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The Wire

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

5 days ago

Alabama leads way with Walker County archery park

(Contributed/B. Pope)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 weeks ago

Gulf Council plans April vote; Alabama sets snapper season

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 weeks ago

Byrne advocates for full Alabama red snapper season

(B. Byrne/Facebook)

Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-1) Monday sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) urging support for a full 2019 red snapper season in Alabama.

In a statement, Byrne explained, “Alabama showed last year that we can successfully manage our own recreational Red Snapper season, and I hope NOAA will soon approve the 2019 season to ensure our fishermen are given an adequate opportunity to fish for Red Snapper.”

“As I have said repeatedly, this issue is about more than just fishing,” he said. “A full Red Snapper season helps boost our coastal economies due to everything from fuel sales to hotel and condo rentals. We must continue pushing for greater state control over our fisheries, and approving Alabama’s 2019 Red Snapper season would be a major step in the right direction.”

Last year, NOAA Fisheries approved an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) for Alabama and other Gulf Coast states to allow them each to set their own red snapper seasons within federal catch limits. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) spearheaded this important effort to establish the state-led pilot program for red snapper in the 2017 appropriations process.

Congressman Byrne’s full letter as follows:

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Mr. Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator
NOAA Fisheries
1315 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Dr. Roy Crabtree, Regional Administrator
NOAA Fisheries
Southeast Regional Office
263 13th Avenue South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701

Dear Mr. Oliver and Dr. Crabtree:

I was pleased to see the draft rule to increase the Red Snapper Annual Catch Limit (ACL) and Annual Catch Targets issued by NOAA late last year. Your efforts continue to show exactly what those of us on the Gulf Coast have known for years: the health of the Red Snapper fishery is incredibly strong. With that, I write today in support of Alabama’s 2019 Red Snapper season. As you are well aware, fishermen along the Gulf Coast have faced increasingly short fishing seasons for Red Snapper.

As with the Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) you approved in 2018 that also covers this upcoming 2019 season, I encourage you to approve Alabama’s 2019 EFP Updated Terms and Conditions which will allow for the monitoring of in-season daily Red Snapper landings to maximize season length and benefit anglers, while ensuring harvests stay within set limits. I have always been an advocate for states using innovative methods to manage local fisheries and encourage you to grant Alabama’s application. Approving the 2019 terms and conditions would be consistent with congressional intent, as authored by Senator Richard Shelby in the Fiscal Year 2017 and 2018 Appropriations bills, directing the National Marine Fisheries Service to implement a state-led pilot program to allow states to take the lead in managing Red Snapper.

I enjoy working with you and am grateful for the Department’s help with the 2017 and 2018 Red Snapper seasons. Given the Red Snapper stock in the Gulf of Mexico is healthy and continues to grow, I hope you will approve the Alabama 2019 EFP Updated Terms and Conditions with the increased ACL to allow fishermen access to the fishery. Please do not hesitate to contact my office with any questions or concerns.

Sincerely,

Bradley Byrne
Member of Congress

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 weeks ago

Landowners’ help needed to count gopher tortoises

(B. Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 weeks ago

Life hunt participants bag bucks of lifetime

(David Rainer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 month ago

Red snapper study to include $250 tags on fish

(David Rainer)

When the red snapper season begins this summer in the Gulf of Mexico, some fish will carry $250 and even $500 worth of tags, as part of a study to estimate just how many of the popular sport and table fish live in the Gulf.

The fish can be released as long as the tags are snipped off.

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Scientists plan to tag 3,000 to 5,000 red snapper during April and May, said Greg Stunz of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, who is leading a team of 21 scientists from the five Gulf states and Virginia.

He said some will use university research boats, but others will go out with anglers, charter captains and commercial boats – and researchers hope to get tags back from all three fishing groups.

Each tag will be worth $250.

Some fish will carry two tags, to help scientists learn how many of the tags fall out.

Those are the potential $500 fish.

The tubular tags are about 4 to 5 inches (10 to 13 centimeters) long but only a couple of millimeters wide, Stuntz said, making them easy to snip off at the bottom.

Each has a yellow plastic insert bearing a five-digit tag number starting with the letters RS, and the words “Reward $250. Keep tag” and a phone number to call.

To get the reward, anglers need to report the fishing port from which they departed, the date the fish was caught, the fish’s length and weight, the fish’s tag number, and the latitude and longitude where it was caught.

The tag itself should also be mailed in, though Stuntz said the researchers may accept photographs.

Scientists expect about 10 percent of the tagged fish to be caught, Stunz said Friday.

The $12 million study called the Great Red Snapper Count also involves visual counts, habitat surveys, and other studies.

“We’ll be wrapped up in about a year,” Stunz said.

It was designed to check the accuracy of federal red snapper figures.

Overfishing and incidental catch in shrimp trawls caused red snapper numbers to plummet disastrously from the 1960s to late 1980s.

Since federal regulation of the catch began in 1990, numbers have rebounded.

But in recent years the recreational season got shorter and shorter. Many anglers say federal estimates are too low and seasons too short.

The problem, according to NOAA Fisheries, was that recreational anglers regularly caught far more than the quotas set by the Gulf Coast Fishery Management Council.

An overage for one season meant fewer days for the next. State agencies said NOAA was using bad data.

In response, the Trump administration extended a three-day federal season in 2017 for an additional 39 weekend days, and in 2018 created a two-year experiment in which states would open and close their recreational seasons.

Two environmental groups sued in 2017, saying the change to that season would result in overfishing.

Congress also allocated $9.5 million for the red snapper study, with the universities involved putting up another $2.5 million.

A team of 21 scientists are participating. Most are from Gulf state universities; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science also is part of the study, along with a scientist from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Three NOAA Fisheries scientists are described as noncompensated collaborators.
(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

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1 month ago

There is more to Alabama deer hunting than pointing and shooting

(Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

With hunting season in full effect, there are many hunters waiting for the perfect opportunity to take their shot.

The state’s deer hunting season started in October with bow-and-arrow season, followed by firearm season in mid-November. Deer season ends Feb. 10 in Alabama.

For officials, the season is an ongoing focus on both safety and population management.

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“Deer management is complicated. Simple, but complicated, because it’s real specific based on your property, your deer density and genetics,” said Steve Maxwell, outfitter with Master Rack Lodge.

Most hunters are looking to shoot a big buck, Maxwell said, but in proper management hunters should wait to shoot a deer until it is 3 or 4 years old. Maxwell said that’s when it’s possible to tell the health of the deer and allow the buck to mature.

Master Rack Lodge’s Steve Maxwell lays out some dos and don’ts of deer hunting from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Maxwell said the key to having a successful hunt is a clean, well-maintained gun. So is properly storing and caring for ammunition as well as siting scopes to ensure an ethical shot.

Once the gun is ready to hunt, it’s about the hunter and his or her gun, Maxwell said. After making a shot, make sure the safety is clicked and continue to ensure the gun is clear of ammunition when not being used.

“It’s all up to the human being,” Maxwell said. “Guns are guns, and it’s all on how they are handled.”

Most hunters hunt for food, serenity and because it is good for the environment, he said.

“If hunting is done properly, it’s the best thing that can happen to wild game no matter what species you are hunting,” Maxwell said.

How is hunting the best thing for wild game? Maxwell said it has to do with doe population, food sources and does adventuring out on their own. With proper skills, hunting can be successful for the hunter as well as the environment, he said.

If you’re interested in hunting or fishing in the Alabama Black Belt region, visit alabamablackbeltadventures.org/outfitters-lodges to find a great place to book a hunt.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 month ago

Alabama WFF Ramps Up CWD Sampling Effort

(Billy Pope)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 month ago

Chocolate lab Coco on point in Bobwhite Quail Fields

(David Rainer)

Without a doubt, the sometimes heated argument of who has the best hunting dog came up during the holidays and almost certainly continues today at hunting camps throughout Alabama.

To Yano Serra of Bayou La Batre, there is no argument. Serra says his chocolate Labrador retriever is a wonder dog that deserves special recognition for what he calls his “universal” hunting companion.

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I’d seen numerous photos of Coco on social media with tons of ribbons she’d received during numerous field trials, but her versatility wasn’t evident until Serra called me one day.

“Ever seen a Labrador point a quail?” Serra asked.

“Not lately,” I responded, trying to remember if I had ever seen a Lab point a quail.

I’ve always appreciated a quality pointing dog. My late father was an avid “bird” hunter and always had at least a couple of quality English pointers and/or English setters for his numerous bobwhite excursions back during the days when wild quail were still abundant.

When Serra got Coco from Steve Layton of Brewton, he didn’t know he was getting a pointing dog. He wanted a Lab for his frequent trips to the marshes and brackish water of Mississippi Sound south of Bayou La Batre to hunt ducks, mainly bluebills (scaup), redheads, scoters and an occasional canvasback.

“I knew the mama dog, and I called Steve when I found out she was going to have a litter and told him I wanted the female runt,” said Serra, who guides hunting and fishing trips. “The reason I wanted the runt was I wanted a small dog. I do a lot of duck hunting. I’ve had big Labs in the past. My last one was over 90 pounds. He was a good dog. He’d jump through fire to get a duck, but when you had to get him back in the boat, it would almost take two people to get him in the boat. Then when you got him in the boat, you’d have to turn the bilge pump on.”

Coco weighs in at 52 pounds, which Serra considers the perfect size.

“She can pick up a goose,” he said. “She can pick up a duck, and she can pick up a dove.”

At four months old, Coco’s whistle training started. Serra said Coco went everywhere with him, and he used the whistle to make her stop and come. Retrieving everything from sticks to bedroom slippers followed before Serra got into obedience.

“I would spend from 30 minutes to an hour each day on ‘heel’ and ‘sit’ and ‘stay,’” he said. “Then we got into force fetch (making the dog reliable on bird/bumper handling and retrieve). That took about a month, and then we worked on force-to-pile (bumper). That’s when you teach them to go straight back. They’re not going to go right or left. They’re just going to go.

“Some of my buddies told me I needed to take her to some hunt tests. She blew right through the hunt tests right off the bat. When she was a year old, she already had her (Hunt Retriever Club) senior title.”

Next up for Coco was the AKC (American Kennel Club) Master Hunt test. Coco passed with flying colors again.

After Coco added an Upland title, Serra went in a new direction – finding deer antler sheds. He trained Coco to “find the bone.”

Coco’s quail hunting ability came about quite by accident. Serra’s friend, Keith Walker, owns and operates Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve in south Mobile County. Taylor Creek offers sporting clays, quail hunts and pheasant shoots on acreage not far from Bellingrath Gardens. Serra had been using Walker’s property to train Coco and a couple of other dogs because the ponds on the preserve were perfect for water training. He found out Coco would point a quail quite by accident.

“Keith told me if I wanted that I could come out and he would teach me about guiding quail hunts,” Serra said. “I came out with my pointer and left Coco in the truck. After we did a little training, Keith told me to let Coco out. He said, ‘You’ve already got her trained to sit. See if she’ll do it on a quail.’ She did, and then Keith wanted to see if she would flush. I let her flush the bird, and she chased it. When we came walking out, we looked over on this little hill and there was Coco locked up on full point with her right leg in the air, nose in the air and tail stuck out. There was a quail about 4 feet in front of her. After that, she just started pointing. From then on when she’d get birdy, I’d tell her ‘easy’ to calm her down because she gets so excited.”

Serra has trained Coco to hold birds as well as circle around birds to push them in certain directions to keep them from flushing into thick cover.

“And she loves to duck hunt,” he said. “When you’ve got her in the boat, you won’t even know she’s in the boat. She just lays there. Every duck she picks up is strictly a blind retrieve because I keep her in the boat. She doesn’t see them fall. She’ll go right on through the decoys to the bird, strictly on hand signals.

“She’s great in a dove field. She won’t go after other people’s birds. I take her fishing all the time. She’ll hold a rod and reel in her mouth. If a fish flops off in the boat, I’ll tell her to fetch it up.”

Serra admits the key to a good dog has breeding involved, but a lot of it is in the training. Repetition is the key.

“Some people think it’s hard to train a dog, but it’s really not,” he said. “It’s really fun to me. When you train a dog to really listen to you, you enjoy working with the dog. The first two months is the hardest. Then you start coming down the hill. When you get that force fetch, a lot of the obedience is already there. She’ll tree a squirrel or blood-trail a deer. If I put her on a trail, that’s where she’ll go. Everybody loves that dog. I take her everywhere I go.

“She’s just a universal dog. She just turned four, and she’s getting better and better.”

Go to this link for more information about the full-day and half-day quail hunts and pheasant shoots at Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve.

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

1 month ago

Alabama Power and B.A.S.S. announce two scholarship winners

(Brenton Godwin, Grey Terry/Alabama Power, B.A.S.S.)

Alabama Power and B.A.S.S. teamed up to award two Alabama students each a $5,000 scholarship.

“We are proud to partner with Alabama Power to support students who want to further their education in a trade,” said Bruce Akin, B.A.S.S. CEO. “And, we’re even more pleased to provide additional scholarship opportunities for students.”

The two scholarship recipients are Brenton Godwin of Stapleton and Grey Terry of Tuscaloosa.

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Godwin, who is currently a senior at Baldwin County High School in Bay Minette, AL., plans to attend Coastal Alabama Community College.

“I plan on starting my college career at Coastal Alabama Community College, then transferring to Auburn University to obtain my Bachelor’s Degree in Poultry Science Production,” Godwin said. “While in college, I aspire to fish at Auburn on the collegiate level.”

Godwin has been an active member in school and community organizations, including the Baldwin County Fishing Team, which he has been a part of for three years. He is a member of the Key Club, French Club, Technology Student Association, Future Farmers of America, National Honor Society and the BCHS varsity baseball team.

Terry, who is currently a senior at Northridge High School, has been a student in the welding program at the Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy and also attends Shelton State Community College’s Dual Enrollment Welding class.

“My goal is to complete an Associate’s Degree at Shelton State and pursue a career in welding,” Terry said. “Since I began taking these courses, I have learned so much about the importance of skilled trades.”

“Congratulations to Brenton and Grey for this acknowledgment of their environmental stewardship and hard work in the classroom,” said Zeke Smith, Alabama Power executive vice president of External Affairs. “These scholarships continue to help students develop the high-demand skills needed for a career in the future workforce of Alabama, and we are proud to partner with BASS to make it happen.”

Scholarship winners are allowed to apply the award toward tuition, textbooks or living expenses.

Applications for the 2019-2020 school year will open early this year. For more details, visit Bassmaster.com.

According to the official press release, B.A.S.S. is the worldwide authority on bass fishing and keeper of the culture of the sport, providing cutting edge content on bass fishing whenever, wherever and however bass fishing fans want to use it. Headquartered in Birmingham, the 500,000-member organization’s fully integrated media platforms include the industry’s leading magazines (Bassmaster and B.A.S.S. Times), website (Bassmaster.com), television show (The Bassmasters on ESPN2 and Pursuit Channel), radio show (Bassmaster Radio), social media programs and events. For 50 years, B.A.S.S. has been dedicated to access, conservation and youth fishing.

Kyle Morris also contributes daily to Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @RealKyleMorris.

2 months ago

Kelly gains valuable experience at mentored hunt

(John Kelly)

John Kelly decided he needed an early Christmas present after enjoying an Adult Mentored Hunt at the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s Portland Landing Special Opportunity Area (SOA) near Camden.

Kelly, an electrical engineer who works in the defense industry in the Huntsville area, said the experience at the mentored hunt inspired a desire to continue his hunting career. He just ordered a crossbow.

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“I’ve been trying to learn how to hunt this year,” Kelly said. “I was on the outdooralabama.com website, just looking at hunting regulations, and I lucked onto a link about the mentored hunts. I thought, ‘Perfect.’ I had looked at websites and read books about hunting. There is only so much you can read. You can read two books and still not learn what you can by spending an afternoon in the deer blind with someone who knows what he’s doing.”

Kelly has family who own farms, but nobody in his family is considered a hunter. After his grandfather passed away, he started exploring the farm where his parents and grandmother live.

“There are these great wild spaces where I’ve never even wandered around or appreciated that much,” he said. “I’m just trying to connect with nature.”

Instead of going on a hiking trip and only observing nature, Kelly wanted to interact with nature, become a part of the cycle.

“When I got the email that I had gotten drawn, I was bouncing off the walls,” he said. “It was great. When I got there, I was expecting to get some educational stuff, like how to shoot, hunt and some demonstrations on how to field-dress a deer. That was the stuff I expected even though it was better than I thought it was going to be. But I think the thing I didn’t expect was how much I would connect with everybody there. I was expecting kind of an outdoor class, but I got really more of an emotional experience that I hadn’t expected at all. I really connected with the instructors and other mentees. It was very unexpected how close you can get to people by spending a couple of days in the woods with them, and just how open, warm and nice the people who were volunteering their time were. They were so incredibly welcoming and happy to have us there.

“It wasn’t like the camp-counselor vibe where the counselor says, ‘Welcome to Camp Idon’twanna. Over here we have the archery range.’ They were the nicest, warmest people. They were treating us like family. And we were so happy that they wanted us there. It was beyond my wildest expectations.”

Kelly showed up at Portland with no experience with rifles either.

“I’d never shot a rifle before, unless you count video games or virtual reality,” said the 32-year-old Kelly. “It was loud and fun. It was definitely less intimidating than I expected. I hadn’t been around them before, so I wasn’t super comfortable. But after spending a day on the range with the instructors, I said, ‘Oh, these are fine.’”

In total, Kelly fired the rifle nine times and discovered he became sufficiently proficient on the rifle range.

“I shot eight times on the range, and the ninth shot went straight through the heart of a doe,” he said.

Kelly said the prequel to the shot at the doe was enlightening as well with the quiet stalk into the woods to the blind, the watching and listening to nature unfold and spying the animals that inhabit the Alabama forests.

“You think, okay, it’s just an animal, like a squirrel at the park,” he said. “All of a sudden, these deer, like ghosts, appeared silently in front of you. You can feel your heart rate pick up. It was surprisingly exciting to see them show up.

“When I actually got ready for the shot, I got calm and focused and took care of business. Everything else, like sitting there watching nature, watching the birds feed and listening to my instructor tell me about the wildlife and plants, that was such a fantastic experience.”

Because of his lack of hunting experience, Kelly wasn’t positive he had hit the doe where he wanted. But they quickly picked up the blood trail and didn’t have to go far to find the deer.

“When I saw the deer lying 10 yards in the woods, it was more of a relief than anything else,” he said. “I was afraid I might have just injured it. To find it quickly was a very nice feeling.

“Now I understand that feeling, thinking about future hunts, that I want to make a clean shot or no shot. I understand a lot better now why people say that.”

With the doe retrieved and back at the lodge, the instructors went through the field-dress procedures and how to skin and quarter the deer.

“I came home with a cooler full of deer and wild boar,” Kelly said. “We decided to butcher it ourselves. It took three solid afternoons to finish butchering that deer and boar. I watched a YouTube video and this guy does an entire deer in 20 minutes. It took me a lot longer, but we got it.”

Kelly then shared his bounty with his family just across the Alabama line in Tennessee.

“We went to my parents’ house and grilled venison tenderloin,” he said. “Then we cooked a pot roast. My mom showed me her recipe for pot roast. I put in the venison and we cooked it and I got to serve it to them. That was an unexpected, awesome feeling to be able to serve the thing I’d had a hand in harvesting. It was hands-on all the way from field to table.”

As Kelly put on his Facebook page, “I finally understand how Granny felt all those times she would fix us a meal and tell us ‘these beans are from the garden’ or ‘this squash is from the garden’ or ‘this beef was raised here on this farm.’ It really is just a totally different feeling!”

Kelly wasn’t sure how his family, which also included an aunt and an uncle, would react to the venison.

“My parents told me they were prepared to grit their teeth and smile and say, ‘Oh, it’s delicious,’” Kelly said. “But it was a hit all the way around. They asked for seconds. I got good instruction on how to preserve and prepare it too. Plus, it was a tender doe. My family was pleasantly surprised at how delicious the venison was.”

Kelly’s experience is exactly what Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries had in mind when they established the Adult Mentored Hunting Program. Go to this link and this link to learn more about the adult mentored hunts and the Special Opportunity Areas utilized to host them.

Working for the U.S. Army, Kelly said his main job is to “go out in the desert and blow stuff up and do all kinds of cool things.”

His leisure time, however, will include more deer hunting. His Army credentials allow him to hunt Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, which is one of the areas he plans to explore.

Kelly and his hunting partner, Dianna Valdez, are already figuring out where their next hunt will occur. Valdez took some of the wild hog and prepared it for her family.

Because of the weapon restrictions at the Arsenal (archery and shotgun only), Kelly opted to purchase the crossbow to continue his deer hunting.

“I can hunt the Arsenal, and I’ve been looking up information on the WMAs (Wildlife Management Areas) and public land near me,” he said. “Yeah, we’re already planning where we can go next. I’m hooked.”

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 duck hunters hope for repeat of last season

(Seth Maddox)

The snowstorm that skirted just north of the state recently should be good news for Alabama’s duck hunters.

The waterfowl seasons in Alabama are always weather-dependent. If it’s cold and snowy north of us, the birds will migrate in significant numbers into Alabama. Without the cold or precipitation to cover their food sources, the birds won’t make it this far south.

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Seth Maddox, Migratory Gamebird Program Coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said duck numbers should be increasing soon even though the numbers were down when the annual aerial survey took place the week before the season opened.

“We were down a little bit on our preseason counts,” Maddox said. “We had a few cold fronts and a lot of rain. That spread the birds out a lot. I think it pushed some of the early migrators further south.

“That left us with a decent amount of birds, but not a good number for opening weekend. On opening weekend, people killed birds but it wasn’t a great opener. When the season opened back up, it got better. Most of the birds are just a little north of us. I hope with another cold front or two, it will push birds into Alabama. We got a small push from that snowstorm, but I hope we get a larger push soon.

Maddox said the long-term weather forecast bodes well for waterfowl hunters in Alabama.

“It’s shaping up to be similar to last year,” he said. “They’re predicting several disturbances up in the Arctic region with some polar vortexes, which will give us some cold weather. Last year, we had some sub-freezing temperatures, below average temperatures, for a week or so throughout the season. I think that’s going to end up giving us a season similar to last season.”

That would be great news for waterfowlers, considering the harvest for the 2017-2018 season was up 85 percent over the similar period a year earlier.

“That’s a significant increase,” Maddox said. “We had about 14 days during the season where temperatures stayed below freezing. That cold weather and snow north of us really pushed birds into Alabama.”

Maddox said the wood duck harvest last season was especially high, which means a good many woodies came from the north.

“The cold weather pushed lots of wood ducks down,” he said. “We get some migration of wood ducks from northern states every year. Sometimes our wood ducks will move further south, but most of the time they hang tight here in Alabama.

“What we do see, when we see a lot of wood duck migrants from the north, a lot of our males will pair up with northern females. The males will follow the females back to their breeding grounds in the spring because the females go back to the same breeding grounds every year.”

Maddox said the banding program that the WFF conducts annually on wood ducks gives him the data needed to come to those conclusions.

“A lot of our male wood ducks get killed north of us,” he said. “For example, I had one that I banded in Jackson County a couple of years ago that was killed in Ontario (Canada) earlier this year. We had one of our males killed in Minnesota as well.”

Back to the preseason survey, the survey team looks for dabblers (mallards, gadwall, teal) and divers (canvasbacks, redheads, scaup) during the flyovers.

Gadwalls led the count with 12,000 observed statewide, although the survey covers only a small portion of the state. The mallard count totaled 1,500, followed by 1,000 green-winged teal. The total dabbler count was 15,651.

The diver count turned out to be a pleasant surprise with 7,000 birds counted, which is higher than the five-year average.

“There were a bunch of canvasbacks here early,” Maddox said. “Ringnecks led the way, as they usually do. We also had scaup and redheads.

“The migrant geese don’t show up until the middle of December, so you might be able to get a Christmas goose here soon.”

Mike Carter, a renowned fishing guide on the Tennessee River lakes, switches to waterfowl hunting in north Alabama this time of year and keeps an eye on the duck population by regularly looking for ducks at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Carter is expecting a big increase in duck numbers any day now.

“We got some gadwalls and ringnecks, but we haven’t gotten a big push yet,” Carter said. “I’m expecting the ducks to show up really soon. We’ve got ice and snow north of us. I do my scouting by watching the Refuge, and I haven’t seen a big increase yet.”

Carter would be a happy duck hunter if the current season matches last year’s.

“It seems the ducks got here a little quicker last year,” he said. “Last year was great. I think we’re going to get that at some point. We’ve got flooded timber and buckbrush, so they’ve got plenty of places to feed and find cover. We’ve got a lot more water this year, so I think it’s going to be even better when the ducks finally make their move.”

The most likely duck spots in Alabama include the Tennessee River basin in north Alabama, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in south Alabama as well as the Lake Eufaula area and west central Alabama in the Demopolis area and other lakes on the Tombigbee River and Millers Ferry on the Alabama River near Camden.

The number of duck hunters in Alabama has apparently peaked with no downturn in the past several years.

“The number of licensed duck hunters seems to be holding steady around 30,000 for the last 3 to 4 years,” Maddox said. “That’s a good thing.”

Maddox said WFF has plans to expand enhancements for the waterfowl population in the coming years.

“We’ve got big plans ahead, partnering with Ducks Unlimited, to spend some substantial expenditures over the next several years on waterfowl habitat management,” he said.

WFF manages several public hunting locations in north Alabama, the Jackson County Waterfowl Areas. Waterfowl hunting is allowed on Mud Creek, Raccoon Creek and Crow Creek, although special seasons and restrictions apply. No waterfowl hunting in Mud Creek (Wannville) and Raccoon Creek dewatering units or Crow Creek WMA on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. All activity is prohibited in these locations on those days. The drawing for the limited quota hunt units on the Crow Creek Special Opportunity Area has already been held.

A limit of one 25-round box of shells in possession is in effect on all Jackson County WMAs while waterfowl hunting. No gasoline-powered motors are allowed in Mud Creek (Wannville) dewatering unit and Raccoon Creek dewatering unit (North of Hwy 117). Visit this link for more information.

“Most of the people we talked to are happy with these restrictions that allow the birds to rest for a few days,” Maddox said. “The 25-shell rule cuts down on the extra shooting, the sky busting. People perceive that as a good thing.”

For the Mobile-Tensaw Delta/W.L. Holland Waterfowl Management Zone in south Alabama, one new restriction is in place for the current season. The use of gasoline motor prohibition zone that was in effect for Big Bateau Bay last year has been expanded to include Bay Grass. A no-hunting refuge zone remains in effect in the area west of the Apalachee River, occupying the area between the Causeway (Battleship Parkway) and I-10 to its intersection.

Hunting in the Waterfowl Management Zone is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Hunting is allowed from a half hour before sunrise until 1 p.m. on Wednesdays through Sundays during the season.

Go here for the 2018-2019 Alabama Waterfowl Hunting Guide.

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

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries enforcement increases deer carcass surveillance

(Billy Pope)

Hunters who travel out of state should be aware that the Enforcement Section of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has significantly increased its surveillance of roads along state borders, looking for persons illegally importing deer carcasses.

The regulation that banned the import of cervid body parts from states known to be CWD-positive was enacted three years ago to safeguard against disease transmission. When a Mississippi deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD) earlier this year, DCNR was already in the process of expanding its prohibition of the importation of carcasses of white-tailed deer and other cervids (elk, mule deer, moose, etc.) to include all states.

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“Those thoroughfares in close proximity to the state borders are where we have concentrated our efforts,” WFF Enforcement Chief Matt Weathers said. “This is important for the defense of the state – though it is a labor-intensive undertaking.”

Weathers said the surveillance puts extra pressure on the Enforcement Officers, who still must perform other duties.

“It is the middle of deer season, so we’ve got lots of other tasks and calls to conduct,” he said. “But keeping CWD out of Alabama is extremely important, so we’re conducting details on the state lines to attempt to ensure no deer are brought into Alabama from other states.

He added, “We are concentrating our efforts to match those peak hunting seasons in the West and Midwest when people would be bringing deer carcasses into the state. To some extent, it will go throughout the entirety of our deer season.”

Since 1907, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has been tasked with protecting Alabama’s natural resources on behalf of its citizens. The Alabama Legislature recognized that commercial exploitation was having a significant adverse impact on the state’s natural resources and founded the ADCNR. Although some exploitation of resources continues today, it has been minimized by the promulgation and enforcement of laws that protect those natural resources.

Although the ADCNR’s basic mission has changed very little over the last eleven decades, the types of threats facing Alabama’s natural resources have changed.

Today, the largest threat is CWD and the impact it could have on Alabama’s hunting industry and our hunting heritage.

“If you hunt deer in Alabama, enjoy watching deer in our state, or if you benefit from the nearly $2 billion industry that exists in Alabama surrounding these activities, you should be aware that your very way of life could change greatly in the coming years if we all do not work together to keep CWD out of Alabama,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship.

CWD is a 100-percent-fatal, communicable disease that is very similar to Mad Cow Disease in cattle. The prion that causes CWD can be found concentrated in the brain, spinal cord and bone tissue well after the infected animal dies.

“If those infected parts are brought into our state and thrown out where deer from our herd can come into contact with them, we could become a CWD-positive state overnight,” Blankenship said.

One of the disconcerting aspects of the new regulations is the attitude of hunters toward those restrictions. A case in point occurred when Alabama and Tennessee wildlife officials conducted a joint operation at Alabama’s northern border.

That effort resulted in six citations for hunters bringing back field-dressed deer into Alabama from other states.

Alabama’s Enforcement Section has made several other cases since, and there seems to be a disturbing thread.

“We’ve got guys bringing deer back to Alabama that originated many states away,” Weathers said. “Many, if not all, of the states they passed through have similar regulations. For the limited amount of time we’ve conducted this operation, it is a concerning number of violations. It speaks to the volume of the problem.

“We’ve had several folks we questioned who were as aware and fluent in the law as we were. They just thought that it didn’t matter. It’s troubling that not everybody takes this as the serious issue it is.”

WFF has long recognized the potential threat of CWD and started testing deer in our state in a preemptive manner in 2002. To date, WFF has tested more than 8,000 deer with no positive CWD samples found.

“This is NOT something that you can pour bleach or Lysol on and make it no longer a threat,” Weathers said. “It’s going to be there beyond any kind of chemical you pour on it. And time doesn’t seem to have any effect on it either.”

This past August, ADCNR unveiled an extensive advertising campaign to educate those hunters who travel to hunt out of state. Billboards and various other informational materials were placed along highway routes at state lines providing information about CWD and the regulations regarding the importation of deer parts returning from a hunting trip out of state. The regulations require that all deer meat be deboned and only cleaned skull plates with bare antlers without visible brain or spinal tissue can be imported. Raw capes with no visible brain or spinal tissue can be brought in as well as upper canine teeth with no root structure or soft tissue present. Finished taxidermy products and tanned hides can be imported. Velvet-covered antlers are prohibited unless they are part of a finished taxidermy project.

“Despite our best efforts at education, unlawful import of those prohibited parts remains a problem,” Weathers said. “ADCNR has gone to great lengths to provide a sustainable white-tailed deer herd for the citizens of Alabama to enjoy. Today, however, simply providing this herd isn’t enough. We must protect it. We protect it not only for ourselves but for those who will come after us. I once heard someone say, ‘In the gravest of situations, doing your best isn’t enough; you must do what is required.’

“So, when you see your local Conservation Enforcement Officer patrolling near a state line, know that what you are actually seeing is the front line in the fight against CWD.”

WFF Director Chuck Sykes has been in Washington, D.C., meeting with Congressional staffs about the CWD threat, as well as other issues.

“Senator Doug Jones is co-sponsoring a bill to provide funding for more CWD research and more money for the states to manage it,” Sykes said. “CWD is a big deal. Once it’s here, it’s here forever, so our best strategy is to keep it out. One of the best ways to keep it out is to not bring carcasses back from any other state.”

Alabama’s CWD Response Plan has response protocols established to delineate those out-of-state cases using concentric circles around the positive test site in increments of 25 miles, 50 miles and more than 50 miles and to implement specific action plans accordingly.

When a case of CWD in a 1½-year-old buck was confirmed recently in Pontotoc County, Miss., portions of three counties in Alabama fell within the 50-mile-radius protocol – Franklin, Marion and Lamar counties.

Sykes said Mississippi is getting pretty good compliance at their drop-off stations and with hunter-harvested deer for sampling.

“But it’s a scary thing,” Sykes said. “I was with some of the legislators from Mississippi at a conference I just attended. It’s a concern for our way of life and a huge economic driver in our states.”

Sykes said the most disappointing aspect of the CWD threat is the nonchalant attitude of hunters who were caught bringing deer carcasses into the state illegally.

“Everybody we issued citations to knew they were breaking the law,” Sykes said. “Nobody pled ignorance. Their attitude was, ‘Ain’t no big deal.’ They knew what they were doing. You just don’t want to be that guy. Why would you take a chance in bringing something into Alabama and the CWD transmission being credited to you just because you didn’t take a few extra minutes to do things right? I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.”

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

Alabama Gulf Seafood shines at WFC

(David Rainer)

’Tis the season to loosen those belts and locate the sweat pants in preparation for Thanksgiving week. Of course, by the time the weekend is here, everybody will likely be tired of turkey and the leftovers.

Fortunately, we folks in Alabama can easily find fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico to provide a delicious change in the menu.

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Speaking of being fortunate, I can attest to how mouth-watering fresh seafood can be after serving as one of the judges at the World Food Championships (WFC) held earlier this month in Orange Beach. One of my duties was to judge the signature dish round of the seafood competition.

I know, I know. How did I get that job? Judging the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Wild Game Cook-Offs for the past 20 years helps as well as hanging out with folks like chef Chris Sherrill, who helped me achieve EAT judging certification, and Mobile Press-Register food editor David Holloway.

Alabama Gulf Seafood was one of the sponsors of the seafood competition, which meant the chefs had the freshest Gulf seafood available to prepare the dishes.

When the difficult judging (in terms of distinguishing between the delicious dishes) was finished, chefs from Alabama held three spots in the top ten. Matt and Regina Shipp of Orange Beach took fourth place, followed by Tuscaloosa’s Paul Kerr in fifth and Orange Beach’s Haikel Harris in sixth.

Talk about accidental contestants, the Shipps, who operate the Fin and Fork restaurant in Orange Beach, didn’t have WFC competition on the radar until their culinary skills were on display at a local fundraiser, which also happened to be a WFC qualifier.

“We didn’t go into Uncorked for the competition,” Regina said of the event at The Wharf to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “It’s a fundraiser and we did it to help the community.”

For the structured dish, the cook teams were required to prepare mahi mahi on a cedar plank. The Shipps tested their creation the day before the competition.

“Regina asked me if I had ever done that dish,” Matt said. “I said, yes, about 15 years ago.”

The two stopped at Publix, purchased cedar planks and soaked them to get ready for the test run. The Shipps scored a 96.25 out of 100 on the mahi dish.

“That’s why it’s exciting,” Matt said. “I think I bring a certain talent to the preparation of the dish, and Regina’s creativity brings the dish to 100 percent.”

For their signature dish, the Shipps stuck with one of their favorites, yellowtail snapper.

Whole Yellowtail Snapper

to 1½-pound yellowtail snapper

4 cups rice flour

1 cup red chili flakes

1 tsp baking powder (for crispness)

Salt and pepper to taste.

Marinade

2 cups unsweetened coconut milk

1 cup dark rum

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup lime juice

½ cup sliced red bell peppers

½ cup sliced yellow bell peppers

½ cup sliced green bell peppers

½ cup red onions

Fresh cilantro to taste

Scale and score the yellowtail snapper and marinate the fish for several hours. Reserve half the marinade.

Combine rice flour, chili flakes and baking powder. Roll scored snapper in the rice flour mixture. Drop in 350-degree oil for about 6-7 minutes, depending on the size.

While the fish is frying, take the reserved marinade and simmer until reduced by half to make the finishing sauce. Remove the fish from the fryer and let it drain on a rack momentarily. Plate and spoon plenty of sauce over the top.

After making the finals, all the contestants were required to use grouper filets in the deciding dish.

Fin and Fork Grouper

1 6-ounce grouper fillet

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup Panko bread crumbs

2 Tbsp oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Salt and pepper fillet, roll in flour, dip in buttermilk and roll in Panko bread crumbs before sautéing in skillet until brown on both sides. Transfer to 500-degree oven to complete cooking with cook time depending on the thickness of the fillet. Cook in oven for 10 minutes for a 1-inch-thick fillet.

Lemon Beurre Blanc Sauce

½ cup lemon juice

½ cup white wine

1 Tbsp heavy cream

½ pound unsalted butter

Combine lemon juice, white wine and heavy cream. Simmer to reduce by half, and slowly add cold butter one pat at a time to make the beurre blanc sauce.

Topping

½ cup of lemon beurre blanc sauce

½ cup diced red onions

2 cups sliced button mushrooms

8 deveined Gulf shrimp

1 cup white wine

½ cup lump blue crab meat

Heat beurre blanc. Add onions and heat until translucent. Add mushrooms and shrimp until shrimp are about halfway cooked. Add cup white wine and simmer to reduce until shrimp are just done. Do not overcook or the shrimp will be tough. Add crab meat and combine.

Take fish from the oven, plate, and spoon over a generous portion of topping with crab and shrimp over fillet.

“For us to finish fourth for our first time, that was pretty awesome,” Matt said. “The competition was really close. Between the winner and fourth place was just a little over a point.”

Close behind was Harris’ team from the Flora-Bama Yacht Club with its Margarita Mahi and stuffed grouper finale. However, the team’s success was not because of a lot of practice.

“We didn’t get to put a lot of prep into it this year because we’ve been so busy with all the evacuees from Hurricane Michael coming over,” Harris said. “So we got a little behind. I got an email from World Food Championships to turn in my recipes ASAP; the deadline was near. I ended up putting the recipe for the first round together in less than two hours to keep from getting disqualified.”

Margarita Mahi

1 6-ounce mahi mahi fillet

Cavender’s Greek seasoning to taste

1 Tbsp sesame oil

Cedar plank

Brush seasoned fillet with oil and slow-roast seasoned mahi on cedar plank on grill away from direct heat until fish is done, 15-20 minutes.

Margarita Rice

¼ cup diced yellow onion

2 ounces unsalted butter

1 cup jasmine rice

2 Tbsp lime juice

2 Tbsp lemon juice

2 Tbsp orange juice

Zest from half of each fruit

1 ounce tequila

½ ounce triple sec

Sauté onions in butter until translucent. Add remaining ingredients and cook until all liquid is absorbed by the rice and rice is tender.

Citrus Beurre Blanc

½ cup diced yellow onions

2 Tbsp diced garlic

1 Tbsp olive oil

1½ cups white wine

1 cup lemon juice

¼ cup orange juice

1 pound unsalted butter

Sauté onions and garlic until translucent. Add wine and fruit juices. Simmer to reduce by half, and slowly add cold butter on low heat until incorporated.

For plating, add layer of Margarita Rice, top with mahi fillet and ladle beurre blanc over top.

Boursin and Boudin Stuffed Grouper

2 links boudin sausage, casings removed

5 ounces Boursin cheese

2 ounces Panko bread crumbs

1 6-ounce grouper fillet

1 pound unsalted butter

3 ounces jumbo lump crab meat

Flora-Bama House Rub

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp ground mustard

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

Béarnaise Sauce

¼ cup shallots

6 cloves black garlic

1 Tbsp unsalted butter

½-cup white wine vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon

12 egg yolks

½ tsp cayenne pepper

½ tsp white pepper

½ tsp salt

1 pound melted butter

1 sprig tarragon, minced

Combine boudin, cheese and Panko to make stuffing. Cut pocket in grouper filet and fill with stuffing. Rub Flora-Bama House Rub on each side of fish filet. Sauté butter until brown. Reserve half and add fish fillet to remainder to brown on both sides. Transfer to 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.

Sauté jumbo lump crab in reserved brown butter.

To make sauce, sauté shallots and garlic in butter. Add vinegar and juice from half lemon. Simmer to reduce until thick syrup and set aside. In double boiler combine egg yolks, cayenne and white pepper, salt and remainder of lemon juice. Slowly heat and lightly whisk until egg mixture starts to thicken.

“Thicken the eggs to where when you drag your whisk through it you can see the lines left in the eggs,” Harris said.

Pull egg mixture from the heat and slowly fold in the pound of melted butter. Fold in the white wine vinegar reduction. Fold in minced tarragon to complete the sauce.

Plate fish fillet. Top with sautéed crab meat. Liberally spoon Béarnaise Sauce over top.

Mouth drooling yet? Mine is, and I’m not even hungry.

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

Alabama officials closely monitoring contaminated deer found in Mississippi

(Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism)

While Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) officials continue to do all they can to keep chronic wasting disease (CWD) out of Alabama, unfortunately the latest news from our neighbors in Mississippi is not good.

Another deer in the lower Mississippi Delta in Issaquena County, a 2½-year-old doe, tested positive for CWD last week. The initial CWD case in Mississippi last January was also in Issaquena County, confirmed in a 4½-year-old buck.

These are in addition to the Mississippi deer in a different county that tested positive for CWD about two weeks ago. A 1½-year-old buck tested positive in Pontotoc County in north central Mississippi, about 200 miles from the initial case.

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WFF Director Chuck Sykes is watching and analyzing all of these developments very closely.

“These last two cases are concerning,” Sykes said. “Typically, you think of CWD as being found in older age-class males.”

Also gaining Sykes’ full and immediate attention, the Pontotoc County CWD-positive deer was within 50 miles of Alabama’s border.

“With the Pontotoc deer being within the 50-mile radius of Alabama, we’re doing exactly what we said we would do in our response plan,” Sykes said.

The section of the Alabama CWD Response Plan that deals with out-of-state cases uses concentric circles around the positive test site in increments of 25 miles, 50 miles and more than 50 miles. With the case confirmed in Pontotoc County, portions of three counties in Alabama fall within the 50-mile-radius protocol – Franklin, Marion and Lamar counties.

“We have met with DOT (Alabama Department of Transportation) engineers to help us in locating road-killed deer that will be tested,” Sykes said. “Our technical assistance staff will continue their efforts in working with hunting clubs, taxidermists and meat processors in those counties to collect samples.

“I don’t want people to panic, but they need to understand that we’re doing everything we can to keep it out of Alabama. The main thing I want to get across is that we are not targeting any one particular group. This is not a deer breeder versus a non-breeder. This is not a high fence versus a no fence. This isn’t a dog hunter versus a stalk hunter issue. Honestly, this isn’t even just a hunting issue. This is an Alabama issue concerning the protection of a public-trust natural resource. We really need people to focus on facts about CWD, not what they hear about or read on Facebook.”

Sykes said deer hunting is such a cherished thread that runs through Alabama’s heritage and way of life that any effect on that endeavor could have far-reaching consequences.

“Whether you hunt or not, the economic impacts of deer hunting generate more than $1 billion annually into Alabama,” he said. “In one way, form or fashion, most everybody in the state is positively impacted by deer hunting. So, we’re doing everything we can to keep it out of Alabama.

“In the chance CWD gets here, we have a plan in place to mitigate the risk. It’s all in black and white on outdooralabama.com. What I need the public to know about this is that we have had a CWD response plan in place since 2012. It updates constantly, based on the latest scientific research. I have a whole team that works on this. It’s not done by one person behind closed doors in Montgomery. It’s done on a national level. We look at what works, what doesn’t work, what states have tried and what states have failed–the good, the bad and the ugly.  This is a methodical process. Our plan is based on the latest nationwide scientific research.”

Sykes said there is no way to know what will happen in Alabama if CWD is confirmed.

“It’s hard to say how Alabama will be impacted compared to other states,” he said. “Each state is different.”

At a recent Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA) Law Enforcement Chiefs meeting, a conversation between WFF Enforcement Chief Matt Weathers and a member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission highlighted the vulnerability of Alabama in this situation.

“Northwest Arkansas has a high prevalence rate of CWD,” Sykes said. “Chief Weathers asked his Arkansas counterpart at SEAFWA how CWD was impacting their hunting licenses and budget. In Arkansas it isn’t a major concern because their agency gets one-eighth of 1 percent of sales tax. It does matter to us because we don’t get that. We can’t handle people not deer hunting, not eating deer meat and not buying hunting licenses. It will change the ability of our agency to manage and enhance wildlife and fisheries in Alabama forever.

“I don’t want people to think we are never going to deer-hunt again, that all the deer in the state are going to die. That hasn’t been shown to happen in the CWD-positive states. However, they never go back to the same. We will have to adjust to a new normal. But, we want to prevent it as long as we can. In the event it does come here, we are fully prepared to address it to minimize the risk.”

Alabama has tested more than 8,000 deer during the past 15 years, and no deer has tested positive for CWD.

“We don’t have our heads in the sand,” Sykes said. “We’re doing everything we can. That involves making rules and regulations that are, at times, unpopular. It’s been illegal to bring a live deer into Alabama since the early ’70s.  However, we caught someone in 2016 bringing in deer from Indiana for breeding purposes.  It’s been illegal to bring a carcass in from a CWD-positive state for three years. This year, we had to ban carcasses from every state. That’s an inconvenience on everybody, us included. A lot of us hunt out of state, so it’s impacting us as well. But it’s something we have to do to protect the natural resources of Alabama because not every state tests for CWD as judiciously as we do.

“We had a joint law enforcement detail with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency along the Tennessee-Alabama state line on Sunday November 11th, checking for illegal carcasses being brought back into Alabama. We made six cases on hunters bringing back field-dressed deer into Alabama from Kansas and Kentucky. In all six arrests, the individuals knew it was illegal to bring the carcass through Alabama. In addition to violating Alabama law, they also violated Tennessee law. Several of the carcasses were destined for Florida, jeopardizing yet another state.”

An old friend, Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland of Mossy Oak camouflage fame, has been directly impacted by the positive CWD test in Pontotoc County, Mississippi.  Strickland has a farm in Lee County, Mississippi.

“This is a black cloud, no doubt,” said Strickland, who sits on the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) Board.  “My farm borders Pontotoc County.  We’re just outside the containment zone, but I’m afraid it’s just a matter of time.

“You think that it’s something that’s going on somewhere else, like Colorado, where it started. Or Wisconsin or Wyoming.  Then, bam, it’s in the Delta, and now Pontotoc County.  It’s happened so fast, it’s kind of scary.”

Strickland said it’s difficult for the average hunter to determine how CWD is going to impact hunting in the South because of the wide range of reactions.

“On one end of the scale, you have people saying the sky is falling,” he said.  “On the other end of the scale, depending on who you talk to, they say, ‘Aww, it’s been around for a thousand years.’  I’m assuming it’s somewhere in the middle as to where the truth lies.

“I don’t know if people are taking this as seriously as I have. We’re kind of in the hunting business at Mossy Oak.”

Strickland has been taking his grandson, who has been affectionately nicknamed Cranky, on a variety of hunting adventures in recent years. Strickland doesn’t have any inclination to alter their behavior.

“We’re going to continue to hunt,” Strickland said. “I’m going to assume the people that really attack this and know what they’re doing are going to lead us down the right road.”

Strickland is concerned the CWD threat will have a detrimental effect on the recreational opportunities that have so positively impacted his way of life.

“Hunting license sales are already down,” he said.  “This is just another hurdle. We’re battling more than just CWD.  We’re battling time, more than anything.  The new people, the 30- to 40-year-olds with kids and everything, are having trouble finding time to go hunting.  There’s a lot chipping away at our lifestyle.

“Hunting is what we lived for when I was growing up.  I used to could sleep like baby the night before Christmas.  But the night before hunting season opened, I literally would lie down with my hunting clothes on to make sure I wouldn’t be late.”

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

ADCNR officials, program honored by peers

(Outdoor Alabama)

October has been a special month for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) in terms of recognition from its peers.

Both the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA) and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council held significant events a few blocks apart last week in Mobile.

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The Gulf Council met at the Renaissance Battle House Hotel to discuss a variety of issues, including state management of red snapper. During that meeting, the Gulf Council presented Alabama Marine Resources Conservation Officer Kyle “Bull” Rabren with the 2017 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award.

The Gulf Council award “acknowledges service above and beyond duty requirements and recognizes distinguished service, professionalism, and dedication to enforcing federal fishing regulations in the Gulf of Mexico.”

A three-year veteran of Marine Resources, Rabren is a patrol officer in Baldwin County. In 2017, Rabren conducted 810 hours of patrol on federal fisheries enforcement. He participated in 817 vessel boardings, intercepted nearly 3,000 commercial and recreational anglers and assisted in 107 state and federal citations or cases. Rabren was involved in citing multiple commercial fishing violations, including over the limit of large coastal sharks. In one incident, Rabren seized 88 sharks totaling 2,733 pounds. Rabren charged the same individual with subsequent violations, which resulted in $2,700 in fines and the forfeiture of boat, nets and equipment valued at about $100,000. Rabren, 33, also identified an unpermitted charter vessel operating in federal waters as well as numerous vessels in violation of season or possession limits of red snapper.

“With the little bit of coastline we have in the state, I really wasn’t expecting to bring this award home to Alabama,” Rabren said. “You go out and put the hours in in the heat and freezing cold. You really want people to do the right thing, but you know some people are not going to abide by the rules. I really just want to protect the resource.

“My son (JT) is 3 years old. I really want him to have something that’s worth fishing or hunting.”

Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon said Rabren put in extra effort to rearrange his schedule to specifically monitor certain illegal fishing activities.

“I’m extremely proud of Bull, as we affectionately call him,” Bannon said. “He worked very hard on several federal cases. Some of the activity was taking place at all hours of the night, so he adjusted his patrol efforts to determine if the law was being broken. He made some great cases, and he gets along great with the rest of our officers. They work together and work hard.”

Rabren charged one individual with seven federal charges and four state charges. The charges included possession of prohibited species, over the limit twice, obstruction of justice, two counts of (shark) finning, fishing with a gill net and possession of 20 game fish (red drum).

“He was targeting an illegal activity,” Bannon said. “It just happened to be the same person conducting the illegal activity more than once.”

Bannon said Alabama’s Marine Resources has the least number of enforcement officers on the Gulf, which makes maximizing the patrol time a priority.

“Because of our numbers, our (18) officers have to work extra hard,” he said. “We can’t throw a lot of people at a problem. They have to come up with creative solutions to address illegal activity.”

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship, who was recently presented the Lyles-Simpson Award by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission for lifetime achievements in marine fisheries, said he was elated to find out that Rabren would be the first Alabama officer to receive the award.

“I’m so proud to see one of our young officers recognized by the Gulf Council for their hard work,” said Blankenship, who started his ADCNR career as a Marine Resources Enforcement Officer in 1994. “We have so many good officers in the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. When one of them is recognized, it shines a great light on the people we have and the dedication they show doing their job every day. I’m really happy for Bull.”

As for the Lyles-Simpson Award, Blankenship said, “I was very honored to receive that award. When you look at the men and women who have received that award in the past, they are pillars of the fisheries management world. To be included in that list is quite an honor.”

Down the street at the Renaissance Riverview Hotel, SEAFWA’s annual conference resulted in another honor – the 2018 SEAFWA Diversity and Inclusion Award – for the ADCNR’s Collegiate Mentoring Program, which assists minority students who want to work with fish and wildlife agencies. The program provides those students with hands-on experience in a variety of outdoor activities beneficial to the pursuit of a career in those fields.

“Students majoring in various natural sciences and conservation fields are being introduced to hunting, fishing, camping, canoeing, firearm safety and habitat management and participating in discussions on current issues facing conservation with practicing professionals,” said Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes, who is also the current SEAFWA President. “We recognize the challenges that many minority students face in trying to find mentors and opportunities to engage in such experiences, and we want to make it easier for those interested in the conservation profession to do so.”

Since its inception at Tuskegee University in 2016, more than 80 students have participated in the program. Participants in the ADCNR program are encouraged to engage with the SEAFWA Minorities in Natural Resources Committee (MINRC) as well.

SEAFWA, which represents 15 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, noted that ADCNR fostered legislation to reduce out-of-state license fees for college students as well as establishing special opportunity areas (SOAs) for hunting and the Adult Mentored Hunting Program for adults with little or no hunting experience.

“ADCNR, along with its nongovernmental organization partners, has been instrumental in providing educational equipment, training and opportunities to people who otherwise would not have much exposure to the outdoors,” MINRC Chair David Buggs said. “We commend their efforts and look forward to the growth of the program.”

ADCNR has plans to expand the Collegiate Mentoring Program to Auburn University, Troy University and Alabama A&M University.

SEAWFA also honored Vance Wood as the Alabama Enforcement Officer of the Year during the awards ceremony.

Meanwhile, back down the street at the Gulf Council meeting, the Council did not finalize Amendment 50, which would allow for state management of red snapper, for 2020 and beyond. The exempted fishing permit (EFP) will remain in effect for the 2019 season.

Alabama’s proposal to adjust each state’s allotment of the red snapper quota was rejected by Florida and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Bannon said a follow-up proposal, which would distribute the quota among the five Gulf states, was presented as an alternative and will be voted on at the January 28-31, 2019, Gulf Council meeting at Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach.

“This puts us on a very tight timeline to complete all the requirements to have a state-managed 2020 season,” Bannon said. “But if we get everything done in January, we should make it. If we don’t approve something, potentially, 2020 becomes a federally managed season again, and we don’t feel that is going to benefit our anglers.”

After receiving a great deal of public input concerning the cobia fishery, the Gulf Council also approved an increase in the size limit of the fish, also known as ling, to 36 inches fork length, measured from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail.

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

Sessions takes aggressive stand against wildlife poaching and trafficking

(G. Skidmore/Flickr)

During remarks at a forum on combating wildlife poaching and trafficking last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to devote “every available resource” to bringing to justice the individuals responsible for the illegal wildlife trade around the world.

“The United States views the poaching and trafficking of protected wildlife as a threat to good governance, a threat to the rule of law, and a challenge to our stewardship responsibilities for this good earth,” Sessions said. “Ending this criminality, with its devastating consequences, is a worldwide conservation imperative.”

Last year, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of Justice to prioritize wildlife tracking as part of its overall efforts against transnational organized crime. Sessions said the DOJ is embracing that mission.

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“Poachers, wildlife smugglers, and black market merchants operate all over the world,” he said. “Their criminal networks cross borders, transport their illegal goods worldwide, and sell them to the highest bidder. The United States government, wherever possible, will take action with our partners worldwide to disrupt and dismantle these criminal networks.”

The Department of Justice estimates that the illegal wildlife trade generates as much as $23 billion in annual revenue. Just one kilogram of a rhinoceros horn can fetch up to $70,000 on the black market. The horn is particularly sought after in Asia where it is an ingredient used in traditional medicines.

The illegal trade has driven the population of African elephants — which numbered 1.3 million just a few decades ago — down to fewer than 400,000 today. The Asian tiger population has plummeted over 90 percent.

To combat this growing issue, the Trump administration announced $90 million in funding to counter-wildlife trafficking programs. Sessions also laid out a multi-part plan for the effort going forward.

“First, we need to close the markets to these products,” he said. “Second, we need to cut off the flow of financing to the traffickers and poachers and their criminal benefactors. … Third, we must do more to cut off the traffickers’ transportation routes—on air, land, and sea—and block their use of the darknet to facilitate illegal trafficking of all types. … Fourth, we need to take a closer look at extradition laws and agreements. It should be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for poachers and smugglers in one country to escape prosecution by fleeing to other nations. … Fifth, we need to consider enhancing criminal penalties for those who engage in this illegality… Sixth, we need to find new and better ways to tackle wildlife challenges in the nations the U.S. State Department has identified as ‘countries of concern’ and ‘focus countries.'”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a longtime conservationist, also recently announced plans to increase the number of criminal investigators at American embassies, and President Trump’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement included a provision for increased customs inspections, which the countries believe will combat wildlife trafficking.

The government’s aggressive approach has already reaped some results. A California man was recently arrested trying to sell black rhino parts to a federal agent posing as a taxidermist.

Activists are hoping the United States’ leadership on this issue will result in other countries following suit.

“The US is an indispensable global leader in combating wildlife crime in terms of resources, influence, and on the ground support overseas,” Crawford Allan of the World Wildlife Fund said. “But the challenge of wildlife trafficking that conservation, enforcement, private sector and communities face is getting bigger every year. … The U.S. needs to encourage other nations to join them with significant contributions.”

4 months ago

Dentons complete Alabama Scenic River Trail journey

(Will Denton)

Adventure apparently has no time constraints for cousins Will and John Denton, who decided to make the 650-mile journey along the Alabama Scenic River Trail recently after answering two questions.

“John was just finishing up hiking the Appalachian Trail, so he had the camping experience,” said 79-year-old Will. “But, he didn’t know if he could paddle that far. I’ve been kayaking for about 40 years, so I knew I could do the paddling. But I didn’t know if I could sleep on the ground.”

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Even though John was not an experienced paddler, he was considering a trip down the Mississippi River before Will found a better idea.

“I allowed I had given that some thought, and I might be interested in doing that with him,” said Will of the trip down the mighty Mississippi. “About the same time, I found out about the Alabama Scenic River Trail (ASRT), and I suggested we try that first.”

The two decided to combine their skills to start the paddle about 4 miles from the Alabama line in Georgia.

The fact that Will’s home on Lake Martin wouldn’t be that far away should something go awry also contributed to the decision.

Will had only paddled a few miles of the ASRT, Moccasin Gap just below Jordan Dam to Wetumpka, and had no idea what to expect on the rest of the trail.

“Except for Moccasin Gap, it was all new to both of us,” Will said.

Will loaded up his trusty kayak with supplies for the trip while John, 66, opted for a Verlen Kruger vessel, kayak-canoe hybrid. They paddled across the state line and headed down through the six lakes on the Coosa system.

“It took us five or six days to kind of hit a rhythm and find a pace that was comfortable,” Will said. “We could paddle about 3 miles an hour with no more exertion than if you were walking. We were comfortable paddling at about the same speed.”

The paddlers saw a variety of wildlife during the trip, although Will admitted that John was more inclined to notice because of his passion for hunting.

“John is a big turkey hunter,” Will said. “He spent more time looking for stuff along the bank. He would call my attention to some things. Sometimes we paddled side by side. Sometimes we were on opposite sides of the river. We were looking for eagles quite a bit.

“On our (Coosa) lakes part of the trip, we averaged seeing about an eagle a day. By the time we got to Wetumpka and Montgomery, we didn’t see any more from there south.”

Will said the biggest interest from friends and family he’s told about the trip, which began September 1, is the numbers of snakes the duo encountered.

“I saw one cottonmouth and John didn’t see any,” Will said. “He saw six alligators when we got to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. He pointed two of those out to me. He saw a bobcat. We heard a bunch of hogs at night. We saw deer, and we saw a lot of fish-eating water birds. Interestingly, we saw more of those in the upper end.”

Will, a former public health administrator, and John, a retired farmer from the Mississippi Delta, had only a couple of episodes of difficult paddling during the adventure.

“Really, we had one day on Logan Martin when we had an afternoon trying to get to School Bus Island,” Will said. “We paddled into a strong headwind for two or three hours to get to the island, which was a wonderful campsite. It was about our only option to camp on the lower end of the lake because it is all developed down there. Until we got to Mobile Bay, that was the hardest day of paddling.

“When I look back at the pictures I took on the way, the water was as slick and calm as it could be. The water conditions were wonderful.”

During the time on the Coosa section, rainstorms popped up all around them, but they encountered only a couple of light showers. It turned out to be the calm before the storm.

“We didn’t hardly get the tents wet until we got into the Alabama River,” Will said. “We were below Montgomery when we got caught in a storm. The people who had invited us to stay with them that night saw the storm coming and came out in a pontoon boat and towed us back to their house.”

The other significant storm the Dentons weathered was during a stay above Claiborne Lock and Dam at the Isaac Creek Campground lock. Fortunately, they had their tents up when the rain started about 4:30 that afternoon.

“It rained hard until about 10:30 that night,” Will said. “When we got up the next morning to go through the lock, that lock drop is usually about 30 feet. But the drop that morning was only 15 feet because the river was already up 15 feet below the dam. We had that extra push all the way until we ran into some tidal situations in the Delta. We made much better time than we normally would have.

“And I really didn’t have a problem sleeping on the ground. I guess part of it was we were pretty tired at the end of the day.”

The Dentons’ routine was to paddle all day and get camp set up in time to eat and be in the tents before the mosquitoes came out in force at dusk.

“We really didn’t have a major mosquito problem like John is used to in the Mississippi Delta,” Will said. “One time early in the trip, we couldn’t find a place to camp on the upper end of Lay Lake. We finally found a creek and went way back up the creek. We finally did find a place and got our camp set up. The mosquitoes weren’t bad at all.

“Afterwards, John told several folks, ‘We were so far back in woods, the mosquitoes hadn’t even found that place.’”

Will said the ASRT has identified a significant number of campsites on their website that paddlers can take advantage of, including those on the Bartram Canoe Trail in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

“One of the things that stands out to me is the Alabama Scenic River Trail Association has what they call river angels, like the Appalachian Trail,” he said. “Their names and phone numbers are listed on the website. When we started working on this trip, some of the ASRT people contacted some of the trail angels along the way.”

Denton said two couples on the Alabama River sent word that they wanted the paddlers to stay overnight with a hot shower, supper and bed at their disposal.

“These couples could not have been nicer,” Will said. “The visits were delightful. One lady in Fairhope moved one of our trucks for us, twice. The couple from Selma drove one of our trucks to Fairhope so it would be there when we got there. These are people with knowledge and interest in the trail. It really was one of the neatest things about the trip.”

After a rather leisurely paddle on most of the trip, the Dentons didn’t realize how they would be tested once they hit Mobile Bay.

“Probably the only uncomfortable moments we had were when we were paddling in the bay,” Will said. “Going from Fairhope to the Nelson Shipyard in Bon Secour, we had a dead headwind. I keep my phone on a lanyard around my neck. I got two or three texts that I couldn’t answer. If I had stopped paddling to check the texts, I would have been going backwards. I paddled for all I was worth for about three hours. I slept well that night.

“There were a lot of things that I will remember. The difficulty of the last two days was memorable. The only whitewater we had was at Moccasin Gap, but we had whitecaps on Mobile Bay.”

On the 34th day of the trip, the Dentons paddled from Oyster Bay to Fort Morgan to complete the adventure. Will said he is proud of the accomplishment, but he doesn’t want people to focus on his age.

“I really don’t think my age has any bearing on it,” he said. “It’s a function of what kind of condition you’re in. I’ve got friends older than I am that are in better shape than I am. Some folks tend to slow down when they get to some magic number and don’t stay as active. I just paddled 650 miles, so, yeah, I feel good about that. Being gone 34 days, if my wife (Charlotte) had not been supportive, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I’m glad I did it. I feel good I did it.

“I would tell anybody who thinks they want to do this trip that they can’t do it any younger than they are right now.”

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

4 months ago

Summit provides updates on RESTORE progress in Alabama

(Marine Resources, David Rainer)

Although the inaugural Governor’s Restoration Summit had held a firm spot on Governor Kay Ivey’s schedule for months, Hurricane Michael required a change of plans for Governor Ivey as the devastation left in its wake called for her immediate attention.

Fortunately, Governor Ivey was able to leave the important business of the Summit under the leadership of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship, a man very familiar with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that initiated the 8-year path to the Summit.

The Summit, held last week at the Spanish Fort Community Center, provided updates on the progress of restoration efforts related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as well as the opportunity for public input on proposals for work that will continue for the foreseeable future.

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“On the Alabama Coast we all know how it is to go through such a traumatic storm event.  Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of Florida, Southeast Alabama and Georgia and Governor Ivey as they deal with the aftermath of the massive storm,” Blankenship said as he opened the Summit.

“The most exciting thing to point out from the Summit is that 122 projects valued at more than $711 million of restoration efforts have occurred or are underway so far in Alabama,” Blankenship said. “We’ve done good work in all these restoration projects, but there is still more work to do. It’s important to have events like this to hear from the public about what’s important to them and what type of projects we need to do moving forward to continue to restore Alabama.

“The settlement from BP will continue to be paid out over 15 years, through 2032, so it’s a long process where we will be doing restoration work, and we want to continue to stay engaged with the public. We want to make sure we provide information about projects that are being done, how those projects are going and listen for what we can do better in the future.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that occurred in 2010 forever changed the way of life along the Gulf Coast from the economic impact to the curtailment of recreational opportunities and property access. In 2016, a settlement was reached with BP to fund restoration efforts and recover economic damages for Alabama and the rest of the Gulf states.

“Each of us has a special interest in preserving our state’s natural resources,” Blankenship said. “I love our coast and what it means to our way of life and quality of life here. This is my home and, for most of you, your home. As Commissioner, I commit to you that we will strive to ensure that our state remains Alabama the beautiful.”

Blankenship said the interest citizens have shown in the state’s natural resources continues to demonstrate that the state’s most valuable resource is the people of Alabama.

“It warms my heart to see so many people who care deeply for Alabama and its natural resources,” he said. “Gov. Ivey also cares very much about the restoration work underway and what still needs to be done.”

Blankenship shared the successes in Alabama from the $711 million allocated for 122 restoration projects to date.

“With these projects, we are improving water quality in Mobile Bay and protecting the Grand Bay Savanna,” he said. “We are protecting oyster habitats, turtle-nesting habitats, bird-nesting habitats and other wildlife. We are restoring the marsh and shoreline at Lightning Point in Bayou La Batre.

“We are expanding public fishing opportunities by restoring the fishing pier at Fort Morgan. We also have the beautiful new Lodge at Gulf State Park that will open on November 2. We are promoting growth in south Alabama’s economy with important infrastructure projects.”

Other types of restoration projects include oyster management, artificial reef construction and research, ecosystem research and improving the stranding response network for marine mammals.

“In case you’ve never heard me say this before, Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the country,” Blankenship said. “Through this funding, we have been able to build more artificial reefs and do research around those reefs that will continue to provide habitat and production for decades.

“And everybody loves oysters. A lot of work has been done and will be done to restore oysters.”

Regarding community resilience, Blankenship said the goal is for a community to use available resources to respond to, withstand and recover from adverse situations like natural disasters and environmental catastrophes.

“Coastal Alabama is all too familiar with being prepared when disaster strikes,” Blankenship said. “As we saw with the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle and southeast Alabama, coastal resilience is vitally important.  It is not a matter of if but when our coast will be impacted by a tropical storm or hurricane.”

For economic development and enhancement, the projects include an Africatown Museum and Welcome Center as well as various road and highway improvements, Port of Mobile enhancements and water system improvements in coastal Alabama.

With RESTORE funding, Alabama has been able to acquire more than 4,000 acres of environmentally sensitive coastal habitat. So far more than $100 million has been designated for land acquisition and conservation.

“ADCNR, in close coordination with the Forever Wild Land Trust program, as well as state and federal partners, has invested and will continue to invest in land conservation and other restoration efforts across coastal Alabama,” Blankenship said.

The Commissioner said watershed management plans are a foundational piece of the restoration strategy with the goal of improving water quality.

“Clearly, we are making progress, but we’re not stopping there,” Blankenship said. “We need to do more. I’m grateful to our federal partners and local partners on each of these projects.”

The Governor’s Office and ADCNR recently produced the 2018 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Restoration Progress Report that highlights the progress through the middle of 2018. Go to this link to review the complete report online.

The Restoration Progress Report is grouped by restoration project types:

–Replenishing and protecting living coastal and marine resources
–Supporting and enhancing community resilience
–Providing and enhancing economic development and infrastructure
–Restoring, conserving and enhancing habitat
–Providing and enhancing recreation and public access
–Restoring water quality
–Providing planning support
–Conducting science, research and monitoring

“The Governor’s Restoration Summit is the first opportunity we have had to put together a document that has all the projects showcased in one place, regardless of funding source,” Blankenship said. “When all the projects are grouped by restoration type it shows that, overall, restoration projects for Alabama cover all restoration types pretty fairly and that when aggregated it is over 120 projects and $711 million, which is pretty impressive.

“The important part is these projects come from you (the public). These projects started with a suggestion from somebody – a group, an organization, a municipality, a county or state agency. That is the primary reason for this summit – to hear from you on projects from ‘Bucket 2’ of the federal RESTORE Act. Restoration is definitely a team effort. The Governor’s Restoration Summit further proves the power of working together.”

Over the next 15 years about $1.4 billion is allocated to Alabama for restoration projects related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NRDA, NFWF and the Alabama RESTORE Council. About $1.6 billion will be allocated by the federal RESTORE Council gulf-wide from Bucket 2. That money is not distributed or divided to each state by any formula. All five Gulf states and six federal agencies will work to put together a plan that meets project needs in each state. Ben Scaggs, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, participated in the Summit and shared with the attendees plans and timelines for developing Funded Priorities Lists by the federal RESTORE Council over the next two years as well as over the next couple of decades.

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

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.

5 months 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.

5 months 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.

5 months 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.

5 months 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.