The Wire

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

6 days ago

New deer zones, Hunting 101 and transfer of possession requirement

(Gary Mitchell/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

Deer hunters will find two new zones in the 2020-2021 Alabama Deer Zones map with season dates that better coincide with deer rutting activity in those areas.

Chuck Sykes, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director, said studies have confirmed that deer in Zone D in northwest Alabama and Zone E in southeast Alabama rut significantly earlier than deer in most of the state.

“We have been conducting annual herd health checks for the past 15 years. Part of the data gathered was the reproductive status of the animal. That data is what helped us move the season into February. We also determined we had deer that rutted early.” Sykes said. “We already knew this from historical stocking data, but it took us a little more time to determine some clear-cut boundaries that would take in those areas. It was pretty easy to set up Zone A and Zone B. We basically just divided the state. But D and E are isolated pockets with early rutting deer, so it took a little more time to get those boundaries defined. Once we got the boundaries defined, it was a logical step to make those new zones.”

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

“Because of the early rut in Zone E, some of those deer were already casting (shedding) their antlers,” he said. “So, people who were trying to fill their freezers later in the year ended up shooting 2- and 3-year-old bucks that had cast their antlers, thinking they were just shooting a big, old doe. The season comes in early to cover the rut, but it also goes out early to try to protect those bucks that had already shed.”

Newcomers to hunting or those with little experience can take advantage of the WFF’s Adult Mentored Hunts (AMH), which Sykes said has been tweaked for the 2020-2021 season. Last year, a requirement to take a one-day workshop to be eligible for an AMH event was implemented. This year, potential participants can take a Hunting 101 or Introduction to Deer or Turkey to meet the requirement.

“What we found was we had too many people backing out at the last minute,” he said. “Now, with the introductory courses or Hunting 101, people have to have a little skin in the game. Once you complete the one-day workshop, you will be eligible for one of the three-day, full-blown Adult Mentored Hunts. Last year, our participation rates went through the roof on our three-day hunts. The people who were eligible had already been to the one-day workshop, and they had figured out if they wanted to participate. Our staff puts in a lot of work and effort to make these hunts happen, and to have somebody cancel at the last minute was taxing on us. Plus, I’m sure there would have been a lot of people willing to take that slot on one of the best hunting areas in the state.”

WFF’s Justin Grider, who has been in charge of the AMH events since their inception four years ago, said the new format has achieved positive results in terms of hunter recruitment.

“We’re finding that people who are self-motivated are signing up for the Hunting 101 workshop,” Grider said. “If they are willing to give up a Saturday and learn about hunting and firearms safety at one of our public shooting ranges, we’re finding they are more likely to continue hunting as a result. Whereas, our previous format was come one, come all. Whoever wanted to apply could, and the participants were randomly selected from that pool. But we ended up with attrition rates above 50 percent. We had people who accepted a spot and then backed out. That was very frustrating and a waste of state resources.”

Grider said the new workshops not only confirmed participants’ commitments, they also reached a broader audience.

“With the AMH events, we could only accommodate a few people at a time,” he said. “With the one-day workshops, we can accommodate as many people as want to come. Last year, we had about 40 people at the workshop outside of Birmingham.”

Grider said new this year is an option to attend a species-specific workshop that focuses on deer or turkey.

“When we polled our participants in hunter education, 90 percent said they wanted to hunt either deer or turkey,” he said. “We created those Learn-to-Hunt workshops to satisfy that demand. With that, we cast a really big net to reach a lot of folks.”

The Hunting 101 workshop covers the basics on hunting safety and is geared to small game, like rabbit hunting, squirrel hunting and dove hunting.

“If you come to one of these Learn-to-Hunt workshops, we will obviously focus on the safety components of firearms and treestand safety, and then we will really drill down on the hunting of a specific species. If it’s turkey, we will go into the different turkey calls, the gear we use, patterning shotguns, how to find birds, setting up for a hunt, everything you need to know to hunt turkeys.

“With Hunting 101, you’ll have a chance to shoot a .22 and a shotgun. You’ll learn about what is good squirrel habitat or where you can find some rabbits. Then later in the day, you will have the opportunity to do a little small-game hunting or become familiar with the habitat.”

Either workshop meets the requirement to apply for the three-day AMH events. Grider also said people can come to as many of the workshops as they want.

“These are great opportunities to meet additional staff members, additional mentors and new hunters,” Grider said. “That’s the other component of the one-day workshops – it’s a great opportunity to socialize with other hunters, mentors and staff. And it’s not based on previous hunting experience. If you’ve been an avid deer hunter for 20 years and are interested in turkey hunting, come to that turkey workshop. It’s a great networking tool.”

Anyone interested in one of the workshops or an AMH event can visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/adult-mentored-hunting-program and use the interactive map to find a Hunting 101 or Learn-to-Hunt event.

Although there has been little mention of chronic wasting disease (CWD) during the COVID-19 outbreak, Sykes said WFF still needs the assistance of hunters to properly monitor the state’s deer herd.

“We still need people to help us collect samples,” he said. “Just because COVID hit, CWD didn’t miraculously go away. We’re still collecting samples. We’re still doing all of our surveillance. And we need people to participate. We installed those self-check freezers around the state for people to drop off samples. The response from the public was less than desirable. Just because we’re not talking about it every day like we have been for the past couple of years, CWD didn’t go anywhere. There’s still the threat. The numbers in Mississippi and Tennessee are still growing. We have to be diligent in doing our part so if it does hit, we can react swiftly.”

Locations of the self-service freezers are available at https://www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling.

Sykes also wants to remind deer and turkey hunters about the changes to the possession regulation for the upcoming seasons.

Hunters who harvest deer and turkeys must maintain proper paperwork when transferring possession of that animal to a processor, taxidermist or any other individual.

According to WFF’s Law Enforcement Section, the recording and reporting requirements remain the same in Game Check. The update concerns possession of the game by someone other than the hunter.

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

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

Hunters still have 48 hours to report the harvest through Game Check to attain a confirmation number. However, the game cannot be transferred to another individual until a valid Game Check confirmation number has been acquired.

The easiest way to comply with the requirements is to download the Outdoor AL smartphone app. The other is to go to outdooralabama.com and click on “Game Check.” For those who don’t have internet access, WFF has self-service kiosks at all district offices. The 1-800 number is no longer in effect. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/transfer-possession for more information.

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

2 weeks ago

State Parks online campground reservations system goes live

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

Ready for a camping trip to one – or several – of the beautiful Alabama State Parks? Ensuring you’ll have a site for your RV, travel trailer or tent just became much easier when the new online campground reservation system (www.reservealapark.com) went live.

When ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship was appointed by Governor Kay Ivey in 2017, one of his first initiatives was to connect all Alabama State Parks to broadband internet service and to implement an online reservation system for Alabama State Parks. Parks officials spent months integrating the technology into the 17 parks the system will serve, and the new online tool will include a variety of features that park visitors have requested.

“One of the things we were intentional about providing to the customer was to look at a site’s availability for the whole year instead of one specific date range,” said Emily Vanderford, Natural Resources Planner with the State Parks Division. “This new system gives them a longer date range. If they have a favorite campsite, they can look at availability and book it. That is something customers asked for – being able to look at that site’s availability across the year.”

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Another feature of the new reservations system is the ability to book at multiple parks during one online visit.

“If someone is making a road trip and they want to book several parks along the journey, they can do that in one booking,” Vanderford said. “There are some specific features that people have wanted, like saving their bookings into their account to know which sites they’ve stayed on in the past. Also, now you can purchase a gift card and use a gift card in that same system.”

Vanderford thinks people are really going to appreciate this tool with the user-friendly online system.

“But we also want people to know that if they have questions, they can call us, and we will be happy to help,” she said.

State Parks Assistant Director Rob Grant started the work on the new online system with a Request for Proposals (RFP) last fall. After Parks officials selected a vendor, Vanderford took the lead.

“We really appreciate the hard work Emily has done since she took on the role,” Grant said. “After the RFP was finally issued, Emily joined in and ran with it. And our staff has been fantastic in navigating the new system.”

Prior to the new system, nine parks had campground reservations on an online system, but that system linked to each park separately and did not include many features.

“Before, all our parks on the online system, ran their own system,” Vanderford said. “So, if you wanted to make a booking at Cheaha, you had to go to a Cheaha-specific booking link. If you wanted to make a reservation at Lake Lurleen, you had to call that park. With the new system, we have all of the parks we operate on the online reservation system. There were multiple pieces to the puzzle. One was to transfer the old reservation system into the new system. Then we had to prepare all of the campgrounds that had been in the old system for the new system. The challenging part was to do that in a way that provided some uniformity. With this system, everything comes into one centralized source that can make a booking for any and all of our camping parks. That was one of the bigger challenges, making sure we could bring everything into one system and make it work so the customers could pull up the sites and see all of our parks.”

With the new campground reservation tool, campers can go online and find numerous options to plan a trip to Alabama’s most scenic destinations, from the Appalachian Mountains to Mobile Bay.

“Visitors may not know which park they want to go to,” Vanderford said. “With the new system, they might want to camp in central Alabama. They could type in Birmingham, and the system will pull up a list of parks in the area. Then they can book any or all of those parks from the same place. Starting last fall, there was a lot of detailed setup work for pricing and availability. All of those things have to be ready to go so the customers can book online and avoid issues for them or Parks operations. We don’t want customers showing up to campgrounds they’ve made a booking for and the site not be available.”

The 17 parks included in the online booking system had to have upgrades to internet service to ensure the parks’ offices had the computing power to integrate into the new system.

Vanderford said now that parks’ offices have upgraded internet service, the plan is to add more internet access for park users as soon as possible.

“High-speed internet is definitely something we are working towards for the campers, but it may not be distributed throughout the parks for the campers at this time,” she said. “That’s a totally different challenge – making sure there is secure Wi-Fi. We had park offices that did not have enough internet service to run the system, so we had to upgrade those first.”

Grant added, “We have been redoubling our efforts to expand the Wi-Fi access now that we have fiber to each park and the online booking system launched. This continues to be one of Commissioner Blankenship’s top priorities.”

The new campground reservations system has been online since August 19, and it appears there are many happy campers.

“A lot of bookings have been made since the system went live,” Vanderford said. “When you launch a system of this magnitude, there are always some things you have to work out. I’m invested in making sure the customers have the best experience they can. All in all, I think it has gone really smoothly. Customers have been asking for some features for a long time that we can now provide. We have staff all across the state who have done a great job of learning the new system. We will be able to answer questions people may have.”

Grant said the feedback he’s received has been positive.

“We have had some rave reviews from guests who have accessed the new system,” Grant said. “They’ve had some great comments and some suggestions. We’re still tweaking it and making adjustments. We’re adding in more and more functionality, but we’re pleased with the system and the progress we’ve made.”

Currently, the new online system includes campsites and camping cabins. Chalets, cabins and hotel rooms at the parks will remain in the legacy system for the time being.

“We are working to put everything in one system,” Vanderford said. “That’s something we will be working on this fall.”

State Parks Director Greg Lein said that this has truly been a team effort to improve services to park guests, and that the project especially benefitted from the dedication of two Parks employees over the last year.

“Rob Grant spent countless hours in 2019 researching companies and reservations systems to prepare our agency for the formal Request for Proposals and to develop the eventual contract,” Lein said. “Emily Vanderford led our efforts to review proposals and implement the transition process from the old system to the new system over the last 9 months. She has literally lived and breathed reservations over the summer to the point where they are probably part of her dreams. This work could have never been accomplished were it not for Rob and Emily’s leadership and commitment to the project and our park guests, and the support we received from Commissioner (Chris) Blankenship, Deputy Commissioner (Ed) Poolos, and our Information Technology staff.”

To look at the new online booking options, go to www.reservealapark.com. For more information on reservations, please visit www.alapark.com/reservations.

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

WFF cautiously optimistic about spread of silver carp

(USFWS/Contributed)

Chris Greene is cautiously optimistic that an invasive fish species that can wreak havoc on reservoir ecosystems has not expanded its range in Alabama’s waterways.

The silver carp, which has done noticeable damage in Kentucky and Tennessee waterways, has been found in Alabama’s Pickwick and Wheeler reservoirs.

Thankfully, the feared spread of the fish, highlighted in numerous YouTube videos for jumping when startled by boaters, has not materialized, said Greene, Chief of Fisheries for ADCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. Only Pickwick has a moderately abundant population of silver carp, and Greene hopes that population stays contained to that reservoir.

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“We’re relatively new to this situation,” said Greene. “Silver carp haven’t been in Alabama for very long. We’ve only had federal funding specific to Asian carp work since October of 2019, so we’re still in our first year of funding. So far, work has involved the acquisition of field gear, sampling equipment and staff training. We’re still awaiting our primary sampling boat, which we hope to get this fall and do more intense field sampling.”

When the new boat arrives, Greene said it will allow WFF personnel to target the collection of silver carp to determine population dynamics.

“We’ve been sampling with our standard shock boats,” he said. “The new boat will be more specialized with a rectangular frame and net attached to the front of the boat where you can actually trawl through the water. It will still have electrodes hanging down like a standard electrofishing boat. So, you’re moving through the water collecting carp in areas where they tend to congregate. It’s a learning experience. We’re learning from other states like Kentucky and Tennessee. They have been doing this a whole lot longer than us. Hopefully what we learn from them will make our sampling more effective.”

Because of the abundance of silver carp in their rivers and reservoirs, Kentucky and Tennessee rely heavily on commercial anglers to remove silver carp from their systems. Greene said those states even subsidize commercial anglers to remove silver carp to make it economically feasible.

The good news for Alabama is silver carp have had a limited range since the first one was detected in state waters about five years ago.

“Our limited field sampling has not yielded any silver carp outside of Pickwick Reservoir in Alabama,” Greene said. “From what we have been able to determine from angler catches, the farthest upstream location where silver carp have been confirmed by a commercial fisherman in Alabama is Wheeler Reservoir. Angler reports have been infrequent in Alabama. Most of those have come from Pickwick Reservoir. So, we believe the leading edge of where we have a moderately abundant population is Pickwick.”

Greene said WFF Fisheries encourages anglers to report any silver carp catches or sightings.

“We ask any anglers who are out on the water to let us know if they see a silver carp,” he said. “They are our eyes out there. We can’t always be on the water, so we ask anglers who see any silver carp or bighead carp, please report those to asiancarp@dcnr.alabama.gov.”

Greene asks that reports, locations and photos of silver and bighead carp be sent to that email address.

In an effort to deter the spread of the invasive fish, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) issued a new Wild Baitfish Regulation that deals with the capture of live bait in Alabama waters and restricts the movement of that bait to other water bodies.

“We enacted a regulation in Alabama to reduce the spread of Asian carp,” Greene said. “Young Asian carp closely resemble other live baitfish that are commonly used by anglers – skipjack herring, gizzard shad and threadfin shad. If we have anglers going out throwing cast nets and catching several species and taking these to other water bodies, it could increase the spread of Asian carp.”

The regulation states that if anglers catch bait on a specific body of water, that bait cannot be transported live to another body of water. It also restricts the import of live, wild-caught baitfish from other states.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is considering several methods to control the spread of Asian carp, including fish barriers at 10 locks controlled by the TVA. One type of fish barrier under consideration is a Bioacoustics Fish Fence (BAFF), which utilizes a combination of sound, light and air bubbles. This type of barrier is installed at Barkley Lock and Dam in Kentucky and is currently being studied for its effectiveness in deterring Asian carp. Other types of barriers used for Asian carp include the use of carbon dioxide or electricity. TVA is conducting environmental impacts on the deterrents to minimize the impact on native species.

TVA is also considering adjusting river flow rates during potential Asian carp spawning periods, which are usually during high-water events. Studies have shown that Asian carp eggs are only semi-buoyant and will sink to the bottom and die with low river flow.

“For those eggs to mature, there must be long stretches of flowing water from larger tributaries,” Greene said. “You have this series of dams on the Tennessee River, so it really doesn’t provide the habitat requirements for the eggs to mature and develop. But some of the major tributaries on the Tennessee River have long flowing stretches. The concern is if carp get up into these tributaries and we have a weather year with a good amount of rain, the potential does exist in certain places.”

Silver carp have been compared to feral hogs in the damage done to an ecosystem. Feral hogs outcompete native wildlife for food and habitat resources. When silver carp become established in an area, they interrupt the natural food chain and native species end up negatively impacted.

“Silver carp are filter feeders,” Greene said. “They are planktivores. They filter out plankton throughout the water column. This puts them in direct competition with baitfish and young game fish as species like bass and crappie are planktivores in their early life stages. There’s more competition at the base of the food chain. It also affects baitfish species as adults. You’ve only got so much biomass that particular water body can support. The more taken up by Asian carp, the less will be taken up by the native species. The problem with silver carp is once they come into a water body, it becomes a management issue. You never really get rid of them. It’s like feral hogs. You just have to manage them. You can never fully eradicate them.”

As the boaters and anglers saw in the aforementioned videos, silver carp also pose a safety issue for recreational activities on the waterways.

“Once silver carp get scared, they jump out of the water, which can be hazardous for someone in a bass boat or on a jet ski,” Greene said. “It’s definitely a safety concern.”

Alabama continues to work with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to collectively manage the spread of silver carp. Joining the fight on a larger scale is a multistate group called the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resources Association (MICRA), which includes the 28 states in the Mississippi River basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Service, TVA, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and two Native American tribes are also members of the coalition.

Several years ago, Tennessee Tech received federal funding to monitor numerous lakes, including Pickwick, for silver carp. One of the goals has been to catch silver carp and insert sonic tags to allow tracking of the fish’s movements.

“Tennessee Tech is still doing the tagging studies, and they’ve even got detectors set up on some of the TVA locks in Alabama,” Greene said. “From my understanding, none of the silver carp they’ve tagged in Pickwick and other places have gone through any of the locks in Alabama. At least that was the case just a few weeks ago. To date, we have not had any confirmed reports of silver carp in Guntersville Reservoir or Wilson Reservoir. We certainly hope it stays that way.”

Greene said concerned anglers and those interested in mitigating the damage done by invasive species can help by purchasing the Alabama freshwater fishing distinctive license plates, which recently received a new design.

“Proceeds from the sales of this license plate are earmarked for specific purposes, and one of those is the control of aquatic invasive species, including Asian carp,” he said. “We’re excited about this.”

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

4 weeks ago

Advisory board approves snapper extension, tables turkey changes

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board approved a three-day extension of the red snapper season and tabled a motion to change the season dates and bag limit for wild turkeys at its recent meeting in Mobile.

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), recommended a three-day extension of the red snapper season, which the Board approved unanimously. The extra red snapper days are set for October 10-12. The Board also voted to give the Commissioner leeway to adjust those dates should inclement weather interfere with the planned extension.

“We saw an increased participation in red snapper season,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “People couldn’t play travel ball. They weren’t going to Disney World or going on family vacations. Consequently, we saw increased participation on all weekends of the red snapper season. Because of that, we closed the season on July 3 as we were approaching the quota on red snapper. After checking the data and seeing the final landings, we have about 128,000 pounds of red snapper quota left.”

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The Commissioner said the approved extension is the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of Columbus Day weekend.

The Board heard a presentation from Mike Chamberlain, the Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia, about the decline of wild turkey populations in the South. Chamberlain’s presentation was the same one given to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which wanted to see data on how harvest impacts the population dynamics.

“Arkansas’ turkey population has been declining for a number of years,” Chamberlain said. “The trajectory of the population in Arkansas is almost identical to the trajectory of the population in Alabama, except that Alabama is about seven or eight years behind.”

Chamberlain, who is studying wild turkeys in numerous states from Arizona to North Carolina, said gobbling activity begins about 45 days before the peak of nesting.

“Gobblers become receptive well before the hens do,” he said. “We know two things drive gobbling activity. One is hen availability. As hens become less available, gobbling increases. The other is competition amongst themselves. If your buddy is gobbling, you gobble.

“What we see is that a lot of gobbling in March corresponds to no breeding activity. We also see that gobbling really picks up when hens start to nest.”

Chamberlain said what we’re dealing with in the South is an increased harvest of gobblers and a survival rate of hatchlings that is not high enough to sustain the population.

“What we see is a slow, gradual decline across all the states in the Southeast,” he said. “The survival rate of a clutch is 1 to 1½ poults per hen. That is not sustainable. So, it makes sense that the populations have slowly declined.”

Chamberlain also said his studies indicate that about 80 percent of the harvest occurs before the peak of incubation.

“If you remove four toms from 2,400 acres, gobbling decreases four-fold,” he said.

Chamberlain pointed out that the reported harvest on the opening weekend of Alabama’s 2020 season was 43 percent higher than the harvest from 2019, a trend that held true throughout the Southeast.

“We know that early in the season, the dominant birds are the ones being shot,” he said. “So that 43 percent disproportionately affects the older, dominant birds.”

Chamberlain said the result of taking the dominant birds out of the population is an increase in the length of nesting activity. Instead of most of the egg-laying occurring within a few weeks, he said the hatching of the eggs is now stretched out over as much as 100 days.

“If all of these hens drop their clutches within a couple of weeks, they will hatch about the same time,” he said. “By scattering them across the landscape across 100 days, you give predators the advantage. With all the eggs hatching at one time, predators can’t possibly find all of them. If you stretch it across three months – rat snakes, raccoons, horned owls – you’re giving them an advantage.

“The science suggests the activity we’re doing is contributing to this prolonged nesting effort.”

Board Chairman Joey Dobbs asked Chamberlain if he had suggestions on how to stop the decline of the turkey population in Alabama and the Southeast.

“There are some things we can control and some things we can’t,” Chamberlain said. “This bird, uniformly across the Southeast, is dealing with habitat issues – declining quality, fragmentation, urbanization. We have diseases that are popping up that are affecting the birds. We have predator communities that are much more diverse than they were. We can’t control any of that because most turkeys live on private land.

“What we can control is what we know impacts this bird. That is harvest. We’ve known this since the mid-’90s.”

After Chamberlain’s presentation, a motion was made to change the dates and bag limit for Alabama’s turkey season with a starting date of April 1 through the first Saturday in May with a season bag limit of three birds. The current regulations open the spring turkey season in most of the state on the third Saturday in March with a season bag limit of five birds.

Before the vote, Board Member Patrick Cagle offered an amendment to table that motion until the February 2021 Board meeting to ensure hunters in Alabama would not run afoul of a new regulation with the current regulation already printed in the Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest. The Board unanimously approved the amendment to table the motion.

When asked for a recommendation on turkey season by Chairman Dobbs, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes said the decline in Arkansas’ turkey numbers is an ominous indication of where Alabama is headed without change.

“I would ask the Board to move the season starting date to as late as possible with a three-bird bag limit,” Sykes said. “I think Dr. Chamberlain showed that Arkansas is in a bad way right now. We’re headed in that direction. The sooner we can take proactive solutions, the better. I don’t want to kick this can down the road any farther. Thank y’all for saying you will take this up at the first meeting of 2021 and make a decision. It’s time.”

During the meeting, Commissioner Blankenship provided an update on the effects of COVID-19 on the ADCNR’s operations.

“I think our people are doing their best at social distancing and maintaining the safety guidelines,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “Our State Parks stayed open the entire time, dealing with the public every day, as well as our officers and staff in the field. I really appreciate their work during this time. It’s been a testament to our employees and their passion for what we do. Governor (Kay) Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris felt like outdoors recreation was essential. I think it has been essential for people being able to get out and enjoy the outdoors when so many other things were closed. We’ve seen increased occupancy at our State Parks campgrounds and day-use facilities, our waterways and fishing lakes, our Forever Wild trails, and our WMAs (wildlife management areas). They were highly used.

“I think it shows the beautiful resources we have in our state, the wildlife and the diversity of the areas. I think people realized how fortunate we are and what a great state this is to live in. I think people got out and went to places they’ve never gone before. I think that has been good for not only physical health but mental health as well.”

Commissioner Blankenship also reported an increase in license sales, which is the main source of income for the ADCNR.

“Our hunting, fishing and Wildlife Heritage licenses were up a good bit,” he said. “Our non-resident licenses were down, as you can imagine with the travel restrictions.”

Commissioner Blankenship said a marketing campaign was initiated to target those individuals who may not hunt or fish but appreciate the diversity of wildlife and natural wonders Alabama offers.

“We are trying to increase participation in license sales for people who utilize areas of the state that don’t require a license,” he said. “They don’t hunt or fish, but they birdwatch or hike or take advantage of the recreational opportunities on the property managed by the ADCNR. We marketed our Wildlife Heritage License to the birdwatching community. We increased that license’s sales by more than 33 percent last year.

“Our new licenses are on sale now. One of the things we added this year was packages. If you want to hunt deer, you can select a hunt package. If you want to fish freshwater, you can select that package. If you want to fish saltwater, you can select that package. We wanted to make it easier for the public to go online and purchase licenses.”

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/license-packages for the license packages available.

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

Scaup limit reduced to one; Sandhill registration opens soon

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed)

North America’s waterfowl breeding population annual survey is another aspect of the outdoors that has been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

Seth Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Migratory Bird Coordinator, said virus-related travel restrictions would not allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to conduct the aerial survey of the prairie potholes regions of Canada and the Midwest U.S.

“It’s going to be an interesting season,” Maddox said. “With COVID ongoing, they didn’t fly the breeding population survey in Canada and the northern U.S. The border was closed, so we don’t have a good estimate of what the waterfowl population looks like.”

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Maddox said waterfowl specialists will have to depend on weather conditions and long-term datasets to take an educated guess on waterfowl populations.

“It’s been a fairly wet spring and summer across the U.S. prairies, which makes for really good breeding habitat,” he said. “But it has been fairly dry in the Canadian prairies, which will impact the breeding habitat there. We’ll see what the fall flight looks like. It may be a little below what we’ve seen in the past few years as far as population numbers. So, it will be an interesting year. I think the numbers will be fine. They may just be a little lower than the previous few years.”

Maddox said the waterfowl seasons in the flyways are set a year in advance. While this season’s bag limits and dates have minimal changes, he said the 2021-2022 season framework may be affected.

“This season, the only significant change is a reduction in the bag limit for scaup (bluebills),” he said. “Based on the 2019 population, scaup dropped into the restrictive package, which allows for a 45-day season with a two-bird daily bag limit and then a 15-day season with a one-bird daily bag limit. In Alabama, we decided to go a little more restrictive and go 60 days with a one-bird daily bag limit. That makes our regulations a little easier for our hunters to interpret. And it makes it easier for our Enforcement Officers as well. We didn’t want to put any hunters in a situation where they might be over the limit. We’re working on the harvest strategy at the Flyway level to get that changed so we won’t have season-within-a-season limits.”

For the 2020-2021 season, Alabama hunters will again have a daily bag limit of 6 ducks, which may include no more than 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be females), 1 mottled duck, 2 black ducks, 1 pintail, 3 wood ducks, 2 canvasbacks, 1 scaup, and 2 redheads. The daily bag limit for coots is 15 per day. The daily bag limit for mergansers is 5, only 2 of which can be hooded mergansers. The aggregate bag limit of 5 dark geese (Canada, White-Fronted and Brant) shall not include more than 3 Canada geese or 1 Brant. For light geese (Snow, Blue, Ross’s) the aggregate bag limit is 5. Possession limit is three times the daily bag limit.

Regular season dates for ducks, coots, mergansers and geese are November 27-28 and December 5-January 31, 2021. The Youth, Veterans and Active Duty Military Special Waterfowl Days are set for November 21 and February 6, 2021.

After a successful season last year, Alabama again will offer a limited sandhill crane hunt in north Alabama. The limited quota sandhill hunts will have 400 permits with 1,200 tags. The daily bag limit is 3. The season possession limit is 3. Sandhill season dates are December 4-January 3, 2021, and January 11-31, 2021.

“We had a good opening season for sandhill cranes,” Maddox said. “We harvested 291 birds, which is about 24 percent of the allocated tags. We’ll be doing the same thing this year.”

Registration for a sandhill crane permit will open September 8 and the random drawing for permits will be held after registration closes at 8 a.m. on September 29.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/what-hunt/sandhill-crane-hunting-alabama for the link to apply for a sandhill permit. A $10 registration fee applies.

“Last year’s sandhill season was very positive, overwhelmingly positive,” Maddox said. “Everybody seemed to have a good time. Several hunters managed to fill their bag limits. People are excited to have the opportunity to chase this bird in the field again this year in Alabama.”

Maddox said the sandhill crane population in the U.S. has been steadily increasing over the past few years. However, the number of sandhills that end up in Alabama is directly related to the weather, just like ducks.

“The colder it is, the more birds show up in Alabama,” he said. “We had a good number of sandhills show up last year, but with colder weather, we’ll have more birds show up.”

Maddox said the bulk of the sandhill population spends summers in the northern U.S. states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec.

“Like ducks, sandhills only want to move as far as they have to, so the more snow cover up north, the better it is for Alabama,” he said. “Sandhills are feeding in dry or slightly wet agricultural fields. Snow cover pushes them farther south. We have really good habitat in Alabama for sandhills. Most of our sandhills winter on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and along the Tennessee River. But there is a decent population on Weiss Lake on the Coosa River.”

Maddox just hopes the weather conditions change for the 2020-2021 seasons after two years of less-than-average waterfowl hunting success.

“Last season looked a lot like the previous season,” Maddox said. “It was a pretty warm, mild winter here in Alabama. And, it was pretty mild in most of the country. We never saw that late good push of ducks that we are used to when we have cold weather. So, it made duck hunting fairly tough.

“It was a fairly wet winter across the Midwest and southern United States. There was a lot of water available on the landscape that provided a lot of available habitat for birds to spread out. It was almost a mirror image of the previous season.”

Maddox said the most recent quality duck season in Alabama occurred during the 2017-2018 season.

“That was a really good season,” he said. “We had a lot of cold weather that pushed down. We had a stretch of below freezing temperatures in Alabama. We really need that in the North and Midwest to put ice on the landscape to minimize the open water. And we need snow on the landscape to cover the available food and push the birds further south into open water and good habitat.

“Overall, it’s looking pretty good for this season. As long as we stay with average rainfall, we’ll have good habitat for migratory birds that make it here this fall and winter.”

For some early waterfowl action, don’t forget about the Special Teal Season, which runs September 12-27, 2020, with a daily bag limit of six birds.

Also, the early season for geese runs September 1-30 and then October 12-24. During the September season, hunters can take five dark geese per day, but only one Brant is allowed in that bag limit. The bag limit for light geese is five per day for the entire season.

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

1 month ago

Alabama offers new options for hunting and fishing licenses

(Outdoor Alabama/Contributed)

Hunters and anglers who pursue game or fish in Alabama will have new options to make purchasing licenses for the 2020-2021 seasons easier.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is offering packages that will cover license requirements when pursuing white-tailed deer and wild turkeys or fishing the state’s abundant opportunities for freshwater and saltwater species.

To make it as simple as possible, the packages can be acquired with a one-click purchase when the 2020-2021 licenses become available on Monday, August 24, 2020. All current licenses expire on August 31, 2020.

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Chuck Sykes, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director, said other states have successfully packaged licenses to take the guesswork out of the requirements.

“We’re trying to make it easier on people who are hunting and fishing in Alabama, especially non-residents or new hunters and anglers who don’t really know exactly what they need,” Sykes said. “People can go online and look for what activity they want to do, and we’re providing everything they need to do it with one click.

“I know when I go hunting out of state, a lot of times it can be fairly daunting trying to figure out exactly what licenses I need, like a regular hunting license, a WMA (wildlife management area) license or a stamp of some sort. What this does is eliminate the confusion and make it as easy as possible. When people come into Alabama and say they want to deer hunt, then here’s everything they need to deer hunt, or here’s everything they need to fish. We just want to provide easier access for hunters and anglers in Alabama.”

For the ultimate bundle, consider the new All Access Sportsman’s Package, which includes annual licenses for All Game Hunting, WMA License, Bait Privilege License, Alabama State Duck Stamp, Harvest Information Program (HIP) Stamp, Freshwater Fishing, Saltwater Fishing, Saltwater Reef Fish Endorsement, and Spear Fishing. The All Access Sportsman’s Package will cost $127.95 for residents and $533.25 for non-residents.

The All Access Hunting Package includes All Game Hunting, WMA License, Bait Privilege License, State Duck Stamp, and Harvest Information Program Stamp. Prices for the hunting package are $73.15 for residents and $407.45 for non-residents.

The All Access Fishing Package covers anglers from the abundant freshwater fishing opportunities to the bounty of Alabama coastal waters and the Gulf of Mexico. The fishing package includes Freshwater Fishing, Saltwater Fishing, Saltwater Reef Fish Endorsement and Spear Fishing. The fishing package prices are $54.80 for residents and $125.80 for non-residents.

ADCNR will offer a variety of additional packages for residents and non-residents for those who fish only in saltwater.

Anglers can purchase the Resident Annual Saltwater Pier Fishing Package, which includes Pier Fishing and the Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement. The price is $16.45. Additional permit fees apply at Gulf State Park Pier.

For those who love to catch red snapper and other reef fish in Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones, the Resident Annual Saltwater Reef Fish Package will include Annual Saltwater Fishing and Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement. The price is $34.75. A Resident 7-Day Trip Saltwater Reef Fish Package is available for $20.30.

For those who like to hunt their fish underwater, there is a Saltwater Spear Fishing package, which includes a Spearfishing license, Annual Saltwater Fishing and Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement. The price is $40.75 for residents.

“What I like about the packages is that it groups together commonly purchased licenses,” said Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon. “It helps people make sure they have everything necessary to legally participate in an activity. For instance, if you’re going to spearfish in saltwater, most people do that offshore and would need a spearfish license, saltwater license and Gulf reef fish endorsement. Using the package option makes it easier and clearer.

“With our new license purchase format that groups licenses into a drop-down menu by activity, we’re hoping to make it more user friendly for people to purchase their licenses. The packages are an extension of that. And the All Access Sportsman’s Package makes it easy for those who participate in everything we do in the outdoors in Alabama.”

Visit https://www.outdooralabama.com/license-packages for a direct link to the new license options. An auto-renew feature is also available on the licenses page at www.outdooralabama.com.

Last year, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources introduced a set of collectible hard-card licenses with a variety of outdoor scenes and wildlife. A set of six new cards will be available for the 2020-2021 license year.

The art scenes include a mature white-tailed buck, strutting turkey, crappie, redfish, wood duck, and a Second Amendment-themed card for shooting sports. A total of 32 license privileges are eligible for purchase as a hard card, including annual hunting and fishing licenses for residents and non-residents, state duck stamp, and Wildlife Heritage and bait privilege licenses. This feature is not available for trip licenses and no-cost privileges. Lifetime licenses will also now come on a beautiful new hard card.

To obtain a hard-card license, go online at www.outdooralabama.com and click the link to purchase a license, or request one when purchasing at a retail outlet. Buyers can choose one or all of the six new cards at $5 per card. If a license has already been purchased, those who want to get a hard card can go online and click on the “Replacement/Additional Hard Card” link to purchase any or all of the six cards.

The hard-card licenses will be mailed to buyers within 10 days of purchase. If you haven’t received your hard card before you plan to hunt or fish, be sure to keep a paper copy of your license or have it available in the Outdoor AL app on your smartphone.

Also new for the 2020-2021 hunting seasons is an updated requirement for hunters who harvest deer and turkeys to maintain proper paperwork when transferring possession of that animal to a processor, taxidermist or any another individual.

Jonathan Stone, Assistant Chief of WFF’s Law Enforcement Section, said the recording and reporting requirements remain the same in Game Check. The update concerns possession of the game by someone other than the hunter.

“What this means is that whoever is in possession of all or part of a deer or turkey that is not their own must retain written documentation with the name of the hunter, the hunter’s Conservation ID number, the date of the harvest and Game Check confirmation number,” Stone said. “That information can be on a piece of paper, or they can use the transfer of possession certificate available in the Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest or online at outdooralabama.com.

“That documentation has to be kept in possession as long as that person is in possession of that deer or turkey. It’s the responsibility of the hunter who harvests the deer or turkey to enter that animal into the Game Check system and maintain in their possession a valid confirmation number for that animal.”

Hunters still have 48 hours to report the harvest through Game Check to attain a confirmation number. However, the game cannot be transferred to another individual until a valid Game Check confirmation number has been acquired.

“Anyone who takes possession of a harvested deer or turkey, which includes taxidermists and processors, must receive and maintain documentation containing the valid Game Check confirmation number, the name of the hunter and other necessary information,” Stone said. “Those who take possession of that animal need to make sure they have that information prior to receiving it.”

Stone also wants to remind hunters that there are two ways to enter their harvests through Game Check. The easiest by far is to download the Outdoor AL smartphone app. The other is to go to outdooralabama.com and click on “Game Check.” For those who don’t have internet access, WFF has self-service kiosks at all district offices.

“The 1-800 number is no longer in effect,” Stone said. “You can go to the website or the best way is to use the Outdoor AL app on your phone. It only takes a few seconds to plug in that information and you’re done.”

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

Private anglers to get one more opportunity at red snapper

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Just when it appeared that the 2020 red snapper season was a wrap, private recreational anglers are likely to get one more opportunity to fish this year.

Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD), said the preliminary harvest numbers for the private recreational sector indicate about 100,000 pounds remain in the quota of 1,122,622 pounds.

The red snapper season for private recreational anglers (which includes state charter vessels) was originally set to last 35 days, beginning the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. However, the season had to be shortened to 25 days to ensure the quota was not exceeded.

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Bannon said he and Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, are discussing options that would provide the best opportunity for private anglers to catch Alabama’s premier reef fish species.

“The private recreational angler season went really well even though we closed a little earlier than we anticipated,” Bannon said. “The data showed a tremendous number of people took advantage of the season, especially with the opening earlier on May 22.”

When the data from the season was analyzed, Bannon said a significant uptick in participation was quickly evident.

“The average vessel trips for the season were 713 trips per day,” he said. “That means a lot of people went fishing compared to the last two years, which had an average of about 530 vessel trips per day. I think people took advantage to go snapper fishing when they could not participate in other activities. They could not get on cruise ships. They couldn’t go to Disney. People were not playing travel sports. Boating was considered a safe outdoor activity, so I do think the COVID-19 pandemic affected the snapper season. I think it prompted more people to go snapper fishing than we had in the past.”

Bannon said the snapper season might have ended even a little earlier had it not been for Tropical Storm Cristobal, which significantly limited fishing on the third weekend of snapper season.

“Even after the second weekend, I had people tell me about the high number of boats they were seeing offshore,” he said. “They said there’s no way we’re going to make it to July 19. My thoughts were that as the season progresses the fervor dies down in July, and fishing gets a little tougher. Again, with not having other activities available, the weather outside that Cristobal weekend was really good and people went fishing.”

Bannon said anyone interested can visit www.outdooralabama.com/2020-red-snapper-landings-summary and view the catch data as well as the chart that shows the angler participation rate compared to the average wave height. The catch data in the chart has been updated to include additional reports.

“You can see in the chart that the wave height and catch effort are directly related,” he said. “The Cristobal weekend slowed down the catch effort. You can also see the weekend days had much higher catch effort.”

For the first time since the five Gulf states were granted control of red snapper management in 2018, Alabama added Mondays to the weekend to try to spread out the effort and provide more opportunities to fish.

“I think adding Mondays was a success,” Bannon said. “Some people felt that had a negative impact and reduced season length because of the Monday fishing. But if you add up all of the Monday effort, it is barely more than our peak Saturday. Mondays did exactly what we hoped it would do. It provided opportunities to avoid the Saturday chaos, allow people who work weekends an opportunity to go, and allow people who were on vacation who had to travel on Saturday to have an extra opportunity. And, if you were local, the feedback I got was they took advantage of Mondays instead of trying to fish on Saturdays when the effort was so high. They didn’t fish any more because it was open on Mondays; they just fished a different day.”

With the snapper season closing after July 3, red snapper had to be replaced with lane snapper for the 87th Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo at Dauphin Island later in July.

“I know there was disappointment that we didn’t have red snapper for the Alabama Deep Sea Rodeo, being the nation’s largest fishing tournament,” Bannon said. “With all of the other challenges the rodeo had with the COVID-19 issues and all the events that were cancelled, I think they had the best event they could under the circumstances.”

With three years of state management data and the 2020 data on Monday fishing, Bannon said the MRD staff will analyze those numbers to determine season dates for 2021.

“Our goal is to make accurate season predictions,” Bannon said. “Again, the pandemic did have an impact, and we don’t know where we will be next year with COVID. We will work with the Commissioner to see what kind of season we will have moving forward.”

The other sector that takes advantage of the state’s great red snapper fishing is the Alabama charter boat fleet, which still operates under federal management through NOAA Fisheries. The charter season opened on June 1 and ran straight through August 1.

“I think the charter season went really well, especially considering that, when the coronavirus first hit, a lot of people were canceling trips early in the year,” Bannon said. “As boating was considered a safe activity, many of the boats adjusted their capacity so people felt comfortable and safe. They lost the Cristobal weekend just like everyone else, but they got to fish pretty consistently for the 62 days they were open. From my discussions with the captains, they considered it a very good season considering the COVID circumstances. And I think they’ll have a good fall season as people still have limited outdoor activities. The charters will target other fish, like amberjack, which is scheduled to be open until October 31. They can also catch vermilion snapper (beeliners) and other reef fish species as well as king mackerel.”

Bannon was encouraged by the variety of sizes of red snapper that inhabit Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones.

“We saw in our preseason data that we had a large number of smaller fish, which we attribute to a strong year-class of fish,” he said. “Those younger fish will crowd those reefs. What you should see in the next year or two, those fish will be growing up around those reefs and then dispersing. We should be able to follow the year-class and see how it works out over the next few years. We are comfortable with the amount of fish harvested in our reef zones from all sectors. Our surveys help ensure we are making appropriate management decisions to make sure our fishery is sustainable.”

One of the ways MRD conducts those surveys and other management practices is through a variety of funding sources, one of which is the Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement that was implemented for the 2020 season. Bannon said 22,755 endorsements were obtained. The funds will be used for reef fish management.

“I feel like we had really good compliance on the Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement,” he said. “This year, our Enforcement Officers were just making people aware they needed the endorsement, which helps us identify just how many people are participating in the fishery in addition to providing funding for all aspects of reef fish management. Next year, a person may receive a citation for not having it. Also, for the fishing seasons after January 1, 2021, we’re adding greater amberjack and gray triggerfish as mandatory species for recording in Snapper Check. They are two valuable species to Alabama anglers, and we want to develop better landings data.”

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

2 months ago

WFF reminds alligator hunters of no-cull regulation

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

With Alabama’s 2020 alligator season only a couple of weeks away, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division wants to remind those lucky tag holders about the no-cull rule in effect.

With the exception of the Lake Eufaula Zone, tag holders are not allowed to release an alligator after it has been captured. The exception for the Lake Eufaula Zone is because it is the only zone that has a minimum size length, which is 8 feet total length. In this zone, only alligators that are under 8 feet in length may be released after capture. In all other zones, culling is completely prohibited.

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“Many folks who have been going to classes for years and are now getting the training online understand about culling,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes. “However, I think some hunters have abused our leniency in enforcing the regulation. We just want to make sure that everybody is aware that culling is not a legal practice. This is not a fishing trip where you practice catch-and-release. This is a cold-blooded animal that expends a great deal of energy during the fight and that could end up as an unexpected mortality. When you have 5,000 or so people apply for one of these coveted tags, we don’t want people abusing the process and making it look like a catch-and-release fishing tournament. We just wanted to clarify that culling is not allowed.”

Wildlife Section Chief Keith Gauldin said this regulation has been in effect since Alabama’s 2018 alligator season.

“Just as you don’t capture and release any other game animal, hunters are not allowed to practice releasing alligators unless they are hunting in the Lake Eufaula Zone, where there is a minimum harvest length of 8 feet,” Gauldin said. “A captured gator is your gator, so be sure to review the training videos on the website. The videos give you helpful tips on how to judge the size of an alligator.”

Gauldin said there is a direct correlation between the distance from the gator’s nostrils to its eyes and the total length of the animal. If the distance from the nostrils to the eyes is 10 inches, the estimated total length of the alligator would be 10 feet. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/alligator-hunt-tag-training-videos for the six training videos and one that explains the no-cull regulation.

Tag holders must abide by the rule that applies when an alligator is “captured.”

“In the past, we have seen individuals on social media posting alligators that they have captured, taken pictures of and then released,” Gauldin said “We don’t want hunters to cause any undue stress on these animals. By regulation, an alligator is considered captured once it is secured with a snare around a leg or the head and is secured boat-side and in control. It must be immediately dispatched and the temporary tag applied. We want to stress that before hunters pursue an alligator and throw a hook at it or any of the legal means of catching an alligator, they should view that gator and estimate its size closely. They need to make sure that’s the one they want to harvest.”

Gauldin said another rule that will be closely enforced has to do with boats providing assistance during the pursuit of an alligator.

“When hunting parties have multiple vessels involved, only the boat with the tag holder can have the capture equipment in it,” he said. “The other vessels that are assisting can only have spotlights but no capture equipment.”

Capture methods are restricted to hand-held snares, snatch hooks (hand-held or rod/reel), harpoons (with attached line), and bowfishing equipment (with line attached from arrow to bow or crossbow). The use of bait is not allowed.

Gauldin said the WFF’s Enforcement Section will be out in full force during the alligator season to ensure the regulations are followed.

“There is a high likelihood hunters will be checked by a Conservation Enforcement Officer at least on one of the nights of the season,” he said. “It’s a good idea to put all of your identification, hunting license and alligator tag in a Ziploc bag for easy access instead of having to dig it out of your wallet at one o’clock in the morning. Have that ready for presentation when you get checked. It will make it easier for our officers and make for a more timely check for the hunters.”

Gauldin also wants hunters to refrain from consuming alcohol during the hunts.

“We want hunters to have a good time but a safe time,” he said. “Combining alcohol and alligator hunting is not a good idea. And make sure everyone has a PFD (personal flotation device). It’s a good idea to have that PFD on if the boat is under throttle, especially at night. Obstructions are much harder to see at night. We just want them to have a safe hunt.”

The Alabama alligator season is broken into five zones throughout south Alabama, the traditional range of alligators in the state.

The zone where Alabama’s first season originated is the Southwest Zone, which has the most tags (100). The Southwest Zone includes all of Mobile and Baldwin counties north of I-10 and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84. The 2020 season dates are sunset on August 13 until sunrise on August 16 and sunset on August 20 to sunrise on August 23.

The Coastal Zone (50 tags) was created last year to address the rising interaction between alligators and the human population along the Coast, where WFF receives most of its nuisance alligator complaints. The Coastal Zone includes the private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties that lie south of I-10. The 2020 season dates are the same as the Southwest Zone.

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

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

The Lake Eufaula Zone (20 tags) includes Alabama state public waters in Walter F. George Reservoir (Lake Eufaula) and its navigable tributaries, south of Highway 208, Omaha Bridge (excluding Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge). The 2020 season dates are sunset on August 14 until sunrise on October 5. The Lake Eufaula Zone is the only zone that allows daytime hunting.

Alabama’s alligator harvest numbers have been consistent at between 65 and 70 percent of the available tags since the program’s inception.

And one never knows when another monster gator will be hauled in that rivals the current world record of 15 feet, 9 inches and 1,011.5 pounds that was harvested in 2014 by Mandy Stokes of Camden.

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

‘Hiking with Hailey’ explores Alabama’s great outdoors

(Courtesy of WSFA-TV/Outdoor Alabama)

For someone who really doesn’t care for insects, Hailey Sutton has put her fears behind her to share Alabama’s great outdoors via her increasingly popular “Hiking with Hailey” segments on Montgomery’s WSFA-TV.

Sutton, who hails from Red Oak, Texas, has been in Alabama for less than a year after her first TV gig in Montana.

The weekend sports anchor at WSFA, Sutton has a background in soccer rather than the outdoors. Despite her lack of outdoors experience, she pursued an idea of hiking through numerous Alabama State Parks and other natural wonders. That concept blossomed into weekly episodes that may turn out to be more than the summertime feature she originally envisioned.

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“This whole series is kind of funny,” Sutton said. “I don’t really like to be dirty, and I’m terrified of bugs. Living in Alabama, this has been challenging. My first job was in Montana, and their bible up there is the outdoors. I had wanted to do a similar series in Montana, but I just didn’t have the resources. When I moved here, I saw all these different parks. I was able to pitch the idea to my boss, and then the coronavirus happened. That kind of gave me a chance to step away from sports since they haven’t had as many sports going on.”

Sutton admits the series has caused her to expand her horizons to provide her viewers with snapshots of the beauty of Alabama.

“It was a refreshing way to push myself out of my comfort zone,” she said. “In this past weekend’s episode at Cheaha State Park, our guide had us eat a leaf. If you had told me three years ago that I would be on TV eating plants for my job, I would have LOLed. But it’s been really fun to do something different and push myself.”

The Cheaha State Park episode, where Park Naturalist Mandy Pearson got Sutton to sample a leaf from the sourwood tree, was the sixth in the series that started at Oak Mountain State Park.

“Cheaha was awesome,” Sutton said of the park that sits atop the highest mountain in the state. “I’d seen pictures and videos of Cheaha, but pictures and videos can’t do justice to how cool it is to get up there and be able to see all the way to Birmingham, which seems crazy to me. I’ve just been blown away by how diverse Alabama is. What we have focused on each week is trying to show something every week. We started out at Oak Mountain, which is the largest state park (9,940 acres) in Alabama. So, if you’re looking to get a little bit of everything, that’s a great place to start.”

Sutton decided to downsize the next week with a visit to the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Alabama Nature Center at Millbrook.

“Obviously, the Alabama Nature Center is smaller, but they do a lot of programs to educate kids about nature,” she said. “I thought that was really neat, especially during the summer, highlighting that this is still something available to do with your kids.”

Sutton and crew then visited Wind Creek State Park, the 1,445-acre park on the banks of scenic Lake Martin in east central Alabama.

“Wind Creek was really neat because you’ve got the forest and the lake atmosphere,” she said. “That was really cool.”

Next up was a visit to 696-acre Chewacla State Park and its iconic waterfalls that were formed when Moore’s Mill Creek was dammed to create Lake Chewacla.

“I had been to Chewacla once before,” Sutton said. “It’s just so funny. You hop off I-85 and you’re right there at the park. That’s one of the things our guide, Joshua Funderburk, said was one of the things that make this park so interesting is you’re in the middle of Auburn, but you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere when you’re there.”

Sutton found her trip to Rickwood Caverns State Park, just north of Birmingham, to be one of the most enjoyable for a variety of reasons.

“Rickwood was awesome,” she said. “That may have been my favorite place. One, it was cool in the caverns. It was 60 degrees, so it was nice to not be sweating. The other thing is it was so ‘otherworldly.’ It was just so different from anything I had ever seen.”

Sutton highlighted all of the amazing features of the caverns with their numerous formations estimated at 260 million years old. She also discussed the exit from the caverns and the number of steps involved.

“It was crazy,” she said. “Going into the cave, it’s not 110 steps down to get to the features. It was a gradual descent. Then our guide told us, ‘Oh, by the way, to get out you have to go up 110 steps. We had to sit for a couple of seconds after we got done with the steps.”

Designed to give a glimpse of the great outdoors before her busy season started, the series surprised Sutton with how quickly it gained a widespread following. She said the impact of the coronavirus will likely dictate what happens next.

“I guess it just kind of depends on what happens to football season,” she said. “It was originally a summer project. But, if there’s no football, it will depend on how busy my schedule gets. I don’t know if we have a timeline on it. To be 100 percent honest, I didn’t know it was going to be as popular as it has become. I guess as long as people are watching…”

Sutton said she is amazed at how quickly word has spread about the “Hiking with Hailey” series.

“We have people reaching out to us on a regular basis asking us to come to their park,” she said. “We had to make a list of all the places we would like to go. If we have to stop, then there’s always next summer or later in the year. It’s been good. There are so many parks and forests to explore. I’m really excited that we’re going to Bankhead National Forest in a couple of weeks.”

Visit www.wsfa.com/authors/hailey-sutton/ and scroll to find each episode of “Hiking with Hailey.” The episodes are also on the “Hiking with Hailey” Facebook page.

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

No live auction for 2020 State Lands hunting leases

(Marty Palsy/Contributed)

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the State Lands Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) will conduct its hunting lease program without a live auction for 2020.

Patti Powell McCurdy, State Lands Director, implemented a program in 2010 that aligned all leases under State Lands’ control to operate on a five-year public bidding cycle. State Lands would kick-off a new cycle by advertising an Invitation for Bids listing all the tracts available for leasing.

Until this year, potential lessees could submit sealed written bids, but they also had the opportunity to continue bidding at a live auction.

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“We had an auctioneer conducting the bidding,” McCurdy said. “If we received written bids on a tract, the highest written bid then became the new minimum at the live auction. Like any other auction, people would be raising their hands and yelling out bids. It was fun to watch.”

McCurdy said when it came time to send out the 2020 Invitation for Bids, the uncertainties related to COVID-19 presented hurdles that made it unrealistic to try to hold a live auction.

“We held off a bit in hopes that we could find a way to successfully include a live auction component,” she said. “We never really got there. The last thing I wanted was for a hunter to drive several hours and then be unable to bid at the live auction because of capacity limitations or other restrictions. I ultimately decided to move forward the best way we could. So, for the 2020 cycle, State Lands will only be accepting written, sealed bids.”

However, with the 2020 cycle providing avid hunters an opportunity to submit bids for 145 tracts across 30 counties, there is still plenty to get excited about this year.

McCurdy said the hunting lease program expands the many excellent public hunting opportunities currently offered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on the state’s wildlife management areas (WMAs), Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) and various Forever Wild Land Trust tracts.

“The leasing program gives individuals the opportunity for a totally different hunting experience – a very personal one,” she said. “Not everybody has access to family land or a hunting club. This gives the public an opportunity to lease a tract and enjoy it with family and friends. Our bidders range from hunting clubs to grandparents looking for a place to take their grandkids hunting. I suspect we might also have a few bidders who just want a place to get away and enjoy all by themselves. It’s just a different experience we can offer the public.”

One happy lessee is Marty Pasley, who leases a tract in central Alabama. Pasley said the lease allows him to take his 9-year-old grandson hunting anytime he is available.

“This has been great for me and my grandson,” Pasley said. “It’s been a godsend for me because it’s close to home. It’s been the greatest experience in the world with the way State Lands did everything they said they would do. It’s been a great setup to take kids. Almost every time we go, we see deer. I’ve really been blessed to be able to lease this property.”

While Pasley leases for his family, hunting clubs also participate in the program.

“It’s been fantastic for us,” said Brian Fulkerson, who leases land in south Alabama. “If I need any support, they (State Lands) are fantastic. We’re on the QDMA (Quality Deer Management Association) program, so we take care of our deer. I know they didn’t have a choice on the bidding process. Sealed bid is okay with me.”

Interested bidders can go to www.outdooralabama.com/hunting-lease-bid-2020 to see the 2020 Invitation for Bids, a “Complete Listing of 145 Hunting Lease Tracts” (ranging from 43 acres to 1,400 acres), maps for each hunting lease tract, and a sample hunting lease.

“I encourage everyone to first read the Invitation for Bids very carefully,” McCurdy said. “It is the official document detailing all requirements related to submitting a bid that must be followed so that the bid can be accepted by State Lands.”

Perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to submit a bid will close on July 30 at 3 p.m., the deadline for all sealed bids to be physically received at the State Lands Division office in Montgomery.

“It’s the responsibility of each bidder to make sure it reaches our office on time,” McCurdy said. “We cannot accept any bids for any reason after the deadline in the Invitation for Bids. Bidding starts at the tract-specific minimum bid amount noted in the Complete Listing.”

Each bid submitted must also include a certified or cashier’s check (no cash or personal checks) for the required bid deposit for that tract. McCurdy said the required bid deposit amount can also be found on the Complete Listing.

“We can’t consider any bid that is not accompanied by the bid deposit,” she said. “Again, it is just so critical to read and follow all the instructions in the Invitation for Bids. Successful bidders will have the bid deposit applied to the first year’s rent. Bid deposits submitted by unsuccessful bidders will be returned.”

“After the bid opening on the following day, hopefully by close of business, the highest bids for each tract will be posted at the same website link (see above),” McCurdy said.

In the event of a tie, State Lands will contact the tied bidders regarding the process for those bidders to continue the competition and arrive at the highest bid.

“If a successful bidder fails to execute the lease within the required 30-day period, we can contact the next highest bidder,” McCurdy said. “So, even if you are not the highest bidder initially, you could still have a chance to lease the tract you want.”

Interested bidders should also take the time to review the sample lease. McCurdy said it is important to be sure you are willing to comply with the lease provisions throughout the five-year lease period, before submitting a bid.

“One requirement is to maintain general liability insurance,” she said. “A successful bidder must also submit a list of the proposed hunters who will be on the tract. We do check those hunters for a record of game violations. Lessees are also required to provide some landowner assistance and generally return the tract to State Lands in as good or better condition than they found it.”

The hunting lease program is just one example of how State Lands fulfills its responsibility to manage a variety of state-owned land for the purpose of generating revenue.

“Like any business that manages real estate as an asset, State Lands is charged with trying to find ways to make these tracts a revenue-generating asset for certain state agency beneficiaries,” McCurdy said. “To some, this might sound like an unexpected role for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, but really it’s not. Employing proven conservation principles and implementing best management practices has always been directly linked to the resulting productivity of land. While you might see a one-time generation of revenue, you will never achieve the goal of perpetually generating revenue unless you take proper care of the land over the long term. So, these leases are truly a win-win for the state and hunters. They generate revenue for various state agencies, like the Department of Education and the Department of Mental Health, and at the same time allow State Lands to offer a unique hunting opportunity to anybody willing to participate in the bid process.”

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

North Zone dove season opens on Labor Day weekend

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes wants to make sure dove hunters are not caught flat-footed this September when the season opens earlier than usual.

The North Zone dove season will open on Labor Day weekend this year, a week earlier than most people are accustomed to. Sykes wants to get the word out well ahead of the season.

“Most people, me included, typically think dove season opens in the North Zone the first Saturday after Labor Day,” Sykes said. “That’s the way it’s been most years. There have been a few times since 2000 that the season has come in the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.”

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Because of a variety of opinions about when Alabama’s dove seasons, North and South zones, should be set, WFF officials decided that a survey inviting public input would be the best way to accommodate the majority of dove hunters.

“With anything we do, you’ve got some people who want the season to start early,” Sykes said. “You’ve got some who want to start late. Some want to hunt in October. Everybody has their own idea about what they want dove season to be, or any season for that matter. What that survey showed was that the majority of people wanted it to come in as early as it could in September. They wanted as many weekends and holidays as possible included where they would have opportunities to go. With Labor Day falling later this year, we had to decide if we wanted to push the season to September 12 in the North Zone or if we wanted to have it Labor Day weekend. There’s pros and cons to both sides, but we looked at what that survey said. The majority said they wanted it early, so we gave them the earliest date possible. We were also giving them an extra weekend and giving them a holiday. Those were all three things that ranked extremely high on our survey.”

The North Zone 2020-2021 season is set to start on September 5 and run through October 25 for the first segment. Hunters on opening day can hunt from noon until sunset. After opening day, hunting is allowed from one-half hour before sunrise until sunset. The daily bag limit is 15 birds of either mourning doves or white-winged doves or a combination of the two. The second segment is November 21-29, and the final segment is set for December 12 through January 10, 2021.

In the South Zone of Baldwin, Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Mobile counties, the 2020-2021 season opens on September 12 and runs through November 1. The final two segments are the same as the North Zone.

“We know we can’t make everybody happy,” Sykes said. “This isn’t something we took lightly. This isn’t something we didn’t deliberate. And it definitely wasn’t something where we didn’t listen to the hunters’ opinions. Basically, this is what the majority of the people who took the survey said they wanted. My biggest concern is that I didn’t want people to be caught off-guard. I wanted them to have plenty of time to make their plans for Labor Day weekend or vacation.”

Sykes also pointed out that hunters don’t necessarily have to plan a hunt on opening day, but it is available if wanted. Some may choose to wait until the following weekend.

Sykes and WFF Migratory Bird Coordinator Seth Maddox said the window for planting crops like corn, grain sorghum or sunflowers for doves has passed, but there is a short window for browntop millet remaining.

“You might be able to get some browntop millet in the ground in the next couple of weeks, but the time for other crops has passed,” Maddox said. “If you don’t have anything planted, the best thing to do is to bush-hog or burn off a field and prepare it by disking so that you have a well-prepared seed bed, and then top-sow some winter wheat. You can begin that as early as August, and you are allowed to plant up to 200 pounds of wheat per acre on a well-prepared seed bed.”

Anyone with questions can visit the ACES (Alabama Cooperative Extension System) website at https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/forestry-wildlife/mourning-dove-biology-management-in-alabama/ to learn more about allowed agricultural practices for dove hunting are listed.

“We see it every year,” Sykes said. “Yes, you can plant for erosion control. You can plant for winter grazing. There are agricultural practices that are legal, but simply going into a pasture and top-sowing wheat is not an accepted agricultural practice. Disking a field and spreading cracked corn is not an accepted agricultural practice. The ACES website explains in great detail what agricultural practices are allowed so that you will be legal and have a successful dove hunt.”

Landowners and dedicated dove hunters sometimes make the extra effort by adding fake power lines to attract the birds. Maddox recommends giving the birds as many places to roost and loaf as possible.

“Don’t cut down dead trees near a field,” Maddox said. “They like to have those loafing trees to sit in and check out the field before and after they eat. If you can provide a water source for them, that can make a big difference. And make sure your seedbed is disked well. Doves don’t have strong legs to scratch at the ground like turkeys do to uncover seeds. Doves are also attracted to freshly turned soil. It exposes seeds that didn’t sprout and bugs they eat as well. They pick up bits of grit for their crops to help grind the seeds. Doves are definitely attracted to a freshly plowed field.”

Dove hunting is one of the most popular outdoor activities in Alabama and the nation.

“Most people wouldn’t know that doves are the most hunted and harvested game in the United States,” Maddox said. “In our most recent survey, we had about 36,000 hunters with 200,000 days in the field and a harvest of more than 1 million birds. Most hunters don’t hunt but five or so days a year, so that’s a lot of birds harvested in the first couple of weeks of the season.”

Maddox said the annual harvest has no impact on the overall U.S. dove population of about 250 million birds.

“Doves nest seven or eight times a year here in Alabama,” he said. “They are a short-lived bird with a high rate of reproduction, so we’re not hurting the population at all. This renewable and sustainable resource continues to offer abundant opportunities to Alabama hunters.”

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

3 months ago

ADFSR returns to its roots for 2020 rodeo

(Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Mid-July completion expected for Gulf State Park Pier renovations

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Interior Secretary Bernhardt promotes outdoors opportunities during Alabama tour

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Scoggins brothers complete Redeye Slam in one day

(Steven and Kevin Scoggins/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Snapper season opener shows pent-up demand

(Brian Rowe/Contributed, YHN)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Alligator comeback continues; Hunt registration opens June 2

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Eagle Scout project memorializes Orange Beach charter captain

(Kimberly Eiland/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Awesome Trail opens at Joe Wheeler State Park

(Alabama State Parks/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite the obstacles, Thomas is pleased with the outcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago

Put asterisk by 2020 Alabama turkey season

(Elijah Phillips/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago

Oak Mountain staff, friends come to Hawes’ rescue

(Lauren Muncher, Anna Jones/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago

Virus robbed me of bidding farewell to great friend

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago

Vandalism continues to be problem at WFF shooting ranges

(WFF/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 months ago

Charters, inshore guides feel impact of virus restrictions

(Brad Tinney, Johnny Greene/Outdoor Alabama)

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

Unfortunately, it’s not a dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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