The Wire

  • The “October Surprise” in the governor’s race is something we heard about a year ago?

    Excerpt:

    If this is really the final push for Walt Maddox to get his campaign’s “Kay Ivey is sick” narrative into the news, they may want to try again.

    The Alabama Political Reporter published a “bombshell” is just a regurgitation of an old story. Their report includes comments from the former head of ALEA, Spencer Collier, who is currently suing former Governor Robert Bentley and is probably unhappy that Governor Ivey’s office has spent money defending Bentley because the law requires it.

    Again, we already heard all of this, from this same outlet, in 2017. Ivey denied it then, too, Collier was part of this denial.

  • Ivey’s doctor confirms the governor is in good health

    Excerpt:

    The primary care physician for Governor Kay Ivey on Tuesday released a letter confirming the governor is in good health and refuting a report alleging that she had suffered a ministroke in April 2015.

    Dr. Brian Elrod of Montgomery, who has been Ivey’s doctor for “many years,” wrote that the governor had indeed been hospitalized at a conference in Colorado that month in 2015, however “extensive” tests conducted at the hospital “were all negative.” Additionally, Elrod himself examined Ivey the day after she was released from the hospital, saying that “I saw no evidence of a transient ischemic attack (ministroke).”

    More tests later that year, including an EKG and echocardiogram, were deemed “unremarkable” and “normal.” Then, a cardiologist visit in December 2015 “also showed no new concerns” and “her nuclear imaging study in January of 2016 was likewise unremarkable and suggested ‘a relatively low risk of cardiovascular events.’”

    Elrod added that he could not comment “on what condition may have led to her hospitalization in April of 2015,” but that the governor’s health since then “has remained good with no indication of increased cardiovascular risk.”

  • Three takeaways from latest statewide campaign fundraising reports

    Excerpt:

    The latest campaign finance reports for statewide candidates running in the November 6 general election were due on Monday, and the numbers revealed some clear storylines with voting to occur in less than three weeks time.

    The reports were the first “weekly” disclosures due in the lead up to the election, with the next ones being due on Monday, October 22. Generally, Republican dominance continued in the top contested races, with the exception being the race for Chief Justice.

    Here are the top three takeaways:

5 days ago

New degree at Auburn combines wildlife, business and hospitality

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pam Swanner of Alabama Black Belt Adventures agrees wholeheartedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 weeks ago

Snapper anglers can offer input at Gulf Council meeting in Mobile

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 weeks ago

Special Opportunity Area program gains special place at Portland Landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 weeks ago

Surf fishing provides ‘Bama Beach Bum’ with new vocation

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 weeks ago

Alabama Black Belt Adventures celebrates long, successful relationship with Raycom Media

(Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association)

For almost a decade, the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association (ALBBAA) has worked to share the good news about outdoor tourism – the most profitable and attractive industry in a historically economically challenged region of our state.

ALBBAA was formed in 2009 to promote outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing, as well as its rich history and many culinary experiences. The mission: to bring tourists into the Black Belt from all over the country – and world – to visit, spend money and enjoy the many opportunities this region has to offer. A rising tide lifts all ships.

Our constant partner in this effort has been Raycom Media under the leadership of Dr. David Bronner. Raycom has provided more than $8 million in advertising through its network of television stations in 65 markets and more than 100 CNHI newspapers across the nation.

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Thanks to television advertisements aired on stations in 20 states – plus display ads in many local newspapers – Alabama’s Black Belt businesses have received thousands of inquiries about hunting, fishing and other outdoor adventure services. That interest piqued by Raycom and CNHI has paid off in tourism dollars.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 report, outdoor recreation accounted for 14 billion in consumer spending in Alabama. Of that, at least $4.87 billion was spent in Black Belt counties. Our state reaped the benefits of outdoor recreation spending in the collection of $857 million in state and local tax revenue. Outdoor recreation generates 135,000 direct jobs in Alabama and $3.9 billion in wages and salaries.

Alabama’s Black Belt region, as defined by ALBBAA, is made up of 23 counties that span the south-central section of the state from Mississippi to Georgia. The region makes up parts of four of Alabama’s seven congressional districts. As of the 2010 census, just over 500,000 residents – of a total Alabama population of 4.78 million – live in the Black Belt.

The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association promotes these counties as part of the Black Belt: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Monroe, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter, Tuscaloosa and Wilcox.

For decades, Alabama’s Black Belt has lagged economically because of many factors, including a small population base and often struggling public school systems. For the most part, Black Belt counties have not attracted many large industries or they have abandoned the region during times of national economic distress.

The partnership between ALBBAA and Raycom has been successful, in part, because the leaders of both organizations recognized the promise of outdoors tourism for boosting the economy of the Black Belt. Chilly winter mornings with bird dogs flushing quail and warm spring days on a riverbank in the Black Belt inspired Thomas A. Harris to start the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association. With few traditional industries in the area, Harris decided promoting outdoor adventures in his home region could “be” an industry. Discussions with Dr. Bronner, whose expertise with recreational tourism was already well known because of the wildly successful Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail spanning the state, resulted in support from Raycom and CNHI.

The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association uses a multifaceted approach to draw tourists to the area. The organization’s website (alabamablackbeltadventures.org) offers a one-stop source for hunters, anglers and other outdoor adventure-seekers looking for places to fulfill their dreams of a weekend in a deer stand with big bucks on the prowl or a week working to draw a big gobbler into range. We also visit outdoors trade shows throughout the country promoting the region and making friends from Houston to the Carolinas and all points in between, including the recent Buckmasters Expo in Montgomery.

Our website currently promotes 54 lodges and outfitters in the Black Belt. The site also provides information and links to public land available for hunting and fishing. Golfers can find information on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses in the Black Belt. Civic-minded vacationers can plan their tour of historic Civil Rights sites and find fun activities to do outdoors all across the state.

We also share the Black Belt’s stories with professional outdoors writers, travel bloggers and television producers on a national level who visit to experience the great hunting, fishing and heritage sites for themselves. Alabama writers and producers are also involved in telling the story. We have worked with journalists from outlets all over the state and country publishing items that are sure to spark interest in visiting the Black Belt.

In 2019, the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association celebrates its 10th anniversary. Thanks to the advice and cooperation of many friends, such as Dr. Bronner, our association has made sure that this region of our state is not a secret unknown to the thousands of outdoorsmen and women who now enjoy spending their time – and money – in the Black Belt. The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association has succeeded in giving a shot in the arm to our economy.

Pam Swanner is the director of the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association, a not-for-profit organization committed to promoting and enhancing outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities in the 23 counties that make up the Black Belt in a manner that provides economic and ecological benefits to the region and its citizens. Visit here for more information. 

4 weeks ago

National Hunting and Fishing Day: Celebrating Alabama’s sportsmen and women

(Contributed)

Saturday, September 22 is our nation’s 46th annual National Hunting and Fishing Day. As Co-Chair of the Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus and as a member of the 48-state National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses, I am proud to take time to celebrate the time-honored traditions of hunting and angling. I am also pleased to recognize the historical and ongoing contributions of our state’s original conservationists — sportsmen and sportswomen.

Alabama hunters and anglers are the primary source of conservation funding for the Yellowhammer State. Through the purchase of licenses, tags and by paying self-imposed excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, archery equipment, fishing tackle, motorboat fuel and other equipment, hunters and anglers drive conservation funding in Alabama and the United States, through the American System of Conservation Funding, a “user pays public benefits” system.

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Last year alone, this system, combined with hunting and fishing license sales, contributed over $47 million to fund state conservation efforts administered through the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). All Alabamians benefit from these funds through improved access to public lands, public shooting ranges, improved soil and water quality, habitat restoration, fish and wildlife research, private and public habitat management, hunter education, boat access area construction and many other DCNR projects funded through this system.

Hunting and angling are also a significant economic driver for our state. Alabama sportsmen and women spend roughly $2 billion per year on their outdoor pursuits, supporting nearly 40,000 jobs in the state and contributing over $165 million in state and local taxes.

Hunting produces countless benefits for our state’s conservation funding and economy, therefore it is important that Alabama sportsmen and women invest time and effort to encourage future participation by the next generation in these time-honored traditions. This effort to increase hunter participation is called recruitment, retention and reactivation (R3) and over 450 individual R3 programs nationwide have had regional success. R3 programs, as well as many others, need your support and it’s going to take the involvement of every Alabama hunter, regardless of age, to ensure the future of the outdoor pursuits we celebrate on National Hunting and Fishing Day.

Our hunting and angling heritage should not be taken for granted, and getting the next generation of Alabama’s sportsmen and women involved in the outdoors will help ensure the conservation of our abundant natural resources for the future.

More information on National Hunting and Fishing Day is available at this link or on the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation website.

Del Marsh, a Republican from Anniston, is the President Pro Tem of the Alabama State Senate.

1 month ago

Opening-day dove hunt focuses on youth

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dove Boats

Ingredients:

20 dove breasts

Teriyaki, Worcestershire and yellow mustard for marinade

10 jalapeños

8 ounces cream cheese

1 can water chestnuts

Bacon

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

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

Uncle Tom’s Banded Dove Bombs

Ingredients:

20 dove breasts

Half gallon buttermilk

2 pounds Jimmy Dean Hot sausage

3 cans Pillsbury Crescent rolls

Large (2-pound) block Velveeta cheese

Peanut oil

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

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

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

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

1 month ago

Jug fishing producing plenty of Alabama River catfish

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The key is good, fresh bait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is a super good catfish fishery.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Mentored hunt starts Welch’s outdoors journey

(Outdoor Alabama)

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

That experience set in motion Welch’s latest episode in her outdoors journey – alligator hunting. On her third try, Welch was drawn for one of the 150 tags in the Southwest Alabama Zone that includes private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

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

(Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Gulf State Park Lodge rebirth on schedule

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 months ago

Fisheries aims for bigger fish with Florida bass stockings

(Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free range days coming to five ADCNR shooting ranges in August

(Outdoor Alabama)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) invites recreational shooters to take aim at select public shooting ranges during Alabama’s Free Range Days on August 11, 18, and 25. During these events, license and shooting range permit requirements will be waived at the Barbour, Cahaba, Delta, Etowah, and Swan Creek public shooting ranges on the dates listed below.

The ADCNR’s Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) has partnered with the National Shooting Sports Foundation to provide the Free Range Days as part of National Shooting Sports Month, which runs August 1-31, 2018.

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During the events, new shooters will have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with firearms at no charge from certified instructors at five of the state’s top public shooting ranges. These ranges are primarily located in Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) throughout the state. Alabama’s Free Range Days will run from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., but shooters are welcome to stay and shoot the remainder of the day.

Equipment, ammunition, and hearing and eye protection will be provided free of charge at the five ranges listed below (during event hours only). Shooters are welcome to bring their own firearms.

2018 Free Range Days

August 11
• Swan Creek WMA Shooting Range

August 18
• Barbour WMA Shooting Range
• Cahaba River WMA Shooting Range

August 25
• Delta WMA Shooting Range
• Etowah Public Shooting Range

License and permit requirements will remain in effect for all other ADCNR public shooting ranges.

ADCNR’s public shooting ranges provide a comfortable, safe place to shoot firearms or practice archery. For more information including directions, visit here.

For more information about Free Range Days, contact WFF Hunter Education Coordinator Marisa Futral at 334-242-3620 or email Marisa.Futral@dcnr.alabama.gov.

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

(Courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

2 months ago

Tagging program tracks redfish, trout

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 months ago

From Cheaha to Meaher, state parks diversity abounds

(David Rainer)

From a shaded retreat on John’s Bay in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to the boardwalk atop the highest mountain in the state, the Alabama State Parks System offers an incredible diversity of nature’s wonders to explore.

Just north of the point where the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Mobile Bay converge, Meaher State Park offers a respite from the hustle and bustle that can be seen in the distance on the Bayway crowded with frustrated travelers.

Tall pine trees blanket the 1,300-acre park that borders the Delta’s biologically rich John’s Bay to the south and Ducker Bay to the east.

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According to Anna Bryant, Meaher’s new park superintendent, visitors head to the park with their travel trailers in tow, attracted to the shade on the water’s edge.

A native of Auburn, Bryant came to love the area while teaching environmental education for two conservation organizations and jumped at the Meaher job about a year ago.

“I enjoy being in the outdoors,” Bryant said. “I love the water. I didn’t grow up near the beach. But the water and flora and fauna here at Meaher is a very therapeutic place for me. That is a bonus of this job for me.”

Callie Thornton, the assistant park superintendent at Cheaha State Park, finds her therapy in the mountains, and Cheaha, completely surrounded by the Talladega National Forest in northeast Alabama, is the perfect location for her.

Already a dedicated backpacker before she took the job at Cheaha a year ago, Thornton now gets to share her love of hiking with an abundance of park visitors and fellow hikers.

“What attracted me to Cheaha was the mountain and the Pinhoti Trail,” said Thornton, the former Town Clerk at Rockford, Ala. “I wanted to be able to teach others how to backpack, the importance of being outdoors and inspiring others to love the outdoors.

“I’ve been backpacking for about 12 years now, doing anything and everything adventurous. I’ve done more than 1,000 miles backpacking, so now I teach backpacking courses. And a lot of people are scared of camping. My goal is to teach people to not be afraid of being in the outdoors.”

Thornton’s instructions include camp cooking, first aid, what’s needed in your backpack and, possibly more important, what’s not.

“I’ve been able to get my backpack down to 27 pounds for a seven-day trip,” she said. “If people will bring me their backpack, I will go through it and divide and conquer, as I say. I advise them on what kind of gear they need as far as shoes and clothing. A lot of people think they need to take multiple days of clothes. If you pick the right gear, you might need an extra pair of socks, but you don’t need anything else.

“I had a friend with me on one trip who had 60 pounds in her backpack. She was really suffering. While we were on the trip I went through her bag. When we got to the next station, I told her to take this and that out and put it in the hiker box or mail it home. I’ve learned through experience about a lot of things, like blisters and how to deal with them and how to protect your feet. A lot of it is simple stuff that I want to pass on to make the person’s trip a lot better the next time around.”

At one time, Cheaha was the southern terminus of Thornton’s beloved Pinhoti Trail. That terminus has since been moved about 60 miles south to Flagg Mountain. The Pinhoti Trail covers about 170 miles in Alabama and 166 miles in Georgia before it connects with the Appalachian Trail. Hikers can also gain access to the Eastern Continental Trail that transits the entire eastern U.S.

Thornton, also president of the Alabama Pinhoti Trail Association, hopes to bring more exposure to Alabama’s Pinhoti segment.

“We don’t get a lot of publicity on the Alabama Pinhoti Trail,” she said. “Georgia’s trail gets a lot, but Alabama’s doesn’t. It could be a big tourism booster for Alabama.

“My goal is to raise the awareness of the Alabama section of the trail. People don’t know that it also is a connector from Key West (Fla.) all the way to Maine.”

On a hot summer day, a bonus of being at Cheaha is the weather.

“It’s about 10 degrees cooler on the mountain,” Thornton said. “Sometimes it’s more than that, depending on the wind. When I got here last May (2017), I was freezing to death. We can sit in the restaurant and see the weather around us. If I see a storm coming and we’ve got people in the pool, I can go get them out. The good thing is, most of the time, the bad stuff goes around us.”

Another attraction for Cheaha visitors is the solitude of the mountain, which is 2,407 feet above sea level, the highest in the state. A variety of accommodations await, from cabins and chalets to improved and primitive camping.

“A lot of people come to Cheaha to disconnect,” Thornton said. “If you want to get away from it all, if you want to get away from your telephone, your Wi-Fi, this is where you come. Once you come around the curves on (Hwy.) 281, you lose your connections. I just got a call from a man who said he was ready to get away from work. People disconnect and they go hiking, swimming and enjoy the restaurant. They come to hike. They come to see the wildlife, the deer and turkeys. We have a lot of birdwatchers who come to the park. We have gem-mining for the kids and a lot of interpretive nature programs for the whole family.”

Now hop in your vehicle, come down the mountain and head south about 260 miles to Meaher State Park to experience Alabama’s coastal plains and the expansive Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Meaher offers 61 improved campsites, 10 improved tent sites, a couple of primitive tent sites and four cabins. Two more cabins will be available later this year.

Bryant said Meaher appeals to campers in a couple of different ways.

“We’re kind of a quiet park,” she said. “We don’t have a pool or tennis courts or facilities that some of the bigger parks have. The fact that people can come and relax, see the sunsets and see the water is a big attraction for our overnight guests. But we also have a lot of day visitors who love to fish. We have a fishing pier and a boat launch. They can canoe and kayak or take their motor boat into the Delta or Mobile Bay. We also have the Gateway to the Delta boardwalk that allows visitors to see the Delta from a different perspective.

“Part of the draw is we have easy access to the Delta and being able to stay overnight between Mobile and Baldwin counties.”

Because of its size, Meaher doesn’t have a park naturalist, but Bryant has been able to utilize the environmental programs from Gulf State Park and 5 Rivers – Alabama Delta Resource Center, which is located directly across the Mobile Causeway from Meaher.

“The last program we had was a reptile show that 5 Rivers conducted,” Bryant said. “They brought native snakes and turtles to show our guests.”

Bryant will soon be involved in a park expansion, thanks to a $3.5 million award from the Deepwater Horizon’s oil spill through the RESTORE Act.

“Our hope is to expand not only RV sites but add a couple more cabins and possibly another fishing pier,” she said. “We’re still in the process of finalizing our plans. We want to offer our visitors a gamut of options from just relaxing to enjoying the Delta.”

Visit here and this link for more information.

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

3 months ago

Gulf State Park Pier expands shark fishing

(David Rainer)

Anglers at Gulf State Park Pier who expressed frustration after reeling in pieces of desired fish species that had been attacked by sharks have gained some relief.

The Alabama State Parks System managers instituted a pilot program to allow a limited number of anglers to fish for sharks on the octagon end of the pier on consecutive Tuesday nights recently.

The first night was relatively slow as several sharks were hooked but only one undersized (minimum of 54 inches fork length) fish was landed. The shark was released back into the water.

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The action on the second Tuesday night and the overwhelming interest of anglers and spectators prompted Parks officials to expand the shark-fishing opportunities in July. Numerous sharks were hooked last Tuesday, and a 130-pound spinner shark was hauled onto the 1,540-foot pier.

The next chances to fish for sharks on the pier will take place on the south end from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. the following morning on Sunday and Tuesday nights on July 8, 10, 15, 17, 22, 24, 29 and 31. The previous shark-fishing times had been 8 p.m. to midnight. Parks officials realized anglers had a great deal of success just as the sun was setting and decided to start the fishing an hour earlier. Anglers said the sharks were causing problems at daybreak as well.

To accommodate the shark anglers, the octagon will close to routine use 30 minutes prior to these events and reopen to routine use 30 minutes following. During the events, the octagon area of the pier will be reserved for the exclusive use of participating anglers and their designated assistants. Other anglers and pier guests can use the remainder of the pier as usual.

Another adjustment by Parks officials is an increase in the number of anglers allowed and a decrease in the number of assistants. In the last session, 10 anglers were designated to fish, and they were allowed two assistants each. Anglers were also allowed to use two rods.

During the July shark-fishing events, 15 anglers will be allowed to fish per occasion with only one rod and reel per angler in use. Each angler may have one assistant. A maximum of 30 individuals will be allowed on the octagon area during each event. Anglers are encouraged to assist each other while fishing.

Anglers are required to provide their own gear. Larger reels are allowed during the shark event. Other pier rules regarding equipment will remain in effect.

The husband-wife duo of Melvin and Kayci Dixon of Gulf Shores teamed up to hook and fight the only shark landed during the second Tuesday. Kayci, who is six months pregnant, had a live bluefish for bait when she hooked the fish. She soon handed the rod and reel to her husband. Melvin fought it until other anglers and assistants were able to get snatch hooks into the shark to laboriously lift the fish over the railing and onto the pier deck.

“She fought it about five minutes and then handed the rod to me,” Melvin said. “When she first hooked up, I didn’t think he was that big. When he was way out there I didn’t think it was much and we were going to have to break him off. But when he got within 100 yards of the pier, it changed. It ended up being 70½ inches long.

“Luckily, there were some great guys out here who jumped in to get the fish over the rail. Everybody worked well together to get it. It was great team spirit.”

When the shark comes over the rail is when those on the octagon must be most careful, as Lamar Pendergrass, State Parks Regional Manager, told the anglers before the start of the event.

“Our biggest concern is safety once a shark is brought up on the pier,” Pendergrass said. “Everybody needs to stay clear of the shark until it is identified and dispatched if it is a legal shark.”

Also on that second Tuesday, Stephanie Langston of Foley, a regular at the pier along with her husband, hooked but lost a shark that went under the pier, cutting the line on the sharp barnacles. And the brother-sister team of Grayson and Greta Graves both had sharks on during the night but, like Langston’s, both fish escaped when the fishing line snapped at the pier.

Pendergrass and other Parks officials said it is too early to tell how the pilot program will affect the sharks’ impact on pier anglers.

Several sharks that make the northern Gulf of Mexico home are protected, and the Alabama Marine Resources Division had officers on hand to help identify the species. When the Dixons’ shark was hauled onto the deck, it was thought to be a black-tipped shark. Marine Resources officials used a shark identification chart to identify it as a spinner shark because, paradoxically, the spinner shark’s anal fin has a black tip, while the black tip has a white anal fin.

Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein said he’s not really surprised by the interest in shark fishing, which had previously been prohibited on the pier.

“We’ve been hearing for a while that people wanted the opportunity to catch sharks out here,” Lein said. “What has surprised me is the diversity of interest. There are some people who want to catch sharks to eat them. There are some people who just want to hook one for the sport of having a shark on the line. Others want to catch sharks to remove them because they think there are too many sharks around the pier.”

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship added, “The number of spectators crowding the pier to watch these events has been interesting. On both nights we had hundreds of people who came out to the pier to see what would be caught. At one point on Fox 10 Facebook Live there were over 880 people watching the first night. Sharks are fascinating creatures, as evidenced by the participation and the crowds. That is why the Discovery Channel has a whole week of programming dedicated to sharks every July.”

This year, Gulf State Park Naturalist Kelly Reetz is partnering with the Alabama Marine Resources Division and state universities to provide hands-on educational information and activities during Shark Week July 23-27. More information can be found here.

Lein said after monitoring the shark-fishing events in July, the State Parks staff will evaluate the program and determine whether to extend the fishing for upcoming months.

Registration for the shark-fishing events continues. Anglers are selected in the order in which applications are received. To register for the special events, visit www.alapark.com/shark-fishing. Applicants are required to provide contact information for notification of selection. Those chosen will be notified a week or more in advance of their designated fishing date.

Visit here for the latest information on shark-fishing and other pier events.

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

4 months ago

Wilson still reigns atop Alabama’s Bass Anglers Information Team report

(Outdoor Alabama)

For the fourth year in a row, Wilson Lake reigns atop the rankings in the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s annual Bass Anglers Information Team (BAIT) Report.

In data compiled for the 2017 fishing year, Wilson totaled 77 quality indicator points to maintain the top ranking over second-place Lake Jordan, which compiled 72 points. Jordan made a big move up from 12th place in the 2016 report. Lake Mitchell and Millers Ferry tied for third with 65 points. Millers Ferry also jumped 10 spots in 2017. Wheeler Lake rounded out the top five with 64 points.

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WFF assigns quality indicator points according to average bass weight, percent success, bass per angler per day, pounds per angler per day, and hours required to catch a five-pound bass. The angler day is considered 10 hours.

“Last year was another good year of bass fishing in Alabama,” said WFF’s Kyle Bolton, who oversees the BAIT report, which marks its 32nd year with the 2017 report.

The BAIT report’s objective is to gather information on bass populations from bass club members as well as WFF Fisheries biologists, who use a variety of methods of data collection, including electrofishing.

Bolton said bass anglers have reported more than 15,000 tournament results during the report’s history. Anglers have spent 3.4 million hours collecting data for the report. BAIT’s history includes reports on 928,000 bass that weighed 1.7 million pounds.

In terms of big bass, the top lakes in Alabama were Pickwick, Wilson, Eufaula, Guntersville and Wheeler.

Guntersville had been on everybody’s big bass list earlier in the decade, but the number of large bass caught slipped for a few years. The lake seems to be on the rebound toward outstanding bass fishing.

“Guntersville bounced back last year, compared to the year before,” Bolton said. “We had really good year-classes of bass in 2007 and 2008. That produced a lot of giant fish (10 pounds plus) and those fish finally died off. In 2017, the numbers are a lot closer to the 30-year average.

“It’s cyclical, just like any other reservoir, but Guntersville is coming back up.”

Bolton said in 2017, Guntersville had about 70-percent success, which is on par with the 30-year average. The average weight was 2.74 pounds, dead on the 30-year average.

In 2016, the BAIT report added another data point with winning weight for the one-day tournaments. Guntersville’s average winning weight for 2016 was 17.86 and 17.78 for 2017.

However, Guntersville also produced the largest winning weight in the state last year when Casey Martin, fishing in the BFL Bama Division tournament in March of 2017, weighed in a five-fish stringer at 40.69 pounds.

Pickwick’s indicators were well above the long-term average. The most telling statistic that put it near the top in big bass lakes was that it only took 80 hours to catch a bass five pounds or larger. Pickwick also set a lake record for the average weight per bass at 2.81 pounds.

Eufaula had two tournaments in 2017 where 15 bass larger than five pounds were weighed.

In 2017, several other lake records were set. Lake Jordan set three records with an average weight of 2.51 pounds, bass per angler per day at 4.42 and pounds per angler per day at 11.10. Lake Mitchell set two records with 4.46 bass per angler per day and 8.69 pounds per angler per day. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta also set two marks with 4.69 bass per angler per day and 8.23 pounds per angler per day.

Bolton said some of the reservoirs in Alabama are not represented because WFF doesn’t receive enough tournament reports to validate the data.

“On some of the reservoirs, especially in west Alabama, we just don’t have enough reports,” Bolton said. “We’re not getting the reports we need from Tombigbee River and Alabama River lakes like Coffeeville and Claiborne. We’re not getting anything from the Bear Creek reservoirs. I think there are plenty of tournaments there. For whatever reason, we’re not getting a lot of reports from those reservoirs.

“The reports help us make fisheries management decisions as far as restocking or setting length and creel limits. We use these reports in tandem with our electrofishing data.”

The standard electrofishing data WFF biologists gather include growth, mortality, recruitment and abundance. They scoop up the stunned fish, weigh and measure them. Some are returned to the water as soon as possible. Others are retained to pull the otoliths (ear bones with growth rings) to check the age of the fish.

Bolton hopes the number of reports will increase significantly now that a new tool is available for tournament anglers. WFF added an online feature that will allow tournament officials to quickly report the results.

“The past few years, we’ve only had two options to turn in tournament results,” Bolton said. “Those were submitting an Excel form via email or a paper copy via regular mail.

“With this new program, we’re hoping the anglers will just hop online and submit the catch data. It won’t take them five minutes, if that. The reports can be submitted from their computer or smartphone.”

Bolton said several options are available on the above website. Tournament anglers should click on the BAIT tab and enter their Conservation ID number and birth date to verify the angler’s identity. After the angler’s Conservation ID and birth date are entered the first time, they will be saved and should not have to be entered on subsequent reports.

After filling out the form and entering the tournament results, the angler will hit submit to transmit the report to WFF.

“When I get the data from the report, I put it in my program to develop the annual report,” Bolton said. “It’s live now, and we’ve had several people already use it. They said it was easy.”

That same website provides a link to the bass tournaments scheduled on a variety of Alabama lakes and reservoirs.

“Anglers and organizers are allowed to post their tournaments on the website,” Bolton said. “This is to help reduce conflicts. It’s in no way a reservation system. It’s just a way to let people know about upcoming events. That is very easy to use too. They enter the data, hit submit and it will be posted on the website.”

Bolton said the BAIT report gives anglers an avenue to contribute information that WFF managers need to ensure Alabama continues to have great fishing.

“This is a good opportunity for anglers to get involved in actual data submission so we can take care of the fisheries,” he said. “The more data the better. Through the annual report, the anglers can compare their results to other clubs. They can look at the report and see where the big fish are being caught or the largest numbers of fish are being caught.”

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

4 months ago

Alabama alligator registration underway; monster gator causes dilemma

(Rodney Young)

With the application process for the 2018 Alabama alligator seasons underway, Rodney Young is now faced with a dilemma.

No, it’s not that he isn’t going to apply again. He’s already done that. His problem is how to get the monster gator he and his team bagged last year into his house.

Young tagged a 13-foot gator that registered 667 pounds on the scale last year in the Southwest Zone, the largest gator of the year.

Young decided to have a full-body mount made and plans to put it in his home in Stapleton when the taxidermist is finished later this year.

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“I’m going to put him in my man cave over the garage,” he said. “I’m hoping it’ll go up the staircase. If not, I’m going to have to get a crane or lift of some kind and put him through the window. I haven’t figured that out yet.”

Young and his team faced a similar situation last August during their gator hunt in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Young admits they were lucky to find a big gator because they hadn’t done any scouting.

“We were just rolling the dice, running up and down the rivers,” Young said. “We saw a bunch of 10-footers. This was my first hunt. I was out with some buddies of mine who had been on several hunts through the years. We’d see one and my buddy Gary Goins would say, ‘Nah, ain’t big enough.’”

About 2 a.m., the team was running up the Tensaw River when one of the crew shined a light on the bank and spotted a big gator in a man cave of his own.

“All we could see was the tip of his nose and his eyes,” Young said. “But we knew right then it was a good one. We were probably 100 yards away, but we knew we were onto something.

“He was in what looked like a little cove. The way the willows were, it created a little pocket and trees had grown over the top. We were having to cast sideways. We’d hit limbs and trees, and the gator would go down. That happened four times. We’d fool with him, and he’d go down. We’d back out in the river and watch for him. About 30 minutes later, he’d pop back up.”

Then the big gator made a fatal mistake. He abandoned his cove.

“We were setting up to watch him again when one of the guys yelled, ‘He’s running,’” Young said. “He was tired of us fooling with him, and he came out into the river. We spun around and got two lines in him. That was an hour-and-a-half into the process. Of course, then the fight was on. He’d go down. We tried to keep two lines on him with treble hooks. He’d spin and pop one off. Then we’d get another one in him.”

After the team finally got the gator under the boat, Young donned a pair of gloves and grabbed the large line with a snatch hook. Young hooked the gator but it didn’t come up right away.

“When he finally got to the surface, his head came completely out of the water,” he said. “That’s the first time we got a good look at him, and we realized we had a monster.”

The team finally wore the big gator down and secured him to the side of the boat at 5 a.m. Young dispatched the gator with one shot.

“At that point, we were as worn out as he was,” Young said.

Then Young’s team was faced with another dilemma. They were in Goins’ Blazer Bay boat because of motor problems on their boat that was designated for gator hunting, and Goins didn’t want the gator messing up his almost-new boat.

“He told us, ‘We can take the Blazer Bay, but we’re not putting that gator in the boat,’” Young said. “We said, okay we’ll tie him off. Bear in mind, we shot that gator at 5 o’clock. We realized we would never make it back to the weigh station before it closed if we had to go back to the launch and then drive to the Causeway.

“Gary was sitting there with his head in his hands. Finally, he said, ‘The heck with it. Put him in the boat.’ We didn’t bat an eye. We weren’t going to give him a chance to change his mind, so we started pulling the gator in the boat. It took all five of us to get him in the boat. Then four of us had to go to the bow of the boat to get the boat up on plane. But we got to the weigh station in time.”

Although Young has applied for a tag this year, he said he knows the point system implemented in 2014 will put him at the bottom of the list for 2018.

“I’m not holding out a lot of hope,” he said. “I figure it’ll take another two or three years to get another tag. It took me seven years to get the first one.”

Chris Nix, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Alligator Program Coordinator, said a preference points system was implemented for the 2014 season, and it is working as expected. For each year an applicant fails to draw a tag, the points are cubed with a point added for the current year.

“If you have applied since 2014 and haven’t been drawn, you will have 65 points now,” Nix said. “It’s not guaranteed, but those people are highly likely to get drawn now. The longer the point system is in place, the quicker the turnover for people who haven’t gotten a tag.”

To ensure that new applicants have a shot at a tag, Nix said that 85 percent of the tags are filled with applicants with preference points and the remaining 15 percent are allocated to those with no points. Once a person is drawn, the preference points are zeroed out. Preference points are also lost if the person fails to apply for a tag.

Nix said the 2018 alligator season parameters are the same as last year with 260 total tags statewide – 150 in the Southwest Zone, 50 in the West Central Zone, 40 in the Southeast Zone and 20 in the Lake Eufaula Zone. Hunting is from sunset to sunrise.

Season dates for the Southwest Zone and the West Central Zone are sunset on August 9 until sunrise on August 12 and sunset on August 16 until sunrise on August 19. The Southwest Zone includes private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84. The West Central Zone includes private and public waters in Monroe (north of U.S. Highway 84), Wilcox and Dallas counties.

The Southeast Zone season opens at sunset on August 11 and runs until sunrise on September 3. The Southeast Zone includes private and public waters in Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Russell counties (excluding public Alabama state waters in Walter F. George Reservoir/Lake Eufaula and its navigable tributaries).

The Lake Eufaula Zone includes public state waters only in the Walter F. George Reservoir/Lake Eufaula and its navigable tributaries south of Alabama Highway 208 at Omaha Bridge (excludes Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge). The Eufaula season dates are from sunset on August 17 through sunrise on October 1.

An 8-foot restriction on harvest is in effect for the Lake Eufaula Zone. The other zones have no size restrictions.

Registration continues until 8 a.m. on July 11. After a computer-controlled drawing, entrants can find out if they drew a tag after noon on July 11 by logging on at the same page where they registered at. Those who are drawn will have seven days to confirm the tags and are required to attend a zone-specific training class with a couple of exceptions.

“If you’ve taken the class as a tag holder or alternate in the Southwest Zone or West Central Zone, you’re exempt from having to take it again,” Nix said. “If your tag is in the Southeast Zone or Lake Eufaula Zone, the class is mandatory every year. We do that because of the contiguous zones with Georgia and the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, which is off-limits.”

Nix said between 60 and 70 percent of the tags are filled annually, but it’s not because of a lack of alligators, especially in the Southwest Zone.

“We could have a 100-percent success rate in the Southwest Zone every year,” he said. “People pass up gators they wish they had tagged. It’s just like deer hunting. Most people don’t shoot the first buck that walks into the field. People usually don’t take the first alligator they see.

“But to each his own. We had a couple that brought in two 4-footers last year, and they were as happy as could be.”

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

4 months ago

Bat blitz highlights role in Alabama’s ecosystem

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 months ago

Black bears on the move in Alabama

(P. Hill/Auburn University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago

Gulf State Park Interpretive Center, Pedestrian Bridge open

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 months ago

CAB discusses snapper, CWD and turkeys

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 months ago

Rehabilitated bald eagles released in Alabama

(D. Rainer, B. Pope)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 months ago

Red snapper recreational seasons open June 1

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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