The Wire

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

Alabama’s public parks, greenspaces adjusting to COVID-19 crisis

(Michael Sznajderman/Alabama NewsCenter)

With most people confined to their homes during the COVID-19 crisis, escaping to a beautiful park or public greenspace has been one of the few healthy respites from coronavirus cabin fever.

Shelter-in-place rules that have been imposed across the state generally have an exception to allow people to walk or bike or hike in their neighborhoods and beyond – as long as social distancing and other hygiene protocols are observed.

But as people rush to parks to enjoy the spring weather, some have had to adjust to maintain public health and safety. In some communities, parks have closed altogether.

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In the Birmingham suburb of Homewood, for example, park facilities are closed. Same goes for Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in the northern Birmingham suburb of Pinson, and the city pier and north beach area in the Mobile suburb of Fairhope. Mobile city parks, meanwhile, remain open, although officials are strongly advising visitors to adhere to social distancing standards. Parks also are open in Tuscaloosa and Tuscaloosa County, although community centers have closed and programming has been suspended.

“We have beautiful parks and walking paths our residents can take advantage of to enhance their mental, physical and emotional well-being,” said Anitra Belle Henderson, director of community affairs with the city of Mobile.

“We are following the joint guidelines provided by CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the National Recreation and Park Association that are encouraging people to get out and exercise by walking, biking, running and skating on trails and various paved paths within the park system. However, we do discourage people from using playground equipment, workout stations, water fountains, restrooms and pavilions,” Henderson added.

In Birmingham, the city Park and Recreation Board shuttered all facilities, including dozens of community parks, until April 6. But the nonprofit-operated Railroad Park is open with officials there encouraging social distancing. Park staff have removed all tables and chairs from the central pavilion to discourage large gatherings.

Across the city at the nonprofit Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, a surge in visitors and overflow parking issues raised health and safety concerns, leading staff to close restrooms and pavilions. The preserve’s nature center had already been closed to visitors. Walking and hiking trails at Ruffner are now restricted to members and city of Birmingham residents. “While we support exercise and getting out in the fresh air, we are asking visitors to think before they put themselves, our staff, others and first responders at risk,” said a statement on Ruffner’s website.

At Alabama State Parks, many of which are in rural areas, facilities are open but new restrictions are being put in place.

Officials have now closed beaches and beach access – not only at Gulf State Park but at other parks that have freshwater reservoirs, such as the popular beach area at Oak Mountain State Park. About half of the state’s 21 parks have some type of beach access.

Individuals and families can still camp and reserve spaces for recreational vehicles at state parks, but restaurant facilities are limited to offering takeout only, and all gift shops and stores are closed. Playgrounds and playground equipment, and caves at Rickwood and Cathedral Caverns state parks, also are closed.

“Right now, it’s a good time and it’s a challenging time,” said Jerry Weisenfeld, promotions manager for Alabama State Parks.

“We are here for the enjoyment, recreation and relaxation of the people of Alabama,” Weisenfeld said. He encouraged visitors to practice safe, social distancing, but acknowledged that “not all are following the rules.”

“Just like everybody else, we are trying to encourage only small groups or no groups at all,” Weisenfeld said.

Beth Thomas contributed to this report.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 days ago

State park rangers on duty in times of calm and peril

(Chad Davis/Contributed)

Thankfully, with a few exceptions, Alabama State Parks remain open during the COVID-19 restrictions.

And as diligent as always, our park rangers are on duty to deal with any situation that might arise with everything from a welcoming wave and helpful hand to rescuing park visitors in peril.

That peril was particularly apparent last December when a line of storms started moving through north Alabama.

Joe Wheeler State Park Ranger Ryan Robertson was on patrol on December 16, 2019, while Ranger David Barr had the day off, or so he thought.

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“That afternoon, we had some pretty volatile weather,” Barr said. “Ryan was running duty, and I stopped him at the boat ramp and told him I would be home if it got bad.”

It got bad at the 2,550-acre park on the Tennessee River near Rogersville. When a tornado warning was issued a little after 5:00 p.m., Barr donned his uniform and headed into the park to help Robertson warn the patrons and park volunteers of the impending storm.

Fortunately, with the Christmas season in full swing, the park was not full of campers or visitors.

“Ryan already had people evacuated from the campground,” Barr said. “We only had seven campers and four of those were volunteers. If we have a lot of people, we put some in the bathhouses and some at the campground store. Ryan took some of them to the lodge. He stayed with them. I was at the campground store with two ladies and two kids and a Pyrenees dog. I usually get out and ramble during something like this, but something told me not to do that. I stayed at the store. My son was with me, and he was watching the storm on the weather radar.”

Barr’s son told him the storm was about to hit, and Barr sent the visitors into one bathroom while he and his son got in the other.

The power went out, and a few minutes later it became apparent that they were in the tornado’s path.

“The store has metal doors on each side,” Barr said. “Those doors started flapping. I didn’t stick my head out to see, but it sounded like those doors were opening all the way and closing. The wind was howling and whistling. That lasted for three or four minutes and then it was quiet.”

While all campers, volunteers and park personnel escaped injury during the storm, the campground did not fare as well.

“When I was sure it had blown over, I thought we had escaped the worst of it until I went outside and got in my truck,” Barr said. When the lights came on, I could see big pine trees down. I tried to go up the hill to my house, but the road was blocked by trees.”

Barr walked the rest of the way to his house, which was unscathed, although numerous trees were down in the yard. Back in the campground, Barr discovered that the A section did not have much damage.

“But the B section was total destruction,” he said. “The bathhouse was destroyed. The meeting pavilion was caved in by trees falling on it.”

By that time, Barr was joined by Robertson and Park District Supervisor Chad Davis as well as part-time employee Morris Barnes, who has since become a full-time ranger at Monte Sano State Park.

Barnes hopped onto a backhoe and all hands started clearing downed trees out of the roadways until they realized live power lines were down in the park and decided to wait until daylight to resume their work.

The next morning, Barr discovered he had a view of the Tennessee River that he never expected or wanted.

“I’ve been a ranger and campground supervisor here for over 30 years,” he said. “This is my home. To see my life’s work blown away was devastating. We got strike teams in from other parks, cut our way through the different sections to assess the damage. I can’t really describe it. A section survived. Three-quarters of B section was gone. C section was completely wiped out.”

Barr, who was recently promoted to assistant superintendent at Wheeler, said out of 116 camping sites only 60 remained usable. Two bathhouses were destroyed. One large pavilion and two smaller pavilions were destroyed. Beautiful, tall pine trees were strewn throughout the campground.

“From my house, you can see forever,” he said. “You can see the river from my backyard, which you used to could never see. I can see all the way across the river. I miss the trees.”

Barr is just thankful that the pre-Christmas period is a slow time at Wheeler.

“I know of one camper who left early because of the weather,” he said. “I’m glad he did because that site he was staying at was completely leveled. If there had been many people in the campground, there would have been multiple fatalities.”

Barnes, who lives only 2½ miles from Wheeler, not only had heavy equipment experience, he also served with the Rogersville Police Department at that time.

Barnes ended up in an even more harrowing situation a few days after helping with the aftermath of the tornado.

Heavy downpours had caused creeks in north Alabama to swell rapidly. Barnes, who is trained in swift-water and high-angle rescue, had finished his shift with the Rogersville PD at 5:00 p.m. when a call came in about a car swept into a creek. That incident resulted in a fatality.

Then a second call came in about another car in the same creek not far away from the first incident.

“That girl’s mother went looking for her and drove off in the same creek, not knowing she was there,” Barnes said. “The first car was completely submerged. The second one, the front was stuck in the ground and the rear end was hung in a tree. The woman had managed to crawl out through the back glass.”

After being unable to rescue the woman, area enforcement officers called for the swift-water rescue team of which Barnes was a member.

Barnes got the Florence Fire Department to aid in the rescue with a rubber boat and a heavy fire truck that could be used as an anchor point in the swift water.

Barnes and another first responder got into the rubber boat and it was slowly released into the creek by rope.

“Once we got the boat over to the car, I knew her,” Barnes said of the trapped woman. “Everybody told me she was going to fight me, but when we made eye contact, I called her out by name. She called out my name, and then I told what I wanted her to do and not fight me. I got over close enough to put a life jacket on her and latched onto her. I didn’t try to drag her into the boat, but we dragged her to the opposite bank and released her to those personnel.”

Unfortunately, Barnes discovered the daughter’s car about 40 yards down the creek completely submerged with no hope of rescue.

After the incident, the Rogersville City Council and Mayor presented Barnes with a life-saving award that he was hesitant to accept.

“I’m not a hero,” Barnes said. “I had a job to do. To me, the hero was the woman. She hung in there for almost three hours until we could get to her.”

Barnes said it was a perfect example for the mantra of “Turn around, don’t drown.”

“It rained so hard and fast that the county didn’t have enough time to get up the barricades,” he said. “Lauderdale County is 71 miles wide. It just happened so fast.”

Sometimes, the problems park rangers encounter are not weather related.

For example, Lake Lurleen State Park Ranger Mark Caton, who has been a first responder in one capacity or another for more than 20 years, was checking people coming into the park when one vehicle left the road and went through the grass.

“We deal with all kinds of people,” Caton said. “It’s like having a concert in your jurisdiction every day.”

The driver of the errant vehicle exited and then jumped into the lake.

“Obviously, that’s not normal behavior,” Caton said. “He yelled, ‘Don’t try to get me out.’ But I grabbed my rescue boat and headed out. I didn’t get too close and tried to get him to talking. Usually, if you can get people talking, the less they think about what they want to do.”

Caton found out the swimmer had been in and out of psychiatric care and had been self-medicating instead of taking his prescription medicines. Caton also found out he and his girlfriend had had a fight and she kicked him out.

“He felt like he didn’t have anywhere else to go and was just going to swim until he got tired and drowned,” Caton said. “I tried to build a rapport with him and tell him that drowning was not the way to go. Finally, he was getting thirsty and tired. I tossed him a cushion float and he took it. That was the first step to get him back to the side of the lake. Then I told him we had some Gatorade on the other side of the lake. Believe it or not, the Gatorade worked. For somebody who wasn’t thinking clearly, he zoned in on Gatorade. He was close to drowning a couple of times. He swam back in and got his Gatorade, like we promised, and then we got him to a hospital.”

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

Alabama’s outdoors provides solutions for social distancing

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

While Governor Kay Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris, Chair of the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force, work hard alongside other state, national and private enterprise leaders to mitigate the effects of the novel coronavirus and bring its spread to a conclusion, it is important that people maintain the social distancing and other health recommendation standards.

“We take these precautions and recommendations very seriously at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We know many Alabamians want to get outdoors during the spring and enjoy some recreational opportunities that can refresh in these challenging times; just remember, we must do so safely.”

Not only does our state have some of the best fishing opportunities in the nation, both freshwater and saltwater, but the spring turkey season is also about to open in most of the state.

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If hunting or fishing is not a preference, consider the beautiful natural hiking trails and camping facilities available at Alabama State Parks close to where you live, not to mention the natural beauty on the Forever Wild tracts available to the public. Visit www.alapark.com and www.alabamaforeverwild.com for the many options available.

“I know with the children out of school and many parents home as well, people will want to do things together as a family,” Blankenship continued. “Many will want to take the youngsters who are out of school to explore our state’s great natural wonders, but please do so responsibly.”

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes said this is a perfect opportunity for those who love the outdoors to adhere to the “social distancing” guidelines.

“I fully expect Alabama hunters and fishermen to take advantage of the social distancing prescriptions by all the coronavirus experts, and I expect many of them will get outdoors, either on the water or in the woods,” Sykes said. “Turkey season in most of the state comes in Saturday (March 21). Fishing is phenomenal from what I understand.”

Sykes said WFF’s operations will be minimally impacted by the measures instituted to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“It’s going to be business as usual for us except in our offices,” he said. “I don’t want people to think that the game wardens are going to be sitting at home, not doing anything. Our staff basically has been practicing social distancing for years. They work by themselves for the large part. They work outside. The only thing the public will see different from Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is our district offices and the Montgomery offices will be closed to public walk-in traffic. But we will still have a skeleton staff to take phone calls and answer Game Check questions, which will be forwarded to officers and biologists in the field. Other than some headquarters and district office staff continuing their work from home, it’s going to be business as usual providing services to the public.”

Sykes took his own advice last weekend for the turkey season’s special youth weekend and headed to the woods. As with most hunting experiences, some folks had good luck while others did not.

“The results were site-specific, as they are most seasons,” he said. “Some youth did well; some didn’t. I went this weekend with a friend and his son, and we heard a couple of turkeys gobble once or twice apiece, and that was it. I talked to some people whose turkeys gobbled good, and they had a productive hunt and killed turkeys. That’s just the way it is. I was glad it wasn’t raining, and it wasn’t 25 degrees, like it had been for the past couple of years.”

This year’s regular turkey season is opening on the third Saturday of March in most areas. This opener is the latest possible opening date, and Sykes said that was done for a specific reason.

“The date was moved to give the birds more time for breeding activity before the season opens,” he said. “A lot of the latest research is showing that we may be harvesting too many gobblers too early in the breeding process.”

Studies have shown moving the season opener toward peak nest initiation dates allows more dominant gobblers to breed before being shot, which is even more important in already-declining populations. Peak nest initiation in Alabama averages around the second week in April.

“Postponing the opening date to the third Saturday at least gives the gobblers another few days in the woods without there being a lot of pressure,” Sykes said.

With the mild winter and early spring, the breeding cycle may be a bit earlier, especially the gobblers’ role of strutting and gobbling. But, the amount of daylight and receptive hens ultimately dictate when breeding takes place.

“I think they’re well on their way,” he said. “I think moving the season later was a positive move. I think it’s good that we haven’t had any cold weather in a few weeks to give the turkeys a chance to do their thing before we get after them real hard. As far as tactics for opening weekend, again, it depends on where you are. The turkey we were fooling with on youth weekend had a sack full of hens with him. He didn’t care what I did. I called up two hens that popped up out of the bottom. They gave a peek, turned around and went back. Another hen did that a few minutes later. They were staying with him. They were doing what turkeys do. We were just not in the right place to get in their way. Now if you can find a lonely 2-year-old, you can beat two rocks together, and he’ll come running.”

Sykes said turkey hunters who participate in the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey program or who read the annual Full Fans and Sharp Spurs report at www.outdooralabama.com/turkey-hunting-alabama/turkey-research will understand the Division’s assessment of the turkey population in the state.

“In that survey and publication, you’ll see two categories of recruitment,” he said. “One is looking at poults (young of the year) per hens and the other is hens with poults. Those are two different topics. Studies are showing that perhaps the reason we’re seeing the number of hens with no poults is not because of predation but due to the fact that those hens did not get bred because the dominant gobblers were taken out of the population too soon.

“If hunters are interested in participating in the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey and assisting our wildlife biologists in the collection of this data, they should click the link on the www.outdooralabama.com website for more information. We certainly appreciate all those who have contributed thus far and hope to see more sign up for this opportunity to assist in the management of this great bird.”

For those who have hunted turkeys for a long time in Alabama, the late start shouldn’t be a burden, according to Sykes.

“When I was a kid, the turkey season always started on March 20th,” he said. “It was moved to the 15th for not necessarily biological reasons, so this should not be that big of a shock to hunters who grew up in Alabama. It shouldn’t be that big a deal.”

Sykes said about the only thing this virus might affect for turkey hunting is hunters’ ability to gather at the country store to exchange lies.

“Everybody is so social-media-oriented now, I think we’ll still be able to keep up with what’s going on,” he said.

As with hunting success, Sykes said it depends on the source when it comes to the discussion of the status of turkey populations in the South.

“Some people I know think the turkey decline is 100% real, and I know others who swear numbers are at ‘historic highs’,” he said. “Personally, I think they’re down.”

Sykes said he hunted turkeys as much as possible last year and bagged two birds in Alabama.

“That was a gracious plenty,” he said. “Now I called up a bunch of birds for others, so that did not impede my ability to go hunting, have a good time and have fun, and enjoy being outdoors.”

Sykes said he wants people to do the same thing, but they need to understand that the WFF staff is going to be right there with them.

“Our staff didn’t get two weeks of vacation,” he said. “They’re still going to be working. We want people to have their licenses because they’re going to encounter our staff. Our WMAs (wildlife management areas) are open. Our public shooting ranges are open. Our public lakes are open. Get out there and have fun. Take advantage of this time to be outside, but please abide by the recommendations to slow the spread of the virus.”

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

2 weeks ago

Bassmaster Classic makes itself at home with ninth visit to Birmingham

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

You couldn’t blame B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin if he lobbied to make Birmingham the permanent host of its flagship event – the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk.

Personally, Akin would be very comfortable with that move.

“I would love that,” the Homewood resident said. “I could stay in my own bed every night. Fortunately, it’s become very popular in recent years, the Classic, and there’s been a lot of competition for it.”

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Through today, 53 anglers are taking part in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk. The 50th championship event of the Bassmaster Elite Series returns to Birmingham for the ninth time.

This is the 13th time the classic has been in Alabama and the third time it has been on Lake Guntersville. Once again, the weigh-in and expo will be at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

Birmingham drew 90,000 fans when the Magic City was weigh-in central for the Bassmaster Classic in 2014. Last year, Knoxville, Tenn., established a record with 153,000 fans.

The 2019 Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville, Tenn., was recognized as a 2019 Champion of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism (Mid-Market Division) by Sports Destination Management.

The award honors organizations and local partners who “worked together to produce events that have made our industry a more vibrant, more exciting, more varied and more interesting place.”

Akin is rooting for Birmingham to show up and show out.

“Let’s beat the record that was set last year,” he said. “I’m ready to shatter that record. This is something Auburn and Alabama people can come together on, beating Tennessee.”

Record attendance is nothing new for the Classic. Before it was in Knoxville, a record crowd of 145,000 were at the championship event in Greenville, S.C.

“Each year it’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger,” Akin said. “We do have people coming from all over the country – and all over the world, really – to the Bassmaster Classic. They put it on their calendar, and they make it a family vacation in many cases.”

Those visitors are expected to have an economic impact of $30 million.

“It’s a big number,” said David Galbaugh of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, “but again, when you’ve got this many people that are coming to an event, it really adds up. I am in awe sometimes when we talk about these numbers. It’s very impressive and that’s what makes the event so special to be in Birmingham.”

Alabama Power partners with B.A.S.S. on conservation projects from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

While Birmingham has been part of the Bassmaster Classic more than anywhere else, fans who were here in 2014 might feel they’re in a new place.

“We didn’t have all of Uptown in place,” Galbaugh said. “We didn’t have things going on in our downtown renaissance with Second Avenue and all the new restaurants that we have.

“We’re like a new product,” he continued. “I’m going to be really excited for people that are accustomed to coming to the Classic and being in Birmingham. If they haven’t been here in six years, they’re going to find something that’s really special. And I think they’re going to be very impressed.”

Hosting athletic events has become something Birmingham does. Faye Oates, commissioner of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office of sports and entertainment, said the Classic is a huge opportunity for the metro area.

“It’s a really big deal,” she said. “It has a great following. They bring a lot of folks to the city. Their expo alone is big. Without any fishing, the expo is huge.”

The expo, like the daily weigh-in, is free. It features 200 exhibitors and is what Akin calls the largest fishing consumer show in the world.

“People laugh that you’re just going to see fish being weighed, but it’s really quite a show,” the B.A.S.S. CEO said. “It’s a Hollywood-style production, and it’s truly made for TV. It will be broadcast on ESPN2 in about a month.”

A lot has changed in professional bass fishing since B.A.S.S. began 52 years ago and hosted its first Bassmaster Classic two years later. Since then, rival professionals tours – including FLW and MLF — have come on the scene.

Akin said the industry is very strong now, but B.A.S.S. and the Bassmaster Classic provide the biggest stage.

“We have everything from websites to magazines to television to a radio show to the events themselves,” the CEO said. “Throngs of people want to come out and see fish being weighed but also to sample the sponsor products. We don’t want to rest on our laurels by any means, but we’ve been the leader for 50 years and plan to continue to be the leader.

“We are the big fish in a big pond too,” Akin continued. “The industry is very vibrant and very strong now, but we are the biggest organization in bass fishing.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 weeks ago

2020 Bassmaster Classic brings in largest crowd in Alabama history

(Lake Guntersville State Park-Alabama,Facebook)

The 2020 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic, which was held for the 13th time in Alabama, shattered previous attendance records, B.A.S.S. officials announced Friday.

According to a press release, “The total Classic Week attendance of 122,814 was recorded at a variety of activities across Alabama, including the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo in Birmingham, daily takeoffs on Lake Guntersville and the inaugural Huk Bassmaster B.A.S.S. Nation Kayak Series powered by TourneyX presented by Abu Garcia on Logan Martin Lake in Pell City.”

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This attendance number is 35% higher than the previous state record set in 2014. It is also the fourth-highest attended Bassmaster Classic in the event’s 50-year history.

“This record-breaking attendance would not have been possible without the loyalty of our incredible Bassmaster fans and the partnerships between B.A.S.S. and our sponsors, exhibitors, the media and our host communities in Birmingham and Marshall County,” said B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin.

“We’re thankful for the hard work of the entire B.A.S.S. family and our great volunteers who made this Classic such a success,” Akin added.

“We were thrilled with the support and crowd that turned out each morning at Civitan Park,” said Katy Norton, President of the Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We want to thank our out-of-town guests and invite them back to Lake Guntersville to fish and enjoy one of Alabama’s great natural attractions.”

A new event this year, the Bassmaster Classic Kickoff Party, which benefitted Children’s of Alabama, featured live music and fireworks and gave fans the opportunity to mingle with anglers.

Follow Kyle on Twitter @RealKyleMorris and Facebook.

2 weeks ago

WFF in spotlight, behind scenes at Bassmaster Classic

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division was both enjoying the spotlight and working behind the curtains during last week’s 50th Bassmaster Classic weigh-in at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center (BJCC).

The Classic, with Academy Sports + Outdoors as its title sponsor, pitted the world’s best bass anglers on one of the nation’s top bass impoundments – Lake Guntersville in northeast Alabama.

After an opening round with an impressive 29-plus pounds of largemouth bass, Hank Cherry of North Carolina cruised to a wire-to-wire victory to win the top prize of $300,000.

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During Saturday’s weigh-in ceremonies at BJCC’s Legacy Arena, one of WFF’s conservation enforcement officers, Sergeant Bill Freeman, was spotlighted in an oversized Academy chair as the honored first responder.

A veteran of the U.S. Army, Freeman transitioned recently from full-time patrol officer to head of WFF outreach. He was recognized by Academy for the following reasons:

“He consistently goes above and beyond his required duties and provided quality enforcement of game and fish regulations and is an asset to public safety to the residents of Bullock County, Alabama, and the surrounding areas. In 2019, Freeman received a promotion to sergeant for his exemplary service to the people of Alabama. In his new role as sergeant, Freeman’s duties were expanded to lead the effort to recruit youth, college and high school students into hunting and fishing. Sergeant Freeman’s methods and success in recruiting college and high school students across Alabama have garnered nationwide attention. His efforts have highlighted the Department as the leader in minority recruitment and retention by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for the past two years.”

A feature of the award was a $500 shopping spree at the Academy store in Hoover, where Freeman and two colleagues loaded up on fishing equipment to be used in the WFF outreach programs.

Freeman was able to share the oversized chair and spotlight with several youth that participate in his outreach programs. One group of youngsters were from Bullock County and the KAMO (Kids and Mentors Outdoors) program. A few of the kids were from the Barbour County Youth Hunt and Blue Springs Fishing Derby, which are held in cooperation with the Barbour County Lions Club. Other events on Freeman’s schedule include a large hunter education class at Auburn University with the Wildlife Society, the Bullock County Fishing Derby and Outdoor Alabama Experience events at Oak Mountain State Park and Lake Lurleen State Park.

“The kids absolutely loved it,” Freeman said. “It’s been all over Facebook. That was a great experience. I really appreciated being recognized for our Department (Conservation and Natural Resources). Anything I can do for the kids is just a great experience. They really had a ball. It’s just nice to know people support what we do.”

While Freeman and his youth were in the spotlight, a crew from WFF’s hatchery operations was steadily working backstage to ensure the bass weighed in each day at the Classic received the best care possible in order to return the fish to Lake Guntersville, the Classic site, and Lay Lake, where the high school and college tournaments were held.

After Bassmaster Tournament Director Trip Weldon weighed the fish, he handed a basket through a trap door in the stage floor to a runner, who hurriedly transported the fish to large holding tanks on WFF vehicles.

WFF Hatchery Supervisor Brian Rinehard, who oversees all three hatcheries in the state (Eastaboga, Marion and Carbon Hill), teamed up with Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. Conservation Director, to determine how many tanker trucks would be needed during the Classic to transport the bass from the arena. The fish eventually ended up in either Lake Guntersville or Lay Lake after a visit to the Eastaboga hatchery in Calhoun County.

“Gene gave me an estimate of how big and how many fish they expected to be weighed in each day of the Classic,” Rinehard said. “We made sure we had trucks to easily handle that capacity.”

The trucks from the different hatcheries went to Eastaboga and were filled with spring water and a specific amount of salt to ease the stress on the fish. The tanks are equipped with oxygen diffusers to keep the water at the desired saturation level. The trucks then travel to BJCC, where they are staged to receive the weighed fish.

Classic anglers transported the fish from Lake Guntersville to Legacy Arena in the livewells of the tournament boats. The fish were placed in bags before being brought onstage to be weighed. After weighing, the fish were quickly placed in the WFF hatchery tanks until the weigh-in was completed.

“We keep up with how many pounds of bass are on the truck at one time,” Rinehard said Saturday. “When we reach a certain limit, we switch to another truck. We can safely handle fish on two pounds per gallon of water. For one of our 600-gallon tanks, we could hold as many as 1,200 pounds of fish. The first day’s total was 600 pounds of fish. We were prepared to handle a lot more fish if needed.”

Once each weigh-in was over, the hatchery truck headed to the Eastaboga Hatchery.

“When we get the fish to Eastaboga, we temper the fish. We transition them from the temperature of the tank to the spring water at the hatchery,” Rinehard said. “We had the temperature of the tanks cooled to match the temperature at Lake Guntersville. When we got back to the hatchery, we had to raise the temperature. We have 1,500-gallon raceways with spring water and oxygen to slowly raise the temperature. You don’t want to shock the fish with a temperature change. It causes too much stress, so we raise it slowly. Then we watch their swimming habits. When you confine bass, they start jumping, trying to get out, so we have covers on the holding tanks so they won’t be disturbed. We keep them as quiet as we can to calm them down.”

The bass, both from Lake Guntersville and Lay Lake, were held at Eastaboga until Monday morning, when the WFF hatchery trucks were filled with water and loaded with a certain amount of bass to be transported back to the lake of origin.

“The fish won’t all go to one boat ramp,” Rinehard said. “We will transport the fish to different state boat ramps around the lakes. We will spread the fish out as best we can.”

Rinehard said holding the Classic and other large tournaments in the early spring makes it a lot easier for fisheries managers to return healthy fish to the lakes compared to tournaments held during the heat of the summer.

“Heat puts a lot of stress on the fish,” he said. “You can handle a lot more fish and heavier fish when the water is cold, and Guntersville is world-renowned for its large fish, especially in the springtime. Livewells on bass boats are a lot better than they used to be. But handling the fish still causes stress. When we get them in our tanks, we limit the stress by giving them a lot more space, and we’re running oxygen.”

As it turns out, the effort to care for the fish was well worth it. Rinehard said 520 bass that weighed 1,662 pounds from the Classic were successfully returned to Lake Guntersville on Monday. Another 88 bass were returned to Lay Lake. Only five fish did not survive.

“We did everything we could to keep the mortality rate as low as possible,” he said.

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

Southern Living ranks Gulf Shores/Orange Beach the South’s best beach town

(J. Claborn/Flickr, YHN)

Southern Living magazine published a ranking of the Southeast’s best beach towns this week, and a pair of Alabama cities were jointly listed at number one.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are described as “old-school beaches all about family fun.”

The two Baldwin county towns placed just ahead of Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Tybee Island, Georgia.

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The towns’ entry on the list highlights Doc’s Seafood Shack and the sandy bar Flora-Bama as two essential places to visit when in the area.

In a longer article going into more detail about what the two places have to offer, Southern Living details the acclaimed food scene and the many opportunities to interact with nature.

The magazine specifically praises the Lodge at Gulf State Park, saying the establishment “is noteworthy for its level of style and comfort and also for its commitment to both conservation and sustainability.”

The publication recommends visitors check out the opportunities for paddling at the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge and the hiking trails at Gulf State Park.

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) praised the listing in a tweet Wednesday, saying he was glad Alabama’s Gulf Coast is “receiving the recognition it deserves.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

3 weeks ago

Volunteers put muscle behind protecting the watercress darter

(Michael Sznajderman/Alabama NewsCenter)

It doesn’t look like much from the road – just an unassuming tributary of a local creek that flows into a man-made pond in a pleasant, historic subdivision, south of Bessemer.

But the volunteers who gathered at the site to yank out invasive plants and remove piles of brush knew they were helping to preserve something special.

In 1964, Samford University biologist Mike Howell first identified, in this modest, spring-fed waterway, a tiny fish that, to this day, is known to exist at only five sites in Jefferson County and nowhere else: the watercress darter. By 1970, the colorful fish, which typically grows no larger than 2½ inches, had been placed on the federal list of endangered species.

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Since that time, a recovery plan for the fish has been developed that includes ongoing efforts by public and private partners to try to protect and enhance the few habitats where the darter lives.

On Saturday morning, volunteers, guided by conservation experts with the nonprofit Freshwater Land Trust and with support from the local REI Co-op, took on the task of uprooting privet and other non-native vegetation growing along the tributary, known by locals as Glenn Springs. The volunteers included local neighborhood residents, students from UAB and others who signed up through the local REI store’s website.

By lunchtime, volunteers had opened up a section of the creek that had been hidden by a wall of nearly impenetrable privet – an Asian import that is notorious for choking out more beneficial, local plants. Darters need natural vegetation and sunlight, in cool, clear spring water to survive.

Experts with the land trust and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are expected to return soon to the springs to continue the work to help improve condition of the site, which also will help improve water quality for the teeny darter.

Recently the land trust, which is supported by Alabama Power and the Alabama Power Foundation, completed a habitat restoration project at another site where the watercress darter lives, in the Roebuck Springs area of Birmingham. The land trust worked with the city and Fish and Wildlife experts on the project, which included removing asphalt from a city park near the springs and replacing it with natural bioswales, which can slow hot, polluted water from summer rains hitting paved surfaces and filter the water before it flows into the creek. Another project to protect the darter is continuing at Seven Springs, a tributary of Valley Creek in Birmingham, in coordination with neighboring Faith Apostolic Church.

Learn more about efforts to protect the watercress darter in Alabama at www.freshwaterlandtrust.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 weeks ago

Conservation Advisory Board considers deer zones, turkey reporting

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

The first Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting of 2020 resulted in a wealth of good news and one disappointing statistic.

The good news included a 35-day, state-managed red snapper season, a productive oyster season, an increase in the number of hunting licenses sold for the 2019-2020 season and a significant reduction in the number of dog deer hunting complaints.

The one disappointment was highlighted in a dramatic way by Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes, who started his presentation with a slide that announced the closing of turkey season based on the lack of compliance of Alabama turkey hunters with the mandatory Game Check reporting system.

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Of course, Sykes’ slide was a facetious effort to get the attention of the Board and everyone in attendance at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries building in Montgomery.

“We have advertised (Game Check) in newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, our (Hunting and Fishing) Digest,” Sykes said. “We have begged and pleaded for people to actually report their harvests. We’re kind of at the end of our rope. We don’t really know the next step to increase participation.”

With tongue-not-so-firmly-planted-in-cheek, Sykes began, “For 2020-2021, we’re just going to close turkey season in the hopes that people will understand how important Game Check is. We had less than 11,000 turkeys reported last year. I don’t believe anybody on this Board believes that was the number harvested.

“If our turkey numbers are actually that low, we’re in a mess. Now we don’t think they’re that low, but this is the hunter harvest information we have to go on. We’re just picking with this slide, but I wanted to get everybody’s attention.”

Sykes transitioned to deer hunting and the proposed changes to the deer season zones in northwest, northeast and southeast Alabama. Sykes said the early rutting activities that have been confirmed by wildlife biologists in Zone D (see map) and Zone E prompted the Division to change season dates to accommodate hunting during peak deer activity. The proposal before the Board has those two zones with the gun deer season opening on November 7, 2020, and ending January 27, 2021. The season dates in the other zones would be similar to last year’s.

“This is not additional time to hunt,” Sykes said. “The hunters in those areas have asked for the earlier slot because of the rut.”

Sykes was also thankful to report that Alabama still has no chronic wasting disease (CWD) infections reported. WFF conducted statewide CWD seminars last year to keep the public informed on the issues and also tested more than 1,500 deer for CWD.

Sykes had more good news regarding hunting licenses sold. More than 151,000 people purchased all-game hunting licenses for the 2019-2020 season, an increase of about 4,000 over the previous season.

WFF also sold more than 158,000 baiting privilege licenses, which did not surprise Sykes.

“But this isn’t the full story,” Sykes said. “Yes, we sold more licenses, and the bait privilege license brought in another couple of million dollars. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of people let it go. This was the first year in the past four that we have not had to cut the budget for Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries because of budget shortfalls. So, we’re not flush with cash because of the bait privilege license. We were just able to meet the budget.”

The license numbers also showed that more than 27,000 people purchased a bait privilege license but did not purchase a hunting license.

“Those are exempted hunters who are over 65 or under 16 or hunt on their own land,” Sykes said. “For the first time in Alabama, we can now count them as licensed hunters because of the bait privilege license. This should increase our federal apportionment.”

One area of concern expressed by Sykes was the failure of deer hunters to follow hunting safety guidelines. He cited the vast majority of hunting mishaps continue to be treestand accidents.

“The majority of hunters who fall out of treestands who are killed or injured have been hunting forever,” he said. “They haven’t taken a hunter education course because they are grandfathered in, and they get complacent. The majority of the firearms accidents are the same, and most are self-inflicted. The thing about treestand accidents is that about 95 percent of them are completely preventable. If they will just use a safety harness and safety line and be connected from the time your feet leave the ground until you’re back on the ground, 95 percent or better of our treestand accidents would be eliminated.”

Alabama Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship shared an experience that showed the importance of hunting in Alabama.

“I was in Sumter County during the Martin Luther King weekend and shot a deer on that Sunday afternoon,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “I went to take it to the processor in the middle of nowhere in Sumter County. They had people out on the road directing traffic so that people could get in to drop their deer off. They had one-ways signs in the yard. There must have been 20 people in line either dropping off a deer or picking up their deer meat. People were steadily coming in the whole time I was there. I took a couple of pictures just to show people who don’t understand what a value hunting and fishing are to our economy. I hope you (the audience) tell people how important hunting and fishing are in our state, not only to the economy but for the quality of life in Alabama.”

Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director Scott Bannon announced a 35-day red snapper season that will start May 22, the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, earlier than the traditional starting date of June 1. The season will for the first time include a four-day weekend for snapper fishing, which will be Friday through Monday.

The regional management of red snapper for the five Gulf states was recently signed by the Secretary of Commerce, thanks to effective state management during the two years under an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) issued by NOAA.

One of the reasons that rule was approved is the reporting data derived from Alabama’s mandatory Red Snapper Reporting System, otherwise known as Snapper Check.

“Last year, we had the best reporting rate in the history of Snapper Check,” Bannon said. “That’s pretty good, but our goal is still 100 percent. But it did help us to manage the snapper season. Last year the weather got us on a couple of weekends and reduced the effort. We were able to add days on Labor Day Weekend and one weekend in October. That shows that the State of Alabama can be very responsible in managing that fishery. Alabama has three percent of the coastline, but we get 26.2 percent of the red snapper. That’s a pretty good deal.”

Depending on the catch rate monitored through Snapper Check, the red snapper season is anticipated to last for 35 days and is scheduled to close on Sunday, July 19, 2020. The season was set based on Alabama’s share of the federal quota, which was set at 1,122,622 pounds.

The season dates only apply to anglers fishing from recreational vessels and state-licensed Alabama commercial party boats that do not hold federal for-hire fishing permits. Anglers fishing from federally permitted for-hire vessels have a separate season that will be announced at a later date by NOAA Fisheries.

“We have added Mondays to our traditional weekend season in response to many requests from anglers who wanted more weekday access,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “I am also pleased that the season will begin with the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The passage of the Regional Management Amendment by the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, Amendment 50, earlier this year gives Alabama the ability to manage the red snapper season for the maximum benefit and access for our anglers. I am looking forward to a great season.”

Bannon said the comeback of oyster production was significant news after five years of little harvest. He said MRD had set a goal of 7,000 sacks to be harvested, but harvesters located an area that had not been surveyed by MRD staff that contained legal-size oysters. The area allowed oystercatchers to take a total of 11,258 sacks, about 1 million pounds of product. That harvest was more than that of the last five years combined.

“We feel like we’re turning a corner,” Bannon said. “I’m optimistic that the next season will be even better.”

In Alabama State Parks news, Commissioner Blankenship said an online reservation system will be rolled out in April for some parks, with full implementation of the system by October 2020.

“I think this will make it a lot easier for people to camp or stay at the lodges and cabins at our state parks,” he said. “I’m also happy to report that over the next month or so we will have high-speed internet at all of our state parks. The Lodge at Gulf State Park, where we had our last Conservation Advisory Board meeting, has had a very productive year. All of the parks had a good financially. It has allowed us to put some of those profits back into the other parks to take care of some much-needed, long-term maintenance and capital improvements.”

Commissioner Blankenship also reminded Alabama citizens that it is imperative to participate in the federal Census, which will start in March.

“Some of the rural areas of our state have traditionally been undercounted,” he said. “If that happens this year, it may cost us one of our (U.S.) representatives in Congress as well as several million dollars that comes to the state through federal programs. Please take the Census seriously.”

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

4 weeks ago

Alabama’s red snapper season to open May 22; Fishing allowed on Mondays for first time

(D. Rainer/Contributed)

Alabamians angling to catch some red snapper can begin baiting their hooks on May 22 this year, per an announcement from the Alabama Department of Conservation on Monday.

According to the Department, the season will consist of all the four day weekends, Friday through Monday, between May 22 and July 19.

The addition of Mondays to the season is new for 2020. Commissioner Chris Blankenship of the Dept. of Conservation said his team added Monday due to “many requests from anglers who wanted more weekday access.”

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Alabama’s senior U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) called the addition of Mondays “Great News” in a tweet. He added the new law will be “allowing fishermen more time on the water.”

Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) praised the decision in a statement to Yellowhammer News.

“Today’s announced 35-day season represents a further step towards building a healthy fishery while allowing our fishermen access to this valuable resource,” said Byrne. “It is rewarding for all of us who fought for state control of our snapper fishery to see another full, flexible state-managed season, and I will keep fighting to protect and continue our progress.”

The season dates announced Monday do not apply to commercial fishermen who get their licenses from the federal government.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources asked anyone planning to go snapper fishing to consider the following reminders:

  • Weekends are defined as 12:01 a.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Monday.
  • The daily bag limit is two red snapper per person, per day with a minimum size limit of 16 inches total length.
  • Anglers over the age of 16 must have an Alabama saltwater fishing license (resident or nonresident, annual or trip), or any Alabama resident angler 65 or older or lifetime saltwater license holder must have a current saltwater angler registration. The saltwater angler registration is free and available at www.outdooralabama.com/saltwater-fishing/saltwater-angler-registration.
  • All anglers; including residents and non-residents 16 years of age and older, including lifetime license holders, disability license holders and those 65 and older, must have a Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement to fish for or possess any reef fish. The Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement can be purchased online at www.outdooralabama.com/license-information.
  • Each vessel landing red snapper is required by law to complete one landing report per vessel trip of their harvested red snapper through Snapper Check prior to removing the fish from the boat or the boat with the fish being removed from the water. All red snapper landed in Alabama are required to be reported regardless of the jurisdiction in which they were caught.
  • Anglers under the age of 16 are not required to be licensed or have saltwater angler registration, but their catch must be included in the landing report.
  • A landing report may be submitted through Snapper Check in the Outdoor AL mobile app, which is available from the Apple and Android stores or online at www.outdooralabama.com. If you have previously downloaded the Pocket Ranger version of the mobile app, please uninstall it and download the current Outdoor AL app. Paper landing reports and drop boxes are also available at select coastal public boat ramps.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

1 month ago

Red Eagle now among top shotgun ranges in South

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

When the 200 shooters in the Alabama 4-H State Shotgun Championship arrive in April at the Red Eagle Skeet and Trap Club on the outskirts of Childersburg, Alabama, those participants will be able to compete at one of the top shotgun shooting facilities in the South.

Because of its long history of working with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Hunter Safety Program, Red Eagle was able to partner with the Division to upgrade its facilities to international-level standards through the use of matching federal funds from the Pittman-Robertson Act.

For those not familiar with the Pittman-Robertson Act, it levies an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and hunting equipment. Funds from Pittman-Robertson go to states based on land mass and the number of hunting licenses sold. The funds are used for a variety of wildlife conservation efforts, hunter education and the development, maintenance and improvement to shooting ranges.

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Red Eagle is a club open to the public with a mission of firearms safety and youth development. The facility is open to the public four days a week – Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from noon until 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Members have access to the facility seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Club Manager Tommy McGilberry said the club, formed in 1956, understands the contribution hunters make to the shooting sports, so they offer license holders a reduced fee structure due to this partnership with the Division.

“We let anyone who has an Alabama hunting license shoot here as a guest for only $1 more than members,” said McGilberry, who joined the club in 1974. “Members pay $5, and those with a hunting license pay $6. That’s quite an advantage for the people of Alabama to be able to come out here and shoot at a facility like this for a reasonable price.”

And for that low price, shooters can gain access to a world-class facility.

“Right now, we’re trying to come online with our bunker trap,” McGilberry said. “We’re trying to get the bunker dug to get that into operation. This will give somebody in Alabama the opportunity to start shooting in the 9th grade with the 4-H program and make it all the way to the Olympics with the equipment we have here. This will be the only place in Alabama with a bunker trap. The closest places now are Nashville, Fort Benning (Georgia) or Gainesville, Florida. Since we are centrally located, this will give Alabama a great asset for people to come here and shoot while they’re young.”

McGilberry, who served as a shooting coach in the U.S. Army and competed in international skeet from 1991 to 2003, said the shooting sports could be the perfect activity for those who don’t have the skills for other sports.

“All you have to have is hand-eye coordination and a place to practice,” he said. “If you’ve got the facility and you’ve got the talent, you can be an Olympian; you can be a champion.”

McGilberry was recruited by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service to coordinate firearms safety instruction in the 4-H program. During McGilberry’s years, the program has expanded immensely from just firearms safety to intense competition. McGilberry worked with two interns during that process – Marisa Futral and Shannon Andress. Futral is now the Alabama WFF Hunter Education Coordinator and Andress is the coordinator for the Alabama 4-H Shooting Program.

Angus MacGreigor, an Alabama professor, coach of the Alabama Shotgun Shooting Team and competitor in international shooting, said the Pittman-Robertson funds have paid great dividends.

“As the 4-H program has grown, the club (Red Eagle) needed to grow as well,” MacGreigor said. “It needed to update its machinery so it could throw competition birds to train the shooters so they could go on to shoot the 4-H National Championships or for the Alabama or Auburn shooting teams or to shoot competitively around the world.”

The new machines are current, cutting-edge machines able to throw targets that meet national standards on six fields of skeet and three fields of trap.

“The return on the investment is that we have five 4-H teams that are training out of Red Eagle now,” MacGreigor said. “We are also the home of the Alabama 4-H State Shotgun Championship (April 17-19) with 200 shooters. The team that wins that championship will go on to the 4-H National Championships in Grand Island, Nebraska.”

Adam McNutt, who shoots for the St. Clair County team, competed in last year’s 4-H National Championships and finished in sixth place overall among 200 of the top high school shooters in the country.

McNutt, who signed to become a member of the Alabama Shotgun Shooting Team in January, joined Auburn Shotgun Shooting Team member Brian Lansdell for a round of practice last week.

Lansdell is the exception to the typical participant in the shooting sports. He has shown that a successful shooting career can start a little later in life.

“I’m a little different in that I come from a family that doesn’t like guns too much,” Lansdell said. “I didn’t even know about 4-H shooting. I shot a little bit, but I really didn’t start shooting until I got to Auburn. Even if you don’t grow up shooting, you can come to Auburn or Alabama, join a shooting team and get really good at it. I started out breaking from five to eight birds out of a round of 25. Now I’m shooting in the 90s (out of 100) in competition. As long as you get out there and practice, you can get good at anything you want to do. Being on the Auburn team is the best thing about going to Auburn for me. It’s a great group of guys and girls to hang out with and represent the school in something you love to do. It’s a ton of fun.”

McNutt, on the other hand, started shooting when he was in the fifth grade.

“We had a 4-H representative come to school and talk to us about 4-H,” McNutt said. “When you think about 4-H, you think about livestock shows and stuff like that. But they happened to mention a shotgun program. Coming up shooting birds and hunting, I thought that was interesting.”

A four-man team was formed, and the shooters excelled to the point of competing on the national level.

After signing with Alabama, McNutt went with the team to the Lower East Coast Regional in Savannah, Georgia, recently.

“It was really a fun experience, and it makes me feel proud to be a part of the team,” he said. “Alabama has a such a reputation around the country because of sports. To be on a team at Alabama is a proud feeling. It’s amazing.”

During his years of coaching the St. Clair team, Joel McNutt has been able to watch his son develop his shooting skills.

“4-H is where it all starts,” Joel said. “I’ve been coaching the team for eight years now. We have kids come through every year who start through a 4-H program or other youth programs, and they go from there. It’s amazing how far they can go once they get started. Like when our team started, we’d come out to shoot here for our very first competition. The kids shot and had a good time. They heard about the national competition and were talking about how great that would be to shoot in it. You think it would be great, but you don’t realize at the time it’s possible. Having a facility like this, with the equipment they have here to allow us to practice, it made it possible. The four kids we started with eight years ago, they all made it to the national competition. It was surreal to see them be able to do that, to see them start so young, go through the process and then achieve their goals of making it to the nationals.”

MacGreigor suggested that an Iron Bowl for shotgun shooting might be in the future because of the natural competitiveness between the two schools.

“If you look at the statistics, the shooting teams from Alabama and Auburn are not that far apart,” MacGreigor said. “Although there is not an official shooting Iron Bowl, there is a little Iron Bowl at every competition we go to.”

MacGreigor also expects the number of shooting teams to grow as the word gets out.

“Because of funding to purchase new machinery and infrastructure and because of the success of some of our shooters on the Auburn and Alabama teams, we’re getting parents who are driving their kids up at nighttime to participate and start a team for their areas,” he said. “We’re starting to see an explosion of towns wanting to build teams, and this is the facility they would use. But it wouldn’t be possible without the Pittman-Robertson dollars and the volunteers at Red Eagle. This is really a metaphor for life – the lessons they are learning in shooting apply to academia. They apply to a job. It is developing and building a process to achieve the desired outcome.”

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

1 month ago

Alabama House approves bill that would allow disabled veterans to purchase lifetime hunting and fishing licenses at reduced cost

(U.S. VA/Flickr)

The lower chamber of Alabama’s state legislature passed a bill Tuesday that instructs the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to sell lifetime hunting and fishing licenses to disabled veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces at a reduced price.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Andy Whitt (R-Harvest).

The legislation passed with a 102-0 vote. It will now head to the Alabama Senate for consideration.

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If enacted, the law would take effect starting with the license year that begins on September 1, 2020.

“This bill will basically offer a lifetime hunting and fishing license to our disabled veterans, which we do not offer at this time,” said Whitt on the floor of the House.

After a friendly amendment for Rep. Joe Lovvorn (R-Auburn), the bill says that individuals certified by the U.S. Veterans Administration as 40% or more physically disabled will begin to be eligible for the reduced fee.

For those meeting the 40% disabled benchmark, the fees for the newly created “lifetime disabled military veterans appreciation hunting license” would amount to $60 for someone under 50 years old and $30 for those over 50.

For veterans certified as 100% disabled, those fees are further reduced to $45 for those under 50 and $25 for those over 50.

Disabled vets will now also be eligible for lifetime Freshwater and Saltwater Fishing licenses for less than $50 each.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

1 month ago

MRD hatchery spawning flounder for first time

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Anyone who has fished the beautiful waters of the Alabama Gulf Coast in the past decade knows that one of the premier inshore species, southern flounder, has been scarce.

A well-documented decline in the southern flounder fishery started about 2008 and, unfortunately, the population hasn’t rebounded. Marine scientists don’t have any definitive reasons for the decline.

The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) changed regulations this year to decrease the recreational bag limit to five flounder per day per angler, implement a commercial trip limit to 40 per person or vessel and increase the size limit to 14 inches total length. Harvest was closed to both recreational and commercial anglers for the whole month of November to protect the flounder that were migrating through the bays, heading for their winter spawning grounds.

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However, that is not the only action MRD has taken to mitigate the downturn in the flounder population. MRD headed into uncharted territory for Alabama this past year with an effort to add to the wild population with southern flounder fingerlings raised at the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores. A critical step in any spawning program is collection of broodstock – the adult fish.

Max Westendorf, Hatchery Manager at Claude Peteet, said MRD has been collecting broodstock from two main sources – the ACFA (Alabama Coastal Fishing Association) tournaments and the Saltwater Finaddicts Fishing Tournament.

“They have live flounder categories in their tournaments, and we show up with our trailer to collect these fish,” Westendorf said. “We also have a couple of other anglers who bring us fish one or two at a time.”

MRD collected about 40 fish from the Saltwater Finaddicts tournament and gets 20 to 30 fish from each ACFA tournament for broodstock.

“We bring the flounder back to the Claude Peteet facility, and we quarantine them for three to four weeks to make sure they’re not bringing in any parasites or bacteria,” Westendorf said. “Once we treat them and quarantine them, we introduce them into our breeding populations.”

Currently, MRD has three tanks dedicated to flounder breeding. Flounder are winter spawners; spawning occurs in December, January and into February each year.

“This is our first year of spawning flounder, so we’re still working out some of the kinks,” Westendorf said. “We’re learning the process and idiosyncrasies of flounder. They are a lot more difficult to spawn than other species we have cultured. When we have redfish or Florida pompano and bring them in, it only takes a week or two to get them to eat dead shrimp and cut fish. A flounder takes several weeks longer for them to transition to that type of feeding. One of the hardest parts was getting that initial batch of flounder to start the program. Once you have some fish start eating, the other fish around them start eating as well. It took us a while to get an established population that was eating and comfortable in the tanks and into their conditioning cycle. This was the first year we’ve had fish that we were able to spawn. We put them in a nine-month conditioning cycle whereby we recreated the natural cycle in the wild by manipulating the tanks’ water temperature and lighting. We give them spring, summer, and fall conditions, and then we spawn them in the winter season.”

Hatchery staff know when the flounder get ready to spawn when the females become swollen with eggs, indicating they are “ripe.” The females are given a hormone injection to develop the eggs even further so they easily express them.

“We segregate the males and females and put them to sleep for a second,” Westendorf said. “Then we gently squeeze on their abdominal area and the eggs and milt (the fluid containing semen released by males) will start free-flowing out of their bodies. We combine the eggs and milt in a tube, add saltwater to activate the fertilization process, and the eggs fertilize in about one to two minutes.”

Hatchery staff then separate the good (fertilized) eggs from the bad (unfertilized) eggs. The good eggs float in full-strength saltwater, and the bad eggs will sink to the bottom of the container. The good eggs go into specially made incubators to hatch out. The water temperatures in the incubators are kept at about 17 to 18 degrees Celsius (62.5-64.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Each tank will hold about 175,000 eggs,” Westendorf said. “Because of the cold water temperature, their metabolism is a little slower so their development and growth is slower than other species we have raised at Claude Peteet. With red drum and pompano, they’ll hatch out in 36 to 48 hours. Flounder take about 72 hours to hatch.”

When hatched, the larval fish feed on a yolk sack until they form eyes and a working mouth to start feeding. Once they start feeding, the fish are moved into tanks with a much lower density of fish, transitioning from 1,000 fish to about 15 fish per liter of water.

Because of the colder temperatures, flounder don’t develop scales as quickly as the other fish raised at the hatchery. They just float around lazily and eat.

The feeding process starts with marine rotifers, a zooplankton, that are near microscopic in size. The next menu item as the fish grow is brine shrimp. Next comes commercially available, pelletized fish feed.

“When we start feeding them rotifers, we add finely-ground meal to start training them to recognize an artificial food source,” Westendorf said. “We condition them by putting the artificial food in first and then put the live feed in, so they recognize this crumble food that’s not moving is fed out at the time as something that is moving. That way they associate the crumble feed as food.”

During the first 3-4 weeks after hatching, the flounder go through a metamorphosis where they transition from swimming upright to lying flat on the bottom of the tank, and their right eye moves to the left side of the head.

Westerndorf said he estimates about 10,000 larval fish are in the mariculture center right now. He expects it will take about 60 days for the fish to reach 1-1.5 inches.

“My goal for this first year is to get one up to a 2-inch fish,” he said. “That will prove that we have successfully closed the cycle, and we can increase that significantly next year. If we can get between 1,000 and 5,000 fish out of the hatchery this year, I think that would be a significant accomplishment for our first year. We have compiled a large amount of information with good documentation, and we know that we will approach it differently next year.”

Once the process is working efficiently, Westerndorf said a reasonable goal is to release about 20,000 flounder into the wild next year and grow the stocking program to about 60,000 in a few years.

“We set our goal at 60,000 fish to be released each year,” he said. “A recent assessment estimated about 400,000 6-inch wild recruits were produced in Mobile Bay and local waters when the flounder population was larger. We don’t want to skew the genetics of the wild population by releasing too many fish. We want to support the stock, but we don’t want to overwhelm the stock with hatchery-raised fish.”

Westendorf said the hatchery is working to expand the number of brood tanks available for the southern flounder project by transitioning tanks used in a previous red snapper program. CCA Alabama provided funds to refurbish the red snapper tanks.

“Flounder are just so different from anything else we’ve done,” he said. “We’ve got to provide colder water temperatures. We’re using data and insights from flounder programs in the Carolinas and Texas, but we have to adapt the process to the environmental conditions here on the Alabama Gulf Coast. It’s a learning process, but we’re pretty excited about what we have learned so far. We’ll get there. This will be a successful program in time.”

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

1 month ago

Alabama’s first sandhill season in 103 years deemed success

(Jason Russell/Contributed)

Another warm winter left Alabama’s duck hunters frustrated, but those who were lucky enough to score permits for the first sandhill crane season in the state in 103 years were elated.

Although not all of the 400 crane permit holders were able to harvest one of the large birds, those who did raved about the new hunting opportunity.

Jason Russell of Gadsden, Alabama, and his 17-year-old son, Grayson, both drew permits, which allowed a harvest of three birds each.

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The first order of business was to secure a place to hunt sandhills in the hunting zone in north Alabama. Fortunately, a friend from Birmingham had connections with a landowner near the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and they were granted permission to hunt.

“We were excited to get an opportunity to hunt the sandhills,” said Russell, an avid duck hunter and award-winning decoy carver. “We’d seen them around for years. We really didn’t know the reality of what it would take to kill one. Once we were drawn, we thought we’d give it a shot. We bought decoys and got ready. What was interesting this year, everywhere I went, I saw cranes. I saw them near my house. At Weiss Lake, we saw cranes. At Guntersville, we saw cranes. Everywhere we went, we at least saw cranes flying.”

On the morning of the first hunt, the Russells saw several cranes in the field they planned to hunt and saw several more in the air. After setting up their decoys, both full-body and silhouettes, they settled into their blinds.

“Within 20 minutes we had a group of birds fly 15 yards over our decoys,” Jason said. “We ended up letting them go because we were so awestruck that our setup actually worked. We were kind of surprised. Another 20-30 minutes went by and groups of two and three came by. On our first hunt, three of us had permits, and we killed six birds on an afternoon hunt that lasted maybe two or three hours. We were pretty excited that you could actually decoy them. After duck and goose hunting for 30 years, this gives hunting a new twist and a new excitement.”

The Russells had planned to hunt cranes just like they would geese in an open field with layout blinds. They soon discovered natural vegetation helped them hide much better.

“There was some scrub brush sticking up,” Jason said. “I thought, well, let’s at least be comfortable. There was enough brush to where we could get hidden. We put our full-bodies out at 20 yards, hid our faces and kept our heads down. We were shooting decoying birds at 15 to 20 yards.”

The hunters left that area undisturbed for three weeks before attempting a second hunt. They were even more awestruck when they arrived at the hunting land. Jason needed two birds to fill his tags, while Grayson only needed one.

“When we got there, there must have been between 200 and 300 sandhills in the field,” Jason said. “After we got set up, three birds came in and I doubled up.”

With only one tag left, the cranes seemed hesitant to decoy. The Russells soon figured out that trying to mix crane hunting and goose hunting might not work very well.

“We had put out full-body goose decoys to try to kill a few geese while we were there,” Jason said. “It was interesting that the cranes seemed to be skirting our decoys. We decided either we were going to have to move or do something different. We made the decision to pull all the goose decoys. By the time we pulled the last goose decoy and got back in the blind, we had a pair of sandhills at 15 yards. My son rolled his out, and we were done. It could have been coincidence that we pulled the goose decoys and we killed one, but I feel like they flared off of the full-body goose decoys. We were just catching the cranes traveling from one field to another. I guess they decided to drop into our decoys to see what was going on.”

Before the hunt, Russell was afraid that it might be possible to mistake a protected whooping crane for a sandhill crane. That turned out to be an unrealized worry.

“One of my fears was being able to identify the birds if we were in low light,” he said. “Sometimes when you get the sun wrong, you can’t see color that well. I thought we were going to have to be really careful to look out for whooping cranes. But that was not a problem. The whooping cranes stood out like a sore thumb. We made sure there was no shooting at all when those were in the area. And we never shot into big groups of sandhills. We never shot into groups of more than four birds. I felt like we didn’t educate them for the most part. If people will be smart and shoot the birds in the decoys or really close, then it will be a good thing for years to come.”

Jason said it was “awesome” that he and Grayson both got permits in the first year of the new sandhill season.

“To get to shoot our sandhills together was special,” Jason said. “On our first hunt, we shot into a group of three birds and each of us got one. It was real exciting to get to have that moment of father-son hunting. It was just a neat, awesome experience that we will never be able to share again in waterfowling.”

Jason took his youngest son, 13-year-old Jonathan, on the second hunt to share the experience although Jonathan wasn’t able to hunt.

“I just wanted him to see it,” Jason said. “I was excited for him to get to watch and hear the sounds of how loud those birds really are. It was amazing. He carried one of the birds out of the field. It was a big, mature bird and he cradled that thing all the way out of the field.”

The excitement wasn’t over for the Russells when they prepared the crane for the dinner table.

“Cooking them was phenomenal,” Jason said. “We cooked some one night and took a little to a church group. One of the guys who doesn’t eat wild game said it was the best meal he’s eaten in his life. It was very flavorful. I thought it would be more like a duck, but it wasn’t. We enjoy eating duck, but I could eat way more sandhills. It was just so tender. I’ve always heard sandhills were the ribeye of the sky. Now I believe it. When you put it in your mouth, it tasted like steak. It was tender and juicy. Oh my gosh, it was so good.”

Seth Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Migratory Game Bird Coordinator, said the duck season was indeed disappointing, but he was enthusiastic about the first sandhill season.

The final results of the sandhill season won’t be available for a couple more weeks to allow permit holders to complete their post-season surveys.

Maddox said he expects the final numbers to be in line with other states with sandhill seasons.

“From the hunters we’ve talked to, it seems to be a pretty successful sandhill season,” Maddox said. “We’re expecting a harvest rate of about 30 percent, which will be a little more than 300 birds.”

Maddox said the warm winter not only caused diminished duck numbers in Alabama but also affected the sandhill population.

“Sandhill numbers were a little below normal for the birds we typically over-winter here in Alabama,” he said. “Our 5-year average is 15,000 birds. This year, we estimated the population at 12,000, which made for a little tougher conditions for hunters. The birds tended to concentrate in areas closer to the refuges.”

Maddox said the sandhill season is the first of four as an experimental season under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations. He said the number of permits (400) and tags (1,200) will be the same next year.

Alabama’s sandhill harvest rate is similar to that of Tennessee and Kentucky, which surprises Maddox a bit.

“Our season was probably a little better than I expected,” he said. “Our hunters had never done it before. They had to find people willing to give them access to hunting land. Hunters got to make new friends. I think it was a very successful season.”

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

2 months ago

Plan to extend Jones Valley Trail excites Birmingham walkers, bicyclists

(Freshwater Land Trust/Contributed)

For years, bicyclists who’ve cruised through central Birmingham have looked longingly to the right as they rode east along First Avenue South past Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark toward the resurging Avondale neighborhood.

Just south of the road, there’s a strip of land that has long been eyed as a potential walking and bike trail connection to Avondale. Anticipation grew as the Red Rock Trail network expanded in central Birmingham with the opening of the downtown Rotary Trail. It links to a popular section of the Jones Valley Trail that runs past the Pepper Place retail complex and farmers market and on to Sloss Furnaces.

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Extending the Jones Valley Trail to Avondale’s 41st Street always seemed like a no-brainer. That dream came a step closer to reality as the nonprofit Freshwater Land Trust unveiled plans to raise funds to complete the next phase of the trail.

“We are thrilled to move forward on this long-anticipated project,” said Rusha Smith, Freshwater Land Trust executive director. She said the Land Trust is working with the city of Birmingham and a number of landowners to complete design and construction documents. The next step is to solicit and secure funds for construction, which the Land Trust hopes to begin this year and complete in time for the 2021 World Games.

When complete, the Jones Valley Trail will be a safe, car-free route for walkers, joggers and bicyclists to travel some 2.5 miles to the east, from Birmingham’s booming Parkside area, which includes Railroad Park and Regions Field, through Lakeview with its expanding housing, restaurants and clubs, and on to Avondale. The Jones Valley Trail connects to downtown’s north and south sides, including the central business district, UAB and its medical complexes, as well as the neighborhoods of Highland Park, Forest Park, Glen Iris and Five Points South.

“The Jones Valley Trail is another great example of how trails, sidewalks and greenways can connect communities and inspire growth and economic development,” said Carolyn Buck, who directs the Red Rock Trail project for the Land Trust.

Conceived more than a decade ago, the Red Rock master plan envisions a 750-mile network of trails, sidewalks, greenways and “blueways” – accessible creeks and rivers where people can canoe and kayak – throughout Jefferson County, connecting nearly every community. To date, more than 115 miles of trails have been completed along six major corridors. The network is helping connect neighborhoods to major parks and open spaces across the county, including Vulcan Park and Museum, George Ward Park, Ruffner Mountain and Red Mountain Park. It sets the stage for expanding trails into surrounding counties. Alabama Power and the Alabama Power Foundation have long supported the Land Trust and efforts by others to expand parks and greenways in the Birmingham area and statewide.

Smith said fundraising for the Jones Valley Trail extension is underway. She said the project fits in with Birmingham’s sustainability goals, which include making the city more walkable and providing more transportation options that reduce the need to drive a car. In 2018 the city approved a new “complete streets” policy that is driving upgrades of city roadways to include sidewalks, bike lanes and other improvements. The policy is designed to encourage people to get outdoors and walk or bicycle, which provide important health benefits.

“There are so many benefits to having a true network of parks, trails and greenways in our community,” Smith said. “Extending Jones Valley Trail is another positive development in boosting quality of life for all of us who live here. But it also helps make Birmingham and Jefferson County even more attractive – for tourists, for people and businesses looking to relocate, and especially for young people and entrepreneurs who seek out communities with these amenities.”

Learn more about Red Rock Trail system and the Freshwater Land Trust at www.freshwaterlandtrust.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Alabama’s oyster production makes a comeback

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

The high water in January that shut down the oyster season in Alabama has finally subsided, and the oyster catchers were recently cleared to resume the harvest of the state’s prized oysters by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

This may not seem like big news for some, but it is great news considering the uncertainty of whether Alabama’s oyster reefs would be open at all.

The area known as Cedar Point West, just west of the Dauphin Island bridge and Cedar Point Pier, opened Tuesday, February 4, to commercial and recreational harvest of oysters. Harvest hours will be 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. with a commercial limit of six sacks.

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“There were some oysters that were not detected during our survey, but while the oyster catchers were working, they found a pretty sizeable area of harvestable oysters,” said Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director Scott Bannon. “So we’re going to give them the opportunity to work in that area.”

Oyster harvesting had been shut down because of a lack of legal-size oysters on the traditional oyster reefs. MRD surveyed the Cedar Point West, Cedar Point East and Heron Bay reefs again and found the oyster population better than expected.

“Those areas were as productive or more productive than we anticipated,” Bannon said. “Cedar Point East was an area that we did not have good data on because it is so big and the water is deeper with some other challenges there. But the catchers worked there for a couple of weeks and harvested just over 2,500 sacks. In addition to the harvestable oysters, they discovered a lot of sublegal oysters, which will be available for harvest next season. On the other reefs at Cedar Point West and Heron Bay, they saw the same thing. They found good, harvestable-size oysters, and they found plenty of sublegal oysters, which, again, will be next year’s crop. We have good confidence that this upcoming fall season will be as good as this season and maybe better.”

Before this week’s reopening, Alabama oyster catchers had harvested 9,500 sacks of the succulent bivalve mollusks when the growing waters were closed by ADPH on December 27, 2019, as a precaution due to high river levels, which may increase bacteria in the area. Continued high water then delayed the opening for additional harvest until this week.

“The 9,500 sacks harvested in this season to date has been good,” Bannon said. “That was more than the last five years combined. I feel like we’re turning a corner.”

A harvestable oyster is 3 inches across its widest point. MRD Conservation Enforcement Officers use a 3-inch ring to measure the oysters. If the oyster passes through the ring, it is considered sublegal or undersized. If the oyster touches the sides of the 3-inch ring, it is considered legal to harvest. MRD officers inspect for licenses, oyster size and sack size to ensure compliance with the regulations.

With quality oysters like those found in Alabama in high demand, the oyster catchers were rewarded with a quality return on their work.

“The price was really good this season,” Bannon said. “At one point, it was 85 cents per pound, which was almost double historic highs. When the waters closed in December, they were still 65 cents per pound.”

Bannon said the high demand for oysters is related to high-water events last year that closed oyster production in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“The freshwater events from last year pretty much decimated the oysters in Mississippi and caused significant damage in Louisiana,” he said. “The only Gulf oysters were coming out of Texas. We are on a different river system and didn’t have the same high water they had last year. The prolonged influx of freshwater that we received did have a negative impact on several fisheries, but, thankfully, the impact to our oysters was not as bad as it was in other states.”

Bannon said the biggest impact to Alabama from the lack of oysters from Louisiana and Mississippi is that our large seafood processing industry suffers, especially in the Bayou La Batre and Bon Secour areas.

“We didn’t have product to process from Louisiana or Mississippi,” he said. “We process a lot of shrimp, crabs and oysters from those other states.”

Bannon said part of the reason Alabama finally has harvestable oysters again is because environmental conditions have improved. Oysters require a balance of freshwater and saltwater to successfully reach a harvestable size. If the water is too fresh, the young oysters can’t survive. If the water salinity is too high, it leaves the oysters vulnerable to predatory marine species.

“For the last couple of years, our surveys showed that we would get a good spat (larval oysters) set, but they would not survive due to an influx of freshwater that lasted too long for the juvenile oysters to survive,” he said. “Later in 2019, salinity levels were right for the oysters to survive, but it wasn’t so salty that the oysters were vulnerable to predation from the drills (predatory snails), because the drills can’t handle freshwater. Once the oysters get a little larger, they can handle more freshwater for longer periods of time and can resist the drills a little better. It’s that juvenile stage where they are most vulnerable to changes in the environment and predators.”

One benefit for having the oyster reefs open for harvest is the actual work done by the oyster catchers improves the habitat.

“Oyster catchers working the bottom exposes shells and cultch material to improve the spat set,” Bannon said. “The benefit of opening the season was that the catchers were able to harvest some legal oysters and find sublegal oysters that will be available for the next season. We hope these steps lead to continued improved harvest.”

Oyster catchers are limited to the use of tongs or they can harvest by hand along the shoreline or off the bottom. Divers are also allowed to take oysters. The use of dredges has been prohibited for the last several years.

Bannon said some of the oyster reefs in Mobile Bay have not rebounded to the levels they would like to see, but MRD is working to remedy that.

“Some of the reefs in Mobile Bay in the deeper water have suffered from low dissolved oxygen levels on the bottom,” he said. “We’re working on some projects to elevate one of the oyster reefs to get the oysters up into better dissolved oxygen levels. Also, we are going to use juvenile oysters raised at our Claude Peteet Mariculture Center (in Gulf Shores) and grow them at our facility on Dauphin Island. Then we will deploy them on some of those reefs to try to jump-start them back into harvestable condition. We are also experimenting with how we deploy cultch material. It’s called the Mounds and Furrows Project. Instead of spreading the material flat, we’re going to put it in piles so that when the spat attaches, it can get inside the mounds and furrows and be protected from predators. We want to see if that is a more productive way to deploy cultch material. All of these projects will be moving forward in 2020.”

Bannon said wild oyster production in Alabama is critical for a number of reasons, including water quality, a treasured food source and crucial habitat for a variety of fish species and wildlife.

“Having a viable oyster population is very necessary for a healthy water system,” he said. “Adult oysters can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day. There are a tremendous number of benefits to having oysters in the system.”

For those who prefer Alabama’s tasty oysters, do not hesitate to find a market selling them soon. Bannon said MRD will monitor the harvest effort to determine when the season will end.

“Other than being some of the best oysters around, the harvest provides jobs for people,” he said. “Wild oyster production has a very positive economic impact on the Alabama Gulf Coast.”

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’s Environmental Studies Center teaches more than nature

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contibuted)

For the staff at Alabama’s Environmental Studies Center (ESC), one mission stands above all: to help others love nature as much as they do.

“I have been here for 26 years,” said Susan Clement, a biologist at ESC. “I still love it as much as the first day I started.”

The ESC is a natural sciences education facility owned and operated by the Mobile County Public School System. The center affords teachers, students and the general public an opportunity to experience first-hand natural resources found on more than 400 acres of pine and bay forests, swamps, freshwater streams, a carnivorous plant bog and 20-acre lake. Indoor facilities include an auditorium, library, reptile exhibits, saltwater aquarium and preserved animal specimens native to Alabama.

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“We teach about the plants and animals that are in the environment,” Clement said.

Mobile’s Environmental Studies Center provides unique learning experiences from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The ESC operates a wildlife rehabilitation program, treating more than 600 animals each year.

“Our goal is to release them back into the wild,” Clement said. “On occasion they can’t be released, and a lot of these animals get to stay here and become a part of our educational program.”

Clement said the ESC relies on donations and volunteers to operate.

“We have a very small staff here at the ESC and we have a lot of exhibits, a lot of land, gardens that we can’t always maintain,” Clement said. “About twice a year — sometimes even more, Alabama Power will come out and do a major, outdoor workday where they are raking, trimming, repairing cages, cleaning cages, expansions on exhibits. It’s an amazing amount of work that these people can do in just one day.”

Jack Shaw, a journeyman for Alabama Power and a volunteer with the Alabama Power Service Organization, says he loves volunteering at the ESC.

“I volunteer because I love the fact that Alabama Power gives back,” Shaw said. “There’s a lot of animals and wildlife we don’t really get a chance to see, and to come out here and volunteer really shows that we can give back.”

Alabama Power Instrument and Controls Specialist Webb Bryant agrees.

“We love coming out here and doing the work,” Bryant said. “It’s rewarding for us and with the group that we send out here, we get a lot of work accomplished in a short period of time.”

The ESC is open weekdays from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is $3 per person. For more information, visit mcpsesc.com.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Rain can’t dampen enthusiasm at Buckmasters Life Classic

(Ryan Noffsinger/Contributed)

The consensus was that the recent 2020 Buckmasters Life Classic event may not have been the warmest at around 70 degrees for the three-day January deer hunt, but it was probably the wettest.

Persistent rains during the event at one of Alabama’s premier wildlife properties, Sedgefields Plantation near Safford, failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the hunters who deal with a variety of challenges on a daily basis.

It was fortunate for Colton Woolbright of Gordo, Alabama, that the weather was not frigid because of his battle with cystic fibrosis.

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Colton’s dad, Rodney Woolbright, said his son was diagnosed with the malady just a few days after his birth.

“We deal with it the best way we can,” Rodney said. “They’re always making improvements with the medicine and treatments, and it’s all in God’s hands. He’s been doing real well lately. He’s had different bacteria growing in his lungs that we’ve had some tough battles with. But our pulmonologist and everybody at the hospital come up with the best treatment plans. It’s working right now.”

The elder Woolbright said they have to pick the days when it’s prudent for Colton to go hunting.

“We try not to hunt when the weather is bad,” Rodney said. “We’d rather stay at home for those two hours of hunting than be in the hospital for two weeks. We hunt when we get the opportunity and the weather cooperates when it’s not rainy and cold. We had to do the best we could during this hunt. We’ve had a lot of rain, but it’s been warm, and we made it work.”

Colton, 9, braved the intermittent downpours to bag a beautiful 10-point buck on the second day of the hunt.

“My guide spotted the buck behind us,” Colton said. “It came through some sedge. I tried to get him in my scope, but he kept on moving, so I put my scope to where he was moving to and shot him in the shoulder. He ran about 50 yards and he dropped. That was pretty cool.”

Rodney said a few deer had been spotted that morning but nothing his son wanted to shoot with his rifle loaded with a .300 Blackout cartridge.

“Then this deer came in on the back side of the blind,” Rodney said. “Our guide was looking out the back of the blind and saw the deer coming around. We got the gun out and got ready. Colton’s heart started pounding. We had to sit there and wait until the deer made its way around the blind. He finally showed up about 50 yards in front of the blind. Colton put the shot on him. Like Colton said, about 50 yards later, the buck just fell over.”

“We celebrated with a lot of high-fives,” Colton added.

One of the hunters from Alabama was able to take the first deer, a nice 8-point, of his hunting career. Copeland Spires of Prattville, Alabama, was on just his second deer hunt. His older brother, Taylor, got to witness the hunt.

“We had seen two deer before the buck came in at 4:30,” Spires said. “I got real excited and shot him. He was about 100 yards and made a good shot. The deer ran about 80 yards, so we had to go look for him. When we found him, we celebrated and took a lot of pictures.”

Spires is dealing with bronchiolitis obliterans, which has significantly limited his daily activities.

“He’s basically breathing off one lobe of one lung,” said his father Dan Spires. “It really limits what he does without his ventilator machine.”

The elder Spires said the Life Classic was a special time for Copeland, and he was happy that Taylor was there during the eventful hunt.

“For him to kill his first deer with his older brother – they have a special bond that I cannot explain,” Dan said. “It couldn’t have happened any better than to have his brother with him. It’s been a very blessed time.”

Included in the Life Classic were two Marines as part of the Hope for the Warriors program.

Staff Sergeant Jeremy Austin, who lost both legs to an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan, managed to bag two bucks during the event.

Austin spent 12 years in the Marine Corps and was on his second tour in Afghanistan when the Humvee he was in exploded.

“The truck took the brunt of the explosion and I got the rest,” he said. “My lower legs were destroyed in the blast. It fractured my pelvis, broke ribs, broke my elbow, knocked my teeth out and fractured two vertebrae. I got busted up pretty good.”

The amount of blood that Austin was given in the three days after the blast indicated how precarious his situation was.

“The human body holds 10 to 12 units of blood, depending on the size of the individual,” he said. “If you average that out to 11, the first day I got hurt I took 18 units of blood. The second day I took 12. The third day I took five. That’s three times the volume of blood the body holds. If you ask my momma, she says I was just too stubborn to die. I’m fortunate to be here. Donated blood and the Good Lord kept me here, so every day above dirt is a blessing. This has been a phenomenal experience to see these kids and all their smiles. I was fortunate, for a lack of a better term, to be an able-bodied individual for 28 years of my life. These kids know nothing different. It’ll humble even the most hardened souls to see these kids having the can-do attitude and wanting to get after it, hunting-wise.”

Even the biggest deer of Austin’s career, a huge 8-point, didn’t compare with the joy he saw on the kids’ faces, especially Jack Speegle of Tennessee, who took a big 12-point on the second day of the event.

“No disrespect to my buck or the guide and cameraman with me, but I was more excited to see Jack’s buck and seeing that big, ear-to-ear smile when he was telling that story over and over again,” Austin said. “That’s chicken soup for the soul.”

Austin said Sedgefields’ Jimmy Hinton was his guide on the hunt when he shot the big buck, and Hinton had hinted that the deer might respond when the heavier rain started to fall.

“We saw a few deer, and then when the rain got heavier, the deer just flooded into the field,” Austin said. “We saw eight bucks and four does. We saw another buck that had taller antlers, but he didn’t have the mass of my buck. This Sedgefields Plantation, they’ve got some healthy animals and plenty of them. This buck is definitely going on the wall. I shot an 8-pointer in Texas a few years ago, but this buck has such good mass. I’m going to have a mid-sneak mount to be able to see that thick neck he had. That’s part of the memory. You want to honor the animal as best you can. It’s a trophy, but it’s a trophy that brings that memory back. As hunters, that’s what we try to do, to remember the hunt and remember the people you met on a hunt like this.”

Buckmasters Founder and CEO Jackie Bushman said he will never complain about the weather as long as the hunters have success at the Life Classic.

“What’s clear to me is that Jimmy (Hinton) and his many volunteers have done a heck of a job to give these hunters the opportunity to take a buck of a lifetime despite the rain and 70-degree weather,” Bushman said. “A lot of these hunters walk up and thank me, but I thank them. It’s the best three days of my life every year. We already see what the kids are going through, but to watch what the parents have to do on a day-to-day basis to take care of these kids, that’s something you’ve got to admire. To watch these kids get their first deer or best deer, those smiles will never go away. We’ve been doing this for 25 or 26 years, and it just seems to get better.”

Go to http://buckmasters.com/resources/disabled-hunters/badf-life-hunts to find out more about the Buckmasters-sponsored hunts for hunters with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/physically-disabled-hunting-and-fishing-trail to discover the opportunities available on Alabama’s Hunting and Fishing Trail for People with Physical Disabilities.

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

Artificial reef teeming with life in Gulf of Mexico

(contributed)

An artificial reef created in the Gulf of Mexico four years ago appears to be teeming with life.

In 2016, two of Alabama Power’s retired boilers were sunk off the coast of Mobile County to improve the marine ecosystem. The giant steel structures previously used to turn steam into power have also proven to be a boon for offshore anglers.

“We put the reef down in the water that day, and it looks like you are just putting in something not useful and, now to see it flourish as a fish habitat and all the wildlife that’s there, it’s actually exciting,” said Susan Comensky, Alabama Power vice president for Environmental Affairs. “It’s a great success, and we are so grateful for what everybody brought to the table to make it a success.”

For decades, thousands of man-made objects, like old ships and concrete bridge rubble, have been sunk off the Alabama coastline. The 200,000-pound boilers were sunk from a barge donated by Cooper/T. Smith Corp., a marine transportation firm headquartered in Mobile.

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Artificial reef off Alabama coast is full of marine life from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The state’s artificial reef zone stretches almost from Florida to Mississippi and out 60 miles from shore. The result is one of the country’s best places for offshore fishing.

“We have several thousand (artificial) reefs off the coast of Alabama, and we have the biggest and best red snapper fishery in the world,” said Chris Blankenship, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources commissioner. “We have built an incredible fishery off the coast of Alabama that is really unrivaled anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico or, really, in the country.”

The reefs have been a boon for the fish and the state’s economy.

“Every weekend that the red snapper fishery is open, as well as amberjack, gray triggerfish, vermillion snapper, there are people with thousands of boats that buy gas and bait and stay in hotel rooms. All of that adds to quite a big economic impact for the coastal areas of our state,” Blankenship said.

However, it’s not just anglers that are drawn to the reefs.

“A wide range of user groups can benefit from this reef – recreational anglers, commercial anglers and any kind of eco-tourism, things like scuba divers and underwater photography,” said Craig Newton, biologist with the Alabama Marine Resources Division.

The project is an example of what can be done when people work together for a common cause, planners say.

“What it does is allows all of us to maximize our resources to accomplish great things and do so in a way that our members and the people of Alabama can benefit,” said Tim Gothard, executive director of the Alabama Wildlife Federation.

The coordinates for the reef are 29 47.544, 87 59.104.

Find out more about the Marine Resources Division by visiting its Facebook page.

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)

2 months ago

Three Alabama lakes get spruced up with ‘The Preserves’ recreation sites

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Three new public recreation sites have been added at Lake HarrisLay Lake and Lake Martin as part of Alabama Power’s “The Preserves.”

These areas consist of trails, gazebos, benches, interpretive signs and pollinator plots. From hiking, and biking to bird-watching, The Preserves are core to the Alabama Power ideal of merging nature with crafting special places.

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“These lands allow people to explore, learn and grow a deeper appreciation of our state’s ecology and natural beauty. They allow our citizens to access and enjoy our lakes. They are inclusive and open to all,” said Ed Windsor, recreation development assistant with Alabama Power.

“The Preserves project is unique in that it gives us a chance to take existing areas around lakes and create a space for residents to not only learn about and enjoy nature but also make memories and see the importance of protecting our environment.”

Lake Harris now has The Preserves at Little Fox Creek, located off Alabama Highway 48 between Lineville and Wedowee. This site, already home to a public use boat ramp and Piedmont Plateau Birding Trail, will now feature an enhanced trail system totaling 5 miles. The site is managed in partnership with the Lake Wedowee Property Owners Association.

Additionally, the area will have two pollinator plots, interpretive signs, benches, a boardwalk and two gazebos for the public to enjoy.

The existing recreation area on Lay Lake, named Beeswax Creek Park, is located off Alabama Highway 145 in Columbiana on Beeswax Creek Park Road. Recent upgrades include a 2.75-mile trail system complete with a pollinator plot, an additional launching pier, interpretive signs, gazebos and benches. This site is managed in partnership with Shelby County Parks and Recreation Board.

Lake Martin’s new recreation area, Nature’s Way, is located on the southeastern corner of the reservoir, at the end of Old Tree Road in Dadeville. This area will feature a trail system totaling 4 miles with gazebos, interpretive signs, a boardwalk and benches.

These trails are open for hiking, running, bird-watching and biking. All these public recreation areas allow pets on leashes.

These sites come after the successful launch of three other new and upgraded sites last year.

Upgrades at Lake Logan MartinWeiss Lake and Neely Henry Lake have had a tremendously positive response from users.

“Continuing to provide these improvements in our communities is Alabama Power’s way of enhancing our state’s natural resources to give back in hopes that families will enjoy them more,” said Stephen Posey, recreation development assistant for Alabama Power.

The upgrades have been made possible through the help of businesses and contractors, like Foothills Contracting of Uniontown.

Alabama Power’s recreation team is working with Foothills Contracting to build the gazebos and kiosks for these public use areas.

“While traditionally used for fencing, this wood will provide a long-lasting structure with an incredible color and grain that will set it apart from anything else we have found in the state,” said Sage Coley, vice president of Foothills Contracting.

Foothills Contracting constructed the gazebos and kiosks with a unique and long-lasting type of wood known as Osage Orange.

“This was our first time building for a customer like Alabama Power, but it has been great seeing a company invest time and money to give back to the community and the kids. These playgrounds, trails and gazebos will be a great addition to the state’s lakes,” said Glynward Coley, owner of Foothills Contracting.

Alabama Power will continue to build The Preserves brand and make improvements to recreation sites on Alabama Power reservoirs. The Preserves project will focus on upgrades at more lakes in 2020, starting at Lake Jordan.

This story originally appeared in Shorelines magazine.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

First wild Eastern indigo snake found in Alabama in 60 years

(Francesca Erickson, David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Traci Wood admitted holding the snake almost made her come unglued. No, she wasn’t afraid of the snake she was holding. It was the magnitude of the moment.

Wood, the Habitat and Species Conservation Coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, had in her hands the first wild Eastern indigo snake documented in Alabama in more than 60 years.

“I’m not embarrassed to say that I was shaking when I held that animal,” Wood said. “This is a monumental benchmark in conservation for Alabama and the southeast region for this species. It’s a big deal, extremely big. It’s big for recovery efforts of a federally listed threatened species. It’s the first documentation of a wild snake in more than 60 years in Alabama. It’s proof that what we are doing through reintroduction is working and that captive snakes are acting like wild snakes after they are released.”

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Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources echoed the importance of the achievement.

“I am thrilled that we have documented wild reproduction of the Eastern indigo,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “It is great for the species, but I am also really happy for Traci and the staff who have worked for years to make this happen. They truly have a passion for their work, and I am so thankful for them.”

Technicians from the Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and the Auburn Museum of Natural History were out looking for documentation of indigo snakes as part of the long-term program to re-establish viable populations of Eastern indigos in their native habitat, mainly in longleaf pine forests in central and south Alabama.

“We try to document how long they are living, how far they are moving and how they’re doing healthwise,” Wood said. “The technicians were out and came across the snake as part of the monitoring effort. It was really no different than the monitoring we do for the released snakes. We’re out there assessing and trying to document their survival. There’s always the hope that we will find documentation of reproduction, and it finally happened.”

Wood said the technicians knew immediately what they had discovered when the snake was picked up.

“They knew because it was a hatchling-size snake,” she said. “It measured 2 feet in length, which is much smaller than the snakes we release from OCIC (Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation). It had no PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag or any indication we use in monitoring to indicate it was a released snake. Those released snakes are 5 feet in length or longer. They estimated the juvenile indigo at about 7 months old. It probably hatched in July or August.”

The Eastern indigo project started in 2006, and the program was able to start releasing captive-raised indigos in 2010 with 17 adult snakes released into the Conecuh National Forest. The goal is to release a total of 300 snakes to improve the chances of establishing a viable population. The project team has released 170 snakes to date. Wood said the decision-making and planning for indigo recovery through reintroductions started with late Auburn University professor Dr. Dan Speake in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It’s been a long process with a lot of sweat,” Wood said. “We have faced some criticism along the way. Then, when what you have hoped for happens, it’s extremely rewarding and overwhelming.”

During the early days of the indigo project, the released snakes were propagated from indigos that had been captured in the wild in Georgia. Partners in this project include Auburn Museum of Natural History, Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Zoo Tampa, Zoo Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army’s Fort Stewart, as well as the OCIC at the Central Florida Zoo, where the captive indigo breeding and health care are handled.

“We’re kind of at the halfway mark in the reintroduction,” Wood said. “It’s very exciting to see verification of reproduction at this stage of the project. It’s a huge testimony to the State Wildlife Grants program and working toward the recovery of a federally listed species. It is considered an experimental population. We were conducting research and making decisions that had never been done before with this species. It was a lot of groundbreaking work. Florida now has a reintroduction program, and a lot of their work is based on what we’ve done at Conecuh and lessons learned at Conecuh. Besides aquatic species, there isn’t another example of species recovery of a federally listed species through reintroductions.”

Wood said the lessons included that a learning curve is a given with a project of this magnitude and that 2-year-old snakes have a better chance of survival in the wild because they are less susceptible to predators.

“We also learned the target for the number of individuals to be released,” she said. “That is 30 individuals per year. We’ve learned that we had to establish a monitoring program that didn’t exist before. We learned it takes intense monitoring on the ground.”

One of the tools the monitoring team borrowed from the hunting community is the game camera. The game cameras have been stationed to monitor activity at gopher tortoise burrows, which are utilized by a number of animals, including indigos.

“We had to learn that a snake is not going to trigger motion sensitivity on the game cameras,” Wood said. “We set the cameras to capture a photo at intervals of 30 to 60 seconds to make sure we capture all the activity. That’s something we’ve recently started, and so far it’s proven to be very helpful. We’ve captured pictures of several indigos at burrows. The cameras are showing location, where they’re hanging out, how they’re using burrows and the fact adult snakes are surviving. We estimate that 60 to 80 percent of the snakes that we reintroduce will survive. That’s not bad at all after they’ve been in captivity for two years.”

Wood said it is not possible right now to estimate the total number of Eastern indigo snakes that are in the Conecuh habitat.

“These recaptures and verification of reproduction is data that will be useful in the future so that someday we may be able to predict how many individuals may be in the wild,” she said.

Wood said Eastern indigos were extirpated from the state and hadn’t been seen since the 1950s. Considered an apex predator, the snake plays an important role in the longleaf pine ecosystem. Eastern indigo snakes are the longest snakes native to the U.S. at more than 8 feet long. They prey on a variety of small mammals, amphibians, lizards and numerous species of venomous snakes, including the copperhead. Indigos are known to range far and wide during the warmer months and then seek refuge in the gopher tortoise burrows during the winter.

WFF’s State Wildlife Action Plan identifies 366 species that are in the category of greatest conservation need, according to Wood.

“Alabama is one of the most diverse states in the nation in terms of amphibians and reptiles,” she said. “Conecuh National Forest is the most biologically rich public land in the country.”

Wood is still having a little trouble grasping what happened recently at Conecuh National Forest.

“Physically holding a wild species that hasn’t been documented in Alabama in more than 60 years gives us high hopes for what we may see when we reach our goal of 300 snakes released,” she said.

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 hunter grants wishes for kids

(Pine Hills and Oak Hollars Child Classic/Contributed)

Jeff Carter didn’t have a plan in 2011 when he started Pine Hills and Oak Hollars Child Classic, an organization that takes sick kids on a weekend hunting trip in northwest Alabama.

“At that time I really didn’t know what it looked like,” Carter said. “The Lord put it on my heart and he called me to do this. We stepped out on faith.”

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Pine Hills and Oak Hollars Child Classic grants wishes for kids from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Carter’s faith paid off. The event, now in its ninth year, has grown from a hunting trip for one child into an extended weekend experience for three kids at a time. The kids are selected through the United Special Sportsman Alliance, all recovering from a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, or a life-altering disorder like autism.

“This is just an opportunity that God has given us to be able to give these kids and their families a chance to get away and get their mind off of a lot of what they’ve been dealing with,” Carter said.

Beau Terry, 18, is one of the young people hunting in this year’s classic. Terry said he was thrilled to get the chance.

“It’s kind of like having a lot of uncles around,” Terry said. “It means a lot.”

In addition to the hunting trip, the kids are given hunting clothes, a DVD video of their weekend and a canvas picture. Carter said their smiles are a blessing to him and his volunteers.

“It’s awesome,” Carter said. “When God calls us to do something, there’s no sense in worry about how much and how, just step out on faith and roll with it because he’s got it figured out already. He will provide.”

For more information about the Pine Hills and Oak Hollars Child Classic, visit the organization’s Facebook page here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Alabama Bass Trail 100 registration opens June 1

(Billy Pope/Outdoors Alabama)

Tournament bass anglers who are ready to step up in competition need to mark their calendars for June 1, 2020, and set the alarm clock to 6 a.m. That date and time is when registration opens for the newest bass trail in Alabama aimed at serious tournament anglers.

The creation of the Alabama Bass Trail 100 was announced last week at beautiful Lake Guntersville State Park, overlooking the site of one of the three tournaments on the Alabama Bass Trail (ABT) 100 for 2021. The new trail is open to only 100 boats.

Those anglers who are fortunate enough to grab a slot in the new series will vie for $100,000 in total prize money for each of the three events, with $25,000 going to the winning boat.

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ABT Tournament Director Kay Donaldson said the entry fee per event is $1,000, and anglers must sign up for all three events to participate. No single entries are allowed.

The first ABT 100 tournament is scheduled for Lay Lake on the Coosa River on January 9, 2021. Lake Eufaula on the Chattahoochee River in southeast Alabama will be the site of the second event on June 5, 2021, followed by the trail finale at Lake Guntersville on the Tennessee River on November 20, 2021.

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, represented Gov. Kay Ivey at the trail’s unveiling and conveyed the Governor’s love of the outdoors.

“Gov. Kay Ivey is a huge supporter of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation,” Blankenship said. “As a matter of fact, we were at an event about a month ago, and right before it was my time to speak, she tugged on my shoulder and said, ‘Remind me to ask you something before we leave.’ She wanted to talk about bass fishing on Lake Jordan. She’s a huge supporter of fishing in our state.”

Blankenship said he is blessed to be the Conservation Commissioner of a state with such outstanding natural resources and fisheries.

“Outdoor recreation is a $14 billion industry throughout our state,” he said. “Alabama has great fishing, both saltwater and freshwater. Just fishing has a $2 billion economic impact on our state. That’s a lot of money from people out enjoying themselves. We have such a great bass fishery here in our state, from the lakes on the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, the Tennessee River lakes, like here at Guntersville, the Tombigbee River, Smith Lake, Lake Eufaula, the Alabama River, and the place I’m most familiar with, fishing for bass in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. We have unique bass fisheries from one end of our state to the other. That’s where I think the Alabama Bass Trail is so impressive. It allows people from our state and from out of state to experience the different kinds of fisheries and the different places that make up our great bass fisheries here in Alabama.”

The original Alabama Bass Trail started seven years ago with the idea of promoting bass fishing across the state with Northern and Southern divisions. That tournament trail has become so popular that the slots open for the 2020 ABT were filled in hours.

“The Department works well with the Alabama Bass Trail on multiple fronts,” Blankenship said. “The Alabama Bass Trail works with the Department to provide information for the B.A.I.T. (Bass Anglers Information Team) to provide a clear picture on what’s happening on the lakes where they hold the tournaments. Several of our staff members have been at Alabama Bass Trail events and have witnessed the extraordinary lengths the tournament officials go to to ensure the health and live release of thousands of tournament-caught bass. These efforts are important to maintain the healthy fisheries of our lakes.”

“Tournaments like this highlight the fisheries and bring more people to our state to buy fishing licenses and tackle and those type things,” Blankenship said. “That money is used by the Department to go back into building the high-quality fisheries and install boat ramps and public access areas around the state. We have more than 150 boat ramps in the state that the Department maintains or partners with cities and counties to manage. I really want to say thanks to those cities and counties that partner with us. Now we’re looking at building new ramps with big bass tournaments in mind. Kay has been very helpful in discussions about what works better for bass tournaments and helps get boats in and out of the water, parking and what helps facilitate attracting some of the largest fishing tournaments to our state. We appreciate the Alabama Bass Trail and its leadership. All that plays a role in attracting great tournaments to our state. We want everybody, when they come here, to have a good time and enjoy their fishing so they’ll want to come back and so they’ll tell other people about what great bass fisheries we have here in Alabama.”

When the ABT was just a lofty idea, Lee Sentell, Alabama Tourism Director, provided the catalyst to make the tournament trail a reality.

“I’m a member of an organization called Travel South USA, which is the 12 southern states’ tourism departments,” said Sentell, who recognized the ABT as the 2018 Tourism Organization of the Year in Alabama. “Every year I get more questions from my counterparts from throughout the South who will say, ‘Now, how did that Alabama Bass Trail thing get started?’ I tell them some people had a great idea and great vision. Great things happen when you have great talent, great resources and people who want to make a difference and bring more anglers into our state. I just want to say a big congratulations to the Alabama Bass Trail and Alabama Mountain Lakes (Tourist Association). It’s hard to believe this has been going on for seven years. But, it’s exciting.”

Sentell recalled a meeting with Don Logan, one of the people who brought BASS (Bass Anglers Sportsmen’s Society) back to Alabama, and Alabama Mountain Lakes about starting the Alabama Bass Trail. The meeting was not progressing well until Sentell stepped up.

“I said the Alabama Tourism Department will put $200,000 a year for three years into the Alabama Bass Trail, and Alabama Mountain Lakes is going to run it,” Sentell said. “They couldn’t say no to that. So, what you are doing and where you’re going next is thrilling. This is a state that is blessed with many natural wonders, and our lakes and rivers and fisheries are one of the most important aspects of the quality of life in our state.”

Donaldson said at a meeting in August 2019, the ABT board voted unanimously to pursue the idea of a new tournament series, which would become the Alabama Bass Trail 100.

“The popularity of Alabama Bass Trail was never more realized than last August, when we sold out the 225 boats for the Southern Division in three hours and our Northern Division with 225 boats in 17 hours,” Donaldson said. “People often ask how we pay back 100 percent. It’s because of our wonderful sponsors. Our title sponsor again is Phoenix Boats.”

Guntersville Mayor Leigh Dollar said she is excited that Guntersville was chosen as the final tournament of the 2021 season.

“The Alabama Bass Trail has always been a great asset to our community,” Dollar said. “They bring lots of people. It’s great publicity. We love our anglers.”

Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs, an avid bass angler who competes in the ABT South Division, echoed Dollar’s sentiments.

“The Alabama Bass Trail is a great tournament trail already,” Tibbs said. “This is just going to be an expansion of what they already do. It’s going to be great for Eufaula. We’re excited.”

Donaldson said registration is open to all anglers with no priority registration for current ABT anglers. Only one pro angler is allowed per boat. Visit www.alabamabasstrail100.org for details and rules. Tournament information will also be available on Facebook and Instagram at albasstrail100.

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

Fishing at public lakes to begin in February

(Alabama Newscenter)

Alabama’s fishermen will be able to resume fishing on state-owned lakes beginning February 1, 2020, the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries division announced on Friday.

The state of Alabama owns 23 lakes that it stocks with fish like bream, largemouth bass, channel catfish and crappie. For nominal fees, any interested angler can cast a line and enjoy a day on the lake. One of those lakes — Washington County Public Fishing Lake — will remain closed for all of 2020 while it is restocked.

“Alabama’s public fishing lakes are a great family fishing destination,” said Jonathan Brown, public fishing lake biologist for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF)

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The operating costs of Alabama’s public fishing lakes do not come from the state’s general fund budget. The state’s anglers cover the cost through the paying of license fees, targeted taxes on outdoor equipment and fishing permits.

“Not only do the lakes offer great fishing, they have concession buildings with snacks, drinks, restrooms, and personnel who can provide fishing advice,” concluded Brown.

More information on where the public fishing lakes are, and how interested anglers can use them, can be found on the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ website.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.