Modern trapping more about predator control than furs

At one time trapping was almost as common in the Alabama outdoors as hunting deer, turkeys and quail. Through the years, as fur prices declined and the animal rights movement grew, trapping became stigmatized. The result was the number of trappers dwindled to almost nothing.

Lately, there has been an uptick in trapping participation but not for the same reasons our fathers and grandfathers did it. The trapping market is now driven more by wildlife management rather than fur production.

“When the animal rights movement had a major campaign against wearing fur, people quit trapping,” said Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. “Let’s face it. It’s hard work, too. People were trapping for subsistence. That’s how they made their living. Like hunters, they’re dwindling away. The numbers of trappers are not out there like in the ’50s, ’60s through the early ’80s.

“It’s that way with most outdoor recreational activities.”

Changes in the fur market certainly contributed to the demise of trapping, some of it driven by the lack of demand caused by the fur-shaming campaign.

“The market has changed a bunch,” Sykes said. “Even 10 to 15 years ago, you could make enough money off the furs to make it worth your while. The market fluctuates so much now that most of the quality trappers I know have to actually charge a fee on a per-day basis to justify them coming in and trapping. It has shifted from subsistence and making a little money to doing it strictly for wildlife management purposes, like reducing nest predators so that turkeys and quail can raise a clutch of eggs to limiting the number of bobcats and coyotes in anticipation of improving the fawn recruitment each year.”

Sykes said the use of trapping in wildlife management strategy has been increasing the last few years. The number of fur catchers’ licenses sold the past three years has been consistent at a little more than 1,000 annually.

“I think it’s pretty widespread,” he said. “It’s happening all over the country. Emphasis on deer management and turkey and quail management is a big thing. For people who own or manage property who are putting in the time through habitat work to produce food plots, supplemental feeding programs and herd management through selective harvest, trapping is just another tool in their arsenal of managing their property with predator control.”

Sykes said the raccoon, in particular, provides a double threat for those who are trying to supplemental feed and provide protection for ground-nesting birds.

“You can look at raccoons on a couple of different levels,” he said. “If you’re on a supplemental feeding program, you’re putting a bunch of feed into non-target animals instead of your deer. Raccoons are also out there raiding quail and turkey nests. It’s a double whammy when you’re looking at deer management and turkey management. This small predator can have a drain on your wildlife population as well as your budget when it comes to habitat management work.

“If I had to pick one animal that I would like to lower the numbers on property I manage, it would be the raccoon.”

In the hierarchy of animals that wildlife managers target, next up would be the coyote, an animal that is fairly new on the scene in the South. When I was growing up, we never encountered a coyote and never saw evidence of tracks or scat. Now, coyotes can be found from the densest thickets to big-city urban settings.

However, Sykes cautions against tunnel vision when it comes to coyotes.

“I think coyotes have become the scapegoat of the world right now,” he said. “Everything is caused by coyotes. In some places that I have managed, every fawn that a coyote took was one less that we had to kill during hunting season to deal with overpopulation.

“On the flip side, there are some places where I do think they are having a very adverse effect on deer numbers. If people have reduced the number of deer on their property through hunting, and then you have a high predation rate, you can get into a trap that’s hard to get out of.

“If your deer numbers are already low because of your management practices or it’s just the part of the world you’re in, coyotes can have a significant impact. And the impact of coyotes has really just happened in the last decade or so where the coyote numbers have become significant in this part of the world.”

Sykes also cautions that trapping to remove predators is not a “one and done” proposition. It takes vigilance, and timing also makes a difference.

“The biggest thing people need to know is that predator control is just like yard maintenance,” he said. “You cut your grass every two weeks even though you know it’s going to grow back. When you remove predators, you’re not eliminating them. You’re creating a void at strategic times of the year. For your ground-nesting birds, you want to remove the predators in February and March. For your fawn recruitment, you want to remove the predators in August and September in most of Alabama. You’re creating a void to give those little critters an opportunity to get on their feet. Predators are going to come back. If you’ve got quality habitat and you’ve got food, they‘re going to come back.

“It’s the predator-prey cycle that we studied in college. If you go in and eliminate raccoons and coyotes on a 1,000-acre piece of land, the food source is going to go up. There are going to be more rabbits. There are going to be more rats. There is going to be more forage for the raccoons. So the next pair of predators that wanders in, their reproductive rate is going to go up because they are in such good shape and there’s so much food. It’s a constant cycle.”

Sykes said landowners and leaseholders who are considering adding trapping to their wildlife management repertoire should consider starting right away. But he cautions that plunging haphazardly into the practice, especially for the wily coyotes, could be more detrimental than helpful.

“Now is the prime time to be knocking the raccoon numbers down,” he said. “Raccoon trapping is easy with the dog-proof designed traps (requires raccoon to reach into cylinder to trigger trap). Several manufacturers now produce this style trap that’s really made it quite easy to control raccoon numbers

“Coyote trapping is more labor intensive. It’s takes a better skill set. It’s an art as much as it is a science. And you can do as much damage as you do good. I know everybody’s got to learn. But if you create trap-shy animals, they’re going to be a lot harder to catch, and they’re going to train their little ones, too.”

Sykes suggests watching YouTube videos on trapping techniques, reading books on trapping and going to trapping workshops conducted by Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries to learn how to reduce predator numbers.

“Learn as much as you can so you can be effective when you go out,” he said.

Speaking of trapping education, trapping expert and former WFF biologist Mike Sievering will hold a youth trapping workshop Feb. 17-19 in Spanish Fort and an adult trapping workshop Feb. 25-26 in Lowndesboro. A fee will apply for participation.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/trapping for more information on trapping with the workshop schedule and information on a fur catcher’s license if you participate in commercial trade.

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Oyster shell recycling program off to hot start

By using the discarded shells from restaurants through the Oyster Shell Recycling Program to replenish the reefs, Alabama oystermen will be able to take advantage of the increased production of the popular mollusk. (Photo | David Rainer)

Oyster consumption has been occurring along the Alabama Gulf Coast for millennia with the Indian Shell Mound on Dauphin Island as historical evidence.

Fast forward to the 21st century and dining on oysters has increased exponentially. Instead of creating shell mounds, the Alabama Oyster Shell Recycling Program is designed to use the discarded shells in more creative and productive ways.

With the Alabama Coastal Foundation leading the way, a group of individuals and organizations started devising a plan to recycle the shells. Those involved included Chris Sherrill with the Flora-Bama Yacht Club, Chandra Wright with the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship and Judy Haner with The Nature Conservancy.

“We’ve needed an oyster shell recycling program in Alabama for a while,” Blankenship said. “We have been meeting to put together a shell recycling program that would work long term.

“There was an opportunity to get a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to implement a pilot program to get this started. The Alabama Coastal Foundation stepped up as the lead agency and received the grant to begin a two-year pilot program to demonstrate the effectiveness of a shell recycling program in Alabama.”

Mark Berte, Executive Director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation, said the grant from NFWF is for a two-part process – education and sustainability.

“Our whole mission is to improve and protect Alabama’s coastal environment through cooperation, education and participation,” Berte said last week at Gulf Shores. “And this program is all of the above. We work with restaurants to educate them that what they thought was trash is actually a valuable natural resource. The more shells we collect, the more shells we can get back into the water that will allow more oysters to grow and complete a nice, positive cycle.”

The first phase of the shell recycling program went into effect in the fall of 2016 with six restaurants along Battleship Parkway (Causeway) at the head of Mobile Bay.

“Those restaurants are all close together, so it was easy for Republic Waste Services to run the route, pick up the shells and do the hauling,” Blankenship said. “The shells are trucked to our Marine Resources property in Gulf Shores, where the shells are stored and seasoned so they can be used in several different projects, from replenishing reefs to grow more oysters to shoreline stabilization projects.

“There will be myriad uses for the shells, including oyster gardening. The important part is they are not going to a landfill. Now they’ll be going back in the water to grow more oysters.”

Larval oysters, known as spat, must attach to a hard surface to grow, and recycled oyster shells can provide an abundance of this vital structure.

Last week, the recycling program expanded with an additional collection route in the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area, which puts the total number of restaurants involved in the recycling program at 13.

“The program has gained a lot of good public support,” Blankenship said. “We’re really glad this has taken off. The program is growing.”

A celebration of the expanded program was held at two locations on the Alabama coast last week, including the Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores.

Joe Roszkowski, co-founder of the Original Oyster House restaurants, said the number of oysters that go through their restaurants will quickly add up.

“We serve quite a few oysters,” Roszkowski said last week at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “In fact, we serve about 5,000 pounds a week in the summertime; that’s are quite a few shells. We know what oysters mean to the community and sponsor the oyster trail and Mobile’s oyster gardening program. We learn how oysters impact our environment, our community and, of course, our health. For years these dedicated scientists, environmentalists and educators have worked to get oyster shells back in the water. We’re so fortunate to be given the opportunity to help pilot Alabama’s first oyster shell recycling program at our location on the Causeway.

“This program aligns with our core values of stewardship and will enhance the oyster population and help prevent coastal erosion. Best of all, this program will bring attention to how important it is to get the shells back to the reefs instead of the landfill.”

As of the end of last week, more than 650,000 oyster shells had been collected.

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said the 2010 oil spill is a reminder that we should never take our environment for granted.

“This is an important first step forward,” Mayor Craft said. “This is what I think we learned, or should have learned, from the oil spill. When the oil spill happened and we couldn’t fish in the waters, eat the seafood or enjoy the environment, what happened was that nobody came. They don’t come here because they like the mayor or Gulf Shores. They came here for the environment. Because when it couldn’t be used and enjoyed, people didn’t come.

“If you connect those dots, what is the most important thing we need to do to maintain the quality of life in our community that is so special? That is to protect the environment. Part of that environment is having oysters that we enjoy eating. Our challenge here by recycling oyster shells is to recreate the reefs and grow more oysters.”

Blankenship said the goal of the program is to eventually get all of the oyster shells that are discarded at restaurants along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“Right now, we want to get at least the top half of the oyster that doesn’t go to the table,” he said. “We’re working with the restaurants to collect the bottom half of the shells from the table so we can get all the oyster shells.

“Nothing grows oysters as well as oyster shells.”

Blankenship said the program set a conservative goal of collecting 2.7 million shells, but it should easily exceed that number.

In two years we’ll be well over the goal with the way the program has started,” he said. “The ultimate goal would be to make the recycling program self-sustaining after those two years, after the consumers and restaurants see the value of recycling those oyster shells. Instead of having the grant help pay for the transportation of the shells, the money the restaurants pay for the shells to go to the landfill can be used in the recycling program. Restaurants pay by the ton to haul off waste. Oyster shells that go in the trash count toward that tonnage. The goal is to get the restaurants to separate out the shells, and instead of hauling them to the landfill, they would go to the Marine Resources Division to be recycled.

“The value of the shells that can be used for restoration projects would make this self-sustaining after two years.”

Blankenship predicts the consumption of oysters along the Alabama coast will continue to grow, which will mean more shells for recycling.

“Oysters are becoming more popular,” he said. “There used to be a limited number of people who ate oysters. Now it’s becoming a much more popular seafood item.

“With the growth of the oyster aquaculture industry in Alabama, we only see that market getting stronger.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Alabama hunting season face changes for 2016

The Alabama hunting seasons for 2016-2017 are significantly different from the past, with changes in the season dates for several popular species and the adoption of the mandatory reporting of deer and turkey harvests through the Game Check system.

Some Alabama small-game hunters are already taking advantage of the changes. The seasons for squirrels and rabbits opened on Sept. 15 and run all the way through March 5, 2017. The daily bag and possession limits of eight of each species remain the same.2016-17-deer-zone-map_0

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division Director Chuck Sykes has been on a whirlwind tour of the state to help hunters become familiar with the changes for the upcoming seasons with specific instructions on how to comply with the Game Check requirements.

Sykes cautioned hunters about where they get their information on the upcoming seasons because of an abundance of misinformation that is being spread by uninformed individuals.

“There are a ton of misconceptions about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Sykes said. “Our hunting buddies can sometimes give us really bad advice. Most of the issues I’m dealing come from people who say, ‘My hunting buddy told me this,’ or ‘I heard this at the hunting camp.’ Please ask one of our officers or biologists, go to the outdooralabama.com website or pick up one of the hunting and fishing digests that are available all over the state.

“And let me get this out of the way: No matter what you’ve heard, no matter what you’ve read, or what your hunting buddy told you, you cannot hunt over bait this year. That legislation didn’t pass. The House (of Representatives) passed it, but it takes both houses of the Legislature to pass a bill. The Senate has to pass it as well. It didn’t make it through the Senate, so the regulation is still that supplemental feed must be at least 100 yards away and out of the line of the sight of the hunter through natural vegetation or naturally occurring changes in the terrain. So, make sure all of your hunting partners know the truth, because we don’t want any of them to get a citation due to misinformation.”

Speaking of Game Check, WFF recommended that the harvest information reporting system become mandatory to the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, which unanimously passed the proposal. The change went through the legislative review process and became effective on July 19.

“Starting in October, hunters will have to report their deer and turkey harvests,” Sykes said. “This is a huge education process for us, our staff and the public. It’s my job to show the easiest way to comply that gives us the best data.”

game-check1-billy-pope

Hunters will be required to participate in Alabama’s Game Check for deer and turkey this season. The most convenient method is via smartphone app.

Sykes said 60 to 80 percent of hunters who have attended the more than 30 seminars he has conducted across the state have a smartphone, which is the easiest and most reliable way to report the harvest. The second way is to go online to outdooralabama.com and follow the prompts. The third way, which costs WFF money, is to call1-800-888-7690.

“In the three years we had the voluntary system, about 50 percent of the data we received through the phone service was inaccurate,” he said. “We couldn’t use it. So please help your kids and your buddies to go online or use the app to do the reporting.”

Even those hunters who are exempt from having a license, those 65 or older or 15 and younger or residents hunting on their own property, will still have to report their harvests. Those hunters will have to go online and obtain a HELP (Hunter Exempt License Privilege) number. It is free, like the HIP permit required to hunt migratory birds, but it will be required to access the Game Check system.

After the hunter accesses Game Check with a hunting license or HELP number, the information that is required is the county where the deer or turkey was taken, whether the turkey was an adult or jake, whether the deer was a buck or a doe, the date and whether the animal was taken on public or private land.

Sykes said hunters who use Game Check through the Outdoor Alabama app can kill the proverbial two birds with one stone. If the app is used, it will comply with both the requirement that the harvest is recorded before the animal is moved and the reporting regulation for Game Check.

Those who do not use the app must write down the kill information on their harvest records before the animals are moved and then must obtain confirmation numbers from Game Check within 48 hours. The harvest information for both bucks and does is required this year.

Sykes also recommends that hunters take the time to get a Conservation ID number that will shorten the online reporting process and reduce the number of errors of entering hunting license numbers.

Because the Game Check system became mandatory, WFF was able to expand the hunting seasons for deer. The gun deer season was extended statewide to Feb. 10. There will be no December closure for the upcoming season.

“A lot of changes hinged on whether Game Check became mandatory,” Sykes said. “On July 19, we were able to determine the deer seasons dates. Hunters can hunt deer statewide until February 10. It’s not a mandate. You don’t have to do it. But if you choose to do so, you can. There will be no closure in December. We are setting a season framework where landowners and managers can more effectively manage the deer on their property.

“Archery season in the South Zone will start on Oct. 15 instead of Oct. 25 like it has been the past couple of years, but the first 10 days will be buck-only to stay in line with our fetal data.”

Another change for deer season is in Zone C (see map), where hunters had requested a reduction in the number of antlerless hunting days.

“The habitat is a lot more open with a lot of agricultural fields and small wood lots,” Sykes said. “The hunters and our biologists were reporting that deer numbers were down. So, we reduced the firearms season for antlerless deer in that zone.”

The antlerless season in Zone C on privately owned or leased land is Nov. 19-Nov. 27 and Dec. 23 through Jan. 2. On open-permit and public land, the antlerless season in Zone C is Dec. 23 through Jan. 2.

“If you hunt in that area or own property in Zone C and you have a bunch of deer on your place, it’s not a problem,” Sykes said. “Get with our technical assistance guys and get signed up on the Deer Management Assistance Program. If you need to harvest more does, they will write you a permit to do so.”

Dog deer season is set for Nov. 19 through Jan. 15 statewide, except for Talladega National Forest, which will have a reduced number of days and dog deer hunting must end at noon.

Legal shooting hours for deer were also clarified. Instead of “during daylight hours,” the regulation now reads 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset.

For those worried about coyotes, Sykes said there is no closed season on coyotes. Night hunting permits for coyotes will be issued on a case-by-case basis. There are also no closed seasons on raccoons and opossums.

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Roland Cooper, a Wilcox County economic asset, set to reopen

Roland Cooper’s campground is nestled under tall pine trees. (Photo by Kim G. Nix)

Roland Cooper’s campground is nestled under tall pine trees. (Photo by Kim G. Nix)

The folks who love the outdoors in the middle of the Alabama Black Belt have experienced a wide range of emotions in the past year concerning one of the area’s iconic destinations. Those emotions have gone from disappointment and frustration to hope and, now, celebration.

Roland Cooper State Park near Camden was a casualty of funding shortfalls during last year’s budget crisis. The park has been shuttered, but the Alabama State Parks system hoped to find a qualified company to sign a contract to operate the park.

Much to the folks in west central Alabama’s delight, Recreation Resource Management was awarded the contract to operate the park, and the Arizona company is fast at work to try to get the park, located on the banks of the scenic Miller’s Ferry Reservoir on the Alabama River, open for Labor Day.

Kelly Ezell, State Parks’ Central District Supervisor, said Recreation Resource Management (RRM) operates more than 150 campsites in 11 states and has the expertise to make Roland Cooper successful.
Of course, Ezell said the park’s reopening couldn’t have happened without the cooperation of a number of entities.

“RRM is there working right now,” said Ezell, who also is Oak Mountain State Park Superintendent. “We’ve worked with the city (Camden) and county (Wilcox). They’ve helped us to get things back in shape. We’ve had crews from other state parks in there, removing some trees and limbs. We want to get it cleaned up so it will be opened back up by Labor Day.”

Although the park has only been closed a little more than 10 months, Ezell said the lack of maintenance causes any property to suffer deterioration.

“We’re just trying to get the grounds back in shape,” she said. “Nobody has cut the grass. We tried to get down to Roland Cooper to check on things about once a month, but it’s not like having a crew on the ground to take care of the everyday upkeep. Almost a year is a long time for something to sit idle, and a lot of things happen.

“Right now, we’re making sure all the water and electric are working at the campsites. We’ve been very fortunate to have the City of Camden and Wilcox County to help us get everything in shape.”
Ezell said the state’s equipment has been moved to a secure area to make room for RRM’s equipment in the maintenance building, and that the six cabins are being cleaned and the maintenance brought up to standards.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division has used Roland Cooper as the weigh-in site for the annual alligator hunts in the West Central Zone. Although the park is not officially open, State Parks is continuing to allow the gators to be weighed in during the transitional period.

Ezell said Roland Cooper has quality amenities for those who enjoy the outdoors in a rural setting, especially with the quick access to the great fishing offered on Miller’s Ferry.

“The boat launch and the pier at Roland Cooper are basically brand-new,” she said. “There’s a brand-new bath house there. We’ve got a lot to work with and build on at Roland Cooper.”

Ezell said in addition to the City of Camden and Wilcox County, the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce has been a constant advocate for the re-opening of the park.

“I think it was such a shock to the area when it closed,” she said. “The park was a very important asset to that area. I think everybody is very invested in getting it open and functioning.”

Hunter Hines, President of the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Ezell’s assessment.

“This is about as good news as we could have for our area,” Hines said. “The park is second to none in terms of economic impact for our area. We can’t host a fishing tournament with over 50 boats without the park. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the economic impact we’ve lost in the last 10 months.”
Hines said areas with large cities aren’t impacted as much by park closures as a rural area like Wilcox County.

“Think about the campers and cabins, not to mention the fishermen, who came to this area and spent their money buying gas and groceries in our little, small community,” he said. “That kind of impact is huge for us and is detrimental when it’s not there.

“Now we’ll be able to get back to marketing little ol’ Camden to the big bass tournaments, fishermen and people who love the outdoors.”

Alabama Bass Trail Program Director Kay Donaldson said the park has been used during its closure for some fishing tournaments. “The willingness of the state park to give the city of Camden the opportunity to continue hosting fishing tournaments while the park was closed was outstanding.” She said. “It was vital to the community to keep those dollars flowing to the gas stations and stores from tournament anglers.”

Hines said there will be a grand re-opening ceremony at Roland Cooper from 3-7 p.m. September 11 with a “Music in the Park” theme. Visitors are urged to bring lawn chairs to enjoy the music and meet the new park managers.

James “Big Daddy” Lawler has been promoting the outdoors in west central Alabama for more years than he would readily admit. He hosts a weekly radio show called “Gettin’ Outdoors Radio with Big Daddy Lawler” that airs from 7-9 a.m. on Saturdays.

“Opening the campgrounds and cabins back up at Roland Cooper is huge,” Lawler said. “You just don’t have much lodging in what I call the rural South, which fits our area to a tee. Because of the uncertainty of being able to use the boat launch at the park, we lost the stop on the Alabama Bass Trail, which was a huge economic loss for our area. Opening the park back up will give us an opportunity to attract those big bass tournaments again with the use of those facilities.”

Lawler, who recently received the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Communicator of the Year award, said the Camden area can’t worry about what was lost during the park’s closure, only what the re-opening will mean.

“We can’t look back,” he said. “We’ve got to look ahead. This company (RRM) is very experienced at running venues like this, and I think they’re going to be an asset to the area.”

Lawler said as the nation becomes more urban, there is a renewed appreciation for rural areas that allow visitors to reconnect with nature.

“Being away from everybody is an advantage for us,” he said. “Everybody in the big town wants to come to the rural areas. I’ve been saying this for 35 years; What we have to offer in Wilcox, Marengo, Monroe and Dallas counties is the most diversified natural resources in the nation. And when I say natural resources, I’m not just talking about the hunting and fishing. I’m talking about the birding, native wildflowers and the red hills salamander areas. There is so much we have available.

“I tell everybody, nobody is passing through Wilcox County. We’re not close to the interstate or a big highway. People have got to be coming here for a reason. And Roland Cooper State Park is huge reason to come here.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

AWF holds Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship received the inaugural Fisheries Conservationist of the Year at the recent Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Prattville. Presenting the award, from left, are Horace Horn with PowerSouth Energy, AWF President Angus Cooper III, Susan Comensky with Alabama Power Company and Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. Blankenship was cited for his work to improve red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico. (Contributed Photo)

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship received the inaugural Fisheries Conservationist of the Year at the recent Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Prattville. Presenting the award, from left, are Horace Horn with PowerSouth Energy, AWF President Angus Cooper III, Susan Comensky with Alabama Power Company and Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. Blankenship was cited for his work to improve red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico. (Contributed Photo)

While reviewing the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards late last year, the AWF Board and Tim Gothard, AWF’s Executive Director, realized there was a gap in the awards coverage.

Despite having a dozen awards, from Conservationist of the Year to Air Conservationist, not one of those awards was specific to an area near and dear to the hearts of almost all Alabamians who love the outdoors – fisheries.

Hence, the inaugural AWF Fisheries Conservationist of the Year award was presented last week to Chris Blankenship, Director of the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, during the annual awards banquet in Prattville.

“We created the fisheries category during what we call the off-season,” Gothard said. “We realized that with all of our categories, there was really no category to focus on the fisheries conservation work that goes on in the state. We could have folded it into the wildlife, but fisheries is really not wildlife in the official terminology.

“We felt like the whole fisheries arena, both fresh and saltwater, and all that good work done in that field deserved a category unto itself.”

Gothard said the fisheries award can go to any individual, group, institution, government agency or non-governmental conservation group.

“We look at any contribution to fisheries in the state, whether it’s an agency person, like Chris, or a professor working at a university, or it could be a private organization like the CCA (Coastal Conservation Association) or homeowners or boat owners group who are promoting fisheries conservation in Alabama,” he said. “Because of his efforts to ensure access to Alabama’s red snapper fishery, we felt like Chris was deserving of the initial fisheries award.”

Blankenship has been Marine Resources Director since 2011. Not only has theMarine Resources Division significantly increased marine habitat during his tenure, Blankenship has made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., to address Congress on the red snapper fishery and what it means to Alabama’s economy and recreational and commercial fishing opportunities.

“I’m excited to receive the AWF Fisheries Conservationist of the Year award,” Blankenship said. “But mostly, I think it’s validation of the good work our staff does that is really making a difference for marine resources in coastal Alabama. I have long enjoyed attending the AWF banquet each year, and I’m so proud of the work many people do to enhance the outdoors in Alabama. I’m honored to receive one of those coveted statues.

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship received the inaugural Fisheries Conservationist of the Year at the recent Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Prattville.

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship received the inaugural Fisheries Conservationist of the Year at the recent Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Prattville. (Contributed Photo)

“One of the things I’m proud of is the artificial reef work. We already had a great program, but I think we’re taking it to the next level with our offshore and inshore programs. The establishment of the new reef area between 6 and 9 miles will be a great addition to the program and will be a great legacy for people who work for Marine Resources.”

Blankenship said one thing he’s most proud of is the State of Alabama’s lead role in working with the federal government and Congress to try to remedy the mismanagement of red snapper.

“It’s a heavy lift to try to do anything in Congress or make changes in the federal government policies, but I think we’re making good strides,” he said. “We’ve gone about it in a very logical and thoughtful way, and I hope we’re going to have some success in the very near future. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished on red snapper.”

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby was presented the Legislative Conservationist of the Year for his work on red snapper, and he inserted language in the Congressional Omnibus Appropriations bill that extended Alabama’s coastal waters boundary from 3 miles to 9 miles for fisheries management.

Dr. David Thrasher of Montgomery was named AWF Conservationist of the Year. Thrasher, a pulmonary and critical care physician, also holds a bachelor and a master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries biology from Auburn University. Thrasher, past AWF president, and current vice president of the Alabama Conservation and Natural Resources Foundation, makes his property in Macon County available to Auburn students for research projects.

The Judicial Conservationist of the Year award went to Justice Jim Main of Montgomery for his work to resolve issues regarding oil and gas royalties and the prevention of proposed closings of the Blakeley and Saint Stephens parks. Main, a supporter of the Forever Wild program, has property in Bullock County that is designated as a Treasure Forest.

Conservation Communicator of the Year James “Big Daddy” Lawler of Camden has shared his love for the outdoors through his radio program, “The Gettin’ Outdoors Radio Network.” Lawler has a special love for his family’s Grampian Hills property outside Camden and the abundant outdoors experiences, including fishing, hunting, birding, hiking and biking, in Alabama’s wildlife-rich Black Belt.

Conservation Educator of the Year Doyle Keasel of Auburn has been an educator for 35 years, the last 13 of which have been in a partnership position with the AWF and Alabama Cooperative Extension System. That partnership has supported the Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program, Discovering Our Heritage Program and Conservation Education Teacher Workshops. More than 4,500 educators have received natural resources-based training through Doyle’s workshops.

Water Conservationist of the Year Dr. Pat O’Neil of Tuscaloosa, Deputy Director of the Geological Survey of Alabama, has made significant discoveries and advances in identifying and protecting Alabama’s water resources. O’Neil has also pioneered work in the aquatic organisms in the Coosa and Tallapoosa river systems, Mobile-Tensaw Delta and coastal rivers and streams. O’Neil co-authored the comprehensive book “Fishes of Alabama and the Mobile Basin.”

Forest Conservationist of the Year Jimmy Bullock is Senior Vice President of Forest Sustainability at Resource Management Services in Birmingham. Bullock is responsible for sustainable forest policies and is at the forefront of the restoration of longleaf pine in Alabama. He is one of the leaders of The Coastal Headwaters Longleaf Conservation and Restoration Initiative.

Luis “Wicho” Hechavarria Jr. of Orrville received the Wildlife Conservationist of the Year award for his wildlife conservation efforts on nine tracts of land in Dallas County, where he intensively manages for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, bobwhite quail and waterfowl.

Greg Gilliland of Munford, recipient of the Conservation Enforcement Officer of the Year award, has served as an officer with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division in Talladega County since 2003. In addition to enforcing the wildlife and fisheries laws, Gilliland contributes to community outreach programs that involve youth, as well as churches, schools and concerned landowners.

Hunter Safety Instructor of the Year Mike O’Neal has been teaching young and inexperienced hunters for more than 20 years. O’Neal has conducted more than 50 hunter education classes that have led to the certification of thousands of students since 1993.

Air Conservationist of the Year award went to the Georgia-Pacific Naheola Plant in Choctaw County. The integrated pulp and paper mill has implemented eco-friendly initiatives in the plant that have saved more than three million kilowatts of energy, reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by 20,000 pounds and nitrogen oxide emissions by 14,000 pounds annually.

Land Conservationist of the Year Blythe Cotton Company is a family farming operation in Town Creek that grows cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans on 3,500 acres. The Blythe family incorporated a no-till conservation method to reduce soil erosion from 15 tons to one ton annually.

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

West Central Alabama Alligator Hunting Season – Unofficial Results – Weekend One

The 2016 Alabama Alligator Hunting season opened last weekend, beginning Thursday night at 8 p.m. and ending Sunday morning at 6 a.m. Hunters were able to hunt from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. nightly. The West Central region covers private and public waters from Dallas County south to the Highway 84 bridge in Monroe County. A total of 17 gators were harvested in the opening weekend. All harvests were weighed in at Roland Cooper State Park on the banks of the Alabama River in Camden.

The season continues this weekend nightly from Thursday through Sunday morning. The West Alabama Watchman will partner with James ‘Big Daddy’ Lawler of the Gettin’ Outdoors Radio Network to bring you coverage.

Thursday Night Results

Nick Cochran (Alpine) – 8′ 8″, 191 lbs., F

Tyler Johnson (Scottsboro) – 7′ 5″, 105 lbs., F

Gator Mike Gifford – (Eufaula) – 7′ 6″, 141.5 lbs, M

James Lee Coe (Columbiana) – 7′ 9″, 130 lbs., M

 

Friday Night Results

Jake Rosser (Stevenson) – 7′ 2″, 85 lbs., M

Wesley Ann Terry (Camden)- 12′ 4 1/2″, 547 lbs. M

Karl Breland (Huntsville) – 7′ 9″, 149.5 lbs., M

Larry Hatchett (Shelby) – 11′ 3″, 449 lbs., M

Neal Posey (Selma) – 11′ 4″, 420.5 lbs., M

Jacob Walker (Pike Road) – 6′ 8″, 75 lbs., F

Ethan Tyree – 10′ 10″, 318 lbs., M

 

Saturday Night Results

Joseph Gann (Trussville) – 7′ 7″, 100 lbs., M

Dudley Oglesby (Ozark) – 8′ 3″, 156 lbs., F

Jarrod Pettie (Andalusia) – 11′ 2″, 380 lbs., M

Brian Robertson (Vinemont) – 6′ 2″, 61 lbs., F

Jessica Guy (Dickerson) – 12′ 6″, 562 lbs., M

Louie Wallace (Thomasville) – 5′ 11″, 39 lbs., F

RAINER: Black bears on the move

(Photo by Karin Harms)

(Photo by Karin Harms)

Don’t be surprised if a sighting that occurred recently in Oxford, Ala., becomes more commonplace. A young, male black bear strolled through several neighborhoods in the Oxford area and created somewhat of a stir.

Thomas Harms, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Large Carnivore Coordinator, said the state’s black bear population is expanding and sightings will likely increase.

That is not a cause for alarm, according to Harms, as long as you give the bear plenty of room.

“It’s not uncommon to see one this time of year,” Harms said. “There are a lot of young males moving around this time of year. Usually when you see one in a populated area, it’s a young male that has been pushed out by his mother and is looking for a new home range.”

Wildlife and law enforcement officials looked for the bear in the Oxford area but never saw it again. Harms said that is because a young male may travel a great distance before he finds suitable habitat to call home.

“He will keep pushing out until he comes to a place that meets his needs,” he said. “We had one that went from Georgia, across Alabama and into Mississippi. We had sightings of that bear all the way across. So there’s no telling where that bear that was seen in Oxford will end up.”

When the public spots a black bear near a residential area, Harms says to report the sighting to the district WFF office and stay out of its way.

Personnel from the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division and Auburn University captured a black bear in Washington County. The bear was sedated and fitted with ear tags and a data collar. Thomas Harms, holding rod on left, and Chris Seals of Auburn, holding collar, check the bear’s weight. (Photo by Karin Harms)

Personnel from the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division and Auburn University captured a black bear in Washington County. The bear was sedated and fitted with ear tags and a data collar. Thomas Harms, holding rod on left, and Chris Seals of Auburn, holding collar, check the bear’s weight. (Photo by Karin Harms)

“Just give the bear its space and let it move through,” he said. “I know people want to take pictures, but keep your distance and let it be a bear and let it move on. Usually in those situations, by the next day, you’re not going to see it again.”

Harms said the main concentration of black bears is in Mobile and Washington counties and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

I was the outdoors editor at the Mobile newspaper for 14 years and never spotted a black bear. I found bear tracks but never laid eyes on a live one.

“They’re pretty hard to see,” Harms said. “They make it their business not to be seen. Even as big as they are and leaving tracks, they do a really good job of not being found.”

Harms said other areas of Alabama have some bears, but there are only a few breeding populations. He said there are bears in the Little River area in northeast Alabama, but those are a different subspecies (Ursus americanus americanus) of bears migrating from north Georgia. A small group of bears lives in Conecuh National Forest and, like those bears in southwest Alabama, are the Florida subspecies. Mature female bears average about 200 pounds. Males average about 300 pounds.

Harms said WFF is working with Auburn University to study the black bears in Alabama and try to determine the population numbers.

“We’re still working on the data to try to determine the number,” he said. “We’re processing hair samples and we have a few bears collared. We’re probably talking around 450 bears statewide. It could be a little more or a little less.

“We don’t count transient males passing through. They’re not part of the population. Once they mature and find a breeding female, they become part of an actual breeding population.”

Harms said there are eight collared bears in south Alabama and two in north Alabama. The collars are designed to stay on the bears for 14-15 months and then drop off. Biologists then recover the collars to download a full year of data. He also said plans are to trap and collar several more bears this summer.

From the data on hand, Harms said it appears female bears in south Alabama have a home range of 7 to 8 square miles, although there is some overlap with the females. In north Alabama, the female home range is about 12 square miles.

“We’re talking about two completely different habitats,” he said. “Up north, it’s more of a mountainous range and the bears have to cover more ground to find food. In south Alabama, just about everything grows year-round and the bears don’t have to travel as far to forage. Plus, there is a denser population in south Alabama, so that may have something to do with it.

“As far as males, it looks like they have a home range of about 20 square miles. It’s just like a buck covers more area, trying to cover more than one female at one time. And the males do protect their home range, their breeding area. They prefer not to fight, but they will. Most of the time the smaller bear will just run off.”

Harms said Alabama is not alone in an expanding population of black bears. He said the trend extends to the entire Southeast.

In Alabama, black bear is a game species but there is no open season.

“There’s a pretty good fine for killing one,” Harms said. “So whatever you do, don’t shoot one. Because they haven’t been hunted in decades, the population is slowly expanding. Being a predatory species, their growth is a lot slower than a deer or anything like that. So it’s going to take them a lot longer to rebound.

“But we’re seeing sows with three cubs pretty often and sometimes even four. That means they’re eating better and reproducing better. If you’re seeing multiple young, that usually means that population is in good health.”

Harms asks anyone who spots a black bear to go online to www.alabamablackbearalliance.org/ and fill out a report, which will end up in Harms’ data. The public can also contact any of the WFF district offices and report the sighting via email or by telephone.

“If they have photos, we would like to see them,” he said. “If they give permission, we want to post them on Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Facebook page.”

Because the bulk of the bear population is in southwest Alabama, Harms has held outreach and education meetings recently.

“We talk about bear reproduction, how to understand the bears and how to live with them,” he said. “What most people know about bears is what they see in stories or on TV or in the movies, and they can draw the wrong conclusions. We want to give them the latest information on black bears and what to expect when they live in areas with bear populations. Eventually, we’ll be hosting these meetings on a statewide basis.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

CAAMP observing seasonal migration of inshore fish species

As part of the CAAMP array, hydrophones are stationed in Alabama coastal waters to pick up the signals from the tagged fish to study seasonal movements and escapement rates.

As part of the CAAMP array, hydrophones are stationed in Alabama coastal waters to pick up the signals from the tagged fish to study seasonal movements and escapement rates.

Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Sound are bugged, but the listening devices aren’t snooping to hear the inshore anglers’ big-fish tales or locate their favorite fishing holes.

The microphones, known as hydrophones, are strategically positioned around the Bay and Sound to listen for the fish themselves – a select group of fish.

In a study sanctioned by the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD), several inshore fish are being fitted with sonic devices that will be picked up by the hydrophones to get a better idea of where and how much they travel during the year.

Chris Blankenship, MRD Director, said the project is in collaboration with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, which has hydrophone stations on the west side of Mississippi Sound.

“This should give us a better picture of the movement of those inshore fish,” Blankenship said. “It started as a tarpon project because that’s Alabama’s state saltwater fish, but we had very little information about the movement of tarpon in our area. Once the hydrophones were out, we had the opportunity to include other species, so we added red drum (redfish) and spotted seatrout (speckled trout) to learn about those fish movements at the same time.

“The interesting thing is that for any fish with an acoustic tag that we pick up, we share that information. Like sturgeon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tagged some sturgeon in some of the creeks and rivers in Florida. Occasionally, we’ll pick up some of those fish in our array, and we’ll share that with the people who are gathering data on those fish.”

Dr. Sean Powers and the University of South Alabama Marine Sciences Department are conducting the study, which has been dubbed CAAMP, the Coastal Alabama Acoustic Monitoring Program. There is an array of 40 listening stations with hydrophones strategically placed around Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound.

“The hydrophones were placed around the bay to cover the entry and exit points of fish, and in this instance, we’re talking about a red drum or speckled trout,” Powers said. “We have all the rivers covered in the (Mobile/Tensaw) Delta. We have a string of them along the Causeway, at Fowl River and Dog River. We also have them in Mississippi Sound.

“Our colleagues in Mississippi and Florida are using same type hydrophones, and we share data. So although we only cover Alabama with our 40 hydrophones, we have partnerships that cover the Gulf from Louisiana to Tampa.”

A small acoustic device is inserted by Reid Nelson into the body cavity of the red drum in the study. Larger tags are attached near the dorsal fin on tarpon. (Photo by Crystal Hightower)

A small acoustic device is inserted by Reid Nelson into the body cavity of the red drum in the study. Larger tags are attached near the dorsal fin on tarpon. (Photo by Crystal Hightower)

The hydrophones are designed to pick up acoustic signals with unique codes that identify individual fish. The acoustic tag sends a series of sound pulses in a few seconds. The hydrophone interprets that signal and identifies the fish. If it was a fish from Alabama, the identification of the fish gives researchers data on where the fish was tagged and where it was located when the signal was picked up at different times. If the hydrophone identifies an unknown code, the other states involved in the program are notified.

Each fish in the study is caught by researchers or other anglers and the small tag is attached.

“We do a little surgery on the fish,” Powers said. “We insert a little tag. It’s about half the size of a AAA battery. Sound travels really well in saltwater, so we don’t need that big of an amplifier. A little tag can do a whole lot. It sends that pulse out every minute. The tags will last a year. When it swims within 500 meters of a hydrophone, the signal is picked up and will tell us the fish was alive in that location. With our array of hydrophones and collaboration with the other states, we get good information on movement of fish, the seasonal movement of fish.”

The Mobile/Tensaw Delta and its role in the movement of inshore species is of particular interest to the researchers. Typically, the inshore species follow the migration of shrimp and other food sources into the rivers and creeks in the fall, depending somewhat on water salinity and flow.

“One thing we’re really interested in is how the saltwater fish use that Delta – when, and potentially why, they use that Delta area,” Powers said. “Although we have hydrophones all around the Bay, it’s a little more weighted toward the Delta, Fowl River and Dog River.”

The acoustic study is being done in stages, according to species. The first year is red drum. Powers said about 100 redfish have already been tagged.

“That was the fun part,” he said. “We went out and tagged them all around the Bay, some in the Delta and some off Fairhope, some off Bon Secour and some off Dauphin Island.

“What we will get is very important information on movement, and we’ll get important information on survivorship. We know how many fished we tagged. We have rewards so fishermen can call the information in to us if they catch one. That way we’ll be able to tell how many survived.”

That rate of survival, or escapement, plays a crucial role in the management of red drum, Powers said. Current management models are based on 30-percent escapement.

“What that means is 30 percent survive to go offshore and spawn,” he said. “The fish we tagged are within the state slot limit of 16 to 26 inches. What we would like to see is verification that at least 30 percent of those survive.”

The red drum study will be expanded next year with different parameters. Half the fish tagged will be wild fish, and half will be fished raised at the Marine Resources Division’s Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores.

“We’re really interested to see if there is a difference in movement in wild red drum versus hatchery-raised red drum,” Blankenship said.

Speckled trout will be added to the study in year three; however, several speckled trout that were part of the live weigh-in for the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo were tagged and released as well. Powers said the species for years four and five are undecided but could include flounder and/or sheepshead.

Before CAAMP came into existence, Powers said a tarpon study had been underway for a couple of years.

“We worked with fishermen on the tarpon, because you’ve got to be pretty good to catch a tarpon,” he said. “We tagged about a dozen tarpon, and we’ve also got satellite tags on a couple of fish that will pop off and float. We also have one receiver off Gulf State Park Pier, so we expect to hear a few tarpon ticking off Gulf State Pier.”

Powers said the information from the hydrophones is downloaded about every six months.

“Sometime next year we should have some good information,” he said. “We know that we’ve already heard from some of the tarpon and some of the red drum. The good thing about the red drum tags is some of the freshwater folks have receivers out to listen for sturgeon, and they’ve already heard some of our redfish up in the rivers.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Clarke Prep student hauls in monstrous bass

The monstrous size of the largemouth bass caught by 15-year-old Branson Linder of Jackson, Ala., this year is evident when compared to the 10-pounder he caught several years ago. Although Linder held the big bass by one hand on the shore, it took two hands to pull the giant into the boat.

The monstrous size of the largemouth bass caught by 15-year-old Branson Linder of Jackson, Ala., this year is evident when compared to the 10-pounder he caught several years ago. Although Linder held the big bass by one hand on the shore, it took two hands to pull the giant into the boat.

Branson Linder bass 012This is a story about a big fish. But this one didn’t get away. It’s a woulda, coulda, shoulda tale of a largemouth bass, one of those that people deem a whopper, a jaw-dropper when they see the mount.

Since 1987, Thomas Burgin’s 16-pound, 8-ounce bass that was caught at Mountain View Lake in Shelby County has reigned atop the Alabama Freshwater Records Book.

There may have been a fish as big or bigger caught in Clarke County earlier this year, but inquiring minds will never know.

Branson Linder, a 15-year-old who attends Clarke Prep in Grove Hill, Ala., caught the fishing bug when he was about 12. When Linder showed a great deal of interest in bass fishing, his father, Darrell Linder, got interested as well.

“I just love the challenge of finding the fish and figuring out how to catch them when you do find them,” Branson said. “It’s fun just fighting and then looking at them. I like everything about it.”

Branson mows lawns during the summer to buy his fishing equipment, and his knowledge of tackle and lures rivals that of experienced anglers. That quality equipment made a big difference this past spring when his grandmother, Carolyn Powell, asked him if he wanted to go fishing at Camp Maubila, located about halfway between Jackson and Grove Hill. She had a friend, Phillip Harrell, who had access to the lake at the Boy Scout camp. Harrell told Linder the lake was overcrowded with bass and needed some fish taken out.

“We didn’t get to the pond until about nine that morning,” Branson said. “I got in a boat and put on a life jacket. I started paddling around and when I got to the first tree I didn’t get any bites. I got probably halfway around the pond and I saw a pocket with stumps everywhere. I saw a tree hanging over the water and I cast under the tree. On the second cast, I felt a little bump.

“I let him hold it for a minute, and then my line started leaving. I set the hook, and I had no idea what would be pulling for the next few minutes. Then the fish started pulling the boat around faster than a trolling motor.”

Linder was afraid the big fish was putting too much pressure on the 15-pound fluorocarbon line and reached up to loosen his drag, but he went a little too far on the adjustment.

“I thought I had lost him, but I tightened my drag back up,” he said. “My drag was pretty tight but he was stripping it like it was nothing. Then he headed for deep water. He went up under the boat, and I thought he was going to break my rod. He almost bent it double. I was really scared I was going to lose him. He went toward a stump with limbs sticking out of the water next to it, but I managed to get him stopped before he got there.”

The big bass finally headed for the surface to try to dislodge the Texas-rigged Senko plastic worm. The bass was so big it couldn’t clear the water when it tried to jump.

“The first time I saw him my heart just about stopped beating,” Linder said. “I didn’t have any idea he was that big. Then he went back down and didn’t come back up until I brought him up to land him.”

Then came Branson’s next challenge. He didn’t have a landing net in the boat.

“When he came up, his mouth was open,” he said. “I had my rod in one hand and leaned over the side of the boat and grabbed him. I tried to pick him up with one hand, but I couldn’t do it. I had to put the rod down and grab him with two hands.

“I laid him down in the bottom of the boat. I never paddled so hard in my life to get back to the bank to show my grandmother.”

After taking “tons” of photos, Branson called his dad and Harrell to come look at the fish. The elder Linder asked his son if he wanted to get the fish mounted, which got a quick affirmative from the youngster who already had one big bass hanging on the wall.

The Linders headed to KC Outdoors in Jackson to leave the fish for the taxidermist. Branson had already tried to weigh the fish on some hand scales and it had bottomed out past the scale’s 14-pound limit.

“Branson called me and told me he caught a big fish,” said Kenny Clark of KC Outdoors. “I told him to bring it to the store. We photographed it and laid it on my digital scales. It read 13.7, which is a monster fish. I put it in the freezer, and my taxidermist, Jerry Cochran, came by and picked it up.

“A couple of weeks later, Jerry called me and told me I needed to get my scales fixed. He said he got a 14-pound mold for the fish, and it was entirely too small. He said he had to get a 16-pound mold and it still was still a little too small. He had to add some putty to fill it in to make it look right. Jerry has been mounting fish for a long time. He said it was the biggest bass he’d ever seen. He said there was no way that fish was 14 pounds. He said it was at least 16 and maybe more.”

Clark knew exactly how big the state-record bass was in terms of weight and size. He was astonished when he compared dimensions.

“I measured Branson’s fish at 33 inches long and 25 inches in girth, which is monstrous,” he said. “I think it was a potential state record. When I went back to check my scales, the battery was dead. I wish we had weighed the fish on certified scales. I’d love to know the exact weight.

“For a taxidermist who’s been mounting fish for 30-something years to tell me it’s the biggest bass he’s ever mounted, and that a 16-pound mold was too small, that raised a flag right there.”

Clark had a replica made of Burgin’s state-record fish to display at KC Outdoors. Branson’s bass has also been on display at the store.

“Just looking at these two fish, everybody says Branson’s is bigger,” Clark said. “But we’ll never know. It is a good conversation piece. Everybody loves to see a big fish.”

Clark certainly never expected to see Branson with a fish larger than the one he’d had mounted a few years earlier. That fish weighed 10 pounds.

“Mr. Kenny said I’d never catch one bigger than the one I brought in the first time,” Branson said. “I caught that fish in a pond near Gilbertown. It was on a Sunday, and we’d gone to my grandmother’s to eat. My cousin and I went to fish after we got finished. We usually didn’t catch anything bigger than a pound or so. There was a stump with grass around it. I threw a Texas-rigged Zoom Speed Craw and it got up on top of the grass. I was reeling it over the grass, and he came up and ate it.”

Branson fought the drag-stripping bass but he wasn’t able to stop the fish from getting back to a stump. The youngster wasn’t about to give up, though.

“It was probably waist deep, so I waded out there and got him,” he said. “On my way back, I stepped on a yellowjacket nest, and they ate up my cousin. That took up a little time to get all the yellowjackets off him. Then I put the fish in a cooler because my dad said we needed to get it mounted because it was my first double-digit bass.”

Although he gained some notoriety after the first fish, the bigger fish this year cemented his position as one of the top up-and-coming anglers in the area.

“People are calling me Kevin VanDam or Bill Dance now,” Branson laughed.

Because Clarke Prep doesn’t have a high school fishing team, Branson said his choice of colleges will be determined by the availability of a fishing team.

“Being on a college fishing team would be a lot of fun,” he said. “But my dream is to fish in the Bassmaster Elite Series. That’s my goal.”

For someone who was told he’d never catch a bass bigger than his 10-pounder, Branson has proven that underestimating what this teenager can accomplish might not be a good idea.

But he’ll have to do it with a different reel.

“The next time I tried to use it at Miller’s Ferry, it started all these clicking noises,” Branson said. “That big fish destroyed my Shimano reel.”

David Rainer is a columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.