The Wire

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

7 days ago

Complacency often leads to treestand, firearms accidents

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 weeks ago

Bait privilege license opens opportunities for deer hunters

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed, YHN)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 weeks ago

Alabama wildlife art hard licenses now on sale

(ADCNR/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 weeks ago

Andrews’ AJ breaks 38-year-old Alabama record

(Alabama Outdoors/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 month ago

Buckmasters longest-running hunting show on TV

(Buckmasters/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 month ago

Alabama sets first sandhill crane season in century

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

NOAA’s Gallaudet gets tour of Alabama coastal culture

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Snapper Check data supports season extension

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Free range days set for WFF facilities in August

(Billy Pope/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certain rules apply to all ADCNR ranges:

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

State parks foundation seeks to boost Alabama opportunities

(Alabama State Parks/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Seatrout, flounder limits change August 1

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

GSP’s Eagle Cottages gain National Geographic recognition

(Gulf State Park/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Captains treat Fallen Outdoors to Alabama’s great inshore fishing

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warfield said the inshore fishing trip definitely exceeded expectations.

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

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

3 months ago

WFF adds coastal zone to alligator season

(D. Rainer/Alabama Outdoors)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Hooking redeye bass highlights scenic trip down the Tallapoosa

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Bait privilege license provides options for hog, deer hunting

(Jay Gunn/WFF)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blankenship said there has been much discussion regarding the bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Advisory board approves flounder, seatrout changes

(David Rainer/Contributed)

The length and bag limits of two of Alabama’s most popular inshore fish species will likely change soon after proposals by the Alabama Marine Resources Division were approved last weekend by the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board.

Under the new regulations, spotted seatrout (speckled trout) and southern flounder will have reduced bag limits to deal with concerns that the species are not able to sustain healthy populations.

Speckled trout will go to a slot limit of 15 to 22 inches (total length, TL) with one fish allowed over 22 inches (TL). The previous length limit was 14 inches. The regulation is similar to that for redfish, which has a slot limit of 16 to 26 inches with one fish allowed over 26 inches. The bag limit for speckled trout will also be reduced from 10 fish to six fish.

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The flounder population, which appears to be in worse condition than trout, will move from a 10-fish bag limit to five fish, and the minimum size will be increased from 12 inches to 14 inches (TL).

Kevin Anson, Marine Resources’ chief marine biologist, said a series of public meetings were held to enlist input from the public about possible changes to the trout and flounder regulations.

“We had some assessments that were conducted independently through the University of South Alabama, and the report indicated that both species are in decline,” Anson said. “The spotted seatrout assessment has shown that in the last five to seven years that the breeding stock is not at a sustainable level. The stock is not in critical decline, but we need to make some changes now to ensure it does not get there. Southern flounder is under a little more critical designation, according to the assessment results. We recommend the 14-inch minimum size. About 25% of the females will be mature enough to spawn at 12 inches. Just under 50% will be mature between 14 and 15 inches.”

The regulations approved by the Board for commercial harvest of flounder will add a daily trip limit of 30 fish per vessel. Speckled trout is designated as a game fish and no commercial harvest is allowed.

Anson said there has been a significant increase in commercial fishing license sales since about the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and those license numbers remain relatively high. Those licenses are in addition to the commercial gill net license holders that also target flounder commercially.

“So, we are trying to constrain some of that harvest,” he said. “We felt that (30-fish trip limit) in addition to the reduction in the recreational bag limit would help curb some of that harvest.”

Marine Resources will also implement a closure of both commercial and recreational flounder fishing annually for the month of November during the flounder’s spawning run.

Anson also gave the Board an update on Marine Resources’ effort to spawn flounder at the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores.

“We started collecting brood stock of southern flounder last year,” Anson said. “We will be trying to spawn those fish this coming winter, when they normally spawn in the wild. Researchers have found this species of fish takes a long time to acclimate to be able to spawn in a captive situation.”

If the flounder spawning is successful, Anson said Marine Resources plans to release between 50,000 and 60,000 juvenile flounder annually.

The Board also approved a request from Marine Resources to implement a Gulf reef fish endorsement to distinguish those anglers who fish for red snapper and other reef fish from saltwater anglers who fish for other species.

The endorsement, which would go into effect for the 2019-2020 license year, would cost $10 for individual anglers. Charter boat fees would range from $150-$250, and commercial vessels would be assessed at $200 per vessel.

“This will give us better accounting of who is actually going offshore and taking part in the reef fish harvest,” Anson said. “Currently, we just have a saltwater license that has no designation as to what type of fishing that person will do with that license. We can contact those who purchase the endorsement and ask questions about their fishing behavior.”

Anson said the money raised from the endorsement would be used to replace research funding from federal sources and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration funds that will no longer be available after this year. The funds from the reef fish endorsement can only be used for research and management of reef fish.

“We have been funding some fishery-independent sampling in our offshore reef zones since 2011, utilizing a variety of sampling gear, including side-scan sonar, ROV (remotely operated vessel), vertical line and bottom longline sampling. That has been conducted through Dr. Sean Powers at the University of South Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab. That has all been funded through federal sources. The reef fish endorsement will allow us to continue to support that research, which is providing information directly into the federal stock assessment, which is used to determine the Gulf-wide quota for the red snapper fishery. This work also has allowed Alabama to conduct our own population estimate for red snapper of the coast off of the coast of Alabama. This information is critical for state management of the reef fish fishery.”

Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, apprised the Board of the recent approval of Amendment 50 by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council that will allow state management of the red snapper fishery in 2020 and beyond.

“We’re hoping the amendment that Commissioner Blankenship mentioned will provide some additional opportunities for the states to gain more access and ways to manage the fisheries off those states,” Anson said. “This (endorsement-funded research) would be an integral part of that program.”

Commissioner Blankenship also announced a significant rating achieved by the blue crab industry in Alabama. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program rates most varieties of seafood consumed in the U.S. The Alabama blue crab received a “good alternatives” rating, which puts it in the same category as Gulf wild shrimp, wild sea scallops and yellowfin tuna.

“Because of the very good management of the crab fishery here, Alabama is going to be the only state in the Gulf and Atlantic whose blue crab trap fishery is going to be considered a good alternative by Monterey Bay,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “I would like to commend the Marine Resources Division for the regulations that were put in place several years ago. The work to allow sustainable harvest has been recognized nationally, and this gives the crab industry in Alabama a leg up on the competition around the country.”

In hunting news, Commissioner Blankenship updated the Board on the status of Senate Bill 66, which would allow the taking of white-tailed deer and feral hogs by means of bait if that person purchases a baiting privilege license. That bill passed both the House and Senate and has been signed by Governor Kay Ivey.

Also, the Board recommended a regulation change in dog deer hunting that would allow Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Conservation Enforcement Officers to ticket individual owners of dogs that venture onto neighboring property.

The recommended regulation states that it shall be unlawful for any person who has received a written warning to allow a dog, for the purpose of deer hunting, to enter onto or across or remain on the property of another without written permission.

Matt Weathers, WFF’s chief enforcement officer said this encroachment regulation does not affect dogs used to hunt other species, like raccoon, squirrel or rabbit.

“This would be strictly a dog deer hunting regulation,” Weathers said. “It is fairly simple. If a landowner or person who has land leased calls us about problems with a dog deer hunting club or dogs showing up on their property, our officer instructs the person who made the call to catch the dog or document in some way who the dog belongs to. The dog has to be collared by regulation. When that happens, our officer comes out and sees if it is a valid complaint. If it is provable that this occurred, our officer contacts the dog’s owner. He is given a written warning and told to put in place some practice to keep the dog off this person’s property. If it happens again, it’s the officer’s discretion to issue the dog’s owner a ticket for violating that regulation.”

Weathers said this encroachment regulation is an alternative to putting those clubs in permit counties on probation or taking away land where dog deer hunting is allowed.

“This allows our officers to be very specific to those who are generating the bulk of the complaints, which is a small fraction of the overall dog deer hunters,” Weather said.

In addition to the encroachment regulation, the Board placed Talladega and Clay counties on the permit system for dog deer hunting. The Board also passed two regulations that will restrict the movement of live bait fish between water bodies and restrict the possession of silver, bighead and largescale silver carp.

All regulation changes approved by the Board will go through the Administrative Procedures Act process before they go into effect.

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 Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus event draws crowd

(David Rainer/Contributed)

Attendees at last week’s Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus (ALSC) heard some impressive numbers about outdoor recreation in Alabama from Commissioner Chris Blankenship of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

The third annual luncheon sponsored by the ALSC is designed to bring outdoors organizations and constituents together with Alabama’s legislators to discuss issues important to the outdoors community. After an introduction by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, Blankenship explained how outdoor recreation affects our lives in Alabama.

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“You see all the different groups around the tent, from the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association to Black Belt Adventures to the Coastal Conservation Association, Alabama Power and all the divisions inside the Conservation Department,” Blankenship said. “When you get everybody gathered up, you can see how big an impact that hunting and fishing have on our state and how many organizations really cherish keeping abundant game and fish, and people having access to those resources. We want all the members of the Legislature to be members of the Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus. It doesn’t matter if you’re from a rural area, an urban area or the suburbs, constituents in those areas hunt and fish, bike, bird-watch, hike and enjoy the outdoors.”

Hunting, fishing and outdoors recreation has a significant economic impact in Alabama to the tune of $14.6 billion. Deer hunting alone accounts for a $1-billion economic impact.

“I was looking at the statistics about how many people work in the outdoors industry in the state,” Blankenship said. “It’s about 135,000. If everybody who lives in Prattville worked in the hunting and fishing industry and everybody who lives in Tuscaloosa worked in the hunting and fishing industry, we’d still have to put out the ‘help wanted’ sign because there are that many people in Alabama whose jobs depend on quality hunting, fishing and outdoor recreational opportunities in our state. We have large companies like Polaris, Remington, Pradco and Kimber plus thousands of small businesses that rely on quality hunting and fishing and a clean environment for their continued success. It is critical that all of us work together to conserve and enhance the natural resources of Alabama. I think that tells you how much this group contributes to the economy of our state, not to mention the contribution to our great way of life in Alabama to be able to work and play here. So, I think it’s critical to keep the Legislature informed about issues that involve hunting, fishing and outdoors recreation, and to have them all part of the caucus so we can have events like this and share information.”

This year’s ALSC has three new co-chairs in the Legislature. Rep. Danny Crawford (R-Athens) and Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia) will be the new leaders in the House. In the Senate, Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) assumes a leadership role, while Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) returns for another year as co-chair.

“It’s an honor to chair the Sportsmen’s Caucus in the House,” Rep. Crawford said. “We appreciate all the sponsorships from the groups represented here, and I’m encouraged about the turnout. Because of what the Caucus is doing, it gives us an opportunity to network with about 2,000 other legislators across the country.”

Crawford said that networking made him realize that many states are dealing with issues similar to Alabama, including access to land for outdoors use, chronic wasting disease (CWD) and the decline in the number of hunting licenses sold.

“We have similar problems,” he said. “Some of the states are working on these issues. Somebody from another state who has worked on this and has an idea, we have a chance to couple with that idea and get it done in Alabama. Last year, several of us were able to go to New Hampshire. We attended three days of programs that dealt with some of the problems we’re dealing with today. We have another summit scheduled in November in Georgia.”

Bee Frederick, the Southeastern States Director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, and Alabama Conservation Advisory Board member Patrick Cagle organized the luncheon on the lawn at the State Capitol.

“The Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus continues to grow,” Frederick said. “We’ve had a renewed effort over the last few years, and the Caucus has really established itself in the Statehouse now. We’ve had good growth at this event now for the third year. We had between 400-500 people at the event with more than 80 legislators in attendance. It also had strong representation from the outdoors community, which is what we want. We want this to be a show of force for the conservation community here in Alabama, providing a united front on the issues that are important to sportsmen and women.”

The ALSC celebrated its 10th anniversary at last year’s luncheon, and Frederick expects at least 100 of Alabama’s 140 legislators will be members of the Caucus before the session ends this year.

“We want the Caucus here in Alabama to be a nexus for sportsmen and women,” Frederick said. “The Caucus exists to educate and inform legislators about the issues that are important to us. And we want to use the caucus to promote those issues in the Legislature, and make sure the people making those decisions are informed.”

ALSC is a part of the National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses. That is staffed by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF), which also provides support staff to the largest bipartisan caucus, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, in Congress in Washington, D.C. CSF’s mission is to work with Congress and state legislatures to protect and advance hunting, angling, recreational shooting and trapping.

Frederick said CSF is working on a number of federal issues in Congress that will affect the outdoors community. This includes implementation of the Farm Bill and Modern Fish Act from 2018 and, in this current Congress, Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, Pittman-Robertson Modernization, chronic wasting disease, and others. He said one of the issues that the hunting community has grown increasingly concerned about is CWD. CSF is working with members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus on several CWD-related bills which would provide funding for state agencies grappling with the disease and would also encourage studies by the National Academy of Sciences and other research.

Frederick also said the Trump administration, through the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, has worked to open access for outdoor recreation throughout the country.

“They’ve done that through secretarial orders and Senate Bill 47, which we were heavily involved in,” he said.

Senate Bill 47, otherwise known as the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act. The act eases restrictions on outdoor recreational use on public land. CSF’s priority provisions include:

Permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) with 3% or $15 million – whichever is greater – of annual appropriations made available for the purpose of securing additional access for hunting, fishing, recreational shooting, and other outdoor related activities (Making Public Lands Public Initiative). Recent studies estimate there are nearly 10 million acres of public lands in the west that are open to sporting activities, but the general public is currently unable to access these parcels due to a number of reasons.
Requiring Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands to be open for hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting unless specifically closed.

Directing the NPS, BLM, USFS, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop strategies for providing access to areas where hunting, fishing, target shooting and other recreation are allowed but cannot be reasonably accessed by the public.

Providing additional waterfowl hunting opportunities for veterans and youth, and provides flexibility to the Secretary of the Interior, in coordination with the state and flyways, to establish January 31st at the closing date for ducks, mergansers, and coots.

Frederick said the turnout from the Alabama legislators and the organizations connected to the outdoors was an encouraging sign.

“We had 15 different sportsmen’s organizations represented today, plus the Alabama DCNR,” he said. “It was a great event for the sportsmen’s organizations. We had people from the Gulf Coast to the mountains and everywhere in between. Again, our goal is to provide the venue for the sportsmen’s communities and the sportsmen’s groups to interact with the legislators, who are making policy decisions based on sound science. I really appreciate Commissioner Chris Blankenship and the organizations here for supporting this event and allowing us to do what we do.”

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

5 months ago

WFF enforcement K9 unit a different breed

(WFF/Contributed)

One turkey hunter was extremely grateful that the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Law Enforcement Section has a K9 unit, although there is little public awareness of this enforcement asset.

Of course, the reason few people have heard about it is this K9 unit does not fit the stereotype of large, aggressive dogs trained to bite and take down a suspect.

Nope, the WFF K9 dogs are far, far more likely to lick you than anything else. This K9 unit consists of the loveable beagle breed that uses its nose and tracking abilities to aid the WFF’s Conservation Enforcement Officers (CEOs).

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Early in the 2019 spring season, CEO Ben Kiser received a call about an overdue turkey hunter. Kiser loaded up his beagle, Luke, and headed out into rural Calhoun County.

“I just got a call about a lost turkey hunter,” Kiser said. “It turned into a medical emergency because he was diabetic. He had an episode. He got lost and fell and lost his gun.”

Kiser said most of the time when hunters get lost, he can get a cell phone number from the family, call the number and get clues where they might be found. To pinpoint the location, sometimes Kiser gets the lost hunter to fire a shot. He didn’t have that option this spring.

“I found his truck and deployed Luke on his tracks,” Kiser said. “Luke followed the trail a little over a mile and walked right up on the hunter. He was in a location where the ambulance couldn’t travel. He was somewhat coherent, but I basically dragged him out of the woods and got him in my truck. We met his family back at the main road, and they took him to the hospital. He recovered fully from what I understand. Without the dog, I would have had a hard time locating the hunter. It’s an area on the edge of a national forest where cell service is very limited. In the past, it’s taken hours to find people. I’ve worked cases like this both with and without a dog. This incident went extremely well, extremely fast, and it was all because of the dog. I can’t say he would have died. But he had his best shot to make it because of the dog.”

Kiser said that was the first time he has used Luke to find a hunter in distress, but the beagle has been used in many of the CEO’s normal duties as well as in assisting local law enforcement in searching for suspects. Luke has made cases for illegal baiting of game and fishing on private property without permission. He’s also helped locate a turkey hunter poaching on property he didn’t have permission to hunt.

“Luke tracked that turkey hunter right up to his blind,” Kiser said.

WFF Assistant Chief of Enforcement Chris Lewis said the K9 program started in 2012. CEO Brad Gavins talked to officers at the Department of Corrections about the tracking dogs used to find escaped prisoners. When Corrections offered to give WFF one of their dogs to try, Gavins got permission and quickly accepted.

“There was some concern about liability, but our beagles just lick people and try to find people so they can get a peanut butter sandwich,” Lewis said. “That’s their reward. That’s how they were trained.”

Gavins worked his dog, Taz, for a couple of years and proved the concept works well. Lewis said the Department of Corrections was generous enough to give WFF several dogs that were not suitable for tracking escapees.

“We prefer dogs that don’t bark because we don’t want to announce our presence,” Lewis said. “Corrections is hunting armed felons or escapees in dangerous situations. So, they turn loose a whole pack of dogs that bark. They work as a team to drive that person. By the time they get there, they want those dogs to run that person to where there’s no fight left in them. We want dogs that are good, strong trackers that can work independently and don’t bark. That’s a rare commodity. When Corrections sends us a dog that’s a strong tracker that doesn’t bark, that’s huge for us. These are well-seasoned, very capable dogs. Our people then go to Corrections for handler training. The dogs know what to do. We’re just training the people to learn how to handle and read the dogs.”

Jonathan Howard has a K9 in District 5, while Jason McHenry and Cliff Quinn both have dogs in District 3. Kiser is in District 2, and Gavin is in District 4. Lewis said the next dog available from Corrections will go to District 1.

Gavins recalled one of the early incidents where his dog proved its worth. Coffee County CEO Jason Sutherland was working a complaint when he spotted someone parked in a field.

“The lady in the vehicle said she was arrowhead hunting, but Jason found two sets of tracks,” Gavins said. “He discovered the other set of tracks was from her companion, who was notorious for running afoul of the law. Jason suspected that her companion was poaching.”

Gavins got a call to head over with his dog, which picked up the scent at the vehicle and followed it through the woods for several miles.

“We found where he had squatted down,” he said. “We found an empty cartridge where he shot at a deer.”

The dog tracked to the edge of the road where the suspect had ditched a shotgun and rifle. When confronted with the enormous evidence, the suspect confessed.

“It wound up being a good case that we would have never done anything with without the dog,” Gavins said. “I’ve used the dog to track turkey poachers. Some people will get permission to hunt 10 or 20 acres, a place to park their trucks, and then go to wherever the turkey gobbles. We’ve been able use the dogs to track the hunters to where they sat next to a tree or find feathers where they shot a turkey. I think on one case, the hunter had crossed through three different properties, and we were able to enter that into evidence.”

Another incident happened in Russell County where a hunter witnessed a poacher firing at a deer from a climbing treestand. Gavins was called by CEO Mark Jolly, and they set the dog on the tracks as close as they could. The beagle quickly picked up the track and led them straight to a dead doe, followed by a huge, 11-point buck.

“We backtracked across a pasture, through a fence and up to a house,” Gavins said. “Just before we got to the house, we found the gun hidden in a hay bale.”

After securing the scene, a search warrant was issued, and the officers found even more evidence, which resulted in a conviction.

Gavins said the dogs have also been used to track people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“The dogs are not aggressive at all,” Gavins said. “That’s why they’re so good to use in our outreach programs.”

Lewis agreed, adding that the dogs help the public lose their reticence about talking to an enforcement officer.

“The public in general and kids just love the dogs, and the dogs love that they get petted and loved on,” Lewis said. “It’s an icebreaker for us. People who normally won’t approach us and ask questions will come up and start petting the dogs. That usually generates a conversation. Then we can tell them what we do and why we do it to get our message out in a different way.”

Kiser does not hesitate to use Luke as a public relations assistant.

“I take him to all the hunting expos,” Kiser said. “I take him to elementary schools two or three times a year. I take him to our youth dove hunts we have every fall where we may have 100 people there. Recently, I took Luke to UAB Children’s Hospital. The local FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) had built a wagon that the patients and families can use to get them away from wheelchairs. Luke went with us to take the wagon, and he saw a few kids. I’m working on the process to get Luke cleared to where he can go in the patients’ rooms and do more that type stuff at the hospital.”

Kiser takes Luke on boat patrols as well.

“He pretty much goes wherever I go,” Kiser said. “He’s my only partner in Calhoun County.”

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

Amendment 50 gives Gulf states stable snapper season

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago

Ultimate jugging produces catfish feeding frenzy at Millers Ferry

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 months ago

Steve Barnett mentors turkey hunt before retirement

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 months ago

Alabama fishing returning to normal after flooding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 months ago

Marine Resources Division considering changes to flounder, trout limits

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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