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The Saltwater Option
In late April and May, Alabama Gulf Coast anglers can catch small fish to keep and eat, or they can go after big fish for a catch-and-release thrill.
 
By Mel Gallop
Originally published in the May 2017 issue of AON
 
Spanish mackerel like this one are often caught on a 4-hour trip while trolling close to shore. If you’ve never had a Spanish mackerel prepared for the table Orange Beach style, you don’t know what you’re missing.
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Federal rules and regulations on saltwater fishing—most enacted during the past five years—have made keeping up with limits, seasons and outright closures about as easy as filing your federal taxes. Late April and May can be a great time to catch a wide variety of saltwater fish off the Alabama coast, but seasons aren’t open yet for many glamour species.

Closed seasons shouldn’t keep anglers at the dock. There are a couple of ways to make memories that last far after a May saltwater trip ends. Often, an offshore fishing trip creates a memory of a lifetime for the angler through pictures and videos. There’s also the option of targeting species that you can keep. Enjoying a delicious meal of the fish you’ve caught also helps you to relive your fishing experience and add more memories of your day of fishing off Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

“We offer two types of trips,” said Capt. Troy Frady, of Distraction Charters. “In May, we can go offshore to catch some small fish—about the same size as you’ll catch in a pond or a lake back home—that you can eat.

“Or, we can fish for and try to catch some very big fish, possibly the largest fish you’ve ever caught in your life. Then we’ll make pictures of those big fish and release them. We’ll also catch a few fish you can keep, so you’ll have a nice dinner of fresh fish at one of the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach ‘You catch ‘em, we cook ‘em restaurants.’”

To find a restaurant that will cook your fresh catch, visit www.gulfshores.com/eatyourway/seafood.aspx.

Several years ago, most everyone, including me, thought Capt. Frady had lost his mind when he announced, “I’m promoting catch-and-release offshore fishing.”

Catch-and-release was a term first used by tournament bass anglers after residents of Eufaula, Alabama became angry when a tournament held there brought in large numbers of big, dead bass. The very next tournament became a catch-and-release tournament, where anglers brought their fish to the scales alive to be weighed, and then those fish were released back into the water.

However, I had never heard of that concept in saltwater fishing. My family always had gone to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, since I was a baby, several times a year to catch numbers of fish. We brought those fish home to put in our freezer. So, Capt. Frady’s idea of catch and release was about as radical as any form of saltwater fishing I knew.

Another problem with this catch-and-release idea was that most charter boats on the beach would bring in their catches for the day and throw the fish they had caught out on the dock for all the tourists to see. It was an incentive to other anglers to charter their boats. That marketing tool worked very well for many years. However, if captains practiced catch and release, they wouldn’t be able to bring large numbers of big fish back to the dock to promote their businesses.

Changes To Fishing Alabama’s Gulf Coast

Fifty or 60 years ago, anglers went to Destin and Panama City to go snapper fishing. Occasionally, some would go to Orange Beach. During an 8- to 12-hour trip, fishermen usually caught boxes full of red snapper and grouper. Even though triggerfish and amberjack were looked upon back then as trash fish and thrown back, rods would stay bent, and fishermen came to port with impressive stringers of fish. The average snapper then weighed about a pound to 2 1/2 pounds. A snapper weighing 5 to 8 pounds would be the biggest snapper on the boat, and that angler would win money that the fishermen on the party boat had contributed to a jackpot for the biggest snapper caught.

Prior to the mid 1960s, many viewed Alabama’s Gulf Coast as a have-not snapper area. Yes, there were a few charter boats leaving port back then, but offshore fishing was in no way a major draw for Alabama’s Gulf of Mexico tourists. The interstate system wasn’t as good as it is today. Motel rooms cost only $25 to $35 per night.

However, if you went on a 12-hour trip or an overnight trip out of Destin or Panama City, an angler generally could catch enough fish to sell the majority of his fish at the fish market to pay for his trip and still come home with a nice mess of fish to eat. Those days are long gone.

Construction Of Artificial Reefs

Alabama’s legislature began to appropriate funds to build artificial reefs off Alabama’s Gulf Coast in the 1950s. Slowly and quietly, Alabama began to build one of the largest and most comprehensive artificial-reef programs in the nation.

At first, other coastal states mocked what was referred to as “Alabama’s junk yard.” However, over the years, as the reef-building program not only continued but escalated, other coastal states realized that if they built artificial reefs, the fish would come. Many fish set up homes on those reefs, and the number of fish available to be caught by anglers drastically increased.

Today, Alabama’s offshore artificial-reef program (www.outdooralabama.com/artificial-reefs) has become a model for other states to follow. Alabama boasts the highest number of red snapper caught of any Gulf Coast states, mainly due to the state’s reef-building programs. As Alabama’s extensive reefs have produced more and more fish, charter boats and private boats have started fishing those artificial reefs and also sinking their own reefs. Orange Beach proudly wore the banner of “The Red Snapper Capital of the World” for a decade or more.

In the not too distant past, red snapper tournaments were held at Orange Beach, with many red snapper—particularly big red snapper—landed, and good numbers of red snapper from 18 to 40 pounds caught.

Then the federal government stepped in and reduced the number of red snapper that could be caught and increased the length of the snapper that could be kept. The biggest blow was a drastically shortened open season for red snapper.

So, regulations resulted in changes for the fishermen who chartered boats and went out to the reefs.

For most of its history, the Alabama Gulf Coast has been a fishing community. Yes, people came there to swim in the Gulf, get a suntan and eat at the many fine restaurants. But the primary reason most people went to Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores was to fish, catch a bunch of fish and bring them home to eat.

Federal regulations changed the Gulf Coast fishing game. 

Offshore fishing is no longer a sport just for anglers who want to catch fish to fill the freezer. Now, offshore fishing is viewed as a recreational activity for many coastal visitors—much like visiting a zoo, riding horses or parasailing. Today, Gulf of Mexico visitors go fishing to enjoy the experience, not just for the meat that the fish they catch can provide.

Another factor is that most people coming to Alabama’s Gulf Coast these days stay in nice hotels, motels and condominiums and probably not in fishing cabins. These tourists are far less likely  to keep ice chests full of fish in their cars or their rooms for several days before returning home, or try to find a way to clean fish while staying at a condo.

Bent Rods, Hard Fights And Memories Of Great Big Fish

“Our customers want bent rods, hard fights and fish they can take photographs of,” Capt. Frady said. “I’ve seen one amberjack whip three strong, young boys and their dad. All four of them were giggling, laughing and having a good time with that one fish. When we finally got the amberjack onboard, all three of the boys and their dad wanted pictures and videos made—which we provided—of the war they’d waged with the amberjack. Then we returned the amberjack to the water, so another angler could enjoy that fish on another day.” 

One of the biggest fights encountered offshore is with sharks. Many of the artificial reefs, sunken tanks and Liberty ships have monster-sized sharks on them that can weigh from 150 pounds to sizes so big they would break a cotton scale.

“Hooking up to a big shark is usually not a one-person battle,” Capt. Frady said. “Generally, everyone on the boat has an opportunity to fight a big shark.”

Although Capt. Frady and the other captains don’t bring the sharks onboard, they generally get them up to the side of the boat to make pictures before the shark is released.

Other big fish commonly caught and released during a 6- to 10-hour trip off Alabama’s Gulf Coast include cobia, big red snapper, grouper, large king mackerel, wahoo, bonito, dolphin and others.

Try A Short-Day Trip

In the past, no one considered going offshore on a chartered trip and staying less than 8 hours, and 8 1/2-hour trips were pretty much the standard.

An overnight trip was more of a bucket-list item for most anglers—a saltwater trip of lifetime. Some hard-core fishermen felt they had to take those overnight trips to complete their saltwater fishing experiences. These days, the two most popular trips on Alabama’s Gulf Coast are the 4-hour and 6-hour charters.

“On the 4-hour charter—either in the morning or in the afternoon—we don’t go very far offshore,” Capt. Frady said. “Our anglers enjoy a great fishing experience and aren’t on the water all day. This 4-hour trip is ideal for a family who has always wanted to go offshore fishing to find out what it’s like and not be stuck offshore all day long in the hot sun with children.”

The 4-hour trip can be a nearshore trolling trip for king mackerel and Spanish mackerel, which are usually plentiful in May. Or, you can go somewhat farther offshore and catch vermilion snapper, Lane snapper, white snapper (white pogeys) and a wide variety of reef fish.

With a half-day trip, a family doesn’t have to spend much money to experience Gulf fishing and to catch fish by trolling or bottom fishing or using a combination of both. 

The next most popular trip at Alabama’s Gulf Coast in May is the 6-hour trip, where anglers go out a little farther offshore, fish in deeper water and often catch some bigger fish. Some captains will allow their parties to troll on the way out to the deeper water reefs, and then troll on the way back to shore. Having some trolling lines in the water can possibly produce mackerel, cobia, wahoo, dolphin, bonito and other fast-swimming fish.

Yes, fishing has changed dramatically on Alabama’s Gulf Coast over the past 40 years, and that fishing has gotten better. More and bigger saltwater fish are being caught—and released. Trips are being planned more to suit the changing needs of the customers. Newcomers to the sport of offshore fishing are having more fun, making more memories and taking more pictures and videos than they have in years past.

Time has proven that a catch-and-release philosophy was on the tip of the spear of the changes that have taken place in Alabama’s Gulf Coast fishery.

The good news is that Alabama’s Marine Resources Division (AMRD) (www.outdooralabama.com/marine-resources), the federal government, private captains and conservation organizations continue to build more artificial reefs offshore every year. They’re providing more habitat and fish for the growing number of anglers who travel to coastal Alabama each spring, summer and fall to fish offshore.

And the fishing just keeps getting better.


Rigs For Small “Keeper” Fish

Anglers targeting the smaller fish to catch and eat should use the optimal rigs.

“When some of our customers want to catch a few, smaller fish to take to the local restaurants that cook anglers’ catches, we’ll use a modified Carolina rig,” said Capt. Frady. “We put a 1- to 2-oz. slip sinker up the line and tie a 4/0 or 5/0 circle hook immediately below the lead. We tell our fishermen to not let their leads fall all the way to the bottom, but instead to stop between 33 and 66 feet over a bottom that is 100 to 150 feet.

“If we’re fishing with a whole dead cigar minnow, as the fisherman lets down his line, the lead will run 2 to 4 feet out in front of the cigar minnow, and the angler will get a reaction strike.”

The primary “keeper” fish that anglers will catch using this rig are vermilion, Lane and gray snapper (commonly called mangrove snapper), and king and Spanish mackerel.

Red snapper can be caught and released. The biggest red snapper Capt. Frady’s boat has caught and released weighed 41 pounds. According to Frady, an average snapper caught within 30 miles of shore will weigh about 3 to 4 pounds; a good snapper, 10 to 12 pounds; a very good snapper, 18 to 20 pounds; and a trophy snapper more than 20 pounds. During the 2016 red snapper season, Capt. Frady’s boat caught and released more than 30 red snapper that weighed better than 20 pounds.


Rigged For Shark

“Our No. 1 big fish that people want to catch is a shark,” said Capt. Frady. “The biggest shark we’ve ever caught and released on our boat was a 16-foot tiger shark, estimated to weigh more than 1,000 pounds. However, the average size shark we catch and release will weigh 150 to 250 pounds.” 

The common sharks caught and released are bull sharks, reef sharks and sometimes dusky sharks. Makos show up, but not often.

To catch the big sharks, Capt. Frady often fishes over one of the sunken Liberty ship reefs.

If you’re targeting sharks, Capt. Frady advises you use particular terminal tackle.

“We tie our main line of 60-lb. test monofilament to the first eye of a three-way swivel. We have a short line on the next eye of the swivel that’s attached to an 8-oz. sinker. Then on the third eye of the swivel, we tie 10 feet of 80-lb. monofilament and next attach a barrel swivel to its other end. We attach about 2 1/2 feet of either 85- or 125-lb. test single-strand wire leader and attach a No. 7/0 circle hook to the end of the wire. For sharks, we use a large chunk of cut bait. Our reel is a Shimano TLD with a lever drag. We like a 6-foot medium-heavy Star rod with a roller tip.”
 
 
 
 
 
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