The Wire

  • Nation of Islam Birmingham chapter leading Hoover boycott efforts

    Excerpt:

    The Birmingham chapter of the Nation of Islam – which is deemed an “extremist,” “deeply racist, antisemitic” “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and led nationally by the infamous Louis Farrakhan – is heading up the boycott effort in Hoover in the aftermath of Emantic “E.J.” Bradford, Jr.’s death in an officer-involved shooting at the Riverchase Galleria on Thanksgiving night.

    In a recent Facebook live video posted by Iva Williams, a spokesperson and the vice president for the activist organization led by self-proclaimed Hoover protest leader Carlos Chaverst, Jr., Williams confirmed that Tremon Muhammad, the student minister (pastor) for the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Mosque No. 69 in Birmingham, is leading the boycott.

    He also detailed that the boycott is specifically meant to harm businesses owned by white people, with the activists planning on finding ways to help black-owned businesses in Hoover until their leases are up, at which time the businesses will be expected to move into majority-black areas of Birmingham.

  • AG Marshall: Prosecution of corruption remains a priority after Matt Hart’s departure

    Excerpt:

    On Friday’s episode of Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall downplayed the departure of now-former Deputy Attorney General Matt Hart.

    Hart formerly led the AG’s Special Prosecutions Division and was perhaps best known for his prosecution of former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard.

    In the interim, Hart had become somewhat of a media darling, and Marshall’s critics had charged politics was a motivation in Hart’s resignation. Marshall dismissed those claims and touted Hart’s successor, Clark Morris.

  • Women’s clothier raises $4,500 for police, others with ‘#HooverStrong’ T-shirts sales

    Excerpt:

    There’s no question that the last two weeks have been trying for Hoover retailers in the wake of the tragic shooting at the Riverchase Galleria on Thanksgiving night.

    With protests flaring up over dissatisfaction with law enforcement’s handling of the incident’s investigation, the circumstances have been trying for local retailers that were already dealing with the busy shopping season.

    However, one Hoover retailer is making the most of the situation.

3 days ago

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries enforcement increases deer carcass surveillance

(Billy Pope)

Hunters who travel out of state should be aware that the Enforcement Section of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has significantly increased its surveillance of roads along state borders, looking for persons illegally importing deer carcasses.

The regulation that banned the import of cervid body parts from states known to be CWD-positive was enacted three years ago to safeguard against disease transmission. When a Mississippi deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD) earlier this year, DCNR was already in the process of expanding its prohibition of the importation of carcasses of white-tailed deer and other cervids (elk, mule deer, moose, etc.) to include all states.

1213

“Those thoroughfares in close proximity to the state borders are where we have concentrated our efforts,” WFF Enforcement Chief Matt Weathers said. “This is important for the defense of the state – though it is a labor-intensive undertaking.”

Weathers said the surveillance puts extra pressure on the Enforcement Officers, who still must perform other duties.

“It is the middle of deer season, so we’ve got lots of other tasks and calls to conduct,” he said. “But keeping CWD out of Alabama is extremely important, so we’re conducting details on the state lines to attempt to ensure no deer are brought into Alabama from other states.

He added, “We are concentrating our efforts to match those peak hunting seasons in the West and Midwest when people would be bringing deer carcasses into the state. To some extent, it will go throughout the entirety of our deer season.”

Since 1907, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has been tasked with protecting Alabama’s natural resources on behalf of its citizens. The Alabama Legislature recognized that commercial exploitation was having a significant adverse impact on the state’s natural resources and founded the ADCNR. Although some exploitation of resources continues today, it has been minimized by the promulgation and enforcement of laws that protect those natural resources.

Although the ADCNR’s basic mission has changed very little over the last eleven decades, the types of threats facing Alabama’s natural resources have changed.

Today, the largest threat is CWD and the impact it could have on Alabama’s hunting industry and our hunting heritage.

“If you hunt deer in Alabama, enjoy watching deer in our state, or if you benefit from the nearly $2 billion industry that exists in Alabama surrounding these activities, you should be aware that your very way of life could change greatly in the coming years if we all do not work together to keep CWD out of Alabama,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship.

CWD is a 100-percent-fatal, communicable disease that is very similar to Mad Cow Disease in cattle. The prion that causes CWD can be found concentrated in the brain, spinal cord and bone tissue well after the infected animal dies.

“If those infected parts are brought into our state and thrown out where deer from our herd can come into contact with them, we could become a CWD-positive state overnight,” Blankenship said.

One of the disconcerting aspects of the new regulations is the attitude of hunters toward those restrictions. A case in point occurred when Alabama and Tennessee wildlife officials conducted a joint operation at Alabama’s northern border.

That effort resulted in six citations for hunters bringing back field-dressed deer into Alabama from other states.

Alabama’s Enforcement Section has made several other cases since, and there seems to be a disturbing thread.

“We’ve got guys bringing deer back to Alabama that originated many states away,” Weathers said. “Many, if not all, of the states they passed through have similar regulations. For the limited amount of time we’ve conducted this operation, it is a concerning number of violations. It speaks to the volume of the problem.

“We’ve had several folks we questioned who were as aware and fluent in the law as we were. They just thought that it didn’t matter. It’s troubling that not everybody takes this as the serious issue it is.”

WFF has long recognized the potential threat of CWD and started testing deer in our state in a preemptive manner in 2002. To date, WFF has tested more than 8,000 deer with no positive CWD samples found.

“This is NOT something that you can pour bleach or Lysol on and make it no longer a threat,” Weathers said. “It’s going to be there beyond any kind of chemical you pour on it. And time doesn’t seem to have any effect on it either.”

This past August, ADCNR unveiled an extensive advertising campaign to educate those hunters who travel to hunt out of state. Billboards and various other informational materials were placed along highway routes at state lines providing information about CWD and the regulations regarding the importation of deer parts returning from a hunting trip out of state. The regulations require that all deer meat be deboned and only cleaned skull plates with bare antlers without visible brain or spinal tissue can be imported. Raw capes with no visible brain or spinal tissue can be brought in as well as upper canine teeth with no root structure or soft tissue present. Finished taxidermy products and tanned hides can be imported. Velvet-covered antlers are prohibited unless they are part of a finished taxidermy project.

“Despite our best efforts at education, unlawful import of those prohibited parts remains a problem,” Weathers said. “ADCNR has gone to great lengths to provide a sustainable white-tailed deer herd for the citizens of Alabama to enjoy. Today, however, simply providing this herd isn’t enough. We must protect it. We protect it not only for ourselves but for those who will come after us. I once heard someone say, ‘In the gravest of situations, doing your best isn’t enough; you must do what is required.’

“So, when you see your local Conservation Enforcement Officer patrolling near a state line, know that what you are actually seeing is the front line in the fight against CWD.”

WFF Director Chuck Sykes has been in Washington, D.C., meeting with Congressional staffs about the CWD threat, as well as other issues.

“Senator Doug Jones is co-sponsoring a bill to provide funding for more CWD research and more money for the states to manage it,” Sykes said. “CWD is a big deal. Once it’s here, it’s here forever, so our best strategy is to keep it out. One of the best ways to keep it out is to not bring carcasses back from any other state.”

Alabama’s CWD Response Plan has response protocols established to delineate those out-of-state cases using concentric circles around the positive test site in increments of 25 miles, 50 miles and more than 50 miles and to implement specific action plans accordingly.

When a case of CWD in a 1½-year-old buck was confirmed recently in Pontotoc County, Miss., portions of three counties in Alabama fell within the 50-mile-radius protocol – Franklin, Marion and Lamar counties.

Sykes said Mississippi is getting pretty good compliance at their drop-off stations and with hunter-harvested deer for sampling.

“But it’s a scary thing,” Sykes said. “I was with some of the legislators from Mississippi at a conference I just attended. It’s a concern for our way of life and a huge economic driver in our states.”

Sykes said the most disappointing aspect of the CWD threat is the nonchalant attitude of hunters who were caught bringing deer carcasses into the state illegally.

“Everybody we issued citations to knew they were breaking the law,” Sykes said. “Nobody pled ignorance. Their attitude was, ‘Ain’t no big deal.’ They knew what they were doing. You just don’t want to be that guy. Why would you take a chance in bringing something into Alabama and the CWD transmission being credited to you just because you didn’t take a few extra minutes to do things right? I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.”

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

2 weeks ago

Alabama Gulf Seafood shines at WFC

(David Rainer)

’Tis the season to loosen those belts and locate the sweat pants in preparation for Thanksgiving week. Of course, by the time the weekend is here, everybody will likely be tired of turkey and the leftovers.

Fortunately, we folks in Alabama can easily find fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico to provide a delicious change in the menu.

1294

Speaking of being fortunate, I can attest to how mouth-watering fresh seafood can be after serving as one of the judges at the World Food Championships (WFC) held earlier this month in Orange Beach. One of my duties was to judge the signature dish round of the seafood competition.

I know, I know. How did I get that job? Judging the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Wild Game Cook-Offs for the past 20 years helps as well as hanging out with folks like chef Chris Sherrill, who helped me achieve EAT judging certification, and Mobile Press-Register food editor David Holloway.

Alabama Gulf Seafood was one of the sponsors of the seafood competition, which meant the chefs had the freshest Gulf seafood available to prepare the dishes.

When the difficult judging (in terms of distinguishing between the delicious dishes) was finished, chefs from Alabama held three spots in the top ten. Matt and Regina Shipp of Orange Beach took fourth place, followed by Tuscaloosa’s Paul Kerr in fifth and Orange Beach’s Haikel Harris in sixth.

Talk about accidental contestants, the Shipps, who operate the Fin and Fork restaurant in Orange Beach, didn’t have WFC competition on the radar until their culinary skills were on display at a local fundraiser, which also happened to be a WFC qualifier.

“We didn’t go into Uncorked for the competition,” Regina said of the event at The Wharf to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “It’s a fundraiser and we did it to help the community.”

For the structured dish, the cook teams were required to prepare mahi mahi on a cedar plank. The Shipps tested their creation the day before the competition.

“Regina asked me if I had ever done that dish,” Matt said. “I said, yes, about 15 years ago.”

The two stopped at Publix, purchased cedar planks and soaked them to get ready for the test run. The Shipps scored a 96.25 out of 100 on the mahi dish.

“That’s why it’s exciting,” Matt said. “I think I bring a certain talent to the preparation of the dish, and Regina’s creativity brings the dish to 100 percent.”

For their signature dish, the Shipps stuck with one of their favorites, yellowtail snapper.

Whole Yellowtail Snapper

to 1½-pound yellowtail snapper

4 cups rice flour

1 cup red chili flakes

1 tsp baking powder (for crispness)

Salt and pepper to taste.

Marinade

2 cups unsweetened coconut milk

1 cup dark rum

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup lime juice

½ cup sliced red bell peppers

½ cup sliced yellow bell peppers

½ cup sliced green bell peppers

½ cup red onions

Fresh cilantro to taste

Scale and score the yellowtail snapper and marinate the fish for several hours. Reserve half the marinade.

Combine rice flour, chili flakes and baking powder. Roll scored snapper in the rice flour mixture. Drop in 350-degree oil for about 6-7 minutes, depending on the size.

While the fish is frying, take the reserved marinade and simmer until reduced by half to make the finishing sauce. Remove the fish from the fryer and let it drain on a rack momentarily. Plate and spoon plenty of sauce over the top.

After making the finals, all the contestants were required to use grouper filets in the deciding dish.

Fin and Fork Grouper

1 6-ounce grouper fillet

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup Panko bread crumbs

2 Tbsp oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Salt and pepper fillet, roll in flour, dip in buttermilk and roll in Panko bread crumbs before sautéing in skillet until brown on both sides. Transfer to 500-degree oven to complete cooking with cook time depending on the thickness of the fillet. Cook in oven for 10 minutes for a 1-inch-thick fillet.

Lemon Beurre Blanc Sauce

½ cup lemon juice

½ cup white wine

1 Tbsp heavy cream

½ pound unsalted butter

Combine lemon juice, white wine and heavy cream. Simmer to reduce by half, and slowly add cold butter one pat at a time to make the beurre blanc sauce.

Topping

½ cup of lemon beurre blanc sauce

½ cup diced red onions

2 cups sliced button mushrooms

8 deveined Gulf shrimp

1 cup white wine

½ cup lump blue crab meat

Heat beurre blanc. Add onions and heat until translucent. Add mushrooms and shrimp until shrimp are about halfway cooked. Add cup white wine and simmer to reduce until shrimp are just done. Do not overcook or the shrimp will be tough. Add crab meat and combine.

Take fish from the oven, plate, and spoon over a generous portion of topping with crab and shrimp over fillet.

“For us to finish fourth for our first time, that was pretty awesome,” Matt said. “The competition was really close. Between the winner and fourth place was just a little over a point.”

Close behind was Harris’ team from the Flora-Bama Yacht Club with its Margarita Mahi and stuffed grouper finale. However, the team’s success was not because of a lot of practice.

“We didn’t get to put a lot of prep into it this year because we’ve been so busy with all the evacuees from Hurricane Michael coming over,” Harris said. “So we got a little behind. I got an email from World Food Championships to turn in my recipes ASAP; the deadline was near. I ended up putting the recipe for the first round together in less than two hours to keep from getting disqualified.”

Margarita Mahi

1 6-ounce mahi mahi fillet

Cavender’s Greek seasoning to taste

1 Tbsp sesame oil

Cedar plank

Brush seasoned fillet with oil and slow-roast seasoned mahi on cedar plank on grill away from direct heat until fish is done, 15-20 minutes.

Margarita Rice

¼ cup diced yellow onion

2 ounces unsalted butter

1 cup jasmine rice

2 Tbsp lime juice

2 Tbsp lemon juice

2 Tbsp orange juice

Zest from half of each fruit

1 ounce tequila

½ ounce triple sec

Sauté onions in butter until translucent. Add remaining ingredients and cook until all liquid is absorbed by the rice and rice is tender.

Citrus Beurre Blanc

½ cup diced yellow onions

2 Tbsp diced garlic

1 Tbsp olive oil

1½ cups white wine

1 cup lemon juice

¼ cup orange juice

1 pound unsalted butter

Sauté onions and garlic until translucent. Add wine and fruit juices. Simmer to reduce by half, and slowly add cold butter on low heat until incorporated.

For plating, add layer of Margarita Rice, top with mahi fillet and ladle beurre blanc over top.

Boursin and Boudin Stuffed Grouper

2 links boudin sausage, casings removed

5 ounces Boursin cheese

2 ounces Panko bread crumbs

1 6-ounce grouper fillet

1 pound unsalted butter

3 ounces jumbo lump crab meat

Flora-Bama House Rub

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp ground mustard

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

Béarnaise Sauce

¼ cup shallots

6 cloves black garlic

1 Tbsp unsalted butter

½-cup white wine vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon

12 egg yolks

½ tsp cayenne pepper

½ tsp white pepper

½ tsp salt

1 pound melted butter

1 sprig tarragon, minced

Combine boudin, cheese and Panko to make stuffing. Cut pocket in grouper filet and fill with stuffing. Rub Flora-Bama House Rub on each side of fish filet. Sauté butter until brown. Reserve half and add fish fillet to remainder to brown on both sides. Transfer to 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.

Sauté jumbo lump crab in reserved brown butter.

To make sauce, sauté shallots and garlic in butter. Add vinegar and juice from half lemon. Simmer to reduce until thick syrup and set aside. In double boiler combine egg yolks, cayenne and white pepper, salt and remainder of lemon juice. Slowly heat and lightly whisk until egg mixture starts to thicken.

“Thicken the eggs to where when you drag your whisk through it you can see the lines left in the eggs,” Harris said.

Pull egg mixture from the heat and slowly fold in the pound of melted butter. Fold in the white wine vinegar reduction. Fold in minced tarragon to complete the sauce.

Plate fish fillet. Top with sautéed crab meat. Liberally spoon Béarnaise Sauce over top.

Mouth drooling yet? Mine is, and I’m not even hungry.

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

3 weeks ago

Alabama officials closely monitoring contaminated deer found in Mississippi

(Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism)

While Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) officials continue to do all they can to keep chronic wasting disease (CWD) out of Alabama, unfortunately the latest news from our neighbors in Mississippi is not good.

Another deer in the lower Mississippi Delta in Issaquena County, a 2½-year-old doe, tested positive for CWD last week. The initial CWD case in Mississippi last January was also in Issaquena County, confirmed in a 4½-year-old buck.

These are in addition to the Mississippi deer in a different county that tested positive for CWD about two weeks ago. A 1½-year-old buck tested positive in Pontotoc County in north central Mississippi, about 200 miles from the initial case.

1372

WFF Director Chuck Sykes is watching and analyzing all of these developments very closely.

“These last two cases are concerning,” Sykes said. “Typically, you think of CWD as being found in older age-class males.”

Also gaining Sykes’ full and immediate attention, the Pontotoc County CWD-positive deer was within 50 miles of Alabama’s border.

“With the Pontotoc deer being within the 50-mile radius of Alabama, we’re doing exactly what we said we would do in our response plan,” Sykes said.

The section of the Alabama CWD Response Plan that deals with out-of-state cases uses concentric circles around the positive test site in increments of 25 miles, 50 miles and more than 50 miles. With the case confirmed in Pontotoc County, portions of three counties in Alabama fall within the 50-mile-radius protocol – Franklin, Marion and Lamar counties.

“We have met with DOT (Alabama Department of Transportation) engineers to help us in locating road-killed deer that will be tested,” Sykes said. “Our technical assistance staff will continue their efforts in working with hunting clubs, taxidermists and meat processors in those counties to collect samples.

“I don’t want people to panic, but they need to understand that we’re doing everything we can to keep it out of Alabama. The main thing I want to get across is that we are not targeting any one particular group. This is not a deer breeder versus a non-breeder. This is not a high fence versus a no fence. This isn’t a dog hunter versus a stalk hunter issue. Honestly, this isn’t even just a hunting issue. This is an Alabama issue concerning the protection of a public-trust natural resource. We really need people to focus on facts about CWD, not what they hear about or read on Facebook.”

Sykes said deer hunting is such a cherished thread that runs through Alabama’s heritage and way of life that any effect on that endeavor could have far-reaching consequences.

“Whether you hunt or not, the economic impacts of deer hunting generate more than $1 billion annually into Alabama,” he said. “In one way, form or fashion, most everybody in the state is positively impacted by deer hunting. So, we’re doing everything we can to keep it out of Alabama.

“In the chance CWD gets here, we have a plan in place to mitigate the risk. It’s all in black and white on outdooralabama.com. What I need the public to know about this is that we have had a CWD response plan in place since 2012. It updates constantly, based on the latest scientific research. I have a whole team that works on this. It’s not done by one person behind closed doors in Montgomery. It’s done on a national level. We look at what works, what doesn’t work, what states have tried and what states have failed–the good, the bad and the ugly.  This is a methodical process. Our plan is based on the latest nationwide scientific research.”

Sykes said there is no way to know what will happen in Alabama if CWD is confirmed.

“It’s hard to say how Alabama will be impacted compared to other states,” he said. “Each state is different.”

At a recent Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA) Law Enforcement Chiefs meeting, a conversation between WFF Enforcement Chief Matt Weathers and a member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission highlighted the vulnerability of Alabama in this situation.

“Northwest Arkansas has a high prevalence rate of CWD,” Sykes said. “Chief Weathers asked his Arkansas counterpart at SEAFWA how CWD was impacting their hunting licenses and budget. In Arkansas it isn’t a major concern because their agency gets one-eighth of 1 percent of sales tax. It does matter to us because we don’t get that. We can’t handle people not deer hunting, not eating deer meat and not buying hunting licenses. It will change the ability of our agency to manage and enhance wildlife and fisheries in Alabama forever.

“I don’t want people to think we are never going to deer-hunt again, that all the deer in the state are going to die. That hasn’t been shown to happen in the CWD-positive states. However, they never go back to the same. We will have to adjust to a new normal. But, we want to prevent it as long as we can. In the event it does come here, we are fully prepared to address it to minimize the risk.”

Alabama has tested more than 8,000 deer during the past 15 years, and no deer has tested positive for CWD.

“We don’t have our heads in the sand,” Sykes said. “We’re doing everything we can. That involves making rules and regulations that are, at times, unpopular. It’s been illegal to bring a live deer into Alabama since the early ’70s.  However, we caught someone in 2016 bringing in deer from Indiana for breeding purposes.  It’s been illegal to bring a carcass in from a CWD-positive state for three years. This year, we had to ban carcasses from every state. That’s an inconvenience on everybody, us included. A lot of us hunt out of state, so it’s impacting us as well. But it’s something we have to do to protect the natural resources of Alabama because not every state tests for CWD as judiciously as we do.

“We had a joint law enforcement detail with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency along the Tennessee-Alabama state line on Sunday November 11th, checking for illegal carcasses being brought back into Alabama. We made six cases on hunters bringing back field-dressed deer into Alabama from Kansas and Kentucky. In all six arrests, the individuals knew it was illegal to bring the carcass through Alabama. In addition to violating Alabama law, they also violated Tennessee law. Several of the carcasses were destined for Florida, jeopardizing yet another state.”

An old friend, Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland of Mossy Oak camouflage fame, has been directly impacted by the positive CWD test in Pontotoc County, Mississippi.  Strickland has a farm in Lee County, Mississippi.

“This is a black cloud, no doubt,” said Strickland, who sits on the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) Board.  “My farm borders Pontotoc County.  We’re just outside the containment zone, but I’m afraid it’s just a matter of time.

“You think that it’s something that’s going on somewhere else, like Colorado, where it started. Or Wisconsin or Wyoming.  Then, bam, it’s in the Delta, and now Pontotoc County.  It’s happened so fast, it’s kind of scary.”

Strickland said it’s difficult for the average hunter to determine how CWD is going to impact hunting in the South because of the wide range of reactions.

“On one end of the scale, you have people saying the sky is falling,” he said.  “On the other end of the scale, depending on who you talk to, they say, ‘Aww, it’s been around for a thousand years.’  I’m assuming it’s somewhere in the middle as to where the truth lies.

“I don’t know if people are taking this as seriously as I have. We’re kind of in the hunting business at Mossy Oak.”

Strickland has been taking his grandson, who has been affectionately nicknamed Cranky, on a variety of hunting adventures in recent years. Strickland doesn’t have any inclination to alter their behavior.

“We’re going to continue to hunt,” Strickland said. “I’m going to assume the people that really attack this and know what they’re doing are going to lead us down the right road.”

Strickland is concerned the CWD threat will have a detrimental effect on the recreational opportunities that have so positively impacted his way of life.

“Hunting license sales are already down,” he said.  “This is just another hurdle. We’re battling more than just CWD.  We’re battling time, more than anything.  The new people, the 30- to 40-year-olds with kids and everything, are having trouble finding time to go hunting.  There’s a lot chipping away at our lifestyle.

“Hunting is what we lived for when I was growing up.  I used to could sleep like baby the night before Christmas.  But the night before hunting season opened, I literally would lie down with my hunting clothes on to make sure I wouldn’t be late.”

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

The Lodge at Gulf State Park opens with great fanfare

(Billy Pope)

The fanfare that accompanied last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, was unprecedented, a fact affirmed by a pair of experts in the field of lodging and hospitality.

With Governor Kay Ivey headlining a long list of dignitaries at the grand opening of the long-awaited facility, the Gulf Shores High School marching band played the National Anthem as Gulf Shores Navy JROTC cadets presented the colors in front of the large crowd that gathered only steps from the white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

1457

One of those dignitaries was Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Herb Malone, who was curious if other venues celebrated the opening of similar facilities the way Alabama did last week.

“I asked the head gentleman from Valor Hospitality and the head gentlemen of Hilton Hotels if they had ever been to a ribbon-cutting where there was this much passion, love and energy behind a project,” Malone said. “They both said never, ever have they seen anything like this.”

Malone said he knows of several groups that have scheduled conferences at the new Lodge, including Jon Hand, CEO of Electric Cities of Alabama, a group that represents municipally owned utilities that serve about 1 million customers in the state. Hand jumped at the chance to book a conference at The Lodge.

“To my knowledge, we were the first group to sign a contract with the resort,” said Hand, whose organization is based in Montgomery. “And, we were the first to sign a multi-year contract.

“I grew up in Gulf Shores. We went to the State Park a lot growing up. So, we were really excited about the completion. I think it’s going to be great for Alabama. The location of the resort is great for us. The way the resort looks – it’s beautiful. It’s a great asset to the state. Whenever we can do business in Alabama, we like to do so. Our 35th anniversary will be our first conference at The Lodge.”

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the decision was made to forego the typical soft opening that new facilities hold before a general opening.

“Many of us were not sure if this day would ever come,” Blankenship said. “It has been a long journey, and I’m so glad to share this with you as we celebrate the work of so many who made the opening of this lodge a reality. This is truly a spectacular place.

“With the project’s high visibility and excitement in this community for the return of The Lodge, we wanted to open it as soon as possible to give the communities an opportunity to participate in the rebirth of this place. So, we opened the doors at the first possible moment.”

The Lodge will accommodate up to 1,000 people for conferences and conventions with a 350-room hotel that includes 20 suites. The beach-view ballroom is 12,160 square feet with an adjacent 7,500-square-foot outdoor terrace. Several other smaller meeting and conference rooms are available. A Gulf-front infinity pool will have a pool bar and grill. Meanwhile, a Gulf-front restaurant features terrace seating and a private dining room that will serve house-prepared dishes sourced from regional suppliers, including fresh Alabama Gulf Seafood.

The Lodge has been constructed under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) protocols. The Interpretive Center is pursuing certification under the Living Building Challenge, a designation currently afforded to only 16 buildings in the world.

“We are caretakers of this creation,” Blankenship said. “The sustainable construction and the environmentally friendly management of The Lodge show how serious we are about that responsibility. We are very excited about how we can have this beautiful facility and still protect our environment.”

Most of the dignitaries who spoke at the ceremony were able to share memories of cherished family time spent at previous versions of the Gulf State Park Lodge, including Alabama U.S. Congressman Bradley Byrne, who marveled at the hotel facilities.

“Did you see the suite with the separate room with bunk beds and a TV?” Congressman Byrne asked. “That is perfect for a family. I wish they had had those when we used to stay at the park when my children were small. We definitely would have taken advantage of that.”

State Representative Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, who represents the district that includes Gulf State Park, said he is greatly relieved to see the new facilities open because of the numerous hurdles that had to be overcome to rebuild the lodge after Hurricane Ivan destroyed it in 2004.

“It’s just a dream come true,” Rep. McMillan said. “It’s better than I ever envisioned that it might be. And one thing most people don’t realize is that we came within three days of having to shut down construction while we waited on a court ruling. The judge finally ruled in our favor, and here we are today.

“I never had any idea we would have anything like this. It’s just unbelievable.”

Alabama Speaker of the House of Representatives Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, reiterated how the resort facilities at Gulf State Park factor into the economic well-being of the rest of the Alabama State Parks System.

“When the resort was here, and the lodge was up and running it was an economic engine to help all our state parks,” Rep. McCutcheon said. “So, when we lost this facility, it had a huge impact on our parks. When we came for a tour of the construction site, we walked out on the dunes, and I remember my children being there on the edge of the water when they were very, very little. Deb and I made a trip down here, and we stayed at the lodge that was here at the time. That was the first time my children got to feel the sand between their toes and feel the waves wash up on them. We built sandcastles. That was the first time for children who were raised in red land cotton fields to see what it was like to stand on the side of the Gulf of Mexico. That’s a great memory.

“Our best days are ahead of us in Alabama, and this great facility is symbolic of that.”

Governor Ivey echoed the sentiment that the opening of The Lodge has been a study in perseverance.

“I’m thrilled to be here to have this grand opening that we’ve been waiting a long time to have,” said Governor Ivey. “There’s just no more beautiful place than Alabama’s Gulf Coast with the white sand and sparkling waters. That’s why I made it my mission to protect this part of the state and grow it. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan came through and damaged parts of our great state. It also destroyed a very special spot on the Gulf Coast – the lodge. However, in the resilient spirit of Alabama, we find a way to make good out of a bad situation.

“And here we are today. I am proud to be with you for the ribbon-cutting for The Lodge at Gulf State Park. This will be a centerpiece for this area but also for the great state of Alabama. We’re located on the doorstep of the Gulf, and this will be a way to show a piece of Alabama to the world. Creating a new conference center has long been a part of discussions throughout numerous administrations. As Lieutenant Governor, I was a member of the Gulf State Park Committee. Today, I’m proud to take us across the finish line.”

Ivey said The Lodge’s partners, Valor Hospitality and Hilton Hotels, will help make The Lodge at Gulf State Park a world-class destination.

“There is so much to love about this state,” Governor Ivey said. “In this area, it’s our beautiful natural resources, especially our people. I really want to thank the locals in this area, who year-round, continually welcome visitors to our great state.

Governor Ivey said that more than 20 years ago Mercedes became the game-changer for our automotive industry, and she expects the same impact from The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

“Gulf State Park will be a world-class place to visit, and it will be the crown jewel of tourism,” said Governor Ivey, who presented Gulf State Park Project Manager Tye Warren with a certificate of commendation during the ceremonies. “People from around the world will want to come experience what we have in Alabama. I look forward to continued growth in the tourism industry. Thank you for allowing me to join you for this great event. May God continue to bless each of you and the great state of Alabama.”

After he was presented with the certificate from Governor Ivey, Warren’s young daughter jumped into his arms.

“As I hold my daughter, I will tell you there have been a lot of people who helped raise this place,” Warren said. “Thursday night, I listened to Valor Hospitality’s CEO talk to 200 employees, and the feelings I had were closure and complete comfort in what this is going to be. And I hope when my daughter marries that I have the same feeling on that day. I feel great about where this is going.”

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

ADCNR officials, program honored by peers

(Outdoor Alabama)

October has been a special month for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) in terms of recognition from its peers.

Both the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA) and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council held significant events a few blocks apart last week in Mobile.

1225

The Gulf Council met at the Renaissance Battle House Hotel to discuss a variety of issues, including state management of red snapper. During that meeting, the Gulf Council presented Alabama Marine Resources Conservation Officer Kyle “Bull” Rabren with the 2017 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award.

The Gulf Council award “acknowledges service above and beyond duty requirements and recognizes distinguished service, professionalism, and dedication to enforcing federal fishing regulations in the Gulf of Mexico.”

A three-year veteran of Marine Resources, Rabren is a patrol officer in Baldwin County. In 2017, Rabren conducted 810 hours of patrol on federal fisheries enforcement. He participated in 817 vessel boardings, intercepted nearly 3,000 commercial and recreational anglers and assisted in 107 state and federal citations or cases. Rabren was involved in citing multiple commercial fishing violations, including over the limit of large coastal sharks. In one incident, Rabren seized 88 sharks totaling 2,733 pounds. Rabren charged the same individual with subsequent violations, which resulted in $2,700 in fines and the forfeiture of boat, nets and equipment valued at about $100,000. Rabren, 33, also identified an unpermitted charter vessel operating in federal waters as well as numerous vessels in violation of season or possession limits of red snapper.

“With the little bit of coastline we have in the state, I really wasn’t expecting to bring this award home to Alabama,” Rabren said. “You go out and put the hours in in the heat and freezing cold. You really want people to do the right thing, but you know some people are not going to abide by the rules. I really just want to protect the resource.

“My son (JT) is 3 years old. I really want him to have something that’s worth fishing or hunting.”

Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon said Rabren put in extra effort to rearrange his schedule to specifically monitor certain illegal fishing activities.

“I’m extremely proud of Bull, as we affectionately call him,” Bannon said. “He worked very hard on several federal cases. Some of the activity was taking place at all hours of the night, so he adjusted his patrol efforts to determine if the law was being broken. He made some great cases, and he gets along great with the rest of our officers. They work together and work hard.”

Rabren charged one individual with seven federal charges and four state charges. The charges included possession of prohibited species, over the limit twice, obstruction of justice, two counts of (shark) finning, fishing with a gill net and possession of 20 game fish (red drum).

“He was targeting an illegal activity,” Bannon said. “It just happened to be the same person conducting the illegal activity more than once.”

Bannon said Alabama’s Marine Resources has the least number of enforcement officers on the Gulf, which makes maximizing the patrol time a priority.

“Because of our numbers, our (18) officers have to work extra hard,” he said. “We can’t throw a lot of people at a problem. They have to come up with creative solutions to address illegal activity.”

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship, who was recently presented the Lyles-Simpson Award by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission for lifetime achievements in marine fisheries, said he was elated to find out that Rabren would be the first Alabama officer to receive the award.

“I’m so proud to see one of our young officers recognized by the Gulf Council for their hard work,” said Blankenship, who started his ADCNR career as a Marine Resources Enforcement Officer in 1994. “We have so many good officers in the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. When one of them is recognized, it shines a great light on the people we have and the dedication they show doing their job every day. I’m really happy for Bull.”

As for the Lyles-Simpson Award, Blankenship said, “I was very honored to receive that award. When you look at the men and women who have received that award in the past, they are pillars of the fisheries management world. To be included in that list is quite an honor.”

Down the street at the Renaissance Riverview Hotel, SEAFWA’s annual conference resulted in another honor – the 2018 SEAFWA Diversity and Inclusion Award – for the ADCNR’s Collegiate Mentoring Program, which assists minority students who want to work with fish and wildlife agencies. The program provides those students with hands-on experience in a variety of outdoor activities beneficial to the pursuit of a career in those fields.

“Students majoring in various natural sciences and conservation fields are being introduced to hunting, fishing, camping, canoeing, firearm safety and habitat management and participating in discussions on current issues facing conservation with practicing professionals,” said Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes, who is also the current SEAFWA President. “We recognize the challenges that many minority students face in trying to find mentors and opportunities to engage in such experiences, and we want to make it easier for those interested in the conservation profession to do so.”

Since its inception at Tuskegee University in 2016, more than 80 students have participated in the program. Participants in the ADCNR program are encouraged to engage with the SEAFWA Minorities in Natural Resources Committee (MINRC) as well.

SEAFWA, which represents 15 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, noted that ADCNR fostered legislation to reduce out-of-state license fees for college students as well as establishing special opportunity areas (SOAs) for hunting and the Adult Mentored Hunting Program for adults with little or no hunting experience.

“ADCNR, along with its nongovernmental organization partners, has been instrumental in providing educational equipment, training and opportunities to people who otherwise would not have much exposure to the outdoors,” MINRC Chair David Buggs said. “We commend their efforts and look forward to the growth of the program.”

ADCNR has plans to expand the Collegiate Mentoring Program to Auburn University, Troy University and Alabama A&M University.

SEAWFA also honored Vance Wood as the Alabama Enforcement Officer of the Year during the awards ceremony.

Meanwhile, back down the street at the Gulf Council meeting, the Council did not finalize Amendment 50, which would allow for state management of red snapper, for 2020 and beyond. The exempted fishing permit (EFP) will remain in effect for the 2019 season.

Alabama’s proposal to adjust each state’s allotment of the red snapper quota was rejected by Florida and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Bannon said a follow-up proposal, which would distribute the quota among the five Gulf states, was presented as an alternative and will be voted on at the January 28-31, 2019, Gulf Council meeting at Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach.

“This puts us on a very tight timeline to complete all the requirements to have a state-managed 2020 season,” Bannon said. “But if we get everything done in January, we should make it. If we don’t approve something, potentially, 2020 becomes a federally managed season again, and we don’t feel that is going to benefit our anglers.”

After receiving a great deal of public input concerning the cobia fishery, the Gulf Council also approved an increase in the size limit of the fish, also known as ling, to 36 inches fork length, measured from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail.

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

Dentons complete Alabama Scenic River Trail journey

(Will Denton)

Adventure apparently has no time constraints for cousins Will and John Denton, who decided to make the 650-mile journey along the Alabama Scenic River Trail recently after answering two questions.

“John was just finishing up hiking the Appalachian Trail, so he had the camping experience,” said 79-year-old Will. “But, he didn’t know if he could paddle that far. I’ve been kayaking for about 40 years, so I knew I could do the paddling. But I didn’t know if I could sleep on the ground.”

1415

Even though John was not an experienced paddler, he was considering a trip down the Mississippi River before Will found a better idea.

“I allowed I had given that some thought, and I might be interested in doing that with him,” said Will of the trip down the mighty Mississippi. “About the same time, I found out about the Alabama Scenic River Trail (ASRT), and I suggested we try that first.”

The two decided to combine their skills to start the paddle about 4 miles from the Alabama line in Georgia.

The fact that Will’s home on Lake Martin wouldn’t be that far away should something go awry also contributed to the decision.

Will had only paddled a few miles of the ASRT, Moccasin Gap just below Jordan Dam to Wetumpka, and had no idea what to expect on the rest of the trail.

“Except for Moccasin Gap, it was all new to both of us,” Will said.

Will loaded up his trusty kayak with supplies for the trip while John, 66, opted for a Verlen Kruger vessel, kayak-canoe hybrid. They paddled across the state line and headed down through the six lakes on the Coosa system.

“It took us five or six days to kind of hit a rhythm and find a pace that was comfortable,” Will said. “We could paddle about 3 miles an hour with no more exertion than if you were walking. We were comfortable paddling at about the same speed.”

The paddlers saw a variety of wildlife during the trip, although Will admitted that John was more inclined to notice because of his passion for hunting.

“John is a big turkey hunter,” Will said. “He spent more time looking for stuff along the bank. He would call my attention to some things. Sometimes we paddled side by side. Sometimes we were on opposite sides of the river. We were looking for eagles quite a bit.

“On our (Coosa) lakes part of the trip, we averaged seeing about an eagle a day. By the time we got to Wetumpka and Montgomery, we didn’t see any more from there south.”

Will said the biggest interest from friends and family he’s told about the trip, which began September 1, is the numbers of snakes the duo encountered.

“I saw one cottonmouth and John didn’t see any,” Will said. “He saw six alligators when we got to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. He pointed two of those out to me. He saw a bobcat. We heard a bunch of hogs at night. We saw deer, and we saw a lot of fish-eating water birds. Interestingly, we saw more of those in the upper end.”

Will, a former public health administrator, and John, a retired farmer from the Mississippi Delta, had only a couple of episodes of difficult paddling during the adventure.

“Really, we had one day on Logan Martin when we had an afternoon trying to get to School Bus Island,” Will said. “We paddled into a strong headwind for two or three hours to get to the island, which was a wonderful campsite. It was about our only option to camp on the lower end of the lake because it is all developed down there. Until we got to Mobile Bay, that was the hardest day of paddling.

“When I look back at the pictures I took on the way, the water was as slick and calm as it could be. The water conditions were wonderful.”

During the time on the Coosa section, rainstorms popped up all around them, but they encountered only a couple of light showers. It turned out to be the calm before the storm.

“We didn’t hardly get the tents wet until we got into the Alabama River,” Will said. “We were below Montgomery when we got caught in a storm. The people who had invited us to stay with them that night saw the storm coming and came out in a pontoon boat and towed us back to their house.”

The other significant storm the Dentons weathered was during a stay above Claiborne Lock and Dam at the Isaac Creek Campground lock. Fortunately, they had their tents up when the rain started about 4:30 that afternoon.

“It rained hard until about 10:30 that night,” Will said. “When we got up the next morning to go through the lock, that lock drop is usually about 30 feet. But the drop that morning was only 15 feet because the river was already up 15 feet below the dam. We had that extra push all the way until we ran into some tidal situations in the Delta. We made much better time than we normally would have.

“And I really didn’t have a problem sleeping on the ground. I guess part of it was we were pretty tired at the end of the day.”

The Dentons’ routine was to paddle all day and get camp set up in time to eat and be in the tents before the mosquitoes came out in force at dusk.

“We really didn’t have a major mosquito problem like John is used to in the Mississippi Delta,” Will said. “One time early in the trip, we couldn’t find a place to camp on the upper end of Lay Lake. We finally found a creek and went way back up the creek. We finally did find a place and got our camp set up. The mosquitoes weren’t bad at all.

“Afterwards, John told several folks, ‘We were so far back in woods, the mosquitoes hadn’t even found that place.’”

Will said the ASRT has identified a significant number of campsites on their website that paddlers can take advantage of, including those on the Bartram Canoe Trail in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

“One of the things that stands out to me is the Alabama Scenic River Trail Association has what they call river angels, like the Appalachian Trail,” he said. “Their names and phone numbers are listed on the website. When we started working on this trip, some of the ASRT people contacted some of the trail angels along the way.”

Denton said two couples on the Alabama River sent word that they wanted the paddlers to stay overnight with a hot shower, supper and bed at their disposal.

“These couples could not have been nicer,” Will said. “The visits were delightful. One lady in Fairhope moved one of our trucks for us, twice. The couple from Selma drove one of our trucks to Fairhope so it would be there when we got there. These are people with knowledge and interest in the trail. It really was one of the neatest things about the trip.”

After a rather leisurely paddle on most of the trip, the Dentons didn’t realize how they would be tested once they hit Mobile Bay.

“Probably the only uncomfortable moments we had were when we were paddling in the bay,” Will said. “Going from Fairhope to the Nelson Shipyard in Bon Secour, we had a dead headwind. I keep my phone on a lanyard around my neck. I got two or three texts that I couldn’t answer. If I had stopped paddling to check the texts, I would have been going backwards. I paddled for all I was worth for about three hours. I slept well that night.

“There were a lot of things that I will remember. The difficulty of the last two days was memorable. The only whitewater we had was at Moccasin Gap, but we had whitecaps on Mobile Bay.”

On the 34th day of the trip, the Dentons paddled from Oyster Bay to Fort Morgan to complete the adventure. Will said he is proud of the accomplishment, but he doesn’t want people to focus on his age.

“I really don’t think my age has any bearing on it,” he said. “It’s a function of what kind of condition you’re in. I’ve got friends older than I am that are in better shape than I am. Some folks tend to slow down when they get to some magic number and don’t stay as active. I just paddled 650 miles, so, yeah, I feel good about that. Being gone 34 days, if my wife (Charlotte) had not been supportive, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I’m glad I did it. I feel good I did it.

“I would tell anybody who thinks they want to do this trip that they can’t do it any younger than they are right now.”

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

2 months ago

Summit provides updates on RESTORE progress in Alabama

(Marine Resources, David Rainer)

Although the inaugural Governor’s Restoration Summit had held a firm spot on Governor Kay Ivey’s schedule for months, Hurricane Michael required a change of plans for Governor Ivey as the devastation left in its wake called for her immediate attention.

Fortunately, Governor Ivey was able to leave the important business of the Summit under the leadership of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship, a man very familiar with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that initiated the 8-year path to the Summit.

The Summit, held last week at the Spanish Fort Community Center, provided updates on the progress of restoration efforts related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as well as the opportunity for public input on proposals for work that will continue for the foreseeable future.

1184

“On the Alabama Coast we all know how it is to go through such a traumatic storm event.  Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of Florida, Southeast Alabama and Georgia and Governor Ivey as they deal with the aftermath of the massive storm,” Blankenship said as he opened the Summit.

“The most exciting thing to point out from the Summit is that 122 projects valued at more than $711 million of restoration efforts have occurred or are underway so far in Alabama,” Blankenship said. “We’ve done good work in all these restoration projects, but there is still more work to do. It’s important to have events like this to hear from the public about what’s important to them and what type of projects we need to do moving forward to continue to restore Alabama.

“The settlement from BP will continue to be paid out over 15 years, through 2032, so it’s a long process where we will be doing restoration work, and we want to continue to stay engaged with the public. We want to make sure we provide information about projects that are being done, how those projects are going and listen for what we can do better in the future.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that occurred in 2010 forever changed the way of life along the Gulf Coast from the economic impact to the curtailment of recreational opportunities and property access. In 2016, a settlement was reached with BP to fund restoration efforts and recover economic damages for Alabama and the rest of the Gulf states.

“Each of us has a special interest in preserving our state’s natural resources,” Blankenship said. “I love our coast and what it means to our way of life and quality of life here. This is my home and, for most of you, your home. As Commissioner, I commit to you that we will strive to ensure that our state remains Alabama the beautiful.”

Blankenship said the interest citizens have shown in the state’s natural resources continues to demonstrate that the state’s most valuable resource is the people of Alabama.

“It warms my heart to see so many people who care deeply for Alabama and its natural resources,” he said. “Gov. Ivey also cares very much about the restoration work underway and what still needs to be done.”

Blankenship shared the successes in Alabama from the $711 million allocated for 122 restoration projects to date.

“With these projects, we are improving water quality in Mobile Bay and protecting the Grand Bay Savanna,” he said. “We are protecting oyster habitats, turtle-nesting habitats, bird-nesting habitats and other wildlife. We are restoring the marsh and shoreline at Lightning Point in Bayou La Batre.

“We are expanding public fishing opportunities by restoring the fishing pier at Fort Morgan. We also have the beautiful new Lodge at Gulf State Park that will open on November 2. We are promoting growth in south Alabama’s economy with important infrastructure projects.”

Other types of restoration projects include oyster management, artificial reef construction and research, ecosystem research and improving the stranding response network for marine mammals.

“In case you’ve never heard me say this before, Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the country,” Blankenship said. “Through this funding, we have been able to build more artificial reefs and do research around those reefs that will continue to provide habitat and production for decades.

“And everybody loves oysters. A lot of work has been done and will be done to restore oysters.”

Regarding community resilience, Blankenship said the goal is for a community to use available resources to respond to, withstand and recover from adverse situations like natural disasters and environmental catastrophes.

“Coastal Alabama is all too familiar with being prepared when disaster strikes,” Blankenship said. “As we saw with the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle and southeast Alabama, coastal resilience is vitally important.  It is not a matter of if but when our coast will be impacted by a tropical storm or hurricane.”

For economic development and enhancement, the projects include an Africatown Museum and Welcome Center as well as various road and highway improvements, Port of Mobile enhancements and water system improvements in coastal Alabama.

With RESTORE funding, Alabama has been able to acquire more than 4,000 acres of environmentally sensitive coastal habitat. So far more than $100 million has been designated for land acquisition and conservation.

“ADCNR, in close coordination with the Forever Wild Land Trust program, as well as state and federal partners, has invested and will continue to invest in land conservation and other restoration efforts across coastal Alabama,” Blankenship said.

The Commissioner said watershed management plans are a foundational piece of the restoration strategy with the goal of improving water quality.

“Clearly, we are making progress, but we’re not stopping there,” Blankenship said. “We need to do more. I’m grateful to our federal partners and local partners on each of these projects.”

The Governor’s Office and ADCNR recently produced the 2018 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Restoration Progress Report that highlights the progress through the middle of 2018. Go to this link to review the complete report online.

The Restoration Progress Report is grouped by restoration project types:

–Replenishing and protecting living coastal and marine resources
–Supporting and enhancing community resilience
–Providing and enhancing economic development and infrastructure
–Restoring, conserving and enhancing habitat
–Providing and enhancing recreation and public access
–Restoring water quality
–Providing planning support
–Conducting science, research and monitoring

“The Governor’s Restoration Summit is the first opportunity we have had to put together a document that has all the projects showcased in one place, regardless of funding source,” Blankenship said. “When all the projects are grouped by restoration type it shows that, overall, restoration projects for Alabama cover all restoration types pretty fairly and that when aggregated it is over 120 projects and $711 million, which is pretty impressive.

“The important part is these projects come from you (the public). These projects started with a suggestion from somebody – a group, an organization, a municipality, a county or state agency. That is the primary reason for this summit – to hear from you on projects from ‘Bucket 2’ of the federal RESTORE Act. Restoration is definitely a team effort. The Governor’s Restoration Summit further proves the power of working together.”

Over the next 15 years about $1.4 billion is allocated to Alabama for restoration projects related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NRDA, NFWF and the Alabama RESTORE Council. About $1.6 billion will be allocated by the federal RESTORE Council gulf-wide from Bucket 2. That money is not distributed or divided to each state by any formula. All five Gulf states and six federal agencies will work to put together a plan that meets project needs in each state. Ben Scaggs, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, participated in the Summit and shared with the attendees plans and timelines for developing Funded Priorities Lists by the federal RESTORE Council over the next two years as well as over the next couple of decades.

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

2 months ago

New degree at Auburn combines wildlife, business and hospitality

(David Rainer)

Pay attention, high schoolers and parents. Students who love the outdoors and plan to continue their education after graduation will have a new option for a college degree rooted in the outdoors at Auburn University in 2019.

The undergraduate degree will be in Wildlife Enterprise Management with training in wildlife sciences, business and hospitality. Auburn professors Steve Ditchkoff and Mark Smith collaborated on developing the major in an effort to fill a need in the outdoors community that doesn’t require a wildlife biologist degree.

Heather Crozier, Director of Development at the Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences unveiled the program to outdoor writers recently at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association Conference in Florence, S.C.

967

Outdoor recreation generates about a $14 billion impact on the Alabama economy and about $887 billion nationwide. Outdoors-related businesses and companies support 135,000 jobs in Alabama.

“Our faculty did some surveys, and they found that in a 250-mile radius of Auburn that there are 1,000 businesses that are wildlife enterprise-related,” Crozier said. “This major will give us a unique skillset for that industry. The students will also get a minor in business so they will understand basic business principles.”

Crozier said the new degree program will utilize the facilities connected to Auburn. The Deer Lab is a 400-plus-acre facility near Auburn at Camp Hill where researchers study the genetics and physiology of white-tailed deer. The Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center near Andalusia gives students hands-on instruction in forestry, wildlife and natural resources management. The Kreher Preserve and Nature Center on the outskirts of Auburn provides an outdoors venue for a variety of nature programs.

Crozier said only one other college, Kansas State, offers a similar degree with about 100 students in that program annually.

“When our students graduate with a Wildlife Enterprise Management degree, we hope they will apply the principles of wildlife enterprise, understand and apply the ecological principles in conservation biology and eco-tourism and be a well-rounded student in hospitality and understand customer service in food and beverage production and lodging,” Crozier said. “They will have the skillset to be able to run a business as well as be able to effectively market and advertise the wildlife- and outdoor-based enterprise.”

This curriculum will have a wildlife core with about 60 percent of the courses in wildlife sciences and about 40 percent in business and hospitality.

“Most of our students who go to work for fish and wildlife departments are wildlife sciences majors and end up being wildlife biologists,” Crozier said. “The students in the new program will not be wildlife biologists.”

Crozier said the graduates in the new degree can pursue jobs at hunting lodges, shooting facilities, fishing resorts as well as guide services and outdoor sport/adventure promotions.

“Dr. Ditchkoff and Dr. Smith were talking with people in the industry, and they kept hearing, ‘We need students who understand business, who understand customer expectations and who know about wildlife,’” she said. “What they learned was several of the outfitters they talked to were going to colleges and universities and recruiting wildlife students and teaching them about hospitality and business. Or, they were recruiting hospitality and business students and teaching them about wildlife. The industry said it would really be nice if you could develop this specific product. We feel like there is a market for it. They started exploring and realized how many outdoor-enterprise businesses there were in that 250-mile radius of Auburn. They realized, hey, there really is a niche for this type of degree.

“With Kansas State being the only other place that offered a similar program, we just felt like we could fill that need.”

Pam Swanner of Alabama Black Belt Adventures agrees wholeheartedly.

“The Black Belt region has a rich history in the traditions of hunting and fishing,” Swanner said. “It’s a natural fit that Auburn would create a unique degree program to provide a skilled workforce trained in land management, business and hospitality. At Auburn’s back door are more than 50 outfitters that can provide opportunities for student internships.

“Alabama Black Belt Adventures is partnering with AU’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences to assist in organizing internship placement in the Black Belt region. We’re also introducing the faculty to the industry’s many product companies and other organizations that have an interest in supporting such a worthwhile program with scholarship funds to ensure a prosperous future for our industry.”

Crozier said if you venture outside that 250-mile radius, the possibilities become considerably greater. She said 40 students currently enrolled at Auburn are waiting to pursue the new degree, and she expects the program will eventually graduate between 100 and 150 annually.

“Just think about international,” she said. “It’s amazing how many opportunities are out there. We expect these students to not only go to work for hunting lodges, fishing lodges and shooting facilities, but also do safaris in Africa, outdoor adventures anywhere in the world or become representatives for outdoors companies. This is an extremely broad major that does not limit our students to a specific area.

“We’re expecting the demand for this major to blossom and really increase.”

Crozier said an internship is not a part of the curriculum, but it is highly suggested so that the students who go into this major will get some industry experience.

“Dr. Ditchkoff and Dr. Smith are putting together a list of industry contacts who are looking for interns,” she said. “It will be up to the student to go find their internship. If we have a company or business that wants to interview students, we will provide a place to do that and line the students up to interview.

Crozier said the faculty plans to reach out to the outdoors industry to identify what might be a current need or emerging need that could become an area of focus or to adjust the curriculum.

“Being a brand new program, we do have some needs. We need to be able to create partnerships with industry so that our students have places and opportunities to intern,” she said. “We’re looking for corporate sponsorships. Academic scholarships attract your best and brightest students. We need mentors, speakers for classes, places to take students for field tours, travel stipends for our students and faculty.”

Prospective students and parents can visit sfws.auburn.edu for more information or call recruiter Wendy Franklin in the Student Services office at 334-844-1001.

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

2 months ago

Snapper anglers can offer input at Gulf Council meeting in Mobile

(David Rainer)

Gulf anglers who are dedicated to catching Alabama’s most popular reef fish species – red snapper – will have an opportunity to share their opinions with the policy makers at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in Mobile later this month.  During the meeting, members of the Gulf Council will continue discussions on a change in red snapper management that would give the individual Gulf States more flexibility in establishing the length of the fishing season within each state.

Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director Scott Bannon and MRD Chief Biologist Kevin Anson urge all anglers who want to see the individual states manage the reef fish fishery to become a part of the process when the Gulf Council meets Oct. 22-25 at the Renaissance Battle House in downtown Mobile.

992

The Reef Fish Committee meets at 8:30 a.m., Tuesday, Oct. 23, to discuss Amendment 50, which deals with state management of red snapper. The segment of the Gulf Council meeting Bannon and Anson highlight as the chance for the public to participate in the process is the comment period from 1:30-4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24.

“In this particular Council meeting, we really need to make some decisions on the state management plans that could come into effect after 2019,” Bannon said.

Alabama’s 2019 red snapper season remains under the exempted fishing permit (EFP) that NOAA Fisheries granted for the 2018-2019 seasons. That EFP allowed the individual states to set seasons that would allow harvest of a specific number of pounds of red snapper as long as it did not exceed the overall quota.

Alabama anglers showed a renewed enthusiasm for red snapper fishing this past summer, and MRD officials were forced to close the snapper season early. The Marine Resources Division based its proposed 47-day 2018 season on the data gathered from the 2017 snapper season. That data included daily catch rate, size of the fish and the amount of angler effort (man-days fishing for snapper).

Alabama closely monitors the red snapper harvest through its red snapper reporting program, known as Snapper Check. After the data came in on July 8, MRD realized that red snapper fishermen had taken advantage of near-ideal conditions to catch fish at such a rate that the quota of 984,291 pounds of red snapper would be exceeded unless the season was closed after 28 days.

“Everything that you would be concerned about as an angler wasn’t a concern,” Anson said, explaining why angler participation and harvest rates skyrocketed in 2018. “When you go offshore, you have to make sure you have enough money to pay for fuel and supplies. The economy is good. They didn’t have to worry about the weather, as winds and seas were great this year during the snapper season days for the most part. And, the fish are there and they’re easy to catch.”

Although the 2019 snapper season will still fall under the EFP, no plan is in place for 2020 and beyond. Without a new plan, the private recreational angler would revert to a federal season, which was ridiculously short before the EFP was granted.

“If we go back to a federal season, that may not work out very well for private recreational anglers,” Bannon said. “There will be a lot of discussion on Amendment 50 at this Council meeting.”

Anson, who is MRD’s representative on the Gulf Council, said Amendment 50 is an alternative to the traditional federal form of fisheries management.  “Basically, it’s a form of management that apportions a percentage of the recreational quota to each state. Then the states set their seasons based on those available pounds,” Anson said.

“Amendment 50 states that the Gulf states have a portion of the total recreational allocation, which may or may not include federal charter boats,” Anson said.

Alabama’s charter-for-hire fleet opted to abide by traditional federal management for the 2018 season, which gave them a 51-day season, fishing straight through from June 1 through July 21.

Anson said charter-for-hire vessels are included in Amendment 50, although there is discussion to exclude them from the amendment.

Anson said several options are on the table in Amendment 50 to determine what each state’s apportionment would be, including traditional harvest data and a biomass estimate.

The biomass (number of red snapper in the Gulf) estimate may not bode well for Alabama’s share.

“The assessment estimates that the majority of red snapper are west of the Mississippi River,” Anson said. “That would be Louisiana and Texas. The proportion of red snapper for the other three states is lower. Compared to historical landings data, our allocation of fish would go down in that situation.”

Anson said if Amendment 50 is passed and goes into effect, it will give states as much control over the fishery as federal law allows through the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Congress must amend Magnuson-Stevens to give states more control than what is currently being considered under Amendment 50, Anson said.

“Under this amendment, states could set their seasons,” Bannon said. “The seasons will be set under a total allowable catch for the entire Gulf. Probably the number one topic for Amendment 50 is can the states agree on the allocation percentage for each state and vote that forward so that everything will be done in time for the 2020 season.

“The other topic has to do with the federal for-hire boats. Do they totally come out of the amendment? Two states are fighting very hard to keep the for-hire boats in the amendment, and the federal for-hire folks in the other three states would not like to see that. They want to keep the federal season. The meeting in Mobile is a chance for the owners of federal for-hire vessels to express that to the Council.”

Bannon said historically the private recreational anglers have been reluctant for whatever reasons to provide public testimony and participate in the process. He hopes that will change later this month.

“Red snapper fishing in Alabama is a huge deal,” Bannon said. “This Gulf Council meeting is being held in Mobile. I want to encourage people from Alabama who consider this to be very important to come and provide public comment during the process. My take is that if you can take a day off to go fishing, then you can take a day off to come to the meeting and be a part of the solution for 2020 and beyond. We get a lot of people whose response is ‘The process is stupid’ or ‘It doesn’t work,’ when they don’t know how it works. This is their opportunity to see how the Council process works.”

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

Special Opportunity Area program gains special place at Portland Landing

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

During the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s media tour of Portland Landing, the newest Special Opportunity Area (SOA), a flood of memories rushed over me as we wound through the Alabama River bottomlands and nearby rolling hills last week.

As the members of the media got their first look at this prime hunting real estate, which was recently purchased in a joint effort between WFF and the Forever Wild program, I got a reminder of how important this piece of property was to my outdoors adventures as well as to the promotion of hunting in Alabama and Mossy Oak camouflage.

1250

I didn’t hunt the property when it was the Hit and Miss Hunting Club. My visits to Portland Landing came in the 1990s when Mossy Oak held a lease and filmed many an episode of outdoors TV at the property situated northeast of Camden. Suffice to say, those hunting trips with Lannie Wallace and Cuz Strickland at Portland Landing remain some of the most cherished experiences of my outdoors career.

Chuck Sykes, WFF Director, had a similar experience with Portland Landing during his media and wildlife consulting days.

“I hunted it back in the day too,” Sykes said. “I knew the significance of that part of the world and what it had to offer game-wise. And just the history of it. There’s been a hunting club or hunting operation there as long as I’ve been hunting in the state of Alabama. It’s some of the best land in the state, some of the best dirt, some of the best genetics. It’s just one of those special places.”

Currently, Portland Landing SOA is about 5,000 acres with an additional 4,000 acres that will be added for the 2019 season.

“Portland was about 12,000 to 14,000 acres in its heyday,” Sykes said. “The goal is to put the whole place back together as much as we can. This is the best of the best. There is no way, five years ago, that I would have imagined that we would be able to purchase this property and to provide it to people for the cost of an Alabama hunting license and Wildlife Management Area license.”

Sykes said the habitat diversity for Alabama’s game species is about as good as it gets in the state. The diversity runs from creek bottoms to river frontage to upland hardwood stands, mixed pine-hardwood stands and cedar glades native to the Black Belt prairie.

“Portland has everything you could imagine habitat-wise when it comes to growing wildlife,” he said.

Sykes said he knows there will be criticism for not opening Portland Landing for general public hunts, but he said the property is not large enough to handle that much hunting activity.

“This place is perfect for the SOA system,” he said. “The person who gets drawn and one other hunting partner will have 300 to 500 acres as their own hunting area. That way we can keep it low pressure. Everybody gets a good experience.”

As almost everyone who has been hunting for a while knows, the number of hunting licenses sold annually continues to dwindle. Last year, about 167,000 hunting licenses were sold in Alabama. Hunters under the age of 16 or over 65 are not required to buy a license. A landowner hunting on his own land is not required to buy a hunting license.

The R3 National Plan is an effort at recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters. Sykes said the SOA hunts and Adult Mentored Hunting (AMH) Program hunts are aimed at that outreach.

“If we can’t figure out a way to move the needle in a positive direction by adding new license buyers to the hunting fold, the future of wildlife conservation efforts doesn’t look promising,” Sykes said. “So, we are looking into non-traditional markets for our new R3 efforts. Our Adult Mentored Hunting Program targets people from 19 to 60. By going after this audience, they have made up their minds they want to hunt. We’re going to a different market. We have to think outside the box.

“In the past, most recruitment programs focused on kids. Our research has found that many youth participants don’t have a support system through family members or friends that allows them to continue to hunt, and, therefore, we haven’t created a new hunter. We are not suspending our youth programs, but we are focusing all new efforts on the adult segment of the population. We are extremely optimistic that the AMH Program will provide us an exceptional return on our investment by creating new consumptive wildlife users and license buyers.”

Sykes said new hunters may not have the same motivations as experienced hunters.

“We were ahead of the curve,” he said. “We hunters have been eating free-range, farm-fresh, organic for a long time, when it wasn’t fashionable. Now there are a lot of people who want to do that.”

Sykes added, “We decided to try this as a pilot program. Honestly, it was the best thing we’ve done for our staff. They actually had people tell them, ‘Thank you,’ who meant it. All our participants had a good time. We tried our best to give them a crash course in hunting over a weekend in a hunting-camp environment, like what made us hunters growing up.”

Sykes said one participant drove all the way to Alabama from Orlando, Fla., to take part in an AMH Program deer hunt and a squirrel hunt because she wanted to be able to pass the experience on to her children.

Todd Prater of ALEX-FM radio in Selma, who was at last week’s media event with representatives from all four divisions of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, brought his 79-year-old father to one of the hunts last season.

“One of the things I love about it is now my kids want to learn how to hunt,” Prater said. “Now that I have learned, I can pass it on and create new hunters for the future.”

Sykes gave an example of how eye-opening the SOA and Adult Mentored Hunting Program events were for the staff, himself included.

“I sat in a blind one afternoon with a gentleman about my age, in his mid-40s, who works for the University of Alabama in their merchandising department,” Sykes said. “I asked him why he applied. He said, ‘Everybody I work with hunts. I wanted to be able to talk to them about it.’ That’s pretty scary. We have people around us all the time we work with, we go to church with, we go to kids’ events with that are just waiting to be asked to go hunting.

“That was a big wake-up call for us. We feel this program is going to pay off.”

Another plus at the new SOA is the old lodge at Portland, which has been refurbished to make it comfortable for those who are lucky enough to get drawn for an Adult Mentored Hunt.

“The lodge itself will be utilized as headquarters for our Adult Mentored Hunting Program,” Sykes said. “This is another significant part of the puzzle for our AMH Program hunts.”

Portland will accommodate 8 to 10 people per SOA hunt or Adult Mentored Hunt.

Applications for the Adult Mentored Hunts are ongoing. Visit this link for more information. Deer hunts for the 2018 SOA hunts have been drawn, but hunts for small game and turkeys are still available. Go to this link to apply for one of the SOA hunts.

Hopefully, those lucky enough to be drawn for one of the hunts will make memories that are special, like mine.

I’ll never forget watching Lannie race flat-out through the Portland Landing swamp, chasing a turkey he thought I had wounded. In fact, a tree shielded him from seeing the gobbler I had in my sights. As Lannie was chasing the low-flying turkey, his buddy was flopping on the ground. The impressive part was that Lannie almost caught that fleeing gobbler. The story would have become legend if he had.

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

Surf fishing provides ‘Bama Beach Bum’ with new vocation

(David Rainer)

The pre-dawn light was sufficient for safe passage from the parking lot over a boardwalk to a beautiful stretch of beach on the Fort Morgan peninsula.

The early arrival guaranteed our party, led by guide Matt Isbell, would get to pick the spot where our surf-fishing adventure would have the best chance of success.

Isbell, better known as the Bama Beach Bum to all his YouTube followers, has developed a niche among fishing guides on the Alabama Gulf Coast. He has tried fishing from boats and piers, but he prefers the sandy beaches and surf where whiting and pompano roam.

1207

The Wetumpka native moved to Gulf Shores for an insurance job, but his surf-fishing success led to a full-time guide business in March of this year.

“I started uploading YouTube videos in October last year and started guiding in December,” Isbell said. “I didn’t really plan on guiding. I started hosting online content just because I loved it, and I wanted to kind of see where it went.

“I had multiple people continually asking me to take them fishing. I did that initially. Then it got to be more and more to the point it was taking away from my regular job.”

Isbell decided to see if anyone would pay for his services. He learned there is a growing market for his kind of fishing.

“It kind of snowballed from there and really started picking up,” he said.

Isbell soon found out his guide business appeals to a wide variety of customers.

“Most of my clients are out-of-towners, a lot from the Midwest but from all over the country,” he said. “I’ve had a group from Guam that wanted to fish. They saw me on YouTube. Right now, I’m the only one uploading surf-fishing content to the internet, so that’s how some people find me.

“I get people of all ages and sizes, ethnicities, all the above.”

Isbell’s surf fishing started in earnest six years ago when he moved to the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“When I first started surf fishing, I was just trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “Like a lot of people in Alabama, I grew up bass and crappie fishing. When I came down here, I just tried to figure out the fishing. I fished a lot of different ways – from boats, piers, canals, wherever I could access the water.

“Then I started surf fishing and I fell in love with it. I just enjoyed being on the beach and being able to bring home dinner.”

Isbell has refined his surf-fishing techniques in the last six years. Although he has learned to judge the surf and which areas produce fish, it’s really not a technique that infrequent visitors should tackle. He said learning to read the beach takes time, that most people find it difficult to pick up on the nuances that might lead to better fishing unless a lot of time is spent on the beach.

“The biggest thing I tell people to do is to stagger your baits,” he said. “Make sure you cover a lot of water and try to locate the zone those fish are running in. Especially when you’re surf fishing, these fish are not hanging in one area like they do on a reef or pier or jetty. The fish in the surf are always moving, looking for food. But they are going to hang in a particular depth. That’s why you stagger your baits to try to find out what depth those fish are favoring. But it can change daily or week to week. You always have to recalibrate to find the fish.

“If you know how to look for cuts, holes and bars in the surf, that can help, but most people have a hard time with it. But anybody can get out there and put baits in different spots and figure it out using that system.”

Isbell said a dedicated surf angler will need a variety of tackle to target the species that happen to inhabit the surf at any given time because different fish come to the beaches at different times.

“What we’re targeting is going to determine what tackle we use,” he said. “But the most popular way is what we are doing, using pompano rigs with bits of shrimp and Fish Bites. We’ll use sand fleas (mole crabs) when they present themselves, and we can scoop them up (look for a sand flea rake at the local tackle shop). We had some really good colonies of sand fleas show up this year. It’s a great bait and it’s free.”

On our trip, Isbell used 10-foot surf rods with 4000- and 5000-series spinning reels spooled with 20-pound-test braided line. Of the five rigs we used during our outing, we had a drop-hook rig with the 2- to 3-ounce weight tied to the bottom on three rods, while the other two were rigged with cut bait hooked below the weight (Carolina rig) to try to catch a redfish or bluefish. He uses 1/0 to 2/0 circle hooks most of the time.

“You don’t have to use 10-foot rods, but you can still fish on rough days,” he said. “You can keep a 3- or 4-ounce lead out. I make my own pompano rigs. You can buy them with two or three drops. I prefer one-drop rigs. It’s more discreet and easier to manage.”

Isbell said probably his hardest job is teaching clients what to look for to indicate a bite. A rhythmic motion of the rod tip indicates wave action. A steady pull or erratic action means some species of fish is taking the bait.

Although our party, which included Jay Hirschberg and Wayne Carman, was fishing on a neap tide, we managed to reel in bluefish, whiting (sometimes called southern or Gulf kingfish), a rodeo-worthy ladyfish and the ubiquitous hardhead catfish to the beach. Isbell said the heat has caused the pompano to vacate the surf until the weather and water cools.

Cooler weather will also bring another desirable species close to the beach.

“We get a good run of bull redfish in the fall,” Isbell said. “We will use a lot of cut bait. I’m transitioning now to using cut bait on Carolina rigs. If I’m fishing for bull reds, I’ll move up to a 4/0 hook. They will hit pompano rigs, and that’s definitely worth doing because the pompano fishing is only going to improve as the weather cools.

“You can catch whiting all year, but it does get better in the winter. That is the main species we target when it gets cold. Whiting get bigger (pushing 2 pounds) and more plentiful in the winter months. Sometimes in the winter, we’ll get a run of what we call ‘big uglies,’ the big black drum. Those are a lot of fun to catch, too.”

For those who specifically target pompano in the surf, Isbell said the best fishing occurs in the spring.

“March, April and May – those are the three months to catch pompano,” he said. “That’s go time for pompano. You can still catch them in June and July, but it’s definitely better in the spring.”

Isbell said certain conditions provide an opportunity to catch speckled trout in the surf as well.

“We catch trout mainly in the summer months,” he said. “It’s usually after a big rain and fresh water moves the fish out to the beaches, looking for that higher salinity.”

Go to this link for information on booking trips with Isbell as well as links to his Facebook and YouTube pages. Because his guide service is shore-based, anglers who fish with Isbell are required to have a valid Alabama saltwater fishing license in their possession. Visit 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.

3 months ago

Opening-day dove hunt focuses on youth

(David Rainer)

Sweat trickled into my eyes as a mourning dove turned and came straight at me. Hidden in the sunflower stalks, I was undetected until it was too late. A shot at the approaching dove dropped it between rows.

A short time later, another dove flew even closer. Two shots later and the dove continued flying unscathed. I’ll blame it on the sweat.

As usual, the opening day of dove season in the North Zone was an exercise in trying to find shade as the onset of fall temperatures is likely still a few weeks away. But that didn’t deter the participants at the annual dove hunt at Gulf Farms near Orrville in Dallas County.

1252

Hosts Mike Eubanks and Lamar Harrison make a point to emphasize that dove hunting is an ideal method to introduce youngsters and inexperienced hunters to the outdoors.

During the pre-hunt safety briefing and discussion, Eubanks celebrated a record turnout of young people at the hunt.

“We had 38 hunters age 15 and under,” Eubanks said. “That’s fantastic. That’s the most we’ve ever had. What we’re trying to do is get these younger people involved in the outdoors. And we appreciate these dads and moms who bring their kids with them to hunt.

“Mr. Harrison (his father-in-law) and I want to give these kids a chance to hunt doves in a safe environment. We stress safety before we head to the dove fields.”

Gulf Farms goes to a great deal of effort to provide top-quality fields for the hunters, planting a combination of corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, sunflowers and wheat.

“We can’t control how many doves we have,” Eubanks said. “But we do everything by the guidelines to provide everything we think a dove might need from food to water to places to roost.

“We had a decent number of doves this year. It was better than last year, but it wasn’t the best hunt we’ve had at Gulf Farms. But those kids got to shoot a lot, and their enjoyment of being outdoors is what we like to see.”

Eric Guarino and his 14-year-old son, Jack, have been fixtures at the Gulf Farms hunt during the last decade. Last weekend’s hunt made the seventh hunt for the father-son team in the last eight years.

“I think Jack was probably six when we started coming,” Eric said. “My daughter even came one year. I just wanted to get them outside and get them involved in something that I always enjoyed doing.”

Eric’s outdoors adventures started out with a fishing rod in his hands. It was a few years before it was replaced with a firearm.

“When my dad opened his own business, my mom was working there,” he said. “Five days a week when we weren’t in school, my mom would put me out at Fisherman’s Wharf on Dog River. She would come pick me up at five o’clock when she got off work. I fished all day, every day. I caught more redfish and flounder out of Dog River than anybody else.”

Guarino was in high school when he went deer hunting for the first time with friends. Then one of his friends was dating a girl whose dad was a member of a dove club in Baldwin County, which led to his introduction to dove hunting.

“Then I really got into duck hunting,” he said “I was fanatical about it for a very long time. I still am, but it is suppressed by kids, career and other obligations. I don’t have time to go scout for ducks anymore.”

Despite the other outdoors endeavors, the Guarinos try to make it to Gulf Farms for the September opening-day hunt.

“Mike and Mr. Harrison invite me every year,” Eric said. “Actually, they invite Jack, and I get to drive him. In a couple of years, he’ll be driving, and I may not get to come.”

Eric said the atmosphere at the Gulf Farms hunt makes them come back year after year.

“This is a good bunch of folks, good fellowship, good eats in a safe, clean environment,” he said. “It’s just a good time being around a lot of good folks.

“Jack is really into camping and hiking and backpacking, so, we do that together. We don’t do a whole lot of hunting, but when this dove hunt came up, he said, ‘We have got to go to that.’ He wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

Jack said he remembers his first Gulf Farms hunt like it was yesterday.

“When I was six, I was happy to be here,” Jack said. “I had my little BB gun. My dad would shoot one, and I’d go over with my BB gun and say, ‘I got it.’

“It’s been fun. I’ve been coming half of my life. I get to shoot guns all day, which is a fun thing to do. A couple of my friends go deer hunting but not many dove hunt. I love dove hunting. It’s special because we come here every year. It’s just a good time.”

Jack and his dad had an especially fruitful afternoon in the dove field, retrieving almost a two-man limit (15 per person) of birds. Like most hunters, Jack relishes the preparation and consumption of the wild game.

“I get to eat what I kill,” Jack said. “It’s a special connection that I took this game for myself, and now I get to enjoy it.”

Eric said he doesn’t have an elaborate recipe to prepare doves for his family, but it doesn’t matter.

“I just wrap them in bacon and put them in the oven and cook them until the bacon is done,” Eric said. “Then I don’t get to eat any of them because my wife and daughter will eat them all. I’ve got to kill quite a few to be able to have enough for me to get some.”

Kent Yrabedra joined the Gulf Farms fun last weekend, and he also sticks to the basics when it comes to preparing his dove breasts for the table.

“I like them the old-fashioned way,” Yrabedra said. “Fried doves are hard to beat. I soak them in buttermilk, roll them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper and fry them golden brown. Just don’t over-fry them or they’ll get tough.”

The Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Wild Game Cook-Off series has yielded several delicious ways to prepare doves, including this one from the Choctaw Bluff cooking team.

Dove Boats

Ingredients:

20 dove breasts

Teriyaki, Worcestershire and yellow mustard for marinade

10 jalapeños

8 ounces cream cheese

1 can water chestnuts

Bacon

Preparation: The Choctaw Bluff team starts by pounding the dove breasts to tenderize. Combine marinade ingredients to taste and dip dove breasts. Slice jalapeños lengthwise and seed. Take jalapeno half, fill with cream cheese, top with water chestnut and dove breast. Wrap in bacon. Cook on hot grill until bacon is done.

The Mobile County Wildlife Association prepared another AWF Cook-Off winner.

Uncle Tom’s Banded Dove Bombs

Ingredients:

20 dove breasts

Half gallon buttermilk

2 pounds Jimmy Dean Hot sausage

3 cans Pillsbury Crescent rolls

Large (2-pound) block Velveeta cheese

Peanut oil

Preparation: Soak doves in buttermilk overnight. Cut dove breasts into strips and mix with sausage. Brown mixture until cooked. Put in refrigerator to cool. Take single crescent roll, add scoop of Velveeta cheese and scoop of dove-sausage mixture. Wrap carefully to form something akin to a Hot Pocket. Return to refrigerator until ready to fry. Drop in 400-degree peanut oil for about 4 minutes and enjoy.

By the way, those preparing to hunt the opening day of the South Zone, which is September 15, or hunt for the first time in the North Zone need to be aware that a HIP (Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program) license is needed to hunt migratory birds like doves, ducks, woodcocks and geese.

It was obvious from a few people I talked to at the Gulf Farms hunt that the requirement is not well understood. The HIP license, which is free at this link, is required of Alabama residents ages 16-64 and non-residents 16 and older who hunt migratory birds. Hunters who are exempt from hunting license requirements are also exempt from the HIP requirement.

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

Jug fishing producing plenty of Alabama River catfish

(David Rainer)

The ripples emanating from the sides of the 2-foot-long piece of pool noodle was just what Joe Dunn hoped to see.

It meant there was something attached to the line that dropped some 15 feet into the murky waters of the Alabama River near Camden.

During the dog days of summer, this fishing tactic is what Dunn prefers because the heat makes it unbearable to crappie fish in hopes of catching seven or eight keepers. The same goes for bass fishing.

1209

So, Dunn turns to the plentiful catfish that inhabit Alabama’s many rivers, and lets the jugs, or noodles in this case, do the fishing while he enjoys a restful night of sleep. If he’s ambitious, he’ll run the 20 or so jugs during the night. If not, he’ll head out at dawn to find out what’s been biting.

Catching bait might be the only real work involved in “jug” fishing.

“The predominant bait on Millers Ferry is going to be shad that you catch with your cast net,” Dunn said. “But skipjacks (members of the herring family) are another excellent bait. It’s a little harder, sometimes, to catch skipjacks. Most people use Sabiki rigs and go behind the power house to catch the skipjacks. But sometimes there’s another way to catch them. If you’re on the river, sometimes you will see skipjacks chasing little river minnows or small shad. You ease over into that area, and when they come up to feed, you throw your cast net and load it up with skipjacks. We did that just the other day with the cast net.

“The key is good, fresh bait.”

Dunn said if you’re planning to do a little tightlining for catfish before you head back to camp to get out of the heat, the skipjacks will stay alive for a little while in the livewell. If you see a couple floating in the livewell, it’s best to get them all out, put them in a plastic bag and get them on ice before they degrade.

Dunn says the best way to deal with leftover skipjacks is to freeze them as soon as possible.

“Freezing skipjacks in water doesn’t work well,” he said. “When you thaw them out, they’re all mushy and just don’t work well. I found out if you put them on a cookie sheet and freeze them individually before putting them in freezer bags, they work a lot better. That’s a big plus.”

When Dunn is targeting flathead catfish, he tries to catch small bream to bait the jugs. Flathead, also known as yellow cats, prefer the bait to be live and swimming.

“Most of the time, flatheads are going to hit something live, whether it’s a 3-inch bream (taken by hook and line) or a skipjack you’ve just caught in the cast net,” he said. “If you have a good live skipjack, you just hook him in the middle of the back so he can swim and stay alive.

“If you’re looking for a mess of small fish for a fish fry, just use those small shad and thread them on the hook. If you’re keying on bigger fish, you’re better off with a live bait, even your bigger blue cats like live bait.”

Most people tend to shun keeping a larger blue cat because the flesh is not as suitable for consumption as any size flathead. However, Dunn said large blue cats can be delicious if they’re prepared correctly.

“The key is learning how to clean them to where they taste good,” he said. “It’s best to bleed them. I cut the tail off and throw them in the splash well. When I clean them, I get all the red meat off, and then I soak the meat in an ice-water slush. You soak it and get all the blood out, changing the water when needed to get that meat snowball white.

“Then you fry it, and it’s good. I’ve had people tell me it was the best blue cat they’ve ever eaten.”

Now Dunn is not saying he can make big blue cats taste like a flathead, which doesn’t seem to lose any appeal to the palate the larger the fish gets.

“I fried some flathead for my brother, Bubba, and he kept asking me, ‘What did you do to this fish? What did you do to this fish?’” Dunn said. “I didn’t do anything to it. It was just the fish. The flathead is just the primo catfish catch out of the river.”

Dunn said a couple of techniques seem to work when he’s specifically targeting flatheads. He focuses on the inside bends in the river and rock walls. At the start of the bend, most will have a small sandbar. He said the flathead like to hang out at the drop-off behind the sandbar.

“They’re sitting below that bar where the current is running over the top of them, waiting on that bait to come to them,” he said. “I also like to fish where a cut is coming into the main river where the depth goes from 12 to 14 feet down to 30. They like to hang underneath that drop-off. But big blue cats like those spots too.”

Even though Millers Ferry has a reputation as a fantastic crappie fishery, Dunn thinks catfish are overlooked at times.

“This is a super good catfish fishery.”

Dunn said the hot weather pattern for catfish starts around the middle of June and usually runs through October, depending on when we get enough of a cold front to lower the water temperature.

“The hotter it gets, the more you stay in the main river channel,” he said. “I use the noodles because you use a lot longer lines, 15 to 20 feet, and it’s easier to wrap the lines around the noodles when I take them up.”

When he’s targeting the larger fish, Dunn uses a tarred nylon twine for the main lines with a 1½-ounce lead, swivel, monofilament leader and a 5/0 circle hook.

Dunn said the largest flathead catfish he’s hauled in at the Ferry weighed 65 pounds, and the largest blue cat he’s seen weighed 55 pounds.

For “fry ’em whole” small fish, he uses double-hook rigs with smaller hooks and smaller shad for bait.

Dunn takes a break from catfishing during the winter to head to the deer woods. The water gets high during the winter, but he’s back on the river fairly early in the new year.

“We usually start on February 17,” he said. “We’ve always started on that date because that’s my oldest son’s birthday. We would come up to the river and get our jugs ready. But that time of year, you go up in the shallow flats. The catfish will move into the shallow flats before anything else.”

In February, Dunn changes his “jugs” to 20-ounce drink bottles and 1½- to 2-foot lines with a ½-ounce to 1-ounce weight, swivel and foot of 20-pound-test monofilament leader tied to a 3/0 circle hook.

“That’s when I go in places like Gee’s Bend, Buzzard’s Roost, River Bluff, Alligator,” he said. “You just get in the backs of the creeks and throw your jugs out. You can wear them out in the springtime doing that.”

Alabama’s creel limit on catfish is determined by size. For catfish under 34 inches there is no limit. Anglers can keep one catfish 34 inches or longer in most areas of the state. Several river basins – Perdido, Conecuh, Blackwater, Yellow, Choctawhatchee, Chipola and Chattahoochee – are exempt from the size limit. Also, it is unlawful to transport live catfish 34 inches or longer beyond the boundaries of Alabama.

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

3 months ago

Mentored hunt starts Welch’s outdoors journey

(Outdoor Alabama)

As far as Leslie Welch is concerned, she was hooked at “Boom.” That report from the deer rifle happened a couple of years ago when she was among the lucky people who were selected to go on an Adult Mentored Hunt in Mobile County.

That experience set in motion Welch’s latest episode in her outdoors journey – alligator hunting. On her third try, Welch was drawn for one of the 150 tags in the Southwest Alabama Zone that 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.

1370

Welch, who grew up in a household that seldom ventured outdoors, had never even fired a gun before the mentored hunt, which made it even more interesting that she would pursue an alligator tag. However, Welch said that first outdoors experience opened a whole new world of adventure. Duck hunting is next on her to-do list.

“I grew up with a daddy who was a professor of religious studies at Alabama and a mom who did IT (Information Technology) before she became an industrial engineer in computer science,” Welch said. “We didn’t have these opportunities because my parents never presented it. I dated a boy in high school who hunted. He asked me to go hunting, but I never went.”

Welch, a former teacher, once worked with Amy Doss, wife of Jeremy Doss, a State Lands Division Enforcement Officer with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“Amy would always have good stories for me about the outdoors,” Welch said. “And Amy was telling me about this hunt for first-timers.”

Jeremy Doss and Daniel Musselwhite, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ South Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, were involved in starting the Adult Mentored Hunt (AMH) program in Mobile County. Welch fit the AMH target profile of a non-hunter and was chosen to go on her first deer hunt. She didn’t even see a deer, but several of the other hunters bagged their first deer that day.

“It was fun to watch and fun to be a part of,” Welch said. “Everybody was so welcoming, and nobody made you feel like an idiot for not knowing things, which is important, especially to a first-time person. Everything was explained to me.

“When I got to shoot the gun, oooh, I loved it. It scared the bejesus out of me, but I was really good at it. Then I bought a gun after that.”

She still hasn’t been able to squeeze the trigger on a deer, but that hasn’t quelled her enthusiasm.

Then Amy shared another outdoors story about gator hunting after a friend of the Dosses got a tag. Welch started applying for alligator tags until she was finally drawn this year.

“I was shocked I got a tag,” Welch said. “I texted Jeremy and Amy that they had to take me.”

The Dosses agreed, and Welch entered an environment she had never imagined in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

“I had never been on a boat at night except for a cruise ship,” Welch said. “It was fabulous. It was gorgeous. It was peaceful. It’s a totally different world at night. I got to go under the bridge on the Causeway. There were all kinds of things I got to experience that I’d never done before. And we saw lots and lots of gators, but they were spooked that first night.

“We didn’t get a gator, but I was ready to go again.”

With the Causeway gators somewhat leery because of all the boat traffic, Welch and the Dosses moved to the upper Delta for the second round. With a little help from Matt Horton of the Upper Delta Gobblers NWTF chapter, their luck changed quickly after launching the boat near Stockton.

“This gator popped up right after we launched the boat,” Welch said. “I named him ‘George’ by the way.”

Welch quickly hooked the gator, but she didn’t realize it at the time.

“I thought I was hooked on the bottom,” she said. “Then I told Jeremy the line was moving. He said, ‘The gator is walking on the bottom.’ I said, ‘What?’ I didn’t know they walked on the bottom.”

Doss said, “He was pulling the boat. It’s dark, so you don’t realize he’s pulling the boat because you have no frame of reference. He was just easing us down the river.”

Welch was soon up for another surprise when the alligator finally decided to come to the surface.

“When everybody put their spotlights on him, I literally backed up behind Jeremy,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh, heck, that thing is real.’”

Doss said the fifth time Welch was able to reel the animal to the surface they were able to get a harpoon in the gator.

“He was in 36 feet of water,” Doss said. “The problem was when he came up, he wouldn’t come straight up, he came up away from the boat. We finally got him up close enough to get a harpoon in him.”

Minutes later, the 10½-foot gator was dispatched and the celebration began.

“I’m sure there was a lot of squealing going on,” Welch said. “I tried not to because I was with a bunch of guys, but I’m afraid to say there was some squealing.

“Then I was just staring at the gator. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is real.’ Then I got to touch the gator. I had never touched an alligator before. I had never even been to Alligator Alley and touched one of the baby alligators.”

Doss added, “I don’t believe we would have gotten the gator so quickly without Matt’s help. Matt also helps with the mentored hunts, and he helped put us on the gator.”

In this world of social media, it’s no surprise that Welch shared her gator hunt on Facebook.

“I did brag,” she said. “Since then, I’ve had people asking me when I’m going again. I told them it doesn’t work that way, but let me tell you how to apply for a tag. So, there are at least seven people more who are going to put in for tags next year.”

Musselwhite said Welch’s story and her outreach to friends about her outdoors experiences are exactly what the AMH program is designed to do.

“It’s important that we did make her a hunter, but she has that ripple effect to go out and recruit new hunters,” Musselwhite said. “By creating one hunter, we may be able to recruit several more hunters.”

Last year, Brian Nettles was highlighted as a newly recruited hunter through the AMH program, and Musselwhite has followed Nettles’ outdoors journey.

“Since last year, Brian has killed his first buck,” Musselwhite said. “Two of his kids have killed bucks. He came to me pretty raw and had no idea what to do. Now, he’s got two kids that maybe wouldn’t be hunters if not for the program.

“And Leslie shows that it’s not about killing a deer. There’s so much more to hunting than killing deer. It’s enjoying the little things you see in the woods. That’s the demographic we’re going after.”

Welch said it’s hard to describe the sensory input she has experienced during her outdoors adventures.

“How do you explain to someone the sound of the wind coming through the trees while you’re sitting out there in the blind?” Welch said. “I didn’t know what that sound was. I’d never been still in nature long enough to know what it was. It’s the prettiest sound I’ve ever heard. It was so calming.

“It’s one of the reasons I want to experience more of the outdoors. I want to try these things I was not offered as a teenager growing up in Tuscaloosa. I want to go duck hunting, and I’m going deer hunting again.”

And, rest assured, her name will also be on an application for an alligator tag again next year.

The gator application process will come next year. However, applications are being accepted now for AMH events throughout the state. You must be at least 19 years old, have a valid driver’s license and be new to hunting (or have limited hunting experience) to apply for an AMH hunt. You can apply for up to three AMH events with a single application. Depending on the number of applicants, you may be limited to a single event. The AMH application must be completed online.

All AMH program correspondence is through email, so a valid email address must be included on the application. You will be notified by email if you are selected for a mentored hunt event. Email Justin.Grider@dcnr.alabama.gov with questions about the application or selection process.

Visit this link for more information about the AMH program including hunt dates/locations and complete instructions on how to apply.

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

4 months ago

Alabama Hunters: Authorities issue new precautions for deer in all states, Canada

(Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) catapulted into the world of deer hunters all over the South when an afflicted white-tailed deer was discovered in the Mississippi Delta this past January.

It was the first case so close to Alabama, and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division immediately responded by adding Mississippi to the list of states where special precautions were in effect to minimize the chance of spreading the disease.

At the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting in May, WFF asked that the rules regarding the importation of carcasses from members of the cervid family (deer, elk, moose, caribou, etc.) be extended to all states and Canada.

1283

Those rules state that hunters should completely debone the animal and remove and dispose of any brain or spinal tissue from skull plates, raw capes and hides before returning to Alabama. Those skull plates must be free of any brain or spinal cord material. Velvet-covered antlers are also included in the prohibited materials. Root structures and other soft tissue should also be removed from all teeth. Finished taxidermy products and tanned hides are not affected by the ban.

Starting with the 2019-2020 seasons, Alabama will implement a ban on the use of natural deer urine products as well. Synthetic deer urine products are not affected.

CWD is a disease similar to mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep. CWD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that starts to debilitate the affected animal and always results in death.

At last weekend’s Buckmasters Expo in Montgomery, game biologists and law enforcement officers at the WFF booth tried to spread the word about the threat of CWD and how it could change hunting, which is a $1.8 billion industry in Alabama.

The WFF outreach on CWD education will ramp up significantly right away with seminars, billboards and media promotions.

“We are doing our seminar series that will focus on CWD,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes, who travels the state to conduct the seminars. “We are purchasing billboard advertisement up and down our major road systems. We’re also doing some outreach at gas pumps and ice machines at convenience stores in strategic places around the state.”

Sykes said there is so much misinformation in the public square, whether online or around the campfire, that WFF is doing everything it can to ensure people are getting the correct information.

“There are rumors that it is already here in Alabama, which is not true,” Sykes said. “There are rumors that it’s made up; there’s no such thing as CWD. The best one I’ve heard is it’s just a way for the state to make money. I wish they would show me how we’re going to make money when we’re having to move resources and money to help test animals and educate the public. It’s typical anti-government rhetoric that doesn’t have any basis in reality. So, we’re trying our best to get the facts out.”

Sykes said the decision to ban natural deer urine products after the upcoming seasons was done to err on the side of caution.

“We knew that people already had orders,” he said. “We knew stores had the product on the shelf, and manufacturers already had purchase orders. The Board expressed a desire to ban urine products, so we made our recommendation to start the ban in 2019. So, hunters can buy and use those natural deer urine products through the upcoming season, but starting in the fall of 2019, they won’t be able to use them.

“It’s just a precaution. We know the prion (rogue protein) that causes CWD can be found in urine, saliva and feces. That’s just one hole that we can plug. A lot of the facilities that bottle urine are in states with CWD. We just don’t want to take that risk. Granted, it’s not as big of a risk as bringing in a live deer or a deer carcass, but it’s a risk we don’t want to take.”

Most CWD-positive states have experienced a slow but gradual spread of additional cases once the disease is established. However, there have been a few exceptions. Mississippi has tested about 650 deer since that one incident and hasn’t found any other infected deer at this point. Sykes said only one state other than Mississippi, New York, had a confirmed case of CWD in 2005 and no other deer have tested positive since.

“The best thing we can do is to keep CWD out of our state,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We’ve passed the regulations regarding bringing carcasses into Alabama. The best offense is to play good defense to keep it out of Alabama.

“I think a lot of people are getting the message, but we still have a lot of work we need to do. Some people think CWD is so far away that it doesn’t affect us. When it showed up in Mississippi, it put a lot of people on notice that it is a lot closer to us than it had been and that we need to be very vigilant to keep it out of our state by being mindful of what we do.”

Buckmasters founder and CEO Jackie Bushman hunts all over the U.S. and Canada, and he is fully aware of the threat CWD poses.

“I’ve been in Canada where they’ve had CWD and in Montana, and I hope we don’t get it,” Bushman said as crowds filled the Montgomery Convention Center for the annual Expo. “I’m sure the game and fish guys are on top of it. Chuck (Sykes) and his staff are doing a good job of being prepared if it ever does come here. I think people really have to pay attention, especially if you’re going on a hunt out of state, you’ve got to be careful about what you’re bringing back.

“This is something serious for the deer hunters, but also the whole financial part of the hunting industry. It would be devastating to people who sell or lease hunting land, the deer processors and sporting goods stores. It would be across the board in Alabama. But the way I look at it is we’ve got some smart folks that are working on it. Just pay attention to what they say. This is serious, but if we do the right things, we can keep it out of Alabama.”

Speaking of the people who sell hunting land, National Land Realty was one of several companies with booths at the Expo. Former Deputy Conservation Commissioner Curtis Jones now works with National Land Realty and understands the impact CWD could have.

“Right now, hunting land sales have picked up with the improving economy,” Jones said. “If CWD shows up anywhere in the state, the whole state would be affected. The value of property throughout the state would decline.

“So, I don’t have any problems with anything the Conservation Department can do to prevent the spread of that disease. I just hope our hunters and wildlife enthusiasts will read more about it and understand how devastating CWD would be if it got here.”

Andy Whitaker of Wildlife Trends has also tried to increase CWD awareness through their magazine, and he realizes the impact it would have on businesses like the tree nursery he promotes.

“Look what happened up North,” Whitaker said. “They closed whole seasons in places up there. I think it would be devastating for Alabama.

“The thing is people don’t seem to think it can happen here. But, if you remember, people said the same thing about feral hogs. And now, some places are overrun with hogs.”

Other entities are also working to understand CWD and ways to curtail the spread of the disease. The Boone and Crockett Club recently voted to fund more research into the disease. The CWD Alliance (cwd-info.org) provides the latest updates on research and the implementation of rules and regulations related to CWD.

After the deer in Mississippi tested positive for the disease, WFF staff thoroughly reviewed their current CWD Response Plan and revised it to address more recent concerns with the latest available science. The plan will be continually reviewed and updated as new research and scientific information is produced. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd to read the 35-page plan.

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

Gulf State Park Lodge rebirth on schedule

(David Rainer)

Gary Ellis was adjusting to retirement when a call from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) promptly changed his plans.

Instead of a life of leisure, Ellis soon found himself embarking on one of the most fascinating challenges of his career. “I’m flattered to be asked to lend my talents on what I believe will be a historic project for the state of Alabama,” Ellis said.

1387

Ellis, who retired in 2016 from Compass Media, a company he founded 1986, was hired as the Director of Community Relations and Administration at Gulf State Park. His challenge is to support the implementation of the Gulf State Park mission statement:

~Gulf State Park will be an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations.~

This nearly 5-year vision is nearing completion with an extensive revival of a new lodge and state-of-the-art facilities that are scheduled to open later this year.

“This is not just a premium hotel on the beach,” Ellis said. “The entire entity of Gulf State Park – including The Lodge, Living Campus, the Interpretive Center, the new trails and improvements – will be a game-changer for the state. We all can recall the reputation enhancements that occurred when the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was built. That was a game-changer. It changed a lot of perceptions about Alabamians and what we’re about. Mercedes was another game-changer in what people believed and expected about our state.

“I believe Gulf State Park will rank in those categories as enhancing the image of Alabama and further communicating what wonderful resources we have. I’m excited to see that. The new lodge should draw not only from Alabama but all over the United States. We’ll also be appealing to international visitation. The work and strategic thinking that have gone into this will put us in a different playing field other than just a resort hotel on the beach. This is much bigger when you bundle all of this together and you think about the magnitude of the experiences available.”

The official name of the hotel and conference center is The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel. Obviously, Hilton will handle The Lodge booking. Valor Hospitality was hired to open the hotel and manage the new park enhancements, the Interpretive Center and Learning Campus. Ellis’ role is connecting the surrounding communities and Gulf State Park together with the new lodge and enhancements as well as managing the other facets of the 6,125-acre park.

“I just had lunch with the general manager and regional director for Valor Hospitality,” Ellis said. “They are moving along quite rapidly. It’s a full-court press right now. We are projecting an opening for November 1.

“We’ve been getting a lot of interest and a lot of good feedback that people are excited to replace the old lodge and bring on the fresh new opportunity for leisure travelers as well as the meeting and convention travelers.”

When Hurricane Ivan destroyed the old lodge and convention center in 2004, the Alabama Gulf Coast was left lacking facilities large enough to host any sizeable conventions or conferences. Ellis said Alabama soon should get a great deal of that business back.

“During the time we didn’t have a lodge, we had the campground, cabins and cottages,” he said. “Those were our only accommodations. What we were missing out on was that conference and convention business that had gone elsewhere. And it was not elsewhere in Alabama. We lost a tremendous amount of business to northwest Florida, places like Sandestin and that area.”

“I don’t think anybody was comfortable with Alabama state associations meeting out of state, so this gives them an opportunity to keep their money at home and invest it in our own neighborhoods. A lot of the state associations rotate locations around the state. We just didn’t have the accommodations for the scale and size of those meetings, but now we will.”

The Lodge will accommodate up to 1,000 people for conferences and conventions with a 350-room hotel that includes 20 suites. The beach-view ballroom is 12,160 square feet with an adjacent 7,500-square-foot outdoor terrace, and several other smaller meeting and conference rooms are available. A Gulf-front pool will have a pool bar and grill, while a Gulf-front restaurant will have terrace seating and a private dining room that will serve house-prepared dishes sourced from regional suppliers, including fresh Alabama Gulf Seafood.

Obviously, a 350-room hotel is not large enough to house a 1,000-person convention, but Ellis said that was by design so that the hotels and condominiums in the surrounding communities would benefit from the overflow.

The Lodge, Interpretive Center and Learning Campus are being constructed under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) protocols. The Interpretive Center is pursuing certification under the Living Building Challenge, a designation currently afforded to only 16 buildings in the world.

“The thing so unique about Gulf State Park is it’s being built on a smaller footprint than previously existed,” Ellis said. “They are using every environmental standard possible from design and construction work but also from the operation perspective, such as some of the principles they are using for recycling water.

“One thing I found intriguing is the day I went by the construction site where they were busting sheetrock, grinding it up to be trucked to farms in middle Baldwin County to be used as lime supplement. This practice not only minimizes waste, but also makes use of reclaimed materials. Not only is it following LEED principles, it’s also doing something the Alabama Gulf Coast has never seen before.”

Ellis said the new facilities will benefit the Alabama Gulf Coast economy during the traditional so-called “shoulder seasons” that fall outside the normal summertime peak usage.

“This will help us with our seasonality challenges,” he said. “For about 75 days out of the year, we’re doing really well; everybody’s happy. But that leaves a lot of other months that we need to balance out our seasonality and build towards a year-round economy. We should appeal to the niche environmental groups that travel, young couples and individual travelers. A lot of them like to travel in the spring and fall.

“The new and improved Gulf State Park and all its entities will hopefully help smooth out those ebbs and flows in business.”

Ellis said The Lodge is designed to meet the needs of families on vacation, corporate travelers and convention delegates, with a soft opening planned for sometime in November. A visit to this link shows that Hilton will start accepting reservations “on or after” January 1, 2019. Visit here for more information about other opportunities at the park.

With its 3 miles of sugar-sand beaches, Gulf State Park was recently recognized as the 2018 Attraction of the Year by the Alabama Tourism Department.

“Gulf State Park is one of the jewels of our entire Parks system,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We’re honored to receive the award from Alabama Tourism, and we expect next year will be even better with the opening of the The Lodge at Gulf State Park.”

Ellis added, “There are lots of awards, but when you are recognized by your own state tourism industry as being Attraction of the Year, you’re in pretty good company.  When you consider the Space and Rocket Center, Bellingrath Gardens and the USS Alabama Battleship, The Civil Rights Institute, we are thrilled to be recognized, and the timing is great.”

State Parks Director Greg Lein pointed out that the Alabama Tourism Department award isn’t the only recognition Gulf State Park has received.

“Gulf State Park has been recognized by its customers for its excellent service through certificates awarded by TripAdvisor.com,” Lein said. “Gulf State Park was inducted into the TripAdvisor Hall of Fame for receiving such awards for five consecutive years.”

Ellis said he has been impressed with what the Gulf State Park staff has accomplished since he joined the team.

“The team I’ve inherited has done a lot with limited resources,” Ellis said. “I’m amazed at this team. They have worked under challenging circumstances to deliver excellent service.”

With the new facilities coming online soon, Ellis finds it difficult to subdue his excitement.

“There’s nothing but a bright future ahead of us with many wonderful things coming,” he said. “It’s a great honor for the staff here. Bundled together, we have some incredible experiences that we can deliver – from nature, hiking and biking and great beaches all the way to luxury lodging, honeymoons and weddings as well as regional and national conferences.

“This is something Alabama will be very, very proud of.”

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

Fisheries aims for bigger fish with Florida bass stockings

(Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries)

One thing you will never find is a bass angler who is happy with catching medium-sized fish. It is always bigger is better. That has been the strategy for the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division for decades.

One method to achieve a larger bass is to introduce different genetic traits into the population. That was what occurred recently when Lake Jordan received its final stocking of Florida bass fingerlings.

The WFF’s Fisheries Section took the bulk of the Florida bass production from the Marion and Eastaboga hatcheries and stocked the fingerlings into Lake Jordan, a Coosa River impoundment.

1378

“This is the third year where we have undertaken a concentrated stocking of Florida bass in Jordan,” said Fisheries Chief Nick Nichols. “Those stockings took place in the Bouldin impoundment. Those three years of stockings at Jordan is just a continuation of a stocking strategy that has gone on since the early 1990s.”

That strategy is to stock as many bass as the hatcheries can produce in a given time frame into a single area of a single reservoir.

“The goal of that is not to increase the number of largemouth bass in the lake,” Nichols said. “It’s simply an effort to introduce Florida bass genetic material into that lake’s native bass population. We’ve been doing this in reservoirs since the 1990s.

“We first attempted this at Lake Guntersville. We stocked Florida bass in two or three distinct locations in the lake. Guntersville had what we consider a true northern bass population. It’s on the Tennessee River above the shoals. Even though we stocked fewer fish at Guntersville during that time, the stocking of Florida bass on top of the native northern bass was actually more effective. We were introducing a different set of genes into that population.”

The result was the stocking efforts shifted the Guntersville bass from a pure northern bass to an integrated population with Florida bass traits. Later studies indicated that about 30 percent of the Guntersville bass population’s genetic material came from the introduced Florida bass.

“This showed that the stocking was successful, and it had some performance enhancement on the fishery,” Nichols said.

Fisheries biologists introduce Florida bass into a population in areas where that subspecies will thrive, mainly the warmer waters of the South and Southwest. Florida bass traits enhance performance, which means larger numbers of trophy bass are being caught with a larger average size.

“Florida bass are known to live a little longer, and they have the genetic propensity to grow to a larger size,” Nichols said. “They don’t necessarily grow faster, but they do seem to live longer, which allows them to grow to a larger size. However, what has been observed in situations where Florida bass have been stocked on top of northern bass is you get, at least temporarily, a population-wide hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor is when you cross two closely related species and the offspring outperform the parents. We saw some of that in Guntersville. They’re seeing the same thing at Chickamauga in Tennessee.

“The downside is that once you’ve introduced that new genetic material into the population and you’ve gotten that initial hybridization response, you really can’t recreate that result again. In other words, you can’t go in with another Florida bass stocking and expect to get the same response you did with the initial stocking.”

Nichols said several years ago the Mobile River basin received several Florida bass stockings, but the results were noticeably muted compared to Guntersville.

“It gets more complicated,” he said. “As we learn more about the genetics of the native bass in Alabama, it’s become very apparent that the native bass in the Mobile basin naturally have a lot of the same genetic material as Florida bass. They aren’t necessarily Florida bass, but they share a lot of the same genome. We haven’t seen the same responses in the Mobile basin that we saw at Guntersville.”

Farther up the Coosa River, WFF had significant success with Florida bass stockings at Lay Lake several years ago.

“We were able to shift the population at Lay Lake to nearly a 50-percent Florida bass population,” Nichols said.

Florida bass introductions have been conducted at lakes throughout Alabama, including Wheeler, Lewis Smith, Martin, Logan Martin, Demopolis and Aliceville.

“We’ve had mixed results,” Nichols said. “In some of those places, we’ve been back to reevaluate the population post-stocking to see if there have been shifts in the allele (genetic) frequencies. Even cases where we have seen shifts, we haven’t seen the performance boost we saw at Guntersville. It’s not the dramatic difference that a lot of people think. Depending on the selective pressures in a body of water, you may not even see a response.”

In the Lake Jordan stocking effort, a total of about 900,000 Florida bass fingerlings were released in the three-year period. However, Nichols said that’s not a huge introduction in the grand scheme of bass reproduction.

“That actually works out to less than 100 fish per acre that we stocked,” he said. “What we have a hard time explaining to folks is the stocking is on top of the natural reproduction from the native fish that has already taken place. That natural reproduction can be 10 to 20 times the number of fish released in the stocking.

“If we were stocking 50 Florida bass on top of natural reproduction, which could exceed 2,000 native bass fingerlings per acre per year, only a small percentage of those fingerlings, both the Florida bass and native fish, survive that first summer and recruit into the population. We don’t expect a large percentage of the 300,000 fingerlings we stocked at Jordan to survive. We hope a small percentage will spawn with native fish and get results a few years down the road.”

Nichols said, for the last four to five years, that annual production of Florida bass fingerlings at the hatcheries at Marion and Eastaboga has been between 300,000-400,000. The hatcheries also produce striped bass, hybrid bass and walleye fingerlings.

Even if the hatcheries were able to significantly boost Florida bass production, Nichols said it still would have little impact on the large reservoirs.

“It’s a numbers game,” he said. “Say we bumped up hatchery production and were able to crank out 1 or 2 million Florida bass fingerlings, and we took the entire production and stocked them in Guntersville. Guntersville is a 70,000-acre reservoir. That works out to stocking less than 30 fish per acre.

“If you go to any of our reservoirs, you’ve got natural bass reproduction taking place every year where the natural reproduction is probably between 2,000 and 3,000 fingerlings per acre. When you’re stocking 30 fingerlings on top of that, it’s not going to have that much of an impact. Because we have already introduced significant Florida bass genetics into the population, adding a few more is not even going to be measurable.”

A couple of years ago, Guntersville bass anglers and homeowners were afraid the bass fishery was in dire straits because of a reduction in the number of quality bass that were being caught. Nichols said that is just part of the cyclical nature of any large body of water.

“Everything hinges on recruitment, and that’s not just for bass, but largemouth bass is a poster child,” he said. “Each year, bass are going to spawn and produce millions of fry and eventually hundreds of thousands of fingerlings. If most of those fingerlings survived, the lake would quickly become overpopulated with bass. Only a small percentage recruit into the population for a variety of reasons.

“Guntersville is a great bass reservoir. The habitat is great. It’s almost the perfect largemouth bass reservoir. But what happened on Guntersville is we had these great year-classes with very high recruitment that occurred around 2008. Once those fish recruit into a population, they’re going to grow and be caught by anglers. So for several years we had this boom up there because we had those super-strong year-classes. That’s when everybody was super happy. Big tournaments were coming to the lake, and everybody was catching bass.”

Then that cyclical nature of reservoirs kicked in, and those fish spawned during the super year-classes started to die out or were caught. Those anglers and homeowners used to the fantastic fishing imagined the worst and called for more fish stockings.

“People had the perception that the lake was collapsing,” Nichols said. “But it wasn’t collapsing. It was just going back to normal. As we have discussed over the past couple of years, we told everybody the lake was going to recover.

“And we’ve just recently had another bump in the Guntersville bass fishing. It’s not because of stocking; it’s because we’ve had a couple of strong year-classes that are just coming into the fishery.”

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

Tagging program tracks redfish, trout

(David Rainer)

While the fanfare surrounding the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR) proceeded nearby, Reid Nelson deftly made a series of surgeon’s knots to sew up an incision on the belly of a redfish that was a part of the live weigh-in category at the rodeo.

Nelson, a graduate student in the University of South Alabama’s Marine Sciences Department, inserted an acoustic tag in the redfish, red drum if you’re a purist or marine scientist, as part of the Coastal Alabama Acoustic Monitoring Program (CAAMP).

CAAMP monitors 55 receiver stations strategically placed in Alabama coastal waters to catch pings, which happen once a minute during the one-year lifespan of the acoustic tags in the fish.

1269

Nelson said 100 red drum were tagged in 2015. In 2016, another 100 red drum were tagged. Also in 2016, all tagging that didn’t occur at the ADSFR was transferred to Dog River and Fowl River on the western shore of Mobile Bay.

Nelson said the goal of CAAMP is to study fishing mortality, natural mortality and fish movement in response to water temperature and salinity levels.

Last year, the team added speckled trout to the tagging program and will continue to work with trout this year. As expected, redfish is a hardy species that handles catch-and-release very well. Speckled trout are not quite as resilient but still survive well enough to justify the live-release effort.

“With the popularity of the live weigh-in at the rodeo, we looked at it as a nice opportunity to tag live fish from different places,” Nelson said. “You can actually look at how successful live weigh-ins are. What we have seen from fish tagged at the rodeo, about 98 percent of the red drum have lived. About 78 percent of the speckled trout that we tagged at the rodeo have lived.

“Overall, mortality is pretty low, which I think is amazing. Some of the red drum were brought from all over, as far away as Mississippi and Louisiana.”

Nelson said 20 red drum and 15 speckled trout were fitted with the acoustic tags, which cost about $300 each, and released during the 2018 ADSFR. CAAMP is funded through the Alabama Marine Resources Division with a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“What was really interesting about the rodeo is the map where the fish came from that were released at the rodeo,” he said. “One of the main concerns about a live weigh-in program is the fish won’t leave that area once they are released. Unlike the fish we tagged in the rivers, the fish we tagged at the rodeo leave Dauphin Island pretty readily. We’ve detected those fish as far away as Raft River in the Mobile Delta. We’ve detected them in Fowl River. We’ve detected them off the Gulf State Park Pier. They have even been detected by receiver arrays that other groups have out. It’s really remarkable how quickly and widespread these fish disperse.

“It’s interesting to do science with a part of the tournament. That’s really never been done. Another interesting thing is fishermen have been really good about telling us where they caught the fish. What we have seen is about 25 percent of the fish have gone back to where they were caught. With red drum that were caught in the rivers and brought to the rodeo, about 70 percent of those fish will disperse and end up returning to one of our local rivers. That’s been an amazing aspect of the study. We have no idea how those fish find their way back. It could be olfaction or chemoreceptors. It’s probably a combination of many navigation senses.”

Natural mortality with the red drum tagged in the first year of the study has been surprisingly low, according to Nelson. Out of the 100 fish tagged, only three died of natural causes. Fishing mortality took 10 out of the population in Fowl River from 2016-2017, and nine redfish were lost to fishing mortality in Dog River during the same time span.

“One of the other interesting things we saw is the seasonal peaks in the rivers,” Nelson said. “We saw more fishing mortality in the fall and spring.”

An eye-opening aspect of the CAAMP data when speckled trout were added to the study is the significant disparity in movement between species in response to weather and salinity changes.

“One of the most interesting things we’ve seen is a lot of the red drum really didn’t move that much from where they were actually tagged,” Nelson said. “Out of Fowl River, we had 13 fish leave the river over the course of the year, which is not very many in the grand scheme of things. Only five left Dog River during that year. For the year we have data, they were pretty much resident fish. Some of them would use different parts of the river. But for the most part, they tended to remain in the area where they were originally tagged.

“In fact, we had a family call in a fish a few months ago that had been tagged about a year ago. They literally caught that fish where we tagged it at Delta Port in Fowl River. That was amazing.”

Nelson said the most movement observed during the study came in December of 2016 when the water temperature was cooler than normal and the salinity was very high because of a lack of rain in the fall.

“The big conclusion so far on redfish is the majority of the slot fish tend to be resident,” he said. “It looks like they are pretty resilient to changes in temperature and salinity. We’ve seen big fluctuations in those two factors, and the fish didn’t leave the rivers when the salinity and temperature varied quite a bit. I thought that was really interesting.”

Now, throw speckled trout into the study, and the movement patterns are vastly different.

“During the first year of the big study with speckled trout, it was almost the complete opposite story,” Nelson said. “The trout were tagged last November and December. They were resident in the deep holes in the rivers until about February. When it was really cold, they were staying in the rivers. Once it started to warm up, we saw a push of fish leaving the rivers pretty quickly, moving down to Mississippi Sound and Dauphin Island. That is what you would expect.

“We had a couple of fish that moved from Dog River to the Mobile River. One of those fish actually came in at the rodeo. Instead of staying in the river, they pushed out relatively quickly.”

Nelson is also working with another program to study fish movement. The Tag Alabama program is sponsored by the Coastal Conservation Association of Alabama and relies on local anglers to insert dart tags in red drum and speckled trout caught in Alabama coastal waters.

“What we’re seeing with Tag Alabama is that many of those redfish are coming back right close to where they were tagged as well,” he said. “With Tag Alabama, we get a much larger spread of tagging locations instead of just the rivers.”

Anglers participating in Tag Alabama go to the website to log tagging and recapture efforts for trout and redfish as well as red snapper, tripletails and sharks.

“We’ve had 743 red drum and speckled trout tagged so far,” Nelson said. “Considering we launched the program in April this year, that’s a lot. We’ve had 65 of those fish recaptured.

“I’m excited about this. CCA Alabama is providing the funding for this. I’m hoping we can keep this going.”

Another tagging effort that occurred partially during this year’s ADSFR involved tarpon, known as the silver king.

With the help of local tarpon enthusiasts during the ADSFR, researchers from Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Mississippi State University managed to attach eight satellite tags. Two more tarpon were caught and tagged the Saturday after the rodeo.

Of the eight fish tagged during the rodeo, all but one high-tailed it toward Louisiana, one traveling as far as the southern tip of Louisiana near South Pass. One fish, however, decided to explore Mobile Bay and made a huge loop inside the bay before heading west.

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

5 months ago

Early snapper closure due to more anglers, bigger fish

(David Rainer)

Honestly, I’m not surprised that Alabama saltwater anglers caught so many red snapper in six-plus weeks that the private recreational season had to close earlier than planned.

Thankfully, the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR), with its Red Snapper Jackpot, managed to squeeze in its final day of competition before the season ended Sunday, July 22. The season for the charter-for-hire boats fishing the rodeo ended at midnight on July 21.

The unbridled enthusiasm anglers exhibited for snapper fishing this year surpassed anything I’ve witnessed in my 26 years of covering the outdoors in Alabama.

1166

Alabama Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon said the angler effort surprised everyone.

“On the weekend of June 9, there were more people snapper fishing than I have seen in my 21 years with Marine Resources, including on rodeo weekend,” he said. “The effort was tremendous. Our Chief of Enforcement, Jason Downey, was on patrol, and he said there were 200 boats surrounding him on the Bridge Rubble.

“The number of people who went fishing this year has been phenomenal. And it’s good that people had the opportunity to fish.”

The motivation to catch snapper likely came from the dire situation that snapper anglers faced in the spring. Without some kind of relief from NOAA Fisheries, the possibility of even a short snapper season looked grim.

Instead, the five Gulf states came together to request an exempted fishing permit (EFP) that would allow each state to set its season under an approved system that allowed each state to catch a certain quota of snapper.

The Alabama Marine Resources Division’s mandatory Red Snapper Reporting System, better known as Snapper Check, allows Marine Resources officials to monitor the harvest on a near real-time basis, one of the reasons NOAA Fisheries approved the EFP for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Marine Resources based its proposed 47-day season on the data gathered from last year’s snapper season. That data included daily catch rate, size of the fish and the amount of angler effort (man-days fishing for snapper).

When the 2018 season was set, Bannon repeatedly used the word “potential” when discussing the length of the season. It could be longer or shorter, depending on the daily catch rate and weather.

The weather turned out to be a factor, but not because it was bad. It was so good that anglers only had a couple of days with rough seas during the 28 days of the private recreational season.

“Without the EFP, there may not have been a federal fishing season,” Bannon said. “The individual state seasons could have consumed all of the total allowable catch.”

Based on the 2017 daily harvest rate of red snapper, Bannon said Marine Resources considered a 50-day season, but reduced it to 47 days because they anticipated a “little bit” of increased effort to catch Alabama’s quota of 984,291 pounds of red snapper.

Bannon said when the snapper harvest numbers for June were published, he knew the season would have to be closed before Labor Day.

With the unparalleled artificial reef habitat off the Alabama coast and good weather, anglers of all skill levels were able to enjoy great snapper fishing. Huge red snapper were posted on social media every day during the season.

Last year, the data indicated an average of 1,770 anglers fished for snapper per day. In 2018, preliminary data showed that the average anglers per day was much higher than in 2017. The increased number of anglers, along with an increase in size of the fish being landed, resulted in higher daily landings for the 2018 season.

“We don’t like working with pounds,” Bannon said. “We’ve seen with the evolution of the snapper seasons that with larger fish you obviously reach the total allowable catch quicker. The product of our management efforts in the Alabama reef zone is the increased abundance and size of fish being caught.”

Bannon said the downside of the 2018 season is anglers have not fully embraced the benefits of reporting their catches through Snapper Check. He said the 2018 reporting rate is between 35 and 36 percent, up from last year’s 30 percent, but still disappointingly low.

“I still feel that people don’t fully understand how much better data we could get if we have a higher compliance rate with Snapper Check,” he said. “Real numbers make a difference in the landings estimate. With the state programs, we can maintain greater awareness on the fishing effort and landings allowing us to maximize the days of fishing.”

“The purpose of the EFP is to show that states can manage their fishery to a quota, and that we would manage it effectively to prevent overfishing and set seasons that work for our anglers and are guaranteed a certain amount of fish. If you just open a federal season, it’s a free-for-all across the Gulf. If the weather was bad in our part of the Gulf we lose those days while others are fishing.”

The weather was so good that one charter-for-hire captain told Bannon that he had never been able to fish the entire month of June before this year.

“The positives we see are, one, we had an allocation higher than what we caught last year.  And, two, we saw an increase in the number of people who were able to fish,” Bannon said. “We opened for a season we thought would benefit the largest number of people, and the data shows a lot of people went fishing.”

Dr. Sean Powers, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama and one of the ADSFR judges last weekend, said the good news is the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico continues to get better.

“About five years ago, the Gulf Council removed the overfishing (catch rate too high) status from red snapper,” Powers said. “Just recently, the Council removed the overfished status. Based on the numbers in the stock we are not in an overfished status, meaning the biomass is no longer below the threshold we think jeopardizes the stock. Although we want to rebuild the stocks a little further, it is no longer overfished.

“That means the seasons and bag limits will stay relatively constant for a while. The (computer) models show an increase in the number of fish over the next couple of years. The stock is very healthy right now, especially off Alabama. Every year we seem to get good recruitment (juvenile fish entering the fishery), and those recruits have that artificial reef habitat. Plus, there is a lot of natural habitat in the deeper water that acts as a reserve, because people don’t have to go that far to catch their limit of snapper.”

Bannon said if the red snapper fishery continues to be managed by the states it will reduce the chances that overfishing will become a problem again.

“The takeaway is we had 28 days of incredible red snapper fishing that a tremendous number of people took advantage of,” Bannon said. “And we have shown that the states can responsibly manage the red snapper fishery.  The sustainable management of this red snapper season will go a long way to ensuring continued and expanded state control of this fishery.

“But folks need to know there are a lot of other fish in the Gulf to catch now that red snapper season is closed. You can catch beeliners (vermilion snapper), king mackerel and Spanish mackerel, and the triggerfish and amberjack seasons open back up the first of August.”

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

5 months ago

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.

1216

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.

5 months 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.

1072

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.

5 months 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.

1050

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.

6 months 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.

1404

“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.

6 months 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.

1389

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.