Gulf Shores-Orange Beach. This allows us to get people out to have a more intimate experience through kayaking, fishing or going on Delta tours. If they want to know about our local artists and artisans, we can set them up with a tour of the Coastal Arts Center in Orange Beach and give them the opportunity to take a glass-blowing class or a clay-throwing class, so they get to know some of the local people and engage in a hands-on experience.”

Because of this enriched visitor experience, the GSP Project team reached out to Costas Christ, a National Geographic (NatGeo) travel editor who advises NatGeo on sustainable tourism.

A friend of famed biologist, naturalist, author and native Alabamian E.O. Wilson, Christ was somewhat familiar with Alabama but had no idea of the vastness of the natural wonders that make Alabama special.

“Costas didn’t really appreciate our wealth of biodiversity until we got him to come down in December of 2017,” Wright said. “He spent three days in coastal Alabama, and we tried to give him a crash course in everything we have to offer. We took him around Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan. We took him to Bird and Robinson islands. We took him to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge to showcase our biodiversity, our Native American history, our Civil War history, and we convinced him that we were worthy of National Geographic coming into the park. He has been helping us on how to transition these cottages into something that would be worthy of National Geographic selection. Christ has visited coastal Alabama every four months since December 2017, and he explores a different section of coastal Alabama on each visit. We took him to see the Delta by boat. We took him to Mobile to see a portion of the African American Heritage Trail. He had no idea we had that amount of African American heritage in our area. That got National Geographic interested in finding the Clotilda (considered the last American slave ship), which was recently discovered. He was blown away by our natural biodiversity and our cultural heritage that people around the South, around the United States and around the world have no idea about. This gives us an opportunity to educate people worldwide on what we have to offer.”

One way Eagle Cottages’ management and Wright have reached out to visitors is through an afternoon manager’s reception at the Eagle Cottages office, called the Eagle’s Nest. Coastal Alabama-specific snacks, sweet tea and lemonade provided by the park’s Woodside Restaurant are served as Cottages manager Mark Larkin and Wright interact with the guests about what coastal Alabama has to offer.

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

Captains treat Fallen Outdoors to Alabama’s great inshore fishing

(David Rainer/Contributed)

After a ride through the significant chop caused an unusual June north wind, Capt. Bobby Abruscato pulled back on the throttle and idled to one of his favorite fishing spots in Grand Bay, west of Dauphin Island.

Aboard were a couple of special guests, Derrick Warfield and Kyle McCleland, who were quickly hooking fish during the inaugural The Fallen Outdoors (TFO) inshore fishing trip that treated a group of active military and veterans to the beautiful outdoors paradise we call the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Warfield, who resides at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery with his active-duty wife, retired after 10 years of active duty.

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Since then, Warfield has taken up the cause that is TFO, which is a support group for active, retired, separated and medically retired military with a focus on the outdoors.

Before this week, TFO, a 501(c)3 charitable organization, hosted veterans and active military on mostly hunting excursions with only a little fishing mixed in.

“Most of our trips are done from Montgomery north,” Warfield said of the TFO’s Team Alabama. “We do a lot of hunting trips. Two weeks ago, we actually did a hog-hunting trip on a farm just south of Montgomery. We went out with three guys running dogs, and we got into about a 200-pound sow. The dogs caught the hog and we dispatched it.”

Needing to schedule events for the summer, Warfield reached out to several inshore fishing guides on the Alabama coast and quickly hooked up with Capt. Richard Rutland with Cold-Blooded Fishing.

“Richard said if there was anything he could do, he’d love to help,” Warfield said. “He said we could go out on his boat and make something happen. Then he said, ‘We need to make this big, something awesome.’”

Two weeks later, Warfield got a call from Rutland, who said, “I’ve got seven boats lined up. How many people can you get?”

Warfield posted the potential trip on The Fallen Outdoors Facebook page that reaches 14,000-15,000 veterans. Initially, Warfield got 25 takers, which whittled down to the 14 who enjoyed a day of fishing on the beautiful Alabama coast.

Rutland, a former president of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, got commitments from seven other captains. He also got a donation from the Mobile Jaycees, where he currently serves as chairman of the board. Additional boat captains included Abruscato with A-Team Adventures, Patric Garmeson with Ugly Fishing Charters, Wesley Hallman with Bay Sound Charters, Terry Turner, Ben Raines, Joe Geil and Theo Atkinson with Spots, Dots and Scales.

“We just appreciate these captains being able to get these guys who are dealing with physical and mental issues out on the water,” Warfield said. “This gives them a chance to get out, get away from the real world and relax, whether it be hunting, fishing, camping or whatever we can do outdoors. This wouldn’t have been possible without Richard. Richard really pushed it. He wanted to make it really big, and he wants to make it an annual event.”

The Jaycees’ donation for the trip also provided lunch after a morning on the water. The guides took care of the equipment, and bait dealer Maurice Ryan donated the live shrimp.

The anglers hauled in a wide variety of Alabama’s inshore species, including the edible species of speckled trout, redfish, white trout, flounder and pompano. Mixed in for anglers’ enjoyment were the acrobatic ladyfish, croakers and the ubiquitous hardhead catfish.

“We’ve never had an event this big,” Warfield said. “Before, the biggest trip was with five or six guys. This was a huge, huge trip for us, and it wouldn’t be possible without all these captains. What I tell the captains is if you can help out, great. If you can’t, we understand because you have to make a living.”

Warfield said a good many TFO members want to take part in the outings, but time constraints limit the participation.

“Weekends are really, really busy for them, but today was a perfect day,” he said. “It was a Monday, and we had plenty of people who wanted to come.”

Warfield said the organization tries to get the message out about The Fallen Outdoors through outdoors trade shows and social media. Rutland lined up several media outlets to cover the Dauphin Island event, including the Mobile Press-Register and Mobile TV stations WALA and WKRG.

“This was the most media we’ve had for a TFO event,” Warfield said. “Hopefully this will get us out there more and let veterans know there are free or low-cost hunting and fishing trips available.”

TFO was started in the 2009 in Washington state and has grown to a membership of about 34,000 veterans. Warfield said between 13,000 and 14,000 veterans are signed up in the southern region. Visit thefallenoutdoors.com for more information.

“It’s just another way to reach out to veterans,” Warfield said. “Our focus is strictly on the outdoors, whether it’s hunting, fishing, hiking or just hanging out near the water. We just want to make the connections. All of us have our demons. Nobody understands what a vet is going through better than another vet. People look at you and think you’re normal, but inside you’re torn apart. It could be physical injuries. It could be PTSD. And making the transition from military to civilian is totally different. A lot of things in the military don’t translate to civilian life. This trip was amazing. We had veterans come from Florida and Louisiana as well as Alabama. These vets get to meet more people they can lean on. They can definitely make new friendships on trips like these.”

Because of the proliferation of veterans organizations in the past decade, Rutland admitted he was cautious when originally contacted by Warfield.

“I always like to do my homework before I put something on like this,” Rutland said. “After talking to Derrick several times, I looked at my books and realized I had June 10 open. He said he could probably get 15 to 20 vets to come, and I started calling my guide friends to see who might be available. It really came together nicely. This is my busy time of the year, and it kind of got here real quick, but everything came together as well as I could have expected.”

Although June is a busy month for charter captains, Rutland said he’s sticking with an early June date for next year’s event because it’s the best time for the veterans.

“Basically, the whole deal with Derrick reaching out to me is this is kind of a dead period for outdoors activities for the veterans,” Rutland said. “They have a lot of hunting in the fall and winter and a little fishing in the spring. By the time it gets into early summer, he has a slack period until the end of the summer. They really needed to experience the Alabama Gulf Coast. I’m planning to make it an annual event.”

Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier dropped by the ADSFR site to share a lunch of fried fish with the veterans.

“First of all, anytime we can do something positive for our veterans, it’s a good thing,” Mayor Collier said. “When they can incorporate Dauphin Island into it, it’s even better. Who wouldn’t enjoy going out on a nice day and catching fish.”

The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) provided support for the event, and MRD Director Scott Bannon also joined the group for lunch.

Warfield said the inshore fishing trip definitely exceeded expectations.

“We would have been happy if it had been two people, but it turned out to be a lot more,” he said. “We’re not going to argue with Richard about making it an annual event, because we would love to come back. I can’t say thank you enough to all the captains.”

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

WFF adds coastal zone to alligator season

(D. Rainer/Alabama Outdoors)

Two significant changes are in store for those fortunate enough to be selected for a tag in the random drawing for the 2019 Alabama alligator season.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has created a new Coastal Zone and shifted the mandatory alligator hunting training workshop to online only.

“We went from mandatory in-person training to mandatory online training,” said Chris Nix, WFF’s Alligator Program Coordinator. “We did this to try to cut out an obstacle for people to participate. It was always a problem with several people each year, whether it was weddings or vacations or other obligations. It was especially hard on people coming from Birmingham or Huntsville to make the trip all the way to the coast for one class. And, we had just one class per zone each year, so hopefully this will be better. I think people that took the in-person training got a lot of really good information and it was effective.”

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Registration for the alligator hunts is currently open at www.outdooralabama.com/alligators/alligator-hunt-registration. All entries must be received by 8:00 a.m. on July 10 to be considered for the random drawing in the five zones.

After the registration period ends, applicants can go to that same online page to check their status. If selected as a hunter or an alternative, a link to the mandatory online training video will be available.

“Those people who are drawn have seven days to complete the online training,” Nix said. “Once the online training is completed, then they can accept their status. The training is in five segments with questions to answer at the end of each segment. It will probably take most people less than 30 minutes to complete the online training.”

Nix said when the first alligator season was sanctioned in 2006, it covered only the southernmost portion of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta from the Causeway (Battleship Parkway) to the CSX railroad to the north. In the years since, the boundaries for the Southwest Zone have been expanded to include all of Mobile and Baldwin counties and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84.

Nix urged tag holders for several years to try the prime alligator hunting available south of I-10 in Baldwin and Mobile counties, but few gators have been taken in those areas.

The creation of the Coastal Zone with 50 tags for all territory below I-10 in the two coastal counties will target that underutilized population.

“That’s where we get 95 percent of our nuisance alligator complaints,” Nix said. “That’s where everybody lives, but there are also a lot of alligators down there. We would much rather hunters take those alligators out instead of us. Historically, we have averaged less than 5% of the harvest from the area south of the interstate.”

The 50 tags for the Coastal Zone will reduce the number of tags for the rest of the Southwest Zone to 100. Nix said 96 gators were harvested in the whole Southwest Zone last season.

“The Coastal Zone will include the private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties that lie south of I-10,” Nix said. “Any body of water in the two coastal counties will likely have alligators. There are some really good alligators down there, and they’re not hunted at all.”

The Coastal Zone will have the same rules as the Southwest Zone and will utilize the same check station at the WFF’s office on the Causeway at 30571 Five Rivers Blvd., Spanish Fort, AL 36527.

Dates for the Southwest Zone and the Coastal Zone are sunset on August 8 until sunrise on August 11 and sunset on August 15 until sunrise on August 18.

The Southeast Zone, which includes private and public waters in Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Russell counties (excluding public Alabama state waters in Walter F. George Reservoir/Lake Eufaula and its navigable tributaries) will have 40 tags with season dates from sunset on August 10 until sunrise on September 2.

The West Central Zone, where Mandy Stokes’ world record gator (15 feet, 9 inches, 1,011.5 pounds) was caught in 2014, will have 50 tags. The West Central boundaries are private and public waters in Monroe (north of U.S. Highway 84), Wilcox and Dallas counties. The season dates will be the same as the Southwest and Coastal zones of sunset on August 8 until sunrise on August 11 and sunset on August 15 until sunrise on August 18. The check station for the West Central Zone is at Roland Cooper State Park near Camden.

Public state waters in the Walter F. George Reservoir/Lake Eufaula and its navigable tributaries, south of Alabama Highway 208 at Omaha Bridge (excludes Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge) are included in the Lake Eufaula Zone, which will have 20 tags and season dates of sunset August 16 until sunrise September 30. An 8-foot minimum length requirement is in effect for alligators harvested in the Lake Eufaula Zone, which is the only zone that allows hunting during daytime and nighttime hours.

Several stories have surfaced recently about alligator sightings in north Alabama, but Nix said those animals are anomalies.

“A lot of the alligators we’re hearing about in Blount and Cullman counties, that’s not the natural range of the American alligator,” he said. “Those were likely put there by somebody. If you draw a line across the state around Montgomery, from a reproductive standpoint, that point south would be the alligator’s natural range in Alabama. You’ll have a few exceptions, like the few alligators that always show up at Lake Tuscaloosa.”

Nix said across the five hunting zones and the alligator’s natural range in the state the population is seen as stable to increasing.

“We did reduce the number of tags at Lake Eufaula several years ago and added a size limit of 8 feet, as did the state of Georgia,” he said. “We wanted to protect that female portion of the population and ensure the hunting efforts had no significant impact on their population as a whole. All other areas are stable to increasing. The Southwest Zone still has the densest population. That’s 100% due to the available habitat. It’s by far the best alligator habitat we have.”

Last year, a total of 144 alligators were harvested statewide. John Herthum of Montgomery bagged the heaviest gator in the state last year with a 700-pound gator that measured 11 feet, 10 inches in the Southeast Zone.

The Southwest Zone checked in 96 alligators. The heaviest was 603 pounds and caught by Josh Forbes of Mobile County. The longest gator was a 12-foot, 9-incher taken by Donald White of Stockton. It weighed 588 pounds. Donald Hogue of Alabaster caught the largest alligator in the West Central Zone at 12-3, 538 pounds.

Nix said the average size of the gators harvested has been relatively stable because of personal selection. People almost always want to take the largest gator they can find.

However, a new rule that was implemented last year may affect that average size. The no-cull rule means hunters cannot catch and then release an alligator to try to find a larger one.

“No more culling is allowed,” Nix said. “If you get the alligator next to the boat, it must be dispatched immediately. Once it’s captured, it’s your alligator.”

For those lucky enough to get drawn and complete the online training course, Nix recommends scouting the designated hunting areas before the season starts.

“I would recommend scouting suitable habitat during the daytime hours rather than scouting at night, looking for animals,” he said. “That is especially important if you’re unfamiliar with the body of water. Get to know the navigable waterways and huntable areas. The Delta is always changing and can get tricky, especially at night. If you can, find a hunting partner that is familiar with the waterways where you’re hunting. That goes a long way.”

And be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws your way during those season dates.

“It’s happening, rain or shine,” Nix said. “We do not change the dates.”

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

Hooking redeye bass highlights scenic trip down the Tallapoosa

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

The cast was about 2 inches too long, and the topwater fly plopped down gently on a chunk of flat rock underneath the blooming mountain laurels on the Tallapoosa River north of Lake Martin.

One slight twitch of the fly rod tip and the Ol’ Mr. Wiggly fly slid into the current. The fly didn’t have time to float downstream. It was immediately inhaled by one of the Alabama-specific species, the redeye bass.

I lifted the fly rod to set the hook, and the fish went airborne.

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Guides Drew Morgan and Craig Godwin immediately pumped up the volume when they saw the fish.

“That’s a big one,” they both shouted. “Try to keep him out of the current. Keep the rod at about a 45-degree angle.”

After several runs near the three-man inflatable raft, Morgan finally stabbed the net in front of the fish to end its freedom – only momentarily, of course.

The tape measure hit 12 inches, and I was immediately eligible to be entered into the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division angler recognition program as a master angler. It also happened to be the first redeye bass of my long fishing career.

Horseshoe Bend was our origination point, and the river had settled down from recent rains to levels that would make the trip a breeze with no portage involved.

It didn’t take long for these aggressive, beautifully colored bass to make it a float trip that will never be forgotten. Although trips with Morgan, or any of his guides at East Alabama Fly Fishing, often result in hooking a variety of species of fish, including Alabama bass, striped bass, hybrid stripers, carp and numerous sunfish like bluegills and redbreasts, this outing produced a redeye bonanza.

Morgan, a history teacher at Auburn Junior High School, got into the guide business after gaining the necessary tool.

“I fished this river a lot with canoes and kayaks,” Morgan said. “I really enjoyed catching bass on a fly rod, but that’s hard to do out of a kayak or canoe. A guy I knew had this drift boat. He told me, ‘Take this out and start fishing with it.’”

The owner knew Morgan would fall in love with the diversity and comfort the drift boat afforded, and it wasn’t long before ownership of the vessel changed hands.

“I had to have the boat,” Morgan said. “I took the bait – hook, line and sinker. At the same time, I was thinking about starting a guide service. This stretch of river is big enough for guiding. I’m not moving people off their honey holes. It’s beautiful. The fish are predictable, and you can pattern them. I just needed the boat. Once I got the boat that was stable and was comfortable for clients, we opened the guide service.”

The drift boat gives Morgan and his passengers access to the whole river at decent water levels. It can float in 2 inches of water and slides over the slick rocks that crisscross the river in numerous places.

“We can go where other boats can’t,” he said. “And it’s stable so you can make casts to the best spots.”

Five years later, the business has grown to include three other guides – Godwin, John Agricola and Justin Wilson. Agricola and Wilson guide on the nearby Coosa River.

“Justin is really knowledgeable on spotted (Alabama bass), hybrid and striper fishing on a fly,” Morgan said. “And he has a power boat, so he can run all over the lakes. He fishes the tailwaters a lot on the Coosa. John has a flats boat, and his specialty is catching carp on a fly in the backwaters of the Coosa. That’s a really cool experience. You’re sight-fishing for carp. You try to drop that fly right in front of them. It’s kind of like fly fishing for tailing redfish or bonefish.”

Morgan limits his guide time to three days a week when school is out to spend time with his young family. During the school year, he’s limited to Saturdays.

“It was kind of a way to make a little extra income during the summer,” he said. “But I limit it to three trips a week. I want to continue to enjoy coming out here. Craig and I have been fishing together for a while, and he can guide during the week because he owns his own photography business.”

Our trip covered the middle section of the Tallapoosa from Horseshoe Bend National Military Park to Jaybird Creek boat launch at the north end of Lake Martin.

“That stretch is 6 miles and it’s mostly shoals the whole way,” Morgan said. “I find fish in this river like being in the shoals. The area we floated was Irwin Shoals. It’s very scenic. Even if it’s a tough bite, you get to float down the river and get to see things you normally don’t get to see.”

Morgan said the stretches of the smaller rivers are often overlooked by most recreational users.

“You don’t really feel like you’re in Alabama sometimes, but it is Alabama,” he said. “The lakes are really popular, for good reason. But people don’t realize there are beautiful rivers and streams you can float-fish too.”

Morgan mentioned scenic rivers in the Upper Piedmont area of Alabama that run from Fort Payne to the coastal plain, including Little River, Cahaba, upper Tallapoosa and upper Coosa.

“East and northeast Alabama have a lot of great places to fish, especially the redeye bass,” he said. “Redeye bass are endemic to Alabama, which means they don’t live anywhere else. These fish like current in cool Piedmont streams with a lot of flow. They like clean water. This river is so clean, and it has so much oxygen in the water that these fish live in the shoals on this big river. Redeye bass are our own version of trout fishing, but I think it’s cooler than that because the redeyes are native. They are colorful, very aggressive and eager to eat. I think this is something really special for Alabama to have in our waters.”

What fisheries biologists have recently discovered is that each river system may have variations in the black bass population that make them distinct to the rivers they inhabit.

“Presently the redeye bass of the Tallapoosa River are now called Tallapoosa Bass (Micropterus tallapoosae),” said Nick Nichols, Fisheries Chief with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “We are conducting a research project in conjunction with researchers from Auburn University to better determine the status and genetic characteristics of these riverine black bass species in Alabama.”

When Morgan is targeting the Alabama (spotted) bass, he looks for water where the current slows from the upper reaches of the Tallapoosa.

“They can put a big bend on a five-weight rod,” he said. “A 2-pound spot that has lived in this moving water is a good fish on a fly rod. If you mix in bluegills and redbreasted sunfish, they’re a whole lot of fun to catch. It’s a fun day of fishing, especially during the summer when we’re catching everything on top. I don’t guarantee fish, but the fish in the summer are pretty eager to eat. What I do like about river fishing is I think it’s easier to find fish. You’re looking for ambush points and hiding places.”

Morgan and his guides will accommodate anglers of all skill levels.

“I have clients that are all over the board,” he said. “I think more people are getting into fly fishing. I hear this story all the time, ‘Yeah, granddaddy fly-fished all the time, but we started fishing the lakes and didn’t fly-fish as much. Now I want to get back into it again.’ Then we have clients from all over the South who want to come catch a redeye. The word is getting out about this species. Fly anglers, especially, like to notch different species on their belt. And, I’ve got people who see this boat and want to fish in it to let the guide do the work so they can concentrate on fishing. You can’t do that in a kayak or canoe. There’s something for everybody in the Tallapoosa.”

Morgan also has other motivation to put a fishing rod of some kind in people’s hands.

“Mainly, I want to get people into the sport,” he said. “If they want to come with me, that’s fine. But I just want people to get on the water, buy a fishing license to support the state and appreciate what we have.”

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

Bait privilege license provides options for hog, deer hunting

(Jay Gunn/WFF)

A buddy of mine recently returned from vacation to discover what many landowners have been dealing with for the past couple of decades.

“Hogs tore up my place while we were gone,” the message read.

Now my friend has another tool that he can use to help minimize the impact of the scourge known as feral hogs.

The Alabama legislature recently passed legislation that allows hunters on privately owned or leased land to purchase a bait privilege license that makes it legal to hunt feral pigs (year-round during daylight hours only) and white-tailed deer (during the deer-hunting season only) with the aid of bait.

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The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) is issuing the new license ($15 for resident individual hunters and $51 for non-residents) through any outlet that sells hunting licenses and online at https://www.outdooralabama.com.

Hunters who want to thin the destructive hog herd right now can purchase the license, but be aware that license will expire on Aug. 31. If you wish to hunt hogs or deer with the aid of bait during the 2019-2020 hunting seasons, you will need to purchase a new bait privilege license when it becomes available in late August.

The bait privilege license applies to everybody who hunts those species with the aid of bait with no exceptions. That means hunters 65 years old and older and hunters under 16 must have a valid bait license when hunting with the aid of bait. That also includes people hunting on their own property and lifetime license holders.

Plus, each hunter must have his/her own bait privilege license to hunt with the aid of bait.

Also understand that baiting any wildlife – including white-tailed deer and feral pigs – on public lands remains illegal.

Sen. Jack Williams (R-Wilmer) who has been dealing with the destructive feral hogs for years, sponsored the Senate bill. This was the fourth year Williams had submitted similar legislation.

“The biggest thing in my area is the hogs are tearing your property up,” said Williams, who farms and operates a plant nursery in Mobile County. “I’m overrun with them in my area. I killed one Easter morning off my porch, in my back yard. They were rooting my driveway up. We’re doing everything we can to kill them. We have more opportunities to kill them during deer season than any other time.”

Williams drew a parallel with how some natural wildlife forage can also congregate animals in tight spaces.

“In my viewpoint, there is not any difference between a group of deer eating the corn spread out or in a trough and white-oak acorns with all the deer up under that tree,” he said. “We’ve fed for years, and I think most people who are trying to grow any deer have too. We haven’t had any problems with it at all.”

Included in the law is a provision that ADCNR can suspend the use of the bait privilege license on a county, regional or statewide basis to prevent the spread of diseases, like chronic wasting disease (CWD), among wildlife.

Williams said he’s received significant feedback on his Facebook page about the bill, and the majority of responses have been positive.

“The polling we had before it was passed was about 84% in favor,” he said. “And it’s a choice. If you don’t want to bait, you don’t have to. If you own property, you can put in your lease that hunters can’t use bait. This is not being forced on you. It’s up to you if you do it or not.”

Williams thinks the use of bait illegally has been a common occurrence in Alabama in the past.

“People have been feeding anyway,” he said. “This is just making a lot of people legal. That’s the way I see it. I don’t see it helping the people who grow corn. I know every feed store around here that sells it, and they can’t get it in fast enough during hunting season. It’s not going to make the price of corn go up. That will be market price.”

Williams also mentioned, for those who choose not to hunt with the aid of bait, the Area Definition Regulation remains in effect. The Area Definition Regulation allows for supplemental feeding as long as the feed is more than 100 yards away and out of the line of sight of the hunter because of natural vegetation or naturally occurring terrain features.

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said this was not a Department-sponsored bill, but the Department did work with Senator Williams to include the provisions that help prevent the spread of disease.

“We wanted it to be clear in the bill that the Conservation Commissioner had the authority to suspend the baiting privilege if CWD or some other disease was detected,” Blankenship said. “It also says the Commissioner can suspend the feeding of wild game in areas where CWD or other disease might be present. This gives us some abilities to ensure that we can protect the deer herd in the case of a disease outbreak in our state.”

Blankenship said there has been much discussion regarding the bill.

“People like that this bill makes it clear that if they want to hunt with aid of bait, they can, like they do in Georgia and other states,” he said. “I’ve also got some calls from people who are unhappy, who don’t think it’s a way that you should hunt.”

Blankenship reiterated what Senator Williams said about choice to participate or not.

“This is not a requirement that people hunt over bait,” he said. “It’s a tool that people can use if that is what they prefer. Somebody who is totally opposed to that type of hunting can hunt the way they always have. This is just an option.”

Like Williams and my friend, Blankenship expects significant participation from people who are dealing with feral pigs.

“This may help us throughout the whole year to better help control the population of feral hogs,” the commissioner said.

Blankenship said the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division will continue to closely monitor the white-tailed deer herd and any harvest rate trends that might be associated with the use of bait.

“The Department will make sure this is not a detriment to the wildlife and that we have a healthy deer population in our state,” he said. “This is just another factor we will examine as we look at the health of the deer population. With the three-buck limit and other seasons and bag limits, we think our deer population will be fine.”

Revenue from sale of the new bait privilege license will be eligible for federal matching funds to support conservation efforts in the state. That revenue is determined, in part, by the number of licenses sold. Exempt hunters who buy a bait privilege license but don’t buy a hunting license will be eligible to be counted for federal matching funds.

Blankenship said he does not have a projection about the amount of revenue the bait privilege licenses will produce.

“We really don’t know right now,” he said. “After the first season, we’ll have a lot better idea.”

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.