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.

7 days ago

Huntsville’s Jones surpasses turkey-hunting milestone

(Ray Jones/Contributed, YHN)

For someone who got a late start chasing turkeys, Ray Jones of Huntsville has spent the last 60 years catching up.

In fact, Jones, 86, reached and surpassed a milestone this season by bagging the 400th and 401st turkeys of his career.

The reason he got off to such a slow start was because he lived in far north Alabama where turkeys were scarce for most of his life.

“We really didn’t have any turkeys north of Birmingham when I was a young boy,” Jones said. “They had all been killed during the Depression. We hunted squirrels. We didn’t even have any deer.”

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During the middle of the 20th century, the Alabama Game and Fish Division (now Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries) started an extensive restocking effort of white-tailed deer and Eastern wild turkeys across the state. Jones recalled being contacted by Game and Fish in the late 1950s.

“They called and asked if we didn’t mind if they turned loose deer and turkey on our Jackson County place,” Jones said. “They said the only thing is you can’t hunt it for five years. I told them that would be all right. The only thing was the turkeys walked up into Tennessee, so we didn’t have any for a while. The deer did well, and the turkeys finally backfilled into Alabama.”

Jones, who graduated from Auburn with a degree in agriculture, didn’t go on his first turkey hunt until he was 26, and it wasn’t on his farm. It was in the storied Alabama Black Belt.

“I sold some cattle to a man in Boligee, Alabama,” he said. “Part of the deal was I was to come go turkey hunting with him in the spring. We stayed at his ranch, some bottomland called Shady Grove. It was teeming with wildlife, every kind of wildlife you could imagine. I didn’t know anything about turkey hunting. We set up and Andy (Allison) started yelping. The turkey was coming straight to us, but Andy didn’t know it. He moved and the turkey saw us. He was really grieved about that. We jumped in his truck and went to another place. We jumped a couple of jakes and I killed one.”

To say Jones was instantly hooked would be a monumental understatement. In the following 60 years, turkey hunting has been his passion. Earlier this spring, Jones’ 400th turkey was a Rio Grande taken near Haskell, Texas. Recently, he added number 401 with a nice gobbler from just across the line in Tennessee.

Since that first hunt, Jones has widely expanded his turkey horizons, hunting all over the United States, and he even ventured into Mexico. He has bagged five of the six species of wild turkey – Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande and Merriam’s in the U.S. and a Gould’s in Mexico, earning him the NWTF’s Royal Slam designation.

The only wild turkey he hasn’t bagged is the ocellated, and he doesn’t plan to hunt the bird, which is located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

“I did not go ocellated hunting,” he said. “The old boy we were supposed to go with told me he went. He said we had to shoot them out of a tree. I said I sure don’t want to do that, so I never did go. And they don’t gobble. There’s not much to turkey hunting if they don’t gobble.”

Before turkeys became abundant in north Alabama, Jones hunted a great deal in Marengo and Wilcox counties in the Black Belt.

“We really enjoyed our hunting in Marengo and Wilcox,” he said. “That’s where we learned how to hunt turkeys. We really didn’t have turkeys up here until a few years ago. But they had the turkeys down there. We really got into turkey hunting in Wilcox County.”

Late legendary turkey hunter and Game and Fish wildlife biologist Paul Maddox, who was heavily involved in the turkey trapping and restocking efforts in Alabama, was a good friend of the Jones family and joined them to hunt the Wilcox property.

“Paul was the best turkey hunter I’ve ever been around,” Jones said. “He taught us a lot. Mr. Claude Kelley (late Conservation Commissioner) hunted with us, too. What made the place in Wilcox special was the people as much as anything. As we said later on, you really can’t reproduce that. We really enjoyed our time there. We hunted there 17 years and killed a lot of turkeys, but the main thing was the people.”

In the last decade, Jones has focused on taking Eastern turkeys in north Alabama.

“Now we have turkeys,” he said. “We’ve got as many as anywhere else.”

Jones penned a book, Southern Turkey Hunting, a Family Affair, about his life in the turkey woods.

“In the book, there are some stories about some of the turkeys I killed,” he said. “It also has a section about the history of the Department of Conservation and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). It’s a real success story as far as conservation is concerned.”

After hunting turkeys for so long, Jones has no plans to slow down.

“It’s a real addiction,” he said. “No doubt about it. Somebody asked me if I’ve really killed 400 turkeys. I said around 400. They said, ‘What does that represent?’ It represents a lot of lost sleep. It’s just a way of life with us. Still today, we plant for them. We put in warm-season grasses and other things that will help the turkeys expand. We are now able to kill our limit in north Alabama. We weren’t able to do that 20 years ago.”

Jones bagged a turkey in Marshall County earlier this spring on his way to 400.

“He was off in a swamp,” Jones said. “I hunted him twice. The last time I hunted him, the hens flew over and landed right in front of me, about 10-12 steps. They walked off and I kept yelping. I knew he knew where they flew to. It wasn’t long until he flew over to the same spot. He was a nice turkey. He had 1⅜-inch spurs.”

It was only a couple of days later that Jones added to his total just across the line in Tennessee.

“I climbed up a mountain and he wasn’t there,” he said. “But I could hear just a whisper.”

Jones relocated and climbed another mountain to get into position.

“I climbed and climbed and climbed,” he said. “I was hearing him good. He was gobbling good. I stopped 150 yards from him. I found a tree, but I didn’t like it much and moved to another one. It was near an intersection of two roads. I said, he’s going to come down one those roads. I was cackling and yelping, and he would answer me. I knew he was on the ground, but he wouldn’t come. I yelped and carried on. He answered me pretty good. I said, well he knows where I am. I laid my box call down. I could tell he was coming. But he didn’t come down those roads. He came right between the two roads. He got his head behind a big tree, and I got my gun up. He came out from behind the tree and I shot him at 18 steps. He was a big turkey. He weighed 24 pounds with a 10¾-inch beard and 1⅛-inch spurs. That’s a nice turkey.”

Despite bagging his milestone turkey, one of Jones’ proudest accomplishments is calling up turkeys with his family.

“My son, Raymond, I called in his first turkey when he was 7,” said the elder Jones. “He made a good shot. That was in Marshall County. And I called in a turkey for his son, Raymond III, when he was 7. That was in Jackson County. I think I’ve killed a turkey with every one of my grandsons. I really enjoy that.”

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

2 weeks ago

New license allows hunting of feral swine, coyotes at night

(USFWS/Contributed)

With Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s signature this week, new legislation will provide hunters in Alabama with another opportunity to harvest two specific animals. The legislation allows Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship to establish a season for hunting feral hogs and coyotes at night without the need for a depredation permit.

When the season is finalized, Alabama residents will be able to purchase a $15 license ($51 for non-residents) to hunt feral hogs and coyotes at night.

Matt Weathers, Chief of Enforcement with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said the new permit will make it much easier on hunters and the WFF staff.

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“To this point in our state, those who wish to hunt feral swine or coyotes during nighttime hours have to get a permit that is only issued to landowners,” Weathers said. “Those landowners can list friends, family or delegates on the permit to take those animals at night for crop damage, property damage or livestock damage. This is done through special permitting through the local WFF District Office. The new law provides for a license that allows anyone in the state to hunt feral swine and coyotes at night by buying a license to hunt on any private or leased property where they have permission to hunt. So, if you lease a hunting club, if the person or corporation you lease that property from allows you to hunt at night, you can purchase the license to hunt those animals at night on your hunting club. And you can do that without the landowner coming to us to get a permit. It represents a new hunting activity for the state, and it will enlist as many as 200,000 hunters in this fight against two insidious predators. So, a new hunting activity; that’s a good thing. You have more feral swine and coyotes being removed from the state; that’s a good thing, too. It’s a win-win.”

Weathers said the depredation permits will continue to be available to landowners who prefer not to buy the new license.

“However, as long as the landowner gives permission, you can buy that new license to hunt at night,” he said. “This streamlines the process and provides the ability to hunt on very short notice.”

The damage wreaked by feral hogs on agriculture and wildlife habitat is substantial throughout the South. Estimates are that feral swine cause $50 million in private property damage in Alabama annually. The damage to wildlife habitat is difficult to quantify, but feral hogs compete with the native wildlife, like white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, for food and also damage the native habitat.

Coyotes are known to be quite effective predators of whitetail fawns and can have significant impacts on populations of white-tailed deer.

Weathers said the new license is specific to these two species.

“This license does not allow you to take any other game animal at night,” he said. “It’s a good way to control predators on your hunting club or property. And this gives you the opportunity to utilize that property or hunting club during the months when it’s a little too hot to hunt during the daytime. It gives you a little more value in your hunting lease. All parties involved, except for the feral swine and coyotes, are going to benefit from it.”

Weathers said several regulations will be amended to allow for equipment used for hunting at night.

“Those who buy the license will be able to use equipment that has heretofore been prohibited,” he said. “During the established season, you will be able to use night vision or thermal optics. You can have lights attached to your firearms. Those technologies are emerging and make the taking of these animals a lot more efficient.”

As with any new activity, Weathers said the Division wants to emphasize safety during the nighttime pursuit of these animals.

“We want everybody who hunts feral swine and coyotes at night to think about safety,” he said. “Know where your property lines are. Know where your fellow club members are when you are hunting. Always properly identify the target before you shoot. All the commonsense practices we follow during daylight hours will need to be adhered to during nighttime hours. We need everybody to be very mindful of their actions because it is a new hunting activity in this state. With any new activity, you’ve got to think safety.”

Weathers said other states have capitalized on the appeal of hunting these animals at night.

“In a lot of states, nighttime predator hunting is very popular,” he said. “It’s big business in some areas. In Alabama, it has only been done by special permit. By doing this, it relaxes those restrictions and lets that style of hunting grow in this state. That’s a good thing. Hunting has been in decline for decades across the nation, but some of these specialty styles of hunting, nighttime predator hunting specifically, has just exploded. People are really getting into it. As the prices have come down on equipment like suppressors, AR-15-style hunting rifles, night vision and thermal optics, these things are becoming more common and are becoming more accepted in hunting. This is just an example of us trying to adjust regulation and law to account for the evolving manner in which Alabamians hunt. The feral swine population and the coyote population are certainly increasing in Alabama. These are animals whose populations can stand more hunters out there pursuing them.”

Chuck Sykes, WFF Director, said the 2021 season for hunting feral swine and coyotes at night will likely start on July 1 and run until November 1. In 2022 and beyond, Sykes said the nighttime season will likely start on February 11 and run until November 1.

“The way the bill was drafted, it gives the Commissioner the ability to set the season so we can evaluate and make sure this goes well,” Sykes said. “We can amend the dates down the road if it makes it better. This time frame is when most of the depredation permits are issued.”

Sykes is not sure how the hunting public will respond to the new license, but he wouldn’t be surprised to see it become very popular, like the depredation permits.

“We see this as an opportunity to streamline the process and make it easier to manage for us and the landowner,” he said. “This also opens the possibilities for others. Say you lease 1,000 acres from a timber company. You had to get the timber company to apply for the depredation permit and then put you on it. Now, if you have the hunting lease and the timber company is okay with it, you don’t have to bother them. You just go online and get a license. If you have college kids who come home for the weekend. That’s one thing we ran into. Farmers had kids come home from Auburn and wanted to take their buddies hog hunting. They had to call our office and amend their permit. Now all they have to do is get online, get the license and say, ‘Y’all have at it.’”

Sykes has no expectations the new license will have a significant impact on the feral swine population.

“We don’t think this is the silver bullet,” he said. “We’re not saying going hunting at night is going to eliminate the hog problem, because it’s not. What we are doing is giving people more opportunity to remove more pigs and coyotes if they choose to do so. It is another tool to reduce the number of predators. Predator control is a big buzzword right now. We’re giving you the opportunity to do what you think is best to manage your property.”

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

3 weeks ago

Alabama red snapper season parameters different for 2021

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Alabama’s 2021 red snapper season for private recreational anglers will be different than in previous years. The season opens on May 28 with four-day weekends like last year’s season, but the closing date has not been set. The end of the season will be determined by catch data compiled through the Red Snapper Reporting System, better known as Snapper Check.

“What we’re doing different this year is we’re going to track the private recreational catch through Snapper Check, and when the quota is about to be met, we’ll project a closing date,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD). “There are so many factors that impact the fishing effort, and that makes it difficult to determine a closure date. We will provide a graph on our red snapper summary page at outdooralabama.com for anglers to see how the effort is progressing. Once we anticipate the quota will be met, we will announce a closure.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has not yet provided the exact 2021 Alabama private angler quota, but it is anticipated to be similar to the 2020 quota of 1,122,662 pounds.

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A drastic reduction in the red snapper quota for Alabama and Mississippi was avoided during last week’s meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) with a vote, spearheaded by the Alabama delegation, to delay “calibration” until 2023. NMFS had proposed that the catch data from the Marine Recreation Information Program (MRIP) survey and state reporting systems be “calibrated,” which would have essentially cut Alabama’s quota in half.

“The Gulf Council voted for a motion that was put forth from Alabama that we continue fishing at the rates similar to what we have for the last four years and to not implement calibration at this time,” Bannon said. “This recommendation is for the 2021 and 2022 seasons. NMFS does not have to go along with that. They can choose to take a different path. Historically, that hasn’t happened. Generally, they accept the recommendations from the Gulf Council.”

Before last week’s meeting, the Gulf Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) met to consider integrating the results of the Great Red Snapper Count, which indicated the red snapper abundance in the Gulf is three times higher than previous estimates, into the committee’s recommendations. The SSC voted to increase the red snapper overfishing limit by 10.1 million pounds to 25.6 million pounds. However, in a decision Bannon questioned, the SSC set the acceptable biological catch (ABC) at 15.4 million pounds, a slight increase from last season’s 15.1 million pounds. Limited by the ABC, the Gulf Council voted last week to set the annual catch limit at 15.4 million pounds.

“We went from 15.1 million pounds to 15.4 million pounds, and that’s for all sectors – private recreational, for-hire (charters) and commercial,” Bannon said. “That’s only 300,000 pounds for the entire Gulf of Mexico. That’s a negligible increase for the private anglers.”

Bannon said the two-year delay in calibration allows the SSC to revisit amended results of the Great Red Snapper Count, review some additional studies and incorporate the results of a comprehensive red snapper research track assessment that will be completed in 2023.

In Alabama, private recreational anglers are regulated under a state management system implemented by the Gulf Council. The system applies to anglers fishing from recreational vessels and state-licensed Alabama commercial party boats that do not hold federal for-hire fishing permits.

Alabama charter (for-hire) boats with federal reef fish permits continue to operate under federal guidelines, which set a 63-day season for 2021 beginning June 1, 2021, at 12:01 a.m. local time through August 3, 2021, at 12:01 a.m. local time.

For private recreational anglers, weekends are defined as 12:01 a.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Monday. The daily bag limit remains at two red snapper per person per day with a minimum size limit of 16 inches total length.

Anglers over the age of 16 must have a valid Alabama saltwater fishing license. Any Alabama resident 65 or older or a lifetime saltwater license holder must have a current saltwater angler registration. The saltwater angler registration is free and available at www.outdooralabama.com/saltwater-fishing/saltwater-angler-registration.

Also, all anglers 16 years of age and older who possess red snapper or other gulf reef fish are required to have an Alabama Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement, available at www.outdooralabama.com/saltwater-fishing/saltwater-reef-fish-endorsement.

Private boats landing red snapper in Alabama are required by law to complete one landing report per vessel trip of their harvested red snapper through Snapper Check before the fish are removed from the boat or the boat with the fish is removed from the water. Reporting of greater amberjack and gray triggerfish also became mandatory this year. Owners/operators of federally permitted charter vessels are also required to possess an Alabama Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement and submit an Alabama Snapper Check landing report prior to red snapper, gray triggerfish or greater amberjack being landed in Alabama.

The easiest way to comply with Snapper Check is with the Outdoor AL app, available from Apple and Android stores or online at www.outdooralabama.com. Paper reports and drop boxes are no longer available. MRD will provide semi-weekly Snapper Check updates at www.outdooralabama.com.

Bannon said compliance with the Snapper Check regulation is crucial to the future management of the fishery on a state level.

“We defended our actions before the Gulf Council based on Snapper Check landings as a much more accurate accounting system,” Bannon said. “I know people may think with calibration that if they report their catches through Snapper Check it’s going to count against them. But that’s not true. We use Snapper Check to validate the real amount of fish being landed in Alabama. We’re going to continue to fight to improve state management programs. I would like to see us use the abundance of snapper off each state to determine the allocations. That’s where Snapper Check is a critical component.”

While Alabama has only three percent of the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico, about 26 percent of red snapper from the Gulf are allocated to Alabama. Bannon said Alabama’s vast artificial reef program, which encompasses about 1,060 miles of offshore waters in 14 permit areas, is what makes fishing for red snapper off the Alabama coast so special.

“The investment we’ve made into artificial reefs has created the largest artificial reef program in the nation if not the world,” Bannon said. “That’s why everybody comes to Alabama to go red snapper 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 weeks ago

The Hunting Public matches wits with Alabama turkeys

(The Hunting Public/Contributed)

The guys from YouTube sensation The Hunting Public made a swing through the state early this turkey season and found out how much work it takes to bag an Alabama bird.

Aaron Warbritton, Greg Clements and Zack Serenbaugh had previously worked together at Midwest Whitetail, a deer video website, and all were in between jobs when this new venture was considered.

“We had this idea we concocted sitting around the dinner table one night,” Warbritton said. “We said, ‘Man, we know how to make hunting videos, but we want to make videos that relate to people like us, sort of made for the average person.’ The average person is hunting small private land or they’re going out on public land, trying to deal with deer, turkeys and small game out there. We decided we wanted to make videos for the general public that hunt. We said let’s just call it The Hunting Public. Our goal was to have a positive impact on hunters and hunting culture. We wanted to show people that they could get together with family and friends and go out hunting. You didn’t have to have a bunch of money or fancy gear. From the get-go, we tried to show people this is doable. There are plenty of places to do it, and we’ve tried to show that over the years.”

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Since the inception of The Hunting Public with deer hunting videos in 2017, the crew has hunted in about 30 states and has made multiple trips to Alabama, one deer hunting trip and four to chase turkeys. The team has hunted turkeys in northwest, northeast and south Alabama.

“All of us grew up hunting public land or private land with permission,” Warbritton said. “We’re from different parts of the world, but we all grew up hunting public land. We’ve got a lot of experience dealing with property where there are other hunters. Over time, that experience has helped us be more comfortable in those environments. Alabama certainly has a lot of hunters, especially early in turkey season. That’s what we were dealing with on our recent hunt, for sure. But you can use that hunting pressure to your advantage. If you communicate with other folks, you can ensure everybody is having a good experience. That’s a big part of it. We always talk to other hunters when we run into them.”

Warbritton said the videos stress the courtesy aspect of hunting on public land and how not to infringe on other people’s hunts.

“That’s the way we’ve always operated,” he said. “It’s sort of an unwritten rule for public land. If there is one access point into a relatively small area, and they beat us there, we let them have it. Or if we’re moving in on a turkey, and somebody is already set up, we ease out and let them work the bird. We hope they would do the same for us.”

Although Warbritton says Alabama has plenty of turkey hunters, the state also has a good population of wild turkeys. However, early-season birds seem especially difficult to deal with.

“We’ve never had a problem finding a turkey to hunt on public land,” he said. “But when we go there early in the season, we found that the turkeys were flocked up, henned up and pretty quiet. At times, you have to deal with adverse weather conditions. You occasionally have cold fronts and the turkeys get quiet. The henned-up birds don’t make much noise. They don’t gobble as much.”

To deal with the early-season obstacles, Warbritton and pals have developed a reconnaissance strategy before they even try to hunt.

“We try to locate birds first thing in the morning, even if we only hear them gobble one time,” he said. “We try to find birds in as many locations as we can. First thing in the morning, we’re listening. Throughout the day, we’re scouting for turkey sign – tracks, scratching, droppings in the woods around potential roosting areas. Once we have a handful of areas with turkeys, we go about hunting them. We bounce from one to the other throughout the day until we get on a turkey that wants to play. At the same time, we’re gaining more options if we pull into an area that is being hunted by somebody else. Then we don’t have all our eggs in one basket.”

If their schedule had allowed, Warbritton would prefer to hunt Alabama’s tough turkeys in the middle of the season.

“As turkey season progresses, especially in Alabama, fewer hunters are going to the woods,” he said. “The pressure has slacked off. Turkeys realize that. They start going back to what they were doing before that hunting pressure moved in. The hens are also starting to nest. As the woods continue to green up and temperatures get warmer, turkeys are going to start gobbling more. If I was coming to Alabama, I’d probably pick this time frame to hunt. The gobblers that remain are going to gobble more than they did earlier in the season. There are a lot of advantages to hunt the whole season in Alabama. If I was a resident of Alabama, I’d just spend the first part of the season scouting and finding all the areas with turkeys. I’d have a lot of spots on the map where I’d heard or seen turkeys.”

Warbritton applauded the efforts of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division and its wildlife management areas (WMAs).

“That’s one thing about Alabama,” he said. “They do a good job of maintaining good turkey habitat. The most diverse habitat is going to hold the most turkeys. They do a good job with prescribed burns, and they have different stands of timber.”

Warbritton said he depends heavily on the Outdoor AL and OnX apps during hunting season.

“We use the Outdoor AL app a bunch,” he said. “We use the app to check in and out of WMAs, but we also read specific regulations about those WMAs. Each is managed a little differently. There is tons of information on the app. We also use the OnX maps that we can download to our phones when we’re offline. We’re constantly flipping back and forth between the apps as we’re hunting. When we’re looking at maps, we’re looking for areas with habitat diversity like creeks and rivers or clearcuts and burns. We get an idea of the areas we want to check out. Then we go in with boots on the ground and see if it’s good turkey habitat. If we find turkey sign, we’ll drop pins on the map.”

While Warbritton says “a turkey is a turkey,” he admits that birds in the South are generally tougher to deal with early in the season.

“But that’s why we love to come down there to hunt,” he said. “We love the challenge of hunting turkeys in Alabama. We learn a lot about turkeys doing that.”

During this year’s trip to Alabama, Warbritton managed to bag a bird., Ted Zangerle, another The Hunting Public team member, also scored on a bird late in the afternoon. Zangerle’s bird never gobbled, but he could hear him drumming.

“We struggled to get on birds at first,” Warbritton said. “We dealt with the hunting pressure, but we stayed persistent and were able to kill a couple of turkeys in a week’s time. If we go into any new area in any state, that’s pretty good. It’s about all we could ask for.”

On Warbritton’s fateful hunt (Episode 11), he had to belly-crawl into a position to be able to spot the turkey strutting on a ridge. After his accurate shot, he celebrated for several minutes.

“Man, I love turkey hunting,” he said. “I got excited about this one. We had struggled in Alabama and north Florida. We got our butts whipped in Florida. We came to Alabama and had adverse weather conditions and a lot of hunting pressure. It was difficult. Combined, we had been hunting about 11 days without a bird. I was really pumped when I got that bird.”

Warbritton admits he doesn’t quite understand the popularity of The Hunting Public, which has 363,000 YouTube subscribers. Warbritton and Zangerle were gracious enough to do an interview on the Outdoor Alabama YouTube page. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxLjGKA1_40 to check out the video.

“I really don’t know why people decide to watch,” he said. “Most people say it reminds them of themselves or their own group of friends and buddies who hunt. That’s pretty much who we are. We’re just a bunch of average guys who love spending our time hunting. A lot of young people use YouTube for entertainment and to learn how to do stuff. Kids these days use the internet to solve all kinds of problems. You have to be on there quite often so when they Google how or where to go turkey hunting, your page will pop up.”

Warbritton said not to be surprised if 2022 turkey hunts from Alabama show up on YouTube.

“We plan to come down next year,” he said. “We love coming to Alabama.”

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

1 month ago

Great Red Snapper Count may have little impact on 2021 season

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

Last week’s meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council (Gulf Council) Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) yielded mixed results for red snapper anglers.

The SSC voted to partially incorporate the Great Red Snapper Count, which estimated the red snapper population in the Gulf is three times higher than previous estimates, into the Gulf Council management process. However, that action may have little impact on the 2021 red snapper season.

“The Scientific and Statistical Committee is the science advisory panel for the Gulf Council,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division. “The purpose of the meeting was to review the Great Red Snapper Count, provide feedback and decide if it should be used in the interim analysis for red snapper this year and how it should be applied. The committee reviewed the Great Red Snapper Count and showed some areas that needed improvement. The researchers are going to go back and make some minor adjustments, but it won’t make a big change in the overall number. It just improves the report they have.”

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The Great Red Snapper Count estimated the abundance of red snapper in the Gulf at 110 million fish. Previous assessments from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries estimated the number of red snapper at 36 million fish.

“The committee voted on whether that data was the best science available for setting the overfishing limit,” Bannon said. “They voted that in. The number they chose for the overfishing limit was 25.6 million pounds. The Magnuson-Stevens Act states that you cannot exceed that overfishing limit or immediate changes will have to be implemented to prevent overfishing.”

Bannon said the previous overfishing limit was set at 15.5 million pounds, so the new recommended overfishing limit is a 10.1 million-pound increase. The committee then recommended that the acceptable biological catch (ABC) be set at 15.4 million pounds, which Bannon vigorously questioned.

“That’s a 10 million-pound difference from the overfishing limit,” he said. “That’s a 44-percent buffer, which I’m disappointed in. That is relatively unheard of in fisheries management. I am pleased with the recommended increase in the overfishing limit. I’m not pleased with the ABC.”

The SSC report will go to the Gulf Council and will be discussed at the next council meeting, set for April 12-15 via webinar. The Gulf Council will then set the annual catch limit (ACL) for allocations among the five Gulf states for the 2021 season.

“With only 300,000 new pounds available, that’s a negligible increase,” Bannon said. “That increase would potentially be applied to all of the sectors – commercial, charter and private anglers.”

Another hurdle for private anglers is NOAA Fisheries is pushing that the catch data from the Marine Recreation Information Program (MRIP) survey and state reporting systems be “calibrated,” which could significantly impact Alabama’s quota and reduce the number of fishing days for private recreational anglers.

“Our goal is to avoid calibration,” Bannon said. “With calibration, Alabama and Mississippi allocations would be cut in half.”

Under calibration alternatives, Alabama’s quota for red snapper could go from 1.12 million pounds in 2020 to 547,298 pounds in 2021.

“Naturally we didn’t agree with that,” Bannon said. “NOAA Fisheries said that was going to be required because the fishery may have met the overfishing limit in 2019. The catch for 2019 barely exceeded the 15.5 million-pound limit by 150,000 pounds. That is Gulf-wide in all sectors, including private anglers, for-hire and commercial, but with the new Great Red Snapper Count data, whether there was overfishing at all in 2019 is in question. Our goal at the upcoming Gulf Council meeting is to postpone any calibration until the Great Red Snapper Count is fully integrated into the stock assessment so that Alabama and Mississippi would fish at the same level we’ve fished for the previous couple of years under the EFP (Exempted Fishing Permit) and state management, which is around a million pounds.”

The MRIP surveys have considerably overestimated red snapper catches compared to Alabama’s Red Snapper Reporting System, known as Snapper Check.

“We say we landed about a million pounds, but the MRIP survey says we landed about 2.5 million pounds,” Bannon said. “We have a monitoring program that we feel is accurate, and we are harvesting at a sustainable level. The Great Red Snapper Count says there are 10 million red snapper off the coasts of Alabama and Mississippi. We’re not getting the access to those fish that we would like. Across the Gulf, the count says there are 110 million fish, so no state is really getting the access to the fish we think they should.”

For those not familiar with the Great Red Snapper Count, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby sponsored legislation to provide $10 million for an independent survey of the red snapper population in the Gulf. More than 20 scientists across the Gulf from the academic world participated in the survey.

“It was designed to look objectively at the red snapper abundance in the Gulf,” Bannon said. “It counted fish that are two years and older. The scientists developed a plan that utilized cameras, acoustic arrays and a robust tagging program. They actually identify fish. They see them, count them and get size estimates with lasers on the camera equipment.”

The scientists surveyed natural bottom, artificial reefs and uncharacterized bottom. The uncharacterized bottom had no structures or vertical relief. Surprisingly, the surveys found far more fish on uncharacterized bottom than expected.

At the upcoming Gulf Council meeting, Bannon said any Council recommendations could be overruled by NOAA Fisheries, but he plans to make the argument that the alternative plan of no action on calibration is the proper choice.

“We are not in fear of overfishing,” he said. “The overfishing limit is now 10 million pounds higher, so if we sustain the level we’re fishing, we’re not going to get anywhere near the overfishing limit. I am disappointed in some of the decisions made by the SSC. We have an objective assessment done by more than 20 experts in the field that says there are conservatively three times the number of red snapper, but we’re not seeing the benefit of that. The SSC decisions only apply to 2021. This will give the scientists more time to review the Great Red Snapper Count in depth, make some minor changes, and hopefully it will be incorporated into the next red snapper assessment that will conclude in 2023.”

Bannon also reminds anglers or concerned citizens that the Gulf Council meetings always allocate a time for public comment on Wednesdays, which will be from 1-4:30 p.m. on April 14 for the next meeting.

“I always encourage people to voice their opinions and concerns about the decisions being made,” he said. “The Gulf Council does consider public comment. They listen, sometimes ask questions and consider it in their decision making. I will assure the anglers of Alabama that we’re not trying to take away any fish from other states or any sector, but we’re going to try to ensure that private anglers have the access that they should to this abundant resource.”

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

Anglers, sightseers celebrate partial Gulf State Park Pier reopening

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

WFF Enforcement Section teaches handgun basics classes

(David Rainer/Contributed)

As firearms sales continue to set records, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Law Enforcement Section recognized a demand in basic training for handgun safety and use. Eight million new gun owners were created in 2020 alone. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many to abandon their usual indoor recreations and take up new ones outdoors. For many that was shooting.

This past weekend, officers of the Law Enforcement Section and its Hunter Education Unit held the first of five “Introduction to Handguns” courses scheduled this spring.

Two sessions were held at the Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area (WMA) Shooting Range in Shelby County with 10 students at each session. The WFF staff covered the basics of firearms safety and marksmanship with new shooters from the area.

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“It’s no secret that there has been a surge in firearms sales in the past year,” said Marisa Futral, WFF’s Hunter Education Coordinator, who was joined by Stuart Goldsby, Regional Hunter Education Coordinator in north Alabama. “My office has been getting a lot of phone calls from people who want to know if there are any classes available for new shooters. There’s a huge demand from people who want firearms instruction. We are trying to fill that need by starting with  handgun classes and possibly adding long gun classes in the future. The classes are open to anybody who would like to come, but we are kind of targeting the new users. This could be people who are thinking about purchasing a firearm, or they have already purchased one and need to learn how to use it. They might be timid about going to a shooting range by themselves.”

The next “Introduction to Handguns” classes will be held at the Swan Creek WMA Shooting Range in Limestone County on April 2 and April 17, 2021. The next class at the Cahaba range on April 10 is already booked up, but don’t hesitate to get on the waiting list as future classes at this location are in the works. The last currently scheduled class is at the Etowah WMA Shooting Range near Gadsden on April 24. Contact Futral by phone at 334-242-3620 or email marisa.futral@dcnr.alabama.gov for more information.

Lead firearms instructor Scott Kellenberger, one of only a handful of Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission certified master firearms instructors in Alabama, explained to the students the basics of firearms safety – always treat all firearms as if they are loaded; never allow the muzzle of the firearms to cover anything you are not willing to destroy; always keep your trigger finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you have made the conscious decision to fire; and always be sure of your target and what is beyond.

After Kellenberger’s safety instructions, the students were each provided with a personal instructor to learn handgun basics with a Ruger .22 caliber semi-automatic handgun. All necessary firearms, ammunition and safety equipment were provided by WFF for the new shooters.

The students learned how to load a magazine and insert it the magazine into the handgun and how to manipulate the safety and slide release. Instructors ensured that the students followed all safety procedures and offered tips on the proper grip for best control of the firearm and accuracy. Students also learned how to clear their firearms after a misfire or a failure-to-eject occurred.

“We try to introduce novice shooters to our (WFF) ranges,” Kellenberger said. “If they are interested, we get them involved in shooting sports. Obviously, we start with firearms safety. Then we talk about range safety. We discuss at length what range etiquette means. A lot of people have never shot on a public range before. They learn how to call the range ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ and how to keep everything safe on the range. For many new shooters, the simple fear of not knowing what is appropriate on one of our ranges can be a barrier to them. After this class, they all completely understand how to use our ranges and what they need to have in reference to a license. Then we move on to stance, grip and trigger control. We go over ammunition selection, dry-firing as a practice technique and then live fire.”

A set of paper targets was set up at 6 yards for students to shoot during the first session. After instruction and practice, the students were able to “ping” metal targets at 25 yards.

Kellenberger said .22-caliber handguns, either semi-automatic or revolver, are excellent firearms for the newcomers to learn the basics. Many of the students get a great deal of knowledge simply from getting the chance to shoot different styles of handguns. Often they go home after a class and purchase the exact handgun that they enjoyed shooting on the range.

“The .22s are great starter guns,” he said. “They can learn all the basics and do it inexpensively. For people who are a little bit afraid of firearms, there is not a lot of recoil and not a loud report. They’re easy to shoot, and the ammo is less expensive. That means a lot right now with ammo being sold in never before seen amounts. A progression a lot of people take is to start with a .22 and then move up to the firearm they are comfortable shooting or carrying if they decide to.”

Kellenberger said he can see changes in the students’ confidence from the start of the class to the end.

“With the volume of shooting and close instruction, they are a lot more comfortable with firearms and shooting than when they got here,” he said. “They were all smiling when they left, which is a good thing.”

To use WFF Public Shooting Ranges, Alabama residents are required to have a valid hunting, wildlife heritage, fishing, or WMA license for all range users between the ages of 16-64. For nonresidents, a valid WMA license or non-resident hunting license is required for all range users age 16 or older.

“All of our shooters today purchased the Wildlife Heritage License before participating,” Kellenberger said. “I explained that this $11 license allows them to use our public shooting ranges and our public archery parks for a year. It allows us (WFF) to provide these services to the citizens of Alabama. WFF does not receive any money from the state’s General Fund, and a large portion of the funding that pays for programs like this comes directly from license sales and matching federal funds.”

As Kellenberger said before, it was all smiles when the class ended, and the participants were happy with their firearms education for the day.

“I think it was an excellent experience,” said Jacqueline Brooks of Montgomery, who was accompanied by her daughter, Jayla. “It gives them a chance to teach you one-on-one and make corrections. They show you the proper stance and how to hold your gun, so it was very exciting. I enjoyed learning how to clear a misfire. Sometimes people’s guns do misfire, and they don’t know what to do. I really enjoyed learning that.”

Jamie Ligon of Hoover said she decided to take the class for two reasons, the COVID-19 restrictions that caused her to seek solace on hikes through the woods and the fact her dog probably would not protect her if a situation occurred.

“Since the virus came around, about the only exercise opportunities are outside,” Ligon said. “I’ve gotten very interested in hiking with my dog. I decided if I encountered a snake I might want to have a way to protect myself. My friend asked me if I was afraid walking around. She knows my dog and said, ‘I know Boris is not going to do anything but kiss them to death.’ I was afraid of handguns and after the class not nearly as much. The instructors were all very knowledgeable. I’m glad I did this. I’m going to recommend this to a friend of mine.”

Patti Grace of Vestavia Hills said she loves camping and decided she needed to learn about firearms for her protection.

“I solo-camp,” Grace said. “Sometimes I boondock, which means I camp out in the boonies without electricity and maybe not much safety. I thought it would be good to know how to use a firearm safely. I’ve never shot anything other than a BB gun when I was 8 years old. This was amazing. My instructor, Stuart, was awesome. I’m kind of addicted to it now. I’m going to have to get all kinds of guns. I think this is so good for the public to have a place to come. The experience was awesome.”

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

2 months ago

Hawley wants to leave turkey hunting legacy

(David Hawley/Contributed)

At the recent Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting in Montgomery, one of the people who took advantage of the opportunity to address the Board was David Hawley of Livingston, Alabama. At that March 6 meeting, the Board approved a motion to open the 2022 turkey season on March 25 with a four-bird season bag limit. Decoys would be prohibited the first 10 days of the season. The season length will remain 45 days in most of the state.

Hawley decided to speak at the meeting because of all the feedback he has received from the turkey hunting community as well as what he has witnessed in west Alabama. Hawley works for Mossy Oak Properties and produces the Wild Turkey Report (www.wildturkeyreport.com).

Hawley’s talk was about his love for turkey hunting and his willingness to do whatever it takes to ensure the Eastern wild turkey continues to thrive in our state.

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“I wanted to express my concerns with turkey populations,” he said. “I felt we, as a state, needed to make some changes that will benefit the long-term health of the turkey population. Time will tell whether the changes have an impact, but I do believe the later start date will give hens more time to breed. I believe the regulation regarding the decoys will protect some of the dominant turkeys during that first 10 days of the season. Reducing the bag limit may have some effect, but my main sentiment is that, in addition to the regulations, we as turkey hunters, landowners and conservationists need to understand our role of doing a better job of managing our habitat through prescribed fires, managing our predator populations and also being cognizant of our harvest decisions.”

Hawley killed his first turkey when he was 9, hunting with dad (Chris) in the Tombigbee River swamp. “That was the year I got hooked,” Hawley said of turkey hunting and turkey calling.

He became so proficient with a turkey call that he started entering contests and doing especially well, so well that he ended up in New York City on the David Letterman Show twice. Hawley had finished in the top five at the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) Grand Nationals in the junior division both years and was invited on the show. He did a fly-down cackle one show and a fighting purr on the other.

His desire for competition calling waned later in his teenage years, but his passion for turkey hunting did not.

With the 2021 spring turkey season opening on March 20, Hawley is definitely in tune with what is happening in the turkey woods in west Alabama.

“As of today (March 10), turkeys are right on track in their breeding cycle,” he said. “I’ve heard some turkeys. They appear to be grouped up, as they should be. I think it’s right on schedule. Due to the habitat work and predator control efforts we have implemented on our farm, we had a decent hatch a couple of years ago. While our properties’ turkey numbers are off long-term, we should have a relatively stable amount of turkeys compared to the past several years, especially a few more 2-year-old gobblers. I saw a fair amount of jakes last year. But my concern is the inconsistencies I hear from throughout the state and when looking back at my hunting experiences the past five years.”

Of course, weather plays a significant role in turkey hunting and turkey production. A cold, wet spring reduces the chances of nesting success and poult survival, and the gobblers tend to be less vocal. Hopefully, the weather forecast for this spring is spot on.

“Based on the long-range forecast, it should be fairly warm and fairly dry, which is a great thing from a turkey standpoint,” Hawley said. “We need a dry spring. It will help with poult recruitment.”

Hawley considers patience a virtue all through the season but especially early in the season.

“I’m looking for the opportunity to strike at the right time,” he said. “If I feel like a turkey is really henned up, I’m willing to wait a few days before I go back in and try him. Early season can have some tough hunting. We are stepping into the woods and assuming the role of a hen in the midst of dozens of real and receptive hens. This I why I don’t press the dominant gobbler and his harem as much as some do. I think my chances are greater in finding a subordinate gobbler or having one leave the flock. Several years ago, I roosted a big group of turkeys in a large agricultural field. The flock pitched down 200 yards away, and two gobblers strutted around the dozen or so hens. But one did not. Every time I yelped the non-strutter would look up from his feeding. He finally broke away from the flock and came in.”

Hawley looks at the season as a whole as a marathon not a sprint, and he tries to allow the turkeys to go through their natural progression through the season, adjusting his hunting techniques to the prevailing conditions.

“Now I’m going to be in the same vicinity and calling to them in case a sub-dominant gobbler decides to break off from the flock,” he said. “But I’m not going to put a lot of pressure on them early when I know they’re in these big groups. The woods are wide open early in the season. It’s really easy to bump turkeys. I try to lay back a little bit. But if you’re hunting a lease or public land, especially on just weekends, you may have to do it a lot differently than I am.”

Early in the season, Hawley’s calling tactics are also different. His focus is on the dominant hen.

“I try to get a boss hen fired up,” he said. “I’m going to try to mimic her the best I can with some excited calling, some flock talk and maybe some kee-kees (lost calls). I’m trying to play off the hen’s dominant nature to control that flock. If I hear jakes in there, I’m going to try to start calking (yelping) like a jake. It’s good to have jakes in the flock because of the gobblers’ competitive nature.”

As the season progresses more hens are bred and start to nest. The groups will split up. When that happens, the likelihood of encountering a lone gobbler is much better.

“That’s when I get really aggressive and try to cover a lot of ground,” Hawley said. “Basically, I’m trying to find the hottest turkey that I can. If it’s bad weather, I’m not going to push it unless he’s gobbling good. If it’s that window with good weather, I’m going to be aggressive. That last week in March is what I call kamikaze week, especially if you have a lot of 2-year-olds running together. They are not in the main group and have already bred a good many hens. That’s when you can get aggressive and strike turkeys up in the day.”

The 2021 turkey season runs March 20 through May 2 in Zone 1, which covers most of the state, with a five-bird season bag limit. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/seasons-and-bag-limits/turkey-season for details on the 2021 turkey season.

Leaving the next generation with a vibrant wild turkey population is more important to Hawley than walking out of the woods with a turkey on his shoulder.

“I enjoy hunting turkeys as much as anyone, but I have to realize that my pull of the trigger has to be met with a ten-fold response of giving back,” he said. “What really drives me is that my son and nephews get to experience the same things I did growing up. If I have to sacrifice a little in the short term, I’m more than willing to do that. We need to support the efforts of the state agencies, the biologists they work with for guidance, and conservation organizations financially and mirror their missions with boots on the ground and be a positive light for turkey hunting and conservation. It’s all about fair chase, respecting the birds and respecting our fellow hunters.”

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

2 months ago

Advisory board approves changes to 2022 turkey season

(David Rainer/Contributed)

In a 6-2 vote with two abstentions, the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board (CAB) recommended a starting date of March 25 for the 2022 spring turkey season with a four-bird season bag limit at its recent meeting in Montgomery. They also recommended that hunters be prohibited from using decoys for the first 10 days of the 45-day season for most of the state.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division had proposed a starting date of April 1 with a one-bird bag limit the first 10 days of the season, and a five-bird bag limit that included both the fall and spring seasons.

The Board heard Dr. Barry Grand, Supervisor of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Research Unit at Auburn University, summarize the final report of a five-year wild turkey research project conducted by Auburn University and initiated by WFF.

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Grand’s report indicated several actions could positively impact the health of the wild turkey population in Alabama, including a reduced bag limit, opening the season at a later date, shortening the season or a combination of those and other actions.

“We (WFF) compromised and didn’t recommend to shorten the season and didn’t reduce the bag limit in our proposal,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes. “Those two factors showed the least amount of positive influences on the turkey population. What made the most impact for turkey season is opening later, because 26 percent of the gobblers are harvested the first week of the season, and by the end of the second week almost 50 percent of the birds had been harvested.”

“After reviewing the turkey research data and hearing the presentations from Dr. Grand and Director Sykes, as well as considering input from hunters and constituents in their districts, the members of the Conservation Advisory Board modified the proposal from WFF,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “The CAB recommendations will be integrated into the season and bag limits beginning in the fall 2021-2022 season. Nothing will change for the turkey season that opens on March 20, 2021.”

During his WFF update at the meeting, Sykes had very good news on several fronts – hunter safety, Game Check compliance and participation in hunting and fishing.

For the 2020-2021 hunting seasons so far, only one fatality and 15 total accidents have occurred.

“This year we are on pace to have the lowest reported amount of hunting accidents and fatalities that we’ve had since we began keeping records in 1973,” Sykes said. “That’s a big deal. Hunters are listening. We’re doing our best to educate them. I certainly hope we can keep that going. That’s a monumental improvement over last year.”

As for Game Check, compliance more than doubled during deer season with the implementation of the transfer of possession rules. Hunters were required to have a Conservation ID number and Game Check compliance number before a deer or part of a carcass could be transferred to another individual, including processors and taxidermists. During the 2019-2020 deer season, 95,033 harvested animals were reported. During the 2020-2021 season, the total reported harvest was 195,119.

“It worked, no ifs, ands or buts,” Sykes said of the impact of the transfer rules. “We are estimating our compliance rate right now will go from less than 50 percent to approximately 90 percent. That’s a huge deal for us to be able to utilize the data to make positive management decisions. We were able to take Game Check data and take Jackson County completely out of Zone C. We use this county-by-county data to make better decisions to give hunters more access and do what’s best for the resource.”

Sykes pointed out the effect COVID-19 restrictions had on the number of people who enjoy the outdoors in Alabama.

“Nothing could have brought us back to the forefront like COVID-19 did,” he said. “Most of our recreational licenses increased from 2019 to 2020. Freshwater fishing licenses increased by almost 15 percent. Hunting licenses were up by eight percent. Even this year, we’ve got a 5.3-percent increase in hunting licenses. Even though it’s really early in the freshwater fishing season, we’re up 8.8-percent. People are definitely getting outside to enjoy what Alabama has to offer. The same goes for our Community Archery Parks and Public Shooting Ranges. They have experienced a record number of visitors this year. We operated 12 shooting ranges and 18 archery parks. Anyone can utilize those ranges and archery parks as long as they have a license issued by the ADCNR (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources). For some perspective, the Swan Creek Range in Limestone County averaged selling 150 new licenses a week last year. So, there were a lot of first-time people coming and taking advantage of what this Department has to offer.”

Sykes said the same increase in usage was also seen at the WFF Public Fishing Lakes throughout the state. WFF manages 23 lakes with 1,912 surface acres in 20 counties.

“Our lakes had a 44-percent increase in usage from FY19 to FY20,” he said. “That translates to more than 50,000 more fishing trips than a normal year and the most fishing trips in the last 17 years. Everything we have, from WMAs (wildlife management areas) to our lakes to shooting ranges to state parks to Forever Wild property – everything experienced tremendous use last year.”

Sykes also provided the Board with an update on CWD (chronic wasting disease), which affects white-tailed deer and other members of the cervid family. Sykes showed maps of the CWD positives closest to Alabama in Mississippi and Tennessee.

“As of today, we still do not have CWD in Alabama,” he said. “We are currently testing. We tried to educate people from day one that CWD progression is about like our (feral) hog progression. It doesn’t move real fast naturally. It only moves real fast if it’s in the back of a truck. Thankfully our hunters have listened. In Mississippi and Tennessee, it has moved only 10 miles toward Alabama in the past two years through natural progression. I want to thank our hunters for doing their job and not artificially expanding the CWD zones.”

On the saltwater front, Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon said the season for the state’s most popular reef fish – red snapper – has not been set. Although the five Gulf states were granted state management for red snapper through the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) process, the National Marine Fisheries Service has indicated it wants to implement a “calibration” process between Snapper Check and federal survey harvest numbers.

“The calibration process could reduce our quota by half,” Bannon said.

The Gulf Council will meet in April and will receive a report on the Great Red Snapper Count that was conducted by multiple research entities through grants provided by legislation sponsored by Alabama Senator Richard Shelby.

“The Great Red Snapper Count will show that, conservatively, there are three times the number of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico than previously thought,” Bannon said. “The federal government has to provide us with an interim analysis. There will be a lot of information to come out, and there’s a lot of networking between states on how to move forward. Our goal is to avoid reductions.”

Commissioner Blankenship said all aspects of the ADCNR were affected by COVID-19 with an upswing in the public use in all four divisions – Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Marine Resources, State Parks and State Lands.

“Fishing, boating, hunting, shooting, hiking, WMAs and Forever Wild property usage were all up in 2020 due to COVID,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “I personally want to thank Governor (Kay) Ivey for her support of outdoor recreation. She understood that people needed the outlet for physical and mental health through the outdoors, which could be safely accessed during this time. We appreciate her keeping this as essential services all throughout COVID. All of us benefitted from that.”

Commissioner Blankenship said the increase in license sales has allowed the ADCNR to add 15 Conservation Enforcement Officers to the staff.

“This is the largest class we’ve had in 25 years,” he said. “We’re very proud to increase our enforcement presence to protect our natural resources.”

Commissioner Blankenship also announced that all 21 State Parks now have fiber optic internet service, and expanding the Wi-Fi network at each park is underway. The Commissioner said a variety of updating and upgrading projects have started or are planned at State Parks throughout the state.

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

2 months ago

Controlled burns top tool for wildlife, land managers

(Steven Mitchell/Contributed)

Social media has been filled with smoke and fire lately as many land managers, like the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), conduct controlled burns to enhance the flora and fauna throughout the state.

Steven Mitchell, the ADCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division Upland Bird Coordinator, said the Department, along with other land managers, often takes advantage of the downtime and prime weather conditions between the end of the white-tailed deer season and the opening of turkey season to conduct controlled (prescribed) burns throughout the state.

Mitchell said the WFF’s wildlife management areas (WMAs) are given a great deal of flexibility in their burn programs.

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“For those WMAs that have the ability to apply prescribed fire, our staff has an established burn regime and is actively applying fire to the landscape for managing habitats,” Mitchell said. “When the weather conditions fit the burn prescription, our biologists and wildlife technicians work to conduct the fires within those parameters for a safe and effective burn. Our cooperative partners, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, work diligently as well on the National Forests and National Wildlife Refuges, respectively, to plan, implement and manage the prescribed burning efforts on those lands, some of which host WMAs. While we would like to only burn in the non-hunting months to not hamper hunters, limited weather conditions often require our staff, as well as other land managers, to take advantage of optimal conditions to burn when conditions are available. We do our best to communicate these efforts with our hunters and advertise on www.outdooralabama.com and our Facebook page when we’re conducting controlled burns.”

Mitchell said burns are conducted mainly during the time when plants are dormant, but, to achieve certain habitat objectives, many of our burns occur when plants are actively growing, termed a growing-season burn.

“Dormant season, winter and early spring, is when most of our burning occurs, but, at times where control of woody plants is desired, a growing-season fire is utilized as you get a different effect than in the dormant season,” he said. “You get a lot more control of woody vegetation with a growing-season fire, and it has the effect of opening the structure of the stand to more light and more beneficial growth of early successional plants. Burns can be conducted during the dormant season or growing season accordingly and, when used in proper scale and frequency, can attain a wide collection of land management objectives. Another added benefit of controlled burning is the reduction of fire hazards and fuel loads, lowering the chance of wildfires.”

Land managers who are burning for quail have additional factors to consider.

“If you’re focusing on quail management, distribution of burn units is even more important as they have a smaller home range,” Mitchell said. “Burning, while practically mandatory for bobwhite management, also removes cover and exposes the quail to avian predation. The primary raptor migration extends through March in many areas and can impact quail significantly if considerations for sufficient cover aren’t addressed.”

Mitchell said those burning in longleaf pine habitat need to have certain considerations of the new growth on the trees.

“You want to burn longleafs before they candle out and start putting on new growth,” he said. “The buds, sometimes termed candles, are more susceptible to fire damage during this candling period. Although the longleaf is a very fire-tolerant tree, it can be damaged during this time. After a year of growth, longleafs can typically tolerate properly applied fire. However, if specific burn parameters aren’t present to burn, significant damage can occur to the saplings, so these burns need to be conducted carefully. But it’s critical to get a fire in longleaf stands to suppress the competition from vegetation and other trees, including loblolly pine, especially if you’re managing for wildlife. You want to maintain that open understory. There’s not much better habitat than that provided by young longleaf stands for bobwhite quail. You can have nesting and brooding habitat in the same patch of trees.”

Mitchell said just about all wildlife benefit from controlled burns in one way or another, even including deer.

“Most people don’t think about deer benefitting from burns, but they do,” he said. “Of course, turkeys and quail benefit, as well as most game birds. Burning is the most economical and effective way to manage early successional habitat. After a burn, a lot of the plants that come back are the forbs and legumes and grasses, which are beneficial for most of our wildlife. There’s a lot of protein in native plants that grow back after a prescribed fire.”

Mitchell said studies have shown that turkeys and quail prefer areas with a burn management program, from freshly burned to areas that have burned within 3 years. After 3 years without a burn, the habitat becomes less preferred by turkeys and quail.

“If the area has a fire history that has been established and maintained, most of the turkey nests will not be in the areas that haven’t been burned within the past three years,” he said. “The nests are going to be in cover that was burned last year or the year before. The plant structure in those units that have been burned is their preferred habitat. You may have seen it with turkeys; the smoke hasn’t even cleared and they’re already out there scratching around.”

Mitchell said when areas that have burned get rainfall, the new growth could be popping up within a couple of weeks, and within a month enough cover is available to hide the animals. He said most wildlife habitat is on a one- to three-year burn rotation with the shorter frequency yielding more forbs and grass and less of a woody component and vertical structure. He said burn frequency is site specific.

“On poor soils, you might need to wait three years between burns,” he said. “In rich, heavy soils, ground cover may get too dense too quickly. You may need to tighten that interval or stay on that two-year burn cycle. When conducted properly, burning improves plant species composition and structure for ground-nesting birds. It reduces that litter layer. It increases the bare-ground component for wildlife movement and foraging. It promotes a lot of flowering and seed production, which increases insect abundance. For your young quail chicks and turkey poults, insects are crucial for their survival in the first couple of weeks to a month after they hatch out.”

Another aspect of fires that Mitchell said is often overlooked is that the activity may reduce nest predation.

“On upland areas with a good fire rotation, you’re going to reduce the woody or hardwood component and dense vegetation conditions that the predators like to hunt and keep them in hardwood bottom,” he said. “It reduces time the predators are in upland areas where turkeys and quail are nesting.”

Mitchell said the scale of the area to be burned is also important, with 50 acres considered about the ideal size. If the fire is too large, the turkeys and quail will use the area less.

“You want to burn in a checkerboard pattern to maintain an interspersion of burned and unburned habitat,” he said. “It’s been shown that turkeys don’t use burned areas over 250 meters from the edge of an unburned area until later when cover grows back to a certain level. If you can’t burn in a checkerboard pattern, burn in a linear shape so the wildlife will have access to adjacent unburned cover.”

Mitchell said land managers must give a lot of consideration to neighbors, roadways and whether the land has proper fire breaks and other safety aspects before trying to conduct a controlled burn. Humidity also plays a big factor on whether to burn. If the humidity falls below 30 percent, Mitchell said burning can become a little more dangerous. Many other parameters are also considered to safely and effectively conduct a controlled burn, and it is crucial to have the proper training.

“You need to know what you’re doing,” he said. “There are classes you can take. The Alabama Forestry Commission offers a four-day course for burn manager certification where people get a higher level of fire education and become much more comfortable with applying fire to their property.”

Mitchell considers a proper burn regime one of the most beneficial practices wildlife managers can utilize.

“For wildlife management, prescribed fire is the most effective and cost-efficient tool in the toolbox,” he said.

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

Triggerfish season opens March 1, becomes mandatory for snapper check

(David Rainer/Contributed)

The season opener for gray triggerfish in state and federal waters is March 1, which marks the first season that reporting of triggerfish and greater amberjack becomes mandatory in the Alabama Red Snapper Reporting (Snapper Check) System.

The gray triggerfish limit is one per person with a minimum size of 15 inches total length. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has set a quota for the Gulf of Mexico at 305,300 pounds, and the triggerfish season is set to close on May 31 or when NMFS determines the quota has been met. Federal management of gray triggerfish is through the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC), an advisory body to NMFS.

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“Triggerfish and greater amberjack are very valuable species to the state of Alabama, similar to red snapper,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD). “We have funded a fisheries-independent study through the University of South Alabama and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to estimate the number of key reef fish living near artificial reefs and natural habitats off of Alabama. For red snapper, we added the harvest estimates for charter and private anglers from Snapper Check to commercial landings and compared the total harvest to the estimate from the habitat study. The comparison has shown that harvests are considered sustainable.”

Although the GMFMC recommended to NMFS an increase in the gray triggerfish quota to 456,900 pounds last month, Bannon said gray triggerfish and greater amberjack have been species of concern for the Gulf Council. Mandatory reporting of these two fish through Snapper Check will provide additional data for the management of the species. The greater amberjack season is tentatively scheduled to open May 1, but NMFS has not determined how many amberjack were caught during the August-October 2020 season and whether any quota is available for a May opener.

“Receiving the landing reports will allow us to know what people are catching off the coast of Alabama,” Bannon said. “We don’t always agree with the federal landings. In our habitat study, the trend off of Alabama is that triggerfish numbers are going up. We would like to look at what the harvest numbers look like coming into the State of Alabama as opposed to the federal MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program) surveys. Again, we sometimes have disagreements with what they’re showing, so we’d like to be able to make that comparison of our numbers to their numbers, similar to what we did with red snapper.”

On the red snapper front, the news may not be as rosy. NMFS is insisting that data from the MRIP and state reporting systems be “calibrated,” which could cause significant cuts to Alabama’s quota and reduce the number of days for private recreational anglers.

“Under the Gulf Council state management plan, there is a section that says there will be a calibration factor between the federal surveys and what they say about how many fish are landed in each state and what our surveys show are landed,” Bannon said. “Ultimately, NMFS wants to use that calibration number to develop what they call a ‘common currency’ across the Gulf for each state survey.”

Under certain calibration alternatives, Alabama’s quota for red snapper could go from 1.12 million pounds in 2020 to 547,298 pounds in 2021.

“We’re in disagreement with that, and we are working through the Gulf Council process to find an alternative way to work through that and not have a dramatic cut in our season,” Bannon said. “Mississippi’s calibration is larger than Alabama’s, and they would see a season cut even larger than that. The other Gulf states, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, would stay similar to last year’s quotas. Alabama and Mississippi use federally certified quota monitoring programs that count fish through Snapper Check and (Mississippi’s) Tails and Scales. We developed the Snapper Check program because we felt the federal MRIP program was flawed, and now they still want to use that program as the standard, and that is just not right.  We’re working to have the state data incorporated into the stock assessments versus the federal data to give us a more realistic look at what’s being harvested.”

One ray of hope for private recreational anglers is the report that should be coming out soon from the Great Red Snapper Count in the Gulf, an endeavor funded through legislation sponsored by Alabama Senator Richard Shelby.

“We have valuable information coming from the Great Red Snapper Count,” Bannon said. “It has come to a close, and they are about to complete the final report. The count was done through a variety of scientists and universities across the Gulf. That information will be used for what they call an interim analysis of red snapper. We should get that information in April, just ahead of the April 12 GMFMC meeting, where we will discuss options for the 2021 season and beyond.  The Great Red Snapper Count estimated that there is three times more biomass of red snapper in the Gulf than the last federal red snapper assessment estimated. It’s hard to say what’s going to come out of that meeting because each state looks at red snapper a little bit differently, but the massive difference in estimated biomass has to help all the states. Each Gulf state should have a better idea as to their respective recreational quotas after this meeting, and Alabama should announce its season shortly after the meeting’s conclusion.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the April GMFMC meeting will be virtual. Visit https://gulfcouncil.org/meetings/council/ for links to observe and listen to the meeting live. You can also register to speak during public testimony scheduled for Wednesday of that week.

In related news, the U.S. Congress passed the DESCEND Act in 2020, which will require vessels fishing for reef fish to have a venting tool or descending device aboard the boat and ready for use in federal waters. Both devices enable anglers to more safely release distressed fish that experience expanded swim bladders caused by the rapid rise from depths greater than 50 feet. The Act is scheduled to go into effect in January 2022.

“The DESCEND Act has to be placed in the code of federal regulations, and NMFS must create a regulation to enforce that,” Bannon said. “That has not been completed yet.”

A program through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) will provide opportunities for a certain number of anglers to get descending devices for free. The NRDA process will provide $30 million over the next eight years for outreach, training and distribution of the devices.  Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship is the lead NRDA Trustee for Alabama.

Since the 2019-2020 license year, Alabama private recreational anglers who target reef fish are required to have a saltwater fishing license and a Gulf reef fish endorsement. Bannon said beginning this year, anglers can purchase a lifetime Gulf reef fish endorsement. The endorsement will provide a contact list of reef fish anglers that could be used in the future to conduct special surveys, and it will provide additional revenue to support MRD’s reef fish data collection activities and artificial reef program.

Although Alabama’s red snapper season is currently in limbo, Bannon still thinks the move to state management of the fishery was the right move.

“Without state management, we were headed for zero days under a federal season,” he said. “We’re still in better shape than we would have been under federal management. There are some details to get worked out to fish at the level we think we should be able to fish, so stay tuned.”

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

R3 campaign encourages Alabamians to get outdoors

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

With the social distancing requirements from COVID-19, many people have turned to the outdoors to escape the impact of the lockdowns.

The number of people fishing and hunting for a variety of game species has seen a boost, and Justin Grider wants to see that trend continue. Grider was recently named the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s R3 Coordinator.

R3 is a national program that addresses ways to boost hunting and fishing participation – Recruit, Retain, Reactivate.

“The overarching view of R3 is that we want to reverse the decline in hunting and fishing license sales that’s been happening for several decades,” Grider said. “The average age of a license buyer in the state of Alabama is the late 50s, and once they turn 65 they don’t have to buy a license. We have to do something to change that trend. We not only want to revamp what we’re doing, we want to get everybody on the same page Division-wide. We want to streamline existing programs and then create new, innovative programs that will allow us to reach more people and give us a bigger footprint. We also want to reach new audiences, not only the ones we’re already in contact with.”

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Grider, WFF staff and the Communications and Marketing Section of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) are working on an R3 training video (I Am R3) to educate Department personnel.

“We want everybody in the Department to know what R3 is,” Grider said. “We want them to know the problems we are facing as an agency in that our funding model is tied to license sales. We need people to understand the importance of reversing downward sales trajectories.”

Grider said the campaign will include having more outdoors-oriented events led by WFF staff as well as training volunteers so the volunteers will be able to host the events by themselves.

“We want to increase opportunities for people to learn and get involved,” he said.

Outreach is a significant aspect of the R3 effort. A little over a year ago, Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship revamped the makeup and mission of the old Information and Education Section into the new Marketing and Communications Section and tasked Section Chief Billy Pope to find ways to expose the public to the benefits of outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing.

“It’s exciting that we are in a position to expand our marketing efforts with Billy Pope and his staff,” Grider said. “My hat’s off to Commissioner Blankenship and Billy Pope for their willingness to try innovative ideas and new approaches in how we are promoting our programs, promoting our license sales and encouraging people to utilize public lands and water bodies. We’re encouraging people to get outside to hunt, fish and get to the shooting ranges. That’s not something we have done in the past as a Department. But this is a national trend in the last couple of years and especially during the pandemic; state agencies are starting to realize the role marketing can play in helping reverse downward trends in participation.”

Although the white-tailed deer season has closed for now, Grider said the outreach will highlight the upcoming turkey season, which opens on March 20, and the abundant fishing opportunities in the spring. The campaign will continue into the summer and fall with dove season, archery season and the rifle deer season.

During the COVID pandemic, Alabama has seen a significant increase in all outdoors activities. Hiking, biking, wildlife viewing and other activities have increased as well as hunting and fishing, which can be tracked through license sales.

“We have been very fortunate to see a surge in fishing, especially, but also in resident hunting licenses,” Grider said. “The goal is to retain those new license buyers. These outreach efforts we’re putting in place are so we can retain those folks who got outdoors because of the pandemic. Because of the restrictions, people had more time on their hands and were able to get outside. We want to do whatever we can to retain that new audience.”

Grider understands that when some of the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the forces that caused the decline in outdoors activities will again be in play.

“We’ll be competing for time again as things get back to normal, as normal as it can be,” he said. “As we get back to where folks are working more and kids are involved in extracurricular activities, we will be dealing with what we faced before the pandemic. I feel like if we can get out in front before their plates get full again and they see the benefits of getting outside, they see the benefits of hunting and fishing, then those outdoors activities, like hunting, fishing and target shooting, will maintain relevancy and continue to be a priority.”

Grider said the new efforts will focus on spring and summer as well as continuing the outreach that occurs during hunting seasons with the Adult Mentored Hunting Program (AMH), the Special Opportunity Area (SOA) hunts and opportunities on our Wildlife Management Areas.

“We want to keep people engaged throughout the year, not just during hunting season,” he said. “That’s where fishing events come into play. That’s where shooting events come into play. This will help us stay relevant throughout the year.

“As for recruitment, we’re looking for new audiences. There is a lot of interest in learning how to fish and hunt in major metropolitan areas. In our marketing efforts, we will encourage those people to participate, whether it is the Adult Mentored Hunting Program, the new ‘Go Fish Alabama!’ program or getting to one of our events at one of our shooting ranges.”

The retainment aspect of the R3 program will encourage existing hunters, anglers and target shooters to take advantage of the outreach events and to volunteer to teach the newcomers the skills needed to enjoy outdoors activities.

“There are really good hunters, really good anglers and shooters who want to get involved by teaching,” Grider said. “We’ll use those folks as mentors. We’re seeing that already within the Adult Mentored Hunting Program. Folks in that program three or four years ago are coming back to serve as mentors.”

Reactivation efforts will reach out to those who have hunted or fished in the past but those activities have lapsed for whatever reason.

“Some of the folks who got back out during the pandemic were some of those people who had lapsed or had not purchased a license for several years,” Grider said. “They may have grown up in the outdoors or dabbled in it as an adult and just got busy with other priorities in life. When the pandemic offered them spare time, they were able to get back involved in the outdoors. Some of the reactivation efforts are tied to recruiting as well. We think there are people in metropolitan areas who haven’t participated in R3-type activities in five, 10 or 15 years. They may have moved from rural areas where they grew up to metropolitan areas where they can’t go hunting, fishing or target shooting as easily. We want to educate the public about the great hunting, fishing and shooting opportunities in or near the major metropolitan areas all over the state.”

Grider said WFF Director Chuck Sykes has made the R3 program and the marketing efforts a priority.

“We’re going to try innovative ways to reach these people,” Grider said. “And I think this will allow our efforts to come to fruition. If we aren’t selling licenses, we aren’t able to continue conservation and our wildlife and fisheries management programs. The majority of people care about conservation. We just need to get that message in front of them.”

Grider said the “Go Fish Alabama!” program will hold fishing events in areas like Public Fishing Lakes, state parks and local lakes in or near metropolitan areas. The program will be geared toward adults and families.

“We want to teach people how to fish so they have the knowledge to do it themselves,” he said. “We’ll have mentors on-site teaching participants how to use the equipment, how to target specific species and how to clean and cook the fish.”

Grider said the “Go Fish Alabama!” program will start as soon as COVID-19 restrictions allow. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater-fishing for the latest details.

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

3 months ago

Hoover’s Davis reaches pinnacle with High Hopes

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed)

B.J. Davis of Hoover has lived through the peaks and valleys of a deer hunting career in Alabama. This season he reached the pinnacle with High Hopes, a buck that changed the record books for Buckmasters and Alabama Whitetail Records.

The 42-year-old Davis started his deer-hunting career with a dog hunting club in south Alabama in the early 1980s and moved to a stalk-hunting club in Coosa County.

“My dad and I, hunting was our thing,” Davis said. “He put the passion in me.”

Davis was 21, a student at Auburn University, when his father was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. A short time later, Brian Davis, B.J.’s namesake, passed away.

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“When that happened, I kind of lost my passion for it,” B.J. said. “It was good memories but bad feelings. So I got away from hunting for a while. I would go every once in a while, but not like before.”

Then B.J. got married and his wife (Kasey) came from a family that loved the outdoors. Kasey’s father and brother (Bruce Shore Sr. and Jr.) were big hunters, pursuing deer and wild turkeys.

“They kept wanting me to go when we had family get-togethers,” B.J. said of his in-laws. “Slowly, they started working on me and got me fired up again about four years ago. I got all excited again and got in a club in Wilcox County, which is about two-and-a-half hours from our house. We’ve got five kids and I was leaving on Friday and coming back on Sunday during deer season. My wife is sweet and understanding, but that was a little tough to handle every weekend. She said, ‘We need to figure out a different plan.’”

Davis had been following a group of suburban deer hunters (SeekOne) in the Atlanta area on YouTube, and he thought he could possibly find a way to do the same in the Birmingham area.

“I grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham and wondered if that would be possible,” he said. “I started looking at the legalities and how it could be done. I knew a lot of landowners, so I got to digging into it.”

Davis had access to a piece of property near Hoover where Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Law Enforcement Section officers made a case of illegal hunting. That bust gained a great deal of media attention. Soon, other landowners in the area were contacting Davis to keep an eye on their undeveloped property in exchange for bowhunting rights. He soon had about 3,000 acres on all sides of Birmingham where he could bowhunt. Davis established an online presence with Suburban Bowhunter on Instagram and YouTube, and one of his viewers sent him an interesting photo one day.

“Three seasons ago, somebody sent me a trail cam picture of this deer and put a pin where the picture was taken,” he said. “The picture looked Photoshopped the deer was so big. It was taken near some property I have access to. It sparked my interest, but you never know what you can believe on the Internet. So I threw a lot of game cameras up to see. That season, I didn’t see anything.”

During the following season, Davis had harvested his three bucks by the middle of December but was still checking for deer in his hunting spots. One of those spots was particularly thick with an overgrowth of privet hedge, near a busy highway and railroad tracks.

“It was so nasty, but it had this one little tiny oak ridge,” he said. “Something told me to walk up on that ridge. One day, maybe it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I walked up there. It looked like elk had been up there, and it was a mile from where the guy had sent me the picture.”

Davis put up a game camera and started getting photos of the big buck he named High Hopes. The antler characteristics were the same, but the deer was not in good shape physically.

“He had gone down from that prior year,” he said. “It was post-rut, and he looked old and sickly. I was afraid he wasn’t going to make it, so I put the protein to him to try to bring him back. When he dropped his rack, he disappeared. I didn’t get a single picture until June, when his rack had started growing back. He wouldn’t get anywhere near an artificial feeder, but I was able to watch him grow. He kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It just blew my mind.”

Davis sent a photo to Lee Ellis of SeekOne, who told Davis that 16-point buck had to be a 200-inch deer.

“I’d never heard of deer that big,” Davis said. “If I got a 120-inch deer, I was elated. After he lost his velvet, I thought he might not be that big, but Lee told me, ‘Brother, that is a 200-inch deer.’ He had a little nest area that he would pop in and out of. I tried to put minimal pressure on this deer. I was going to wait until he got consistent, and then I was going to slip in on a perfect wind and try to shoot him.”

But High Hopes disappeared again, this time for 30 days. The next picture Davis got was on Thanksgiving evening.

“He was still alive, but as nocturnal as he could be,” he said. “But at least he was in the area. It was still hot and muggy with mosquitoes, but on Nov. 29 there was a cold front coming in. On Sunday morning, my wife said let’s do late church, so I decided to go sit in a tree stand. I had two stands in the area. I felt one had a better chance, but the other was better for the wind. I’ve got a flip-the-coin app on my phone. I flipped it, and it was for the stand I didn’t want to sit in. I flipped it two more times, and it came out the same.”

Davis eased into the stand he didn’t really want to go to and managed to spook a deer on the way to the stand.

“I figured it was High Hopes and he was off to Texas or somewhere, but I got in the stand anyway,” he said. “It was a beautiful morning to hunt, overcast and cold. At 7:30, I saw feet in the old roadbed. I figured it was a doe. I clicked my cameras on so I could film me taking a doe. Lo and behold, when he came around the corner, I could see it was him. He came right in and got about 15 yards from me and stopped behind a tree. I drew my bow back and held it for what seemed like 15 minutes. When I looked at the video, it was about four seconds. I let it down. It was the most scary let-down I’ve ever had, afraid that arrow might pop off (the rest). As soon as I let down, he walks out in the open at 12 yards. I was able to get my bow drawn again and let one go. I knew right off it was a good hit. He butt-kicked and ran off toward that oak ridge. I saw him fall over.”

When Davis walked up to the big buck, he still didn’t realize what he’d done, figuring High Hopes would score 165 to 170. He sent a photo of the buck to his in-laws, who were about 1½-2 hours away. Both Senior and Junior hopped in their vehicles and headed to see the deer.

“They put a tape to the deer, and we were all just blown away,” Davis said.

After a trip to the processor, Davis took the caped-out head to the taxidermist. A couple of days later, Steve Lucas with Buckmasters and Larry Manning of Alabama Whitetail Records paid a visit to measure the antlers. Both scorers came out with the same exact measurements of 199 4/8 inches.

“I asked them to measure again to see if they could squeeze in another half-inch,” Davis said with a laugh. “I was just tickled to death.”

In the Alabama Whitetail Records book, High Hopes is the second-best archery buck in the typical (symmetrical rack) category and ranks fifth in the non-typical category.

In the Buckmasters scoring system, which has perfect, semi-irregular and irregular categories, High Hopes is the top semi-irregular ever taken in Alabama with a compound bow.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” Davis said. “It’s been exciting. I documented the whole thing with High Hopes. I put some stuff up on my Suburban Bowhunter, and Lee is going to put the video on SeekOne on YouTube probably in October this year.”

Although suburban Atlanta may hold some giant bucks, Davis figures deer the size of High Hopes are rare in suburban Alabama.

“I mean, a 150-inch deer in Alabama is a deer of a lifetime,” he said. “This deer was in a spot where he was able to get really old. We think he was 7½ years old. His diet was heavy in protein with plenty of kudzu, and there were tons of acorns. I don’t think there’s another one like him. Praise to God if we do find another one. I think it will be another lifetime before another one like him shows up.

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

3 months ago

Alabama hunters bagging big bucks this season

(ADCNR/Contributed)

Judging from the number of deer reported through the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Game Check system and the number of trophy bucks posted on social media, Chris Cook thinks this is the best deer season our state has had in quite a while.

Cook, the WFF’s Deer Program Coordinator, said numerous factors are likely involved in the increase in harvest numbers as well as the quality of the bucks harvested.

Alabama’s three-buck limit has been in place for more than a decade, which could be one of the reasons for the big bucks, but Cook said that is difficult to quantify. Hunters are allowed to take one male deer (bare antlers visible above natural hairline) per day and three per hunter during all combined seasons. One of the three must have at least four antler points 1 inch or longer on one antler (except for Barbour County). A point is defined as an antler projection of at least 1 inch in length from base to tip. Main beam tip shall be counted as a point regardless of length. Barbour County requires all bucks to have at least three points on one side to be legal except during the statewide special youth season, when any antlered buck can be harvested.

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“It’s hard to track and determine what you can attribute exactly to the three-buck limit because of the way data was collected before that,” Cook said. “We used the mail survey, and before the three-buck limit one of the questions was how many bucks you killed. If they killed 20, that’s what they put down. After the three-buck limit, nobody was going to put down they killed more than the limit. But I also think people started to be a little more selective. So we can’t attribute it to the three-buck limit or just a change in hunter attitude. It does appear hunters were willing to pass on yearling and 2-year-old bucks. A lot of clubs put in rules on buck harvest, so some of it was self-imposed.”

The number of trophy bucks taken in Alabama this year has been impressive. Huge bucks pop up on social media daily. Cook thinks the ease of posting photos on social media could possibly be skewing the impression of a banner season.

“With increased use of social media, everybody wants to post a picture of what they’ve killed, so everybody else sees what they’ve done,” he said. “In the past, somebody had to take a picture, get the film developed and send the picture to you. But it definitely seems that a lot more really good bucks were taken this year. Our Game Check numbers show that people are reporting way more deer than they ever have. They’re killing more deer, and a percentage of bucks reported have been really good deer.”

Cook said the change in the possession regulations has likely increased the Game Check compliance. After a deer is harvested, it must be reported by the hunter through Game Check before it can be transferred to an individual, processor or taxidermist. Whoever is in possession of all or part of a deer or turkey that is not their own must retain written documentation with the name of the hunter, the hunter’s Conservation ID number, the date of the harvest and Game Check confirmation number. The information can be documented on a piece of paper, or on a transfer of possession certificate available in the Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest or online at outdooralabama.com. WFF also reactivated its toll free Game Check phone number, 1-800-888-7690, to make it easier for those without smartphones or internet access.

“You look at this season’s significant increase in Game Check numbers, and you have to wonder what our phone survey is going to tell us,” he said of the survey that had previously been done by mail. “If the survey numbers track along with the Game Check numbers like they have in previous years, I suspect we’ll see a pretty good increase in numbers from the phone survey.”

Cook said the COVID-19 restrictions have played a role in the increased harvest of all deer. Many people have discovered or rediscovered many outdoors activities, including hunting.

“We saw that during last year’s turkey season,” he said. “More people were hunting because of work schedules. Some people were working remotely and were able to schedule more time in the woods to kill more deer.”

Environmental conditions that improved deer habitat also likely contributed to an increase in deer harvest, Cook said.

“We had two good years of above average rainfall,” he said. “In some areas, we had a lot of flooding, which makes it hard to hunt during deer season. Some deer that would have normally been harvested didn’t get killed. The other benefit of all that rain is food production. So tough hunting conditions for a couple of years and great growing conditions probably allowed the deer to be a little older and in better condition. Early in the season, people were saying they couldn’t remember seeing body weights this good. Another factor that may be playing into this is the supplemental feeding. When feeding became legal last year, we had a 14-percent increase in harvest. But I wouldn’t attribute corn to the increased quality of the deer.”

Cook said WFF biologists and Law Enforcement personnel continue surveillance throughout the state for evidence of CWD (chronic wasting disease) with a special emphasis on northwest Alabama.

“We’ve increased our sampling efforts because of what’s going on in Mississippi and Tennessee,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to try to detect it early if it shows up in Alabama to give us more options on how to manage it. We haven’t detected anything. Mississippi added a couple of counties this year. Alcorn County (Mississippi) is the one closest to us. It really didn’t change our response protocol because it was still far enough away. Lauderdale County (Alabama) is the county within 25 miles of that positive case, and we had already stepped up surveillance in that area. We’re still working on meeting our target for testing. We’ve sampled a little more than 1,700 deer this year, more than we have before, and we’ll continue to sample more throughout the year.”

The Alabama deer herd is estimated at between 1.25 million and 1.5 million animals. As the Game Check numbers and phone survey data are analyzed for harvest on the county level as well as age and sex ratios, Cook said WFF will be able to update its population estimates after deer season ends February 10.

“We’ve got some areas where the deer population is down and other areas with more deer than they’ve ever had,” Cook said. “Places with good habitat will have good deer populations. It sure appears our deer herd is healthy. It’s going to be interesting to see what the phone survey numbers are, but it sure appears the harvest took a pretty good jump up this year, which I think will be an indicator of two things – we have more deer, but I think it also shows that people spent more time hunting. This deer season appears to be one of the best we’ve had in a long time. I hope people are able to take advantage of the last few days of the season. It will be prime time to be in the woods, especially in south Alabama.”

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

3 months ago

Woodcock monitoring program tracks migration routes

(Billy Pope/Contributed, YHN)

Seth Maddox will head out in February with other Division biologists to do some woodcock hunting. Yes, that is after the woodcock hunting season closes on January 31, but Maddox will not be using a conventional harvest tool. He will be wielding a long-handled dipnet.

Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Migratory Gamebird coordinator, will be on a mission to continue a woodcock tagging program to determine migration routes as well as conduct genetic studies on the birds also known as timberdoodles.

The woodcock is a migratory bird similar in size to the bobwhite quail but with a long, slim bill. The birds winter in the Southeast, which means Alabama will have a population of woodcock during the winter hunting seasons. As soon as it starts to warm, woodcock head north to their breeding grounds.

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Maddox and WFF are working with the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative to trap birds and attach transmitters that will track movement. For the first time since 1985, woodcock were trapped in 2020 in Alabama to become part of the study, which is spearheaded by the University of Maine.

“The project started about four years ago,” Maddox said. “The Cooperative was interested in migration patterns. They began putting transmitters on birds in the fall for their migration to the South. Here, we started putting transmitters on birds in the winter, following their spring migration to the North. These studies will narrow down key factors, like stopovers on the migration routes. It will determine if they have to travel farther because the habitat has been degraded or lost over the years.”

In February 2020, Maddox and crew went afield with spotlights, a thermal camera and the long dipnet.

“Once we locate the woodcock, we use the spotlight to try to disorient it for a minute,” he said. “We move forward, shaking the light to get close enough to catch the bird with the net. It’s not quite like a snipe hunt, where you have a cloth bag or burlap sack,” he said, referring to the prank where some unsuspecting individual is left in the middle of the woods holding the bag.

Maddox said last year they saw hundreds of woodcock, but they proved very difficult to capture.

“We ended up catching 13 birds,” he said. “We had seven transmitters to deploy, and we deployed all seven. We put four transmitters on females and three on males. The transmitters (less than the size of a quarter) on the females will give us information on nest success on the breeding grounds. We also took feather samples to do isotope analysis to determine geographic origin. You can look at the carbon in the feather and see where the bird was hatched. We also took blood samples for genetic analysis to determine population connectivity.”

The woodcock population is confined to the Eastern U.S., bordered by the Mississippi River to the West, the Canadian Provinces of Manitoba, Quebec and Novia Scotia to the north and Florida to the south. Maddox said where the prairie starts to the West is where the woodcock population ends. One of the birds tagged in Alabama last year traveled 2,100 miles into Manitoba. The woodcock are managed in two management regions, the central and eastern. Alabama is in the central management region.

“Woodcock are prevalent in the eastern U.S.,” Maddox said. “Alabama, being in the center of the Southeast, is kind of like a funnel for the birds that come from Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Quebec, New York and Pennsylvania during their winter migration. We have a lot of habitat for woodcock with our woods and timber harvest operations.”

Maddox said ideal habitat for woodcock is forests that have been manipulated.

“Logging operations really help,” he said. “Every time you clear-cut a patch of land, when it starts coming back up, that first five or 10 years provides the ideal cover for woodcock. When the trees get tall, the woodcock don’t use it as much because there is less underbrush.”

Alabama has a 45-day woodcock season with a three-bird daily bag limit. A few hunters specifically target woodcock, but most are incidental harvests by quail hunters. Woodcock is a federally managed migratory species.

“Typically, woodcock hunting involves a pointing dog, kind of like quail hunting,” Maddox said. “But woodcock prefer thicker habitat along streamside management zones. You really have to get into the habitat because the birds hold very tight. It’s hard to hunt them without a dog. Their main source of food is earthworms. They use that long bill to probe into the soil and pull those worms out. They need really loose, moist-soil habitat that is found in bottomland areas. They’ll be along the water edges in thick cover. They won’t be in standing water, just a moist-soil environment where there is thick cover.”

Other hunters may encounter woodcock when pursuing other game.

“This time of the year, hunters see them from their deer stands or when they are walking to and from their stands,” Maddox said. “You’ll see woodcock feeding in the mornings or at night and after rains in harvested agricultural fields. You might also see the males doing a mating display, known as the sky dance, where they jump and fly 50 feet off the ground. As they fly in an arching pattern, the wind passing over their wing feathers will make a distinctive musical twitter sound. Their call is a peenting sound, which is sort of like a buzz. It sounds a little bit like an insect, like a cicada. While the birds are down here, they are pair bonding. The male is trying to attract a female with the displays. Then the pair will migrate north and establish a nest.”

According to the WFF hunter survey, about 300 hunters take advantage of the woodcock season with an average annual harvest of about 2,000 birds.

“The big harvest states for woodcock are Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota,” Maddox said. “I think most of our woodcock are taken by hunters who are probably not targeting woodcock. They are likely targeting quail. With the quail population at low levels, hunting woodcock could be a good way to get your bird dogs out and get some exercise. We have woodcock on lots of our WMAs (wildlife management areas), and you probably won’t run into many woodcock hunters. You’ll likely have it to yourself.”

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

4 months ago

Alabama 2020 oyster harvest doubles previous year’s totals

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Harvest numbers for the 2020 Alabama oyster season, which ended on December 23, indicate the state’s oyster ecosystem is bouncing back in a big way.

That 2020 harvest of 22,000 sacks doubled the previous year’s harvest, thanks to improving conditions and a new method developed by the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) to determine when and where oysters could be harvested.

“I think it was a very successful season,” said Colonel Scott Bannon, MRD Director. “We think we are turning a corner on the things that we can control, which is the amount of harvest and the areas harvested as we work to rebuild our public reefs. As long as environmental conditions are favorable, I think we’re going to continue to see growth. With as many as 144 (oyster) boats on the water during a day, there was a lot of bottom that was turned, which is healthy for that reef by exposing shell and cultch material. When you don’t have harvest on a reef, you’re not exposing shell that may have been silted over. When you expose that shell and cultch material, it makes it available for spat (oyster larvae) to attach for future seasons. It’s that harvester’s circle. You work the reef; the spat sets and the reef expands. A lot of benefits came out of the harvest we had. It was a financial boost to the local economy, but also for the rest of the state and other areas that were receiving our oysters. It was a very desirable product.”

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Bannon said the demand for Alabama oysters was high, not only because of their quality, but also because the only other Gulf state with a fully open oyster season was Texas.

“It was a high-value product for a limited availability due to COVID,” he said. “COVID still had a negative impact on the oystering because there are still places around the country that are not open to sit-down-style dining. That’s where oysters generally are consumed in the half-shell market. The quarts and gallons of shucked oysters still had a market in stores, but COVID did have an impact.”

Dana Harbison Taylor at Anna’s Oysters in Bayou La Batre, which has been processing oysters for 28 years from sources around the Gulf of Mexico, said the 2020 Alabama season was a welcome success despite COVID.

“This year I saw more boats, so more people were interested in catching oysters,” Taylor said. “And I saw larger oysters than last year, which means the oysters are growing. Also, I could also tell by how fast the oyster catchers were coming in. It shows how many oysters were there. They weren’t scratching, as we call it, trying to find oysters. They were catching them pretty fast. When the season kicked off in October, some of the seasoned catchers would be pulling up to the docks within 45 minutes to an hour. It was unreal how fast they were coming in.”

Taylor said the demand for Alabama oysters was excellent for a variety of reasons.

“People had a lot of interest in Alabama oysters because they have a meatier texture, so they were fatter,” she said. “They were salty. They have an all-around different taste. We have a lot of locals and businesses that requested Alabama oysters. We had a truck waiting on the catchers to bring the oysters in. We were determined to buy Alabama oysters. And the catchers were telling me the reefs are loaded with oysters. They said there were oysters everywhere. I think it’s awesome.”

Bannon said the development of a grid system for management of the oyster reefs allowed MRD to be a great deal more flexible in opening and closing areas to harvest.

“Last year, during the season, we had some areas where harvesters were concentrating and probably overworking,” Bannon said. “But we felt there were other areas with harvestable oysters (at least 3 inches in length) they were not accessing, and we didn’t have a mechanism to close portions of areas we had open. We developed a grid system with 500 by 500 square meter grids so we could open and close those grids. Now we can use the grid system to narrow the areas of harvest. That does multiple things. It gives us an idea of specific areas where people are harvesting, which helps account for the oysters that are coming off the reef. We can then compare that area harvest to our preseason surveys and make season adjustments.”

Bannon said that situation occurred this year at the Cedar Point West Zone. MRD closed Cedar Point West after the northern end received a lot of harvest pressure and opened Cedar Point East. After surveying other sections of Cedar Point West and finding harvestable oysters, MRD was able to use the grid system to reopen a portion of Cedar Point West while keeping the northern end closed.

“That gave the harvesters an extra 4,000 sacks from that area,” Bannon said of the sack measurement that equals a bushel basket. “Some people are saying we’re using the grids to exclude them from harvesting in certain areas. That is true once they have worked to what we feel is the optimum yield. But we also use it to open areas where we think they will have additional opportunities for harvest. We feel like it was pretty successful.”

Oyster harvesters can go to www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/saltwater-fishing and look for the Oyster OMS Grid Map tab. Once there they can turn on location services, which will show the harvesters which grid they are in at the time. If harvesters don’t have a smartphone, MRD has an oyster management trailer available to provide graphics with the latest information.

“Marine Resources does not gather any information from those location services,” Bannon said. “We do not see the location of the oyster catcher from the website. We’re not tracking people. It’s there for the catchers’ benefit, and some of the catchers really liked it. They were able to move around. Some of them were really able to take advantage of it. I think it was a very effective tool to allow them to harvest maximum yield.”

MRD determines maximum yield by doing preseason dives and surveying one-square-meter blocks of the bottom to determine the oyster density and viability of the oyster habitat.

“We take everything from that one square meter and determine how much cultch material is there and how many live oysters are there from spat stage to undersized to harvestable oysters,” Bannon said. “We use that to determine how many sacks are available in an area. This year, we estimated that we could harvest around 19,000 sacks. During the season, we watched where people were working. We sent staff out to see them working on the reefs and conducted additional surveys, which allowed us to expand from 19,000 sacks to 22,000 sacks.”

Despite the encouraging results of the 2020 oyster season, MRD is working to revive some oyster reefs that have not been productive lately.

“Environmental changes have impacted the traditional oyster beds in Mobile Bay,” Bannon said. “We are working on some restoration projects. We’re looking at elevating the bottom in some of those areas because there is low dissolved oxygen on the bottom, and the oysters can’t survive. Once you elevate them in the water column, they have the potential to survive. We have a project called mounds and furrows, where we have piled shells and gravel in different fashions to get it higher in the water column. We will survey those areas to see if the spat is adhering to that material and surviving because the oxygen levels are higher. We will also be expanding our hatchery in Gulf Shores (Claude Peteet Mariculture Center) to produce oyster larvae to be delivered to an expanded program at Dauphin Island, where we place that larvae on shell. Those shells containing small oysters can then be used to revitalize some of the historic oyster reefs. Oysters are important, not only for harvest – we all enjoy that – but they are critical to the ecosystem. They are crucial for water quality, and they are important as a food supply for some of the other marine species. You need a good supply of oysters to have a healthy harvest and a healthy ecosystem.”

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

Black Belt Adventures urges hunters to donate venison

(ALBBAA/Contributed, YHN)

Hunters Helping the Hungry has provided more than a half-million pounds of ground venison to those in need in Alabama, and the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association (ALBBAA) is encouraging hunters to make a special effort to donate harvested deer to the program during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend of January 15-18.

Hunters Helping the Hungry (HHH) started in Alabama in 1999 through funding derived from the Alabama Conservation and Natural Resources Foundation, which is chaired by Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). The Foundation pays processors in Alabama $1 per pound for the ground venison, which is then donated to food banks and charities in Alabama.

Commissioner Blankenship and Pam Swanner, ALBBAA Director, said the impact of the global pandemic has greatly increased the need for donations of protein-rich venison for those impacted by the virus.

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“We know this past year has been difficult for many, and we hope this targeted weekend will assist in providing healthy, organic ground venison to families in need all across the Black Belt region,” Swanner said. “During this time of year, and especially with the impact of COVID-19, we couldn’t think of a better way to encourage sportsmen and women to utilize this free program to support the areas in which they go afield.”

Commissioner Blankenship said Alabama’s deer herd provides a bountiful resource that can be shared in this time of need.

“I think Hunters Helping the Hungry is a great program,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We have such a healthy population of deer in our state. A lot of landowners need to harvest more does off their property to keep the deer herd in balance. When the freezer is full, this a great opportunity to manage your deer and donate the harvested animals to Hunters Helping the Hungry, which then donates the venison to the food banks to help those in need. We want to make sure there is no waste in the harvest of these deer.

“With the COVID situation and food banks being relied on by a lot of people to provide their protein and sustenance, it’s a great opportunity for deer hunters in the state to make sure those food banks are stocked with good meat to help the people in those communities.”

Because the processing fee is paid by the ACNRF, there is no cost to the hunters.

“All they have to do is drop the deer off at one of the participating processors with a Game Check confirmation number, and the processor takes care of the deer and sends it to the food bank,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Currently, eight processors are participating in the HHH program within the Black Belt with 15 food banks participating within the region. The participating processors are Buckster’s Deer Processing in Montgomery County, Green’s Deer Processing in Clarke County, M & S Wildlife Services in Choctaw County, Nichols Deer Processing in Dallas County, Richey’s Deer Processing in Hale County, John’s Deer Processing in Lee County, Milliron’s Deer Processing in Russell County, and Venison LLC in Wilcox County. For a full list of participating processors and food banks statewide, please visit https://www.outdooralabama.com/programs/hunters-helping-hungry.

Paying the processing fee for HHH donations is only one of many benefits ACNRF provides.

“The Foundation does a lot of good work to help promote hunting, fishing and wildlife management in the state,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “Scholarships are provided at the University of Alabama and Auburn University in different disciplines. We provide seed and other materials for youth dove hunts around the state. We help support the Adult Mentored Hunting Program. A lot of things that come through the Foundation really support the work of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, especially those things that encourage people to become hunters and fishermen and get out and enjoy the outdoors.”

The Foundation has also been impacted by COVID-19, limiting the methods it can use for fundraising.

“The Foundation receives contributions from interested people throughout the state, but the biggest fundraiser is the Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “Due to COVID, we were not able to have the hunt last year, and we won’t be able to have it in 2021. But we’re counting on 2022 to be the best Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt ever.”

Commissioner Blankenship said individuals, companies or groups that want to donate to the Foundation can contact the ADCNR Commissioner’s office at 334-242-3486.

Commissioner Blankenship also serves on the ALBBAA board, which he said is a very natural partnership between the Black Belt group and the Foundation.

“The ALBBAA accentuates the great hunting we have in the Black Belt region and tries to help people in that area through the natural resources, which are so abundant in the Black Belt,” he said. “I really enjoy the work of the ALBBAA to promote those counties in the Alabama Black Belt. Most of those areas have smaller cities and small communities where hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation are a big part of the way of life there and a big part of the economy. The more people we bring to that region of the state, the more it will help with economic development and economic resources for those counties. I really appreciate the work ALBBAA does in the less populated but very important areas of our state.”

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

The ALBBAA’s mission is to promote and enhance outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities in the Black Belt in a manner that provides economic and ecological benefits to the region and its citizens. Visit www.alabamablackbeltadventures.org for more information on the outdoors opportunities and cultural heritage in the Black Belt.

Those who donate a deer to the HHH program during the designated food drive and tag Alabama Black Belt Adventures on Facebook or Instagram will be entered into a random drawing for an antler mount from Foster’s Taxidermy Supply in Montgomery.

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

4 months ago

WFF reactivates 800 number for game check

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

The toll-free Game Check phone number, 1-800-888-7690, is back and better than ever. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has reactivated the number for hunters to comply with the reporting requirements for the harvests of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.

What makes the reactivated number better is that hunters who use this method will talk to a live person at the call center that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Chuck Sykes, Director of the ADCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said the 800 number had been deactivated because of the faulty data it produced under the previous format.

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“We had the IVR (interactive voice response) for the first couple of years of Game Check, where the computer took people’s information,” Sykes said. “The data we were getting through that system was faulty and was costing a fair amount of money, so we chose to eliminate that option.”

Hunters were urged to use the Outdoor AL app on their smartphones when possible. Harvests could also be reported at www.outdooralabama.com.

Sykes said WFF officials have allowed hunters to call in harvest reports to district offices this year if they did not have internet access or had trouble with the Outdoor AL app.

“Compliance with Game Check has definitely gone up this year, and we felt it was the right thing to do to give hunters that third option again,” he said. “But we were not going to waste time, money and energy on a computer system that would produce bad data. Now we have a 24-7 live operator who can help people Game Check their deer. It’s a more customer-friendly experience, and it gives us the data we desperately need.”

Amy Silvano, Assistant Chief in the WFF’s Wildlife Section, is in charge of the 800-number system and saw immediate use of the phone option.

“In the first 24 hours, 172 people had utilized it,” Silvano said. “And, I want to point out that this is not a new number. It’s the same Game Check number from before. We just switched from an IVR to a call service. So, it’s not a new way to report it. We had problems with the original system. We weren’t getting all the data we needed. We might get the date of harvest, but sometimes that was it. It was prompting through, allowing for the confirmation number, and we weren’t getting good viable data. Now you will have a live person on the line, and they will walk you through the reporting system.”

Silvano said the viable data include overall harvest per county and date of harvest. That provides WFF officials with a look at the harvest throughout the season.

“The date of harvest allows us to determine the peaks and bounds of harvest, and the county data allows us to look at the distribution of harvest across the state, because we do have multiple zones,” she said. “That information, along with our rut map, helps us define the zones as well as the timings of the seasons that we recommend. Overall, our harvest data is our population metrics. We can look at the transient harvests. If our harvest is going down in certain areas and our hunter numbers are being maintained, we know something is going on in the population that is not attributed to hunter activity. That could mean there is not enough deer for them to harvest. The same holds true with turkeys or any other game species. We would expect if hunters are declining, the harvest would also decline at the same rate. The overall data allows us to look at that. With the county data and date of harvest, we can look at the localized scale at zone levels.”

Silvano said the county data with dates of harvest allows WFF officials to determine the season dates for each zone that offer hunters the best time to be in the woods during peak rutting activity.

When hunters call the 800 number, they will first hear a recorded message prompting them to have their information ready before speaking to an operator. Callers must have their Conservation ID or ADCNR hunting license number to begin the reporting process with the live operator, who will input the data from the harvest.

Hunters will be asked to provide the date and county of harvest, type of land (public or private) and the antler point count when reporting a deer. To report a turkey harvest, callers will be asked for the date and county of harvest, public or private land, the turkey’s age (jake or adult) and beard and spur lengths.

Exempt hunters can especially benefit from the 800-number option, according to Silvano.

“With a live person on the line, it helps hunters, especially hunters who are license-exempt,” she said. “The operator can go into the system and generate a HELP (Hunter Exempt License Privilege) or Conservation ID (CID) number and check the deer or turkey for them. This provides a lot more benefit than a recorded system did. We can assure that all the data is being collected. The call center is entering the information into the system like it was the hunter.”

Silvano said the smartphone Outdoor AL app (version 1.3.2 or higher) continues to be the most frequently used method to report harvests at 77 percent, followed by online at outdooralabama.com.

“The 800 number is working as planned,” she said. “The good thing is the number is the same, so people who used the phone system before will have access to that same number.”

Reporting is still required within 48 hours of any deer or turkey harvest or when possession of the deer or turkey is transferred to a processor, taxidermist or another individual.

“When we updated the possession regulation this year, it caused the compliance to go up,” Sykes said. “To make it easier on the processors, taxidermists and folks who don’t have a smartphone or internet access, we felt it was a wise use of our resources to reactivate the 800 number. But the most important thing is that we get quality data.”

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

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

Learn more about Alabama’s Game Check reporting requirements at www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/game-check-and-harvest-record-information.

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

4 months ago

SALT name reflects expansion of conservation efforts

Habitat preservation and enhancement like this beautiful vista on Dog River are among SALT's goals. (SALT/contributed)

Heading into the new year, the foundation that has promoted the conservation of unique habitats in Baldwin County has broadened its scope with its vision and a name change. What once was the Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation, which has been in existence for 30 years, is now the South Alabama Land Trust (SALT).

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) Commissioner Chris Blankenship is thankful for the work of the group, past, present and future.

“The Weeks Bay Reserve is managed by the ADCNR State Lands Division,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “The Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation, now SALT, has been a great partner to assist us with the acquisition and preservation of properties within the Weeks Bay Reserve boundary and in the watershed overall. I am glad to see them expand their scope to do good work in other areas of Coastal Alabama. I know they will continue to provide support services to protect and enhance the mission of not only the Weeks Bay Reserve but for coastal conservation overall.”

Ellis Allen, SALT’s Chairman of the Board, said the name change was appropriate for the group’s future.

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“Historically, the Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation started just as a friends group,” said Allen, who has been with the foundation for 25 years. “About a decade ago, we expanded our mission to more than a friends group and became an accredited land trust. With that change, we started holding some conservation easements. We started doing land monitoring. We did more than just managing a few pitcher plant bogs and a little watershed.

“This new change is kind of an expansion of our scope but not necessarily a change in mission. We will still be concerned with pitcher plant bogs, estuaries, marine invertebrates and water quality. But we will now have properties that we own outright or manage through conservation easements that have been granted to us.”

Allen said SALT manages property in south Baldwin County and on Dauphin Island and will soon hold a conservation easement in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

“Our scope has expanded, and our footprint has expanded, so the South Alabama Land Trust is more inclusive of that, rather than saying the Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation, which would imply only the watershed of Weeks Bay,” he said.

In contrast, the property SALT will manage in the Elberta area is mostly upland habitat.

“The man who gave that to us wanted to set an example for his grandchildren,” Allen said. “We will manage it for the preservation of watershed to make sure it’s not getting eroded, polluted, stripped or allowing unsustainable agriculture. It will be like we manage our other properties.”

One of the properties on Dauphin Island that SALT is associated with is the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary, a popular attraction for birders from around the country who visit the property and take advantage of a 1,000-foot-long boardwalk that traverses the barrier island habitat.

SALT has recently been granted a conservation easement in the Gulf Shores area. The easement surrounds Oyster Bay and includes several hundred acres north of the Intracoastal Waterway. The property was acquired by the City of Gulf Shores with funding through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF).

The GEBF expenditures in Alabama are coordinated by ADCNR. “The Oyster Bay project will include installation of interpretive kiosks, walking paths and public access including kayak launches. It is a good project for Coastal Alabama. The conservation easement held by SALT will ensure this property will always be preserved,” said Commissioner Blankenship.

Allen noted that the Oyster Bay easement is SALT’s first collaboration with a municipality but that the organization is also working with the City of Mobile on a conservation easement on Perch Creek in the headwaters for Dog River.

“We’re working with municipalities; we’re working with individuals on purchases, donations and conservation easements,” Allen said.

SALT has also been involved in the acquisition of a large tract of land that belonged to the Holmes family on Magnolia River. This project was funded through the Natural Resources Damage Assessment program, where Commissioner Blankenship serves as the lead trustee for Alabama.

“I am thrilled we were able to work with our federal partners to get the money for this key acquisition,” said Blankenship. “Preserving land around Weeks Bay and its tributaries is critical to maintaining the ecological treasure that we have in that area.”

Allen said SALT’s origin started many years ago through the work of John Borom, Skipper Tonsmeire and Jack Edwards, who secured funding through the Tennessee-Tombigbee mitigation process to facilitate the creation of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

“I’m really proud of where we are,” Allen said. “We have our fingers in a whole lot of pies. We’re growing in our scope, in our board and our geography. We’ve come a long, long way.

“We love to work with Mobile. Plus, Foley is growing exponentially. With all the paving of streets and parking lots, it is channeling water into areas, increasing the risk of flooding downstream in the Magnolia and Bon Secour rivers. We would love to work with cities to talk about sustainable paving and permeable surfaces and be conscientious of where the water is going. If we’re going to maintain the quality of life we have, we’re going to have to be very careful about how and where we build.”

The growth in SALT’s board includes incorporating the younger generation to bring in new ideas and help with the outreach.

One of those new board members is Chesley Allegri, who moved back to Fairhope, her hometown, about five years ago.

“After I moved back, I was looking for a way to reconnect and get involved in the community but do it in way that I was passionate about,” Allegri said. “The outdoors and environment are important to me. I knew a little bit about Weeks Bay Foundation but not a lot. I got involved by volunteering at the Bald Eagle Bash. I reached out to people I knew on the board to see how I could get involved more. I was lucky that there were some very dedicated people on the board who had served a long time, and they wanted to add some new people.”

Allegri said one of her goals is to get more people involved in preserving the wonderful habitat and enjoying outdoors opportunities that are plentiful in south Alabama.

“What I want to focus on is making sure people who move to our communities are aware that just because you don’t have a kayak doesn’t mean you can’t go out and do a guided kayak tour,” she said. “If they don’t love the water, they are not going to support it and care to keep it clean. We want to teach people why the conservation of land on the water is important. We can’t just build on every square inch of water. Education is not just about lecturing somebody about a land trust or conservation. We want to get them out there to enjoy it so they will want to protect it. We want people to learn to love our natural resources.

“And even though we are a land trust, we want to make sure we have places open to the public to enjoy these resources.”

Allegri suggests anyone interested in preserving the outdoors way of life in south Alabama should consider attending a Bald Eagle Bash, taking a guided kayak tour or volunteering for restoration and cleanup projects.

“We did a restoration project last year on Fish River,” she said. “We planted many, many pine trees by hand. It was really fun. Especially now more than ever, people want to be outside doing things.”

Visit https://southalabamalandtrust.org/events/ to learn more about nature walks, guided paddles and other activities. Go to https://southalabamalandtrust.org/get-involved/ to learn about the volunteer opportunities and find a link to sign up as a volunteer.

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

Tips for hunting the rut in Alabama

(Gary Mitchell/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

While the white-tailed deer rut has come and gone in a few areas in Alabama, hunters in the majority of the state are dealing with the December doldrums, waiting for the breeding season to begin in earnest.

Alabama native Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said the whitetails in the bulk of the state adjust to the increased activity in the woods, and hunters are having to deal with a lull in deer movement.

“People kill deer the first couple of weeks of the season, and, in my opinion, those deer get enough pressure that they go underground for a few weeks until the rut brings them back out,” Sykes said.

He said hunters should soon start seeing evidence of early rutting behavior with increased activity by the bucks.

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“Typically, you’ll start seeing a few scrapes and rubs, and you’ll start seeing a few does without fawns right up under them,” Sykes said. “The does are starting to wean those fawns, getting ready for the rut. So, you’ll see button bucks walking around aimlessly by themselves.”

Bucks paw the ground to make scrapes where urine is deposited as a scent marker. A licking branch, where the buck can leave additional scent, is usually above a scrape. The rubs are the results of bucks using their antlers to debark trees, often cedars, to mark boundaries and leave more scent.

“Earlier in the season, you’ve got bachelor groups of bucks running together,” Sykes said. “You’ll see a bunch of rubs and scrapes in certain locations where they’re establishing their pecking order.

“This time of year, when you see those scrapes and rubs, it’s deer laying out their territories, getting in areas where they can intercept a bunch of does. That’s a big portion of the mating process. When you start seeing those scrapes being freshened up, those are excellent places to hunt. A scrape is like a deer nightclub. They go to it and lay down some scent. It lets everyone know who’s in the neighborhood.”

In early January, hunters will likely see a few bucks chasing does, but Sykes says that activity is only by the younger bucks.

“Those bucks usually jump the gun by a couple of weeks over your mature deer,” he said. “It’s like people who raise cows. You put a young bull in the pasture, and he’ll follow a cow around three or four days before she’s receptive, a couple of days while she’s receptive and then three or four days after she’s receptive. They waste a lot of energy.

“You put an older bull in the pasture, and he’s going to lay around until the time is right. He conserves energy. Bucks are the same way. Those young bucks are rambunctious and moving around. The mature bucks, you’re not going to see them moving until it’s right.”

As for the timing of the rut, Sykes says peak rutting activity varies very little from year to year.

“You can go back and look at our historical stocking data, and the deer rut takes place within a day or two every year in those certain locations,” he said. “When people say the deer just aren’t rutting because the weather is hot, well, the deer are still rutting. They have the ability to do it at night when the weather cools down. The rut takes place whether you see it or not.

“That’s where the environmental conditions and hunting pressure have effects. If deer are getting pressured a lot, they may not move around during daylight hours. They will wait until after dark.”

Sykes said several misconceptions about the deer rut in Alabama persist, especially with the advent of social media platforms.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is I’ve got this big buck and I’m going to save him because he’s going to breed 15 or 20 does on my property,” he said. “That’s just not the case. Whitetails are not like elk, where a bull elk might have a big harem of 10 or 15 cows. In a good year, a buck may sire four to five fawns.

“Another huge misconception that you see all the time on social media is people talking about taking this buck out of the herd because they didn’t want him breeding and passing along bad genetics. In most cases, that’s just an excuse to pull the trigger. With free-range, wild deer, culling cannot change genetics. There are just too many factors involved. Half of the genetics are coming from the doe.”

Sykes insists hunters should not try to cull bucks based on antler characteristics. Instead, cull bucks based on age.

“You need to base your decision on whether you want to feed that deer another year,” he said. “You have limited resources of food, cover and water, so that’s how you make a determination, not because of what people think are inferior genetics. If you see a buck that has a nice rack on one side and a spike on the other, more than likely that occurred because of an injury to the pedicle (antler base).”

Sykes has a long history of hunting deer in Alabama. He was a guide at Bent Creek Lodge near Jachin, Alabama, for five years before managing Circle N Lodge in east Alabama for eight years. He was a wildlife consultant for 20 years before becoming WFF Director in 2012.

“I’m kind of an oddball,” Sykes said of his deer-hunting tactics. “I like to hunt deer before the rut when I can pattern them better on food sources. The rut can be a wonderful time to hunt, and it can also be extremely frustrating. If the conditions are bad and the bucks are locked down with does, you may not see a thing. Then on that one day when all the conditions are right, you get a hot doe running through your property and you may see six or eight bucks chasing her. That’s what everybody wants to see.

“But the rut can be very hit-or-miss. It can be extremely frustrating, or it can be extremely euphoric.”

While Sykes is hunting food sources right now, when the serious rutting activity starts, he is going to areas where he can find the most females.

“In west Alabama where I spend most of my time, I’m hunting does when the rut starts,” he said. “I’m going to be in a place with as many does as I can find if I’m trying to look for a mature deer.

“There’s one thing about the rut that is fairly interesting. I’ve got 10 or 15 trail cameras out that I’ve been monitoring since June. You think you know who everybody is. You’ve got your hit list together. Then, come January 20, you’ll have a deer show up that you have no idea who he is. It could be good or bad. You have some of your regulars go see the neighbors for a few days, but their deer may come to see you.”

One of the most important factors of successful hunting during the rut is having the time to spend in the woods, which is why many hunters take significant vacation time in January.

“You can’t kill him sitting at home,” Sykes said. “You’ve got to be out there as much as possible for when the magic happens.”

However, hunters can’t be haphazard about their approach to hunting a mature buck.

“You do your homework,” Sykes said. “You do your scouting. You try to plan as much as you can. And when the conditions are right, that’s when you go.

“One of the biggest mistakes I think people make is they have a deer in an area where they have a stand, and they want to hunt him so bad that they go in with a bad wind direction or conditions that aren’t right. Typically, for those older deer, you’ve got one day you can ease in and get him. If the wind shifts or you make a mistake, it makes it 10 times harder to try to find him again. I hunt the wind. If the wind is not right, I do not go.”

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

Monroe County acquisition protects Red Hills salamander habitat

(Eric Soehren/Contributed)

A significant step in protecting an amphibian species that only lives in Alabama was celebrated last week at the Forever Wild Red Hills Complex in Monroe County. However, the latest acquisition of almost 5,000 acres of Red Hills salamander habitat comes with many more benefits, including public recreational opportunities like additional hunting and fishing.

Representatives from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and The Nature Conservancy toured the Red Hills salamander’s specific habitat found only in steep bluffs in Alabama’s Red Hills region of Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, Butler, Monroe and Wilcox counties.

“This acquisition by the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) and Forever Wild through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the latest in the string of acquisitions that started a little more than 10 years ago,” said Chris Blankenship, ADCNR Commissioner. “It now totals a little more than 11,000 acres. I think it’s important to note that we’re not done. Our staff in Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and State Lands, through Forever Wild, is continuing to work with the Alabama Forestry Commission and others to continue to add to the critical habitat that is in public ownership here.”

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Blankenship said a tour of the complex this summer with WFF’s Chuck Sykes and Doug Deaton made him realize what makes the Red Hills region special.

“To get to see the steep hillsides that make the home of the Red Hills salamander and see how unique that habitat is here in Alabama was special,” Blankenship said. “This is a unique place.

“This project is proof that partnerships between state and federal agencies, conservation groups and industry are vital to conservation efforts throughout the country. We are grateful for the assistance Director Leo Miranda and everyone with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have provided to permanently protect this critical habitat and provide additional public hunting opportunities.”

Leo Miranda, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the amount of the grant used for the addition to the Red Hills salamander habitat is unprecedented.

“This is the largest Section 6 (Recovery Land Acquisition) proposal that has been funded in this region,” Miranda said of the $9 million grant acquired through Endangered Species Act funding. “That’s a big deal. The Alabama Field Office staff are rock stars. We were able to get support all the way to Washington, D.C., and nobody had any hesitation on this project.

“We have a vision statement in our region. The first word in that vision statement is ‘together.’ Together is the only way we can accomplish projects like this. A big part of that vision is together we will connect lands and waters to sustain fish, wildlife and plants. That’s what we are doing here. How do we do it? By being visionary leaders, bold innovators and trusted partners.”

Other trusted partners in the acquisition include The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Resources and the Brown-Schutt Trust. The land acquisitions are known as the Red Hills Brown-Schutt Trust tract and the Red Hills Flat Creek Phase III tract. The tracts are located near the community of Franklin in Monroe County, Alabama, and join the 6,140-acre Forever Wild Red Hills Complex in the effort to increase the amount of protected salamander habitat.

Director Miranda said the Endangered Species Act provides benefits far beyond the species that are being protected.

“We use Endangered Species Act dollars to conserve land, but those lands are also supporting outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing,” he said. “Some people say those are incompatible – threatened and endangered species and hunting. No! They go together, and this area will be open in the near future to outdoor recreation and hunting. That is a top priority for me. These two activities are compatible and necessary, because if we don’t get people out enjoying nature by hiking, fishing and hunting – especially now with the COVID situation – we will not get those people to support what we do.”

The habitat protection also benefits other at-risk species like the Bachman’s sparrow, red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, southern hognose snake, coral snake and eastern fox squirrel.

The Red Hills region’s steep slopes are covered in mixed hardwood and provide the shade and moisture needed for the salamander to survive. The translucent, purple-hued amphibian spends most of its time in a burrow, venturing out at night to prey upon small insects and earthworms. The Red Hills salamander, one of the largest lungless salamanders in the world, has been listed as federally threatened since 1977 and has been Alabama’s official amphibian since 2000.

“The Nature Conservancy has been working for 20 years with our partners to protect the unique habitat at the Red Hills of Alabama,” said Mitch Reid, the conservancy’s director in Alabama. “We are thrilled to celebrate the conservation of over 11,000 acres, and the opportunity to open this land to the people of Alabama. We look forward to continuing this work and to bringing new partners into this worthwhile project.

“One of the key messages here is that we can have conservation that is for people and nature. We talk about this not being over. One of the things I’m doing at The Nature Conservancy as state director is really trying to bring the focus of what we have here in Alabama to the international focus. The Red Hills is part of that. The Alabama River is part of that. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is part of that. We’re really starting to leverage the international recognition of what this place means for the world.”

Drew Nix, former WFF employee, and Steve Northcutt of The Nature Conservancy remembered the genesis of the Red Hills conservation effort.

“It all started after a Forever Wild Board meeting,” Northcutt said. “We were standing around talking about areas we needed to protect. We were discussing how we could get federal funds to help Forever Wild.”

Nix’s wife Ericha, also a WFF employee, started writing grant proposals for the acquisition of the Red Hills habitat, and that work culminated in last week’s celebration.

Director Sykes thanked all his staff for their contributions in making the conservation plan come to fruition.

“This is a big deal,” Director Sykes said. “Hopefully, one day when we get finished with this, we can delist a species. That is a milestone in anybody’s career. But, we are also able to provide additional public hunting and recreational access. This is a great win for this area. Outdoor recreation funds a lot of these counties. Like the Commissioner said, it’s not over. We have a lot more to do.”

Commissioner Blankenship added, “I think this is a great example of so many people of different walks of life and groups working together to do this. I think this is a great road map for what we can do in the Perdido River area, how we can do something in north Alabama in the Paint Rock River Valley as we continue to protect critical habitat in the state and provide more public access.”

For more information, visit https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/species/3250 or www.outdooralabama.com/salamanders/red-hills-salamander.

Learn more about the Forever Wild Red Hills Complex at www.alabamaforeverwild.com/red-hills-complex.

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

Last-minute Christmas gifts for outdoors enthusiasts

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed)

Buying Christmas gifts for those who love the outdoors can be a daunting task simply because we tend to already be outfitted for every excursion into the woods or on the water.

If you’re struggling to find that perfect gift, here are a few suggestions that might not have come to mind.

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Alabama State Parks Gift Card

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alabama State Parks system has provided a welcome respite, with ample ways to enjoy our state’s great outdoors. In fact, 11 State Parks have been awarded the TripAdvisor’s “2020 Travelers’ Choice Awards” because of the great reviews.

One of the best ways to share our great parks is to purchase a gift card that can be used at most parks in a variety of ways. The cards can be used at Alabama State Parks campgrounds and gift shops. You can reserve campsites or reserve boats, canoes or kayaks for your outdoors adventures.

You can purchase the gift cards at most Alabama State Parks, or you can go online to https://www.reservealapark.com/AlabamaWebHome/Giftcards/Giftcard.aspx and make the purchase with a credit card. When you click on the gift card link, you will be required to set up an online account to make a purchase.

Black Belt Bounty

In terms of coffee table books, Black Belt Bounty is a gift that deserves prominent display all year-round. The award-winning book, commissioned by the Alabama Black Belt Adventure Association (ALBBAA), celebrates the Black Belt’s rich hunting and fishing heritage and gives an in-depth looks at all that makes the region so special.

The deluxe hardcover book was awarded first place in the Industry Public Relations Category from the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association’s (SEOPA) annual Excellence in Craft awards. It took third place in the Outdoor Book Category by SEOPA. The Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) presented Black Belt Bounty with their featured award for the Best of Industry Public Relations.

The Black Belt includes Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Monroe, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter, Tuscaloosa and Wilcox counties. The region is known for its fertile soil and abundant outdoors opportunities for hunting, fishing and exploration.

Black Belt Bounty chapters include First Hunters and Gatherers; Traditions and Rites of Passage; The Land and Water; Conservation Partners and Practices; Field Trial History; Champion Trainers and Dogs; Photographic Essays: Seasons of Whitetail and Wild Turkey Rituals; Fishing for Bass, Crappie and Catfish; Faces of the Black Belt; Sustainable Living; Wild Game Recipes from Celebrity Chefs; and Signature Dishes from Hunting Lodges.

Visit https://alabamablackbeltadventures.org/blackbeltbountybook/ to purchase Black Belt Bounty.

Full disclosure: I provided three features for the book but don’t receive any compensation from book sales.

Memories of Spring

One of the best turkey hunters I’ve had the pleasure to share the turkey woods with has penned a remarkable memoir of his life chasing the majestic bird. Ron Jolly provides his perspective of spending nearly six decades hunting and videoing wild turkeys across the nation. Memories of Spring shares what drives hunters in their pursuit of this wily bird as well as the memorable turkeys that cause hunters every emotion from jubilation to sweat-inducing nightmares.

Not only is the book an essential read for anyone who pursues wild game, but the book is filled with photos from his award-winning photographer wife, Tes Randle Jolly.

Jolly’s previous boss, Will Primos of “Primos Truth About Hunting” fame, said about the book, “Memories of Spring just may be the latest and greatest insight into turkey hunting that members of the Tenth Legion will salute.”

You can order Memories of Spring from Amazon or send check or money order to Jolly’s Outdoor Visions, 204 Fast Lane, Tuskegee, AL 36083. You can message Ron D. Jolly or Tes Randle Jolly on Facebook for more details.

Ron has also teamed up with another legendary turkey hunter, Preston Pittman, to produce a commemorative Memories of Spring box call. The first run of 200 calls has sold out, but you might be able to get a second edition with a birdseye maple chassis and walnut lid when they return to production this week.

Tenth Legion

That quote from Primos referred to this seminal turkey book from Colonel Tom Kelly, who lived in Mobile and Spanish Fort, Alabama, for most of his life. Kelly wrote Tenth Legion in 1973, and it remains one of the essential reads for turkey hunters today.

This is the way the 93-year-old Kelly, considered the poet laureate of all turkey literature, describes the book: “None of the characters in this book are in any way fictional or imaginary. All are real people who have been known to the author for years. Statements made herein concerning timber, people, or the physiological processes of turkeys are matters of opinion and subject to discussion.

“Statements made herein concerning the thought processes of turkeys, or of deer hunters, are known scientific facts and are not open to question. The author declines to debate the accuracy of these with anyone. He is, however, perfectly willing to fight about them.”

You can order a signed copy of Tenth Legion, 40th Anniversary edition from https://www.tomkellyinc.net/product/tenth-legion-white-edition/ .

Gaston Custom Calls

When it comes to waterfowl calls, David Gaston of Thomasville carries on the tradition of custom-built calls that he learned to build and tune from legendary call-maker Alvin Taylor of Clarendon, Arkansas.

Gaston makes duck calls out of acrylic and wood, although the wood calls are in high demand and are often sold out. If inventory doesn’t show up on https://www.gastoncustomcalls.com/, contact him at gastoncalls@gmail.com or call 251-769-2744 to find out what is in stock.

Hunter Safety System

Be sure the folks on your Christmas list have the proper safety equipment for hunting season, and that means quality harnesses and lifelines.

Hunter Safety Systems, an Alabama company, started making harnesses in 2001 and has an impressive variety of safety harnesses for every need. The company also developed the Lifeline that keeps the hunter attached to the tree at all times.

Visit https://huntersafetysystem.com/ and get free shipping with orders over $35.

ADCNR Lifetime Licenses

If you’re still stumped, head to https://www.outdooralabama.com/license-information and consider purchasing a lifetime license as an ultimate Christmas gift. Click on the lifetime license link for the pertinent information, including the proof of Alabama residency.

License costs are based on the recipient’s age. Those under 2 years old or 50 years and older receive the best prices. For instance, those in that age group can buy a lifetime freshwater fishing license for $178.75 or you can go all out with the hunting, state duck stamp, freshwater and saltwater fishing for $987.70. If you’re between the ages of 12 and 49, that combination package is $1,486.35, still a considerable savings over a lifetime of buying annual licenses. Lifetime licenses are available for individual activities or a variety of combinations.

Time is running out, so get that order in as quickly as you can and have a Merry Christmas!

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

Public land provides opportunities to hunt rut all season

(ADCNR/Contributed, YHN)

Most people think the rutting activity of white-tailed deer in Alabama occurs mostly in January and into February. However, if you’re willing to travel, hunters can take advantage of the rut in the state from mid-November through early February.

Plus, you can hunt the rut during that lengthy period on public land, according to Chris Smith of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division.

Early in the 20th century, Alabama’s deer herd was extremely limited because of unregulated harvest. Most of the animals were in southwest Alabama, with isolated pockets throughout the state. Extensive restocking efforts were conducted, which included trapping and relocating deer from southwest Alabama, mainly from the Clarke County area, as well as bringing in deer from other parts of the United States. Deer were transported from Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

For the most part, the transplanted deer maintained their native rutting activity, which is why Smith, Assistant Chief in the WFF’s Wildlife Section, said hunters can find rutting activity in Alabama for most of deer season.

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

Smith said WFF-owned, maintained or managed wildlife management areas (WMAs) are pretty much scattered throughout the state.

“We’ve got WMAs in the Black Belt region, some in the Cumberland Plateau, some in the Tennessee River Valley,” he said. “We have a WMA in every physiographic region of the state.”

The WFF’s Wildlife Section manages about 750,000 acres within the WMA and Special Opportunity Area (SOA) programs. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) owns 366,000 acres through WFF, the State Lands Division and Forever Wild Land Trust. Federally owned acreage of 345,000 acres is managed through cooperative agreements with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. About 38,000 acres are privately owned acreage managed through “In-Kind” lease agreements.

“One of the unique things to me and something that people are starting to realize is that the rut situation across the state allows somebody to hunt during rutting activity from the first of November until the end of deer season on February 10,” Smith said.

This year, Zone D in northwest Alabama and Zone E with areas in northeast and southeast Alabama opened the gun deer season for antlered bucks on November 7 and their season will close on January 27, 2021.

The Black Warrior WMA is in Zone D, and the Choccolocco WMA is in Zone E.

“For the first time, we had gun season and multiple gun hunts during the peak rut on those WMAs,” Smith said. “This year, the season opened November 7, and I keep getting emails with photos of some superb mature bucks taken on those two WMAs because they’re hunting during the rut.”

Despite the regular gun deer season closing on January 27 in Zone D and Zone E, the gun hunts on Black Warrior and Choccolocco end in December.

“We don’t have January hunts on those WMAs because a lot of those bucks have dropped their antlers,” Smith said. “We don’t want to have any hunts where people might shoot a buck thinking it’s a doe because it didn’t have antlers.”

Of course, white-tailed deer is not the only hunting opportunity on public land in the state.

“Several of our WMAs have fantastic squirrel and rabbit hunting,” Smith said. “One of the opportunities that is coming along through some habitat work we’ve been doing the last several years is we’re starting to see an increase in our bobwhite quail populations. That is something a lot of people would like to see.

“The habitat work involves converting commercial forests into longleaf pine forest. And we’re starting to manage some early successional habitat. We’re starting to see a response to that. We monitor quail covey calls. Although it’s not going gangbusters, in these WMAs where this habitat work is being done, we’re seeing an increase in the number of coveys each year.”

Smith said if anyone is hesitant about hunting on one of the WMAs or land available to hunting through the Forever Wild program, they can contact WFF personnel for advice.

“One thing people seem to be afraid to do is to give us a call,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who just decided to call us one day. In that phone conversation, they’re kind of shocked that we could provide so much helpful information. That’s our job. I would encourage people who are interested in hunting our WMAs to call the district office or the WMA manager. Their jobs are providing hunting habitat and hunting access. Now sometimes they are busy, but don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

With new technology, a plethora of information about the public hunting opportunities is available, but Smith said nothing can replace boots on the ground.

“I hunt Hollins WMA for turkeys,” he said. “When I started hunting there, I wanted to learn the land. You can go and hunt, but, while you’re hunting, take the opportunity to learn the access points and terrain.

“And take advantage of map programs like OnX to do some desktop scouting. Look for the drainage ditch points and saddles. Look for a curve in a road or a curve in a creek. Then you can go on the ground and actually check those areas out. If you don’t know what to look for, pick up the phone and call.”

One thing about hunting public land, especially on weekends, is the likelihood that you will encounter other hunters, which means courtesy is paramount.

“If you go to an area you had in mind to hunt and see a vehicle parked there, go to plan B or plan C,” Smith said. “Have respect for the other users. If you do, you generally get the same respect in return. Take it slow, practice hunting safety and be respectful of your public hunting brothers and sisters.”

To hunt the WMAs, you’ll need a valid statewide hunting license, a WMA license, and either a printed WMA permit for the area you plan to hunt or registration on the Outdoor AL app on your smartphone.

“On the WMAs in District II, you also have to have a daily permit, either paper or on your Outdoor AL app,” Smith said. “Next year, that requirement will be statewide. You will either check in and check out with the Outdoor AL app or get a daily permit from one of the kiosks at the WMAs, fill it out and drop it in the box.”

For people who are still a little hesitant about hunting public land, Smith suggests planning a trip during the week instead of the weekend. Of course, you’ll have to check each WMA to determine what hunting is allowed.

“People who go to our WMAs during the week often have thousands of acres all to themselves,” Smith said. “If you’re new to hunting public land, go during the week, get your feet on the ground, do your scouting and have many, many acres to yourself.”

Visit https://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/where-hunt-alabama for more information on hunting on public land.

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

Venison recipes that are perfect for the holidays

(Photos by David Rainer, ADCNR)

When that Thanksgiving turkey has been reduced to a discarded carcass, it’s time to break out those wild game and fish recipes to enjoy the feast Alabama’s outdoors offers.

With Alabama’s white-tailed deer season in full swing, it’s probably time to clean out last year’s harvest to make room for fresh venison.

Waxing nostalgic, our family probably ate about as much venison as beef when I was growing up, and this next dish was one of the favorites.

Venison Lasagna

1299

1½ pounds ground venison

1 can/jar prepared spaghetti sauce (or make it with Lawry’s Spaghetti Sauce Mix, which is what my mom did)

1½ tablespoons of Italian seasoning

8 lasagna noodles, cooked, divided

1 cup cottage cheese, divided

3 cups mozzarella cheese, divided

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Brown meat (if no fat was added to the ground venison, you’ll need about ¼ cup of oil in the skillet to prevent sticking) and drain. Add spaghetti sauce and Italian seasoning and cook 5 minutes. My Italian buddies would scoff at using a prepared spaghetti sauce, so, by all means, make your own if you have the time. We particularly liked the taste of Lawry’s growing up, but use whatever you like.

Layer 4 strips of the cooked lasagna noodles on bottom of rectangular Pyrex baking dish. Spoon on half of the meat sauce mixture and spread evenly. Spread ½ cup of cottage cheese for the next layer, followed by 1½ cups of mozzarella. Add another layer of the ingredients, and then top by sprinkling with the parmesan cheese.

Bake in 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Serves 6-8.

My go-to venison recipe that has been served to groups of a half-dozen to more than 30 also involves ground venison. To make enough for 30, you need a BIG pot.

Venison Chili

1/4 cup olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, minced

4 large onions, chopped

2 large green bell peppers, chopped (optional, my girls don’t like green bell peppers)

4 pounds ground venison

3-4 cans diced tomatoes

2 6-ounce cans of tomato paste

1/4 to 1/3 cup chili powder

1 tablespoon salt

4 16-ounce cans of kidney beans

1-3 dashes of cayenne pepper

1-3 dashes of garlic salt

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon liquid crab boil (Don’t scoff until you’ve tried it—adds some pizzazz that consumers can’t identify)

Heat oil in a large stock pot with heavy bottom, and add garlic, onions and peppers. Cook until tender. Add venison and brown for 10 minutes over medium heat. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, chili powder, salt, kidney beans, cayenne pepper and garlic salt. Mix together and then add bay leaves. Bring to boil and then simmer for 2-3 hours. Serves 10-12.

Another standard around the Rainer household involved tenderized venison.

Smothered Country-Fried Venison Steaks

2 pounds cubed venison steaks (1/2- to 3/4-inch cuts)

Milk (whole or 2%)

2 cups all-purpose flour, divided

Seasoned salt and black pepper to taste

¼ cup bacon grease or oil (olive or vegetable), depending on how healthy you’re eating

2 cups water

1 cup coffee

1 cup extra-long-grain rice

If the venison steaks haven’t been run through a cuber/tenderizer several times, then pound each piece with a meat mallet. Soak venison steaks in cold water for several hours, changing the water several times to soak out the blood. Drain steaks well, dip in milk (whole or 2 %) and dredge in 1 cup flour with seasoned salt and pepper already mixed in. Brown in oil in large skillet. (You can stop right there and enjoy, or you can go ahead and make the gravy.) Take remaining cup of flour and add to skillet, stirring constantly until desired color is achieved, and then add water and coffee (mixed) to desired thickness. Put steaks in Crock-Pot, pour gravy over the top and simmer on low.

While the venison is simmering, turn to the rice. When the rice is done, the venison will be ready. Spoon the venison and gravy over rice. Serves 6-8.

One of the many things that COVID-19 has taken from those who love to eat wild game is the opportunity to participate in one of the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s (AWF) Wild Game Cook-Offs. Some of the best food I’ve ever tasted has been at these events.

If I were ever to appear on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” in a wild game category, I would highlight the dish that Beth Strickland prepared as part of the Middle Bay Boat Company team during the AWF Gulf Coast Cook-Off. This dish takes a little effort but is well worth it.

Stuffed Tenderloin with Whiskey Beurre Blanc

Venison tenderloin (backstrap)

Marinade:

1 cup Italian dressing

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon minced onion

1 teaspoon garlic

½ teaspoon pepper

Stuffing:

1 asparagus bundle, trimmed

1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

8 tablespoons butter

Steak dry rub seasoning of your choice

6 ounces feta cheese

Package of sliced prosciutto

Bamboo skewers

Sauce:

8 tablespoons butter

1 sweet onion, chopped

¼ teaspoon garlic

1 cup Jim Beam Whiskey

1 cup beef broth

1 cup heavy cream

Dash of salt

Dash of pepper

Flour (optional)

Mix all marinade ingredients together and pour on the tenderloin (backstrap) in a large Ziploc bag. Refrigerate the tenderloin for 2-3 hours.

After the tenderloin is marinated, start preparing the stuffing. Trim the asparagus. Slice the red bell pepper into thin strips. Melt the butter in a large skillet on medium heat. Add asparagus and cook for 8-10 minutes until slightly tender. Remove the asparagus and add the bell pepper to the same melted butter. Cook on medium heat for 8-10 minutes until the bell pepper is slightly tender.

Prep the tenderloin by butterflying lengthwise; be sure not to cut all the way through the meat. Cut the tenderloin into 3- to 4-inch sections. Depending on the size, this should yield 5-8 pieces. Dust each section with the steak seasoning. Use a Jaccard meat tenderizer to make the meat more pliable for stuffing. Place a spoonful of feta, 3 stalks of asparagus and 3-4 strips of red bell pepper in each section. Wrap the meat so that the feta is secure and the asparagus sticks out each end. Wrap in 2-3 slices of prosciutto, and secure with skewers.

In a clean pan, prepare the sauce by caramelizing onions and garlic in butter on medium-high heat. Turn the heat down. Add the whiskey and allow it to simmer a few minutes until the alcohol evaporates. Then add the beef broth and continue to simmer a few minutes while whisking. Continue to whisk while adding in the cream. Dash with salt and pepper, and let the sauce simmer and bubble on low, continuing to whisk gradually, while grilling the meat. If sauce is too runny add a little flour to thicken.

Heat your grill to a medium heat. Grill each side 5-10 minutes, until the prosciutto is slightly crisp. Remove and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove skewers, cut in half and drizzle sauce on top to serve.

Of course, none of the venison dishes will be worth eating if the deer is not properly cared for after harvesting. The best way to ensure top-quality venison is prompt action in the field, whether the deer ends up at home or at the professional processor.

Obviously, the sooner the deer can be cleaned and gutted, the better. After you skin the deer, remove the area around the wound with bloodshot flesh. Rinse the carcass down and remove any hair or debris.

Then it’s time to get the deer cooled down as quickly as possible, but it’s not as simple as throwing the quartered deer on top of a bag of ice. To get the deer cooled down properly, put a layer of ice on the bottom of the ice chest, followed by the deer meat, followed by another layer of ice. Keep the ice chest drain open to let the water flow out.

Aging venison helps the flavor and helps to tenderize the meat when done correctly. Seven days is about the maximum time for deer to age. If you’ve got a walk-in cooler where you can hang the deer, that is the best option. However, a well-iced cooler will work, just remember to keep the venison completely covered in ice the whole time. If the meat gets exposed to the air and warms to above 40 degrees, bacteria starts to grow.

Take care of your deer and enjoy the fruits of your harvest.

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.