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Plan Now for Summer Fun on the Coast
Offshore fishing is great! Plan early to bring the family.
By Don Baldwin
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of AON
The author’s son Chris Baldwin holds a red snapper he caught aboard Distraction. The 15-pounder was released. At presstime, the proposed red-snapper season start date was June 1. The start and end dates, for state and federal waters, should be posted at or .
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The Alabama Gulf Coast seems to remain a well-kept secret. While the white-sand beaches are as sugar fine as any on the Florida panhandle, and they tend to be less crowded and are closer to home to boot, many Alabamians pass the area by on their way to more distant destinations.

The Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area prides itself in having just the right blend of a quaint fishing community with the occasional first-class beach-front resort. You can have a great time there without spending an arm and a leg for a family vacation. In addition, you’ll find some of the best reef fishing the Gulf has to offer, and most of it is in sight of the beach.

While that sounds like paradise, if you are an avid angler it can present a problem.

Do I spend the day on the beach with the family or head out on the charter boat for some action on the reefs? I’ve been there, how about you? Well, one of the local charter operations may be able to help you with your dilemma.

Capt. Troy Frady, of Lillian, recognized the combination of options facing visiting anglers and began targeting families with his charter service several years ago.

“With good bottom fishing available so close to shore, taking kids out is a viable option,” said Troy. “We can be in fishable water less than 15 miles offshore and not have to spend the entire day on the water.”

Troy has been fishing the Orange Beach area since 1979 and guiding full time for the last seven years. He and his deck hand Lem Allen, of Orange Beach, enjoy taking families out and have the expertise and patience to ensure that even first-time anglers catch fish and have a comfortable and enjoyable trip.

“We’ve had kids as young as 5 aboard,” said Lem. “At that age they need a little help from the parents, but by 8 or 10 they can pretty much take care of themselves.”

One factor is that Troy and Lem target the reef fish using light tackle. Six-foot medium-action rods with light reels, like a Shimano Calcutta, combine to produce a rig that is manageable by young folks. We found these light outfits to be a great way to fish the reef for adults as well. A 15-lb. snapper, on light tackle, can put up quite a fight.

My son Chris and I boarded Capt. Troy’s boat, Distraction, at Zeke’s Marina around noon on a mid-April day. Jeremy Perry, a Gulf Shores police officer, was also aboard. The 1962 Hatteras 41 sport fisher was clean, well equipped and obviously had been completely rebuilt.

As we headed under the bridge at Perdido Pass, Troy told me he would normally troll out to the reef when he has a family aboard.

“Trolling out extends the fishing time and keeps the kids interested on the hour to hour-and-a-half ride,” said Troy. “We high-speed troll with Penn International 50 wide reels on stout boat rods using a big 2-lb. weight followed by an Islander jig on about a 10-foot leader of 150-lb. mono.”

Troy says that high-speed trolling will produce spanish mackerel, king mackerel and bonito, depending on the time of year, and can add a lot of fun to the trip. If the party is willing, he’ll troll on the way in as well, time and conditions permitting.

On our trip, we chose not to troll because we wanted to get to the reefs as soon as possible to take advantage of a break in the weather. The seas had been almost too rough to fish the previous week, and the next few days didn’t look like they would be much better.

On the way out Lem rigged up several light-tackle outfits with single-hook rigs called “knocker” or “slapper” rigs. The terminal tackle consisted of an egg sinker and a circle hook. Circle hooks are required for all reef fishing in Alabama. Conventional “J” hooks are not allowed. This rule was put into effect in an attempt to reduce mortality rates in released fish.

Our snapper rigs were fitted with 5/0 circle hooks and a 3-oz. egg sinkers. The reels were spooled with 20-lb. test monofilament line. Lem told us he usually selects a sinker of about 1 to 1 1/2 ounces, but there was significant current on the day we were out, so he opted for the heavier weight to get the bait down quickly.

After a ride of about an hour, we set up for our first drop. We were over a reef about 12 miles from shore in about 85 feet of water. Troy was marking some good fish suspended over the reef on the graph.

Lem handed each of us an outfit and a small pail of frozen minnows, and we were in business. The bait consisted of an assortment of small fish including cigar minnows, sardines, herring and northern mackerel.

“I don’t think the type of minnow matters much as long as the bait is good and straight, so it falls naturally,” said Lem.

He showed us how to hook the bait through the eyes, and we dropped three baits overboard. Lem told us to let the bait fall on a free spool but to maintain light pressure on the reel using our thumbs to prevent backlash.

“When you feel a strike, stop the reel with your thumb and then engage the reel,” said Lem. “If you throw the reel in gear while the fish is pulling line, you will likely strip the gears.”

He also advised us not to set the hook. With a circle hook, the fish will hook themselves, almost always in the mouth. So a hookset is not necessary and can actually cause the angler to miss the strike by pulling the bait away from the fish. Just let the fish pull the rod down, and start reeling. You’ll almost always be rewarded with a solid connection to the fish.

Troy told us the bigger fish are likely to be relatively high in the water column above the reef.

“The smaller fish stay close to the reef for safety, but the bigger snapper range farther searching for food,” he told us. “Their size makes them feel more secure.”

Troy said most strikes from bigger fish come within the first 20 to 30 feet of the drop. So if you feel the bait get all the way to the bottom without a strike, reel up quickly and start the drop again. A snapper rig on the bottom will more than likely produce a small fish or get you hung in the reef. Bringing fish up from the bottom also puts more stress on them due to the longer fight and more drastic pressure change at the surface.

When a fish is brought up from deep water, its air bladder expands and will literally come out through its mouth. The bladder must be punctured with a hypodermic needle before the fish is released or the fish will not be able to submerge and will likely die in a relatively short period.

It didn’t take long for us to get action. On the first drop, all three rods were hit about a third of the way to the bottom, and the result was a triple hook-up. The rods were bent double immediately, and after a brief battle we had three 10-lb. class red snapper aboard. Following a couple of snapped photos, the fish were released to fight again another day.

Several more drops on the first reef produced similar results, with at least one angler getting a hook-up on each drop.

At our second spot, Lem again handed us the snapper rods but also pulled out a slightly larger outfit equipped with an 8-oz. egg sinker, barrel swivel, attached to a 6-foot fluorocarbon leader (30-lb. test), and a 6/0 circle hook. He baited the rig with a live pin fish and dropped the bait over the side.

“We are going to try for a big grouper,” said Lem. “Grouper prefer live bait, and you have to be right on the bottom close to the reef.”

The rig is similar to a Carolina rig used in bass fishing, and the long leader gives the live bait freedom to swim above the sinker where it rests on the bottom. This keeps the bait near but not in the structure and is almost impossible for a grouper to resist.

“If there is a grouper in the area, he’ll take the bait almost immediately,” said Lem.

It is a little difficult to master when to put the pressure on the fish as it strikes, according to Lem.

“You need to wait just long enough to feel a solid pull by the fish,” he said. “If you are a little too soon, you’ll pull the bait away from the fish; too late and you’re hung in the wreck.”

The bait wasn’t on the bottom more than 30 seconds when the rod bowed with a strike. Lem engaged the reel promptly, and the fight was on. He managed to get the fish away from the reef and soon had a nice 15-lb. gag grouper aboard. That fish was likely to become the night’s dinner.

Through the rest of the trip we continued to move into position over wrecks or reefs between 10 and 15 miles offshore. We never lost sight of the high-rise condos on the beach and were always in less than 100 feet of water. We caught fish, both snapper and grouper, at every place we stopped and lost count at 50-something fish. All but one of the fish we released submerged quickly and that one may have but was captured by an opportunistic dolphin that suddenly appeared.

By the end of the day our arms were tired from fighting fish, and we all had big smiles on our faces. Chris landed the biggest snapper of the day, a beautiful specimen of about 15 pounds. Troy said the average snapper off Gulf Shores will weigh about 10 pounds, but big fish more than 20 pounds are landed frequently and are becoming more common.

Many of the artificial reefs were either destroyed or relocated by the recent hurricanes, but there are still plenty of big public reefs and wrecks available. Most local charter boats have a good selection to choose from, and maps marking locations are available at local marinas and bait shops.

Information on Alabama’s artificial-reef program, complete with Loran and GPS coordinates, can be found at <www.outdooralabama.com/Fishing/saltwater/where/artificial-reefs/>.

Troy said there is a good variety of fish on the reefs in the area including red snapper (by far the most prolific), mangrove snapper, vermillion snapper and gag grouper. As you might expect, there is also some pretty good shark fishing available.

Whatever type of fish you are after, the Alabama Gulf coast offers some fine angling action, and you don’t have to ride for hours in bumpy seas to get to it.

There are some excellent lodging options in Gulf Shores. We stayed at the Island House Hotel, right on the beach and just across the street from Zeke’s Marina where many of the charter boats are docked. The hotel has been recently refurbished, has a heated pool, and every room faces the Gulf.

You can visit their website at <www.islandhousehotel.com> or give them a call at (800) 264-2642.

Geno’s Fresh Catch Grill is located upstairs at Zeke’s Marina overlooking the charter boats and offers some fine eating, while being kid friendly. Geno will even cook your fresh-caught fish for you and provide the necessary fixin’s for a reasonable price. We had him prepare the big grouper for us, and it was excellent. There is nothing like eating fish that was caught just a couple of hours earlier.

So the next time you are planning a family vacation at the beach. Take a good look at staying right here in Alabama. The Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area has plenty to offer for the entire family. Troy will be happy to set up a trip for a group of serious anglers, or an entire family looking to have a good time. Lem is a patient and knowledgeable deckhand, and the team works hard to ensure you have a productive and comfortable trip.

Visit Troy’s website at <www.dis tractioncharters.com> or call him at (251) 975-8111 to book a trip.

Plan now! This may just be the best family vacation you ever take.
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