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.

1 day ago

ADFSR returns to its roots for 2020 rodeo

(Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 week ago

Mid-July completion expected for Gulf State Park Pier renovations

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 weeks ago

Interior Secretary Bernhardt promotes outdoors opportunities during Alabama tour

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I love waterfowl hunting, too,” he said. “The Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake has been very, very good to me.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

3 weeks ago

Scoggins brothers complete Redeye Slam in one day

(Steven and Kevin Scoggins/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 weeks ago

Snapper season opener shows pent-up demand

(Brian Rowe/Contributed, YHN)

While the second weekend of the private recreational red snapper season in Alabama saw near perfect conditions, the opening weekend proved why state management of the red snapper is so important to ensure maximum access to this treasured fishery.

Pent-up demand from a variety of reasons, including the COVID-19 restrictions, placed the May 22 opening day of snapper season in record territory.

“On opening day, that was the most people I’ve ever seen on a Friday,” said Alabama Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon. “Even though the weather was a little rougher, the harvest was almost the same as the 2018 numbers. People were just glad to have the opportunity to get out. They were tired of being at home. They felt this was a safe and enjoyable outdoor activity. And we agree. When I got to Dauphin Island at 8 o’clock on opening day, the trailers parked alongside the road were already backed up 7/10ths of a mile from the ramp (Billy Goat Hole). Saturday was another busy day. With the winds picking up Sunday and Monday, the activity was down a good bit.”

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The 2018 and 2019 seasons were conducted under an EFP (exempted fishing permit) to allow state management and significantly increased the number of days private recreational anglers were allowed to catch red snapper over recent years.

With the approval of regional management beginning in 2020 for the five states on the Gulf of Mexico, each state sets its season, bag and size limits under certain parameters.

Because Alabama closely monitors the red snapper harvest through its Red Snapper Reporting System, Snapper Check, Marine Resources can adjust the seasons to allow anglers to catch as many fish as possible while staying within the state’s quota. Alabama’s private recreational season is set to run each Friday through Monday with a closing date tentatively set for July 19. The closing date may be adjusted to ensure the state’s quota of 1,122,662 pounds is met but not exceeded. Snapper Check numbers indicated 176,782 pounds of red snapper were harvested opening weekend.

Bannon and Chris Blankenship, the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, ventured out on opening weekend with old friends Brian and Daniel Rowe and crew and came back with a box full of red snapper.

“I had some concerns that the seas were going to be a little choppy,” Bannon said. “We had been talking to some boats that were struggling, so they stayed close and came back pretty early. In the afternoon, the wind died down. The bite was not hard and fast, but we caught big fish. We only caught a few undersized fish that had to go back. We caught everything from just over legal (16 inches total length) to a few just over 20 pounds. It was a real good trip.”

From a management perspective, Bannon said that’s what marine scientists like to see on a reef, a variety of sizes of snapper. He also said some of the relatively small reefs held good-sized fish.

On opening day, Bannon said the anglers used a variety of baits to target the red snapper and definitely saw a preference.

“They seemed to like the whole pogeys (menhaden) better than cigar minnows on that day,” he said. “People caught a lot of big fish that opening weekend, which generally happens in a season. People reported catching legal-size fish relatively quick. They didn’t have to throw many undersized fish back.”

By the time the seas got rough on that opening weekend, Bannon could see how the state management of the season was paying dividends.

“That Monday of opening weekend, we only had a handful of reports through Snapper Check,” he said. “I think that was honest. People really paid attention to the weather and didn’t put themselves in harm’s way. People now realize it’s about the pounds caught and there will be more opportunities to catch snapper later. Of course, that all goes back to the reporting through Snapper Check and getting accurate numbers.”

One thing Bannon did on that opening Friday was to check to see if anglers had the Snapper Check app loaded on their smartphones.

“I, along with other Division employees, helped the ones that didn’t have it get the app loaded on their phones,” he said.

Bannon also discovered that many people are still unaware of the Reef Fish Endorsement that went into effect for the 2020 season. Anglers who catch any fish that are considered a reef fish species are required to purchase the $10 endorsement.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/saltwater-fishing/saltwater-reef-fish-endorsement for a list of fish species the endorsement covers.

“Nobody seemed overly concerned the endorsement was in place, but they were unaware they needed it,” Bannon said. “Some people purchased it on the Outdoor Alabama app while they were launching the boat.”

The reef fish endorsement provides a source of funding to continue to maintain the research and monitoring for populations in Alabama’s artificial reef zones that is required to continue state management of the red snapper fishery.

“We had been using federal funds,” Bannon said. “We needed a source of funds to continue that work. Also, other than Snapper Check, we didn’t have way to determine how many people are participating in the reef fish fishery. The endorsement helps us to determine the effort.”

Bannon pointed out that if you’re fishing for saltwater species on the Causeway and you don’t catch reef fish, you don’t need to purchase the Reef Fish Endorsement.

“But if you’re participating in the fishery offshore, these funds help us pay for Snapper Check and the monitoring through Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the University of South Alabama,” he said. “Now that we do have state management, we are obligated to manage the fishery to the best of our ability. The endorsement helps provide funds to do that.”

Because the reef fishing endorsement is new, Bannon said Marine Resources Enforcement will issue warnings right now. On opening weekend, 11 warnings were issued for no reef endorsements.

“Our Enforcement staff wrote 12 citations for not reporting their snapper harvests,” he said. “We only had one over-the-limit case. We had no undersized fish citations and only one over-the-limit of all the people that were checked on opening weekend. I consider that a successful weekend. And people used good judgement for the smaller boats to not go on Sunday and Monday. I am a little concerned that our (Snapper Check) reporting is down just a little bit. That is the driving force of our management goal to give people the most opportunities to catch red snapper.”

Meanwhile, the charter-for-hire season opened Monday for a straight 62-day run through August 1, 2020. The charter boat section is still under federal management.

“A couple of different charter captains I’ve spoken with said bookings are up,” Bannon said.

Bannon is excited that it appears the red snapper season will be successful now that restrictions on Alabama’s beaches have been lifted.

“Alabama is definitely a fishing destination,” he said. “I’ve talked to folks who used to go to Destin to go fishing until they discovered Alabama. Now they make plans to go charter fishing in Alabama.”

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

1 month ago

Alligator comeback continues; Hunt registration opens June 2

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Alabama will celebrate its 15th alligator hunting season in 2020 as a remarkable recovery story continues for the American alligator.

Early in the 20th century, alligators in the U.S. had diminished to alarming numbers. Unregulated alligator harvest during this time prompted Alabama to protect the animals in 1938. In 1967 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the American alligator as an endangered species.

“Alabama was one of the first states in the Southeast to protect alligators,” said Chris Nix, Alligator Program Coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division.

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Conservation efforts by the affected states allowed the alligator population to rebound so that by 1987 it was removed from the Endangered Species List but continued to be a federally protected species.

Alabama’s alligator population has grown to the point that it can sustain a limited harvest, allowing state residents a new and exciting opportunity. WFF officials decided to start with limited access and increase the opportunities when possible.

“I had joined Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries two months before that first season in 2006,” Nix said. “We had 50 tags that year, and the hunting area was strictly the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The south border was the Causeway; the north border was the CSX Railroad; the west border was Highway 43; and the east was Highway 225. It was a very small hunting area that first season. The reason is that managing alligators is a lot different than managing white-tailed deer or wild turkeys. If you overharvest deer one season, they can rebound from that pretty quickly. Alligators are not like that. It takes a lot longer for alligators to return to previous populations.”

While maintaining the integrity of the alligator population was the cornerstone of the conservation efforts, WFF surveys showed the hunting opportunities could be expanded to other parts of the state.

Registration for the 2020 alligator season opens June 2 and runs through 8 a.m. July 8. A total of 260 tags will be issued in five hunting zones.

Registration is $22 per zone, and individuals may register one time per zone. Selected hunters and others accompanying or assisting in any vessel are required to have a valid hunting license in their possession while hunting.

Only Alabama residents and Alabama lifetime license holders aged 16 years or older may apply for tags. Alabama lifetime license holders may apply for an alligator possession tag even if they have moved out of the state.

Visit https://www.outdooralabama.com/alligators/alligator-hunt-registration to register for the 2020 alligator hunts.

The original 2006 hunting area, now known as the Southwest Zone (100 tags available), has expanded its boundaries to include all of Mobile and Baldwin counties north of I-10 and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84. The 2020 season dates are sunset on August 13 until sunrise on August 16 and sunset on August 20 to sunrise on August 23.

The Coastal Zone (50 tags) was added last year and includes the private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties that lie south of I-10. The 2020 season dates are the same as the Southwest Zone.

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

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

The Lake Eufaula Zone (20 tags) includes Alabama state public waters in Walter F. George Reservoir (Lake Eufaula) and its navigable tributaries, south of Highway 208, Omaha Bridge (excluding Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge). The 2020 season dates are sunset on August 14 until sunrise on October 5. The Lake Eufaula Zone is the only zone with a size restriction. Alligators must be at least 8 feet in total length in the Lake Eufaula Zone, which is the only zone that allows daytime hunting.

“The reason we created the Coastal Zone was due to nuisance complaints,” Nix said. “The alligator population is stable, but the human population is increasing in the alligators’ habitat. We found that very few people would harvest alligators south of I-10 in Baldwin County. It helped last year with 20 alligators harvested south of I-10. That’s a big area and we only issued 50 tags.”

Nix said WFF staff diligently surveys the alligator hunting zones to ensure the health of the alligator population.

“Our surveys are conducted using GPS routes, run at the same time each year, preferably with the same weather conditions, air and water temperatures and wind speeds,” he said. “I try to do our survey within the same week and pick the best weather conditions of that week. We try to make the surveys as consistent as possible.”

Nix said the surveys are done with a boat driver and two observers. The surveys are done at night and are broken down into different zones.

“In no way are we saying we’re counting every alligator out there, but under the same conditions year after year, we can look at population trends over a period of time,” he said.

Hunters will be randomly selected by computer to receive one alligator possession tag each. Tags are non-transferable. A preference point system will be used in the random selection process. Unsuccessful applicants receive points for each year they are not drawn, which increases the likelihood of being drawn each year. However, if an applicant does not register for the hunt in a given year or is selected and accepts a tag for a hunt, the preference points revert to zero.

Applicants can check their selection status after noon on July 8. Selected applicants’ acceptance is required by 8 a.m. on July 15. Any selected applicants who have not responded by that time will lose the spots and alternates will fill the vacancies. All successful applicants must complete the online alligator training course prior to accepting hunter or alternate status. A Conservation ID number and date of birth are required for access to registration and selection status.

If selected for an alligator possession tag at two or more locations, hunters must choose which location they would like to hunt. The slot for locations not chosen will be filled from a list of randomly selected alternates.

A no-cull rule was implemented in 2018. That means hunters cannot catch and then release an alligator to try to find a larger one.

“If you get the alligator next to the boat, it must be dispatched immediately,” Nix said. “Once it’s captured, it’s your alligator.”

Nix said alligator population numbers and harvest numbers have remained consistent since the season was established. The only anomaly was in 2008 when Tropical Storm Fay hit the Alabama coast.

“Overall, the alligator population in Alabama is stable to slightly increasing,” he said. “When you look at available tags since 2006, the percentage of harvest has stayed very consistent with the exception of the year we had the tropical storm. As a whole, between 65 and 70 percent of the hunters have been successful regardless of the number of tags or the areas to hunt.”

If you happen to be one of the lucky applicants to receive a tag, Nix recommends doing homework before you head out to hunt alligators, which can grow as large as the current world record of 15 feet, 9 inches and 1,011.5 pounds. That monster gator was taken by Mandy Stokes of Camden in 2014.

“People who don’t have experience hunting alligators should watch available videos (at outdooralabama.com) repeatedly to determine the equipment they will need,” he said. “And a big tip refers to scouting. A lot of people want to scout alligators at night. Scouting an alligator is a lot different than any other species. I recommend people scout during the daytime and become as familiar as possible with the area they’re hunting.”

With the exception of dates, the 2020 alligator season is unchanged from last year’s season. Nix said WFF staff continues to survey other areas to determine if additional areas can be added in the future.

“The Division is working as hard as we can to offer as many opportunities for as many people as possible while maintaining the health of the alligator population,” he said. “That’s a continuing effort we make each year.”

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

Eagle Scout project memorializes Orange Beach charter captain

(Kimberly Eiland/Contributed)

When Garrett Ard started his Eagle Scout project four years ago, the goal was to honor the memory of his late grandfather, Capt. Gloyice Ard, a longtime Gulf Coast charter boat captain.

The culmination of all the work involved in such an endeavor recently sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico – in the form of an artificial reef.

What Ard didn’t realize at the time was when the repurposed boat slipped beneath the waves the project also honored the heritage of another Gulf Coast captain. The shrimp boat, the Southern Heritage, used in the project was captained by the late Paul Rogers.

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Garrett said he was sitting around a campfire when the idea of building a reef in Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones popped into his head.

“Growing up on the coast, building a reef made sense,” he said. “We didn’t have to do a project that big for my Eagle Scout project, but we decided to go big or go home.”

Garrett’s mom, Kimberly, said guidance from Lee Kibler, the Scoutmaster from Elberta, Alabama, helped Garrett proceed with the reef-building plan.

“Lee said the project needs to fit the scout,” Kimberly said. “He said not every project fits the scout’s capabilities. We just felt like Garrett’s capabilities were up to this project.”

Garrett then started fundraising for the project. He made presentations to the Alabama Reef Foundation and the Orange Beach City Council. The Reef Foundation chipped in $5,000, and Orange Beach City Council donated $10,000 to the fund. Garrett’s presentations to several more community organizations added to the coffers, and one of his dad’s connections provided additional funding.

“We were having a Gulf Council (Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council) meeting in Orange Beach, and I asked Garrett to come because there was somebody there I wanted him to meet,” said Garrett’s dad, Capt. Tom Ard, who has a fleet of four charter boats. “It was Buddy Guindon, one of the largest commercial fishermen in the Gulf. He has a huge seafood market in Galveston (Texas). He donates to a lot of different projects. I told Buddy about the Eagle Scout project, and he and Garrett had a nice talk. Buddy gave us a very generous donation of $5,000. He realized the reef would help recreational fishermen, charter boats and commercial boats. I can guarantee you commercial boats will be catching snapper off the reef for the public market.”

Although the donations were secured, the Ards ran into an obstacle. Suitable reef material was difficult to find, especially in their price range.

“The original idea was to use a barge, but we couldn’t find one or it cost too much money,” Garrett said. “John Giannini at J&M Tackle was going to donate two big shipping containers.”

Tom happened to call David Walter (aka Reefmaker of Walter Marine) and asked about finding reef material. Walter told him about an old shrimp boat that would make a quality reef.

“I asked him how much he wanted for it,” Tom said. “He said $30,000. I told him we had $25,000, and he said, ‘I’ll take it.’”

Because Walter Marine is so busy deploying reefs all over the Gulf, the Ards had to wait in line. When it appeared the shrimp boat reef wouldn’t happen before Garrett’s 18th birthday, they had to amend their reef-building plans to meet the Boy Scouts’ requirement.

With guidance from the Mobile Boy Scouts office, a smaller reef operation preceded the big deployment, but it was also an operation that would have been so familiar to Poppa Gloyice, a jovial character who was a fixture in the Orange Beach charter industry with his boat, the Boll Weevil, a salute to Gloyice’s days as a cropduster pilot.

“We got two chicken coops,” Garrett said. “We built a platform on the back of my grandpa’s boat, and we tied these huge chicken coops on the back of the boat and got to deploy them by hand. It was really cool.”

Tom added, “He got to see how we used to build reefs in the old days. This will be the Boll Weevil’s 40th season.”

Before the shrimp boat could be deployed, Garrett and several of his Boy Scout buddies had to complete the task of cleaning out foam insulation from the bowels of the boat.

“We had to climb inside the boat and pick up these huge chunks of foam and other trash,” Garrett said. “We had to be careful because of all the rusted, jagged metal. We spent an afternoon in the boat, and we got it cleaned up.”

The day to deploy the 50-foot, steel-hulled shrimp boat finally arrived, and the Ards headed out about 14 miles into the Gulf. The superstructure had already been removed from the shrimp boat, and a large steel cylinder with many nooks and crannies was welded onto the hull for improved fish habitat.

“The barge with the shrimp boat left about 3 a.m.,” Garrett said. “When we got there on the Fairwater II (another of Tom’s charter boats), the crane just picked the shrimp boat up and put it in the water. When it caught water, it just went straight down. It was a huge sense of relief – like, ‘Wow, we actually did it.’ We had been working on this for so long. When Dad and I started talking about raising $25,000 to build a reef, it almost seemed unattainable. Then it happened, and it was like, ‘We just did that.’ It was a huge sense of accomplishment.”

Garrett had previously met with Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon and Artificial Reefs Coordinator Craig Newton to discuss the reef project and get it properly permitted.

“Alabama’s artificial reef program was founded by anglers like Garrett’s grandfather, and Garrett’s project is a testament to his legacy,” Newton said. “I’m extremely proud of Garrett’s achievement, and I’m anxious to watch the reef develop over the coming years.”

Director Bannon added, “I am a big supporter of Scouting and was excited to hear about Garrett’s plan to create an artificial reef. It required a lot of physical and administrative work on his part, and I applaud his diligence to see it through to the end. Watching the video of Garrett’s reaction to the reef being deployed was priceless. His contribution to the Alabama Artificial Reef Zone will be enjoyed by anglers for many years to come.”

When the local news media heard about the memorial reef, Garrett gained a great deal of exposure, which led to the revelation of how the reef memorialized another captain.

When word spread about the reef, Garrett was contacted by the daughter of the late owner of the Southern Heritage, the shrimp boat that the Ards deployed.

The message from Amber Rogers Joyner read: “The Southern Heritage was my daddy’s boat, his pride and joy. He loved that boat, and he loved being on the water. Not sure if you know the story along with the boat, but he passed last January. He’d be so happy to know what you’ve done – the Southern Heritage staying in the water and being a place people will be able to enjoy for years to come. Thank you, Garrett! It’s a place I will definitely be taking my children to enjoy.”

Garrett said, “It was kind of the same deal I had with Poppa’s boat, the Boll Weevil. It started out as a memorial reef for my Poppa and it grew into a memorial reef for her dad.”

Unlike his dad, Garrett will not continue the family tradition of becoming a charter boat captain.

Despite his connection to the Gulf Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, Garrett’s interests are in the wild blue yonder instead of the deep blue sea.

He’s headed to Mississippi State University this fall to study aerospace engineering and play trombone in several of the school’s bands.

Garrett, however, will be back home for a trip on his dad’s boat next year to see how many big red snapper are hanging around the Capt. Gloyice Ard Memorial Reef.

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

Awesome Trail opens at Joe Wheeler State Park

(Alabama State Parks/Contributed)

Those who love to explore nature have another opportunity with the opening of the new trail at Joe Wheeler State Park in northwest Alabama. The name of the new 8-mile pathway is the Awesome Trail, literally.

Ken Thomas, Alabama State Parks Trails Coordinator, said naming the trail resulted from a conversation he had with Chad Davis, State Parks’ Northwest District Supervisor.

“I told Chad this trail is going to be awesome,” Thomas said, “and it stuck.”

Thomas said the Awesome Trail was constructed through a Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant with accessibility for a variety of users in mind.

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“We tried to create a trail that could be used by walkers, hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners,” Thomas said. “The biggest consideration for making it compatible for everybody is that it had to be wide enough to support all of those folks. These type trails are wider than most trails people are used to. This allows people to walk side by side, and it has enough room that a biker or jogger could still pass.”

Before he became the trails coordinator, Thomas spent most of his time as superintendent at DeSoto State Park, which has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the state as well as numerous elevation changes. He didn’t expect what he found when he went to Joe Wheeler to establish the new trail.

“The terrain was very surprising,” he said. “It’s a whole lot steeper than people realize. Joe Wheeler had minimal trails. When I started tracking it and figuring out where we were going to put the trail, we ran across several challenges. The terrain going into the Tennessee River and First Creek is a lot steeper than we realized. We had to do a lot of bench cutting, kind of carve the trail out of the terrain to create a level trail bed. We dealt with some wet areas where we had to pick the best route to maintain the environment. We also found a tremendous number of ravines.”

Thomas said sometimes the water flow in those ravines is seasonal and can be easily forded. Some of the other ravines had hard bottoms or could be manipulated to have hard bottoms, while other ravines were as deep as 8 feet and couldn’t be forded.

“We wound up installing 16 bridges,” he said. “Seven of the bridges were 20 feet long and two were 30-foot bridges. That was a challenge. We were only able to keep three fords and still keep the environmental integrity of the stream.”

The trail at Joe Wheeler was finished in the middle of April after months of having to deal with the heavy rainfall that kept most of central and north Alabama waterlogged. The new Awesome Trail has received rave reviews since it opened.

“Rain was my biggest problem,” Thomas said. “When the ground is so wet, you’re doing more damage than good.”

Despite the obstacles, Thomas is pleased with the outcome.

“I think what makes this trail so special is that we went to great lengths to bring people to some of the most beautiful parts of the park that we could find,” he said. “Because of the terrain, I had to put in quite a few switchbacks. A lot of consideration went into this trail that I don’t think people realize. You can turn a hiker 90 degrees, but you can’t turn a mountain biker 90 degrees. There are elevation changes you have to consider for all these diverse user groups. You don’t just get your hatchet and start hacking out a trail. It’s purpose-built. The combination of all of the users we wanted to serve with this trail made it challenging to build a trail system that a beginner would use but an advanced person would be attracted to also. A happy medium is what we were looking for, and I think we achieved a trail that will make the beginner and more advanced people happy. Nothing about this project was impossible, but a tremendous amount of thought went into it.”

Thomas said the actual construction of trails has advanced dramatically in the past decade. In fact, he was able to become the first trail builder in the state to receive his HETAP (Highly Efficient Trail Assessment Process) certification.

He said the previous trail-construction guidelines fell under a program called UTAP (Universal Trail Assessment Process), which was developed more than 40 years ago.

“You had to have a minimum of two people and four people was a lot better,” Thomas said of the UTAP program. “We had analogue tapes, rolling wheels and analog grade devices. Somebody had a pencil and paper, writing this data down. After all that was done, somebody had to crunch those numbers and assess that trail to provide all the information on how long the trail is, what’s the elevation, what’s the elevation gain, what’s the average grade, what’s the crossflow. The data goes on and on and on. I chalk up HETAP as an example of American ingenuity. Somebody computerized it and received a patent. One person can take this HETAP machine and assess a trail. They push a button and all that information is presented in the form of a summary.”

Thomas said the HETAP summary allows the user to decide which trail is best for them.

“If I took Olympic track and field athletes and put them on a trail and asked them if the trail is hard or easy, then took people not in very good physical condition and put them on the same trail and asked if this is easy or hard, I’m going to get two different answers,” Thomas said. “Why should I tell somebody a trail is easy or hard when opinions vary. What sold me on HETAP was that I could provide the collected scientific data on this trail and let them decide if it’s easy or hard. The benefit is that I can present this information to somebody who has disability, and they can base their decision on what they can do or what they probably shouldn’t do. Information is king. This makes everybody a king. This makes us able to give them the information they need to make their own decisions on a particular trail.”

Thomas took advantage of attaining his HETAP instructor certification to train all the State Parks naturalists in how to use the $18,000 machines.

“The idea was the naturalists use the trails more than anybody,” he said. “They’re out doing their interpretation programs every day. Now they can assist me in trail assessments.”

After the assessments are done, a TAI (Trail Assessment Information) sign is erected to give the users the pertinent information about the trail.

Other projects Thomas has been involved with include trail work at Lake Guntersville State Park, Rickwood Caverns State Park and Lake Lurleen State Park.

Thomas said a mountain bike trail at Guntersville was improved and built around the golf course with 3/10ths of a mile of that trail constructed to be completely ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant.

“We did improvements to Mabry’s Overlook across from the pro shop at Guntersville,” Thomas said. “Someone in a wheelchair did not have the same opportunity as someone who did not need a wheelchair. We fixed that with improvements to the overlook for a beautiful view from the mountain onto Lake Guntersville.”

The Rickwood Caverns project took some creative thinking from Tim Haney, State Parks’ North Region Operations and Maintenance Supervisor.

“It’s the most unique project you will ever find on a trail,” Thomas said. “Rickwood needed work done on lighting. Incandescent lighting promotes growth that normally would not happen in caves. Tim said, ‘Isn’t Rickwood Caverns just an underground trail?’ We were able to get another RTP grant to fix the electrical, install LED lighting and do some education work.”

The education aspect concerned people with mobility issues who couldn’t get in and out of the caverns, which has a final staircase of 102 steps to exit the cave.

“We put heads together and came up with an idea with the new 360 (degrees) virtual reality technology. We bought a 360 camera and VR goggles to wear. If you have problems with the goggles, we got a curved-screen 4K television and the best computer we could find to play 4K video. So, if you twist your ankle and your school group goes to Rickwood, we can send you on a virtual tour. If Grandma or Grandpa are not up to the staircase, they can do a virtual tour. That project was so unique that we were featured at the Corps Network 2019 National Conference. We’re going to try to shoot 360 videos at all our parks and let people visit all of our state parks from one location. That’s coming.”

At Lake Lurleen State Park, the new McFarland Trail was made possible through a donation from the McFarland family to the Alabama State Parks Foundation.

“We organized trail volunteers,” Thomas said. “The Western Alabama Mountain Biking Association supports Lake Lurleen. That group went in and built a trail, and then 10 State Parks people came in and dressed up the trail, got the signage ready and had a big ribbon-cutting.”

Thomas said the RTP grants were administered by ADECA (Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs), which made the grants available through an 80-20 match, which meant State Parks had to provide 20 percent of the funding.

Thomas said, “That’s a deal nobody can refuse.”

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

Put asterisk by 2020 Alabama turkey season

(Elijah Phillips/Contributed)

The Alabama wild turkey season, which ended on May 3, will likely have to include an asterisk in the record books for a variety of reasons.

Obviously, the COVID-19 restrictions played a role as did a renewed push for successful hunters to report their turkey harvests.

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes made a significant point at the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting earlier this year that if compliance with Game Check’s requirement to report all turkey harvests didn’t increase, the 2021 season might be in jeopardy. Apparently, the message was delivered.

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“I think it was a double factor,” Sykes said. “I think more people did report taking birds this year because of what happened at the Advisory Board. However, I am 100-percent confident more birds were killed this year. I can use myself as a prime example. I am extremely fortunate to be able to hunt in some really good places year after year, and I keep a very detailed record of each turkey season. This was a banner year. The travel restrictions associated with the coronavirus was a contributor.”

“I had way more turkeys killed with me in Alabama than in years past just simply because I had more days afield in Alabama,” he said. “It wasn’t that I did better this year. I still had roughly the same daily average. I just got more days in so there was more hunter effort in Alabama because I couldn’t go out of town. All of my meetings out of Alabama were canceled, so I was in Alabama longer. I wasn’t just a weekend warrior like I’ve been for the past few years. This year, the weather was bad on several weekends, so I got to hunt more good days during the week. Therefore, more turkeys were harvested for me personally.”

With current regulations that state the season will start on the third Saturday in March, the opening day of the 2020 turkey season happened on March 21, the latest date possible. Add in relatively good weather, except for a couple of weekends, and Sykes said conditions certainly favored the turkey hunters.

“I think starting the season later put the turkeys farther into their breeding activity and made them easier to call,” he said. “And people had way more time on their hands. I know a boatload of people who hunted public land this year for the first time because they had time to do it, and they killed turkeys.”

That increase in hunting on public lands was affirmed by WFF Upland Game Bird Coordinator Steven Mitchell, who said Alabama’s WMAs (wildlife management areas) had more hunter activity than he’s ever seen.

“I think a lot more hunters were in the woods this year,” Mitchell said. “The WMAs were getting used a lot more than in previous years. We don’t know exactly how much more use right now. As a safety precaution associated with social distancing, we pulled the requirements for daily permits for the spring. But we’re still working the WMAs. By observation, there were trucks at every place to park.”

Mitchell said one lucky hunter was able to bag a trophy turkey on the Hollins WMA. The bird had 1¾-inch spurs.

“We’ve had a lot of use and a lot of harvest,” he said. “With more than week to go in the season, we had 4,000 more birds reported through Game Check than all of last season.”

Director Sykes said he normally hunts with one of his friends in Choctaw County about three days a year. This year, the hunting buddies spent 10 days in the woods.

“I was teleworking from the hunting camp,” he said. “We could go hunting for a couple of hours before he had to go to work and I got on the computer. I got quite a few emails and texts, that people were seeing (the increased harvest) too. People who might normally kill one or two birds, they killed their (five-bird) limit. Others who hardly ever killed a bird, they killed two or three.”

Mitchell also said more hunters participated this season in the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey, which will provide a variety of information for game managers.

“This is a precious resource and we need accurate information,” he said. “We need to know what kind of gobbling they’re hearing and what time. We can see peaks and valleys in gobbling and harvest activity.”

Despite the great season for hunters, the game bird biologists are concerned about turkey numbers trending down in the past 10 years.

Mitchell said Auburn University is wrapping up its five-year study on the turkey population. Dr. Barry Grand is finishing the report and it should be available soon.

“Auburn was looking at a lot of things on turkeys on our research areas,” Mitchell said. “This report will give us the vital statistics we need to develop a decision-making tool concerning seasons and bag limits. Some of the research around the Southeast is showing when gobblers are harvested. Usually in Alabama, it’s the first couple of weeks. A lot of gobblers are getting taken out of the population before they have a chance to breed.”

Steve Barnett, who retired as Upland Game Bird Coordinator last year, said Dr. Grand’s report will augment the work done by WFF biologists and public input through the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey.

“The Auburn study took place on the research sites across the state,” Barnett said. “We were updating the vital rates for Alabama in terms of survival, reproduction and harvest rates. We really haven’t had any data since Dr. (Dan) Speake was doing all his turkey work in the 1980s. By updating those vital rates, it allows us to update our strategic decision-making tool. Those are key elements that go into that prediction model.”

According to the WFF’s Full Fans & Sharp Spurs (FF&SS) publication for the 2019 season, the turkey population is not rebounding as biologists had hoped. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/turkey-hunting-alabama/turkey-research for the publications for the past six years.

Barnett still compiles much of the information for the FF&SS publication.

“The brood survey is still showing a decline,” Barnett said. “There’s been about a two percent decline in poults per hen and a three percent decline in brood size.”

Barnett said the 2019 numbers estimated poults per hen at 1.8.

“When it’s less than two poults per hen, that’s concerning to us,” he said. “2013 was the last time it showed two poults per hen. It’s not isolated to Alabama. The reproduction is in decline across the Southeast and continues to be.”

The 2019 information indicated a large number of jakes (1-year-old gobblers) were observed last year, the largest number since the survey started.

“That likely accounts for some of the increase in reported harvest, and some of the good turkey hunts can be attributed to more 2-year-olds in the population,” Barnett said.

Director Sykes said the results of the 2020 turkey season will likely be considered an anomaly.

“In my opinion, it was the factors of hunter effort and being able to hunt during the week when the weather was a lot more conducive,” Sykes said. “Two weekends in row we had tornadoes and violent storms. If you’re working 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and those were the only two days you had to hunt, you probably wouldn’t kill a turkey. But hunters were able to go out on Thursdays and Fridays and were able to kill turkeys.”

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

Oak Mountain staff, friends come to Hawes’ rescue

(Lauren Muncher, Anna Jones/Contributed)

After quadruple bypass surgery several days ago, Lenny Hawes is fortunate to be alive.

Quick action by the staff at Oak Mountain State Park made it possible for Hawes to get to the hospital for his eventual surgery. Hawes, a park employee, was playing golf on his day off when he was stricken.

“Mr. Hawes was playing golf with a nurse friend (Chris Foster) on the 10th hole closest to the pro shop, and Chris Payne (golf course supervisor) and Bill Nefferdorf (golf course maintenance worker) grabbed the AED (automated external defibrillator) and took off on a golf cart when the call came in,” Park Superintendent Kelly Ezell said. “It is nothing short of a miracle that it happened when it did, where it did and that the staff thought to grab the AED when their friend and coworker was down.”

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Nefferdorf said when the call came in at the pro shop, they didn’t know who was in distress on the 10th green.

“I grabbed the defibrillator and took off in a golf cart,” Nefferdorf said. “Chris Payne followed. When I got there, Chris Foster was performing CPR on Lenny. He said get the defibrillator and I started following everything he said to do. We got the pads and took the covers off and attached them to Lenny. Then I pressed the button and the machine started scanning. I was performing CPR while Chris was getting the breathing mask on. Then the defibrillator said to get back. It zapped him and he jumped about 10 inches off ground. Lenny came back from that and started breathing. Chris said to keep giving him CPR. I was directing the ambulance down the cart path, so Chris Payne continued the CPR. All three of us were working to bring Lenny back.”

Ezell said the reason an AED was quickly available was because of an initiative by the City of Pelham.

“The Pelham Fire Department put AEDs in many businesses in Pelham last year and thankfully included Oak Mountain State Park in that program,” Ezell said. “Up to that point Oak Mountain had only two units in the park. Pelham furnished an additional four units. Because of their efforts, there was an AED located in the pro shop. Fire Chief Tim Honeycutt and EMS Director Matt Maples made sure that we had the additional units, and they take care of servicing all of our units here at the park. Pelham Fire and Rescue is a great partner to Oak Mountain State Park.”

Maples said he approached the Pelham City Council last year about developing a public access defibrillator (PAD) program, which led to deploying the extra units to Oak Mountain State Park.

“We were able to get the funding through the city council to purchase about 50 AEDs to be distributed throughout the city,” Maples said. “We were able to place additional units at Oak Mountain State Park. We were very fortunate. Even though Oak Mountain had an older unit, we were able to get them new ones about two months before the event on the golf course occurred.”

The new units gave Oak Mountain the most up-to-date AED technology to use in any cardiac episode at the park.

“This technology makes the AED very easy for the lay person to use in a public setting,” Maples said. “That is our goal, so that anybody without any medical training can utilize one of these devices to save someone’s life. And we want them to be as publicly accessible as possible.”

In layman’s terms, Maples said the electrical pulse from an AED terminates the lethal cardiac rhythm, allowing the heart to resume a normal heartbeat.

“The incident at Oak Mountain was the second time one of the new AEDs has been used in the past two months,” he said. “It absolutely saves lives. CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) alone isn’t nearly as effective as when you incorporate an AED into the process of saving someone’s life. The more we can get these AEDs out there in the public, the more success we’ll have in resuscitating people. Time is critical. Luckily Mr. Hawes was playing with people who knew to call the pro shop.”

Ezell said that Maples sent a note to Oak Mountain saying the AED company, Stryker HeartSine, would donate an AED to the business/charity of Mr. Hawes’ choice because his life had been saved by the company’s equipment. The donation program is called Forward Hearts.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” she said.

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, thinks divine intervention played a role in the fact that Mr. Hawes was playing golf with a nurse that day and that park employees were able to respond so quickly with the life-saving AED.

“I am so glad that Mr. Hawes was able to go home to his family due to the quick actions of Bill Nefferdorf and Chris Payne,” he said. “It takes a special kind of initiative and care for your fellow man to grab an AED on a second’s notice, jump in a golf cart, hurry through the course and shock a man back to life. We appreciate the City of Pelham for providing the AED. We have these in our parks and train employees on how to use them for just this type of event. This is just another example of the dedication and passion the employees of the Alabama State Parks show on a daily basis.”

Commissioner Blankenship said he is thankful that Governor Kay Ivey has provided the public with access to the outdoors by keeping as many facilities open as possible during the restrictions required to minimize exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

“Our park campgrounds, trails and golf courses have stayed open during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Commissioner Blankenship said, “and our employees are doing a great job providing safe access for the public – one of the few states to keeps parks open the entire time.”

Governor Ivey issued a new “Safer-at-Home” directive on April 28 that will go into effect when the previous restrictions expire on April 30. The new directive that goes into effect at 5 p.m. on April 30, 2020, states that all individuals – especially vulnerable persons – are encouraged to exercise personal responsibility in slowing the spread of COVID-19 with the following steps:

  • Minimizing travel outside the home, especially if sick;
  • Wearing face coverings around people from other households when it is necessary to leave the home;
  • Washing hands frequently with soap and water or hand sanitizer, especially after touching frequently used items or surfaces;
  • Refraining from touching one’s face;
  • Sneezing or coughing into a tissue, or the inside of one’s elbow; and
  • Disinfecting frequently used items and surfaces as much as possible.

“Vulnerable persons” includes individuals 65 years and older or individuals with serious underlying health conditions, including high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and those whose immune system is compromised such as by chemotherapy for cancer and other conditions requiring such therapy.

Non-work-related gatherings remain limited to fewer than 10 individuals, and the 6-foot social distancing rules must be followed.

For those who have missed having their toes in the sand, Governor Ivey’s latest directive allows Alabama’s beautiful beaches to be open to gatherings of fewer than 10 persons, and anyone using the beaches must maintain a consistent 6-foot distance between himself or herself and all persons from a different household. Beach is defined as the sandy shoreline area abutting the Gulf of Mexico, whether privately or publicly owned, including beach access points.

Visit https://governor.alabama.gov/assets/2020/04/%E2%80%9CSafer-at-Home%E2%80%9D-Statewide-Public-Health-Order-FAQs.pdf for more information about the reopening of Alabama’s beaches.

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

Virus robbed me of bidding farewell to great friend

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

While I and my family have been blessed during the COVID-19 pandemic with basically no ill effects, the virus robbed me of the chance to say farewell to one of the people most influential in my career covering the outdoors in Alabama.

Robert Lee Rivenbark of Fairhope did not succumb to the coronavirus. He lost his battle with prostate cancer recently after a long struggle. He was 76.

Because of the virus restrictions, I was only able to visit over the telephone before he passed away.

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Rivenbark fits in what I call my curmudgeon category. He could be short and to the point, and our last phone call started in typical fashion. When his wife, Charlotte, handed him the phone and told him it was me, no “How are you doing” or any such formalities ensued. The first sentence out of his mouth was, “Whadda you want?”

However, he always tried to help with what I wanted. When I first moved to lower Alabama to take the job as Outdoors Editor at the Mobile Press-Register in 1992, a friend of mine insisted I look up Lee when I got to town.

Boy, I’m glad I did. Lee was a man of the outdoors, from the intricate machinations of Mobile Bay to the haunts of the wary white-tailed deer.

In fact, we hit it off so well that before I got my family moved down, I rented a garage apartment on the Rivenbark compound on Mobile Bay at the south end of Fairhope, where the Rivenbark family had been since 1966.

It was a small apartment, but it had a great view of the Rivenbark pier and water beneath the pier light. Obviously, the pier light attracted bait fish and subsequently speckled trout and redfish. From my vantage point in the apartment, I could take a pair of binoculars and look at the pier. If I could see fish activity under the light, I would grab a rod and reel and head down to catch a few fish for the next night’s meal. If the water was calm, I’d roll over and go to sleep.

I don’t remember how many times Lee retold that story to illustrate how “sorry” I was, but it always ended in a big laugh.

Lee was the first to admit that he was not a hook-and-line angler. He much preferred a cast net and could throw a “silver dollar” every time. He tried to teach me but finally gave up when I got to the butterbean stage.

If mullet tried to swim past the Rivenbark pier when Lee was there with his cast net, the fish didn’t stand a chance.

Despite his reluctance, one day he agreed to go with me on a little fishing trip to the Grand Hotel jetties. I was dragging a plastic grub across the bottom, hoping to locate a few flounder. I caught a flatfish and cast right back into the same spot and hooked up again. I got Lee to cast in that spot and he hooked a fish. If our baits landed in an area about the size of a washtub, we ended up with a fish. We caught a dozen before the spot ran dry.

Lee, known as Uncle Lee to my daughters, had knowledge of Mobile Bay was extraordinary, and I was lucky enough to be on his jubilee hotline.

For those who aren’t familiar with the phenomenon, a jubilee happens when the bottom-dwelling fish and creatures in the bay end up on the shoreline.

Jubilees occur during the summer when patches of water with low dissolved oxygen form in the bay. With the right conditions, that oxygen-depleted water moves to shore, mainly Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore, pushing those fish and marine creatures ahead of it.

It usually happens in the wee hours of the morning, and a jubilee could include everything from flounder to shrimp to crabs to eels.

If I got a call at 4 a.m. and I heard “Rivenbark, Fairhope Pier,” I knew to jump up, grab my wading shoes, gig and light and meet him for the bonanza that is a jubilee.

Jubilees were always fickle experiences. Sometimes it would be only shrimp. At other times it was mostly flounder. At times it was everything, with blue crabs crawling out on piers and pilings to flounder stacked on top of each other trying to find oxygen.

When a thundershower moved through in the afternoon and the wind was blowing gently out of the east, Lee would tell me to expect a phone call.

But you never knew what you were going to get or whether it was going to materialize. One night we were all set for a big jubilee with everything falling into place. Just as the flounder got near gigging range, a huge wake from a ship heading down Mobile Ship Channel crashed ashore, and the jubilee vanished right before our eyes.

So many memories come to mind when I think about Lee, including the time we tried to go fishing in the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast. Tried is the key word here. We set out from Fly Creek Marina in Fairhope aboard Dr. Larry Ennis’ catamaran sailing vessel for an extended adventure. By the time we got south of Biloxi, Mississippi, we got bad news. Not one but two tropical systems were forming in the Gulf of Mexico. We turned the boat around but could only make it back to Pascagoula before we abandoned ship and called for someone to pick us up.

When it came to hunting, Lee had never really taken up the turkey hunting sickness because he was too busy taking advantage of the bounty of Mobile Bay during the spring.

But deer hunting was his main outdoor passion. He hunted deer from Colorado to Conecuh County and everywhere in between. Of course, most of his deer came from Alabama, and he was a meticulous record-keeper.

“He kept a record of all the crabs and mullet he caught off the pier and every deer he shot,” said younger brother John Rivenbark.

Lee was absolutely the luckiest deer hunter I have ever known. He could break all the rules and still be successful. He could be smoking a cigarette and the biggest buck in the woods would step out in front of him.

He had told me before the season started that all he wanted to do was kill his 400th deer. He only needed three to reach that milestone.

It was a struggle early in the season with the effect of chemotherapy on his body and the weather. Our mutual friend from Mississippi set up a hunt for Lee in Texas, but his health wouldn’t cooperate. I tried to set up a hunt for him at Bent Creek Lodge in Jachin, Alabama, but he wasn’t up to the trip.

With his brothers and friends like Ken Jansen, Judson Pizzotti and Gary Wolfe helping him along the way last season, Lee managed to accomplish his goal.

He bagged his 400th deer, a doe, with his twin brother, Arch, and family friend Carl Enfinger in tow.

Lee ended his deer-hunting career with 402 reduced to bag.

He asked me, after he knew this would likely be his last deer season, if I wanted one of his deer rifles or any of his mounts after he was gone.

I told him he should give those to family members, but I did have one request. He had a stainless steel rod, sharpened on one end with the small rope attached to the other. It was his custom flounder gig that allowed him to slide the gigged flounder down the rod and onto the string so he didn’t have to stop during a jubilee.

“Lee, all I want is your flounder gig if that’s alright,” I said.

“That’s all you want?” he said with curious look.

“Yep,” I said, “because every time I stick a flounder I’ll think of you.”

I hope to rekindle those memories of my great friend real soon.

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

Vandalism continues to be problem at WFF shooting ranges

(WFF/Contributed)

It’s like when their favorite lamps get broken by reckless youngsters and moms say, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

I don’t get riled easily, but one photo posted recently by the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division really kicked my blood pressure up a notch.

Some yahoos at one of the WFF shooting ranges vandalized items at the range to the detriment of all who use and maintain the shooting facility.

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Unfortunately, a few bad actors could jeopardize the use of some of these facilities if this malicious behavior continues. The facility where inconsiderate people destroyed state property is still open. For now.

WFF Director Chuck Sykes said the vandalism at Etowah Shooting Range that irked me so much is only one of many examples of how destructive some people can be.

“We installed new concrete shooting benches at several ranges over the past couple of years,” he said. “Within days of us installing them, several were damaged through senseless vandalism.”

Unfortunately, vandalism is not new, but this new destructive activity could have a greater impact. As far as the damage done at the Etowah range, Marisa Futral, WFF Hunter Education Coordinator, said the recent incident indicated a growing problem.

“People can be so inconsiderate,” she said. “People will bring computers, washing machines or whatever to shoot. If they don’t have anything, they’ll just shoot up the garbage cans. It’s not the first time it happened at Etowah, but this time was really bad. Then they just leave them for someone else to clean up.”

Futral said another example of people being inconsiderate is when they place their targets too close to the bench, causing their bullets to impact the floor of the range instead of going into the earthen berm. This creates big ruts in the floor of the range and makes maintenance a nightmare.

“At South Sandy at Oakmulgee Wildlife Management Area, we had just put 13 new shooting benches there,” she said. “They cost more than $900 each. We were trying to make the facilities as nice as we could. We weren’t open a week before someone either shot or took a sledgehammer and tore up one of the benches. Fortunately, we did have some thoughtful users who were in the concrete business. They volunteered to supply materials and labor to repair the benches. That was a positive, and we wish all users would have this attitude. That’s why we would love to staff all of our ranges – to stop all the vandalism. Unfortunately, it’s the few who ruin it for the many.”

Two facilities, the Cahaba Public Shooting Range in Shelby County and the Swan Creek Public Shooting Range in Limestone County, had to be closed temporarily because the users would not abide by specific social-distancing guidelines. Another facility, the Conecuh Public Shooting Range, was also shut down due to the temporary closure order issued for all U.S. Forest Service recreational access areas in national forests.

“As with most things, Alabama hunters have it really good,” said Director Sykes. “Our Governor has been working generously with us to make sure we keep the outdoors open. It is providing a healthy alternative for people who are social distancing. You can be smart about it and still go to the woods and hunt, still get on the water and fish, as long as people take this seriously and don’t think it’s a three-week vacation, because it’s not. We want you to get outdoors and have fun. What we do for a living is provide those opportunities. As long as people are smart about it, we will remain open. But we had to close two of our staffed shooting ranges because people would not obey the guidelines set forth by (State Health Officer) Dr. (Scott) Harris and the Governor.”

Sykes said the staff taped off every other shooting bench at the staffed ranges to ensure people were maintaining the proper 6-foot distancing, to no avail.

“We told people coming into the range that they had to follow the social-distancing protocol or they would force us to close it,” Sykes said. “Before lunch, people were stacking their equipment on the taped-off benches, walking all over people. We just finally had to close it.”

Futral said the program had no other option than to close the manned shooting ranges that she and her staff oversee.

“Those ranges were so packed,” Futral said. “Everybody was touching the same staple gun and same benches. People weren’t maintaining the 6-foot social-distancing recommendations. Our staff was getting exposed. We definitely didn’t feel like we were complying with Governor Ivey’s order not to congregate.”

The nine WFF shooting ranges that currently remain open are Barbour WMA Shooting Range, Coosa WMA Shooting Range, Etowah Shooting Range, Freedom Hills WMA Shooting Range, Marengo Public Shooting Range, Sam R. Murphy WMA Shooting Range, Skyline WMA Shooting Range, South Sandy-Oakmulgee WMA Shooting Range and Upper Delta WMA Shooting Range. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/activities/shooting-ranges for details about the ranges.

WFF Director Sykes said people in Alabama may not realize how good they have it right now in terms of enjoying the outdoors.

Governor Kay Ivey specifically granted Alabamians the option of enjoying outdoors recreation during the virus restrictions, with the proper social distancing of course, because she knows how cherished the outdoors is to people in our state.

“A lot of states are experiencing mandates to close public access during these restrictions,” Sykes said. “For one example, Illinois shut down all of its public hunting lands. If you’re an Alabama resident who drew a non-resident turkey tag in Illinois, you’re out of luck unless you have access to private property. I hunted in Nebraska last year, and I received a text from their game department that said basically, thanks for buying your turkey tags last year, but, sorry, you can’t come this year.”

Sykes said a meme floating around social media nails the hoarding hysteria that hit the nation.

“It says the reason we have game and fish regulations is because of how some people acted in the grocery store,” he said. “We’re trying to provide an opportunity. People who abuse it, hurt it for everybody else. I’m not saying there are a lot of people who do this. For the most part, the people who use the shooting ranges and hunt and fish on the WMAs (wildlife management areas) are upstanding citizens. They buy their licenses. They abide by the rules and regulations. They abide by the bag limits and fish creel limits. And it’s a pleasure to have them around. My daddy always taught me there’s one in every crowd. And you know what that one is. Those people are the ones who could possibly ruin it for everybody.”

Sykes participated in a conference call recently with the National Forest Service to determine if those lands could remain open during the coronavirus outbreak.

“They don’t want to shut down the national forests,” he said. “We are struggling nationwide for relevancy. People are not growing up in the country. They don’t have a high value for outdoor recreation like we do because we grew up doing it.”

As tragic as this virus has been for many in the nation, Sykes sees an opportunity.

“Let’s make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “This is a terrible situation for the country as a whole, but this is a great time for us to show people what we do, how we do it and why we do it. We’re providing recreational opportunities for people who would normally be going to soccer games, going to movies or concerts and stuff like that. We’re providing them with a safe, healthy alternative to go outside and enjoy nature. This may be the silver lining for this. We’re the only game open in town right now. If people use it wisely, it may help us create a new group of users.”

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

Charters, inshore guides feel impact of virus restrictions

(Brad Tinney, Johnny Greene/Outdoor Alabama)

It’s like a recurring nightmare. Thankfully, that bad dream has only occurred once every 10 years or so.

Unfortunately, it’s not a dream.

For the charter boat fleet and inshore fishing guides along the Alabama Gulf Coast, the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 virus has caused flashbacks to the spring of 2010 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that paralyzed the northern Gulf Coast.

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After the oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico and some inshore waters were closed to fishing. In this situation, the Gulf is open, but the customers are gone for the most part. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship have done everything possible to keep the outdoors open, but those who venture out must follow the social distancing guidelines.

Capt. Johnny Greene, who runs the 65-foot Intimidator out of Orange Beach, was enjoying some of the best fishing the Gulf has to offer until the virus started taking its toll on his bookings.

“We were set for the best year we’ve ever had,” Greene said. “We were pretty booked up. Then it started dwindling down as people started dealing with the reality of what was going to happen. Trips started canceling from a few days out to a few weeks out to a month out. At this point, I think the reality is we’re just trying to save red snapper season. I don’t know what will come about between now and then.”

The charter industry’s peak business occurs during for-hire snapper season, which is currently scheduled to open June 1 and run through August 1.

“We just don’t know,” Greene said. “It looks like nobody is going to fish much in April, and who knows about May.”

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon is concerned about the impact the shutdown is having on one of Alabama’s favorite pastimes, not to mention the economic harm.

“The pandemic is impacting all aspects of fishing, and I have concerns that some business, especially charter, will not have the financial means to make it through this,” Bannon said. “About $300 million will become available through the CARES Act to specifically address fishing impacts. But we don’t know when that is coming or how it will be divided, and that has to cover the entire country. We do have hope that the restrictions will be lifted by summer and people will want to travel and fish on the Gulf Coast and that will help all aspects of the economy to get started again.”

Meanwhile, some boats are large enough to abide by the virus mitigation guidelines, and Greene is fortunate enough to have one.

“I can carry up to 10 people on the boat and make it work,” he said. “That would be eight passengers and two crew. My boat is in the upper echelon of charters in terms of size. I can spread people out. But a lot of boats are not as big as mine, and it’s going to cause tremendous hardships if people don’t get back to work pretty quick.”

During the offseason, the charters spend money advertising and preparing their boats for the fishing season, which usually cranks up during spring break and runs through the summer. Boat bottoms are cleaned of barnacles and new paint is applied. Engine maintenance is conducted, and propellers are refurbished. Nothing indicated they should put on the brakes.

“We just went through a long winter period of inactivity,” Greene said. “As heavily seasonal as we are, if you go through the boatyard, we had no predictions of this – you know, don’t do this or that. You’re spending your money to make preparations and get your boat ready. Then all of a sudden, you can’t go. That’s the hard part. There are probably going to be some boats that may not make it through this deal. We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Greene said his boat was booked for almost every day in March and most of April.

“It all started to fall apart in March,” he said. “I mean, what are we going to say to somebody if they’re scared and don’t want to go. It’s a tough deal, and it’s going to affect a lot of people.”

The uncertainty of when the virus is going to peak and start to diminish is what makes it difficult for the independent contractors like the charter captains and their deck hands.

“It brings back memories of the oil spill,” Greene said. “April 20th is the 10-year anniversary of the oil spill, and it looks like we’ll be sitting here at the dock on that day.”

Greene said one big difference between the oil spill and the COVID-19 shutdown is that numerous charter boats were hired by BP for a variety of tasks during the spill cleanup and recovery.

“Quite a few boats were able to get income from BP,” he said. “Some of them made a lot of money, although I wasn’t one of them. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m thankful for all the blessings I’ve had. I’m not sweating it as much as a lot of guys are. This is going to absolutely cripple some of the younger guys who are just getting going. Of course, it’s not helping me at all in terms of long-term planning. But there are a lot of fishermen in town that are absolutely living paycheck to paycheck. Some filed for unemployment to have something to feed their families. It’s a challenge. Most fishermen are proud people and don’t like handouts. They just want the opportunity to go to work. You take that away and it really affects them. That mental aspect is really hard for people to understand.”

Greene said the virus outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time in terms of fishing success. Although the charter business was steady, the fishing had been difficult for the past couple of years because of environmental factors, mostly freshwater influx from a flooded Mississippi River.

“The fishing was really good,” he said. “Things had been tough for the past couple of years. This year everything was happening. The fish were biting, and everything was going our way. The weather was beautiful, and the water was pretty. The beeliners (vermilion snapper) were biting. We were catching big triggerfish. Tuna and wahoo were cooperating. Everything you needed for a particular trip was working. Then I left on an overnight trip. I got back and everybody was freaked out. I left for one night and look what happened. It was just crazy.”

Greene was scheduled to leave on a three-day trip this past Monday, but he had to call the customers and cancel. Overnight trips are out during the shutdown.

“You just have to be understanding and try to reschedule as many trips as you can,” he said. “You try to work with people. Everybody is as scared as you are. Charter trips are discretionary money. When people are scared, they’re not going to spend any money. Nobody knows what to do.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a text string with my fishing guide friend, Jay Gunn, and one of the texters posted:

“I’m not sure what’s worse, being a restaurant owner in Gulf Shores or a fishing guide.”

Gunn said he definitely wouldn’t want to be in the restaurant business on the Gulf Coast right now.

“Neither one of those options are very good right now,” Gunn said. “I think I’d rather be a fishing guide because I’ve got a lot less invested in my boat and tackle.”

Gunn, who has canceled all his trips through April, said the shutdown will probably eliminate some people from the guide business.

“If you have a big mortgage or don’t have enough cash on hand to weather a couple of months, you’re probably not going to make it,” he said. “The charters and guides with long-term customers are not going to be as affected, but it’s going to be rough on the new guys.”

Gunn said this virus shutdown is indeed like a flashback to the oil spill, but he chooses to look for the proverbial silver lining.

“The good that can come out it is what I have to look at,” he said. “The beach is not destroyed. It’s just a health situation where nobody can come and fish. But if this closure lasts a while, it could be beneficial to the fishing in the long run.”

Gunn said the sheepshead are spawning right now. With very few anglers out, the sheepshead can complete their spawn virtually unmolested. That abundance of eggs will produce fish that will contribute to the stocks three or four years from now.

“If you remember, five years after the oil spill, all those giant (speckled) trout showed up,” he said. “This won’t have to go on much longer to affect speckled trout. If this extends to the middle of May without any significant fishing taking place, the major speckled trout spawn happens in early May. Now they spawn all the way to September, but the major spawn is in May. If that happens, you can expect a bump in recruitment (juvenile fish entering the adult population). Then you will have a subsequent bump in bigger fish five years from now. Any break these fish get is good for the fish. It’s not good for the fishermen, but it’s good for the fish. And that includes the surf fish, too. You can’t go to the beach, so those fish will get a break. Last year was one of the best pompano runs we’ve had in a while. Those fish won’t get caught on their spawning run either. That could mean better pompano fishing next year and down the road.”

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

Flounder fingerlings released ahead of schedule

(Blakeley Ellis/Outdoor Alabama)

With the exception of those essential workers like healthcare, first responders and transportation, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude, the COVID-19 outbreak has most of the world at a standstill.

Schedules had to be adjusted when Alabama Governor Kay Ivey issued the directives to minimize the spread of the virus.

One of those schedules involved the release of the southern flounder fingerlings that had been spawned at the Alabama Marine Resources Division’s (MRD) Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores.

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The flounder spawn was a first for MRD’s saltwater hatchery, and Max Westendorf, hatchery manager, said the release was executed about a week earlier than originally planned, but this didn’t pose a risk to the fingerlings.

“It really wasn’t detrimental,” Westendorf said. “We just had to throw it into gear and get it done.”

Another change of plans involved where the flounder were released. Hatchery staff had to find the best suitable salinity to maximize the survival of the fingerlings. The staff boated to the west but came back with reports that the salinity was too low.

“Initially, we had planned to release them in the Bon Secour and Oyster Bay areas and around Dauphin Island,” Westendorf said. “But with all the floodwater that had been coming down from the northern part of the state, from basically the mouth of the Intracoastal Waterway at Bon Secour all the way to Fort Morgan, the salinity levels were below two parts per thousand. We were looking for salinity levels of 10-15 parts per thousand. We had to go east to the Wolf Bay and Josephine areas. We were able to find water that was from 9 to 11 parts per thousand. “

The salinity in the tanks at the hatchery was reduced to match the conditions in the wild, and the fingerlings were released the following day.

“We released an estimated 12,236 fingerlings,” Westendorf said.

The method the hatchery used to determine the number of fish released is common to aquaculture facilities. The fish are removed from the holding tanks and a total weight is obtained. A random 50 fish are weighed and the total weight of this sample is divided by the number of fish counted to determine an average weight per fish. The total weight of all fish is divided by the average weight to determine the total number of fish released.

Westendorf said the density of fish in the tanks correlated with the size of the fingerlings. The tanks with fewer fish had larger individuals. Some fish in high density tanks could have been moved to a tank of low density to improve overall growth, but the extra handling could have stressed the fish and led to increased mortality.

MRD Chief Marine Biologist Kevin Anson said releasing the fish in the Perdido Bay system was not ideal but the best option under the circumstances.

“Releasing the fish in Mobile Bay would have been more productive than the Perdido system because it is more productive and typically has more juvenile shrimp than the Perdido system,” Anson said. “Small shrimp are entering the estuaries this time of year and serve as their primary food source.”

Anson said he hopes funding for a tagging program is available in the future to determine how many of the hatchery-raised fish enter the adult population (recruitment).

“We have an estimate of how many wild flounder enter the population, but we don’t know if the hatchery-raised fish will have the same survival rate as the wild fish,” he said.

Anson agrees that the early release date likely was not detrimental to the fish. He said the feed and brine shrimp fed to the fish in the hatchery is not as nutritionally beneficial as food sources in the wild.

Westendorf said the MRD team learned significant lessons during the hatchery’s inaugural flounder spawn.

“We had a lot of trouble getting potential broodstock flounder to eat consistently after bringing them into the hatchery,” Westendorf said. “We finally figured out a way to get them to eat consistently a month or two before spawning was scheduled to occur. If the fish were eating all year long, we would have had brood fish in better condition for spawning. Most of the mortality occurred right after hatch, which I attributed to poor egg quality. The fingerlings we were able to release came from the brood fish that looked significantly healthier than other spawned fish. They had better gonad development and their eggs looked healthier when placed under a microscope. We now know what we have to do to ensure that the appetite of the adult fish is maintained throughout the year.”

Flounder don’t readily expel eggs in captivity, requiring the hatchery staff to strip-spawn the fish. Westendorf said he and his team learned that multiple strip-spawns from the same fish (male or female) could be counterproductive.

“You have to be extremely delicate with these fish,” he said. “Don’t try to get too many eggs out of them at one time. And we learned it’s best to strip-spawn them one time and return to the holding tank. The egg quality deteriorated each day I tried to collect more eggs out of each fish. We quickly realized the hatching rate depended on the quality of the eggs. We worked our tails off and after the first three or four days, we weren’t losing any fish. When they hatch out, they’re living off their yolk sacs. We don’t really have any influence on survival during that stage. The quality of the egg yolk is correlated with the mother’s diet and condition prior to spawning. Although southern flounder rarely move in the tank and get along with each other nicely, even in high densities, they are harder to prepare for spawning and tolerate handling less than other species I have cultured.”

Anson said significant support from Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) Alabama will allow the hatchery to expand capacity for the next flounder spawn and make it significantly easier to minimize the disturbance of the fish. The CCA Alabama funds will be used to refurbish tanks to spread out the broodstock so only a few fish will be handled at a time when spawning is scheduled.

“Hopefully, anglers fishing in tournaments that supported broodstock collection efforts last year will provide us with more flounder broodstock this year,” he said. “If you’ve got a handful of females in one tank and a handful of males in another tank, once you disturb them, they go off feed for a couple of weeks. With us having multiple tanks to choose fish from, we can go to one tank and pick out the fish in best condition to spawn without disturbing the rest of the facility’s population. We need to cherry-pick the very best fish to increase our chances of meeting our stocking goals. We encourage folks to participate in providing us fish for our broodstock program, especially fish that just meet the minimum size as those have a higher chance of being male. Getting those fish from the tournaments (ACFA and Saltwater Finnaddicts) is a big help.”

Westendorf said the hatchery is currently maintaining a skeleton staff to ensure all the broodstock remains healthy. A planned spawn of Florida pompano had to be postponed, but Westendorf hopes to spawn pompano sometime this summer and then speckled trout (spotted seatrout) at the end of the summer.

As far as the hatchery’s first effort to spawn flounder, Anson rates it as a “glowing success.”

“We released about 12,000 fish, which is one-fifth of our ultimate annual goal.” Anson said. “Since this was the first time flounder were spawned at Claude Peteet Mariculture Center, I think we did well in terms of numbers. Max learned a lot about the feeding habits, tolerance to handling and other requirements of the southern flounder to get them to spawn. What was learned this year puts Max and his staff in a good position to meet our goal of 60,000 1-inch flounder sooner than we originally thought.”

Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon was also very pleased with the initial spawn of flounder at Claude Peteet.

“They are a difficult species to acclimate and spawn, but our staff has worked very hard to make this happen,” Bannon said. “I am especially proud of how they utilized partnerships with the community. The amount of money and effort that was saved by partnering with fishing tournaments and private anglers to obtain fish for our program as well utilizing the donations of equipment from the CCA Alabama to receive matching federal dollars is huge.”

CCA Alabama Executive Director Blakeley Ellis added: “CCA Alabama is proud and excited to see this effort come to life after years of hard work and planning. Conservation projects like the hatchery will continue to be an area we plan to support, and we couldn’t do that without our members, volunteers and corporate sponsors who help to support us throughout the year.”

Westendorf agrees the flounder spawning and release were indeed successes.

“It was awesome,” Westendorf said. “My goal for the year was to raise one fish. We smashed that goal.”

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

State park rangers on duty in times of calm and peril

(Chad Davis/Contributed)

Thankfully, with a few exceptions, Alabama State Parks remain open during the COVID-19 restrictions.

And as diligent as always, our park rangers are on duty to deal with any situation that might arise with everything from a welcoming wave and helpful hand to rescuing park visitors in peril.

That peril was particularly apparent last December when a line of storms started moving through north Alabama.

Joe Wheeler State Park Ranger Ryan Robertson was on patrol on December 16, 2019, while Ranger David Barr had the day off, or so he thought.

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“That afternoon, we had some pretty volatile weather,” Barr said. “Ryan was running duty, and I stopped him at the boat ramp and told him I would be home if it got bad.”

It got bad at the 2,550-acre park on the Tennessee River near Rogersville. When a tornado warning was issued a little after 5:00 p.m., Barr donned his uniform and headed into the park to help Robertson warn the patrons and park volunteers of the impending storm.

Fortunately, with the Christmas season in full swing, the park was not full of campers or visitors.

“Ryan already had people evacuated from the campground,” Barr said. “We only had seven campers and four of those were volunteers. If we have a lot of people, we put some in the bathhouses and some at the campground store. Ryan took some of them to the lodge. He stayed with them. I was at the campground store with two ladies and two kids and a Pyrenees dog. I usually get out and ramble during something like this, but something told me not to do that. I stayed at the store. My son was with me, and he was watching the storm on the weather radar.”

Barr’s son told him the storm was about to hit, and Barr sent the visitors into one bathroom while he and his son got in the other.

The power went out, and a few minutes later it became apparent that they were in the tornado’s path.

“The store has metal doors on each side,” Barr said. “Those doors started flapping. I didn’t stick my head out to see, but it sounded like those doors were opening all the way and closing. The wind was howling and whistling. That lasted for three or four minutes and then it was quiet.”

While all campers, volunteers and park personnel escaped injury during the storm, the campground did not fare as well.

“When I was sure it had blown over, I thought we had escaped the worst of it until I went outside and got in my truck,” Barr said. When the lights came on, I could see big pine trees down. I tried to go up the hill to my house, but the road was blocked by trees.”

Barr walked the rest of the way to his house, which was unscathed, although numerous trees were down in the yard. Back in the campground, Barr discovered that the A section did not have much damage.

“But the B section was total destruction,” he said. “The bathhouse was destroyed. The meeting pavilion was caved in by trees falling on it.”

By that time, Barr was joined by Robertson and Park District Supervisor Chad Davis as well as part-time employee Morris Barnes, who has since become a full-time ranger at Monte Sano State Park.

Barnes hopped onto a backhoe and all hands started clearing downed trees out of the roadways until they realized live power lines were down in the park and decided to wait until daylight to resume their work.

The next morning, Barr discovered he had a view of the Tennessee River that he never expected or wanted.

“I’ve been a ranger and campground supervisor here for over 30 years,” he said. “This is my home. To see my life’s work blown away was devastating. We got strike teams in from other parks, cut our way through the different sections to assess the damage. I can’t really describe it. A section survived. Three-quarters of B section was gone. C section was completely wiped out.”

Barr, who was recently promoted to assistant superintendent at Wheeler, said out of 116 camping sites only 60 remained usable. Two bathhouses were destroyed. One large pavilion and two smaller pavilions were destroyed. Beautiful, tall pine trees were strewn throughout the campground.

“From my house, you can see forever,” he said. “You can see the river from my backyard, which you used to could never see. I can see all the way across the river. I miss the trees.”

Barr is just thankful that the pre-Christmas period is a slow time at Wheeler.

“I know of one camper who left early because of the weather,” he said. “I’m glad he did because that site he was staying at was completely leveled. If there had been many people in the campground, there would have been multiple fatalities.”

Barnes, who lives only 2½ miles from Wheeler, not only had heavy equipment experience, he also served with the Rogersville Police Department at that time.

Barnes ended up in an even more harrowing situation a few days after helping with the aftermath of the tornado.

Heavy downpours had caused creeks in north Alabama to swell rapidly. Barnes, who is trained in swift-water and high-angle rescue, had finished his shift with the Rogersville PD at 5:00 p.m. when a call came in about a car swept into a creek. That incident resulted in a fatality.

Then a second call came in about another car in the same creek not far away from the first incident.

“That girl’s mother went looking for her and drove off in the same creek, not knowing she was there,” Barnes said. “The first car was completely submerged. The second one, the front was stuck in the ground and the rear end was hung in a tree. The woman had managed to crawl out through the back glass.”

After being unable to rescue the woman, area enforcement officers called for the swift-water rescue team of which Barnes was a member.

Barnes got the Florence Fire Department to aid in the rescue with a rubber boat and a heavy fire truck that could be used as an anchor point in the swift water.

Barnes and another first responder got into the rubber boat and it was slowly released into the creek by rope.

“Once we got the boat over to the car, I knew her,” Barnes said of the trapped woman. “Everybody told me she was going to fight me, but when we made eye contact, I called her out by name. She called out my name, and then I told what I wanted her to do and not fight me. I got over close enough to put a life jacket on her and latched onto her. I didn’t try to drag her into the boat, but we dragged her to the opposite bank and released her to those personnel.”

Unfortunately, Barnes discovered the daughter’s car about 40 yards down the creek completely submerged with no hope of rescue.

After the incident, the Rogersville City Council and Mayor presented Barnes with a life-saving award that he was hesitant to accept.

“I’m not a hero,” Barnes said. “I had a job to do. To me, the hero was the woman. She hung in there for almost three hours until we could get to her.”

Barnes said it was a perfect example for the mantra of “Turn around, don’t drown.”

“It rained so hard and fast that the county didn’t have enough time to get up the barricades,” he said. “Lauderdale County is 71 miles wide. It just happened so fast.”

Sometimes, the problems park rangers encounter are not weather related.

For example, Lake Lurleen State Park Ranger Mark Caton, who has been a first responder in one capacity or another for more than 20 years, was checking people coming into the park when one vehicle left the road and went through the grass.

“We deal with all kinds of people,” Caton said. “It’s like having a concert in your jurisdiction every day.”

The driver of the errant vehicle exited and then jumped into the lake.

“Obviously, that’s not normal behavior,” Caton said. “He yelled, ‘Don’t try to get me out.’ But I grabbed my rescue boat and headed out. I didn’t get too close and tried to get him to talking. Usually, if you can get people talking, the less they think about what they want to do.”

Caton found out the swimmer had been in and out of psychiatric care and had been self-medicating instead of taking his prescription medicines. Caton also found out he and his girlfriend had had a fight and she kicked him out.

“He felt like he didn’t have anywhere else to go and was just going to swim until he got tired and drowned,” Caton said. “I tried to build a rapport with him and tell him that drowning was not the way to go. Finally, he was getting thirsty and tired. I tossed him a cushion float and he took it. That was the first step to get him back to the side of the lake. Then I told him we had some Gatorade on the other side of the lake. Believe it or not, the Gatorade worked. For somebody who wasn’t thinking clearly, he zoned in on Gatorade. He was close to drowning a couple of times. He swam back in and got his Gatorade, like we promised, and then we got him to a hospital.”

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’s outdoors provides solutions for social distancing

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

While Governor Kay Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris, Chair of the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force, work hard alongside other state, national and private enterprise leaders to mitigate the effects of the novel coronavirus and bring its spread to a conclusion, it is important that people maintain the social distancing and other health recommendation standards.

“We take these precautions and recommendations very seriously at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We know many Alabamians want to get outdoors during the spring and enjoy some recreational opportunities that can refresh in these challenging times; just remember, we must do so safely.”

Not only does our state have some of the best fishing opportunities in the nation, both freshwater and saltwater, but the spring turkey season is also about to open in most of the state.

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If hunting or fishing is not a preference, consider the beautiful natural hiking trails and camping facilities available at Alabama State Parks close to where you live, not to mention the natural beauty on the Forever Wild tracts available to the public. Visit www.alapark.com and www.alabamaforeverwild.com for the many options available.

“I know with the children out of school and many parents home as well, people will want to do things together as a family,” Blankenship continued. “Many will want to take the youngsters who are out of school to explore our state’s great natural wonders, but please do so responsibly.”

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes said this is a perfect opportunity for those who love the outdoors to adhere to the “social distancing” guidelines.

“I fully expect Alabama hunters and fishermen to take advantage of the social distancing prescriptions by all the coronavirus experts, and I expect many of them will get outdoors, either on the water or in the woods,” Sykes said. “Turkey season in most of the state comes in Saturday (March 21). Fishing is phenomenal from what I understand.”

Sykes said WFF’s operations will be minimally impacted by the measures instituted to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“It’s going to be business as usual for us except in our offices,” he said. “I don’t want people to think that the game wardens are going to be sitting at home, not doing anything. Our staff basically has been practicing social distancing for years. They work by themselves for the large part. They work outside. The only thing the public will see different from Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is our district offices and the Montgomery offices will be closed to public walk-in traffic. But we will still have a skeleton staff to take phone calls and answer Game Check questions, which will be forwarded to officers and biologists in the field. Other than some headquarters and district office staff continuing their work from home, it’s going to be business as usual providing services to the public.”

Sykes took his own advice last weekend for the turkey season’s special youth weekend and headed to the woods. As with most hunting experiences, some folks had good luck while others did not.

“The results were site-specific, as they are most seasons,” he said. “Some youth did well; some didn’t. I went this weekend with a friend and his son, and we heard a couple of turkeys gobble once or twice apiece, and that was it. I talked to some people whose turkeys gobbled good, and they had a productive hunt and killed turkeys. That’s just the way it is. I was glad it wasn’t raining, and it wasn’t 25 degrees, like it had been for the past couple of years.”

This year’s regular turkey season is opening on the third Saturday of March in most areas. This opener is the latest possible opening date, and Sykes said that was done for a specific reason.

“The date was moved to give the birds more time for breeding activity before the season opens,” he said. “A lot of the latest research is showing that we may be harvesting too many gobblers too early in the breeding process.”

Studies have shown moving the season opener toward peak nest initiation dates allows more dominant gobblers to breed before being shot, which is even more important in already-declining populations. Peak nest initiation in Alabama averages around the second week in April.

“Postponing the opening date to the third Saturday at least gives the gobblers another few days in the woods without there being a lot of pressure,” Sykes said.

With the mild winter and early spring, the breeding cycle may be a bit earlier, especially the gobblers’ role of strutting and gobbling. But, the amount of daylight and receptive hens ultimately dictate when breeding takes place.

“I think they’re well on their way,” he said. “I think moving the season later was a positive move. I think it’s good that we haven’t had any cold weather in a few weeks to give the turkeys a chance to do their thing before we get after them real hard. As far as tactics for opening weekend, again, it depends on where you are. The turkey we were fooling with on youth weekend had a sack full of hens with him. He didn’t care what I did. I called up two hens that popped up out of the bottom. They gave a peek, turned around and went back. Another hen did that a few minutes later. They were staying with him. They were doing what turkeys do. We were just not in the right place to get in their way. Now if you can find a lonely 2-year-old, you can beat two rocks together, and he’ll come running.”

Sykes said turkey hunters who participate in the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey program or who read the annual Full Fans and Sharp Spurs report at www.outdooralabama.com/turkey-hunting-alabama/turkey-research will understand the Division’s assessment of the turkey population in the state.

“In that survey and publication, you’ll see two categories of recruitment,” he said. “One is looking at poults (young of the year) per hens and the other is hens with poults. Those are two different topics. Studies are showing that perhaps the reason we’re seeing the number of hens with no poults is not because of predation but due to the fact that those hens did not get bred because the dominant gobblers were taken out of the population too soon.

“If hunters are interested in participating in the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey and assisting our wildlife biologists in the collection of this data, they should click the link on the www.outdooralabama.com website for more information. We certainly appreciate all those who have contributed thus far and hope to see more sign up for this opportunity to assist in the management of this great bird.”

For those who have hunted turkeys for a long time in Alabama, the late start shouldn’t be a burden, according to Sykes.

“When I was a kid, the turkey season always started on March 20th,” he said. “It was moved to the 15th for not necessarily biological reasons, so this should not be that big of a shock to hunters who grew up in Alabama. It shouldn’t be that big a deal.”

Sykes said about the only thing this virus might affect for turkey hunting is hunters’ ability to gather at the country store to exchange lies.

“Everybody is so social-media-oriented now, I think we’ll still be able to keep up with what’s going on,” he said.

As with hunting success, Sykes said it depends on the source when it comes to the discussion of the status of turkey populations in the South.

“Some people I know think the turkey decline is 100% real, and I know others who swear numbers are at ‘historic highs’,” he said. “Personally, I think they’re down.”

Sykes said he hunted turkeys as much as possible last year and bagged two birds in Alabama.

“That was a gracious plenty,” he said. “Now I called up a bunch of birds for others, so that did not impede my ability to go hunting, have a good time and have fun, and enjoy being outdoors.”

Sykes said he wants people to do the same thing, but they need to understand that the WFF staff is going to be right there with them.

“Our staff didn’t get two weeks of vacation,” he said. “They’re still going to be working. We want people to have their licenses because they’re going to encounter our staff. Our WMAs (wildlife management areas) are open. Our public shooting ranges are open. Our public lakes are open. Get out there and have fun. Take advantage of this time to be outside, but please abide by the recommendations to slow the spread of the virus.”

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 in spotlight, behind scenes at Bassmaster Classic

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division was both enjoying the spotlight and working behind the curtains during last week’s 50th Bassmaster Classic weigh-in at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center (BJCC).

The Classic, with Academy Sports + Outdoors as its title sponsor, pitted the world’s best bass anglers on one of the nation’s top bass impoundments – Lake Guntersville in northeast Alabama.

After an opening round with an impressive 29-plus pounds of largemouth bass, Hank Cherry of North Carolina cruised to a wire-to-wire victory to win the top prize of $300,000.

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During Saturday’s weigh-in ceremonies at BJCC’s Legacy Arena, one of WFF’s conservation enforcement officers, Sergeant Bill Freeman, was spotlighted in an oversized Academy chair as the honored first responder.

A veteran of the U.S. Army, Freeman transitioned recently from full-time patrol officer to head of WFF outreach. He was recognized by Academy for the following reasons:

“He consistently goes above and beyond his required duties and provided quality enforcement of game and fish regulations and is an asset to public safety to the residents of Bullock County, Alabama, and the surrounding areas. In 2019, Freeman received a promotion to sergeant for his exemplary service to the people of Alabama. In his new role as sergeant, Freeman’s duties were expanded to lead the effort to recruit youth, college and high school students into hunting and fishing. Sergeant Freeman’s methods and success in recruiting college and high school students across Alabama have garnered nationwide attention. His efforts have highlighted the Department as the leader in minority recruitment and retention by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for the past two years.”

A feature of the award was a $500 shopping spree at the Academy store in Hoover, where Freeman and two colleagues loaded up on fishing equipment to be used in the WFF outreach programs.

Freeman was able to share the oversized chair and spotlight with several youth that participate in his outreach programs. One group of youngsters were from Bullock County and the KAMO (Kids and Mentors Outdoors) program. A few of the kids were from the Barbour County Youth Hunt and Blue Springs Fishing Derby, which are held in cooperation with the Barbour County Lions Club. Other events on Freeman’s schedule include a large hunter education class at Auburn University with the Wildlife Society, the Bullock County Fishing Derby and Outdoor Alabama Experience events at Oak Mountain State Park and Lake Lurleen State Park.

“The kids absolutely loved it,” Freeman said. “It’s been all over Facebook. That was a great experience. I really appreciated being recognized for our Department (Conservation and Natural Resources). Anything I can do for the kids is just a great experience. They really had a ball. It’s just nice to know people support what we do.”

While Freeman and his youth were in the spotlight, a crew from WFF’s hatchery operations was steadily working backstage to ensure the bass weighed in each day at the Classic received the best care possible in order to return the fish to Lake Guntersville, the Classic site, and Lay Lake, where the high school and college tournaments were held.

After Bassmaster Tournament Director Trip Weldon weighed the fish, he handed a basket through a trap door in the stage floor to a runner, who hurriedly transported the fish to large holding tanks on WFF vehicles.

WFF Hatchery Supervisor Brian Rinehard, who oversees all three hatcheries in the state (Eastaboga, Marion and Carbon Hill), teamed up with Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. Conservation Director, to determine how many tanker trucks would be needed during the Classic to transport the bass from the arena. The fish eventually ended up in either Lake Guntersville or Lay Lake after a visit to the Eastaboga hatchery in Calhoun County.

“Gene gave me an estimate of how big and how many fish they expected to be weighed in each day of the Classic,” Rinehard said. “We made sure we had trucks to easily handle that capacity.”

The trucks from the different hatcheries went to Eastaboga and were filled with spring water and a specific amount of salt to ease the stress on the fish. The tanks are equipped with oxygen diffusers to keep the water at the desired saturation level. The trucks then travel to BJCC, where they are staged to receive the weighed fish.

Classic anglers transported the fish from Lake Guntersville to Legacy Arena in the livewells of the tournament boats. The fish were placed in bags before being brought onstage to be weighed. After weighing, the fish were quickly placed in the WFF hatchery tanks until the weigh-in was completed.

“We keep up with how many pounds of bass are on the truck at one time,” Rinehard said Saturday. “When we reach a certain limit, we switch to another truck. We can safely handle fish on two pounds per gallon of water. For one of our 600-gallon tanks, we could hold as many as 1,200 pounds of fish. The first day’s total was 600 pounds of fish. We were prepared to handle a lot more fish if needed.”

Once each weigh-in was over, the hatchery truck headed to the Eastaboga Hatchery.

“When we get the fish to Eastaboga, we temper the fish. We transition them from the temperature of the tank to the spring water at the hatchery,” Rinehard said. “We had the temperature of the tanks cooled to match the temperature at Lake Guntersville. When we got back to the hatchery, we had to raise the temperature. We have 1,500-gallon raceways with spring water and oxygen to slowly raise the temperature. You don’t want to shock the fish with a temperature change. It causes too much stress, so we raise it slowly. Then we watch their swimming habits. When you confine bass, they start jumping, trying to get out, so we have covers on the holding tanks so they won’t be disturbed. We keep them as quiet as we can to calm them down.”

The bass, both from Lake Guntersville and Lay Lake, were held at Eastaboga until Monday morning, when the WFF hatchery trucks were filled with water and loaded with a certain amount of bass to be transported back to the lake of origin.

“The fish won’t all go to one boat ramp,” Rinehard said. “We will transport the fish to different state boat ramps around the lakes. We will spread the fish out as best we can.”

Rinehard said holding the Classic and other large tournaments in the early spring makes it a lot easier for fisheries managers to return healthy fish to the lakes compared to tournaments held during the heat of the summer.

“Heat puts a lot of stress on the fish,” he said. “You can handle a lot more fish and heavier fish when the water is cold, and Guntersville is world-renowned for its large fish, especially in the springtime. Livewells on bass boats are a lot better than they used to be. But handling the fish still causes stress. When we get them in our tanks, we limit the stress by giving them a lot more space, and we’re running oxygen.”

As it turns out, the effort to care for the fish was well worth it. Rinehard said 520 bass that weighed 1,662 pounds from the Classic were successfully returned to Lake Guntersville on Monday. Another 88 bass were returned to Lay Lake. Only five fish did not survive.

“We did everything we could to keep the mortality rate as low as possible,” 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.

4 months ago

Conservation Advisory Board considers deer zones, turkey reporting

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

The first Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting of 2020 resulted in a wealth of good news and one disappointing statistic.

The good news included a 35-day, state-managed red snapper season, a productive oyster season, an increase in the number of hunting licenses sold for the 2019-2020 season and a significant reduction in the number of dog deer hunting complaints.

The one disappointment was highlighted in a dramatic way by Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes, who started his presentation with a slide that announced the closing of turkey season based on the lack of compliance of Alabama turkey hunters with the mandatory Game Check reporting system.

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Of course, Sykes’ slide was a facetious effort to get the attention of the Board and everyone in attendance at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries building in Montgomery.

“We have advertised (Game Check) in newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, our (Hunting and Fishing) Digest,” Sykes said. “We have begged and pleaded for people to actually report their harvests. We’re kind of at the end of our rope. We don’t really know the next step to increase participation.”

With tongue-not-so-firmly-planted-in-cheek, Sykes began, “For 2020-2021, we’re just going to close turkey season in the hopes that people will understand how important Game Check is. We had less than 11,000 turkeys reported last year. I don’t believe anybody on this Board believes that was the number harvested.

“If our turkey numbers are actually that low, we’re in a mess. Now we don’t think they’re that low, but this is the hunter harvest information we have to go on. We’re just picking with this slide, but I wanted to get everybody’s attention.”

Sykes transitioned to deer hunting and the proposed changes to the deer season zones in northwest, northeast and southeast Alabama. Sykes said the early rutting activities that have been confirmed by wildlife biologists in Zone D (see map) and Zone E prompted the Division to change season dates to accommodate hunting during peak deer activity. The proposal before the Board has those two zones with the gun deer season opening on November 7, 2020, and ending January 27, 2021. The season dates in the other zones would be similar to last year’s.

“This is not additional time to hunt,” Sykes said. “The hunters in those areas have asked for the earlier slot because of the rut.”

Sykes was also thankful to report that Alabama still has no chronic wasting disease (CWD) infections reported. WFF conducted statewide CWD seminars last year to keep the public informed on the issues and also tested more than 1,500 deer for CWD.

Sykes had more good news regarding hunting licenses sold. More than 151,000 people purchased all-game hunting licenses for the 2019-2020 season, an increase of about 4,000 over the previous season.

WFF also sold more than 158,000 baiting privilege licenses, which did not surprise Sykes.

“But this isn’t the full story,” Sykes said. “Yes, we sold more licenses, and the bait privilege license brought in another couple of million dollars. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of people let it go. This was the first year in the past four that we have not had to cut the budget for Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries because of budget shortfalls. So, we’re not flush with cash because of the bait privilege license. We were just able to meet the budget.”

The license numbers also showed that more than 27,000 people purchased a bait privilege license but did not purchase a hunting license.

“Those are exempted hunters who are over 65 or under 16 or hunt on their own land,” Sykes said. “For the first time in Alabama, we can now count them as licensed hunters because of the bait privilege license. This should increase our federal apportionment.”

One area of concern expressed by Sykes was the failure of deer hunters to follow hunting safety guidelines. He cited the vast majority of hunting mishaps continue to be treestand accidents.

“The majority of hunters who fall out of treestands who are killed or injured have been hunting forever,” he said. “They haven’t taken a hunter education course because they are grandfathered in, and they get complacent. The majority of the firearms accidents are the same, and most are self-inflicted. The thing about treestand accidents is that about 95 percent of them are completely preventable. If they will just use a safety harness and safety line and be connected from the time your feet leave the ground until you’re back on the ground, 95 percent or better of our treestand accidents would be eliminated.”

Alabama Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship shared an experience that showed the importance of hunting in Alabama.

“I was in Sumter County during the Martin Luther King weekend and shot a deer on that Sunday afternoon,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “I went to take it to the processor in the middle of nowhere in Sumter County. They had people out on the road directing traffic so that people could get in to drop their deer off. They had one-ways signs in the yard. There must have been 20 people in line either dropping off a deer or picking up their deer meat. People were steadily coming in the whole time I was there. I took a couple of pictures just to show people who don’t understand what a value hunting and fishing are to our economy. I hope you (the audience) tell people how important hunting and fishing are in our state, not only to the economy but for the quality of life in Alabama.”

Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director Scott Bannon announced a 35-day red snapper season that will start May 22, the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, earlier than the traditional starting date of June 1. The season will for the first time include a four-day weekend for snapper fishing, which will be Friday through Monday.

The regional management of red snapper for the five Gulf states was recently signed by the Secretary of Commerce, thanks to effective state management during the two years under an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) issued by NOAA.

One of the reasons that rule was approved is the reporting data derived from Alabama’s mandatory Red Snapper Reporting System, otherwise known as Snapper Check.

“Last year, we had the best reporting rate in the history of Snapper Check,” Bannon said. “That’s pretty good, but our goal is still 100 percent. But it did help us to manage the snapper season. Last year the weather got us on a couple of weekends and reduced the effort. We were able to add days on Labor Day Weekend and one weekend in October. That shows that the State of Alabama can be very responsible in managing that fishery. Alabama has three percent of the coastline, but we get 26.2 percent of the red snapper. That’s a pretty good deal.”

Depending on the catch rate monitored through Snapper Check, the red snapper season is anticipated to last for 35 days and is scheduled to close on Sunday, July 19, 2020. The season was set based on Alabama’s share of the federal quota, which was set at 1,122,622 pounds.

The season dates only apply to anglers fishing from recreational vessels and state-licensed Alabama commercial party boats that do not hold federal for-hire fishing permits. Anglers fishing from federally permitted for-hire vessels have a separate season that will be announced at a later date by NOAA Fisheries.

“We have added Mondays to our traditional weekend season in response to many requests from anglers who wanted more weekday access,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “I am also pleased that the season will begin with the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The passage of the Regional Management Amendment by the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, Amendment 50, earlier this year gives Alabama the ability to manage the red snapper season for the maximum benefit and access for our anglers. I am looking forward to a great season.”

Bannon said the comeback of oyster production was significant news after five years of little harvest. He said MRD had set a goal of 7,000 sacks to be harvested, but harvesters located an area that had not been surveyed by MRD staff that contained legal-size oysters. The area allowed oystercatchers to take a total of 11,258 sacks, about 1 million pounds of product. That harvest was more than that of the last five years combined.

“We feel like we’re turning a corner,” Bannon said. “I’m optimistic that the next season will be even better.”

In Alabama State Parks news, Commissioner Blankenship said an online reservation system will be rolled out in April for some parks, with full implementation of the system by October 2020.

“I think this will make it a lot easier for people to camp or stay at the lodges and cabins at our state parks,” he said. “I’m also happy to report that over the next month or so we will have high-speed internet at all of our state parks. The Lodge at Gulf State Park, where we had our last Conservation Advisory Board meeting, has had a very productive year. All of the parks had a good financially. It has allowed us to put some of those profits back into the other parks to take care of some much-needed, long-term maintenance and capital improvements.”

Commissioner Blankenship also reminded Alabama citizens that it is imperative to participate in the federal Census, which will start in March.

“Some of the rural areas of our state have traditionally been undercounted,” he said. “If that happens this year, it may cost us one of our (U.S.) representatives in Congress as well as several million dollars that comes to the state through federal programs. Please take the Census seriously.”

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

Red Eagle now among top shotgun ranges in South

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

When the 200 shooters in the Alabama 4-H State Shotgun Championship arrive in April at the Red Eagle Skeet and Trap Club on the outskirts of Childersburg, Alabama, those participants will be able to compete at one of the top shotgun shooting facilities in the South.

Because of its long history of working with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Hunter Safety Program, Red Eagle was able to partner with the Division to upgrade its facilities to international-level standards through the use of matching federal funds from the Pittman-Robertson Act.

For those not familiar with the Pittman-Robertson Act, it levies an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and hunting equipment. Funds from Pittman-Robertson go to states based on land mass and the number of hunting licenses sold. The funds are used for a variety of wildlife conservation efforts, hunter education and the development, maintenance and improvement to shooting ranges.

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Red Eagle is a club open to the public with a mission of firearms safety and youth development. The facility is open to the public four days a week – Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from noon until 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Members have access to the facility seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Club Manager Tommy McGilberry said the club, formed in 1956, understands the contribution hunters make to the shooting sports, so they offer license holders a reduced fee structure due to this partnership with the Division.

“We let anyone who has an Alabama hunting license shoot here as a guest for only $1 more than members,” said McGilberry, who joined the club in 1974. “Members pay $5, and those with a hunting license pay $6. That’s quite an advantage for the people of Alabama to be able to come out here and shoot at a facility like this for a reasonable price.”

And for that low price, shooters can gain access to a world-class facility.

“Right now, we’re trying to come online with our bunker trap,” McGilberry said. “We’re trying to get the bunker dug to get that into operation. This will give somebody in Alabama the opportunity to start shooting in the 9th grade with the 4-H program and make it all the way to the Olympics with the equipment we have here. This will be the only place in Alabama with a bunker trap. The closest places now are Nashville, Fort Benning (Georgia) or Gainesville, Florida. Since we are centrally located, this will give Alabama a great asset for people to come here and shoot while they’re young.”

McGilberry, who served as a shooting coach in the U.S. Army and competed in international skeet from 1991 to 2003, said the shooting sports could be the perfect activity for those who don’t have the skills for other sports.

“All you have to have is hand-eye coordination and a place to practice,” he said. “If you’ve got the facility and you’ve got the talent, you can be an Olympian; you can be a champion.”

McGilberry was recruited by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service to coordinate firearms safety instruction in the 4-H program. During McGilberry’s years, the program has expanded immensely from just firearms safety to intense competition. McGilberry worked with two interns during that process – Marisa Futral and Shannon Andress. Futral is now the Alabama WFF Hunter Education Coordinator and Andress is the coordinator for the Alabama 4-H Shooting Program.

Angus MacGreigor, an Alabama professor, coach of the Alabama Shotgun Shooting Team and competitor in international shooting, said the Pittman-Robertson funds have paid great dividends.

“As the 4-H program has grown, the club (Red Eagle) needed to grow as well,” MacGreigor said. “It needed to update its machinery so it could throw competition birds to train the shooters so they could go on to shoot the 4-H National Championships or for the Alabama or Auburn shooting teams or to shoot competitively around the world.”

The new machines are current, cutting-edge machines able to throw targets that meet national standards on six fields of skeet and three fields of trap.

“The return on the investment is that we have five 4-H teams that are training out of Red Eagle now,” MacGreigor said. “We are also the home of the Alabama 4-H State Shotgun Championship (April 17-19) with 200 shooters. The team that wins that championship will go on to the 4-H National Championships in Grand Island, Nebraska.”

Adam McNutt, who shoots for the St. Clair County team, competed in last year’s 4-H National Championships and finished in sixth place overall among 200 of the top high school shooters in the country.

McNutt, who signed to become a member of the Alabama Shotgun Shooting Team in January, joined Auburn Shotgun Shooting Team member Brian Lansdell for a round of practice last week.

Lansdell is the exception to the typical participant in the shooting sports. He has shown that a successful shooting career can start a little later in life.

“I’m a little different in that I come from a family that doesn’t like guns too much,” Lansdell said. “I didn’t even know about 4-H shooting. I shot a little bit, but I really didn’t start shooting until I got to Auburn. Even if you don’t grow up shooting, you can come to Auburn or Alabama, join a shooting team and get really good at it. I started out breaking from five to eight birds out of a round of 25. Now I’m shooting in the 90s (out of 100) in competition. As long as you get out there and practice, you can get good at anything you want to do. Being on the Auburn team is the best thing about going to Auburn for me. It’s a great group of guys and girls to hang out with and represent the school in something you love to do. It’s a ton of fun.”

McNutt, on the other hand, started shooting when he was in the fifth grade.

“We had a 4-H representative come to school and talk to us about 4-H,” McNutt said. “When you think about 4-H, you think about livestock shows and stuff like that. But they happened to mention a shotgun program. Coming up shooting birds and hunting, I thought that was interesting.”

A four-man team was formed, and the shooters excelled to the point of competing on the national level.

After signing with Alabama, McNutt went with the team to the Lower East Coast Regional in Savannah, Georgia, recently.

“It was really a fun experience, and it makes me feel proud to be a part of the team,” he said. “Alabama has a such a reputation around the country because of sports. To be on a team at Alabama is a proud feeling. It’s amazing.”

During his years of coaching the St. Clair team, Joel McNutt has been able to watch his son develop his shooting skills.

“4-H is where it all starts,” Joel said. “I’ve been coaching the team for eight years now. We have kids come through every year who start through a 4-H program or other youth programs, and they go from there. It’s amazing how far they can go once they get started. Like when our team started, we’d come out to shoot here for our very first competition. The kids shot and had a good time. They heard about the national competition and were talking about how great that would be to shoot in it. You think it would be great, but you don’t realize at the time it’s possible. Having a facility like this, with the equipment they have here to allow us to practice, it made it possible. The four kids we started with eight years ago, they all made it to the national competition. It was surreal to see them be able to do that, to see them start so young, go through the process and then achieve their goals of making it to the nationals.”

MacGreigor suggested that an Iron Bowl for shotgun shooting might be in the future because of the natural competitiveness between the two schools.

“If you look at the statistics, the shooting teams from Alabama and Auburn are not that far apart,” MacGreigor said. “Although there is not an official shooting Iron Bowl, there is a little Iron Bowl at every competition we go to.”

MacGreigor also expects the number of shooting teams to grow as the word gets out.

“Because of funding to purchase new machinery and infrastructure and because of the success of some of our shooters on the Auburn and Alabama teams, we’re getting parents who are driving their kids up at nighttime to participate and start a team for their areas,” he said. “We’re starting to see an explosion of towns wanting to build teams, and this is the facility they would use. But it wouldn’t be possible without the Pittman-Robertson dollars and the volunteers at Red Eagle. This is really a metaphor for life – the lessons they are learning in shooting apply to academia. They apply to a job. It is developing and building a process to achieve the desired outcome.”

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

MRD hatchery spawning flounder for first time

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Anyone who has fished the beautiful waters of the Alabama Gulf Coast in the past decade knows that one of the premier inshore species, southern flounder, has been scarce.

A well-documented decline in the southern flounder fishery started about 2008 and, unfortunately, the population hasn’t rebounded. Marine scientists don’t have any definitive reasons for the decline.

The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) changed regulations this year to decrease the recreational bag limit to five flounder per day per angler, implement a commercial trip limit to 40 per person or vessel and increase the size limit to 14 inches total length. Harvest was closed to both recreational and commercial anglers for the whole month of November to protect the flounder that were migrating through the bays, heading for their winter spawning grounds.

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However, that is not the only action MRD has taken to mitigate the downturn in the flounder population. MRD headed into uncharted territory for Alabama this past year with an effort to add to the wild population with southern flounder fingerlings raised at the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores. A critical step in any spawning program is collection of broodstock – the adult fish.

Max Westendorf, Hatchery Manager at Claude Peteet, said MRD has been collecting broodstock from two main sources – the ACFA (Alabama Coastal Fishing Association) tournaments and the Saltwater Finaddicts Fishing Tournament.

“They have live flounder categories in their tournaments, and we show up with our trailer to collect these fish,” Westendorf said. “We also have a couple of other anglers who bring us fish one or two at a time.”

MRD collected about 40 fish from the Saltwater Finaddicts tournament and gets 20 to 30 fish from each ACFA tournament for broodstock.

“We bring the flounder back to the Claude Peteet facility, and we quarantine them for three to four weeks to make sure they’re not bringing in any parasites or bacteria,” Westendorf said. “Once we treat them and quarantine them, we introduce them into our breeding populations.”

Currently, MRD has three tanks dedicated to flounder breeding. Flounder are winter spawners; spawning occurs in December, January and into February each year.

“This is our first year of spawning flounder, so we’re still working out some of the kinks,” Westendorf said. “We’re learning the process and idiosyncrasies of flounder. They are a lot more difficult to spawn than other species we have cultured. When we have redfish or Florida pompano and bring them in, it only takes a week or two to get them to eat dead shrimp and cut fish. A flounder takes several weeks longer for them to transition to that type of feeding. One of the hardest parts was getting that initial batch of flounder to start the program. Once you have some fish start eating, the other fish around them start eating as well. It took us a while to get an established population that was eating and comfortable in the tanks and into their conditioning cycle. This was the first year we’ve had fish that we were able to spawn. We put them in a nine-month conditioning cycle whereby we recreated the natural cycle in the wild by manipulating the tanks’ water temperature and lighting. We give them spring, summer, and fall conditions, and then we spawn them in the winter season.”

Hatchery staff know when the flounder get ready to spawn when the females become swollen with eggs, indicating they are “ripe.” The females are given a hormone injection to develop the eggs even further so they easily express them.

“We segregate the males and females and put them to sleep for a second,” Westendorf said. “Then we gently squeeze on their abdominal area and the eggs and milt (the fluid containing semen released by males) will start free-flowing out of their bodies. We combine the eggs and milt in a tube, add saltwater to activate the fertilization process, and the eggs fertilize in about one to two minutes.”

Hatchery staff then separate the good (fertilized) eggs from the bad (unfertilized) eggs. The good eggs float in full-strength saltwater, and the bad eggs will sink to the bottom of the container. The good eggs go into specially made incubators to hatch out. The water temperatures in the incubators are kept at about 17 to 18 degrees Celsius (62.5-64.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Each tank will hold about 175,000 eggs,” Westendorf said. “Because of the cold water temperature, their metabolism is a little slower so their development and growth is slower than other species we have raised at Claude Peteet. With red drum and pompano, they’ll hatch out in 36 to 48 hours. Flounder take about 72 hours to hatch.”

When hatched, the larval fish feed on a yolk sack until they form eyes and a working mouth to start feeding. Once they start feeding, the fish are moved into tanks with a much lower density of fish, transitioning from 1,000 fish to about 15 fish per liter of water.

Because of the colder temperatures, flounder don’t develop scales as quickly as the other fish raised at the hatchery. They just float around lazily and eat.

The feeding process starts with marine rotifers, a zooplankton, that are near microscopic in size. The next menu item as the fish grow is brine shrimp. Next comes commercially available, pelletized fish feed.

“When we start feeding them rotifers, we add finely-ground meal to start training them to recognize an artificial food source,” Westendorf said. “We condition them by putting the artificial food in first and then put the live feed in, so they recognize this crumble food that’s not moving is fed out at the time as something that is moving. That way they associate the crumble feed as food.”

During the first 3-4 weeks after hatching, the flounder go through a metamorphosis where they transition from swimming upright to lying flat on the bottom of the tank, and their right eye moves to the left side of the head.

Westerndorf said he estimates about 10,000 larval fish are in the mariculture center right now. He expects it will take about 60 days for the fish to reach 1-1.5 inches.

“My goal for this first year is to get one up to a 2-inch fish,” he said. “That will prove that we have successfully closed the cycle, and we can increase that significantly next year. If we can get between 1,000 and 5,000 fish out of the hatchery this year, I think that would be a significant accomplishment for our first year. We have compiled a large amount of information with good documentation, and we know that we will approach it differently next year.”

Once the process is working efficiently, Westerndorf said a reasonable goal is to release about 20,000 flounder into the wild next year and grow the stocking program to about 60,000 in a few years.

“We set our goal at 60,000 fish to be released each year,” he said. “A recent assessment estimated about 400,000 6-inch wild recruits were produced in Mobile Bay and local waters when the flounder population was larger. We don’t want to skew the genetics of the wild population by releasing too many fish. We want to support the stock, but we don’t want to overwhelm the stock with hatchery-raised fish.”

Westendorf said the hatchery is working to expand the number of brood tanks available for the southern flounder project by transitioning tanks used in a previous red snapper program. CCA Alabama provided funds to refurbish the red snapper tanks.

“Flounder are just so different from anything else we’ve done,” he said. “We’ve got to provide colder water temperatures. We’re using data and insights from flounder programs in the Carolinas and Texas, but we have to adapt the process to the environmental conditions here on the Alabama Gulf Coast. It’s a learning process, but we’re pretty excited about what we have learned so far. We’ll get there. This will be a successful program in time.”

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

5 months ago

Alabama’s first sandhill season in 103 years deemed success

(Jason Russell/Contributed)

Another warm winter left Alabama’s duck hunters frustrated, but those who were lucky enough to score permits for the first sandhill crane season in the state in 103 years were elated.

Although not all of the 400 crane permit holders were able to harvest one of the large birds, those who did raved about the new hunting opportunity.

Jason Russell of Gadsden, Alabama, and his 17-year-old son, Grayson, both drew permits, which allowed a harvest of three birds each.

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The first order of business was to secure a place to hunt sandhills in the hunting zone in north Alabama. Fortunately, a friend from Birmingham had connections with a landowner near the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and they were granted permission to hunt.

“We were excited to get an opportunity to hunt the sandhills,” said Russell, an avid duck hunter and award-winning decoy carver. “We’d seen them around for years. We really didn’t know the reality of what it would take to kill one. Once we were drawn, we thought we’d give it a shot. We bought decoys and got ready. What was interesting this year, everywhere I went, I saw cranes. I saw them near my house. At Weiss Lake, we saw cranes. At Guntersville, we saw cranes. Everywhere we went, we at least saw cranes flying.”

On the morning of the first hunt, the Russells saw several cranes in the field they planned to hunt and saw several more in the air. After setting up their decoys, both full-body and silhouettes, they settled into their blinds.

“Within 20 minutes we had a group of birds fly 15 yards over our decoys,” Jason said. “We ended up letting them go because we were so awestruck that our setup actually worked. We were kind of surprised. Another 20-30 minutes went by and groups of two and three came by. On our first hunt, three of us had permits, and we killed six birds on an afternoon hunt that lasted maybe two or three hours. We were pretty excited that you could actually decoy them. After duck and goose hunting for 30 years, this gives hunting a new twist and a new excitement.”

The Russells had planned to hunt cranes just like they would geese in an open field with layout blinds. They soon discovered natural vegetation helped them hide much better.

“There was some scrub brush sticking up,” Jason said. “I thought, well, let’s at least be comfortable. There was enough brush to where we could get hidden. We put our full-bodies out at 20 yards, hid our faces and kept our heads down. We were shooting decoying birds at 15 to 20 yards.”

The hunters left that area undisturbed for three weeks before attempting a second hunt. They were even more awestruck when they arrived at the hunting land. Jason needed two birds to fill his tags, while Grayson only needed one.

“When we got there, there must have been between 200 and 300 sandhills in the field,” Jason said. “After we got set up, three birds came in and I doubled up.”

With only one tag left, the cranes seemed hesitant to decoy. The Russells soon figured out that trying to mix crane hunting and goose hunting might not work very well.

“We had put out full-body goose decoys to try to kill a few geese while we were there,” Jason said. “It was interesting that the cranes seemed to be skirting our decoys. We decided either we were going to have to move or do something different. We made the decision to pull all the goose decoys. By the time we pulled the last goose decoy and got back in the blind, we had a pair of sandhills at 15 yards. My son rolled his out, and we were done. It could have been coincidence that we pulled the goose decoys and we killed one, but I feel like they flared off of the full-body goose decoys. We were just catching the cranes traveling from one field to another. I guess they decided to drop into our decoys to see what was going on.”

Before the hunt, Russell was afraid that it might be possible to mistake a protected whooping crane for a sandhill crane. That turned out to be an unrealized worry.

“One of my fears was being able to identify the birds if we were in low light,” he said. “Sometimes when you get the sun wrong, you can’t see color that well. I thought we were going to have to be really careful to look out for whooping cranes. But that was not a problem. The whooping cranes stood out like a sore thumb. We made sure there was no shooting at all when those were in the area. And we never shot into big groups of sandhills. We never shot into groups of more than four birds. I felt like we didn’t educate them for the most part. If people will be smart and shoot the birds in the decoys or really close, then it will be a good thing for years to come.”

Jason said it was “awesome” that he and Grayson both got permits in the first year of the new sandhill season.

“To get to shoot our sandhills together was special,” Jason said. “On our first hunt, we shot into a group of three birds and each of us got one. It was real exciting to get to have that moment of father-son hunting. It was just a neat, awesome experience that we will never be able to share again in waterfowling.”

Jason took his youngest son, 13-year-old Jonathan, on the second hunt to share the experience although Jonathan wasn’t able to hunt.

“I just wanted him to see it,” Jason said. “I was excited for him to get to watch and hear the sounds of how loud those birds really are. It was amazing. He carried one of the birds out of the field. It was a big, mature bird and he cradled that thing all the way out of the field.”

The excitement wasn’t over for the Russells when they prepared the crane for the dinner table.

“Cooking them was phenomenal,” Jason said. “We cooked some one night and took a little to a church group. One of the guys who doesn’t eat wild game said it was the best meal he’s eaten in his life. It was very flavorful. I thought it would be more like a duck, but it wasn’t. We enjoy eating duck, but I could eat way more sandhills. It was just so tender. I’ve always heard sandhills were the ribeye of the sky. Now I believe it. When you put it in your mouth, it tasted like steak. It was tender and juicy. Oh my gosh, it was so good.”

Seth Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Migratory Game Bird Coordinator, said the duck season was indeed disappointing, but he was enthusiastic about the first sandhill season.

The final results of the sandhill season won’t be available for a couple more weeks to allow permit holders to complete their post-season surveys.

Maddox said he expects the final numbers to be in line with other states with sandhill seasons.

“From the hunters we’ve talked to, it seems to be a pretty successful sandhill season,” Maddox said. “We’re expecting a harvest rate of about 30 percent, which will be a little more than 300 birds.”

Maddox said the warm winter not only caused diminished duck numbers in Alabama but also affected the sandhill population.

“Sandhill numbers were a little below normal for the birds we typically over-winter here in Alabama,” he said. “Our 5-year average is 15,000 birds. This year, we estimated the population at 12,000, which made for a little tougher conditions for hunters. The birds tended to concentrate in areas closer to the refuges.”

Maddox said the sandhill season is the first of four as an experimental season under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations. He said the number of permits (400) and tags (1,200) will be the same next year.

Alabama’s sandhill harvest rate is similar to that of Tennessee and Kentucky, which surprises Maddox a bit.

“Our season was probably a little better than I expected,” he said. “Our hunters had never done it before. They had to find people willing to give them access to hunting land. Hunters got to make new friends. I think it was a very successful season.”

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

5 months ago

Alabama’s oyster production makes a comeback

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

The high water in January that shut down the oyster season in Alabama has finally subsided, and the oyster catchers were recently cleared to resume the harvest of the state’s prized oysters by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

This may not seem like big news for some, but it is great news considering the uncertainty of whether Alabama’s oyster reefs would be open at all.

The area known as Cedar Point West, just west of the Dauphin Island bridge and Cedar Point Pier, opened Tuesday, February 4, to commercial and recreational harvest of oysters. Harvest hours will be 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. with a commercial limit of six sacks.

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“There were some oysters that were not detected during our survey, but while the oyster catchers were working, they found a pretty sizeable area of harvestable oysters,” said Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director Scott Bannon. “So we’re going to give them the opportunity to work in that area.”

Oyster harvesting had been shut down because of a lack of legal-size oysters on the traditional oyster reefs. MRD surveyed the Cedar Point West, Cedar Point East and Heron Bay reefs again and found the oyster population better than expected.

“Those areas were as productive or more productive than we anticipated,” Bannon said. “Cedar Point East was an area that we did not have good data on because it is so big and the water is deeper with some other challenges there. But the catchers worked there for a couple of weeks and harvested just over 2,500 sacks. In addition to the harvestable oysters, they discovered a lot of sublegal oysters, which will be available for harvest next season. On the other reefs at Cedar Point West and Heron Bay, they saw the same thing. They found good, harvestable-size oysters, and they found plenty of sublegal oysters, which, again, will be next year’s crop. We have good confidence that this upcoming fall season will be as good as this season and maybe better.”

Before this week’s reopening, Alabama oyster catchers had harvested 9,500 sacks of the succulent bivalve mollusks when the growing waters were closed by ADPH on December 27, 2019, as a precaution due to high river levels, which may increase bacteria in the area. Continued high water then delayed the opening for additional harvest until this week.

“The 9,500 sacks harvested in this season to date has been good,” Bannon said. “That was more than the last five years combined. I feel like we’re turning a corner.”

A harvestable oyster is 3 inches across its widest point. MRD Conservation Enforcement Officers use a 3-inch ring to measure the oysters. If the oyster passes through the ring, it is considered sublegal or undersized. If the oyster touches the sides of the 3-inch ring, it is considered legal to harvest. MRD officers inspect for licenses, oyster size and sack size to ensure compliance with the regulations.

With quality oysters like those found in Alabama in high demand, the oyster catchers were rewarded with a quality return on their work.

“The price was really good this season,” Bannon said. “At one point, it was 85 cents per pound, which was almost double historic highs. When the waters closed in December, they were still 65 cents per pound.”

Bannon said the high demand for oysters is related to high-water events last year that closed oyster production in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“The freshwater events from last year pretty much decimated the oysters in Mississippi and caused significant damage in Louisiana,” he said. “The only Gulf oysters were coming out of Texas. We are on a different river system and didn’t have the same high water they had last year. The prolonged influx of freshwater that we received did have a negative impact on several fisheries, but, thankfully, the impact to our oysters was not as bad as it was in other states.”

Bannon said the biggest impact to Alabama from the lack of oysters from Louisiana and Mississippi is that our large seafood processing industry suffers, especially in the Bayou La Batre and Bon Secour areas.

“We didn’t have product to process from Louisiana or Mississippi,” he said. “We process a lot of shrimp, crabs and oysters from those other states.”

Bannon said part of the reason Alabama finally has harvestable oysters again is because environmental conditions have improved. Oysters require a balance of freshwater and saltwater to successfully reach a harvestable size. If the water is too fresh, the young oysters can’t survive. If the water salinity is too high, it leaves the oysters vulnerable to predatory marine species.

“For the last couple of years, our surveys showed that we would get a good spat (larval oysters) set, but they would not survive due to an influx of freshwater that lasted too long for the juvenile oysters to survive,” he said. “Later in 2019, salinity levels were right for the oysters to survive, but it wasn’t so salty that the oysters were vulnerable to predation from the drills (predatory snails), because the drills can’t handle freshwater. Once the oysters get a little larger, they can handle more freshwater for longer periods of time and can resist the drills a little better. It’s that juvenile stage where they are most vulnerable to changes in the environment and predators.”

One benefit for having the oyster reefs open for harvest is the actual work done by the oyster catchers improves the habitat.

“Oyster catchers working the bottom exposes shells and cultch material to improve the spat set,” Bannon said. “The benefit of opening the season was that the catchers were able to harvest some legal oysters and find sublegal oysters that will be available for the next season. We hope these steps lead to continued improved harvest.”

Oyster catchers are limited to the use of tongs or they can harvest by hand along the shoreline or off the bottom. Divers are also allowed to take oysters. The use of dredges has been prohibited for the last several years.

Bannon said some of the oyster reefs in Mobile Bay have not rebounded to the levels they would like to see, but MRD is working to remedy that.

“Some of the reefs in Mobile Bay in the deeper water have suffered from low dissolved oxygen levels on the bottom,” he said. “We’re working on some projects to elevate one of the oyster reefs to get the oysters up into better dissolved oxygen levels. Also, we are going to use juvenile oysters raised at our Claude Peteet Mariculture Center (in Gulf Shores) and grow them at our facility on Dauphin Island. Then we will deploy them on some of those reefs to try to jump-start them back into harvestable condition. We are also experimenting with how we deploy cultch material. It’s called the Mounds and Furrows Project. Instead of spreading the material flat, we’re going to put it in piles so that when the spat attaches, it can get inside the mounds and furrows and be protected from predators. We want to see if that is a more productive way to deploy cultch material. All of these projects will be moving forward in 2020.”

Bannon said wild oyster production in Alabama is critical for a number of reasons, including water quality, a treasured food source and crucial habitat for a variety of fish species and wildlife.

“Having a viable oyster population is very necessary for a healthy water system,” he said. “Adult oysters can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day. There are a tremendous number of benefits to having oysters in the system.”

For those who prefer Alabama’s tasty oysters, do not hesitate to find a market selling them soon. Bannon said MRD will monitor the harvest effort to determine when the season will end.

“Other than being some of the best oysters around, the harvest provides jobs for people,” he said. “Wild oyster production has a very positive economic impact on the Alabama Gulf Coast.”

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

Rain can’t dampen enthusiasm at Buckmasters Life Classic

(Ryan Noffsinger/Contributed)

The consensus was that the recent 2020 Buckmasters Life Classic event may not have been the warmest at around 70 degrees for the three-day January deer hunt, but it was probably the wettest.

Persistent rains during the event at one of Alabama’s premier wildlife properties, Sedgefields Plantation near Safford, failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the hunters who deal with a variety of challenges on a daily basis.

It was fortunate for Colton Woolbright of Gordo, Alabama, that the weather was not frigid because of his battle with cystic fibrosis.

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Colton’s dad, Rodney Woolbright, said his son was diagnosed with the malady just a few days after his birth.

“We deal with it the best way we can,” Rodney said. “They’re always making improvements with the medicine and treatments, and it’s all in God’s hands. He’s been doing real well lately. He’s had different bacteria growing in his lungs that we’ve had some tough battles with. But our pulmonologist and everybody at the hospital come up with the best treatment plans. It’s working right now.”

The elder Woolbright said they have to pick the days when it’s prudent for Colton to go hunting.

“We try not to hunt when the weather is bad,” Rodney said. “We’d rather stay at home for those two hours of hunting than be in the hospital for two weeks. We hunt when we get the opportunity and the weather cooperates when it’s not rainy and cold. We had to do the best we could during this hunt. We’ve had a lot of rain, but it’s been warm, and we made it work.”

Colton, 9, braved the intermittent downpours to bag a beautiful 10-point buck on the second day of the hunt.

“My guide spotted the buck behind us,” Colton said. “It came through some sedge. I tried to get him in my scope, but he kept on moving, so I put my scope to where he was moving to and shot him in the shoulder. He ran about 50 yards and he dropped. That was pretty cool.”

Rodney said a few deer had been spotted that morning but nothing his son wanted to shoot with his rifle loaded with a .300 Blackout cartridge.

“Then this deer came in on the back side of the blind,” Rodney said. “Our guide was looking out the back of the blind and saw the deer coming around. We got the gun out and got ready. Colton’s heart started pounding. We had to sit there and wait until the deer made its way around the blind. He finally showed up about 50 yards in front of the blind. Colton put the shot on him. Like Colton said, about 50 yards later, the buck just fell over.”

“We celebrated with a lot of high-fives,” Colton added.

One of the hunters from Alabama was able to take the first deer, a nice 8-point, of his hunting career. Copeland Spires of Prattville, Alabama, was on just his second deer hunt. His older brother, Taylor, got to witness the hunt.

“We had seen two deer before the buck came in at 4:30,” Spires said. “I got real excited and shot him. He was about 100 yards and made a good shot. The deer ran about 80 yards, so we had to go look for him. When we found him, we celebrated and took a lot of pictures.”

Spires is dealing with bronchiolitis obliterans, which has significantly limited his daily activities.

“He’s basically breathing off one lobe of one lung,” said his father Dan Spires. “It really limits what he does without his ventilator machine.”

The elder Spires said the Life Classic was a special time for Copeland, and he was happy that Taylor was there during the eventful hunt.

“For him to kill his first deer with his older brother – they have a special bond that I cannot explain,” Dan said. “It couldn’t have happened any better than to have his brother with him. It’s been a very blessed time.”

Included in the Life Classic were two Marines as part of the Hope for the Warriors program.

Staff Sergeant Jeremy Austin, who lost both legs to an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan, managed to bag two bucks during the event.

Austin spent 12 years in the Marine Corps and was on his second tour in Afghanistan when the Humvee he was in exploded.

“The truck took the brunt of the explosion and I got the rest,” he said. “My lower legs were destroyed in the blast. It fractured my pelvis, broke ribs, broke my elbow, knocked my teeth out and fractured two vertebrae. I got busted up pretty good.”

The amount of blood that Austin was given in the three days after the blast indicated how precarious his situation was.

“The human body holds 10 to 12 units of blood, depending on the size of the individual,” he said. “If you average that out to 11, the first day I got hurt I took 18 units of blood. The second day I took 12. The third day I took five. That’s three times the volume of blood the body holds. If you ask my momma, she says I was just too stubborn to die. I’m fortunate to be here. Donated blood and the Good Lord kept me here, so every day above dirt is a blessing. This has been a phenomenal experience to see these kids and all their smiles. I was fortunate, for a lack of a better term, to be an able-bodied individual for 28 years of my life. These kids know nothing different. It’ll humble even the most hardened souls to see these kids having the can-do attitude and wanting to get after it, hunting-wise.”

Even the biggest deer of Austin’s career, a huge 8-point, didn’t compare with the joy he saw on the kids’ faces, especially Jack Speegle of Tennessee, who took a big 12-point on the second day of the event.

“No disrespect to my buck or the guide and cameraman with me, but I was more excited to see Jack’s buck and seeing that big, ear-to-ear smile when he was telling that story over and over again,” Austin said. “That’s chicken soup for the soul.”

Austin said Sedgefields’ Jimmy Hinton was his guide on the hunt when he shot the big buck, and Hinton had hinted that the deer might respond when the heavier rain started to fall.

“We saw a few deer, and then when the rain got heavier, the deer just flooded into the field,” Austin said. “We saw eight bucks and four does. We saw another buck that had taller antlers, but he didn’t have the mass of my buck. This Sedgefields Plantation, they’ve got some healthy animals and plenty of them. This buck is definitely going on the wall. I shot an 8-pointer in Texas a few years ago, but this buck has such good mass. I’m going to have a mid-sneak mount to be able to see that thick neck he had. That’s part of the memory. You want to honor the animal as best you can. It’s a trophy, but it’s a trophy that brings that memory back. As hunters, that’s what we try to do, to remember the hunt and remember the people you met on a hunt like this.”

Buckmasters Founder and CEO Jackie Bushman said he will never complain about the weather as long as the hunters have success at the Life Classic.

“What’s clear to me is that Jimmy (Hinton) and his many volunteers have done a heck of a job to give these hunters the opportunity to take a buck of a lifetime despite the rain and 70-degree weather,” Bushman said. “A lot of these hunters walk up and thank me, but I thank them. It’s the best three days of my life every year. We already see what the kids are going through, but to watch what the parents have to do on a day-to-day basis to take care of these kids, that’s something you’ve got to admire. To watch these kids get their first deer or best deer, those smiles will never go away. We’ve been doing this for 25 or 26 years, and it just seems to get better.”

Go to http://buckmasters.com/resources/disabled-hunters/badf-life-hunts to find out more about the Buckmasters-sponsored hunts for hunters with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/physically-disabled-hunting-and-fishing-trail to discover the opportunities available on Alabama’s Hunting and Fishing Trail for People with Physical Disabilities.

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

First wild Eastern indigo snake found in Alabama in 60 years

(Francesca Erickson, David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Traci Wood admitted holding the snake almost made her come unglued. No, she wasn’t afraid of the snake she was holding. It was the magnitude of the moment.

Wood, the Habitat and Species Conservation Coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, had in her hands the first wild Eastern indigo snake documented in Alabama in more than 60 years.

“I’m not embarrassed to say that I was shaking when I held that animal,” Wood said. “This is a monumental benchmark in conservation for Alabama and the southeast region for this species. It’s a big deal, extremely big. It’s big for recovery efforts of a federally listed threatened species. It’s the first documentation of a wild snake in more than 60 years in Alabama. It’s proof that what we are doing through reintroduction is working and that captive snakes are acting like wild snakes after they are released.”

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Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources echoed the importance of the achievement.

“I am thrilled that we have documented wild reproduction of the Eastern indigo,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “It is great for the species, but I am also really happy for Traci and the staff who have worked for years to make this happen. They truly have a passion for their work, and I am so thankful for them.”

Technicians from the Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and the Auburn Museum of Natural History were out looking for documentation of indigo snakes as part of the long-term program to re-establish viable populations of Eastern indigos in their native habitat, mainly in longleaf pine forests in central and south Alabama.

“We try to document how long they are living, how far they are moving and how they’re doing healthwise,” Wood said. “The technicians were out and came across the snake as part of the monitoring effort. It was really no different than the monitoring we do for the released snakes. We’re out there assessing and trying to document their survival. There’s always the hope that we will find documentation of reproduction, and it finally happened.”

Wood said the technicians knew immediately what they had discovered when the snake was picked up.

“They knew because it was a hatchling-size snake,” she said. “It measured 2 feet in length, which is much smaller than the snakes we release from OCIC (Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation). It had no PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag or any indication we use in monitoring to indicate it was a released snake. Those released snakes are 5 feet in length or longer. They estimated the juvenile indigo at about 7 months old. It probably hatched in July or August.”

The Eastern indigo project started in 2006, and the program was able to start releasing captive-raised indigos in 2010 with 17 adult snakes released into the Conecuh National Forest. The goal is to release a total of 300 snakes to improve the chances of establishing a viable population. The project team has released 170 snakes to date. Wood said the decision-making and planning for indigo recovery through reintroductions started with late Auburn University professor Dr. Dan Speake in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It’s been a long process with a lot of sweat,” Wood said. “We have faced some criticism along the way. Then, when what you have hoped for happens, it’s extremely rewarding and overwhelming.”

During the early days of the indigo project, the released snakes were propagated from indigos that had been captured in the wild in Georgia. Partners in this project include Auburn Museum of Natural History, Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Zoo Tampa, Zoo Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army’s Fort Stewart, as well as the OCIC at the Central Florida Zoo, where the captive indigo breeding and health care are handled.

“We’re kind of at the halfway mark in the reintroduction,” Wood said. “It’s very exciting to see verification of reproduction at this stage of the project. It’s a huge testimony to the State Wildlife Grants program and working toward the recovery of a federally listed species. It is considered an experimental population. We were conducting research and making decisions that had never been done before with this species. It was a lot of groundbreaking work. Florida now has a reintroduction program, and a lot of their work is based on what we’ve done at Conecuh and lessons learned at Conecuh. Besides aquatic species, there isn’t another example of species recovery of a federally listed species through reintroductions.”

Wood said the lessons included that a learning curve is a given with a project of this magnitude and that 2-year-old snakes have a better chance of survival in the wild because they are less susceptible to predators.

“We also learned the target for the number of individuals to be released,” she said. “That is 30 individuals per year. We’ve learned that we had to establish a monitoring program that didn’t exist before. We learned it takes intense monitoring on the ground.”

One of the tools the monitoring team borrowed from the hunting community is the game camera. The game cameras have been stationed to monitor activity at gopher tortoise burrows, which are utilized by a number of animals, including indigos.

“We had to learn that a snake is not going to trigger motion sensitivity on the game cameras,” Wood said. “We set the cameras to capture a photo at intervals of 30 to 60 seconds to make sure we capture all the activity. That’s something we’ve recently started, and so far it’s proven to be very helpful. We’ve captured pictures of several indigos at burrows. The cameras are showing location, where they’re hanging out, how they’re using burrows and the fact adult snakes are surviving. We estimate that 60 to 80 percent of the snakes that we reintroduce will survive. That’s not bad at all after they’ve been in captivity for two years.”

Wood said it is not possible right now to estimate the total number of Eastern indigo snakes that are in the Conecuh habitat.

“These recaptures and verification of reproduction is data that will be useful in the future so that someday we may be able to predict how many individuals may be in the wild,” she said.

Wood said Eastern indigos were extirpated from the state and hadn’t been seen since the 1950s. Considered an apex predator, the snake plays an important role in the longleaf pine ecosystem. Eastern indigo snakes are the longest snakes native to the U.S. at more than 8 feet long. They prey on a variety of small mammals, amphibians, lizards and numerous species of venomous snakes, including the copperhead. Indigos are known to range far and wide during the warmer months and then seek refuge in the gopher tortoise burrows during the winter.

WFF’s State Wildlife Action Plan identifies 366 species that are in the category of greatest conservation need, according to Wood.

“Alabama is one of the most diverse states in the nation in terms of amphibians and reptiles,” she said. “Conecuh National Forest is the most biologically rich public land in the country.”

Wood is still having a little trouble grasping what happened recently at Conecuh National Forest.

“Physically holding a wild species that hasn’t been documented in Alabama in more than 60 years gives us high hopes for what we may see when we reach our goal of 300 snakes released,” she 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.