The Wire

  • Rep. Byrne to Hold 12 Town Hall Meetings

    From a Congressman Bradley Byrne news release:

    Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL) announced today that he will hold twelve town hall meetings during the August District Work Period.

    Known as the “Better Off Now” Town Hall Tour, Congressman Byrne will hold public town halls in each of the counties that make up Alabama’s First Congressional District. Byrne will discuss how the American people are better off now thanks to a booming economy, stronger military, and safer communities.

    Byrne ranks among the top of all Members of Congress for the number of town hall meetings held. Since assuming office in late 2013, Byrne has held over 100 town hall meetings, including meetings over the phone and through Facebook.

    All the town hall meetings are open to the public and free to attend. All the information can be found online below.

  • HudsonAlpha technology director to present at Google Cloud conference

    Excerpt from a HudsonAlpha news release:

    HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology Technology Director Katreena Mullican has been invited to present at the Google Next ‘18 conference in San Francisco, Calif, July 24-26.

    Google Next is an international conference where more than 10,000 developers, technology leaders, and entrepreneurs come together to have a collaborative discussion about the Google Cloud Platform.

    Mullican has more than 20 years of experience in architecting Linux, virtualization and hybrid cloud solutions. As HudsonAlpha’s Cloud Whisperer, Mullican brings her expertise in automation of on-prem composable and public cloud infrastructure for scientific applications and workflows to the Institute.

    “HudsonAlpha is one of the top sequencing centers in the world, so it’s my job to think outside the box to design hybrid platforms appropriate for our sequencing and research workloads,” said Mullican.

    Mullican will participate in a Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Cloud Talk Tuesday at 1:00 pm in the South Hall to discuss how HudsonAlpha uses the composable HPE Synergy platform for an on-premises Kubernetes cluster that can scale to Google Cloud Platform.

  • Tabitha Isner claims Russia hacked campaign website — ‘Russian meddling in U.S. elections continues to be a real and immediate threat’

    Excerpt:

    Late Thursday afternoon, Democratic congressional hopeful Tabitha Isner issued a press release claiming “incidents of ‘brute force attacks’ on her campaign’s main webpage.”

    “When investigating the source of these attacks, the website administrator discovered over 1,400 attempts to login to the website as an administrator in the past week,” the release from campaign manager Megan Skipper said. “Of those 1,400 attempts, 1,100 came from Russian I.P. addresses. Russian meddling in U.S. elections continues to be a real and immediate threat.”

5 hours ago

From Cheaha to Meaher, state parks diversity abounds

(David Rainer)

From a shaded retreat on John’s Bay in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to the boardwalk atop the highest mountain in the state, the Alabama State Parks System offers an incredible diversity of nature’s wonders to explore.

Just north of the point where the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Mobile Bay converge, Meaher State Park offers a respite from the hustle and bustle that can be seen in the distance on the Bayway crowded with frustrated travelers.

Tall pine trees blanket the 1,300-acre park that borders the Delta’s biologically rich John’s Bay to the south and Ducker Bay to the east.

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According to Anna Bryant, Meaher’s new park superintendent, visitors head to the park with their travel trailers in tow, attracted to the shade on the water’s edge.

A native of Auburn, Bryant came to love the area while teaching environmental education for two conservation organizations and jumped at the Meaher job about a year ago.

“I enjoy being in the outdoors,” Bryant said. “I love the water. I didn’t grow up near the beach. But the water and flora and fauna here at Meaher is a very therapeutic place for me. That is a bonus of this job for me.”

Callie Thornton, the assistant park superintendent at Cheaha State Park, finds her therapy in the mountains, and Cheaha, completely surrounded by the Talladega National Forest in northeast Alabama, is the perfect location for her.

Already a dedicated backpacker before she took the job at Cheaha a year ago, Thornton now gets to share her love of hiking with an abundance of park visitors and fellow hikers.

“What attracted me to Cheaha was the mountain and the Pinhoti Trail,” said Thornton, the former Town Clerk at Rockford, Ala. “I wanted to be able to teach others how to backpack, the importance of being outdoors and inspiring others to love the outdoors.

“I’ve been backpacking for about 12 years now, doing anything and everything adventurous. I’ve done more than 1,000 miles backpacking, so now I teach backpacking courses. And a lot of people are scared of camping. My goal is to teach people to not be afraid of being in the outdoors.”

Thornton’s instructions include camp cooking, first aid, what’s needed in your backpack and, possibly more important, what’s not.

“I’ve been able to get my backpack down to 27 pounds for a seven-day trip,” she said. “If people will bring me their backpack, I will go through it and divide and conquer, as I say. I advise them on what kind of gear they need as far as shoes and clothing. A lot of people think they need to take multiple days of clothes. If you pick the right gear, you might need an extra pair of socks, but you don’t need anything else.

“I had a friend with me on one trip who had 60 pounds in her backpack. She was really suffering. While we were on the trip I went through her bag. When we got to the next station, I told her to take this and that out and put it in the hiker box or mail it home. I’ve learned through experience about a lot of things, like blisters and how to deal with them and how to protect your feet. A lot of it is simple stuff that I want to pass on to make the person’s trip a lot better the next time around.”

At one time, Cheaha was the southern terminus of Thornton’s beloved Pinhoti Trail. That terminus has since been moved about 60 miles south to Flagg Mountain. The Pinhoti Trail covers about 170 miles in Alabama and 166 miles in Georgia before it connects with the Appalachian Trail. Hikers can also gain access to the Eastern Continental Trail that transits the entire eastern U.S.

Thornton, also president of the Alabama Pinhoti Trail Association, hopes to bring more exposure to Alabama’s Pinhoti segment.

“We don’t get a lot of publicity on the Alabama Pinhoti Trail,” she said. “Georgia’s trail gets a lot, but Alabama’s doesn’t. It could be a big tourism booster for Alabama.

“My goal is to raise the awareness of the Alabama section of the trail. People don’t know that it also is a connector from Key West (Fla.) all the way to Maine.”

On a hot summer day, a bonus of being at Cheaha is the weather.

“It’s about 10 degrees cooler on the mountain,” Thornton said. “Sometimes it’s more than that, depending on the wind. When I got here last May (2017), I was freezing to death. We can sit in the restaurant and see the weather around us. If I see a storm coming and we’ve got people in the pool, I can go get them out. The good thing is, most of the time, the bad stuff goes around us.”

Another attraction for Cheaha visitors is the solitude of the mountain, which is 2,407 feet above sea level, the highest in the state. A variety of accommodations await, from cabins and chalets to improved and primitive camping.

“A lot of people come to Cheaha to disconnect,” Thornton said. “If you want to get away from it all, if you want to get away from your telephone, your Wi-Fi, this is where you come. Once you come around the curves on (Hwy.) 281, you lose your connections. I just got a call from a man who said he was ready to get away from work. People disconnect and they go hiking, swimming and enjoy the restaurant. They come to hike. They come to see the wildlife, the deer and turkeys. We have a lot of birdwatchers who come to the park. We have gem-mining for the kids and a lot of interpretive nature programs for the whole family.”

Now hop in your vehicle, come down the mountain and head south about 260 miles to Meaher State Park to experience Alabama’s coastal plains and the expansive Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Meaher offers 61 improved campsites, 10 improved tent sites, a couple of primitive tent sites and four cabins. Two more cabins will be available later this year.

Bryant said Meaher appeals to campers in a couple of different ways.

“We’re kind of a quiet park,” she said. “We don’t have a pool or tennis courts or facilities that some of the bigger parks have. The fact that people can come and relax, see the sunsets and see the water is a big attraction for our overnight guests. But we also have a lot of day visitors who love to fish. We have a fishing pier and a boat launch. They can canoe and kayak or take their motor boat into the Delta or Mobile Bay. We also have the Gateway to the Delta boardwalk that allows visitors to see the Delta from a different perspective.

“Part of the draw is we have easy access to the Delta and being able to stay overnight between Mobile and Baldwin counties.”

Because of its size, Meaher doesn’t have a park naturalist, but Bryant has been able to utilize the environmental programs from Gulf State Park and 5 Rivers – Alabama Delta Resource Center, which is located directly across the Mobile Causeway from Meaher.

“The last program we had was a reptile show that 5 Rivers conducted,” Bryant said. “They brought native snakes and turtles to show our guests.”

Bryant will soon be involved in a park expansion, thanks to a $3.5 million award from the Deepwater Horizon’s oil spill through the RESTORE Act.

“Our hope is to expand not only RV sites but add a couple more cabins and possibly another fishing pier,” she said. “We’re still in the process of finalizing our plans. We want to offer our visitors a gamut of options from just relaxing to enjoying the Delta.”

Visit here and this link for more information.

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

2 weeks ago

Gulf State Park Pier expands shark fishing

(David Rainer)

Anglers at Gulf State Park Pier who expressed frustration after reeling in pieces of desired fish species that had been attacked by sharks have gained some relief.

The Alabama State Parks System managers instituted a pilot program to allow a limited number of anglers to fish for sharks on the octagon end of the pier on consecutive Tuesday nights recently.

The first night was relatively slow as several sharks were hooked but only one undersized (minimum of 54 inches fork length) fish was landed. The shark was released back into the water.

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The action on the second Tuesday night and the overwhelming interest of anglers and spectators prompted Parks officials to expand the shark-fishing opportunities in July. Numerous sharks were hooked last Tuesday, and a 130-pound spinner shark was hauled onto the 1,540-foot pier.

The next chances to fish for sharks on the pier will take place on the south end from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. the following morning on Sunday and Tuesday nights on July 8, 10, 15, 17, 22, 24, 29 and 31. The previous shark-fishing times had been 8 p.m. to midnight. Parks officials realized anglers had a great deal of success just as the sun was setting and decided to start the fishing an hour earlier. Anglers said the sharks were causing problems at daybreak as well.

To accommodate the shark anglers, the octagon will close to routine use 30 minutes prior to these events and reopen to routine use 30 minutes following. During the events, the octagon area of the pier will be reserved for the exclusive use of participating anglers and their designated assistants. Other anglers and pier guests can use the remainder of the pier as usual.

Another adjustment by Parks officials is an increase in the number of anglers allowed and a decrease in the number of assistants. In the last session, 10 anglers were designated to fish, and they were allowed two assistants each. Anglers were also allowed to use two rods.

During the July shark-fishing events, 15 anglers will be allowed to fish per occasion with only one rod and reel per angler in use. Each angler may have one assistant. A maximum of 30 individuals will be allowed on the octagon area during each event. Anglers are encouraged to assist each other while fishing.

Anglers are required to provide their own gear. Larger reels are allowed during the shark event. Other pier rules regarding equipment will remain in effect.

The husband-wife duo of Melvin and Kayci Dixon of Gulf Shores teamed up to hook and fight the only shark landed during the second Tuesday. Kayci, who is six months pregnant, had a live bluefish for bait when she hooked the fish. She soon handed the rod and reel to her husband. Melvin fought it until other anglers and assistants were able to get snatch hooks into the shark to laboriously lift the fish over the railing and onto the pier deck.

“She fought it about five minutes and then handed the rod to me,” Melvin said. “When she first hooked up, I didn’t think he was that big. When he was way out there I didn’t think it was much and we were going to have to break him off. But when he got within 100 yards of the pier, it changed. It ended up being 70½ inches long.

“Luckily, there were some great guys out here who jumped in to get the fish over the rail. Everybody worked well together to get it. It was great team spirit.”

When the shark comes over the rail is when those on the octagon must be most careful, as Lamar Pendergrass, State Parks Regional Manager, told the anglers before the start of the event.

“Our biggest concern is safety once a shark is brought up on the pier,” Pendergrass said. “Everybody needs to stay clear of the shark until it is identified and dispatched if it is a legal shark.”

Also on that second Tuesday, Stephanie Langston of Foley, a regular at the pier along with her husband, hooked but lost a shark that went under the pier, cutting the line on the sharp barnacles. And the brother-sister team of Grayson and Greta Graves both had sharks on during the night but, like Langston’s, both fish escaped when the fishing line snapped at the pier.

Pendergrass and other Parks officials said it is too early to tell how the pilot program will affect the sharks’ impact on pier anglers.

Several sharks that make the northern Gulf of Mexico home are protected, and the Alabama Marine Resources Division had officers on hand to help identify the species. When the Dixons’ shark was hauled onto the deck, it was thought to be a black-tipped shark. Marine Resources officials used a shark identification chart to identify it as a spinner shark because, paradoxically, the spinner shark’s anal fin has a black tip, while the black tip has a white anal fin.

Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein said he’s not really surprised by the interest in shark fishing, which had previously been prohibited on the pier.

“We’ve been hearing for a while that people wanted the opportunity to catch sharks out here,” Lein said. “What has surprised me is the diversity of interest. There are some people who want to catch sharks to eat them. There are some people who just want to hook one for the sport of having a shark on the line. Others want to catch sharks to remove them because they think there are too many sharks around the pier.”

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship added, “The number of spectators crowding the pier to watch these events has been interesting. On both nights we had hundreds of people who came out to the pier to see what would be caught. At one point on Fox 10 Facebook Live there were over 880 people watching the first night. Sharks are fascinating creatures, as evidenced by the participation and the crowds. That is why the Discovery Channel has a whole week of programming dedicated to sharks every July.”

This year, Gulf State Park Naturalist Kelly Reetz is partnering with the Alabama Marine Resources Division and state universities to provide hands-on educational information and activities during Shark Week July 23-27. More information can be found here.

Lein said after monitoring the shark-fishing events in July, the State Parks staff will evaluate the program and determine whether to extend the fishing for upcoming months.

Registration for the shark-fishing events continues. Anglers are selected in the order in which applications are received. To register for the special events, visit www.alapark.com/shark-fishing. Applicants are required to provide contact information for notification of selection. Those chosen will be notified a week or more in advance of their designated fishing date.

Visit here for the latest information on shark-fishing and other pier events.

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

Wilson still reigns atop Alabama’s Bass Anglers Information Team report

(Outdoor Alabama)

For the fourth year in a row, Wilson Lake reigns atop the rankings in the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s annual Bass Anglers Information Team (BAIT) Report.

In data compiled for the 2017 fishing year, Wilson totaled 77 quality indicator points to maintain the top ranking over second-place Lake Jordan, which compiled 72 points. Jordan made a big move up from 12th place in the 2016 report. Lake Mitchell and Millers Ferry tied for third with 65 points. Millers Ferry also jumped 10 spots in 2017. Wheeler Lake rounded out the top five with 64 points.

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WFF assigns quality indicator points according to average bass weight, percent success, bass per angler per day, pounds per angler per day, and hours required to catch a five-pound bass. The angler day is considered 10 hours.

“Last year was another good year of bass fishing in Alabama,” said WFF’s Kyle Bolton, who oversees the BAIT report, which marks its 32nd year with the 2017 report.

The BAIT report’s objective is to gather information on bass populations from bass club members as well as WFF Fisheries biologists, who use a variety of methods of data collection, including electrofishing.

Bolton said bass anglers have reported more than 15,000 tournament results during the report’s history. Anglers have spent 3.4 million hours collecting data for the report. BAIT’s history includes reports on 928,000 bass that weighed 1.7 million pounds.

In terms of big bass, the top lakes in Alabama were Pickwick, Wilson, Eufaula, Guntersville and Wheeler.

Guntersville had been on everybody’s big bass list earlier in the decade, but the number of large bass caught slipped for a few years. The lake seems to be on the rebound toward outstanding bass fishing.

“Guntersville bounced back last year, compared to the year before,” Bolton said. “We had really good year-classes of bass in 2007 and 2008. That produced a lot of giant fish (10 pounds plus) and those fish finally died off. In 2017, the numbers are a lot closer to the 30-year average.

“It’s cyclical, just like any other reservoir, but Guntersville is coming back up.”

Bolton said in 2017, Guntersville had about 70-percent success, which is on par with the 30-year average. The average weight was 2.74 pounds, dead on the 30-year average.

In 2016, the BAIT report added another data point with winning weight for the one-day tournaments. Guntersville’s average winning weight for 2016 was 17.86 and 17.78 for 2017.

However, Guntersville also produced the largest winning weight in the state last year when Casey Martin, fishing in the BFL Bama Division tournament in March of 2017, weighed in a five-fish stringer at 40.69 pounds.

Pickwick’s indicators were well above the long-term average. The most telling statistic that put it near the top in big bass lakes was that it only took 80 hours to catch a bass five pounds or larger. Pickwick also set a lake record for the average weight per bass at 2.81 pounds.

Eufaula had two tournaments in 2017 where 15 bass larger than five pounds were weighed.

In 2017, several other lake records were set. Lake Jordan set three records with an average weight of 2.51 pounds, bass per angler per day at 4.42 and pounds per angler per day at 11.10. Lake Mitchell set two records with 4.46 bass per angler per day and 8.69 pounds per angler per day. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta also set two marks with 4.69 bass per angler per day and 8.23 pounds per angler per day.

Bolton said some of the reservoirs in Alabama are not represented because WFF doesn’t receive enough tournament reports to validate the data.

“On some of the reservoirs, especially in west Alabama, we just don’t have enough reports,” Bolton said. “We’re not getting the reports we need from Tombigbee River and Alabama River lakes like Coffeeville and Claiborne. We’re not getting anything from the Bear Creek reservoirs. I think there are plenty of tournaments there. For whatever reason, we’re not getting a lot of reports from those reservoirs.

“The reports help us make fisheries management decisions as far as restocking or setting length and creel limits. We use these reports in tandem with our electrofishing data.”

The standard electrofishing data WFF biologists gather include growth, mortality, recruitment and abundance. They scoop up the stunned fish, weigh and measure them. Some are returned to the water as soon as possible. Others are retained to pull the otoliths (ear bones with growth rings) to check the age of the fish.

Bolton hopes the number of reports will increase significantly now that a new tool is available for tournament anglers. WFF added an online feature that will allow tournament officials to quickly report the results.

“The past few years, we’ve only had two options to turn in tournament results,” Bolton said. “Those were submitting an Excel form via email or a paper copy via regular mail.

“With this new program, we’re hoping the anglers will just hop online and submit the catch data. It won’t take them five minutes, if that. The reports can be submitted from their computer or smartphone.”

Bolton said several options are available on the above website. Tournament anglers should click on the BAIT tab and enter their Conservation ID number and birth date to verify the angler’s identity. After the angler’s Conservation ID and birth date are entered the first time, they will be saved and should not have to be entered on subsequent reports.

After filling out the form and entering the tournament results, the angler will hit submit to transmit the report to WFF.

“When I get the data from the report, I put it in my program to develop the annual report,” Bolton said. “It’s live now, and we’ve had several people already use it. They said it was easy.”

That same website provides a link to the bass tournaments scheduled on a variety of Alabama lakes and reservoirs.

“Anglers and organizers are allowed to post their tournaments on the website,” Bolton said. “This is to help reduce conflicts. It’s in no way a reservation system. It’s just a way to let people know about upcoming events. That is very easy to use too. They enter the data, hit submit and it will be posted on the website.”

Bolton said the BAIT report gives anglers an avenue to contribute information that WFF managers need to ensure Alabama continues to have great fishing.

“This is a good opportunity for anglers to get involved in actual data submission so we can take care of the fisheries,” he said. “The more data the better. Through the annual report, the anglers can compare their results to other clubs. They can look at the report and see where the big fish are being caught or the largest numbers of fish are being caught.”

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

4 weeks ago

Alabama alligator registration underway; monster gator causes dilemma

(Rodney Young)

With the application process for the 2018 Alabama alligator seasons underway, Rodney Young is now faced with a dilemma.

No, it’s not that he isn’t going to apply again. He’s already done that. His problem is how to get the monster gator he and his team bagged last year into his house.

Young tagged a 13-foot gator that registered 667 pounds on the scale last year in the Southwest Zone, the largest gator of the year.

Young decided to have a full-body mount made and plans to put it in his home in Stapleton when the taxidermist is finished later this year.

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“I’m going to put him in my man cave over the garage,” he said. “I’m hoping it’ll go up the staircase. If not, I’m going to have to get a crane or lift of some kind and put him through the window. I haven’t figured that out yet.”

Young and his team faced a similar situation last August during their gator hunt in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Young admits they were lucky to find a big gator because they hadn’t done any scouting.

“We were just rolling the dice, running up and down the rivers,” Young said. “We saw a bunch of 10-footers. This was my first hunt. I was out with some buddies of mine who had been on several hunts through the years. We’d see one and my buddy Gary Goins would say, ‘Nah, ain’t big enough.’”

About 2 a.m., the team was running up the Tensaw River when one of the crew shined a light on the bank and spotted a big gator in a man cave of his own.

“All we could see was the tip of his nose and his eyes,” Young said. “But we knew right then it was a good one. We were probably 100 yards away, but we knew we were onto something.

“He was in what looked like a little cove. The way the willows were, it created a little pocket and trees had grown over the top. We were having to cast sideways. We’d hit limbs and trees, and the gator would go down. That happened four times. We’d fool with him, and he’d go down. We’d back out in the river and watch for him. About 30 minutes later, he’d pop back up.”

Then the big gator made a fatal mistake. He abandoned his cove.

“We were setting up to watch him again when one of the guys yelled, ‘He’s running,’” Young said. “He was tired of us fooling with him, and he came out into the river. We spun around and got two lines in him. That was an hour-and-a-half into the process. Of course, then the fight was on. He’d go down. We tried to keep two lines on him with treble hooks. He’d spin and pop one off. Then we’d get another one in him.”

After the team finally got the gator under the boat, Young donned a pair of gloves and grabbed the large line with a snatch hook. Young hooked the gator but it didn’t come up right away.

“When he finally got to the surface, his head came completely out of the water,” he said. “That’s the first time we got a good look at him, and we realized we had a monster.”

The team finally wore the big gator down and secured him to the side of the boat at 5 a.m. Young dispatched the gator with one shot.

“At that point, we were as worn out as he was,” Young said.

Then Young’s team was faced with another dilemma. They were in Goins’ Blazer Bay boat because of motor problems on their boat that was designated for gator hunting, and Goins didn’t want the gator messing up his almost-new boat.

“He told us, ‘We can take the Blazer Bay, but we’re not putting that gator in the boat,’” Young said. “We said, okay we’ll tie him off. Bear in mind, we shot that gator at 5 o’clock. We realized we would never make it back to the weigh station before it closed if we had to go back to the launch and then drive to the Causeway.

“Gary was sitting there with his head in his hands. Finally, he said, ‘The heck with it. Put him in the boat.’ We didn’t bat an eye. We weren’t going to give him a chance to change his mind, so we started pulling the gator in the boat. It took all five of us to get him in the boat. Then four of us had to go to the bow of the boat to get the boat up on plane. But we got to the weigh station in time.”

Although Young has applied for a tag this year, he said he knows the point system implemented in 2014 will put him at the bottom of the list for 2018.

“I’m not holding out a lot of hope,” he said. “I figure it’ll take another two or three years to get another tag. It took me seven years to get the first one.”

Chris Nix, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Alligator Program Coordinator, said a preference points system was implemented for the 2014 season, and it is working as expected. For each year an applicant fails to draw a tag, the points are cubed with a point added for the current year.

“If you have applied since 2014 and haven’t been drawn, you will have 65 points now,” Nix said. “It’s not guaranteed, but those people are highly likely to get drawn now. The longer the point system is in place, the quicker the turnover for people who haven’t gotten a tag.”

To ensure that new applicants have a shot at a tag, Nix said that 85 percent of the tags are filled with applicants with preference points and the remaining 15 percent are allocated to those with no points. Once a person is drawn, the preference points are zeroed out. Preference points are also lost if the person fails to apply for a tag.

Nix said the 2018 alligator season parameters are the same as last year with 260 total tags statewide – 150 in the Southwest Zone, 50 in the West Central Zone, 40 in the Southeast Zone and 20 in the Lake Eufaula Zone. Hunting is from sunset to sunrise.

Season dates for the Southwest Zone and the West Central Zone are sunset on August 9 until sunrise on August 12 and sunset on August 16 until sunrise on August 19. The Southwest Zone includes private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile 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. The West Central Zone includes private and public waters in Monroe (north of U.S. Highway 84), Wilcox and Dallas counties.

The Southeast Zone season opens at sunset on August 11 and runs until sunrise on September 3. The Southeast Zone 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).

The Lake Eufaula Zone includes public state waters only 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). The Eufaula season dates are from sunset on August 17 through sunrise on October 1.

An 8-foot restriction on harvest is in effect for the Lake Eufaula Zone. The other zones have no size restrictions.

Registration continues until 8 a.m. on July 11. After a computer-controlled drawing, entrants can find out if they drew a tag after noon on July 11 by logging on at the same page where they registered at. Those who are drawn will have seven days to confirm the tags and are required to attend a zone-specific training class with a couple of exceptions.

“If you’ve taken the class as a tag holder or alternate in the Southwest Zone or West Central Zone, you’re exempt from having to take it again,” Nix said. “If your tag is in the Southeast Zone or Lake Eufaula Zone, the class is mandatory every year. We do that because of the contiguous zones with Georgia and the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, which is off-limits.”

Nix said between 60 and 70 percent of the tags are filled annually, but it’s not because of a lack of alligators, especially in the Southwest Zone.

“We could have a 100-percent success rate in the Southwest Zone every year,” he said. “People pass up gators they wish they had tagged. It’s just like deer hunting. Most people don’t shoot the first buck that walks into the field. People usually don’t take the first alligator they see.

“But to each his own. We had a couple that brought in two 4-footers last year, and they were as happy as could be.”

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

Bat blitz highlights role in Alabama’s ecosystem

(David Rainer)

Despite the stigma caused by countless Dracula movies, a dedicated group of naturalists continues to demonstrate its love for the animal with a face only a mother could love. Those enthusiasts express their devotion to the bat, nature’s only flying mammal, all the way down to the bat jewelry.

Bat lovers met recently at Lakepoint State Park near Eufaula for the annual Bat Blitz, a celebration of the small animal that can sometimes be spotted zooming around street lights at dusk, dining on a smorgasbord of insects.

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Nick Sharp of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division said this year’s Blitz was a joint exercise for bat biologists and enthusiasts from Alabama and Georgia. The Blitz is a collaborative effort of all the Alabama Bat Working Group (ABWG) members. Jeff Baker from Alabama Power and Shannon Holbrook from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service served as co-chairs of the Bat Blitz committee.

Alabama State Lands Division’s Jo Lewis said the recent gathering was the 17th annual meeting of the ABWG, an informal affiliation of bat biologists and enthusiasts from many state, federal and private agencies across the state. The group holds the Bat Blitz in different areas of the state each year to sample the bat populations in those areas with mist nets deployed at night.

“We’re looking for distribution information about what bats are in what areas of the state,” Lewis said. “We have 15 species of bats that are native to Alabama. Some only occur in the more southern portions of the state, and others only occur in the more northern portions of the state because of the different habitats in Alabama and our complex ecosystems.

“In the north part of the state, bats appear to be more numerous because of the karst geology with all the caves. In the south part of the state, we have a lot of bats, but they don’t congregate as much in caves. They’re referred to as forest bats. They roost in trees. They’re actually all around us, but we’re kind of oblivious to them. A little bat hanging in a tree snuggled up against a nook or branch, you’re never going to notice.”

The southeastern myotis is one bat species found in the south part of the state but not as often in the north. The Bat Blitz researchers found 16 southeastern myotis bats in a culvert on the first night of the event.

Another bat more common in the southern part of the state is the Mexican freetail. Sharp said the fast-flying bat is now most often found in attics because most of the large, hollow trees it historically used have been cut down.

A bat that is found in the northern part of the state but not the southern part is the northern longear, a protected species. Gray bats, also protected, are found in north Alabama. The most common species throughout the state is the big brown bat.

Currently, the biggest concern for the bat enthusiasts is the condition known as white nose syndrome, a fungal infection that has killed more than six million bats in North America.

“Nobody knows right now how white nose syndrome affects the tree bats,” Lewis said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t affect them because they don’t roost together as much and are less likely to spread the infection.

“We do have confirmed cases of white nose in most of the northern counties, as far south as Bibb County near Birmingham.”

Lewis said it is very difficult to determine how much the syndrome has affected the populations in north Alabama because of the labor-extensive requirements to do those studies.

“From personal observation in a cave that I’ve been monitoring for the past 10 years, it followed the classic series of events associated with the disease, and it truly decimated the population,” she said. “A tenth of the number of bats that used to be there are there now. I used to count hundreds of tri-colored bats in there. Now, we’re counting 30. It has definitely affected that bat population.”

Sharp said data from nine caves in north Alabama monitored from 2010 to 2017 indicate a reduction of tri-colored bats by 70 to 95 percent. He said counts at two Indiana bat hibernacula over that time period are down 95 percent.

Bats are predators and eat huge numbers of insects, which can be disease vectors. They eat mosquitoes, which can carry several diseases, including Zika. Some of the insects the bats are eating are pest species that damage crops in the state.

“Their simple presence can deter pest species from infesting crops,” Lewis said. “If you have bats working a field, you’re less likely to have insects that are going to eat the corn.”

Sharp said bats provide at least $3.7 billion in pest control service to agriculture annually in the U.S., according to a 2011 scientific study.

Lewis said human-bat interaction most often occurs at dusk and dawn, especially around street lights, but bats are active all night.

“Bats will sometimes take a nap in the middle of the night,” she said. “But they’re not roosting. They’re just getting a little rest before they go back out and eat more insects. The street lights attract insects, so it’s kind of like McDonald’s for the bats.”

Another area of concern for bat researchers and the public in general is the fact that bats can be rabies vectors. Lewis said this adds to the stigma of bats but that rabies does not appear to occur at a higher rate in bats compared to other wildlife. Sharp said rabies studies in bats showed infection rates of less than one percent in wild animals.

“But there’s an extremely important distinction,” she said. “When humans encounter a bat, they are not interacting with the regular population of bats. They are interacting with a bat that is acting extremely abnormally because bats avoid us.”

Sharp said rabies can be transmitted by a bite from an infected animal or by bat saliva entering an open wound. Sharp and Lewis said to seek immediate medical advice if you suspect contact with a bat resulted in either of those situations. If the bat is incapacitated or captured, take the animal to have it tested for rabies.

“If you’ve had contact with a bat, it’s highly advisable to have that bat tested because rabies is 100-percent fatal if symptoms appear,” she said. “It’s just not worth the risk. Anybody who works with bats at the Blitz has pre-exposure vaccinations. Anybody who hasn’t had vaccinations cannot touch a bat. We’re having fun, but we have real rules that we will not bend.”

One of the presenters at the Bat Blitz was Vicky Smith of A-to-Z animals in Auburn. Smith, who has taught thousands of school kids about bats and their role in our ecosystems, dispelled several myths associated with bats.

“One is ‘blind as a bat,’” Smith said. “Bats are not blind. Bats have tiny eyes, but we’ve actually discovered something about their echolocation, the way they use sound waves to locate the insects. What we found was that once they get close, they zoom in with their eyes on the insect. When they scoop it to their mouth with a wing or their tail membrane, they use their eyes for up-close work. Another myth about their eyes is that light hurts their eyes. That’s not true.”

Another myth is that bats will get tangled in your hair, especially folks with long hair.

“Bats will come close to you,” she said. “You are not a food source, but you have attracted their food source by breathing out carbon dioxide, which attracts mosquitoes and other bugs. If the bat echolocates and sees a buffet flying around your head, he’s going to fly to that buffet. They will fly quite close to you in the dark, and that can be quite scary. We believe that’s how that myth got started.”

A misconception is that a bat, which belongs to the order Chiroptera (winged mammal), is just a mouse with wings.

“Bats are not rodents,” Smith said. “They are about the same size, but a bat typically gives birth to one pup per year. A little mouse about the same size can give birth to about 144 babies per year. Another difference is tooth structure. The teeth in a bat are more like dogs’ and cats’ with large canines to crunch the exoskeletons of the insects.”

Although outreach and education are important, Lewis said the main goal of the Blitz is to catch as many bats as possible to assess the population in that area.

For Lewis, catching bats during the Bat Blitz is just a continuation of her infatuation with the species.

“I’ve been doing this for 20-something years,” Lewis said, “and I still love it.”

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

1 month ago

Black bears on the move in Alabama

(P. Hill/Auburn University)

When the photo popped up on my smartphone, I wasn’t sure what it was. Something was swimming in the south end of Mobile Bay, and I facetiously asked, “Killer whale?”

The reply came back, “Black bear.” I expanded the photo, and, yep, there was a telltale round, black ear. I knew this photo, taken by inshore fishing guide Patrick Hill, would go viral.

However, as rare as this sighting may be, this is not the first time it’s happened. About 20 or so years ago, a black bear swam the south end of Mobile Bay, hung out on the Eastern Shore a little while, and swam back to where he came from, probably headed toward a population of black bears in the Grand Bay area.

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Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Large Carnivore Coordinator Thomas Harms was not really surprised that a black bear took a shortcut recently, headed west from the Fort Morgan area.

“We have bear pictures from Orange Beach and Fort Morgan and the Weeks Bay area,” Harms said. “I think there is a corridor there. These bears sometimes just make a big loop.

“Bears are excellent swimmers. It was probably just a young male on the move.”

If anyone should see a bear, Harms said the main course of action is to remain calm and let the bear leave the area.

“There’s no need to freak out if you see a bear,” he said. “It’s kind of like my father taught me about chainsaws. He said don’t be scared of them but respect them. It’s the same thing with animals. If you’re scared of it, just like chainsaws, it has the potential to hurt you. With a bear, don’t fear it. When you see one, give it space and let it go away on its own.

“We’ve never had a bear attack in Alabama. It’s even rare in the states where the population densities of bears are much higher. Just give them space, and let them know you’re there. They don’t see very well and don’t hear very well. Say whatever you want to, just be loud and let them know you’re there. They will typically turn around and leave.”

Harms said the black bear males in Alabama can reach weights of 250-300 pounds and live to be 15-20 years old. Females usually weigh 150-200 pounds. Harms said the likely adult population of bears for the entire state is estimated at 300-400 animals. The population in northeast Alabama has a Georgia ancestry, while the southwest population has Florida roots.

He said a new small population has popped up in Conecuh National Forest in Escambia County.

“I’ve got pictures of a sow with cubs in Conecuh National Forest,” Harms said. “If you have a sow with cubs, you know you have a viable population of bears living there.”

Harms said the annual cycle for black bears starts in February when the sows drop their cubs. In April and May, the males start expanding their home range first, followed by the females with the yearling cubs. The year-old females will settle on the fringes of the mother’s home range, but the yearling males are run completely out of the area, which is when the bulk of the human contact occurs.

“These young males get pushed out by their mothers, and then they get pushed even farther by the adult males,” Harms said. “These males are young and dumb. If they detect a dominant male, usually by smell, they’ll keep moving until they find a place where they don’t detect any other males. These are typically the ones that get turned around and into the suburbs and cities.

“The bulk of the calls we get this time of year is these young males passing through people’s yards in downtown Birmingham. It happens every year. We had one in downtown Daphne. One went from Georgia, through Alabama, all the way to Mississippi. That bear may stay there, but it could turn around and come back.”

Right now, June and July is the breeding season for Alabama bears, which means the adult males will be on the move.

“The large adult males are looking around for receptive females this time of year,” Harms said. “June and July is when the adult males are moving the most. The home range for an adult male can be up to 59 square miles, depending on the habitat. For females, the home range is about 20 square miles.

“Habitat in the southwest part of the state is a lot better, which makes the home range smaller than in northeast Alabama. It’s just the type of habitat. You go from mountainous habitat in the northeast to bottomlands in the southwest with tons of fruits, berries and vegetation. The bears live in the bottomlands and use them for corridors. They go to the uplands to eat. But they’re never too far from water. In the southwest, they don’t have to go too far to the next drainage. In the northeast, they may have to cross a mountain. They have to go much longer distances to get the same benefits.”

Harms said the bears in Alabama have a 94-percent vegetarian diet. Because Alabama does not have harsh winters, the bears can thrive with much less protein in the diet. He said bears are opportunistic meat eaters if they stumble onto a whitetail fawn or surprise a rabbit.

“Bears can’t chase down a rabbit, and once a fawn is able to get up and run, the bear can’t chase it down,” he said. “Bears can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour, but only for very short distances. They are not very good predators. They will take advantage of any dead animals they come across, sometimes called carrion. Deer that succumb to the rigors of winter and the rut often become the main course for a lucky bear.”

Harms said bears in Alabama don’t really hibernate. During the few cold days of winter, he said bears will do like humans and stay inside, sleeping in their dens until the weather warms up again. The bears have put on the fat for the winter and rarely travel far from the den area until spring.

In areas where known bear ranges are adjacent to suburban subdivisions, Harms said homeowners need to make sure they don’t entice the bears to venture onto their property.

“In some of these subdivisions, people like to put up feeders so they can watch wildlife, like deer,” he said. “But there is a danger of bringing a bear near your house. You need to make sure that feeder is a few hundred yards away from the house. Make sure the bears can’t get to dog food or anything like that. If a bear constantly comes close to a house, it’s going to lose that fear of humans. Most bear attacks happen with bears that have lost their fear of humans. We need to avoid that.”

In instances when it’s not practical to keep food sources from the bears, Harms suggests using hot-wire fencing to deter the bears. Dogs bred to be guard dogs can also help keep bears at bay.

“But, you don’t want a dog that will chase the bear,” Harms said. “The dog will eventually catch up with the bear and may end up getting hurt when the bear turns around to defend itself.”

Harms said there is a common myth a bear will stand on its hind legs before attacking.

“The only reason bears get on their hind legs is to get their noses high in the air so they can smell you,” he said.

Harms said anyone with an interest in black bears can visit this link. The website is supported by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA). The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is a member of SEAFWA.

“The Bearwise website is a very good resource,” Harms said. “Any questions you have about black bears will be answered on that website.”

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

2 months ago

Gulf State Park Interpretive Center, Pedestrian Bridge open

(David Rainer)

A glimpse of the rebirth of Gulf State Park’s beachside facilities was revealed by Gov. Kay Ivey last week during an unveiling of the park’s Interpretive Center and East Pedestrian Bridge.

Gov. Ivey, Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship and other dignitaries cut the ribbon to the entrance of the Interpretive Center and Pedestrian Bridge, two significant parts of the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project located adjacent to the park’s Beach Pavilion.

As work continues to restore the facilities that were basically wiped out by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the much-anticipated Lodge and Conference Center are expected to open in late fall of this year.

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Blankenship said last week’s dedication was the first of many events that will occur at Gulf State Park to reveal the additions and renovations to this cherished area on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“I’m sure you have very special memories of your experiences here at Gulf State Park,” Blankenship said. “This is a very special place to me. I’m proud to be the Commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and oversee all our great state parks, including Gulf State Park. That’s one of the highlights of my job.

“I’ve been coming here since I was 3 years old, when we moved to Mobile from north Alabama. I have such great memories of the campground, the beach, the old pavilion and the old lodge and conference center. This is a great place. My daughter was married right out here on the beach. But this park is more than just the beach. At Gulf State Park, we have dunes, lakes, marshes, maritime forests, uplands, pine tree groves, oak bottoms, deer, raccoons, alligators, beach mice, insects like butterflies, and birds of all kinds, including birds of prey.”

In addition to the cabins and cottages, Blankenship listed the activities at Gulf State Park, including camping, hiking, biking, walking, swimming, fishing, boating, crabbing, birding, shelling, golfing, nature education, family gatherings and just relaxing.

For Gov. Ivey, that special status extends the length of the state.

“Alabama is indeed a special place we call home,” Gov. Ivey said. “From the Tennessee Valley, we have the beautiful mountains. In Birmingham, we have world-class food. We see the speed of the race cars at Talladega, and on down to the beautiful waters of the Gulf Coast.

“Let’s be honest. On a day like today, this is where everybody wants to be – in Gulf Shores. There’s no other place on the Gulf Coast that is more perfect and beautiful. That’s the reason we want to protect and continue to grow this part of our state.”

Ivey explained why the Interpretive Center and the East Pedestrian Bridge are crucial parts of the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project.

“Both are important to the public’s access to Gulf State Park and to cementing Gulf State Park as a world-class facility and premiere tourist destination on the Gulf Coast,” Ivey said. “The Interpretive Center will be the launching point for the 28 miles of trails in the park. The Interpretive Center will have a variety of interactive exhibits telling the story of the natural history of this part of the state and how our ecology has evolved over time.

“The Pedestrian Bridge will be one of two bridges here. Visitors and citizens alike have told us loud and clear that we must make it possible to have a safe passage through this beautiful property. The new bridge will provide safe crossing over the East Beach Boulevard and serve as an entrance for the neighbors in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.”

Ivey said the environmentally sensitive aspects of the buildings and facilities at Gulf State Park set an example for sustainable tourism throughout the world.

Bill Bennett of Valor Hospitality, which is under contract to operate the new additions at Gulf State Park, said the sustainable aspects of the projects will generate about five percent more power and water than what the facilities need to operate. The Interpretive Center has been certified as a Living Building, passing the most rigorous certification process in the world.

“The building is made from materials that are safe for the planet, safe for the people and are all sourced here,” Bennett said. “The Living Building designation is very significant. In January of 2018, there were only 16 Living Buildings in the entire world, and we’re lucky to have one here on the Gulf Coast of Alabama.”

Matt Leavell, a member of the Gulf State Park Project Development Team at the University of Alabama, said the team faced two hurdles in designing the Interpretive Center, which will include an open-air porch with interpretive exhibits that outline the nine different ecologies present at the park, a multi-use room for education and community events, restroom facilities, bike parking and amphitheater seating. At ground level, visitors can enjoy a water play exhibit and sky-viewing benches.

“The challenge was how do you make this international benchmark (Living Building) and introduce people to everything, not just the beaches,” Leavell said. “Those two challenges caused us the minimize the footprint. We set the building back as far as we could. We worked with a team of scientists to determine how these dunes move and want to grow. Then we created this multi-use space where the community can come and hold events, and we can show them how they can build in the coastal environment. They also get to learn about the park through the interpretive exhibits. The entire park is meant to be educational. That’s part of the park’s mission statement.

“The Interpretive Center is a gateway to the entire Park, physically with the bridge and then educationally with the interpretive displays and activities.”

The facilities will also fill a need on the Alabama Gulf Coast that has gone unfulfilled for the past 14 years.

“More than 20 years ago, Mercedes was a game-changer for the auto manufacturing industry in Alabama,” Gov. Ivey said. “These enhancements we’re looking at today to Alabama’s Gulf will be a game-changer for tourism in our state. With Gulf State Park, we’ll keep conferences here in Alabama. Folks won’t have to go to Florida or elsewhere. They’ll stay right here in Alabama. This facility is going to attract visitors from around the world.”

Gov. Ivey said she joined Lee Sentell, Alabama’s Tourism Director, earlier in the week to talk about the good news in the Alabama tourism industry, which grew by seven percent in 2017. Gov. Ivey said for the first time, Alabama had more than 26 million visitors, an increase of 810,000 over 2016. That translated into an economic boost of $1 billion for a total economic impact from tourism of $14.3 billion. That economic expansion included 7,000 new jobs in the travel industry, which now employs 187,000 in Alabama.

“With these improvements, Gulf State Park will truly be a world-class facility and the crown jewel of Alabama’s tourism,” Gov. Ivey said. “I’m proud to lead a state that has so much to offer our visitors. People from around the world want to experience what we have here in Sweet Home Alabama.”

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

2 months ago

CAB discusses snapper, CWD and turkeys

(David Rainer)

Three species – red snapper, Eastern wild turkeys and white-tailed deer – dominated the discussion at the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board (CAB) Meeting last weekend in Tuscaloosa.

With the red snapper recreational season opening on June 1, Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), thanked Marine Resources and other proponents of a longer red snapper season for Alabama’s potential 47 days of fishing for the state’s most popular reef fish.

“The Gulf states were granted exempted fishing permits to be able to manage the red snapper fishery, recreationally, off our coast,” Blankenship said. “That was done primarily because of good work by Sen. (Richard) Shelby that included language in legislation that allowed the permits. The exempted fishing permits were worked on by Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon and Kevin Anson, our chief biologist at Marine Resources. Our state (private recreational) season will be Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, starting June 1 and that runs through Labor Day. It will also include the whole week of the Fourth of July. That ends up being 47 days. It could be longer if we have bad weather and the catch is reduced, or it could be shortened by a few days if our catch is above what we are projecting. I do want to commend Scott and Marine Resources for getting that done in a short period of time to be approved by NOAA Fisheries for this year. We will also manage that fishery next year.”

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Alabama’s charter fleet remains under federal jurisdiction. The charter season is set for June 1 through July 21.

Bannon explained after the meeting that one of the reasons the exempted fishing permits were approved is the Alabama Red Snapper Reporting System, more commonly known as Snapper Check. The system requires anglers who land red snapper in Alabama to report their catches before the fish are removed from the vessels. Anglers have three ways to report catches: the Outdoor AL app for smartphones, online or by paper reporting forms at select public boat ramps.

The Outdoor AL app has been totally revamped for the 2018 season. The Pocket Ranger app previously used is no longer viable. The new Outdoor AL app must be downloaded onto your smartphone.

“The new Snapper Check will have an offline function, which had been requested by the fishing community so they can submit their report even when they don’t have a cell signal,” Bannon said. “When they do get a cell signal, the system will automatically upload their snapper report. This eliminates any excuse not to report. You can report anywhere. You can report as soon as you catch your fish offshore, or you can report before you remove the snapper from your boat upon landing. We are excited about that portion of it.”

Bannon said anglers still are required to report their snapper catches even if they interacted with Marine Resources personnel.

“Being surveyed by the Marine Resources biological staff at the boat ramp is not considered reporting your fish,” he said. “Additionally, if anglers have been interviewed by enforcement, either stopped while underway or checked at the boat ramp, that is not considered reporting either. You still must report your catch.

“The new Outdoor AL app will also have a tab to review your snapper reports for the year.”

Snapper Check will require the number of red snapper caught and retained. Other questions include where the fish were landed, Mobile or Baldwin County, whether the boat landed at a private or public access point, whether the boat is a charter or private recreational vessel, how many anglers were on the boat and how many dead discards were observed during the fishing day. Dead discards are red snapper that are caught and released and do not survive.

“Dead discards are in the management plan,” Bannon said. “The feds account for that, and Marine Resources accounts for that to give us the data point for fish mortality.”

New this year is the ability for anglers to report their catches of gray triggerfish and greater amberjack.

“Triggerfish and amberjack are two hot topics,” Bannon said. “They are highly desirable species. There are pending changes in the management of amberjack, and we made some changes to triggerfish. We would like to gather more real data on what fish are being landed in Alabama.”

The gray triggerfish limit was reduced to one fish per person with a minimum size of 15 inches fork length. The amberjack limit is one per person with a minimum size of 34 inches fork length.

Amberjack and triggerfish seasons close on June 1 and are scheduled to reopen on August 1.

In wildlife news, a significant threat to Alabama’s deer hunting tradition occurred last season when a 4½-year-old buck in west-central Mississippi tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), which is always fatal. Mississippi has tested more than 1,400 deer since October 2017 and no other animals have been detected with CWD. Louisiana has also conducted extensive testing inside the 25-mile CWD containment zone, which crosses the Mississippi River, and none of those animals have tested positive for CWD.

Since that positive test, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) officials have been working rapidly to update the plan to deal with CWD if necessary.

“I’m happy to report we have finished the revision to our surveillance and response plan for chronic wasting disease as to what we would do and how we would respond if CWD were ever discovered here,” Blankenship said. “There was a lot of great work by Keith (Gauldin, Wildlife Section Chief), other people in the Wildlife Section, along with people in our Enforcement Section. Our staff has also researched what was happening around the country to help us put a plan together to take the best and most relevant science to ensure our state is ready, one, to keep it out of our state, and two, that we are ready to respond in the unfortunate case that CWD is detected in Alabama.”

The updated response plan is available online. Type chronic in the search box to pull up the link to “Chronic Wasting Disease – What You Should Know.”

Agriculture and Industries Commissioner John McMillan, who sits as an ex-officio member on the Advisory Board, said the CWD testing equipment that was recently purchased with funds provided by WFF has been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The technician tasked with operating the equipment, which can test up to 90 samples per day, has also been certified.

“Now we are no longer dependent on anybody to get those tissue samples tested,” Blankenship said. “We are self-contained in Alabama. We don’t have to wait on anybody. We take our samples to the Department of Agriculture lab at Auburn University. We will get those test results quickly and be able to respond as soon as possible. I appreciate the partnership with the Department of Agriculture as well as the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to make sure we have a robust response plan.”

WFF Director Chuck Sykes highlighted the potential devastating effects CWD could have on Alabama. Sykes has been traveling around the state to speak at seminars hosted by ALFA (Alabama Farmer’s Federation) and the Alabama Treasure Forest Association. The next seminar is scheduled for Monroeville on May 29 and another is set for Tuscaloosa on June 7.

“We’re not trying to scare people to death,” Sykes said. “We want them to be informed that this is a serious issue. I don’t want to pour water on anybody’s issues here, but dog hunting, baiting, night hunting, poaching, all of that pales in comparison to problems we’re going to have if CWD ever gets in the state. As Commissioner McMillan says, we all need to band together. This is not a dog hunter issue or a private landowner issue. This is a hunter issue. I encourage your friends, families and hunting partners to come to one of the seminars and listen and ask questions.

“Misinformation is running rampant out there right now. We need to get the right information out there.”

CAB member Jessica Butler of Scottsboro introduced motions that would change turkey season for the 2018 fall and 2019 spring turkey seasons. Butler’s first motion proposed a change to the starting date of the spring season from March 15 to the third Saturday in March, which could range from March 15 to March 21. After discussion, the Board passed the motion.

Butler’s second motion to reduce the season bag limit from five birds to four led to considerable debate among the Board members. At the conclusion of the discussion, the Board voted down the reduced bag limit by a 7-4 margin.

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

2 months ago

Alabama hunters report increase in turkey harvest

(C. Sykes)

The Game Check numbers from the recently completed wild turkey season are in, and a slight uptick in hunter success was indicated.

According to Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes, those numbers need to be viewed with caution. Last year, hunters reported the harvest of 9,177 turkeys through the mandatory Game Check system. This year, the harvest reported was 9,628 birds.

“Statistically, that’s not a big difference,” Sykes said. “That’s not the number of turkeys that were killed in Alabama. That’s the number that were reported. I think about three times that amount were killed both years.

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“Last year, we estimated about 40-percent compliance with Game Check. This year, some of our estimates are up around 65 percent. So, it depends on which guesstimate you want to go with. If it’s 40 percent, we’ve probably got plenty of turkeys. If it’s 65 percent, then, yes, we have a problem. And we won’t know until we get better compliance. For every call I get that says we don’t have any turkeys, I get another call that says it’s the best season they’ve ever had. Until we get concrete numbers, we have to do the best we can.”

Sykes, who was a professional hunting guide early in his conservation career, said his turkey season fit into that latter category of success.

“I had the best season I’ve had since I became director,” he said. “When we talked earlier in the season, I predicted the last two weeks of the season would be good. That’s exactly what happened. We burned them up the last two weeks.”

But that didn’t mean the season was typical for Sykes and his hunting partners. He said turkeys weren’t in their usual hangouts, which meant they had to cover a great deal of territory to find the turkeys.

“Last year, the first two weeks of the season couldn’t have been any better,” he said. “The last two weeks, I couldn’t buy a turkey. This year, the first two weeks were tough, but, as predicted, the last two weeks were great. Turkeys didn’t gobble good. There were still turkey tracks, and we found turkeys in places where we hadn’t found them before. You just had to get out and hunt them.”

Sykes said his turkey season diary from last year indicated that during the 16 days he hunted in March there were nine turkeys killed and three missed. The 20 days he hunted last year in April resulted in one kill and two misses. This year, Sykes hunted 13 days in March with five turkeys killed. In April, he hunted 19 days with seven turkeys harvested and a whopping five missed. Sykes said his days hunted often included hunting from 6-7:30 in the morning before he headed to the office or 6-7:30 in the evening.

“I have averaged a turkey being shot at every 2.3 days for the past 10 to 15 years,” Sykes said. “This year, that average was 1.8. Last year, during the month of April, I hunted bits and pieces of 20 days. I had one turkey killed. This year, that last 10 days I went to the woods, we just about shot at a turkey every day.

“I know I’m not the norm. I talked to some people who killed their limit (five per person per year) in March, and I know guys who didn’t kill a bird this year. It’s all site specific.”

In the Southeast, concerns that turkey populations are declining prompted WFF to contract with Auburn University for a five-year study on turkeys. This was the fourth year of the study.

WFF also enlisted a number of dedicated turkey hunters to participate in the Avid Turkey Hunters Program to report turkey activity witnessed in the field. The results are reported annually in the “Full Fans and Sharp Spurs” publication. Go to this link to read the report.

“Looking at ‘Full Fans and Sharp Spurs,’ our recruitment is not what it should be,” Sykes said. “The number of poults per hen is not where we want it, and the number of hens with no poults at all is definitely a lot higher than we want.”

Sykes said he heard the talk that ‘turkeys were gone’ four years ago. But when he looked at his hunting records, the turkey harvest was the same that year and this year.

“Numbers may be down, but I attribute the numbers being down where I used to have turkey to habitat changes,” he said. “Places that have stayed pastures and ag fields that I hunt, nothing has really changed around it, and the turkeys are fairly constant. But on our place outside Butler, 10 years ago we’d kill a couple a year on that 200 acres. I haven’t killed a turkey off that place since you and I went because we cut a bunch of mature timber, and longleafs are in their early stages of growth. I’m not saying the turkeys disappeared. I know why the turkeys aren’t there. The habitat changed. But in a couple of years when the habitat is back right, we’ll have turkeys again.”

Factors in turkey population changes include urbanization, unmanaged timber and predator numbers as well as the number of hunters who pursue turkeys these days.

“A lot of things have changed with hunters,” Sykes said. “You’ve got shotguns now that will kill a turkey at 70 yards. You’ve got decoys and pop-up blinds.

“There’s a big difference between turkey hunters and people who hunt turkeys. Turkey hunters can kill turkeys whether they’re gobbling or not, whether weather conditions are great or not. People who hunt turkeys can’t. Therefore, there is a perceived problem. I’m not saying that’s bad. We want more hunters. But sticking a decoy and a pop-up blind up in a food plot, that’s hunting turkeys, not being a turkey hunter.”

Sykes thinks that added pressure has resulted in a decrease in gobbling. He sees the evidence in tracks that the turkeys haven’t gone anywhere, but some hunters mistakenly surmise there aren’t any turkeys around when the birds don’t gobble.

“I hunted places this year where we’d go one day and hear eight turkeys,” he said. “Then it may be two weeks before you heard a turkey gobble again. That didn’t mean all of them died. It didn’t mean all of them packed up and left. For whatever reason, they didn’t gobble. Seriously, a lot of the turkeys we killed this year didn’t gobble but two or three times.

“Or, you get an old turkey on a hunting club that’s been shot at two or three times and spooked two or three times. He’s got every turkey in the area beat down where they won’t gobble. You’re not going to kill them. You can’t kill him without basically deer-hunting him. So, if you don’t kill him, you’re not going to have gobbling turkeys on that place. It doesn’t mean they’re gone. They’re just not vocal because of the hunting pressure and one old turkey.”

Back to the Game Check numbers, Jackson County in northeast Alabama led the way again in the number of turkeys reported killed with 340. The other counties with the highest harvests reported include Barbour, Dallas, Coosa and Pickens.

“I hunted Jackson County for one day for 30 minutes and called up a big one, so I’m not surprised,” Sykes said. “I probably hunted seven or eight counties this spring. How the hunts turned out depended on the day and where we were.”

Sykes said his hunting parties took a majority of older-age-class birds this year. Out of the 12 birds that Sykes witnessed being harvested, only two were 2-year-old birds. The other birds were 3- and 4-year-olds.

“And I saw quite a few jakes (year-old gobblers) this year,” he said. “That is encouraging.”

Sykes also got to introduce a colleague to the sport of turkey hunting. He took Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship, whose background is in marine fisheries, on his first turkey hunt.

“Chris lives a charmed life,” Sykes said. “He deer-hunted one afternoon last year and killed a 200-pound, seven-point that he got mounted. He wanted to go turkey hunting. I took him to a good place, and within 45 minutes of his first hunt, he harvested a good, 3-year-old bird. Granted, he takes direction well. He listened and did everything he needed to do. He killed his first turkey with a brand-new gun he had bought just for this hunt. So, we are creating hunters and creating people who support conservation by buying guns and ammunition.

“I applaud him for taking up something new. Being a fish guy, this was completely outside his comfort zone, and he did very well.”

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

Rehabilitated bald eagles released in Alabama

(D. Rainer, B. Pope)

Far from what today’s crowd calls civilization, Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship gained a new appreciation for America’s symbol of greatness.

Blankenship had the honor to release a rehabilitated bald eagle into the wild at the Uchee Creek Special Opportunity Area (SOA) in rural Russell County.

“Holding the eagle, I could tell she was ready to go and get back into the wild and enjoy life again,” Blankenship said after launching the immature eagle into the air. “Seeing the length of those talons and feeling the strength of her legs, it was really a little bit surprising how strong that eagle was.

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“The nongame wildlife work we do, including raptors and birds like this, is very important to the Department of Conservation and the community. People are fascinated with hawks, kestrels and raptors of all kinds, eagles particularly. For us to be able to work with Auburn University and other rehabbers around the state and see those birds come back from injuries and be released back into the wild, that is extremely rewarding for us at the Department of Conservation.”

The released bald eagle was rehabilitated at the Southeastern Raptor Center, a part of Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The immature eagle was found in Lee County with a broken wing. Once at the Southeastern Raptor Center, X-rays revealed the bird had been shot. Multiple small shot were evident in the X-ray, and one piece of bird shot had broken the metacarpus in the bird’s left wing.

“The bird was picked up in 2016 near Smith’s Station,” said Carrie Threadgill, nongame biologist with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. “Auburn had the eagle for more than 500 days to rehabilitate it. The eagle has passed its flight test and should be good to go.”

Marianne Hudson, who joined Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries as Conservation Outreach Specialist after a stint at Auburn’s raptor center, said the rehabilitators follow a specific protocol to get the birds ready to be released.

“Since the eagle came in with a broken wing, first it goes through treatment for that injury,” Hudson said. “The wing was splinted. As it healed, it was allowed more and more exercise and rehabilitation. The Southeastern Raptor Center has large flight enclosures to allow natural movements. The flight enclosures also have turns in them so that the eagle can maneuver in different directions.

“Between now and the time it was first discovered in December of 2016, this eagle has built up enough strength, stamina and muscle mass to completely pass its flight evaluation.”

Hudson said Dr. Seth Oster, one of the veterinarians at Auburn, oversees the flight evaluation and determines when a bird can be released.

“Dr. Oster and his staff evaluated the eagle’s takeoff, landing, perching ability and maneuverability,” Hudson said. “Dr. Oster has deemed this eagle recovered well enough for release.”

Hudson said there is no fear that the eagles and other raptors that are rehabilitated will become too accustomed to humans.

“These eagles are not handled,” she said. “They are just as wild as they were the day they came in. The eagles are not tamed at all. They are afraid of people. It will be able to resume a normal eagle life.”

The Uchee Creek eagle was the first of two birds to be released within a week in Alabama. The second bird was released five days later at Cedar Creek SOA in Dallas County.

The Cedar Creek eagle also had a broken wing but the cause is unknown. This bird was found injured in Camden, not far from the Cedar Creek SOA.

“Both of these birds were released close to their points of origin,” Hudson said.

The Cedar Creek eagle arrived at the raptor center with numerous problems, including a broken radius and ulna in the right wing. It was also emaciated, suffering from conjunctivitis and had lice. However, the immature eagle responded quickly to treatment and was released after 229 days in rehab. These birds are considered immature because, although they have reached full size and strength, they have not yet attained the adult white head and tail plumage. This means the eagles are less than 5 years old.

Threadgill said another rehabilitated eagle will be released at Weiss Lake in northeast Alabama later this year.

“Because of the efforts of the nongame program with the eagle reintroduction that started in the 1980s, the rehabilitators, like the Southeastern Raptor Center, are seeing more eagles brought in each year,” she said. “Hunters, such as the ones hunting on the SOAs, are the reason we were able to fund the eagle reintroduction program. With the fees we get through our license sales, we have been able to reintroduce eagles throughout the state. Now eagles are found in every county in Alabama. We have sightings of eagles in every county, and we have records of nesting in most counties, if not all.”

Although there are two species of eagles in the lower 48 states, golden eagle and bald eagle, the vast majority of eagles seen in Alabama are bald eagles.

“All of the eagles that are actually nesting and are found in Alabama in the spring and summer are bald eagles,” Threadgill said. “We only see golden eagles in the wintertime when they are coming down from Canada. Golden eagles nest in Canada, but we do have golden eagle surveys on some of our WMAs (wildlife management areas) and some of our other partner lands. We get game-camera pictures of eagles every year. We do have a winter population of golden eagles that we didn’t know about until we started the game-camera surveys.”

Should anyone discover an injured eagle or other bird of prey, a licensed rehabilitator should be contacted immediately, according to Hudson.

“There are a handful of federally licensed bird rehabilitators in Alabama,” Hudson said. “It is a volunteer program that takes both federal and state permits to rehabilitate migratory birds, including bald eagles.”

Hudson said to go online and check the list for rehabbers who accept migratory birds.

Although the person who shot the Uchee Creek eagle has not been found, anyone who harms a raptor of any kind can end up in big trouble.

“Raptors are protected by state and federal laws,” Hudson said. “To injure one is a federal offense. The penalties are severe.”

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

Red snapper recreational seasons open June 1

(David Rainer)

The 2018 red snapper seasons for private recreational anglers and the charter fleet are finally set. Well, maybe.

The recreational for-hire (federally permitted charter boats) sector season is definitely set. It will start on June 1 and run through July 21.

The private recreational season (private-vessel anglers and anglers on state-licensed guide boats) is currently scheduled for 47 days, also starting on June 1. The private recreational season will be on weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) through and including Labor Day. The full 4th of July week is included as well.

However, a caveat is included in the private angler season, according to Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director Scott Bannon. The harvest of red snapper will be closely monitored through the Red Snapper Reporting System, better known as Snapper Check, and the rate of harvest will actually determine how many days the private angler season will be open.

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NOAA Fisheries granted the Gulf of Mexico states exempted fishing permits (EFPs) for private recreational anglers for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. A request from NOAA Fisheries for approval of the EFPs was that the federal charter boats not be included. Louisiana and Texas originally planned to include charters in their EFPs but relented and removed them to get the EFPs finalized.

“Now the EFPs are for private anglers only,” Bannon said. “That means for Alabama, there is a potential 47-day season. We have to keep the word potential in there. We have about 985,000 pounds of red snapper in Alabama’s EFP quota. We get to pick how we fish that amount. Based on our average daily harvest level last year, when we had 42 days, we should get through the 47-day season. If the weather is good and the effort is high, it may end a little early. If there are bad weather days and anomalies and the daily harvest rate is lower than last year, we could extend the season.”

The reason Alabama’s private angler season is flexible is because of Snapper Check, which allows Marine Resources to closely monitor the effort and catch rate during the season. The MRD biological staff will compile the data from Snapper Check to keep tabs on the season.

“With Snapper Check, we will be monitoring the harvest weekly,” Bannon said. “Our staff will pull that Snapper Check data, and we’ll meet mid-week to review the estimate of each weekend’s harvest. We will have a good idea of how it’s progressing through the season. If the weather is windy or stormy and the effort drops, we won’t necessarily lose those days or lose those snapper.

“That was the challenge before. If you had a weather system sitting on an area and anglers didn’t get to fish, that was a lost opportunity. Now we don’t lose that opportunity. Under the EFP, we are able to add days to the season if there are enough pounds remaining in the quota.”

The new Outdoor Alabama app, which includes Snapper Check, will be unveiled after wild turkey season ends on April 30. The new version, which replaces the current Snapper Check app, will require a download from the appropriate app store. New features are included in the new app. Red snapper, which has a mandatory reporting requirement, was the only harvest report available in the old version of Snapper Check. In the new app, anglers have the option to voluntarily report the harvest of gray triggerfish and greater amberjack. The charter community asked Marine Resources to add those two species to Snapper Check to improve harvest monitoring for those species.

Also new for the latest Snapper Check app is the ability for vessel owners to log into Snapper Check and view the reports they have submitted during the calendar year. The landings report will also include the information submitted for triggerfish and amberjack.

To access this feature, vessel owners must call the Marine Resources Division at (251) 968-9702 and leave a message with specific identifying information. Owners of private vessels must provide their name as it appears on the vessel registration, vessel registration number (USCG documentation number or state registration number), and the Conservation ID number found on their Alabama saltwater fishing license.

Charter boat captains must leave a phone message containing their name as it appears on their vessel’s registration, their vessel identification number (USCG documentation number or state registration number), Vessel Seafood ID number located in the bottom section of their Alabama commercial party boat license paperwork, and their captain identification number (Merchant Mariner Credential Reference Number).

A few days after providing the account information, the vessel owner can go to the menu on the Snapper Check app and select the Vessel Landings Report tab and enter the required account login information. If the search is online, the vessel owner will click on the Vessel Landings Report tab located at the top of the page.

“Snapper Check is a critical tool in this,” Bannon said. “It keeps us from going over the amount we requested. Now that red snapper is no longer considered overfished, there is no payback in the following year’s quota, but we still need to show we are responsible to stay within the allocation. If the private anglers exceed their allowable catch, it will eventually affect the charter for-hire people. The charters have been underfishing their allocation slightly, so we don’t want one side adversely affecting another.”

Bannon said one part of the EFP is that state-licensed charter boats are only allowed to catch red snapper within the 9-mile state jurisdiction. Those boats are not allowed to harvest any fish in federal waters when they are on a charter.

Bannon said the public feedback on the proposed private angler season has been very positive.

“Most people like the three-day format,” he said. “We do realize that part of the population, and the state-licensed guides, would like to have one more weekday because of the turnover when people are visiting the coast. Most of the condos turn over on Saturday, which makes it difficult for them to accommodate this group.

“Once we look at the effort this year through the season, we may make some changes for 2019, based on feedback from the public.”

Speaking of triggerfish and greater amberjack, the triggerfish season is currently open. Amberjack season will reopen May 1. Both triggerfish and amberjack will be closed June 1 through July 31. Keep in mind that both species are managed under quotas and may close at any time during the open season if the quotas are met or are projected to be met.

MRD Chief Biologist Kevin Anson said a proposal to change the amberjack bag limit was discussed during last week’s Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in Biloxi, Miss.

“The council will be looking at potentially updating the bag limit on amberjack,” Anson said. “That’s an option the council will be looking at in the not-too-distant future. The bag limit would be a fractional bag limit with one fish per two anglers. There will also be some talk about refining the seasons, potentially setting hard quotas for the new fall and spring seasons.

“With amberjack not recovering, based on the best available science we have, we’re trying to look at ways to keep access to the fishery open as long as possible.”

Another fish of concern for the Gulf states is cobia, also known as ling or lemonfish.

“We will be looking at cobia,” Anson said. “We’ll be looking at catch rates and landings. There is a lot of concern that cobia numbers have plummeted, particularly in the Florida Panhandle during the spring run. One charter captain said during public testimony that only 18 fish have been landed in Destin (Fla.) cobia tournaments this year. That’s not many fish.”

As for the 2018 snapper season, Bannon said he is excited about the prospects.

“I think the EFP shows a potential new path forward for the Gulf states in the goal for state management of reef fish,” Bannon said. “We’re working on a red snapper state management plan through the Gulf Council process. First, we have to decide on allocation across the Gulf. The EFPs were at least a representation of how we can allocate the fish. We want a little more, but so does every other state.”

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

3 months ago

Alabama working to become a top dive destination

(Craig Newton)

Alabama already has the reputation as one of the best places in the nation to fish for saltwater species, especially red snapper.

Now, Alabama is striving to become one of the top destinations for divers to explore numerous wrecks, scuttled vessels and our state’s unparalleled artificial reef zones.

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The latest efforts to increase the awareness for dive enthusiasts occurred last week when the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) scuttled a 102-foot tugboat, the Gladys B, in the Tatum-Winn North reef zone approximately 22 nautical miles south of Fort Morgan in 100 feet of water. The superstructure of the vessel is about 62 feet below the surface. The Gladys B was built in 1937 and donated to the MRD Artificial Reef Program by Steiner’s Shipyard from Bayou la Batre. The reef site coordinates are 29 53.635’N and 87 56.071’W.

On the same trip, MRD deployed approximately 200 concrete culvert pipes to enhance the old Tulsa wreck and the Radmore Pipe Number 1 site about 15 miles south of Dauphin Island and to create a new reef site about 25 miles south of Fort Morgan.

The next steps in the plans to provide habitat close to shore that may also attract dive enthusiasts from all over the U.S. will occur offshore and within yards of the Alabama shoreline.

The nearshore project includes circalittoral reefs, sometimes also called snorkeling reefs, that can be reached from the sandy beaches.

Craig Newton, MRD’s Artificial Reefs Program Coordinator, said bids were opened for the circalittoral reefs at three Gulf State Park beach access sites.

At those three sites, 166 reef modules will be deployed to provide habitat for a wide variety of marine life.

“We’re going to create four clusters of reef modules within the three circalittoral reef zones,” Newton said. “We anticipate we will have more activity at the Pavilion reef site, so we’re going to create two independent clusters of reefs at the Pavilion site. We will have one cluster of reefs at the Perdido site and one cluster of reefs at the Romar site.”

Walter Marine of Orange Beach won the contract to deploy the modules in the new zones, and that should happen sometime this year, Newton said.

“We were able to secure some more funds for this project and make it significantly larger than what the original grant proposal covered,” Newton said. “We are excited about that.”

Newton said the reefs, which will be about 475 feet from the shoreline, will be marked by large pilings on the beach. There will be no markers in the water. Signage on the beach will describe the project and include information on what marine life snorkelers might encounter on the reefs.

The offshore project will be the deployment of the New Venture, a 250-foot surveying vessel, which will be ready for final inspection by May 2018. Newton said the original plans included towing the vessel to Mobile to wait on a weather window to deploy the ship. Those plans have changed. Now the vessel will be towed to Venice, La. When the weather allows, the New Venture will be towed straight to the deployment site about 20 nautical miles south of Orange Beach in about 120 feet of water. The top of the superstructure will be 55 to 60 feet below the surface.

“We look to be about a month away from completing the deployment,” Newton said. “We had some engineering models on how the ship was going to sink. We had to add a couple of bulkheads within the interior of the ship to direct water to keep the ship stable as it’s going down. We want to do all we can to make sure the ship lands upright. We don’t want it to roll over.”

Creation of 15 acres of juvenile reef fish habitat is also scheduled. Limestone aggregate rocks from 8 pounds to 50 pounds in size will be deployed. Each reef site will be about an acre in size.

“The goal is to create habitat for juvenile reef fish,” Newton said. “We feel like there is a significant potential for production from this project. Hopefully, we can grow a few more reef fish. The juvenile habitat sites will go inside one of the 9-mile reef zones that were approved earlier this year. The timeline for this construction is about the same as the circalittoral reefs.

“We know we’re going to get some subsidence (sinking into the seafloor) with these rocks. But if we can get a decent amount of production from these reefs to offset the subsidence, then we feel like the project will be worth it.”

Marine Resources is also in the middle of an ongoing project to deploy 120 Super Reefs in the offshore reef zones. Two deployment trips have been made this year.

With all this reef activity progressing, the dive operators in Mobile and Baldwin counties hope to capitalize on this activity to increase awareness of the opportunities off the Alabama coast.

Several dive operators and tourism officials met recently at Orange Beach to work on a strategy to do just that.

In 2013, the dive business got a significant boost when The LuLu was deployed off the Alabama coast with much fanfare. Less than 24 hours later, divers swarmed the 271-foot vessel resting in about 110 feet of water.

“When we do something special, like this New Venture, the awareness and excitement starts all over again,” said Bud Howard of Down Under Dive Shop in Gulf Shores. “Just like when we sunk The LuLu. It was like ‘Wow.’

“With New Venture, we’ll get more advanced divers, technical divers and wreck divers. The interest in the New Venture has been burning my web page up.”

Down Under, which has a multi-passenger dive boat, has already made plans to dive the New Venture each Wednesday and Saturday, when weather allows, as soon as it is reefed.

Gary Emerson of Gary’s Gulf Divers in Orange Beach can carry six divers, the same capacity as Chas Broughton’s Underwater Works in Fairhope. Gulf Coast Divers in Mobile sells and rents equipment and refers divers to boat operators.

Emerson said an information campaign needs to be started to apprise boaters of Alabama’s dive-flag law, which requires a floating red-striped flag to be deployed in the area of the diving and snorkeling activity. Boaters are required to stay at least 100 feet away from the area marked by the dive flag.

The dive-shop owners expressed interest in adding more reefs in water no deeper than 60 feet to allow dive shops to offer more opportunities for new divers to gain certification. Certification dives are limited to depths no greater than 60 feet.

“We need locations with different depths to appeal to a wide range of divers,” Howard said. “We have people from all over the Midwest who come to Alabama because this is the closest place to them for diving opportunities. These people spend a lot of money when they’re here. I do think the snorkeling reefs are really going to help.”

Vince Lucido of the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation echoed that last sentiment.

“When the snorkeling reefs get opened, that will be awesome,” Lucido said. “We’ll have access right off the beach.”

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

WATCH OUT: Disease-carrying ticks widespread across Alabama

(M. Finney)

As a turkey hunter, I am keenly aware of the threat posed by sneaking through the Alabama woods. And I’m not talking about the danger of encountering a member of the serpent family.

I’m talking about something much, much smaller but possibly just as harmful.

It’s the family of ticks that turkey hunters dread each spring, and the prevalence of disease-carrying ticks is becoming more evident each year.

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Emily Merritt, a research associate at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has been working on a project, with funding assistance provided from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program (Pittman-Robertson) through the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF), since 2015 to determine the species of ticks in Alabama and their ranges.

Merritt said a study on ticks and tick-related illnesses hadn’t been done since the early 1990s, and it was very limited in scope.

The study that started in 2015 was to update and expand that research to include field collection sites for ticks.

“We collected ticks once a month for a year,” Merritt said. “We were all over the state. We also worked with WFF wildlife biologists to collect ticks off of deer for all three years and with the USDA (Department of Agriculture) to get ticks off of raccoons for two years.”

The most commonly collected ticks included the Lone Star tick, the Gulf Coast tick, the black-legged tick (aka deer tick) and the American dog tick.

The Lone Star tick is the most common tick in Alabama and can transmit a host of diseases, including the alpha-gal red meat allergy, Southern rash disease (a Lyme-like illness), tick paralysis and spotted fever diseases that are closely related to Rocky Mountain spotted fever. A white dot in the middle of the tick’s back is the reason for the Lone Star name.

“We found that the Lone Star tick and the Gulf Coast tick are the most aggressive,” Merritt said. “They hunt down their prey. Some ticks sit and wait, but the Lone Star and Gulf Coast ticks will actively seek out hosts. Turkey hunters complain that when they’re hunting they can actually see ticks crawling to them. Usually, that’s the Lone Star tick. I’ve also heard it called the turkey tick.”

Merritt said the Lone Star tick is found primarily in hardwood stands, while the Gulf Coast tick, which is a little larger and transmits similar diseases, is found primarily in more open areas with shrubs.

“The Gulf Coast tick likes areas like new clear-cuts, and they are found in controlled burn areas,” she said. “These are harsh, hot environments where you don’t often find ticks, but the Gulf Coast tick loves it.”

The tick that has gained the most notoriety because of its association with Lyme disease is the black-legged tick.

“It is the main culprit for spreading Lyme disease, but it also can spread other illnesses, like anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis and tularemia,” Merritt said. “We find black-legged ticks equally in pine and hardwood stands.”

Merritt said the American dog tick also can transmit all the diseases associated with the other tick species.

“As the name implies, they bite dogs a lot,” she said. “We find them in people’s backyards, especially if they’ve got a nice, green lawn and a nearby wooded area. Obviously, people’s dogs are at risk. If their kids play in the backyard or if you’re gardening or landscaping in the yard, people can come in contact with the American dog tick.”

At one time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) insisted that Lyme disease was limited to the Northeast U.S., with a concentration of the disease around Lyme, Conn. In recent years, the presence of Lyme-like disease (Lyme borreliosis) has been acknowledged in Alabama.

“Lyme disease refers to one specific bacteria,” Merritt said. “Lyme borreliosis indicates there is a host of similarly related bacteria that cause illness in Alabama.

“Another thing we hear from doctors is there is no Rocky Mountain spotted fever here. That’s not true at all. The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) has been tracking this. The problem with the CDC and other health agencies is they don’t consider it much of an issue down here. But it definitely is an issue.”

In fact, a graphic from ADPH shows that spotted fever-type illnesses have skyrocketed in recent years compared to the other tick-related illnesses.

“People are getting sick from ticks down here,” Merritt said. “So it’s counterproductive for those agencies to say it’s rare. If you are an outdoors person your chances of coming in contact with these ticks is pretty decent. There is definitely a risk.

“One of the reasons I’m trying to get the word out, and when we publish our research (later this year), is we really need doctors to recognize that these tick-borne illnesses are here in Alabama.”

One aspect of Merritt’s research includes a survey conducted through the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The survey was sent to hunters and anglers to ask about their experiences, knowledge of and costs associated with ticks and tick-borne illnesses.

For those who spend time outdoors, Merritt said the project research found that the most effective deterrent for tick attachment is a spray that contains permethrin.

“You don’t apply it to your skin,” Merritt said. “You spray it on your clothes, boots, hats, socks, backpacks, basically any fabric. When I go camping, I spray my tents and tarps with it. Depending on what brand you get, it will last anywhere from two weeks or two washings to six weeks and six washings.

“More so than bug spray, we found that the products with permethrin significantly reduced the amount of ticks we encountered. It also works well on other biting insects like chiggers and mosquitoes.”

Although the likelihood of contact with ticks is higher during the warmer months, Merritt said the insects are active year-round in Alabama.

“Be on the lookout, not only on pets, but your children, your loved ones and yourself,” she said. “If you go outside, there is the potential to come in contact with ticks. When you come back inside, check your clothes and gear immediately to see if there are any crawling ticks on you, your pets or children. Then take it a step further and check your body thoroughly for ticks. If you need to use a mirror or a partner, do that. Ticks can hide in all sorts of areas that are hard to see.

“And the longer a tick is attached, the better the chances are to get a tick-borne illness if that tick is harboring that illness.”

If you do find a tick attached to your body, Merritt said don’t haphazardly try to remove the insect.

“Don’t try to pick it off with your fingers or burn it off with a match or anything like that,” she said. “Get tweezers and get as close to the skin as you possibly can. Firmly grasp the tick where it attached to your body and start pulling with steady, even pressure until it eventually releases. It might be uncomfortable and a little painful, but you want to get that tick off as soon as you can.”

Merritt said tick-borne illnesses may cause symptoms as early as a couple of days, but symptoms could also occur as late as a couple of months after the exposure.

“If you start to experience flu-like symptoms, like aches and pain, or you see an expanding red rash, sometimes spotted and sometimes circular, you need to see a doctor,” she said. “It’s normal for a bite to be red, but if you see an expanding rash or it seems to be spreading to other parts of your body, that’s a clear indication that you do have a tick-borne illness.”

Merritt said if the tick is found it can be saved for testing by taping it to an index card, placing it in a freezer bag and storing it in the freezer.

“But don’t wait for test results,” she said. “If you think you have a tick-borne illness, your doctor should go ahead and start treatment. For most tick-borne illnesses, that involves treatment with antibiotics. For tick paralysis, it’s removal of the tick. For the alpha-gal allergy there is no treatment. You just have to avoid eating red meat, and that’s terrible.”

For more information, go here or this website, the Alabama Lyme Disease Association’s website.

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

Mentored turkey hunt yields unforgettable results

(D. Rainer)

The fate of a turkey hunt’s outcome is indeed fickle. High-fives can be the celebratory conclusion just as easily as the dejected hunter’s incessant second-guessing of the tactics that caused the gobbler to walk away instead of strutting into range.

Chuck Sykes, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director, has been in both situations. Sometimes that fate varies daily. Sometimes it’s different segments of the season, and sometimes, it’s different years.

With a little less than a month left in the season for most parts of the state, Sykes said hunters have had mixed results.

“Some hunters are doing well; some are not,” Sykes said. “It depends on where you are in the state. Personally, I think the turkeys are a little behind for this time of the season as compared to previous seasons. Gobbling has been very poor for me. I’ve hunted quite a few days, and I’ve seen five turkeys die, so don’t be crying for me.

“It’s substandard for me compared to what it was last year, which gives me great hope that the end of the season is going to be really good. I just think that cold snap slowed things down a little bit. I know we had some cold weather last year, but there’s something just a little bit different this year.”

Sykes said last year’s opening few days started with lows in the 30s, but the turkeys were still “gobbling their brains out.”

“We even had a couple of mornings in the upper 20s, but we were killing turkeys,” he said. “They were working right. This year, turkeys are gobbling two or three times, hitting the ground, and it’s over with.”

Sykes said it appears the 2017 and 2018 seasons will be flipped in terms of turkey activity and hunting success.

“The first few weeks of the season last year couldn’t have been any better for me,” he said. “The last two or three weeks of the season couldn’t have been any worse.

“I’m anticipating, based on past experience, that during the last few weeks of the season, the gobbling should be better and turkeys should be working better. I think we’re going to have a good closing few weeks of the season.”

Although the overall season has been a disappointment for Sykes, one magical afternoon will be forever etched in his memory, and he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger.

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That hunt occurred on one of the WFF’s Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) during an Adult Mentored Hunting Program outing.

Sykes recruited his old hunting buddy Al Mattox to help guide during the hunt on the new Pine Barren SOA area. Charles Barrow of Ozark and Adam Arnold of Pelham were the lucky hunters who were randomly drawn for the hunt.

“Charles actually participated in one of the mentored deer hunts,” Sykes said. “He was lucky enough to get selected for the turkey hunt.”

Arnold, on the other hand, has been an avid shooter for years, including long-distance shooting and sporting clays, but had really never hunted.

“Adam is one of those guys who has been participating in the Pittman-Robertson Act program by buying guns and ammunition, but he hasn’t been buying a hunting license for us to be able to capture that money and bring it back to Alabama,” Sykes said of the excise tax levied on firearms, ammunition and hunting equipment. “So, this was a unique experience.

“His family didn’t hunt. I think he may have been dove hunting once or twice throughout his life, and that was it. His family and group of friends weren’t exposed to hunting, but he was introduced to shooting later in life.”

Sykes said Arnold is a very accomplished shot who has his own shotgun and extensive knowledge of firearms overall.

“The gun part of it was easy,” Sykes said. “The hunting portion, we had to do a lot of teaching. The way we handled it, my best hunting buddy, Al Mattox, was with me. Al got back from Afghanistan three weeks before the hunt and wanted to help. He had been serving a tour in Afghanistan for about nine or 10 months. Al and I have hunted together a long time.”

Sykes and Mattox came up with a plan to hunt as a four-man team with a primary shooter and a backup shooter.

“That way, during the heat of the action, whoever was with the secondary shooter could give them a play-by-play of what was going on, taking the pressure off of them,” Sykes said. “They weren’t worried about shooting. They were worried about learning. I could walk them through everything. I could explain what Al was doing with the primary shooter. Al could explain what I was doing with the backup shooter.”

What Sykes and Mattox didn’t anticipate was that by the end of the hunt there was a spent shell lying on the ground next to each hunter.

“It worked out really well,” Sykes said. “It just so happened, when everything came together, there were two mature birds and both were able to harvest their first birds.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience for those guys as well and Al and I as the mentors. It was a very emotional afternoon.”

Sykes said the unsuccessful morning hunt got the hunters prepared for the eventful afternoon session.

“It all worked out for the best,” he said. “During the morning hunt there was no gobbling, nothing. So, we got to teach them how to be still. We got to teach them how to pick a location when turkeys aren’t gobbling; how to look for tracks; how to look for sign. We taught them a bunch of the basics that morning.

“Right after lunch we went out, and on our first setup, I called in an extremely vocal hen. They were introduced to a live turkey at close range. They could use what we taught them that morning on camouflage and how to be still, when to move and when not to move.”

Mattox had done some scouting a few days before the hunt and found some gobblers in one area. Still, the hunters were on unfamiliar ground because WFF had just recently closed the purchase on the Pine Barren tract. Sykes and Mattox used aerial maps on their smartphones to survey for likely turkey hangouts.

“We actually found a hidden food plot and set up off the edge of it,” Sykes said. “Adam was the primary shooter. I was with Charles off to the side. We placed two hen decoys out in the field. I yelped on a box, and a turkey gobbled about 400 yards from us, kind of behind us. About 15 second later, I looked and saw two other gobblers in the hardwoods coming to us.

“Adam did really well. Al was talking him through everything. Charles and I were sitting back as spectators at that point. Adam and Al let the turkeys strut all the way by them, about 75 yards across the field at a distance of about 15 yards from the hunter.”

Al waited to give Adam the sign to shoot so that the turkeys would be in position for Charles to get a shot if the second turkey happened to hang around for a few seconds.

“When the turkeys got into a position where I knew Adam was ready, I called to them,” Sykes said. “The dominant bird gobbled. I was letting Adam and Al know it was time.”

Arnold fired and dropped his bird. Sykes then coached Barrow through the backup-shooter process.

“When turkeys are at 15 yards and there is a big boom, they don’t know where it came from,” Sykes said. “The turkey was walking in circles. I was cutting to him. The turkey didn’t know what to do. By the time the gobbler got his bearings, Charles was ready and made a good shot.

“It was an incredible hunt.”

Sykes fully expects similar scenarios to unfold on the Pine Barren SOA in Dallas County.

“It’s the most exciting piece of property I’ve been on that is public hunting,” Sykes said. “It’s part of the old Hit and Miss Lodge where Mossy Oak did a lot of their filming. The amount of game there is incredible.”

For those who haven’t had much luck this turkey season, Sykes said it’s time to regroup but never surrender.

“You’ve just got to keep going,” he said. “As my grandmother always told me, a bad beginning means it’s going to be a good ending, and I’m counting on it.”

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

4 months ago

David Rainer: Alabama leads way with artificial reef program

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Those who wonder why anglers off Alabama catch more than 30 percent of the red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico despite having only 53 miles of coastline should have attended the Red Snapper Conference in Mobile last week.

The key to Alabama’s phenomenal red snapper fishing is the more than 1,000 square miles just off the coast that are designated artificial reef zones.

During the day-long conference, numerous scientists and fisheries biologists discussed reef fish management, habitat requirements, red snapper and triggerfish recruitment and growth. All those components are tied to Alabama’s reef zones.

Craig Newton, Alabama Marine Resources Division’s Artificial Reefs Program Coordinator, provided those in attendance a comprehensive look at the state’s artificial reefs program, from its unofficial start to today’s highly regulated deployment protocols.

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Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship, formerly the Marine Resources Director, said Alabama has the largest artificial reef system in the country and has created noticeable improvements in the fishery.

“I went to work on a charter boat when I was 14 years old,” Blankenship said. “If we caught a red snapper that weighed 5 pounds, that was a big red snapper. If you caught one that weighed 10 pounds, you took a picture with it. If you caught one that weighed 20 pounds, your picture ended up in the paper and in the red snapper fishing hall of fame. That was a big fish.”

A massive reef-building program occurred after that, and anglers continue to enjoy the results of the widespread habitat enhancements.

“We build reefs with money from CIAP (Coastal Impact Assistance Program), Sport Fish Restoration and other sources,” Blankenship said. “Over the last few years, we’ve gotten money from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation from the Deepwater Horizon criminal fines, and we’ve built several hundred reefs with that money. We’ve created seven new reef zones within our 9-mile state waters boundary. We’ve built more than 30 inshore reefs. So, reef-building has been, and continues to be, extremely important to our state. Because of that, we have such a great red snapper fishery.”

Blankenship pointed out the extensive research being done in the Alabama reef zones by the University of South Alabama (USA), Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Auburn University.

“Dr. (Bob) Shipp is here today,” Blankenship said of the professor emeritus at USA’s Marine Sciences Department. “He was doing red snapper science before reef-fish research was in vogue. We’re blessed to have such great academics in the state to do this work.

“We’ve spent a lot of money and emphasis on red snapper research. We want not only to show we have the largest artificial reef system in the country. We also want to show how those reefs produce such a great fishery here in our state. Like I said, I remember what it was like to go out and catch small fish, a few fish. Now you can’t wet a hook without catching red snapper, big red snapper. The average weight of snapper in the charter fleet now is about 10 pounds. Having a robust reef fishery is extremely important to the economy of the state.”

Newton said the artificial reef story off Alabama started in 1953 when 200 car bodies were cabled together and deployed in two segments by the Orange Beach and Dauphin Island fishing communities. In 1961, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designated the “Snapper Banks” as the first artificial reef zones off Alabama.

The first deployment by the Conservation Department occurred when five 415-foot Liberty ships, known as the Ghost Fleet in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, were hauled offshore and sunk in 1974.

The Marine Resources Division (MRD) strategy then changed to creating artificial reef zones instead of individual reef sites. The Corps permitted the first reef zone of 364 square miles in 1978. This is the first area where individuals could deploy MRD-approved reef material.

“What’s unique about this is these privately deployed reefs remain unpublished,” Newton said.

The Hugh Swingle reef zone of 86 square miles followed before another expansion occurred in 1989 with another 245-square-mile reef zone. In a program called Reef-Ex, 100 M60 decommissioned battle tanks were thoroughly cleaned and deployed in the Gulf for reefs in 1993. The Corps granted another expansion in 1997 with a permit for 336 square miles for reef zones. MRD teamed with the Orange Beach Fishing Association on the Red Snapper World Championship from 2004 through 2007 to deploy about 1,000 artificial reefs.

Since then, the focus has moved to nearshore with a 1.6-square-mile zone permitted just inside the 3-mile state boundary.

The latest artificial reef zones were permitted last year. A total of 30 square miles inside the 9-mile boundary for reef fish management was approved after an arduous permitting process.

Newton said acquiring a permit for reef zones from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has grown increasingly more complex through the years.

“Historically, it was relatively easy to get a permit,” he said. “You outlined the size and goals of the reefs. Several months later you got a permit. Quite a few things have changed since then.”

Now a reef zone permit application must go to the Corps of Engineers and ADEM (Alabama Department of Environmental Management) for consideration. The application must include detailed construction techniques and methods as well as defined boundaries. A 30-day public comment period required by the Corps is followed by an additional 15-day comment period for ADEM.

Because these are federally authorized permits, they also fall under the National Historical Preservation Act, which is the costliest factor in the permitting process.

“We’re required to have a marine archeologist in all aspects of performing a Phase 1 archeological survey,” Newton said. “We have to use multiple remote sensing techniques. We have to use side-scan sonar, a magnetometer and a sub-bottom profiler to identify not only archeological resources exposed on the sea bed, but those below the sea bed as well.

“We also have to prove the project doesn’t harm threatened or endangered species or compromise the critical habitat. The entire permitting process now takes from 20 to 42 months.”

The material allowed for reef deployment has changed significantly over the years as well. White appliances, like washing machines and refrigerators, are no longer used because they do not provide long-term stable structures. Vehicles and anything fiberglass are also banned. Now, material made of concrete, steel and natural rock are allowed. Chicken transport devices are used as well as concrete pyramids and other structures constructed specifically to provide the best habitat for reef fish.

The Rigs to Reefs program takes advantage of the federal “Idle Iron” regulations, which require oil and gas structures to be removed within five years of the last date of production. The reef program takes obsolete petroleum platforms and uses the structures for reefs.

“We have a diverse assemblage of reef types in our reef zones,” Newton said. “We have 1,282 reefs deployed by the state that are published in our reef program. What makes our reef zones unique is we have the permitted authorization to authorize the public to build their own reefs and the locations remain unpublished.

“We estimate there are more than 10,000 reefs off the shore of Alabama. About 12 percent of those structures are public reefs.”

Newton said about 42 percent of the reef structures are in the zones that have depths from 60 to 120 feet. About 28 percent of the reefs are in depths of 120 to 180 feet. Only 4 percent are deeper than 180 feet.

“What’s really important, you look at relative contribution of these artificial structures in deeper water,” he said. “We have very little natural bottom, natural rock, offshore of Alabama. The natural reefs we do have occur in these deeper waters. This aligns with our goals of avoiding natural reefs when we are deploying artificial reefs.”

Newton said a downward trend in reef deployment by the public coincides with the reduction in the public’s access to the fishery with the shorter and shorter seasons.

“From the mid 90s to the mid 2000s, we permitted about 1,000 reefs per year,” he said. “Now we’re permitting a fraction of that.”

When Marine Resources developed a model to look at the future of the reef system off Alabama, it provided a stark reality.

“What we see is the existing reefs are not going to last forever,” Newton said. “The usable life is about 10 years for regular structures, about 30 for the concrete pyramids. The model shows a steady decline of available habitat into the future. That is why it is imperative that we continue to build reefs on an ongoing basis.”

However, significant progress has been made recently in ending the extremely short federal red snapper seasons. If NOAA Fisheries approves an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) for the 2018 season, Alabama will receive just under one million pounds of red snapper allocation for a potential 47-day snapper season, which could be the catalyst to reverse the downward trend in private reef deployment. Marine Resources will host meetings in late April and early May to answer questions from the public if the EFP is approved.

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

Sheepshead fishing on fire on Alabama Gulf Coast

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

A little rust was evident after a long hunting season. The first tap at the end of the line meant a fish was interested in the bait, but the reflexes hadn’t been tested for a while. By the time I set the hook, I had felt the second tap. I knew that, in all likelihood, the hookset was a futile attempt to overcome my dormant fishing senses.

As suspected, no resistance was felt on the hookset and I reeled up a clean, bronze Kahle hook. I’d been robbed by one of the best bait thieves in Alabama’s coastal waters – the toothy, tasty species known as sheepshead.

After putting a chunk of fresh-dead shrimp on the hook, I tossed it near the structure. As soon as I felt the first tap, I set the hook and the fight was on. With its vertical body and large fins, sheepshead can stress your tackle. With the drag set correctly, a few runs later, the fish finally tired enough for me to bring it alongside the boat and into the landing net.

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It took only a couple of hours for Capt. Jay Gunn (251-752-8040), Grady Gunn and I to fill the ice chest to the brim with nice sheepshead, a scene that is repeated often this time of year along the Alabama coast.

Sheepshead is a species that comes into coastal waters during the winter and hangs around structure preparing for a migration to nearshore waters to spawn. Structure means jetties, piers, petroleum rigs inside Mobile Bay and the rigs just off the coast in 50 feet of water or less. During this pre-spawn period, the fish are voraciously feeding.

“Sheepshead come out of the Gulf and into the inshore waters during the winter when the water temperature falls below 65 or so,” Capt. Gunn said. “They’ll hang around in the bays and estuaries. After the winter when the water temperature gets back up near 65, they get ready to spawn.

“The full moon is on March 31, so this bite will reach a crescendo on the full moon. At that point, the bite will become somewhat sporadic. The females will go to the Gulf and there will be lots of smaller, three- to four-pound, males left in the bays. Once you start catching about half-and-half spawned out females and males, you’ll have about seven more days of fishing in the bays. Then it will be time to speckled trout fish.”

Gunn uses fishing tackle that would be suitable for fishing for largemouth bass or larger speckled trout. He uses 12- to 14-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line or 20-pound braided line.

“After all kinds of experimentation, that size line doesn’t cause much resistance in the current and you don’t have as much bow in your line,” he said. “You have to keep that line tight to feel the strike and set the hook immediately.

“I use the smallest lead I can to keep the bait on the bottom. I use half-ounce leads when I can and go to three-quarters when the current is stronger. Sometimes, I can get away with just a split-shot. Whatever lead you use, you have to keep the line tight.”

Gunn uses Kahle hooks because the shape of the hook makes it easier for the sheepshead to get it inside its mouth. He starts with a No. 4 hook and never goes larger than a No. 1.

“Anything larger than that and you’re going to miss a lot of bites,” he said.

A close look at the mouth of a sheepshead reveals a set of teeth and bony structures that are designed to crunch the shells of a variety of crustaceans, especially small crabs and barnacles. If you reel in a hook with a closed gap, the sheepshead crunched it with the bait and robbed you. Move up one hook size as long as it’s not larger than a No. 1 and keep fishing.

This time of year, live shrimp are a little hard to find, but fresh-dead shrimp and fiddler crabs work just fine.

“You don’t always have live shrimp, so you may have to use fresh-dead shrimp or fiddler crabs,” Gunn said. “Sheepshead can be picky about using frozen shrimp, but you can get fresh-dead from your live bait dealer. And I never use a whole shrimp unless it’s really small. I pinch the shrimp into two to three pieces and try to hide the hook when I can.”

When Gunn approaches a likely sheepshead haunt, he starts fishing before he gets to the structure.

“I start about 10 feet from the structure if water clarity allows them to see the bait,” he said. “I move closer to the structure until I start getting bites. Sometimes it’s right on the structure, so bring plenty of weights and hooks because you’re going to lose some if you’re fishing on top of the structure.

“I reel down until the line is tight, and I set the hook when I feel that first tap. If you feel the second tap, that’s the hook being spit back out with no bait.”

Gunn insists that sheepshead are not like other inshore species this time of year. There’s no waiting around to see if the fish are triggered into a feeding mood.

“If they’re there, they’re not finicky as long as you have the right kind of bait,” he said. “Don’t sit around on the bite. If you don’t get a bite in 10 minutes, move to the next spot.”

The average size of the fish in the bays will vary from 3 to 6 pounds. Gunn says about every 25 to 30 fish, you’ll hook a whopper that will weigh from 8 to 10 pounds. A 9½-pounder is his largest so far this spring.

Of course, one of the largest structures on the Alabama Gulf Coast is the Gulf State Park Pier, which juts more than 1,400 feet into the Gulf. The sheepshead bite has been on fire according to dedicated pier fisherman David Thornton, who said, “The sheepshead are chewing the pilings off the pier.” Of course, he was speaking figuratively, but I’m sure the sheepshead are chowing down on the abundant barnacles attached to the pier’s pilings.

Over the years of watching plenty of guides clean sheepshead, Gunn continues to refine his fileting technique. He uses a large, sharp butcher knife to cut along the dorsal fin down to the rib cage. He then makes a cut upward and around the rib cage and finishes to cut the filet off with the skin and scales attached. When it’s time to complete the filet process, he switches to a filet knife that has a double-bevel to keep the cut about a sixteenth of an inch off the skin to avoid the strong red meat next to the skin.

“I cut over the top of the rib cage,” he said. “There’s no meat on the ribs. All they’re good for is dulling your knife. Before you fry or freeze the fish, make sure you get all the red meat off.”

Of course, the most common way to consume sheepshead filets is to dredge them in your favorite fish-fry mix, then drop in 350-degree oil and fry until golden brown.

As an alternative, Gunn makes a faux West Indies salad, substituting sheepshead for crab meat.

He cuts the filets up into chunks and gently boils them in salted water. After the fish chunks are done, he drains the fish and refrigerates until completely cold. At that point, the fish will flake easily. He flakes the fish thoroughly and sets aside. He then finely chops equal parts of red and green peppers, white and purple onions and celery. He tosses in the flaked fish and mixes the whole dish with his favorite Italian dressing. Refrigerate for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight to absorb the flavors.

Alabama has a 10-fish-per-person sheepshead limit with a 12-inch size limit.

“I don’t keep any sheepshead below 16 inches,” Gunn said. “With a 16-inch fish you get a decent filet. With an 18-inch fish you get a nice filet.

“The thing about sheepshead this time of year is they don’t have to have tide movement or a certain kind of weather. Go when you can, and don’t sit on one spot waiting for them to bite.”

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

Bobwhite quail enthusiasts tour Alabama black belt

A covey of quail flush at High Log Creek on a recent tour of Alabama Black Belt quail-hunting opportunities (David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

The bobwhite quail opportunities in the Alabama Black Belt were put under intense scrutiny recently. As expected, the Black Belt quail experience received nothing but praise.

Alabama Black Belt Adventures and sponsors hosted representatives of Quail Forever and the outdoors media for a grand tour of the quail hunting in the Alabama area famous for its rich, dark topsoil and abundant wildlife.

The tour started at Shenandoah Plantation in Union Springs, followed by a day of hunting at High Log Creek Farm and Hunting Preserve near Hurtsboro. Great Southern Outdoors Plantation in Union Springs entertained the group with dinner prepared by Iron Chef winner David Bancroft. Another award-winning chef, Chris Hastings, prepared one day’s lunch for the hunters at Gusto Plantation in Lowndes County. A trip to the Boggy Hollow Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Conecuh National Forest was included in the tour.

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Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever, said the programs he represents have three main purposes.

“We’re a habitat organization with three enduring strategies,” Vincent said. “We raise dollars, and we drive them in the ground. We do advocacy in Washington, D.C., typically on the Farm Bill. We are the face of the Conservation Reserve Program. And then we do education and outreach – how do we introduce more youth into the outdoors and shooting sports and hunting sports? How do we generate the next conservationists? That’s what we do every single day.

“The unique feature of Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever is the local chapters raise money, and then they retain control of that money. We just started a new chapter in Alabama, the Alabama Black Belt chapter in Union Springs. That makes six chapters in Alabama right now.”

Vincent and many of his Alabama excursion companions are based in Minnesota. Therefore, they enjoyed a break from the February cold up north and were treated to one of our main traditions.

“In Alabama, we learned that Southern hospitality is no cliché – it’s the absolute truth,” Vincent said. “Pam (Swanner of Alabama Black Belt Adventures) pulled all of this together. It was seamless. The Quail Forever team couldn’t be more proud to be down here to learn. We look forward to working together.”

To cap the week focused on Alabama quail, about 100 guests gathered at the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) NaturePlex in Millbrook to hear a presentation by Bill Palmer of Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Fla., where the bobwhite quail is one of the main focal points in its Game Bird Program.

Tim Gothard, AWF Executive Director, introduced Palmer and said interest in bobwhite quail restoration is as high as he has seen it in his 25 years in conservation.

“I don’t know that we have all the answers to make quail like they were in the 40s and 50s and 60s, but the interest in quail has really not waned,” Gothard said. “That is really the impetus for this event and the landowners we’ve talked with through the years. We knew that interest was still vibrant.”

Palmer, who has been at Tall Timbers (talltimbers.org) for 21 years, agrees with Gothard’s assessment.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are really passionate about returning quail to the landscape, returning fire to the landscape,” Palmer said. “This is probably the most difficult conservation issue that the nation has faced. It’s a really tough turnaround for bobwhites.”

Palmer said Georgia is a perfect example of what has happened to quail populations and quail hunting over the years.

In 1961, 142,000 hunters harvested more than 3.5 million quail, likely all wild birds, in Georgia alone. By 2009, the number of hunters had shrunk to 22,000 and the number of birds taken was a little more than 800,000. The telling number, however, is that 97 percent of the birds taken in 2009 were pen-raised.

“That is a real shocking statistic,” Palmer said. “It’s just mind-boggling that millions of wild quail were shot just 50 years ago, and we no longer have those numbers.

“We’ll never go back to the 60s and 70s. That’s just not going to happen. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have significant success and significant opportunities for young folks to enjoy our wild bird hunting again.”

Palmer said a variety of issues have been blamed for the decline of wild quail populations including land use, predators and even fire ants.

Tall Timbers’ research indicates it’s the lack of fire that is likely the main factor in the quail’s demise.

“The loss of fire in the South, the stamping out of fire in the South, is largely the reason for quail decline, frankly,” he said. “The idea that people were burning the South for fun. They were burning the South because they were bored. There was a strong federal and university effort to stamp out fire in the South. We bit into it. The nation bit into it, and we’ve got to dig out of that problem.”

Palmer said the evidence in the burn frequency in tree-ring studies (dendrochronology) shows that fire happened frequently.

“If you look at pre-settlement basis, the landscape was burned on about a two-year fire frequency. The South was burned. The Native Americans were burning in the West. The Native Americans were burning in the Northeast. That’s the bottom line.”

However, prescribed fire cannot be applied indiscriminately or it will adversely impact the quail habitat.

“There are more than a million acres of prescribed fire in this region,” Palmer said. “Probably no other area in the country burns as much as we do here. It’s up to us to make sure 25 years down the road there is more fire, and it’s safely and wisely used.

“On public lands, it hasn’t been as successful for one main reason – the scale of fire. When you burn on a 100-acre scale you have very normal breeding season survival. When you burn on a 1,000-acre scale, survival is half that amount. That population can’t grow. It’s going to go down or stay flat.”

Tall Timbers set up different plots, starting in 1962, that were burned by prescribed fire on different frequencies. Plots were burned every year, every two years, every three years and never.

“By the time you get to three years, you’ve lost your quail habitat,” Palmer said. “By the time you get to unburned, which is most of the Southeast these days, you’ve really lost your quail habitat. It’s great Cooper’s hawk habitat, but it’s not good quail habitat.”

Palmer said quality quail habitat includes pine or oak savannas, prescribed fire every two years, reasonable timber density and good ground cover. Predation management and supplemental feeding can also increase annual quail survival.

Translocation of wild birds is another technique Palmer discussed that has proven to be successful.

“What can we do to expand wild bird populations?” he asked. “Translocation is a key factor in that. Our research shows it’s a very viable technique. If you moved birds to a site, if the habitat was there and predators were managed, the quail did just as good or better than the site they came from.”

In the past few years, Tall Timbers has moved more than 2,000 quail to different sites around the Southeast. Alabama was the first state to work with Tall Timbers on relocation efforts.

“That’s from 50 to 100 birds per site,” Palmer said. “That adds up to a lot of landowners who had no hope, who, all of a sudden, are investing in wild quail management because they have a chance to build a population relatively quickly. We’re really focused, with our partners, on expanding our impact. Leveraging our translocation project is a big deal on both public and private land.”

Palmer said other than supporting groups like AWF and Quail Forever, those who wish to see the return of wild quail should contact their elected officials.

“Encourage your representatives to increase funding for prescribed fire,” he said. “This is key. We need to increase ecological management on public lands. And we need focal areas on public lands.”

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has such a focal area in the Boggy Hollow WMA, which is being converted into bobwhite quail habitat through selective timber thinning and more frequent, smaller prescribed burns. These efforts will encourage the growth of native grasses and forbs to provide opportunity for an increase in the current bobwhite population.

“We’re doing call counts on 22 WMAs; we’re doing habitat work on WMAs,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes, who managed a quail plantation for seven years earlier in his career. “The Division recently purchased property where a portion is dedicated to quail. We are working on Boggy Hollow in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

“We know what it takes. Give us a little bit of time. Partner with us and I can assure we can get things done. We have people in place. We have projects in place. Boggy Hollow is going to be a good thing.”

(Image: A covey of quail flush at High Log Creek on a recent tour of Alabama Black Belt quail-hunting opportunities — David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years.

4 months ago

Alabama advisory board gets updates on chronic wasting disease, snapper

As expected, the focus of the first Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting of the year was the increased awareness and efforts to keep chronic wasting disease (CWD) out of Alabama.

CWD, a disease that affects members of the cervid family of animals (deer, elk, moose, caribou, etc.), was recently confirmed in west-central Mississippi. Previously, the closest state with CWD was Arkansas.

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The diagnosis of the deer in Mississippi made it the 25th state with the disease. Alabama quickly added its neighboring state to the list where restrictions are in place on the importation of whole carcasses or carcass parts from cervids. Those restrictions state that any member of the cervid family harvested in those CWD-positive areas must be properly processed before it can be legally brought into Alabama. Parts that may be legally imported include completely deboned meat, cleaned skull plates with attached antlers with no visible brain or spinal cord tissue present, upper canine teeth with no root structure or other soft tissue present and finished taxidermy products or tanned hides.

Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, asked the Conservation Advisory Board at the Montgomery meeting to extend those cervid importation restrictions to all 50 states, territories or possessions of the United States and foreign countries. The Board passed a motion to extend the restrictions.

“Mississippi became positive during their deer season, and we had to immediately close the border to import of whole Mississippi deer because they were a CWD positive state,” Sykes said. “We don’t know where the next one is going to pop up. Yes, it is an inconvenience, but it pales in comparison to the inconvenience we will all have if CWD gets here.”

Sykes said WFF has tested about 500 deer annually for CWD since 2002 and has now partnered with the Department of Agriculture and Industries to have testing capabilities in Alabama. WFF purchased the testing equipment, and Agriculture and Industries will train technicians to conduct the tests.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to inform people of the danger,” Sykes said. “We don’t want you to panic, but we want you to understand this is a serious issue.

“We know the highest risk of the disease coming here is by someone moving live deer or someone moving a hunter-killed deer into the state without properly taking care of it.”

Alabama recently prosecuted a pair of Alabama residents for importing live deer, which has been prohibited since 1973, from Indiana. The pair was charged with numerous counts, including federal Lacey Act charges. The judge fined the breeders $750,000, voided their deer breeders license and confiscated all the breeders’ deer.

“We’re dealing with a handful of individuals that could mess it up for everybody, so we want y’all to be vigilant in watching,” Sykes said. “Let us know if you see something that is not right. Please help us with the resource we’re trying to manage.”

Alabama has more than 200 licensed deer breeders. Those breeders are required to test every animal 12 months old or older that dies in the facilities. Sykes said more than 300 captive deer are tested annually. WFF recently changed the regulations to require the deer breeders to maintain an online database of animals.

Sykes said a great deal of misinformation about CWD has been disseminated, mainly through social media.

“Probably the biggest one is the lack of differentiation between EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and CWD,” he said. “EHD, we’ve always had. It hit north Alabama pretty hard this year. We have outbreaks every year. Most of them are not severe.  Epizootic hemorrhagic disease and related bluetongue viruses are transmitted by midges. They bite one deer and then transmit it to the next deer. It’s endemic to Alabama and most of the Southeast. It hits the northern states harder than us. You typically see these outbreaks in late summer and early fall. It is not always fatal. That’s a big difference. This is something that’s not going to wipe out our deer herd.

“Now chronic wasting disease, on the other hand, is caused by a prion, a misfolded protein, not a virus. It’s similar to CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) in humans, scrapie in sheep and BSE, or mad cow disease, in cattle. It is infectious, communicable and always fatal.”

Sykes said CWD is not endemic to the South, but once it shows up, it doesn’t go away. He said no successful methods have been developed to sanitize the soil, the environment or facilities.

“This is serious,” he said. “This is not made up. This is a real issue. It was first found in captive mule deer in Colorado. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) changed their recommendation last year. They recommend that hunters strongly consider having those animals tested if it was killed in one of the CWD zones before they eat it. Mississippi’s Department of Health just put out an advisory to hunters for this. Now there are processors with meat stacked to the roof because people won’t come get their deer meat.

“As of today, CWD has not been shown to jump to humans, but the science is really new and it is being studied.”

Sykes gave an example of the proper way to deal with deer that are harvested in a CWD-positive state. One Alabama hunter took a deer in Colorado, and the processed meat was shipped back to Alabama. Shortly thereafter, the hunter got a message that the deer had tested positive for CWD. Instead of discarding the meat himself, the hunter did the right thing and immediately contacted WFF officials, who arranged for the pick-up and proper disposal of the meat.

The Advisory Board formed a CWD subcommittee during the meeting. Brock Jones of District 7, Raymond Jones Jr. of District 5 and Patrick Cagle of District 2 agreed to serve on the subcommittee, which will report to the Board at its next meeting, May 19 in Tuscaloosa.

Sykes also asked the Board for guidance on Game Check, WFF’s program to report deer and turkey harvests. During the first year of mandatory reporting, Game Check reported the deer harvest at 82,484 animals. This year’s totals were 75,874 deer harvested, which Sykes said is both disappointing and confusing.

“We’ve done everything I know to do to try to educate people on the importance of Game Check,” Sykes said. “If we don’t have good information, how can we make good decisions? During the first year, we said we wouldn’t give any tickets. It was a learning situation. This year, we issued about 200 citations and about 300 warnings, trying to encourage compliance. It didn’t work. Do I tell our enforcement guys to sit at main intersections going to processors to start checking trucks? Do we camp out at taxidermy shops or sit at hunting camp gates waiting for people to come in and out? I don’t know what else to do. I’m looking to the Board for suggestions.

“We estimated 30-40 percent are complying. What if we’re wrong and 70 percent are complying. That’s pretty scary. It goes back to what (Marine Resources Director) Scott (Bannon) said. Withholding information from us is not going to do any good. In fact, it does just the opposite. If 70 percent of the people are reporting, and we’re only getting 75,000 deer maybe our numbers aren’t as robust as we thought. The average time a hunter hunts and what is reported is how we are basing our population estimates right now. If that’s the case, our deer numbers are much lower than we have been anticipating.”

Despite the Game Check numbers, WFF has recommended that season lengths and bag limits remain basically the same except for calendar dates and changes to Zone C in north Alabama, which has been reduced in size for the 2018-19 season. With two years of data, Sykes said WFF biologists recommended the return of a portion of the zone to the season parameters for the rest of the state.

“Good information gives us the ability to adapt our management plan and do what’s best for the resource first and then the hunters as well,” Sykes said.

Marine Resources Director Bannon briefed the Board on the proposed recreational red snapper season with an exempted fishing permit that would allow Alabama to have a 47-day snapper season, starting June 1 and running on weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) through Labor Day and including the entire week of the Fourth of July. The daily bag limit will remain at two per person with a 16-inch minimum size. The proposed season is awaiting final approval from NOAA Fisheries.

Bannon said the mandatory Red Snapper Reporting Program, known as Snapper Check, will allow Marine Resources to closely monitor the harvest in Alabama’s artificial reef zone, the nation’s premier reef fish habitat.

Marine Resources will hold a Snapper Conference on March 22 at the Holiday Inn in downtown Mobile to discuss the potential season. Visit www.outdooralabama.com for more information and/or registration.

(Image: A deer suffering from chronic wasting disease — David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

David Rainer writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.