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.

2 days ago

State parks foundation seeks to boost Alabama opportunities

(Alabama State Parks/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 weeks ago

Seatrout, flounder limits change August 1

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 weeks ago

GSP’s Eagle Cottages gain National Geographic recognition

(Gulf State Park/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 month ago

Captains treat Fallen Outdoors to Alabama’s great inshore fishing

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warfield said the inshore fishing trip definitely exceeded expectations.

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

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

1 month ago

WFF adds coastal zone to alligator season

(D. Rainer/Alabama Outdoors)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Hooking redeye bass highlights scenic trip down the Tallapoosa

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Bait privilege license provides options for hog, deer hunting

(Jay Gunn/WFF)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blankenship said there has been much discussion regarding the bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Advisory board approves flounder, seatrout changes

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus event draws crowd

(David Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

WFF enforcement K9 unit a different breed

(WFF/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiser takes Luke on boat patrols as well.

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

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

3 months ago

Amendment 50 gives Gulf states stable snapper season

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Ultimate jugging produces catfish feeding frenzy at Millers Ferry

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

Steve Barnett mentors turkey hunt before retirement

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Alabama fishing returning to normal after flooding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Marine Resources Division considering changes to flounder, trout limits

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Advisory board gets crash course in chronic wasting disease: ‘Alabama does not have CWD’

(Wisconsin DNR)

The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board received a crash course in chronic wasting disease (CWD) at the Board’s first meeting of 2019 last weekend in Montgomery.

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Assistant Director Fred Harders explained the severity of the disease and why WFF has done everything possible to keep it out of Alabama.

“The first point I want to make is that Alabama does not have CWD, contrary to what you might have read, heard from a buddy or whatever,” Harders said. “We do not have chronic wasting disease.”

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Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Industries, started sampling deer in 2002. To date, more than 8,000 deer from around the state have been sampled and no CWD has been detected.

“Since Mississippi and Tennessee have found CWD, the Division is intensifying its sampling effort,” Harders said. “About 1,500 deer a year will be sampled with an emphasis around those areas near Mississippi and Tennessee.”

Harders said rumors about new theories that blame CWD on a bacterium are circulating on social media. These rumors also include that a CWD-detection kit will be available to the public and that a couple of years from now a vaccine will be available for all captive and wild deer and other members of the deer family, cervids.

Harders noted that while these theories may sound good, “The vast majority of scientists and researchers who have been working on this disease and continue to work on this disease don’t accept those theories.”

CWD is a fatal neurological disease, called transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), that affects the deer family and causes lesions on the brain. As the disease progresses, the affected animal will develop holes in the brain and eventually die. Infected animals may not show symptoms for two years.

The first case of CWD was discovered in Colorado in 1967. Over the next 30 years, the disease spread very slowly, only taking in a 15- to 20-county region on the CO, NE and WY borders.

Then, in the late 90s, CWD was detected in Saskatchewan. That incident was traced to live elk from South Dakota that were transported to Canada.

Human movement of live cervids or infected carcasses has contributed to the exponential spread of the disease over the past decade.

CWD continues to spread and now has been found in 26 states and three Canadian provinces. Harders said South Korea and Norway also have detected CWD. South Korea’s CWD-positive animals can be traced back to the live transport of deer from infected areas.

Harders said the disease is spread by bodily fluids – saliva, urine and feces. The infectious agent, called a prion, can survive outside the animal’s body. It can be in the soil and can be taken up by nearby plants through their root systems.

Harders explained that a prion, which cannot be destroyed by cooking, is a misfolded protein.

“Proteins are the molecular machines of our bodies,” he said. “They do just about everything.”

Although no case has been confirmed where CWD has been transmitted to humans from the consumption of venison from an infected animal, Harders pointed out, “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) doesn’t recommend eating venison from infected deer. And to be careful when you’re gutting that deer or handling any parts.”

Alabama has long had regulations that banned the importation of live deer. The regulations were amended to prohibit the importation of deer carcasses. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd for regulations about importing deer parts from out-of-state.

“That is why we’ve had officers monitoring the highways and giving tickets to people who were bringing field-dressed deer in from out-of-state,” Harders said. “The officers asked why the hunters brought those deer in, and they responded they didn’t think it was a big deal. Now you know why it’s such a big deal.

“That’s why we have the campaign ‘Don’t Bring it Home.’ We don’t have it. We don’t want it.”

Harders also cautioned hunters who travel out-of-state and harvest a member of the deer family only to find out later that the animal had CWD. That venison should not be thrown out by the individual, but rather a WFF official or enforcement officer who will ensure its proper disposal should be contacted,

Despite the CWD threat, Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said we’re blessed to live in a great state that offers hunting for deer and turkey and great fishing in both freshwater and saltwater.

“We really have a sportsman’s paradise here,” Blankenship said. “We’ve done a lot of work the past year on CWD, trying to keep it out of our state and being able to mitigate it or contain it in the unfortunate circumstance that it does show up here.

“We’re not trying to scare anybody or to unduly concern people about consuming deer or hunting deer. We just felt it was important for us to provide that information as to why it is so important to keep CWD out of our state.”

Blankenship noted that problems surfaced with the Outdoor Alabama app during deer season. Blankenship said the Department has worked with the app developer to correct the glitches.

“They assure us this is fixed now,” he said. “For turkey season and for Snapper Check, it should work for reporting your harvest. We appreciate you reporting the deer, turkeys and snapper. It really gives us valuable information to use when we make management decisions, and it is required by rule.”

Blankenship also encouraged anyone interested in the outdoors to visit outdooralabama.com and sign up for the Department’s emails. Subscribers have the option to receive all communication from DCNR or they can check certain categories, like hunting, freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing or wildlife.

Concerning saltwater fishing, the Board approved several changes to the regulations proposed by Marine Resources.

One change was new hook requirements for certain saltwater species to be consistent with federal regulations. Anglers fishing for, retaining, possessing or landing Gulf reef fish species must use non-stainless circle hooks when using natural bait. Anglers fishing for, retaining, possessing or landing sharks must use non-offset, non-stainless circle hooks when using natural bait.

The minimum size for cobia (ling) was raised from 33 to 36 inches fork length, measured from the fork (middle) of the tail to the tip of the snout, to match the size limit set by NOAA Fisheries in federal waters.

A minimum size limit for shortfin mako sharks was established. Males must be 71 inches fork length and females, 83 inches fork length. Visit https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/atlantic-highly-migratory-species/atlantic-highly-migratory-species-fishery-compliance-guides for information on shark identification and compliance.

A table listing regulated reef fish species was added to allow anglers to identify which species are included in management plans.

Shrimping regulations were updated to prevent the use of any form of trawling, not just for shrimp, in nursery or permanently closed areas.

Once the regulations become effective, the outdooralabama.com saltwater regulations page will be updated and the full text will be available at www.alabamaadministrativecode.state.al.us/docs/con_/220-3.pdf.

The next Conservation Advisory Board meeting is scheduled for The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, in Gulf Shores on May 4.

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

4 months ago

Mobile’s Three Mile Creek undergoing dramatic renovation

(David Rainer/Contributed)

Once upon a time, a beautiful creek ran through the middle of the city of Mobile. Unfortunately, that creek was neglected during urbanization and the important waterway became an eyesore, not to mention a source of water-quality degradation.

Fortunately, the tide has turned, and the revitalization of the Three Mile Creek watershed has become a priority for a wide variety of citizens, environmental organizations, governmental organizations, the University of South Alabama and the City of Mobile.

Roberta Swann of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) met recently with project partners, including the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), to determine how best to spread the word about the lofty goals of the Three Mile Creek watershed improvement plan.

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Those goals include:

Develop 10 miles of continuous greenway and restore natural channels and establish riparian buffers where possible

Determine Total Maximum Daily Loads, which is the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed in a body of water during water quality restoration

Improve the watershed’s water quality standards to “warm water fisheries” status. The current water quality is suitable for agriculture and industry only

Eliminate all known illicit sources of sewage

Reduce the amount of trash in the waterways by 75 percentMaintain flood protection

Install environmental education signage at current parks and proposed parks along the waterway

Control or eradicate invasive flora and fauna where possible

The event that gave all the project partners the impetus to continue occurred in 2011, according to Swann, with the “Clean Up the Bottom” event that invited citizens to help reduce the trash in the watershed.

“We had almost 400 people come out on a cold Saturday morning to help,” Swann said. “Some of the people had historical ties to the area, and about 80 percent of the people who showed up were African Americans.

“There was a lot of excitement. We got into kayaks to clean up One Mile Creek, and we got out into the neighborhoods. People came out onto their porches and asked for bags to help us clean up. It was a great experience frankly.”

With the enthusiasm from the community, MBNEP raised funds to perform a comprehensive watershed management plan. A successful project with the d’Olive Creek watershed in Baldwin County served as a template for the Three Mile Creek plan.

“When we do our watershed planning, it really is community involvement at the local level,” Swann said. “We have 16 community meetings throughout the watershed to find out what was good and bad about the watershed and its biggest challenges.”

The Three Mile Creek watershed plan was published in 2014 with the goal of establishing a trail along the creek from the University of South Alabama to the Mobile River as a key component to reconnect the communities along the waterway.

“What we found out during planning was that people just treated it like a stormwater ditch,” Swann said. “Very few people had any interest in engaging with the creek itself. We felt that was a calling for us to go out into the community and use our watershed plan to educate people on how a watershed functions, first of all, and how the trash aggregates at the bottom of the watershed. I think a key point of education was the trash came from all points along the watershed.”

Swann said the bottom third of the watershed is at sea level and inhabited by mostly low-income residents.

MBNEP enlisted the help of the MLK Redevelopment Corporation to conduct a leadership academy as well as hire a conservation corps of mostly young adults from the area to perform clean-up tasks.

“These were truly urban heroes,” Swann said. “They worked tirelessly. These were people who had never been on a kayak before who were kayaking a mile into the lower reaches of the creek to do invasive species management and trash clean-up. While that was going on, RESTORE grants were being made available. We worked with the City of Mobile to get a grant for the trail.”

Swann said the plan is so much more than the trail. It includes water quality restoration with drainage improvements all along Toulmin Springs Branch, the City of Mobile doing stormwater mapping, and addressing sediment issues in the upper watershed. It also includes opening the historic creek channel for a kayaking loop as well as the acquisition of the wetlands in the area where the creek flows into Mobile River.

“Three Mile Creek runs through the heart of Mobile,” said DCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “It touches so many neighborhoods and a large percentage of the population. Providing outdoor recreational access to all these people right where they live is so important to their quality of life. DCNR is proud to partner with many others to facilitate this restorative effort.”

During a short tour of access points and trail greenways last week, Rick Frederick, MBNEP Community Relations Manager, said the watershed improvements could have a significant impact on Mobile County.

“We want to get people out and show them how this project could revitalize Mobile’s ecotourism,” Frederick said. “This will provide a beautiful urban walkway, hiking, biking trail and canoe/kayak route right through the middle of the city. Once people start using it, they are going to want to take care of it.”

RESTORE funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement will be used to finish the greenway and trail, to restore Twelve Mile Creek for sediment load reduction, and to dredge Langan Park Lake. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants will be used to restore the historic Three Mile Creek channel.

“MAWSS (Mobile Area Water and Sewer System) has been a fantastic partner,” Swann said. “They have improved the sanitary sewers in the watershed with increased-size trunk lines and constructing a new storage tank. Also, the University of South Alabama has recently completed stormwater mitigation projects in the parking lots and has adopted low environmental impact development throughout the campus.”

Although $10 million has been approved for construction of the trail, Swann said the challenge has been to wait for the RESTORE money to actually materialize.

A kayak launch has been constructed at Tricentennial Park, where the 2019 Creek Fest celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on May 11. Creek Fest is a family-oriented event with live music, food and kayak rides at the park near Mobile Infirmary Hospital.

The City of Mobile will begin its next segment of trail construction in a few months to go with the mile of track that is already in use. Other projects that will be underway this year include construction on the headwaters of Twelve Mile Creek to Langan Park Lake and Alabama Power working with MBNEP to install rain barrels in the Prichard area to mitigate stormwater runoff.

Swann said when the work is completed, the Mobile area will have a “transformational greenway along Three Mile Creek with a corridor that extends a mile on either side of the creek that brings community together around this environmental gem.”

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

Marine Resources honors partners in world’s top artificial reef program

(Billy Pope/Contributed)

If any doubt existed that Alabama has the best artificial reef program in the world, Chris Blankenship made an emphatic declaration last week that Alabama’s artificial reefs are unparalleled anywhere on the planet.

Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), made that unabashed statement at The Lodge at Gulf State Park during a naming ceremony for seven new artificial reef zones in nearshore waters off the coast of Alabama and the renaming of one existing offshore reef zone.

“We live in an extremely beautiful state,” Blankenship said. “God has really blessed us with the beach, the mountains, the Black Belt and all the areas in between. We have some of the best hunting and fishing, and I get to go around the country and talk about all the wonderful things we have in Alabama. But there is nothing that I’m more passionate about than when I get to talk about the artificial reef zones and the artificial reef work that we have in Alabama.

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“When I go places and tell people that Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the world, a lot people scratch their heads and look at me like, ‘We didn’t even know Alabama has a coast. What do you mean you have a great artificial reef system?’”

That is when Blankenship backs up his claim with the facts, including the more than 1,100 square miles of artificial reef habitat, the 15,000 or so artificial reefs and the variety of reef structures that are deployed off the Alabama coast, including ships, barges, bridge rubble and other reefs designed specifically to enhance the marine habitat.

Blankenship, the former Marine Resources director, said last week’s ceremony was an opportunity to recognize people and organizations that have been instrumental in helping Alabama to build the world’s largest artificial reef system.

“One of the things that I am most proud of when we talk about the artificial reef program and the reason we’ve been so successful in Alabama is there are so many partners involved in the work that gets done out there,” he said. “And nobody cares who gets the credit. I think that’s why it’s been so successful. I can honestly say that with the artificial reef program in Alabama, there has been more concern about doing the good work, building this habitat and building this fishery we have and a whole lot less concern about who gets the credit.”

Despite the humility, Blankenship said ADCNR wanted to take the time to recognize those people and organizations that have made the lofty status of the Alabama artificial reef system possible through decades of partnership work.

The seven new reefs that were named are located in the new nearshore reef zones that were finally approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year.

Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon read proclamations from Gov. Kay Ivey that highlighted the contributions of each of the honorees.

“This day has been a long time coming,” Bannon said. “We’ve been working these artificial reef zones. Alabama has arguably the largest artificial reef zones in the world. We’ve expanded into the 6- to 9-mile range. We knew we needed to honor some of the people and organizations that helped make this happen. That also included our staff. We have a great staff at Marine Resources.”

One of the nearshore zones was named for the contribution of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, which helped develop the Alabama Artificial Reef Development Plan. The plan has helped to secure $35 million in funding for inshore and offshore artificial reef zones.

The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of Alabama contributed to reef construction and enhancement after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 by providing financial and logistical support for artificial reef work both inshore and offshore.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has been a contributor to conservation research in Alabama since 1984 and provided about $34 million in recent years for the expansion and enhancement to Alabama’s artificial reef program.

The Alabama Charter Fishing Association, formerly known as the Orange Beach Fishing Association, actually started the artificial reef work off Alabama long before any other organization. The association has worked with the State of Alabama for the past 60 years to make the artificial reef zone the best in the world. Those reefs allow the Alabama charter boats to take thousands of people each year from across the country and world to enjoy phenomenal fishing for species like red snapper.

The Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation was created to enhance the diving and fishing opportunities off the Alabama coast with fundraising for the deployment of the 271-foot ship “The LuLu” in 2013 and the 128-foot party boat “Capt. Shirley Brown” in 2015. The foundation also worked with Marine Resources to establish the Poseidon’s Playground, where novice divers can gain experience in nearshore waters. The foundation continues to work with Marine Resources to develop plans for additional reef deployments and also works with the dive community to monitor the health of the reefs and remove invasive species like the lionfish.

Dr. Stephen Szedlmayer, a professor at Auburn University’s School of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures, has been studying reef fish, especially red snapper, off the Alabama coast for the past 25 years. Szedlmayer’s research has contributed to the recognition of oil and gas platforms as significant habitat for juvenile reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. His research has also led to a better understanding of the life cycle and longevity of red snapper off the Alabama coast.

The other new reef was named in honor of Dr. Sean Powers, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama (USA) and senior scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Powers, who succeeded Dr. Robert (Bob) Shipp as head of Marine Sciences at USA, has researched reef fish habitat in the Gulf since 2003. His current research is focusing on the abundance of reef fish off the Alabama coast.

“Before, we had to learn a lot about the life history and reproductive strategy of red snapper,” Powers said. “That’s what we have learned from Dr. Shipp and Dr. Szedlmayer. Now we need to move it to more quantitative, to actually use the research to estimate the abundance of red snapper so we (Alabama) can manage our own fishery.

“We have a lot of red snapper off Alabama, but we harvest a large amount of red snapper too. It’s a delicate balance, but I think it’s one that we’ve achieved. Like last year, we (through Snapper Check) realized how many snapper were being caught and the season was shortened. That gives me a lot of confidence in the new system.”

Dr. Shipp, professor emeritus at USA, has been studying red snapper off the Alabama coast since 1973 and has been instrumental in the development of the Alabama Artificial Reef Program. Dr. Shipp has served more than 20 years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, including three terms as chair. At last week’s ceremony, the Don Kelley North General Permit Area was renamed the Dr. Robert Shipp Reef Zone.

“I think it’s just great that Chris and the State of Alabama recognize how valuable the red snapper resource is,” Shipp said. “They’ve done a great job of creating this reef system. I will say this – I’ve said it before – we’ve got to have state management (for red snapper). If we had state management, we could have a six-month season with a two-fish bag limit, and it wouldn’t make a dent in our population.”

Blankenship said that Alabama is blessed to have three great marine scientists in Drs. Szedlmayer, Powers and Shipp.

“They have dedicated so much of their careers to the work done off the Alabama coast,” Blankenship said. “Their work is known as the gold standard of red snapper research anywhere in the world. Largely, it is because of these three people that we have been able to expand the artificial reef program and build such a great fishery here in Alabama. And I want to say, we’re not done. When you have the success we’ve had in building reefs off Alabama, there’s a tendency to become complacent or think you’ve done enough. We don’t feel that way at all. We’re going to make sure we continue to have the best artificial reef program in the world.”

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

Mentored hunts renew enthusiasm for mentors

(C. Sykes/Contributed)

One of the mantras adopted by those who love the outdoors is “pass it on,” which means introducing somebody to hunting, fishing or other outdoors activities when you get the opportunity.

For the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, one facet of that effort comes in the form of the Adult Mentored Hunting Program, where seasoned hunters take new or inexperienced adult hunters to one of WFF’s Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) for a weekend in the woods hunting deer, turkeys or small game.

What WFF has realized is the mentors, who have many years of experience in the hunting field, are benefitting from their role as much or more than the folks who are being mentored.

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One case in point is Bill Gray, Supervising Wildlife Biologist in WFF’s District IV. The longtime WFF biologist was admittedly reluctant to head out just before Christmas to fulfill a mentor’s role at the hunt at the Portland Landing SOA.

By the end of the weekend, Gray had a new outlook on the experience, and he had gained a new friend.

“When you’ve hunted for a long time, you take a lot of things for granted,” Gray said. “You kind of lose the magic like when you were young and first learning to hunt. Through the progression over the weekend, I got to watch him (James Hopper) learn and be excited and notice some things that were special to him.”

One example was how excited Hopper became when he viewed a deer for the first time through a riflescope.

“That was an eye-opener for me and how important this program can be and what a great opportunity we have to share our world as hunters,” Gray said. “Really for me, it was a way for me to bring back some of that wide-eyed wonder and true joy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy hunting anymore. I do. I love it, but you get kind of numb to some of the things that are old hat to you. To these guys, it’s not. And to see how excited they get has renewed my interest in hunting and being able to usher more people across that threshold who may be interested in becoming a hunter.”

On Hopper’s first hunt, the deer came in late and were too far for his comfort zone in terms of making a quality shot.

On the second day, a buck came through about 35-40 yards from the blind, but Gray had to make sure the deer met the minimum requirements for harvest. By the time Gray saw the deer, it was weaving through the trees and disappeared.

Gray said Hopper couldn’t hide his disappointment on Sunday morning when the rest of the hunt’s participants were busy cleaning deer and feral hogs.

“I said I’ve got to try to help this out,” Gray said. “We exchanged phone numbers. I got him down to my place the first week in January. He drove five hours south to my place in Barbour County.”

One of those aspects of hunting that experience often mitigates turned into the deciding factor on the Barbour County hunt.

“He came very close to taking a deer,” Gray said. “But he spooked the deer with the safety. He was using the safety like he was taught on the range. When he clicked that safety off, he said the deer trotted away and didn’t look back. I didn’t think to show him how to put some downward pressure on the safety and slide it forward real quietly. As much as he has to learn about being a good hunter, I have as much to learn about being a good mentor.

“But he was very excited and not dejected about not getting a buck for the second time. I sent him home with some deer meat, and they loved it.”

Since then, Hopper purchased a deer rifle similar to the one he used on the mentored hunt to get ready for a new season.

“Part of my experience was I felt like I made a new friend,” Gray said. “We weren’t able to get together before the season ended, but I’m as excited about being there with him when he gets his first deer as he is about getting his first deer.”

As unlucky as Gray’s hunter was, Drew Nix had the opposite experience on his mentored hunt at the Cedar Creek SOA.

Nix, the WFF Forester, has been mentoring hunters for many, many years and has recruited quite a few people into the realm of license-buying hunters. Nix said those people he introduced to hunting included youth, adult non-hunters and physically disabled individuals.

His hunter on the Cedar Creek SOA happened to be a person who was very familiar with firearms, a retired Army guy who now serves as a military contractor to teach marksmanship.

“He was from rural New York and was very well-versed in firearms, but he had never been hunting,” Nix said. “During his active duty, he never had the opportunity to pursue hunting.”

On the adult mentored hunts, the person who draws the spot is allowed to bring a hunting companion. However, sickness forced the hunter’s companion to drop out. The hunter was then given permission to bring his 11-year-old son.

On the first hunt, several deer came into one of the fields that had recently been constructed on the SOA, including one buck that met the criteria for permissible harvest.

“I told the gentleman it was a legal buck, but I would wait because we were sitting on an exceptional piece of property,” Nix said. “He held his composure. After about 10 minutes, no other deer came in. He said, ‘If you’re telling me that’s a legal deer, I would like to go ahead and harvest that deer.’”

Nix said when the hunter got the rifle up he noticed a significant anomaly.

“It cracked me up,” he said. “From the waist up, he was rock solid. From the waist down, it was like a small earthquake was going on. His legs were vibrating the whole blind. But he took a good shot and made a clean kill. The deer ran out of the food plot about 5 yards. He and his son were really charged up and wanted to put their hands on the deer, but I told them to wait and see if a doe came in. Sure enough, he took a doe later that afternoon with another clean, ethical shot. They were just ecstatic.”

The hunter even added another doe to his take before the weekend was over, which meant he went home with a cooler stuffed with venison.

“When we were butchering the deer, the guy I mentored let me get finished with half of the first deer and then he took over,” Nix said. “He pretty well cleaned and quartered the rest of the deer. Then he called his buddies and had a processor lined up in Pelham before he left Cedar Creek.”

Nix admitted to the group of hunters at dinner one night that he wasn’t too enthusiastic to miss rutting activity where he hunts, but that he had a “great” time as a mentor.

“The big takeaway from this is this used to be done by family members – dads, uncles or grandfathers,” he said. “In today’s world, we’ve kind of skipped a generation of folks who did not hunt and are not hunters. That seems so foreign to us. For someone who has been hunting for a long time, you may not see the value in doing this until you’ve done it.”

Justin Gilchrist is the wildlife biologist in charge of the Dallas County SOAs, Portland Landing and Cedar Creek, and he is grateful to see a lot of hard work reach fruition during the mentored hunts.

“For me, these hunts have been very rewarding,” Gilchrist said. “We put in a lot of time managing the resources and getting things ready for the hunts. Getting to mentor these people who have never been in the woods in their life is very special to me. We get to take people out and teach them about firearms and hunting. We show them deer sign and what to look for when scouting, like a hard mast (acorns, etc.) crop. Nothing compares to watching their reaction when a deer walks out. Then you watch them be successful and get excited about their first deer. To see them take a deer on land where we’ve done a lot of work is very rewarding. It pumps me up.”

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

5 months ago

Alabama leads way with Walker County archery park

(Contributed/B. Pope)

Along with Alabama’s sparkling Gulf waters and beautiful mountains, our great state has another strength you may not have heard as much about: Alabama’s Community Archery Parks program ranks No. 1 in the nation.

The state’s 16th archery park, the Walker County Community Archery Park, was dedicated last week on the outskirts of Jasper on the banks of beautiful Walker County Public Fishing Lake.

Stuart Goldsby, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, has been instrumental in the spread of the archery park phenomenon in Alabama. Goldsby said the Walker County park has taken a while to complete, but it has been worth the effort.

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“We’re very excited about this,” Goldsby said. “This is No. 16 for the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To be able to lead the country in developing grassroots, community archery locations, where school groups or clubs or retailers can use it to benefit the community with that life skill of archery, is very exciting for us.”

The Walker County park has covered shooting areas with targets at known distances for both adult and youth shooters.

The unique aspect of the Walker County park is that it is the first state-operated archery park in the nation with a wheelchair-accessible elevated shooting platform.

Ed Poolos, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner, said the new archery park is special to him for several reasons, including its location.

“I am a proud citizen of Jasper and Walker County, so this is home,” Poolos said. “I am glad this is here. The goal for the Department of Conservation on this project is to partner with local governments and foundations to make the Walker County Public Fishing Lake one of the best state fishing lakes in Alabama. At the same time, we want to bring people to the outdoors to enjoy the natural beauty of Alabama. Projects like this allow us to do that.”

Poolos highlighted the positive impacts that archery and bowhunting can have on individuals and communities.

“Archery is a sport that requires and teaches precision, focus, accuracy and determination. It teaches all those things, but the great aspect of archery is that, no matter your age, gender or ability, archery can be enjoyed by everyone. So we’re really proud to bring this park here.”

Poolos also recognized the contributions of two Boy Scouts, Mason Woodman and Jaylan Banks, who aided in the construction of the archery park as part of their Eagle Scout projects.

Jasper Mayor David O’Mary said the area where the archery park is located was annexed recently by the City of Jasper, which will allow city resources to be used to help operate the park.

“I’m an outdoor enthusiast,” O’Mary said. “When you put in an archery range of this quality, that is a recipe for a lot of fun for a lot of people.

“We at the City of Jasper can bring on board the administrative side of our Parks and Recreation to look after tournaments and events here. Our equipment and our labor will be available to support this.”

Jenny Short, chair of Walker County Health Action Partnership’s Livable Communities Priority Group, said, although it took a great deal of work to complete the park, it was a labor of love.

“This project is a perfect example of a true private-public partnership,” Short said. “We had so many partners in this project. As we say, this was ‘built by our community for our community.’ We’re really proud of that.”

Alabama residents ages 16 to 64 must have a hunting license, Wildlife Management Area (WMA) license or Wildlife Heritage license to use the range. For non-residents 16 and older, an annual WMA license or non-resident hunting license is required. Licenses are available from various local retailers or online at outdooralabama.com. Use of the archery park is free for those under 16 years of age or Alabama residents over 65.

“Alabama leads the nation in having the most community archery parks. That’s one thing I’m proud Alabama is first in,” Chuck Sykes, WFF Director, said. “There is a very important reason why a license is required to use the park. We receive no money from the General Fund, so none of your tax dollars go out to provide services we provide for the citizens of the state. The way we fund that is by people buying hunting and fishing licenses. We encourage you to come out and shoot the range and fish the lake. Matt Marshall, our State Lakes Manager, and Marisa Futral (Hunter Education Coordinator) and Stuart are doing a wonderful job as well as our state biologists. So, come out and buy a license and have fun.”

Sykes said the Archery Trade Association (ATA) and its president, Matt Kormann, are huge supporters of DCNR, and the Department is grateful for their partnership.

The ATA represents manufacturers of archery and bowhunting equipment, pro shops and retailers of archery and bowhunting equipment.

“As president of ATA, I have seen a lot of archery ranges,” Kormann said. “I can say I’ve never stood on one as gorgeous as this one. I hope y’all know how lucky you are to have this park in this surrounding because it is unique.

“I’ve also been able to see in my job a lot of public-private partnerships. I can tell you, there is not any like there is in Alabama. To see this all come together so that more folks can come out and experience archery and possibly get into bowhunting, there’s not a better feeling in the world.”

Kormann said the ATA’s board of directors and members have made a commitment to promote and assist in the construction of public archery ranges throughout the nation.

“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to get more folks out shooting and bowhunting,” Kormann said. “There is a lot we need to do to ensure the health of those sports. This really revolves around the ‘R3’ triangle of recruiting new folks to come out, retaining the shooters we have and reactivating folks who might have lapsed. The opportunity to come out in a setting like this with high-quality equipment makes it easier to get folks to come out to shoot.

“What archery teaches and what it gives back is hard to find in other sports. It doesn’t matter what your skill level is. It doesn’t matter what your physical abilities are. Anybody can learn this sport pretty quickly. Beyond all of that, the sense of community and the sense of family in this sport is really unmatched.”

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

5 months ago

Gulf Council plans April vote; Alabama sets snapper season

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

One casualty from the recent partial federal government shutdown surfaced last week when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met at the Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Ala.

Because of the shutdown, the Gulf Council was unable to publish a notice in the Federal Register on a pending vote on Amendment 50, the state management of red snapper. The Council voted to call a special meeting for February to vote on the measure, but that effort was canceled because of logistics problems.

The Council will vote on Amendment 50 at the next regular Council meeting scheduled the first week of April at Biloxi, Miss.

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In the meantime, Alabama set its 2019 red snapper season, which is operating under the final year of an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP).

The 2019 Alabama red snapper fishing season for anglers fishing from a private vessel or state-licensed guide boat will be three-day weekends (Friday-Sunday) from June 1 through July 28, 2019, including Thursday, July 4. Except for the opening weekend, which begins on a Saturday, weekends are defined as 12:01 a.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Sunday. This does not apply to for-hire (charter) boats with federal reef fishing permits. Charter boats will operate under federal regulations in 2019.

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon said a vote on Amendment 50 at the April meeting should provide enough time to get the rules changed for the 2020 season.

“We should we able to get it done, but we don’t need any more delays,” Bannon said.

Amendment 50 shifts red snapper management to the states and allots each state a share of the red snapper quota. The preferred alternative will give Alabama a 26.49-percent share, while Florida’s share is a little more than 44 percent.

The 2018 and 2019 snapper seasons in the Gulf are operating under an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) that allows the states to set the snapper seasons under the catch limits. Last year, a 3.78-percent share of the quota was left after the pie had been divvied up. NOAA Fisheries (National Marine Fisheries Service or NMFS) gave Florida that 3.78 percent last year.

That 3.78 percent will be split between Florida and Alabama in the preferred alternative for Amendment 50.

“The eastern Gulf is where most of the harvest of red snapper is occurring,” Bannon said. “That is why we think that percentage should be split.”

Bannon said currently there are no plans to include for-hire (charter) boats in any of the state management plans.

Bannon expects Amendment 50 to pass in some form at the April meeting.

“Right now, I’m confident we will have a state-managed season for 2020,” Bannon said. “Allocation was the biggest concern with the options available. I think we will pass it at the next meeting.”

During the 2018 snapper season, the first under the EFP, Alabama set an optimistic private recreational season of 47 days, mostly on three-day weekends.

However, a renewed enthusiasm for snapper fishing and excellent weather conditions forced Marine Resources to shut down the season after 28 days.

“We will again be evaluating the season as it goes along through Snapper Check,” Bannon said. “We have the option to add days if we feel it’s appropriate, based on the harvest rate.”

Of course, that harvest rate will likely be weather-dependent.

“The weather last year was almost ideal throughout the entire red snapper season, and I think that contributed to the increased harvest rates,” Bannon said.

Plus, Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zone provides easy access to anglers who want to catch a limit of two red snapper with a minimum length of 16 inches.

“In the Alabama reef zone, we feel we have a very healthy population of red snapper,” Bannon said. “They are relatively accessible, and the size of the fish caught has been larger over the last couple of years. That also lends to reaching our allocation of pounds earlier.”

Dr. Bob Shipp, professor emeritus of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, has been studying red snapper off the Alabama Gulf Coast for decades, and he’s happy to see that the excellent health of the red snapper stock is finally being recognized.

NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Director Dr. Roy Crabtree acknowledged at the meeting in Orange Beach that the red snapper fishery is rebounding at a much faster rate than expected.

“The recovery of red snapper has been very robust,” Crabtree said. “There’s no evidence that it’s not going to continue. It’s a remarkable success story.”

Shipp applauded Crabtree’s confirmation that red snapper resiliency is far greater than NOAA scientists and their computer models predicted.

“I was delighted to hear Roy say that,” Shipp said. “Roy has been aware that the recovery is a lot faster than the models projected. That’s good news. I think everybody is on the same page now in terms of the status of the red snapper stocks. The species is very, very healthy. All the testimony we get from Texas all the way to the Keys is that snapper stocks are really strong.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress passed the Modern Fish Act, which was lauded by the recreational fishing community. However, the effect of the Modern Fish Act is not yet fully understood.

“There are provisions in the Act for the National Academies of Sciences to study the fisheries management plans,” Bannon said. “It also directs the Comptroller General to study the allocations, ensuring they are utilizing all the appropriate data that may be provided by the states and other entities. It’s really an outside look to make sure we’re using all the pertinent information to make management decisions. There are some pretty tight timelines, so they’ll have to quickly develop plans to present to NOAA and the regional fisheries management councils.”

In other action by the Council last week, Amendments 41 and 42, which deal with headboats and charter boats, respectively, were postponed until electronic log book data becomes available.

Right now, the charter industry in Alabama will remain under federal guidelines, which is fine with Capt. Johnny Greene, who runs the Intimidator out of Orange Beach Marina.

“Last year, we fished about 50 days, and we may get about 60 days this year with the reduction of the buffer because we stayed within our sub-quota for the past three years,” Greene said. “The buffer was reduced from 20 percent to about 10 percent. When you get 10 percent more, that is significant, especially at that time of year (tourist season). At the end of the day, it’s all about the people on the back of the boat who are really going to benefit from this. For the non-boat-owning public, this is their best avenue to reap the rewards of the expanded season.”

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

5 months ago

Landowners’ help needed to count gopher tortoises

(B. Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division and Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) are on an enlistment drive to help count one of the iconic species in Alabama’s longleaf pine forests, the beloved gopher tortoise.

Considered a keystone species of the longleaf ecosystem, the gopher tortoise is crucial for the survival and health of a variety of animal species, including the federally threatened Eastern indigo snake. In fact, more than 360 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are known to spend all or a portion of their lives in either active or abandoned gopher tortoise burrows.

The reason the agencies must ask for help to estimate the population is that the vast majority of gopher tortoises live on private land in Alabama as well as throughout most of its range in the Southeast U.S.

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The gopher tortoise is already listed as federally threatened in three Alabama counties – Washington, Mobile and Choctaw – and a decision on a possible listing as threatened in other parts of Alabama is expected in 2022. WFF, AFC and other partners are working together to determine if the population is large enough to preclude the gopher tortoise’s listing as federal threatened.

WFF and the AFC teamed with other concerned partners to conduct a series of presentations in south Alabama to encourage landowners to participate in the survey program. These workshops were funded by the American Forest Foundation.

Ericha Shelton-Nix, WFF’s Gopher Tortoise Program Coordinator, said the presentations focused on several issues, including whether gopher tortoises can be protected without further regulation.

“We have surveyed most of the public lands in Alabama managed by the ADCNR,” Shelton-Nix said. “More than 95 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private ownership. So, there’s pretty much nothing more we can do as a state agency to catalogue the population of gopher tortoises without private landowners stepping up. We have to know where gopher tortoise populations are and assess the populations to see what the status of the species is. We need to assess the populations on private lands. We discussed conservation efforts taking place across the range. We went over all the conservation efforts taking place in Alabama.”

She added, “The big take-home message is that we as state and federal agencies, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), have done all we can do without private landowner help.”

Different agencies are offering cost-share for habitat management – incentives for habitat management like prescribed burning. WFF, AFC and other partners have secured grants to provide gopher tortoise surveys on private land free of charge. Several agencies and organizations offer technical assistance on improving habitat.

The verified gopher tortoise populations in Alabama are in the Conecuh National Forest and Fort Rucker near Enterprise, Ala. A follow-up survey is ongoing on Fort Rucker.

“Conecuh has one viable population and Fort Rucker has one,” Shelton-Nix said. “Those are our largest, most contiguous blocks of land with high-priority gopher tortoise soils. It is likely there are others that have yet to be identified in Alabama, but we are working on it.”

Gopher tortoises are mostly limited to deep, sandy soils that make construction of their burrows easier.

The preferred gopher tortoise habitat is open-canopy pine forests with no mid-story growth that allows light to reach the forest floor to promote an abundance of herbaceous ground cover for tortoise forage.

“A species that becomes reproductively mature that late in life, combined with high nesting and hatchling predation rates, creates a long lag time for a tortoise to contribute to a population,” Shelton-Nix said. “In poor habitat, we see small isolated islands, like wildlife openings and roadsides, with only a handful of tortoises. Remember this is a long-lived species. As habitat quality decreases, tortoises will move to areas with food availability. They will survive, but they are not reproducing, therefore, not a viable population. That’s why the social structure is so important.”

The USFWS will consider the three Rs – representation, redundancy and resiliency – during deliberation on the gopher tortoise listing status. Representation covers where it is important to have tortoises on the landscape factored with population level. Redundancy refers to multiple populations that are needed per unit to protect against unit-wide extirpation (local extinction). Resiliency refers to populations large enough to protect against extirpation by catastrophic events.

Shelton-Nix said owners who agree to participate should expect a site visit from biologists to determine suitable habitat.

“We have a limited amount of survey dollars,” Shelton-Nix said. “We need to determine the percentage of suitable soils. We are looking for landowners with 50 or more burrows, so we can be efficient and get the most bang for our bucks.”

If the property is deemed suitable for a survey, the WFF grant will cover the cost of a consultant to conduct a survey, using the Line Transect Distance Sampling method. Each burrow that is found is scoped with video equipment to check for the presence of animals, which helps determine density rate.

Shelton-Nix said the number of burrows doesn’t translate to the number of tortoises.

“Each gopher tortoise can make three to five burrows,” she said. “If someone has 10 burrows on their property, most likely they have two to three tortoises.”

Shelton-Nix said 140 folks attended the four workshops with 30 landowners who were interested in being surveyed.

“We received great feedback,” she said. “But we’re still finding people who didn’t know they are being considered as a threatened species. The gopher tortoise is a very charismatic species, and people who have them love their tortoises.”

The exception are cattle and horse owners who are worried about the burrows.

“There are easy fixes around that,” Shelton-Nix said. “If people call me, we want to help people find solutions to their problems. It is illegal to move them. Another thing unique about gopher tortoises is they have a homing instinct. If you move them, they’re just going to try to go back home and may end up squished on the highway.”

Ray Metzler, who is the AFC’s threatened and endangered species coordinator, said the effort must overcome the concern from citizens when they hear, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

“We do have ways to provide the information to the USFWS without actually sharing names and addresses,” Metzler said. “We can just tell them that Landowner A has 175 tortoises in Escambia County with a density of whatever. That’s not intrusive and doesn’t share any private information.”

Metzler said the impact of the USFWS decision on the gopher tortoise can’t be determined right now.

“We don’t know if they (USFWS) would limit activities related to the tortoise,” Metzler said. “There might not be any impacts. We really don’t know. The USFWS won’t say until they review the information provided by the states to make the decision. Our goal is to keep it from being listed.

“We are trying to get more private landowners engaged in the process and hopefully allow us to come to their property and do a survey.”

Metzler hopes to acquire more grant money for more outreach to the affected landowners later this year.

“Our first four meetings led to more landowners finding out about the need for this program,” he said. “We’ve actually been on a few pieces of property that we didn’t know existed, that have good habitat and have some tortoises. If we have a few more meetings, it might lead to a few more properties like that.”

Although current research sets a viable population at 250 animals at a certain density, Metzler thinks support populations could have considerably lower numbers.

“You might have a support population at 50 tortoises,” he said. “There’s probably a lot more properties that have 50 tortoises as opposed to 250 at the appropriate density. And we need to find those properties.”

Visit here for a variety of information, including on the Alabama Tortoise Alliance, which will meet February 28 in Andalusia.

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

Life hunt participants bag bucks of lifetime

(David Rainer)

Aaron Causey of Riverside, Ala., has been all over the world to hunt, but he considers none of his hunts more special than the Buckmasters Life Hunt Classic last week at Sedgefields Plantation.

Causey’s world changed in 2011 when an improvised explosive device (IED) left him clinging to life in Afghanistan. A member of the military bomb squad, Causey had to undergo more than 40 surgeries. He lost both legs above the knees. He has recovered to the point that he has resumed his favorite pastime and joined in the Buckmasters hunt, which hosts wounded veterans and others with disabling injuries or illnesses.

“This is an amazing hunt,” Causey said. “It’s not just about the deer. It’s about the people you’re here with. It’s talking to people and getting to know everybody, especially watching these kids come out here and bring home a deer. Oh, that’s amazing. And I’m an avid hunter. I’ve hunted Africa, Montana and Wyoming.”

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Causey also managed to bag one of the largest bucks, an eight-point, taken during the Buckmasters event.

Causey’s buck played hide-and-seek for a while before he committed to coming into the field where the blind was erected.

“We watched four does probably for about three hours,” Causey said. “At about 3 o’clock, this massive buck came into the field, looked around and disappeared. He came back, stared straight at us and disappeared again. He was about 250 yards at the first sighting and about 225 yards the second sighting. The first sighting, it was too tight of a shot between the trees, and I wasn’t going to take a chance.”

A couple of hours later, does were still in the field when several bucks started to file into the area. A pair of six-points came in first, followed by an eight-point. Causey and his guide were about ready to take the eight-point when they had a change of mind.

“My guide said, ‘Wait a minute. Let me scan the field with my binoculars,’” Causey said. “Then he said, ‘Look to the right.’ I looked out and there was that big boy coming back in.”

Causey and his crew had to wait for the big buck to get a little closer and get in a position where he was comfortable with the shot.

“He kept walking toward us and wouldn’t give me a broadside,” Causey said. “He finally kept coming and gave me a broadside. He was 120 (yards) when I shot him. He went about 35 yards into the woods. The guide immediately went out in the field to check for blood. It was pretty wet back there, so we went and got the (blood-trailing) dog. The dog went up the field and he was already on the deer before anybody had a clue. He went straight to my deer.”

One of the first deer taken at Sedgefields last week was by McKenzie Clark, who is dealing with giant axonal neuropathy. It also happened to be her first deer ever, which left her dad, Shannon, a little teary eyed.

Clark, who is from Woodville, Ala., and crew had been sitting on a green field for about 2½ hours before any deer showed up.

“We saw about six does,” she said. “The buck I shot came in about 5 o’clock. My guide, Jay (Hatcher), said since it’s your first one you can shoot or you can wait. I said, ‘I’m gonna shoot it. I’m not gonna wait.’

“I had the gun up, looking for the deer. But I was shaking. I told them they were going to have to give me just a minute. I found the deer in the scope and squeezed the trigger real slow.”

Her dad will now have to look for ways for McKenzie to continue to hunt.

“She’s already confiscated my deer rifle,” Shannon said. “But that’s okay.”

During the photo session back at the camp, Shannon had to wipe away a few tears.

“That one is more special than any I’ve ever killed, and I’ve been hunting since I was 14,” he said. “My first buck was a spike, so she really outdid me on that. I think I’ve got a hunting partner for life. I was just happy. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

This wasn’t the first Buckmasters Life Hunt Classic for Brandi McCormack of Northport. She had bagged a nice buck several years ago but requested a return trip.

McCormack, a paraplegic who was injured in a fall from a balcony, got treated to some deer-camp shenanigans on her hunt. She had previously worked for her guide, Robert Almon, and he knew she was a good sport.

“There were so many deer in the field, you couldn’t even count them,” McCormack said. “Halfway across the field you’d lose count. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was unreal. And seven or eight were bucks. We had one deer right in front of us chewing on a vine, looking straight at me.”

Almon recounted the episode, saying, “We’re in a ground blind, and a group of does fed up to within 10 feet from us. There was one right in front chewing on some leaves. She looked up straight into the blind, and Brandi said, ‘I think she’s looking straight into my soul.’ The buck we want to kill is 75 yards away standing broadside, and we can’t take a shot. We can’t move an inch. Finally, a little nub buck came in and ran the does out from in front of the blind, so we could get the gun up.”

When the does finally moved, McCormack said she remained calm and practiced her breathing before she put the crosshairs on the buck.

When she squeezed the trigger, the buck bolted. That’s when Almon and the cameraman got a little mischievous.

“I was afraid I missed, but Robert said he was sure I hit it,” McCormack said. “They went out and started looking for blood. I couldn’t hear their conversation. They got further and further away. Then they started hanging their heads low, shaking their heads. I was sick to my stomach. They came back to the blind and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to be quiet and see if anything else comes out.’ I said ‘Huh-uh.’ Then they told me they found the deer. They got me. They got me good.”

A couple of baseball celebrities made return visits to the Classic. Relief pitcher David Robertson from Tuscaloosa, who just signed a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, and Craig Kimbrel of Huntsville, who was a relief pitcher with the World Champion Boston Red Sox last season, showed up to help the Classic participants celebrate being in the great outdoors.

This year’s event was particularly poignant for Kimbrel, who missed last year’s Classic because of his daughter, Lydia Joy, who was born with heart defects.

Lydia Joy has had a couple of surgeries already and another is planned soon.

“Going through some difficult times with my daughter and spending a lot of time in the hospital gives me a new perspective,” said Kimbrel, who is exploring the free-agent market after completing his Red Sox contract. “I’ve been coming for quite a few years, and I get to hear these families’ stories about the struggles they go through. And then I go through something similar last year. It was tough. You learn from it. You grow from it. We got a beautiful daughter out of everything we went through. Now she’s doing great. She acts like surgery is no big deal.

“But it is special to come out and help these hunters do something different. I’m sure it’s fresh air to be able to do something they don’t always get to do and be able to do it in the outdoors.”

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

6 months ago

Alabama WFF Ramps Up CWD Sampling Effort

(Billy Pope)

With positive tests for chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Tennessee and additional positives in Mississippi, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has ramped up testing in north Alabama.

WFF officials set up manned sampling stations in Hackleburg the first weekend of the new year and followed with sampling last weekend in Waterloo.

Self-service sampling stations were recently set up by WFF in north Alabama to accommodate drop-offs 24 hours a day.

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WFF Director Chuck Sykes said testing for the always-fatal disease, which is caused by a rogue protein called a prion, has been ongoing since 2002, but the positive tests in neighboring states caused WFF to increase its sampling effort.

“The Mississippi positives made us test more in the areas that joined Mississippi,” Sykes said. “When the deer in Tennessee tested positive, it prompted an increased level of testing where it fell within the response zone. Those positives just prompted us to increase our surveillance in those areas.”

Sixteen deer were brought in for sampling at the Hackleburg station, but Sykes said the interaction with hunters who didn’t harvest deer may have been the most productive aspect of the manned sampling station.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but I consider it a success for a volunteer check station,” Sykes said. “More important than the 16 deer brought in, we had two times that many hunters stop by and ask questions. It was a really good way for our staff to get in front of the public, and the public to be able to ask questions one-on-one.”

Sykes and the WFF staff discovered that, although the Division has been immersed in the CWD Response Plan, it has yet to be widely discussed in the public.

“We (WFF) are up to our eyeballs in CWD,” Sykes said. “Even though we’ve offered seminars, done articles and put up billboards, a lot of people don’t pay attention until it hits close to home. A lot of the questions were just basic CWD knowledge that the average hunter in Alabama doesn’t understand. What is it? Why is it a problem? What makes it different from other diseases? These were very positive interactions. There was nothing negative about it.”

Sykes said the self-service sampling stations are part of the standard protocols of the CWD Response Plan (https://www.outdooralabama.com/deer-hunting-alabama/chronic-wasting-disease-what-you-should-know).

“With the positives in Mississippi and Tennessee within 50 miles of our border, that prompts us to do more testing in those areas,” he said. “It’s been shown time and time again that hunter-harvested deer and road-kills are the best ways to achieve samples and to get the most out of those samples. Just going in and randomly shooting deer is okay, but in areas that have had CWD for a long time, there is a higher predominance in road-kill deer and hunter-harvested deer because they lose their sense of wariness. The most effective way to sample is by hunter-harvested deer and working with ALDOT (Alabama Department of Transportation) to identify road-kills.”

Above all, Sykes said he wants hunters to continue to pursue deer just like they always have.

“Again, this is not something to cause people to quit hunting,” he said. “We need them to become educated on what CWD is. Don’t rely on what they’ve heard at hunting camp or what they saw on Facebook. Talk to us to try to understand the disease and what we’re doing to try to prevent it.”

Sykes reiterated how hunting, especially deer hunting, is a cornerstone in Alabama’s culture and economy. Hunting has an almost $2 billion impact annually on Alabama’s economy.

“This is not a hunter issue,” he said. “This is not even a deer hunting issue. This is a State of Alabama economic issue and a way of life issue. We need people to understand what’s going on, and we need their assistance to gather these samples in the most efficient way so we can stay on top of it. Heaven forbid, if it does get here, we will be prepared to mitigate the risks as much as possible.”

Previously, tissue samples had to be sent out of state to be tested for CWD. In 2018, WFF provided funds for the Alabama Department of Agriculture to purchase CWD testing equipment, which was set up at Auburn University. The equipment and technician have been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and can test up to 90 samples per day.

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said the new CWD testing equipment speeds up the state’s response time considerably.

“We don’t have to wait on anybody,” Blankenship said. “We take our samples to the Department of Agriculture lab at Auburn University. We will get those test results quickly and be able to respond as soon as possible.”

The freezers for the self-service sample stations are located in Fayette, Lamar, Marion, Franklin, Lauderdale, and Colbert counties and are available to receive deer head samples 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

At the self-service locations, hunters must first remove the deer’s head with 4-6 inches of neck attached. For bucks, antlers can be removed at the base of each antler or by removing the skull plate before bagging the head. Hunters will then place the head in the provided plastic bag and tie it closed. They will need to complete all sections of the Biological Sample Tag, and attach the tag to the bag with a zip tie. Hunters will take the bottom receipt portion of the Biological Sample Tag before placing the bagged head in the freezer. All materials needed to drop off a sample are provided at each freezer location.

Locations of the self-service CWD drop-off sampling sites are:

Fayette County, Fayette County Extension Office, 650 McConnell Loop, Fayette, Ala., 35555

Lamar County, Hunter’s Gold Processing, 11634 County Rd. 9, Millport, Ala., 35576

Marion County, Watson’s Grocery, 5658 State Highway 19, Detroit, Ala., 35552

Franklin County, Fancher’s Taxidermy, 715 Newell Rd., Red Bay, Ala., 35582

Lauderdale County, Florence Frozen Meats, 1050 South Court St., Florence, Ala., 35630

Colbert County, Yogi’s Texaco, 17750 US Highway 72, Tuscumbia, Ala., 35674

Hunters can also have deer sampled at any WFF District Office (www.outdooralabama.com/wildlife-section) or at the WFF office in Marengo County at 1105 Bailey Dr., Demopolis, Ala., 36732, phone number 334-289-8030. WFF offices are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Before dropping off the sample, hunters should call ahead to make sure a biologist is available.

Sykes said the test results will be emailed to the hunter within three to four weeks.

Currently, self-service freezers are located throughout northwest Alabama only because of the increased surveillance samples needed in the response zones of the CWD-positive locations in Mississippi and Tennessee.

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.