The Wire

  • Fairhope firefighter facing new child sex crime allegations

    Excerpt from WKRG:

    A volunteer Fairhope firefighter, already facing child sex crime charges in Northwest Florida, is now also facing charges in Baldwin County

    Aaron Timony Green — seen smiling in his latest booking photo — was booked into the Baldwin County Corrections Center Tuesday morning on charges of child sex abuse and sodomy.

    According to Daphne Police, Green was arrested Monday, and the alleged abuse happened in November 2017.

    Police say the alleged victim was under 12.

  • Birmingham council passes $436 million budget

    Excerpt from AL.com:

    The Birmingham City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the $436 million fiscal year 2019 operating budget.

    The budget is $8 million larger than last year’s budget, due to increased revenue from use and occupational taxes. According to the mayor’s office, 133 vacant jobs were cut from the budget, saving the city $4.7 million.

    Despite the larger budget, Mayor Randall Woodfin said there still wasn’t enough money for street paving or additional funding for Birmingham City Schools.

  • Martha Roby Honors Montgomery Native in 10th Annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game Tomorrow

    Excerpt from a Rep. Martha Roby news release:

    U.S. Representative Martha Roby (R-AL) will play in the 10th Annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game tomorrow, June 20, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

    This beloved tradition began in 2009 after Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida was diagnosed with breast cancer. Each year, female members of Congress face members of the Washington, D.C., press corps to raise funds and awareness for the Young Survival Coalition (YSC), an organization that addresses a variety of issues unique to young women diagnosed with breast cancer.

    Each year, the players honor real women who are battling cancer. This year, Representative Roby will be playing for Courtney Pruitt, a Montgomery native and recent Alabama Christian Academy graduate who is currently undergoing intense treatment to fight leukemia. Courtney is the daughter of Representative Roby’s dear friend and Montgomery City Councilman Glen Pruitt.

    “This year marks the tenth consecutive year female members from both sides of the aisle have come together for the Congressional Women’s Softball Game to support young women battling cancer,” Representative Roby said. “I’m proud to be involved in this great event again this year, and I truly believe it demonstrates what we can accomplish when we put our differences aside to rally for a worthy cause. I am honored to play for my dear friend’s daughter Courtney as she continues to courageously battle this disease.”

3 days ago

Bat blitz highlights role in Alabama’s ecosystem

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 week ago

Black bears on the move in Alabama

(P. Hill/Auburn University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 weeks ago

Gulf State Park Interpretive Center, Pedestrian Bridge open

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 weeks ago

CAB discusses snapper, CWD and turkeys

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Rehabilitated bald eagles released in Alabama

(D. Rainer, B. Pope)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Red snapper recreational seasons open June 1

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Alabama working to become a top dive destination

(Craig Newton)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

WATCH OUT: Disease-carrying ticks widespread across Alabama

(M. Finney)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago

Beginning Hunter’s Dream: Lucky five learn from pros in Mentored Hunt Program 

(David Rainer)
(David Rainer)

 

 

A group of five scored what might be considered the lottery for hunters who want to pursue white-tailed deer in the Black Belt of Alabama.

Those lucky hunters were selected in a random drawing to participate in the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Adult Mentored Hunt Program.

Before the weekend was over at Cedar Creek Special Opportunity Area in Dallas County, one participant had shot a firearm for the first time and followed that with a shot that sent her home with venison. One hunter made a 10-hour drive from central Florida to participate and also went home with venison. And another hunter, who didn’t have time to pursue hunting during his military career, was able to bring his 12-year-old to join in all the activities as a guest, including watching his father take his first deer and an additional one during the event.

The Adult Mentored Hunt Program was developed to facilitate new or novice hunters in their quest to learn the skills necessary to pursue Alabama’s wild game. The most recent hunt treated those five hunters – Mary Beth Brown, Esther Conde, Chris Forman, Marynell Winslow and Jeffrey Bogue – to weekend hunts like those available at one of Alabama’s premier hunting lodges with a notable exception. That exception was personal instruction from a variety of WFF personnel.

Before the hunters ever sat in a hunting stand, they underwent instruction in firearms safety before participating in a live-fire event at the lodge range. The hunters also learned about the function of the Division and how it operates, wildlife management, the use of safety equipment while hunting as well as shot placement.

That shot placement instruction served Conde well when she shot a 4 ½-year-old, mature buck. Her shot dropped the buck in its tracks.

“I’ve done several BOW (Becoming an Outdoors-Woman) events,” said Conde, who traveled from St. Cloud, Fla. “That’s more educational. This is more of an experience. We got instructions on all the equipment. It was hands-on and we could actually use it. I felt more comfortable in what I was doing. Even if I didn’t harvest a deer, I felt comfortable enough when I got home I was going to be able to apply what I learned.”

Conde was definitely in the hot spot on the 6,000-acre tract with 25 deer spotted on her first hunt. She was not comfortable with any of the shots presented and decided to wait.

The afternoon hunt was markedly different.

“We saw three deer soon after we got into the blind,” she said. “Then I decided to shoot. It was all about when I felt comfortable. It felt right. I didn’t feel any pressure.

“I got really, really excited. When the buck got right to the perfect spot, I did what my mentor told me, breathe and squeeze the trigger. I didn’t even know if I’d shot it. My mentor said, ‘you got it.’ I looked in the scope and there it was. He dropped right there. In the classes, they show you where to shoot and have a decoy to show you. It was a perfect shot.”

Other than the deer meat, Conde said she is taking more back to Florida.

“The confidence, the confidence,” she said. “I’ve already called my son. He’s 19, and we do these things together. We’ve never been confident enough to try it. I told him now we’re going out the first weekend we’re not working.”

Despite growing up in Winfield, Ala., Mary Beth Brown had never even fired a gun.

“Over the past few years, I realized I was interested in going hunting, but I didn’t have anybody close to me that hunted,” she said. “I had some distant cousins but I really wasn’t comfortable asking them. I just Googled adult hunting in Alabama and found the program.

“I sent in the application. I got lucky. When we went to the range, I found it was a lot less scary than I thought it would be.”

The only problem was that Brown and her mentor, Marianne Hudson, realized on the final hunt that Brown was shooting right-handed but was left-eye dominant. After some practice and letting a couple of deer walk, Brown found looking through the scope with her left eye worked best.

“There was a buck behind the doe, but the buck was facing away from me,” she said. “He walked off and never turned around, so I got the scope on the doe. She was in the perfect position. I took the shot. I didn’t feel nervous at all. I had decided to take the next shot that was doable.

“Even if I hadn’t shot something, I really enjoyed it because I don’t know many hunters. It’s been great talking to everyone and learning about their experiences. I was really actually glad I was able to get a deer. Even if I hadn’t shot a deer, I still learned so much.”

The person who went home with an ice chest filled to the brim with venison was Jeffery Bogue, who bagged a buck and a doe during the Saturday afternoon hunt.

Although Bogue got his hunter education certificate when he was 16, he didn’t have much of an opportunity to hunt before he joined the Army. After a 20-plus-year military career, he settled in Alabaster and recently decided to get involved in hunting with his son, Vincent.

Bogue also was surfing the internet when he found the mentored program, applied and was selected.

“You just can’t beat it,” Bogue said. “This is such a great opportunity for inexperienced hunters to come out and work with the mentors. They were so helpful with everything and getting in the right position. If I had gone out on my own, there would have been no way I would have been as successful as I was during this event.

“Now we’re going to have our freezer stocked with venison. I can’t wait to try some burger like we had at the event.”

WFF’s Justin Grider, the Adult Mentored Hunt Program coordinator, said one-day mentored hunts had been available in Mobile County for a couple of seasons, but this is the first for the program on a statewide scale. The hunts are available to adults 19 years of age or older.

Grider said the response to the mentored hunt program has exceeded his expectations with applications coming in from all over the state as well as Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

“We opened the process in September,” Grider said. “I was apprehensive that there wouldn’t be very much demand for the program. I was surprised and excited that that wasn’t the case. We’ve had 115 applicants and more than 40 percent were female. We’ve had participants from 19 years to 78. I’d say the majority have been folks in their 30s, 40s and 50s.”

Grider said the applicants cover the societal spectrum and those selected are done by random computer drawing, so he has no idea of the roster for the hunts until the draw is completed.

“We’ve had teachers at UAB, who are doctors with private practices,” he said. “We’ve had high school teachers. We’ve had people in the professional trade industry, whether it’s HVAC or welding. So, we’ve had folks from all walks of life and different personalities. It’s really been fun getting to know our hunters. With the random-draw process, we never know who our hunters will be or where they’re from, so it’s been fun.”

Grider has also discovered that sometimes the students in a mentoring situation can provide as much insight as the mentors.

“We’ve had some really great groups, and we’ve learned a lot from them,” he said. “A lot of times when you’re hunting, you’re predisposed to doing things certain ways. So, when you have folks from different walks of life, who have different experiences than you, it allows them to see things through a different lens. They ask questions, and that allows you to dig into your reasoning and why you do things the way you do.”

Grider said what connects all the applicants is they want to learn something new and to take control of where their food comes from.

“When they get here, we have a welcome portion where we get to know each other, and we learn why they applied for the program,” he said. “The common theme each hunt is they want to have control over where their food comes from and to be able to provide for themselves.”

Grider couldn’t have been happier with the outcome of the most recent hunt despite the cold weather.

“It’s great to see them do that and to see them go home with coolers full of their own meat,” he said. “We feed them several different dishes with venison. We share recipes with them, and on Saturday, we let them get involved in a cooking workshop, where they execute a simple burger recipe. They grill the burgers and eat their own venison creations.

“They learn how to hunt. They learn how to prepare the deer, and they learn how to apply those recipes at home.”

Visit this link for information on upcoming mentored hunts.

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

 

1
5 months ago

DROOL-WORTHY: Sporting chef shares tips for tasty venison

(David Rainer)
Scott Leysath, The Sporting Chef, slices seared venison hind quarter to prepare a dish for those in attendance at the SEOPA conference last fall. A quick sear is all venison needs and don’t overcook it. (David Rainer)

 

With Alabama in the peak of deer season, freezers are getting full, which means it’s time to prepare some tasty venison.

As a buddy and I were discussing on a trip home from a hunting excursion, venison got a bad rap back in the day because of several reasons. Most deer hunting in the mid-20th century was done in front of a pack of hounds on a hot deer trail. Plus, it was verboten to shoot a doe back then. Hence, bucks replete with rutting hormones or lactic acid from being chased by the hounds, or both, made some of the meat less than palatable.

There was also the practice of hauling a nice deer around in the back of the truck to show all your buddies that contributed to the venison stigma.

That last practice is what really irks Scott Leysath, aka The Sporting Chef, when he hears people complain about the taste of venison. Leysath, who has roots in Grand Bay, Ala., and once produced the “Hunt, Fish and Cook” show out of Huntsville, said the care of the deer carcass right after it is harvested is a crucial step to tasty venison.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Alabama,” Leysath said. “Despite this recent cold spell, it can be a little warm during deer season. When I see people driving around with deer in the back of their trucks before it has been field-dressed, it makes me cringe. As with any animal, you need to get deer cleaned and cooled as fast as possible. If you ride around with the deer in the back of the truck, it’s not going to encourage it to taste good when it’s cooked.”

The best-case scenario, according to Leysath, is to have access to a walk-in cooler where the skinned deer carcasses can be hung for at least a week. He hangs larger animals for up to two weeks. The failure to properly age the venison can lead to a chewy meal.

“I actually had a buddy of mine from Centre, Ala., call me and say he had done everything I told him to do to prepare the venison,” Leysath said. “He said, ‘I did not overcook the backstrap. It was 130 degrees in the center. I made that balsamic dressing to go with it. But it was really, really, really tough.’

“I asked him when he shot the deer. ‘Yesterday.’ He hadn’t given that meat a chance. It has to go through rigor for 24 hours, and then you have to let it hang or age. If that backstrap had been aged for a week, it would have been a whole different animal.”

Leysath said that venison that is frozen soon after harvest can still benefit from the aging process. If you don’t have access to a walk-in cooler but have room in a refrigerator, you can put the meat on a rack above a pan and let it age. Another option is to use a large ice chest, but don’t put the venison in the ice. Arrange some method to keep the venison elevated above the ice and ensure the temperature inside the ice chest doesn’t get above 40 degrees.

“You’re going to lose some crusty bits that aren’t going to look all that pleasant after a week or two, but the rest of it is going to be a lot more tender,” he said. “After a couple of weeks, the meat will lose about 20 to 25 percent of its weight, but what is left is good stuff. The dry-aging and hanging makes all the difference in the world.”

Leysath also has a pet peeve about trying to mask the flavor of wild game. He has a friend in Alabama who claims snow goose is by far the best-eating goose. His friend cuts the goose breasts into little strips and marinates them in teriyaki for 48 hours. Then cream cheese and jalapeno are added before being wrapped in bacon.

“That’s the universal recipe with wild game,” he said. “You marinate in who knows what, add jalapeno, some kind of cheese and bacon. Then it doesn’t taste like deer, duck or snow goose. What’s the point of that?”

Leysath said during his travels he has noticed that cooks in some parts of the country are predisposed to overcooking and are convinced wild game must be done all the way through.

“The biggest challenge I have with a lot of folks is to get them to quit cooking their deer quite so long,” he said.

Leysath gave a venison cooking demonstration at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association conference last fall, and the venison didn’t stay long in the frying pan before he was slicing it into bite-size pieces.

“I just sort of looked at it, didn’t I,” he said with a laugh. “Had I kept cooking it, it would have been less tender. And that was a muscle from the hind quarter. That wasn’t a backstrap. The key is, before serving, cut it across the grain. If you see long lines running through it, you’re cutting it the wrong way.

“And if the internal temperature is beyond 140 degrees, it starts to get tougher. Some folks can’t get past eating medium-rare venison. If I’m doing a seminar, I’ll cover it up with a dark sauce, and they talk about how tender it is.”

Obviously, Leysath does not apply the medium-rare rule to all venison.

“Sometimes, you want to go low and slow,” he said. “If you’ve got a venison shoulder, leave the bone in. Give it a good rub with olive oil and whatever seasoning you prefer. I’m going to brown it and then braise it in a roasting pan with a can of beer, celery, onion and carrots at a low temp. I’m going to let that moist heat do the work for me. After a few hours, the meat is falling off the bone. I wish deer had more than four legs, because those shanks are some of the best eating when you cook them low and slow.”

When Leysath wants to change skeptics’ minds about the taste of venison, he uses this trusty recipe.

Backstrap and Berries

½ venison backstrap

3 tbsp olive or vegetable oil

¼ cup red wine

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

2 garlic cloves

2 tbsp berry preserves

3 tbsp chilled butter

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup whole berries

Trim all silverskin off the backstrap and either cut into thick medallions or in chunks that will fit in the frying pan. Sear all sides of the venison in the hot oil and set aside. Add red wine, balsamic vinegar, garlic and berry preserves to pan and reduce by one-third. Add chilled butter. Slice venison across the grain. Pour balsamic-berry sauce over venison and top with your choice of whole berries.

Leysath also suggested a very simple dish of four to five ingredients with an Asian flare.

Sesame Backstrap

½ venison backstrap

¼ cup yellow mustard

½ cup sesame seeds

3 tbsp vegetable oil

¼ cup soy sauce

¼ cup rice vinegar

¼ cup chopped green onions

Optional: couple of shots of sriracha hot sauce

Take backstrap and cut into thick medallions or manageable chunks. Coat in mustard and then roll in sesame seeds (look in Asian section of the grocery store instead of spice aisle). Sear all sides of the venison in hot oil and set aside. Add soy sauce, vinegar and chopped green onions to pan. Reduce by one-third and then pour over sliced venison.

“The key is to not overcook it,” Leysath said. “If all of your venison goes into a slow cooker with a can of cream of mushroom soup, you’re really missing out on a whole lot of venison flavor.”

Of course, many hunters will grind most of their deer, save the backstraps and tenderloins. Leysath has a proven shepherd’s pie recipe that gives cooks an option other than burgers or venison chili.

Venison Shepherd’s Pie

The Filling

2 tbsp vegetable or olive oil

1 cup celery, diced

1 cup onion, diced

1 cup carrot, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 cups ground venison

2 tbsp flour

1 tsp kosher or other coarse salt (or 2/3 tsp table salt)

Pinch or two black pepper

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 cup chicken, beef or game broth

Dash Worcestershire sauce

The Topping

3 large russet potatoes, peeled and quartered

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons butter

¼ cup half and half

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. To prepare filling, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add celery, onion, carrot and garlic. Sauté for 5 minutes. Add ground venison and cook, stirring often, until evenly browned. Sprinkle flour over and stir to mix evenly. Cook for 2 minutes. Add remaining filling ingredients, stirring to blend and cook for 2 minutes more.

Prepare topping. Place peeled and quartered potatoes in a pot. Cover with at least one inch of water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain well, return to pot and whisk in butter and half and half until smooth.

Transfer filling to a lightly greased baking dish. Spread potatoes over the top and place in preheated oven until lightly browned on top and the filling is bubbly hot.

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
5 months ago

Black bear sightings likely to increase in Alabama

(David Rainer)
(David Rainer)

 

 

Interaction between humans and black bears saw an uptick last year, and that will likely be the trend for the near future, at least in one corner of the state, according to Dr. Todd Steury of Auburn University.

Funded by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resource’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s State Wildlife Grants Program, Professor Steury, along with graduate students John Draper and Chris Seals, recently completed a multiple-year study of the black bear population in Alabama.

The basic conclusions were that Alabama has two populations of black bears, one in northeast Alabama and one in southwest Alabama, and each population has a different legacy as well as likely future.

The population in northeast Alabama, with roots from the mountains of northeast Georgia, has the potential for significant expansion. Hence, the likelihood that black bear sightings will become more common in the future.

The population in southwest Alabama, which appears to be an encapsulated population, is relatively stagnant, but significantly more difficult to monitor.

“We think that most of Alabama, at one time, had black bears,” Steury said. “We believe two of the sub-species kind of met in Alabama, the American sub-species from the North and the Florida sub-species from the South. Of course, black bears were pretty much hunted to extinction in the state with one very small population remaining near Mobile.”

Steury said the Auburn study was prompted by the fact the black bears in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta hadn’t been studied since 1992 and by an increase in the number of bear sightings in the Little River area in northeast Alabama.

“In that study in the Delta in 1992, it was a very small population,” he said. “There was some concern about inbreeding because of how small it was. Part of our goal was to reexamine this population to see how they are doing. The other reason for the study was the increased sightings around Fort Payne, and we wanted to know if there is a viable population up there or just an occasional bear traveling through the area.”

Bear sightings in Heflin and Oxford made headlines last year and prompted residents in those areas to voice concerns about the animals being close to public recreation areas.

Steury said his team, which included Thomas Harms, WFF’s Large Carnivore Coordinator, used a variety of methods to gather bear data. The population density numbers were derived from a DNA study.

“We used two methods to gather the DNA information,” Steury said. “One was eco-dogs. These dogs are trained to find bear scat. We took them into areas where we knew there were populations of bears – Mobile, Saraland and the Celeste Road areas. The eco-dogs are expensive to run, but they can get us a lot of data. I think it was about 1,000 samples in two months of work.

“But the dogs are not cost-effective if you’re looking in areas where you’re not sure about the presence of bears. For that, we used hair snares. It’s basically a barbed-wire fence surrounding bait. The bear crosses the barbed wire to get to the bait and the barbs pull a little hair out. Then we get DNA from the hairs.”

Steury said the team erected hair snares in virtually every township in Mobile County, about half of Washington County and most of Baldwin County in the southern end of the state. In the north, hair snares were placed in almost all townships between Interstates 59 and 20. The National Park Service helped the team erect snares all over Little River National Preserve.

“We were sampling very widely,” Steury said. “We chose townships because that’s about the size of a male home range. Overall, we had about 300 hair snares in southwest Alabama and another 100-150 in northeast Alabama.”

After all the data was collected, the analysis started. The results gave researchers population numbers, genetic diversity, points of origin and connections to other bear populations.

Steury said the DNA data indicated that the population in northeast Alabama more than doubled, going from about 12 bears to 30.

“We know those bears came from north Georgia,” he said. “We originally thought they might be from central Georgia around Macon, but the DNA showed they came right down the mountain from Georgia.”

The results from southwest Alabama were not as conclusive because of the requirements to meet the DNA profiling.

“We only got a good estimate from 2015,” Steury said. “We estimated there were 85 bears, but the estimate said there could be as many as 165. So it’s still a fairly small population. Obviously, that is not a great estimate, but we’d be very surprised if there are 200 bears down there. They seem to be very localized between Wagarville and Chatom and the Celeste Road area northwest of Saraland.

“The interesting thing is Chris Seals, the graduate student working that area, said there are what he calls bear superhighways, these riparian areas, rivers and corridors where these bears move. So we can get a lot of DNA in those areas. So we’re very confident about the bears in those areas. But in those areas in between, it’s much harder for us to figure out how many bears are there.”

The story in northeast Alabama is that bears are finding suitable habitat to establish home ranges and expand the population.

“The bears are breeding,” Steury said of northeast Alabama. “We have seen numerous examples of sows with two or three cubs on our game cameras. We feel like the population there is going to grow, and there are still bears coming in from Georgia.

“We’re going to have more bears up there. There is lot of great habitat in Jackson County and Talladega National Forest. It’s just a matter of time for the population to expand.”

The prognosis for the southwest Alabama bear population is not so optimistic.

“The habitat in southwest Alabama is disappearing,” Steury said. “And, the population is not growing like it should. That is the next question we have to answer. We have some hypotheses. Those bears seem to be having good litters, but Chris is not seeing those cubs make it to adulthood. One of the aspects we’re exploring is den sites. When you think of bear dens in cold weather, what do you think about – caves or holes in the ground. In north Alabama, you’ve got bunches of caves or holes in the ground.

“In southwest Alabama, bears don’t have that. We will occasionally see denning in tree roots. What we see a lot of are nests. What we don’t know is how much protection from the elements and predators those really provide. Is the reason cubs are not making it to adulthood that they don’t have good dens?”

Another concern of the researchers is the lack of new genes in the southwest population.

“The genetic diversity in the southwest is really bad,” Steury said. “It’s worse than any bear population in the Southeast United States. Normally, to differentiate between brothers and sisters, you need eight chunks of DNA. We couldn’t tell the difference between brothers and sisters with our eight chunks of DNA. It took 14 to 15 chunks of DNA to tell the difference between brothers and sisters in that population. So they’ve got really low genetic diversity. We don’t really know how low that genetic diversity has to get to affect the population. We’ve captured a lot of bears, and we haven’t seen any deformities or other effects.”

The other conclusion derived from the DNA studies is the connection of the specific populations with other populations in the Southeast.

“The northeast population is still pretty well connected with the north Georgia population,” Steury said. “The southern population does not appear to be connected with bears from Florida or western Mississippi. The DNA suggests there is basically no movement of bears into the southwest population. Bears come from Florida. We know because we track them. But they seem to get to the rivers in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and turn around and go back.

“We do catch and collar bears. The largest bear we have caught weighed 308 pounds. Chris said he has seen one that he estimates at 400 pounds. But most of our bears average 150 pounds.”

When it comes to bear-human interactions, Steury said a mailer was sent out to judge the public perception of bears.

“What we found out is that people like bears,” he said. “They want to have bears in Alabama. Generally, they were not supportive of lethal management controls except in extreme situations, where there was clear danger to people.”

Steury said it is rare when large predators do anything other than flee when they come in contact with humans.

“They can’t risk being injured,” he said. “If they’re injured, they can’t hunt. They can’t feed themselves and they’re going to die. They have no idea how hard or easy we would be to kill. They have no idea how dangerous we are, which is what basically keeps us safe.”

Steury said the sightings that happened in Oxford and Heflin last year were young male bears that had been kicked out of the mom’s territory. Those 2-year-old males were roaming to find new home territories.

“They can cover thousands of miles,” he said. “That’s why we see bears where they’re not supposed to be. They are juvenile males that are exploring for a place to settle down. The thing is they never stay around. When I got the call from Heflin about what they should do, I told them to just leave it alone. In a day or two, it’ll be gone.

“If they get into somebody’s food or people start feeding them, that’s when they become problems.”

1
6 months ago

Carp species are potential threats to Alabama waterways

(David Rainer)
(David Rainer)

 

Unwanted guests can sometimes show up during the holiday season, but they almost always go home at some point. Unfortunately, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division got word recently that an unwanted fish species has invaded Alabama waters, and Fisheries Section Chief Nick Nichols is afraid the silver carp wants to make the Tennessee River home.

If you’ve spent any time on the internet checking out Facebook or YouTube videos, it’s likely you’ve encountered the shocking videos of the silver carp jumping like crazy, slamming into boats and passengers. Some people in those videos try to make dealing with this invasive species a game, but Nichols said nothing about silver carp is a game.

“They’re like the feral hogs of the water,” Nichols said. “At least, silver carp are as big a threat.”

In the same way feral hogs outcompete native wildlife for food and habitat resources, when silver carp become established in an area, they interrupt the natural food chain and native species end up devastated.

Nichols said four species of carp, known as Asian carp, have been released in the U.S. Those species include silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp (white amur) and black carp. Of those, the silver carp and black carp are believed to be the greatest immediate threats to Alabama’s aquatic resources. Anglers and bowfishermen can report sightings, but gillnetting is the only way to catch any significant number of carp.

Many people with ponds or lakes are familiar with grass carp, which were introduced into the U.S. in the 1960s to control aquatic vegetation. Nichols said there is no evidence to date that grass carp have adversely impacted aquatic ecosystems in Alabama waters.

The bighead carp came to the states in the 1970s. The bighead is a filter feeder that collects primarily zooplankton for sustenance. Nichols said bighead can weigh 80 pounds or more.

The black carp could prove to be a potentially devastating invasive species because of its food preferences, Nichols said.

“The black carp is a species that very much worries us,” he said. “This species looks very much like a grass carp. They were accidentally brought into the country with loads of grass carp because they look so much alike. The problem is that black carp feed almost exclusively on snails and mollusks.

“If you look at Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, we’re states with a huge biodiversity of aquatic mollusks, both snails and mussels. Some of these are species of conservation concern. The big concern for us, if the black carp become established in some of our systems, is that they could have a big impact on these mollusks that are already in trouble.”

Now we get to the worst news regarding these non-native carp species.

“The species that has everybody jumping, no pun intended, is the silver carp,” Nichols said. “If you Google silver carp, you will see images and videos of these clouds of jumping fish. Those are silver carp. Bighead carp don’t jump that much. Grass carp will jump but nothing like the silvers.

“The silver carp is also a filter feeder. It filters not only zooplankton but also phytoplankton, the microscopic plants. So they’re feeding right at the bottom of the food chain. By doing so, they’re competing with every other fish species in that body of water for the food supply. If they’re cropping off that zooplankton, that’s taking food out of the mouths of the native species, like the shad and bluegills.”

Another problem with silver carp is they don’t disperse but stay in large schools, which can overwhelm some systems.

“Once the silver carp establish a heavy population in an area, they literally eat themselves out of house and home,” Nichols said. “There won’t be anything left but silver carp.”

A recent study on the Yazoo River in Mississippi reveals the impact silver carp have on the backwater areas, which are vital for the recruitment of the native species like sunfish and black bass. In that study, rotenone was applied to sample the population a couple of decades ago. All the native species like crappie, bream and black bass were present. About a year ago, fisheries biologists went in and sampled those same areas with stunning results.

“Well over 90 percent of the biomass in the most recent study was silver carp,” Nichols said. “Basically, the only thing left was silver carp. They can literally take over the habitat. That’s what has happened in some places in the Mississippi basin. There are a lot of problems in the Illinois River basin. They’re in the Ohio River. Now they’re coming into the Tennessee and Cumberland systems.”

Kentucky Lake and adjacent Barkley Lake have been hit hard with a burgeoning silver carp population that has severely impacted the sportfishing on the lakes. At my outdoors writer’s conference at Kentucky Lake in October, numerous bass fishermen I talked to said the bass fishing success has plummeted the last few years because of the carp.

“What we think happened was in 2016 there was a big spawn of silver carp in Kentucky Lake and some of those locked up into Pickwick Lake,” Nichols said. “We have had a few reports in recent years of seeing silver carp in Pickwick, but there was a marked increase in reports of not individual fish but schools of silver carp.”

Because of the threat, Alabama has joined forces with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to work collectively on mitigating the spread of silver carp. A multiple-state group called the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resources Association (MICRA) has been formed by the 28 states in the Mississippi basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and two Native American tribes are also members of the coalition.

With federal funding, Tennessee Tech was tasked with monitoring numerous lakes, including Pickwick, for silver carp. One of the goals is to catch silver carp and insert sonic tags to allow the tracking of the fish movements.

“We need to know how these things move,” Nichols said. “You can spend a lot of time out on the reservoirs, and the fish are not in high densities; you won’t find them.”

In November, WFF Fisheries biologist Keith Floyd was with the researchers from Tennessee Tech in Bear Creek on Pickwick when they made a disturbing discovery. In the six net-sets, 75 silver carp were caught.

“That’s a little scary,” Nichols said. “There’s not much to stop them from moving upstream. Typically, they will go through the locks.”

Nichols said several different methods are being evaluated in deterring the migration of silver carp, including electronic barriers and large hydrophones to scare the fish away from the locks. Although these methods are experimental, Nichols hopes these sonic devices will be installed below Barkley Dam and Pickwick Dam in the next couple of years.

Nichols said it may be up to Mother Nature to limit the spread of silver carp, which require tributary systems to successfully spawn.

“The fish have to reach large enough numbers to have a successful spawn,” he said. “Also, the tributaries that flow into the systems are critical for a successful spawn. If they move up the Tennessee River with these steep tributaries, they might not get off a successful spawn in those areas. And their spawning is triggered by flow events, flood events. They’ll wait for high water to spawn.

“If we’re lucky, these silver carp in Pickwick will die of old age before they can get off a big spawn. That assumes we don’t get more fish from Kentucky. If they do get established, it will have a big impact on the native game and non-game fish species. And that’s not good news.”

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
6 months ago

Attention all Alabama outdoors … WOMEN! Registration for bow hunting workshop opens January 3

(David Rainer)
(David Rainer)

 

Registration for the next Alabama Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) workshop opens on January 3 for first-time attendees and January 8 for both first-timers and those who have previously attended. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) sponsored event takes place at the 4-H Center near Columbiana, Ala., on March 2-4, 2018.

BOW is a three-day workshop designed for women ages 18 years or older who would like to learn new outdoor skills. The workshop offers hands-on instruction in a fun, outdoor learning environment. Participants choose from courses such as rifle, pistol, archery, fishing, camping, hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, and many more. Two new courses will be offered this spring – wildlife identification and predator and prey.

BOW coordinator Hope Grier said the classes offer basic outdoor skills training. “There are many ladies who have not been exposed to these outdoor activities and are apprehensive about trying them,” she said. “BOW is ideal for those women because everything is taught at a beginner level.”

The registration fee of $275 covers meals, dormitory-style lodging, program materials and instruction. Those interested in attending are encouraged to register as soon as possible because enrollment is limited and classes fill up fast. 

For more information on the BOW workshop including the class schedule, visit here or call Hope Grier at 334-242-3620

To view photos of past BOW workshops, visit Outdoor Alabama’s Flickr.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR, visit here

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
6 months ago

Alabama college-age kids rejoice: You CAN make a career out of huntin’ and fishin’

(David Rainer)
(David Rainer)

 

If you’re passionate about the outdoors and think those endeavors will be limited to a hobby or favorite pastime, think again. The University of Montevallo in central Alabama has a path to convert your outdoors activities into a career.

The President’s Outdoor Scholars Program allows students to tailor their studies en route to a degree that could translate into a career in the outdoors industry.

Montevallo President Dr. John Stewart III, an avid outdoorsman with a penchant for offshore fishing, remembered how he was separated to some extent from his favorite pursuits when he went away to college.

“Two things really informed my thinking, considering a program that would morph into something like this,” Stewart said. “My parents hadn’t been to school, so it was a daunting time for me. I loved hunting and fishing, but when I went away to college, it was tough to find somebody who shared those same passions and interests. Unless I was home for the holidays or at home working during the summer, I was out of action for the rest of the year as far as hunting and fishing. That’s one thing that just stuck with me.

“The other thing was thinking about enrollment, and what brings kids to colleges, and should we, as institutions, encourage them to see if those passions can be matched up with a career. The people I’ve known who are happiest are doing what they love as a career. So that came into the idea.”

Stewart approached William Crawford, who was already working on the Montevallo campus, about an idea to merge a love of the outdoors with a formal education.

“In our part of the world in Alabama, what do people think about more than football and each other? That’s hunting and fishing,” Stewart said. “I knew William was a hunter and a respected breeder and trainer of retrievers.”

When Stewart shared his idea with Crawford, the response was, “I think they’d love it.”

Stewart considered Crawford a perfect fit for the director’s job. Crawford, who holds a master’s degree, has been a recruiter and fundraiser professionally, and he also runs Silver Banded Retrievers, raising and training retrievers. Crawford also played baseball at the University of West Alabama.

“I couldn’t think of a better person with a better background to trust the safety and welfare and student experience with,” Stewart said.

The way the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program was integrated into the school was through the Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) Program, which was implemented not long after Stewart became president 15 years ago.

“We forged an IDS degree with the idea that a student with any passion could hammer out a major course of study that would lead to a career,” he said. “I remember the very first student to graduate with an IDS degree finished with an audio-visual major. The kid was just passionate about a high-level career in audio-visual work. Now we’ve got a curriculum, most but not all in the College of Business, in outdoors resource management.

“The aspect of the program that was attractive to me is this is a way I can connect with students a lot younger than I am who come to our institution. It’s a unique way for me to get to know students. So far, we’re really happy with the progress.”

Crawford said in the beginning the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program amounted to extracurricular activities to keep the students connected with the outdoors.

“Very early in the program, it was brought to our attention that these students wanted more,” Crawford said. “They wanted a degree track. We started working on a program tied to the academic side that allowed students to do that.

“Starting this spring, we will start, through IDS, a program where a student can create their own major. With that, we’ve already developed a layout for the program for them to accomplish that. About 90 percent of our students in the program are going through the College of Business. They wanted to do something with the business side of the outdoors.

“We developed a program that’s called outdoors resource marketing. What sets that aside and makes it a little different than a typical marketing degree, it will have different components tied to other areas on campus. For example, retail will be added from our Family and Consumer Sciences majors. Also, some entry-level video production is included because today’s time in the outdoors, everything is shifting to digital content. You see a lot of videos on social media now. Our students will get skillsets in several different areas that can be combined into a major that will make them more well-rounded for this industry.”

Crawford said if a student wants to go in a different direction, perhaps in conservation or land management, the curriculum would go to Environmental Studies with courses in biology.

“We have one student who wants to raise quail and run a quail farm,” he said. “Of course, he needs to know about these animals and how they act. We’ve got biology for that. But he also needs to know how to run a business, so we can provide some business background. Ultimately, it’s up to the student and what they want to do. We can develop and personalize a program specifically for them.”

During the students’ outdoors studies, Stewart said Crawford lines up events for them to meet leaders in the outdoors industry through their guest speaker program.

“They’ve had lunch and tours with the president of Mossy Oak, Toxey Haas, and vice president Bill Suggs,” Stewart said. “They’ve been to Duck Commander. Jackie Bushman with Buckmasters has been a real champion for our program. He talked at our first banquet.

“What William said that I’ve found to be true is the outdoors industry is so huge, but from a people perspective, it’s pretty small.”

Stewart and Crawford are fully aware of the economic impact hunting has on Alabama, to the tune of $1.8 billion annually.

“I had the opportunity to speak at the Professional Outdoors Media Association (POMA) last year, and I was just astounded at the economic impact hunting and fishing have across the nation,” Stewart said.

The 39 students currently enrolled in the program are treated to perks that would be the envy of anybody who loves the outdoors. Students are treated to trips that expose them to outdoors activities they’ve never experienced. Stewart pointed out that no taxpayer money is used for the trips, which are paid for with private donations.

“Most of our students grew up deer hunting and bass fishing,” Crawford said. “Of course, we want them to continue to enjoy the things they’ve always done. But we also want to introduce them to new adventures.

“We’ve been redfishing in Venice, La., fished for blue marlin in the Bahamas, quail hunted in Alabama, duck hunted in several places as well as deer hunted. We’ve been bowfishing on the Alabama coast. We’ve got a trip to Colorado lined up for the spring to go turkey hunting. I tell the students if they can think of it, we’ll go and do it.”

Stewart added, “If we can expose them to lots and lots of different aspects of the sporting life, then that’s a good curriculum.”

Crawford said one of the students had never been waterfowl hunting until he was taken on an early season goose hunt.

“It was one of the best waterfowl hunts I’ve ever been on,” Crawford said. “I’ve been hunting waterfowl for about 15 years. I kind of felt bad for him because this was his first one. I told him, ‘You’ll never have a trip like this in a long time.’ But what it did was it sparked another interest. He bought all this waterfowl gear and really got into it. He got into a lease and bought a dog to train to retrieve. What that’s doing is, No. 1, it gives him a new passion, but it also pumps money into the economy from the outdoors industry. It goes full circle in everything we do.

“And the great thing about our program is some of the extracurricular activities can now count toward credit for a student to graduate. We want our students to pick a career that they’re passionate about. If they’re passionate about it, they’ll be successful.”

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
6 months ago

David Rainer: Treestand accidents mar early deer season in Alabama

(David Rainer)
(David Rainer)

 

 

Despite a concerted effort by the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Hunter Safety Program, Alabama deer hunters are still falling out of treestands in disturbing numbers.

Plus, there has been one firearms fatality where the cardinal rule of unloading your firearm before exiting your deer stand was not followed.

Seven Alabama hunters had suffered treestand accidents as of December 1. Fortunately, there have been no fatalities in the falls, but several serious injuries were reported.

Out of the seven reported treestand accidents, only one was wearing a safety harness.

“The safety harness prevented serious injury,” said Marisa Futral, WFF’s Hunter Education Coordinator. “He was coming down the tree and his treestand went out from under him. He hit his face on the tree pretty hard and broke his nose. The harness kept him from getting hurt any worse.”

WFF Conservation Enforcement Officer Vance Wood shared an account that occurred at the Perdido Wildlife Management Area in Baldwin County.

Daniel Jares and Wood, who once served in a Coast Guard unit together, shared on Facebook about the incident, where the victim came perilously close to losing his life

Jares said he got a phone call at about 2 p.m. from a good friend. The phone service was sketchy at best but he determined his friend had fallen from a treestand, couldn’t move his body from the chest down and could barely breathe.

“There was little to no service, but I caught a few words as to where he was. I made out, ‘Close to river on an oak flat; you’re going to need a four-wheel drive,’” Jares said. “I searched the woods for hours and hours in my truck just to find his truck so I could find a starting point.”

Jares had earlier notified the WFF enforcement crew in Baldwin County and Baldwin County Search and Rescue. After two hours of searching, Jares found his friend’s truck parked under a big tree that caused it to be hidden from the search helicopter.

With more than 20 people searching, several searchers tore through thick underbrush along the river as the sun started to fade. After a parallel grid search, Jares came up on a little ridge. Jares was yelling his friend’s name and finally picked up a weak response. He ran to find his friend under the tree. The friend suffered a broken back. He subsequently had two surgeries and is facing a long road to recovery.

“It’s a miracle we found him before dark,” Jares said. “So, please wear your safety systems. You don’t want to have a broken neck or back or even run the risk of losing your life. The officer said if I hadn’t answered that call, he probably wouldn’t have made it.

“I wanted to thank the hunting community for all of the love and support and sharing this to bring awareness. I’m blown away. The post received over 1 million views in less than 36 hours and close to 3 million now. I know without a doubt in my mind this post saved lives. I had messages from all over the country of young and old saying thanks for the eye opener; we are praying. If I could help save one life, it’s worth it. Trust me, you don’t want to stumble upon your buddy miles deep in the woods in this condition.”

Futral said this many treestand accidents this early in the season is a concern.

“This is a lot of accidents for it only being through November,” she said. “Last year, we had 13 treestand accidents (two fatalities), and I think it was 12 the year before. With seven this early in the season, I hope hunters will hear about these incidents and take treestand safety more seriously. It takes only one misstep to cause serious injury or even death if you’re not wearing your safety harness and using the safety equipment.

“And we are stressing that hunters should make sure they are connected to the tree in some way when they are climbing and descending the tree. We have had several accidents where hunters have been wearing their safety harness but they fell going up or coming down the tree. There are products available now that keep hunters attached to the tree at all times. We want it to hit home that people need to be connected when their feet leave the ground until their feet hit the ground at the end of the hunt.”

Two Alabama-based companies make products that keep hunters attached while they are using ladder stands or hang-on treestands. Hunter Safety System makes the Lifeline, while Summit Treestands makes a 30-foot safety line.

Futral said she didn’t have the final report on the firearms fatality at this time.

“From what I’ve gathered from news reports, the mentor was handing the rifle down to the 15-year-old when it discharged, striking the youth in the chest,” she said. “That breaks the rules of unloading your firearm before you climb into or out of your stand, and never point your firearm at anything you don’t want to shoot.”

Two other firearms-related incidents occurred on a dove field where two hunters were peppered by shot from other hunters. No serious injuries were reported.

Futral reminds hunters of the 10 commandments of firearms safety:

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

PHOTOS: Most treestand accidents can be prevented if hunters use a full-body safety harness and have it attached to the tree at all times after leaving the ground. New products allow hunters to remain attached to the tree while climbing into and descending from ladder or hang-on treestands.

1
7 months ago

David Rainer: Mark your Christmas calendars with these magical Alabama state park events

(David Rainer)
(David Rainer)

 

 

Christmas music is wafting through the air everywhere you go these days, and the Alabama State Parks System will embrace that theme throughout December.

The holiday celebrations began on Dec. 1 with Santa’s Underground Workshop at Rickwood Caverns State Park near Warrior, just north of Birmingham. Santa greeted visitors in the cave, which is decorated with Christmas lights. The Underground Workshop will be open through Dec. 23. Admission is $10.

Even if you don’t want to see Santa, a trip through Rickwood Caverns is worth the effort. The limestone cave is estimated to be about 260 million years old. The cave is about a mile long with a path of 4,962 feet that descends 175 feet underground. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to take the tour of the caverns.

A tour of Rickwood Caverns is strictly done on foot, so be aware it’s going to take a little effort to see the caverns. The cave features the Bridal Room, where couples once chose to exchange wedding vows. There’s the Diamond Room, named for the sparkling quartz and mineral deposits on the ceiling, while the Animal Room gets its name from the formations that appear to be different animals – a rabbit, bear, alligator, shark and Dachshund dog.

Heading south, Gulf State Park will hold its Coastal Christmas Party from 1-3 p.m. Dec. 3. Activities include photos with Santa, a children’s choir performance, nature holiday crafts, s’mores made in the fireplace and hot chocolate and cookies.

One of the most cherished events of the Christmas season is the Parade of Lights at Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville on Dec. 9. The 42nd annual event can be viewed from Daniella’s Restaurant, outside along the banks between the lodge and Marina or from a lodge room balcony. A holiday buffet will be served at Daniella’s beginning at 4 p.m. The boats, adorned with a wide array of lights and Christmas decorations, will start the parade along the Tennessee River at 6 p.m. To participate in the parade, call 256-247-6971 or email Joe Wheeler by clicking here.

Cheaha State Park near Anniston has two special events coming up during the holiday season. On Dec. 10, the kids can visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus to discuss their wish lists for Christmas with hot cocoa and cookies.

On Dec. 22, Cheaha will hold a “Mount Crumpit (aka Grinch Mountain) Christmas” from 9-10 a.m. Storyteller Renee Raney will entertain the children with an interactive reading of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” A breakfast buffet with green eggs and ham and Cindy Lou Who pancakes will follow. Space is limited for both events, however, so call 256-225-2188 to purchase tickets or email Renee Raney by clicking here to reserve a space. Tickets are $10 for the Dec. 10 event and $15 for the Grinch celebration.

For those who just love good eats and beautiful scenery, it’s hard to beat the Lake Guntersville State Park holiday buffet each Saturday during December, leading up to the annual Christmas Day Dinner Buffet. The Circle will entertain at the Christmas event with the sounds of the season. Call 256-571-5444 for more information.

In southeast Alabama, Lakepoint Resort State Park will hold its Christmas Buffet at the Water’s Edge Restaurant from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Christmas Day. Call 334-687-8011 for reservations.

For those who want to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, DeSoto State Park near Fort Payne has just the right answer with its Discover DeSoto Package. Couples can stay for $79 per night at the lodge with the following morning’s breakfast included. Call the lodge at 256-845-5380, or visit this link to make reservations.

If you want to do a little more than relax at DeSoto, consider the Wild Breakfast & Nature Experience that is available for $60 for a family of four.

Robert Wilson, a naturalist and wildcraft specialist, will offer a selection of natural harvested (gluten free) grains for a catered pancake breakfast, complete with natural syrups derived from local blackberries or maple and hickory trees. Chaga or sassafras tea rounds out the menu. After breakfast, Wilson will help families make journals from natural materials, followed by a forest discovery walk with Wilson pointing out the vast flora and fauna of beautiful DeSoto State Park.

And veterans, don’t forget about the new Parks for Patriots program Alabama State Parks implemented in November that provides veterans with free admission to any state park, park facility or day use area that charges an entrance fee – including boat ramps and the Gulf State Park pier.

Greg Lein, Alabama State Parks Director, said State Parks has offered free admission to veterans on Veterans Day, but expanding the free admission is the “least we can do for those who have made our freedom possible.”

A close connection between veterans and the State Parks System has been in existence for a very long time. Several Alabama State Parks were built with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which gave many World War I veterans a job during the Great Depression. DeSoto State Park has a small museum honoring the CCC contribution to the park.

For those who want to support the Parks for Patriots program, the general public can make contributions to the program for any dollar amount. This will be used only to fund free entry for veterans from any branch of the U.S. military.

Sponsorship contributions to the Parks for Patriots program can be made in three ways. Visit this link to make an online contribution. Cash-only contributions can be made at any manned park gate, while cash or credit card sponsorships can be made at most point-of-sale cash registers in park offices, restaurants, camp stores and golf shops. Contributions will be utilized at the park in which they are made. Online contributors will be able to designate the park of their choice.

Visit this link to learn more about the Parks for Patriots program.

For those who might want to walk off a few of those added holiday pounds, six Alabama State Parks will participate in the nationwide First Day Hike Program. Joe Wheeler, Monte Sano, Lake Guntersville, DeSoto, Oak Mountain and Cheaha will offer guided hikes on New Year’s Day.

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

1
7 months ago

David Rainer: Alabama program teaches newbie hunters the ropes

Bryan Nettles bagged his first deer on an Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Adult Mentored Hunts with the help of NWTF volunteer Gary Turner. (David Rainer)
Bryan Nettles bagged his first deer on an Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
Adult Mentored Hunt with the help of NWTF volunteer Gary Turner. (David Rainer)

 

 

Bryan Nettles of Mobile is of a generation that doesn’t have the connection to the outdoors that I and my Baby Boomer hunting buddies have.

We stayed outdoors and followed in our fathers’ (or mentors’) footsteps into the world of hunting, for both recreation and sustenance.

However, like many from the later generations, Nettles just needed a little nudge to join the hunting community, and he found that encouragement in the form of an Alabama Mentored Hunt.

“I had some interest in hunting, but I didn’t hunt at all when I was growing up,” Nettles said. “My father hunted some up in Monroe County, but it was bird hunting and not deer hunting. I’ve got some friends who hunt. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had an interest in hunting.

“I’ve been invited by my friends to go a few times. Not knowing much about it, I always turned those down. But my son (7-year-old Michael) started showing an interest last year, so we signed up for the hunter education class.”

Daniel Musselwhite, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ South Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, polled the class attendees about their hunting experience. Nettles raised his hand when Musselwhite asked if anyone had never hunted.

Musselwhite approached Nettles at the end of the first day’s class and mentioned the mentored hunts, which he and Jeremy Doss, an Alabama State Lands Division Enforcement Officer, had started in Mobile County on the Frey Tract, a piece of property owned by the Forever Wild Land Trust.

After a successful launch to the program, the Mobile County School Board learned about the mentored hunts and allowed their Russell Road tract to be used in the program. The Mobile County School Board also allowed the mentored hunt participants to use the Girl Scout camp located between those two tracts for their classroom activities.

After Musselwhite gave him the information, Nettles signed up for one of the mentored hunts in Mobile County and was able to gain a great deal of information even before the hunt started.

“After we had the hunter education part, I was able to talk to a lot of people who were hunters,” he said. “Then Jeremy talked to us about firearms safety and got us comfortable shooting at targets at 100 yards. The mentor was really nice. Gary Turner with the NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation) was my mentor. We went over what we were looking for while we were sitting in the stand.

“I didn’t know how quiet you needed to be or how much you could move. It was nice to be able to find that out with the mentor there.”

As is most often the case for deer hunting in Alabama, there are long periods of little action, followed by heart-pounding excitement.

“I was beginning to think we weren’t going to see anything,” Nettles said. “Right at sundown, there was nothing out there. Then, all of a sudden, there were three or four deer out there. Gary talked to me about staying calm and waiting for the right shot. They walked behind a little stand of pine trees, which was nice because it allowed me to calm down. Gary told me they would be back. About 10 minutes later, they came back and I was able to get a shot. Gary told me to take my time. I thought I might be taking too much time.”

When the rifle fired, the deer bolted into the woods, and Nettles had no idea if the shot was accurate.

“I wasn’t watching as closely as I should have,” he said. “After the shot, I was just shaking because of the rush of the adrenalin. Gary told me take my time and pack up my stuff. Gary watched where the deer went into the woods. We got down and he talked to me about finding where the deer left the field. Then he talked about finding blood and following the trail. It didn’t take long to find the deer. It didn’t go but about 30 yards.”

Nettles admitted that experience stoked a desire to continue his hunting career and to bring his son along.

“Right then I started trying to find a gun for my son,” he said. “I had bought a gun for me before the hunt. We spent most of the summer trying to find a place to hunt. We decided to get into the lease to have somewhere private to go and set up our blinds. I would have never done that if it hadn’t been for that mentored hunt. My 12-year-old daughter, Meg, and 6-year-old son, William, are warming up to the idea of hunting, but Michael is gung ho.

“Since that hunt, my son and I go to the Outdoor Alabama website and find out what’s available. Because of that, we participated in one of the trapping workshops in Citronelle. We also went on a youth dove hunt this year. And I’ve told several people about the mentored hunts since then.”

Nettles’ mentored hunt was a one-day experience. However, for the ultimate Alabama Mentored Hunt, WFF recently teamed with Forever Wild again to acquire the Cedar Creek Special Opportunity Area, a 6,500-acre property in Dallas County. Cedar Creek will hold six mentored hunts, three three-day deer hunts, one-day hunts for rabbits and squirrels and a two-day turkey hunt. The lucky applicants will be able to experience what it would be like at one of Alabama’s commercial hunting lodges for the deer and turkey hunts.

“One-day hunts are great, but what we are wanting to reproduce with this program at Cedar Creek is the whole hunting club experience we all had growing up,” said Chuck Sykes, WFF Director. “This weekend hunting trip will include firearm safety, tree stand safety, habitat analysis, game processing, wild game cooking, and most importantly quality campfire discussions.  All mentors and hunters will stay together at a centralized location and spend quality time together both in the woods and around the camp.  It will be a great experience for the new hunters as well as the mentors.”

Musselwhite said as the average age of hunters in Alabama gets higher, it’s imperative that outreach focuses on the younger generations.

“The average hunting license buyer is in their mid-50s,” Musselwhite said. “So, we’re trying to get the age groups from the 20s to even the 50s introduced to the outdoors, whether it’s hunting or just watching wildlife. We’re low pressure. If they don’t want to squeeze the trigger, we’re fine with that.

“We’ve seen situations like Bryan’s, where people have turned down invitations because they don’t want to ask what they feel are stupid questions. They feel intimidated when they’re around more-experienced hunters.”

Doss and Musselwhite said participants feel better prepared after sessions on hunter education, time on the shooting range and discussions about deer biology and shot placement.

Quality mentors are also a significant factor in the new hunter’s experience, which is why volunteers from the NWTF are so important to the Mobile County hunts.

“The NWTF has been a great partner,” Doss said. “They not only provide mentors for the hunt, they provide lunches for the hunters, help us clean deer, clean up or whatever.”

Musselwhite added, “The guys from the NWTF are at that stage of hunting where they are more excited to see someone else shoot their first deer than if they were shooting. It reminds them of taking their first deer.”

Five mentored hunts are planned for the Mobile County properties with a total of eight mentored hunters per hunt.

To apply for a mentored hunt event, download and complete the application. Applicants should be at least 19 years old, possess a valid driver’s license, and be new to hunting or have limited hunting experience. Applications for multiple mentored hunts will be accepted, but you may be selected for only one, depending on the number of applicants.

Email the completed form to Justion Grider. All mentored hunt program correspondence is through email, so be sure to include a valid email address on your application. Applicants will receive an email when their application is received, and those selected for a mentored hunt event will be notified by email.

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

1
7 months ago

Sweet Gun Alabama: The yellowhammer state has nation’s highest concentration of concealed weapon permits

(Photo: Ibro Palic aliengearholsters.com)
(Photo: Ibro Palic aliengearholsters.com)

 

 

Alabama’s motto is “We dare defend our rights,” and judging by the number of people packing heat across our state, we’re more than ready to back that up.

A recent study from the Crime Prevention Research Center indicates that Alabama has the nation’s highest concentration of concealed weapon permits.

The study found that about 755,000 adults in Alabama, or slightly more than 20 percent of the adult population, are licensed to carry concealed weapons. Indiana is second in the nation, with nearly 16 percent of its adults holding permits and South Dakota third, with about 14 percent.

There are even efforts underway to allow concealed carry without a permit, a move supported by the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, news of the popularity of concealed carry in Alabama comes as no surprise considering our state’s well-known support for the Second Amendment, and requests for permits are on the rise.

“The numbers are going up each month,” Elmore County Sherriff Bill Franklin recently told the Montgomery Advertiser. “But if there is a serious crime in the nation, or an unusually serious crime in Alabama or even here in Elmore County, we’ll see a spike in applications over the next few days after the crime occurs.”

The Crime Prevention Research Center also published a series of graphs demonstrating a rapid rise in Internet searches about concealed carry following the school shootings in Newtown school, the Umpqua Community College shooting, the Paris terror attack, the San Bernardino shooting and the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Because Alabama doesn’t keep statewide data on this issue, the CPRC collected information from seven counties with 37 percent of the state’s population – Baldwin, Cullman, Madison, Montgomery, Jackson, Jefferson, and Shelby – and assumed that sample represented the entire state.

To learn more about conceal carry and your Second Amendment rights, come to one of the two NRA town hall events this weekend in Alabama:

Huntsville: 7-9 p.m. tonight, at Cabela’s, 7090 Cabela Drive NW.

Birmingham, 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Hoover Tactical Firearms, 1561 Montgomery Highway.

Jeremy Beaman is a Huntsville-native in his final year at the University of Mobile. He spent the summer of 2017 with the Washington Examiner and writes for The College Fix. Follow him on Twitter @jeremywbeaman.
1
7 months ago

David Rainer: Alabama hunters, don’t make this mistake when going into the woods

Brad Williamson of Quint’s Sporting Goods in Saraland, Ala., checks a scope (David Rainer)
Brad Williamson of Quint’s Sporting Goods in Saraland, Ala., checks a scope (David Rainer)

 

 

The buck of your dreams steps into the open. You try to remain calm and get ready for the shot. You place the crosshairs of your trusty scope-rifle combination on the deer’s shoulder and squeeze the trigger.

As the boom echoes across the bottom, the buck snaps his head to attention and then darts into the thicket with his white tail pointed skyward, indicating a clean miss.

What just happened? The scope had always been dead on, an inch high at 100 yards.

However, when you get back to camp and fire a test shot, the projectile lands 6 inches low at 100 yards.

That is why Brad Williamson at Quint’s Sporting Goods in Saraland, Ala., always urges customers to check their rifles before they head to the field on the opening day of gun deer season, which happens to be Nov. 18 this year.

Williamson, the son of Del and Sandra Williamson, has grown up in the sporting goods business, and he’s seen quite a few distraught hunters come in the store on Mondays to tell how they missed the big one.

“If you didn’t move anything and you go to the range, nine times out of 10, the gun will be shooting where you left it,” Williamson said. “That one time out of 10 is what’s going to cause you to lose your big buck opening weekend. We hear a lot, ‘Well, I’ve never had to touch that gun. I missed that deer, but it’s always been dead-on every year.’ Maybe last year as you were coming down out of your climbing stand or your ladder stand, you bumped it or it fell over or took a jar on a four-wheeler. Most scopes are built to where if they take a jar or bump they return to zero. But it’s still an optic on top of a rifle, and sometimes they can get out of alignment.

“What we see a lot is a lot of guys hunt hard at the end of the year, during the rut. They’re hunting in the rain or pulling tree stands out of the woods at the end of the season and neglect their guns. They put their firearms up wet sometimes. They don’t clean the barrels like they should. They’re wondering why their gun is not shooting as good. It’s because the gun had a rough end to the year.”

This is a busy time of year for the firearms department at Quint’s. Many hunters in the area bring their firearms to get them cleaned and checked out to ensure the point of impact has not changed.

If you’re going to get your gun ready yourself, Williamson suggests running a patch down the barrel to clean out any powder residue, followed by a patch lightly saturated with a powder solvent. If the barrel has been neglected and you can see rust or discoloration in the barrel after running that first patch through, it may be necessary to run a bore brush down the barrel several times to remove the rust. Follow all the cleaning with dry patches until they come out clean.

“If I’m putting a gun up at the end of the year, I put a drop or two of gun oil on a patch to run down the barrel,” he said. “When I get that gun out before the season, I’ll run a patch through the barrel to get that oil residue out. I shoot a fouling shot, and then check for accuracy.”

Typically, a missed shot from an experienced hunter can often be traced back to the riflescope and its mounting system. With the Redfield- and Leupold-style mount with windage screws to adjust the rear mount, Williamson always makes sure those screws are still tight.

Then he moves to the ring screws that hold the scope in the mount. Make sure they’re tight but don’t overtighten. A little touch of blue Loc-Tite on the threads of the screws for the rings and bases will help keep anything from coming loose.

“If you’re trying to troubleshoot something and you don’t think it’s your barrel or your scope, sometimes you have to check your base screws,” Williamson said. “Unfortunately, you have to pull the scope off to get to the bases, which costs you some more ammo to get back on target. But sometimes that’s what you have to do.”

Once the scope mount is secure and the barrel is clean, if you’re still having accuracy issues, Williamson suggests moving to the ammunition component.

“Make sure you’re shooting the same ammo you had last year,” he said. “We’ve had cases where different brands of ammo or different bullet weights would be several inches apart on the target. Some people will tell you brands don’t matter. That might be true at 50 or 75 yards or maybe even out to 100 yards. Those shots might stay in the kill zone of a deer. But if you do get the opportunity to shoot at a deer at 300 yards, and the gun is shooting a little low at 100, you’re going to be way off at 300 yards.

“Ammunition does make a difference, especially when it comes to shooting different weights of bullets like 150-grain or 180-grain. Some people remember that forever, but some don’t even remember what brand ammo they shot last year. More times than you can believe, we’ll have a gun come in with the shell holder on the stock, and it will be filled with ammo with different bullet weights. So, make sure you’re shooting the same brand and bullet weight.”

Occasionally, the scopes will fail, and there’s no repair facility at the local sporting goods store.

“If you see fog in the scope, the seals have failed,” Williamson said. “There is nobody locally who can fix that. It has to go back to the factory. The scopes are nitrogen-filled. The seals have to be replaced and then refilled with nitrogen to make them waterproof and fogproof.

“If your scope fogged up last year, it’s going to fog up this year. And it will probably be at the worst possible time. It’s going to happen as the sun comes up and the temperature changes. Then you’re not going to be able to see through the scope. And remember, you get what you pay for in scopes.”

Quality optics are especially important for folks like me, who are getting a little long in the tooth and don’t see nearly as well as they once did.

“As you get older, your eyesight fades and scopes become more important,” Williamson said. “What your son or daughter is seeing through the scope is different from what you’re seeing. Buying a combo gun with a scope already mounted will get you in the woods, but there are better options.”

During his years behind the gun counter, Williamson hasn’t seen it all when it comes to firearms and optics, but he thinks he’s getting close. The store has a 100-yard range where they sight in rifles, sometimes up to 40 a day.

“One day we had a guy come in who wanted to know if we sighted in scopes,” he said. “We told him we did. He proceeded to hand us his scope and wanted us to sight it in. But he didn’t have his rifle with him. We told him we would have to have the rifle and the scope to be able to sight it in.

“We’ve had guns come in with the scopes mounted backwards. Some people have mounted their own scopes and used a base that is not designed for their rifle. They might have a Weaver-style base for a Marlin 30-30 on a bolt-action rifle. They could only get two of the screw holes to line up. So instead of four base screws, it only had two. The guy couldn’t get it to shoot, so he brought it to us. We ended up taking the scope off and found out he had a Marlin base on a Remington rifle.”

And don’t get Williamson started on some of the things that have come out of the gun barrels.

“We’ve had everything you can imagine, from dirt dauber nests to completely plugged with mud,” he said. “And you’ve got to be extremely careful. You can bulge a barrel with just water or oil in the barrel. If there is an obstruction, that barrel will likely explode.”

“You’ve got to check your barrel to make sure it’s clear of any obstructions.”

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

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7 months ago

Mobile-Tensaw Delta’s fall magic is happening now

Patric Garmeson (David Rainer)
Patric Garmeson fishing (David Rainer)

 

Fall is a magical time on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The white pelicans execute their synchronized flying patterns as mullet leap for the sky for no apparent reason. In the distance, the spray from their spouts reveals a pod of dolphins on the hunt as they surround a school of baitfish.

Oh, and the best part – the fish are biting. The inshore fish like speckled trout, redfish and flounder travel up Mobile Bay and end up on either side of Battleship Parkway (Causeway) this time of year as the salinity slowly increases in parts north, and the baitfish and shrimp head into the estuaries.

Patric Garmeson of Ugly Fishing Charters is from the young generation of guides who take full advantage of this angling opportunity in the fall. Savvy in all things social media, Garmeson spreads the word about the fishing in the Delta through platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

In the Delta proper, where the five rivers – Mobile, Tensaw, Spanish, Apalachee and Blakeley – form the area rich in natural resources and unparalleled biodiversity, the fishing is dictated more by river flow than cold temperatures. If upstate rain causes the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers to rise significantly, that freshwater flushes through the Delta and will chase the saltwater species back into Mobile Bay and points south.

If the winter rains hold off, the saltwater will continue to inch northward, and the fish will follow.

On our trip last week, Garmeson and I found fish mainly within sight of the Causeway because of a recent rain event that dropped up to 6 inches on Baldwin County. The good news is that freshwater went away fairly rapidly, but it did keep the inshore species from advancing very far up the Delta.

“Typically, we see this fishing in the Delta lasting until Christmas,” Garmeson said. “When it gets cold, then you’ll see the deeper-water areas like Theodore Industrial Canal and the Mobile River start to be productive.

“If you’re tough enough and can handle the cold, you can catch fish all winter. I love fishing this time of year. If the water isn’t pouring out of these rivers on these big rises, you can catch these fish until March. I know guys who have caught fish in Raft, Tensaw and Spanish in that February-March timeframe.”

Garmeson said we started our trip in the channels just south of the Causeway because of a little higher salinity level and an abundance of baitfish.

“You’ve got pogeys (menhaden), shad and glass minnows, so there’s a lot more forage in that area right now,” he said.

We threw grubs on lead-head jigs, tandem Road Runner rigs designed for crappie, and grubs a couple of feet under popping corks. While the jig-grub combination produced slightly larger fish, including a beautiful, 25-inch redfish, better numbers came on the jig under a popping cork, which produces a noise that sounds like trout feeding. The popping cork rig produced trout when the plain grub was ignored.

“We caught them from the bottom of the water column to the top in 7 to 10 feet of water this morning,” Garmeson said. “That bite could last well into December, but those fish may shoot up the rivers following the bait. There are a lot of fish staging up, getting ready to move into the Delta.

“Cold weather seems to be a big factor. They’re going to follow the salinity, but they’re going to move every time you get a good cold front. This last front kind of bunched these fish up and dictates what they do next, which is likely to move up the rivers and look for deeper water where the water temperatures are more consistent. That’s my theory, anyway.”

When the fish do vacate the ditches south of the Causeway, Garmeson said he starts looking for mullet jumping to guide him to his target species of specks and reds.

“While it’s still cool to warm, I want to see some mullet jumping,” he said. “We ran a good ways upriver and we quit seeing mullet. We came back down to where the mullet were jumping and we started catching fish again. If you’re not getting (the boat) up on plane to run around looking for fish, if you just want to troll along and keep an eye on your fish finder, you’re going to be able to see schools of fish. When we ran way up Raft River, I wasn’t marking much on my fish finder, so it was a pretty easy decision to leave. That’s not to say there weren’t any fish up there, but it wasn’t worth the time to stay up there and try to find them.”

Garmeson said anglers who fish the Delta in the fall should be prepared with a variety of baits, both live and artificial.

“Up until this last cold front, you had to have some kind of live bait, whether pogeys or live shrimp,” he said. “Topwater fishing was pretty good until the sun came up. Then you had to have something live to get a bite. On the last couple of trips, we’ve been catching them on a Yum Mud Minnow (plastic minnow bait).

“In September, you could catch a few on the Mud Minnow to find out where the fish were, but you caught more fish on live bait. Now, it seems to have swapped around.”

Garmeson admitted his choice of bait colors happened by laziness. He had asked one of his friends who fishes one of the redfish tournament tours about what grub color to use to catch fish in the Louisiana marsh. The grub had black sides, a glitter belly and a chartreuse paddle tail.

“I got back from Louisiana and still had these grubs tied on,” he said. “I just started throwing them in the Delta and the fish were nailing them. Been throwing them ever since.”

When it comes to rigging and equipment, he uses both spinning and bait-casting tackle with medium to medium-heavy rods, depending on whether he expects to encounter decent-sized redfish. Garmeson uses 20-pound braided line with a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.

“I don’t think the leader makes a lot of difference,” he said. “There are times when I get in really still areas where I want to freeline a bait, I might drop down a little on the leader size. But most of the time I still go with 20-pound braid and 20-pound leader.”

Before the water temperature cools much more, anglers will likely encounter quite a few fish under the 14-inch minimum on speckled trout. As the temps continue to fall, the fishing gets even better.

“My magic temperature range is 52 to 62 for bigger fish,” Garmeson said. “Until it gets down to that range, you may catch fish on flocks of birds around schools of trout. Most of those fish may be undersized. Those larger fish get active when it gets below 62, and that’s when I feel like I can catch big fish.”

Garmeson and his family can catch some good fish before that perfect temperature range arrives. Just last weekend, his son, Cooper, took first place in redfish and second place in speckled trout in the junior division at the Marsh Madness Fall Fishing Tournament in the Delta.

For information, visit uglyfishing.com or call 251-747-1554.

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

 

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7 months ago

Yellowhammer News begins carrying award-winning outdoor writer

David Rainer

Yellowhammer News will begin carrying a regular weekly column by David Rainer, an award-winning outdoor writer.

“David is well known and well respected among Alabama’s outdoorsmen,” said the site’s editor, J. Pepper Bryars. “He has hunted and fished across the state with some of the best in the sport, and his insights, advice, and stories will be extremely valuable to our readers.”

Rainer, the former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years.

He now writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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