Recreational snapper anglers get additional days

Fishing buddy Todd Kercher posted a video last weekend that many feel justifies the significant extension of the red snapper season for private recreational anglers in federal waters.

Todd took his family out in the Gulf of Mexico to catch a limit of snapper, two per person with a 16-inch minimum. What he captured on video was what many snapper anglers have been screaming for the past few years.

As Todd tells one family member that they have a limit in the boat, they start throwing the leftover bait into the water.

A red snapper feeding frenzy ensued with 10- to 15-pound red snapper attacking the bait with such fervor that they were coming completely out of the water, skying as Todd called it.

The reason Todd and his family were able to enjoy the phenomenal red snapper fishing was the result of a unified effort by a diverse group that included the affected anglers, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Alabama Congressmen, city councils and mayors in Gulf Coast communities and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

When NOAA Fisheries announced earlier this year that the private recreational sector would only get a three-day season, the above groups were disgusted to the point of anger.

A little more than a month ago, the groups began to come together to encourage the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and subsequently NOAA Fisheries, to reconsider the season in federal waters.

Those efforts paid off last week when NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf states reached an agreement that if the states forego snapper seasons in state waters out to the 9-mile boundary Mondays through Thursdays, the federal private recreational season would be extended from three days for an additional 39 days. The season is set for each Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Labor Day and includes July 3-4 and Labor Day. The charter-for-hire’s 49-day season, which runs through July 19, and the commercial sector’s IFQ (Individual Fishing Quota) system are not affected.

Chris Blankenship, who has gone from Alabama Marine Resources Director to DCNR Deputy Commissioner to Acting DCNR Commissioner this year, said the negotiations have been in progress for much longer than a month.

“We started trying to work with the new administration not long after (Commerce) Secretary (Wilbur) Ross was appointed,” Blankenship said. “That has been very beneficial. Congressman (Bradley) Byrne also lined up the help from other Gulf Coast Representatives, like Steve Scalise and Garrett Graves from Louisiana, Matt Gaetz from Florida and Steve Palazzo from Mississippi. They met with the Secretary’s staff to urge them to extend the red snapper days.

“Then Governor Ivey sent a letter to the White House and actually talked to President Trump about red snapper while she was in Washington for a meeting about infrastructure. Then we had resolutions from Orange Beach, Dauphin Island and the Baldwin County Commission, along with a letter from Senator (Luther) Strange. It was a very concerted effort to get this extra time.”

Blankenship believes the main reason the Commerce Department responded to the requests of such a diverse group was the unified message.

“We were all asking for the same thing,” he said. “We wanted weekends, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. All the resolutions and letters were very similar. I think having that good community effort and single message helped this to be a success.”

Orange Beach City Councilman Jeff Boyd echoed Blankenship’s assessment of the teamwork.

“I think this is the greatest indication that the average voice was heard,” Boyd said of the extension. “It was heard all the way to the White House and Department of Commerce across many states. It showed that a team effort can absolutely be successful.

“Congressman Byrne was just by here, and we were talking about the work done by Chris Blankenship, Governor Ivey, Senator Strange’s letter and Senator (Richard) Shelby in the budget hearings. With that, we were able to gain enough momentum and energy to make it happen. I think it was wonderful.”

Boyd’s constituency includes a great number of private recreational fishermen and one of the largest charter fleets on the Gulf Coast. He said some are extremely happy and some apprehensive.

“From the private rec guys, there’s nothing but ecstatic excitement,” Boyd said. “From the charter guys, they’re worried about what it might do to them next year.”

Boyd said Blankenship was a crucial coordinator to make the snapper season extension a reality.

“Chris can’t get enough kudos,” Boyd said. “He’s the quiet hero who brought other state commissioners to the table. It’s hard enough to get a family to agree on anything, much less four different commissioners from four other states with different agendas.”

Blankenship said negotiations for the extension included several options including Saturday and Sunday, plus the holidays, but the addition of Fridays to the season prevailed.

“In order to get Fridays, the five states had to agree that they would not open a season in the fall,” Blankenship said. “Alabama and Florida felt it was more important to get the 39 days and not have a fall season. Mississippi and Louisiana agreed to do the same thing. Texas catches a very small percentage, ½ of 1 percent, of the quota during their fall season. So we were able to work out the details for 39 days, primarily through the cooperation of Alabama and Florida, which account for the majority of the red snapper catch.

“We realize not everybody is happy about giving up some of the state days. But we surrendered 23 days in state waters, where we have hundreds of (artificial) reefs, to get 39 days in federal waters, where we have thousands and thousands of reefs. We thought that was a fair trade.”

Blankenship hopes this process will reset the way the Gulf states work with the Commerce Department and NOAA Fisheries.

“All the states felt like this was a new opportunity, not just for 2017 but the future, to work with Congress and the Department of Commerce to find long-term solutions,” he said.

Blankenship said Rep. Scalise, who is recovering from a serious gunshot wound in an assassination attempt last week, was at the forefront of the negotiations.

“We pray for his speedy recovery,” Blankenship said. “This is an important issue to him. We hope he will get back to work soon. We look forward to working with him, as the Majority Whip, to pass a long-term fix in Congress.”

Blankenship said without the data gathered through the Alabama Red Snapper Reporting System, known as Snapper Check, the argument for an extension would likely have not been considered by Commerce.

“To the Commerce Department’s credit, they gave states the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “They compared the data from Snapper Check and MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program). They were open to looking at the data. They recognized the disparity in the data and decided the private recreational fishermen needed some relief. It was a bold move on their part and very appreciated by the recreational fishermen.”

One of those private recreational anglers is Marcus Kennedy of Mobile, who made it clear he felt the private rec guys were “getting the short end of the stick” in my column a little more than a month ago. When we talked last Friday, he had just returned from a quick trip into the Gulf to catch a limit of snapper.

“It looked like a normal weekend, which is good,” Kennedy said of the number of boats in the artificial reef zones. “When you’ve got the season spread out, you won’t have everybody trying to get out at the same time.

“I think this is the best we could have hoped for. We basically traded the remaining state days for 39 days in federal waters. I’ll take the federal season every time. That’s good for Alabama.”

Kennedy agrees that the Snapper Check data is far more accurate than the federal estimate.

“The state catch surveys have consistently been two to three times less than NOAA’s catch estimate,” he said. “Therefore, this season is more in line with what the actual catches are instead of the inflated numbers NOAA has been using. Everybody I fish with is glad we got the extension, but they know it’s not a long-term solution, and we’re probably going to have to go through the same fight next year.”

To be ready for further negotiations, Blankenship said it is crucial that Alabama anglers report all their catches through Snapper Check, which offers three ways to comply. The easiest way, by far, is to use the Outdoor Alabama app for smartphones. Online reporting is available at www.outdooralabama.com, and paper reporting slips are located at select boat ramps.

Major Scott Bannon, Acting Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, explains Snapper Check and its importance to red snapper management in the linked video here.

Kennedy said there is an abundance of large snapper, 25-plus-pounds, and plenty of 2- to 4-pound snapper on the reefs he’s fished lately. And he’s glad he doesn’t have to stay in state waters to fish for Alabama’s premier reef fish.

“It’s bad when you have to cram it all into one weekend, when the weather might be bad,” he said. “Now we can breathe a little easier and not be under the stress that you have to go. It’s supposed to be an enjoyable outing. You want to go when the weather is nice, not when the federal government says you have to go.”

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 Red Snapper season set for 2017

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division (MRD) announces that Alabama’s waters will open for the recreational harvest of red snapper from 12:01 a.m. Friday, May 26, through 11:59 p.m. Monday, July 31, 2017. Alabama state waters extend 9 nautical miles from shore. The daily bag limit will be two red snapper per person, and the minimum size will be 16 inches in total length.

The federal red snapper season has not been set by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. For information concerning the federal red snapper season, call (727) 824-5305. NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office also indicated that they will send out a fishery bulletin once the federal season is established.

Fishermen are reminded that they are still required to report their red snapper harvest through Snapper Check to the MRD during this period as well as any other time red snapper are landed in Alabama. Only one report is required per vessel trip, and anglers can provide details via a smartphone app available under “Outdoor Alabama” in the iTunes or Google Play app stores; online at www.outdooralabama.com; or by paper forms available at select coastal public boat launches. The telephone reporting method is no longer available.

“We received positive feedback last year from the fishing public for the extension of state waters to 9 miles and the state red snapper season in 2016. The public felt that having the fishery open for Memorial Day weekend as well as the prime months of June and July allowed them to spread out their effort and have great family fishing days when the weather was most favorable,” said Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy, Jr. “We feel that setting a similar season for 2017 will give people ample opportunities to access the red snapper fishery in Alabama waters.

“We will continue to work with the federal government and the other Gulf States to responsibly manage this great fishery in federal waters while also allowing proper management in Alabama waters. However, the incredibly short federal red snapper seasons are uncalled for. We have support from our Congressional delegation to make changes in federal fisheries management legislation and we hope to make progress on that front this year,” Guy said.

“The federal red snapper season this year has not been announced but it is anticipated to be very short,” said Deputy Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship “Alabama will use the landings from the Snapper Check program as well as other fisheries information before making any decision on a possible additional red snapper season later in the year.”

A list of public artificial and natural reefs located in Alabama state waters as well as recent reef-building activity by MRD can be found at www.outdooralabama.com/artificial-reefs.

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

Rabbit hunting not as it once was for long-time hunter

Beagles pour out of the dog box as John Shanklin, left, opens the doors, while Antoine Cheatham and Prentiss Thomas, right, get their hunting equipment ready for the first hunt of the day. (WAW | David Rainer)

The drizzle of rain didn’t bother Antoine Cheatham at all after the beagles that were released from the dog box hit the ground running.

Cheatham and his buddies, Prentiss Thomas and John Shanklin, are the diehard rabbit hunters that Stuart Goldsby of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division recruited for the 5th annual Hunter Education Volunteers and Youth Rabbit Hunt, held on property near Lake Guntersville.

While the hunters may have preferred a sunny day for the outdoors outing, Cheatham was a happy hunter.

“This is a perfect day for rabbit hunting,” Cheatham said. “This little bit of rain and cool weather keeps the scent close to ground. The dogs can pick up the trail a lot better. You couldn’t ask for a better day.”

The property that Goldsby has hunted for the past 30 years is a diverse area with open agriculture fields, piney woods and swampy bottoms that drain into Yellow Creek.

About 5 minutes after the dogs were released, a shrill yip was followed by a baritone bark and the race was on.

“That’s a beautiful sound,” Cheatham said. “That’s really what we’re out here for. If we kill rabbits, fine, as long we get to hear our dogs chase one.”

Traditional rabbit hunting wisdom tells you that the jumped rabbit will make a circle and end up back where he started, usually in short period of time.

Tradition appears to be out of the equation these days. That jumped rabbit took the dogs on a long journey around the north end of the property.

“I tell you, rabbit hunting has changed,” said Cheatham, who has been chasing rabbits for the past 35 years. “Used to, that rabbit would just make a short circle. Now they run a lot longer before they circle back. I don’t know for sure but I think the number of coyotes and bobcats has something to do with it. They have to work a lot harder to get away. They don’t run that far when it’s just dogs behind them. Nowadays, these rabbits take off like deer.”

“It’s probably a swamp rabbit,” Shanklin surmised as the dog barks grew a little dimmer. “Those rabbits will swim to try to get the dogs off their trail. It may take a while for the dogs to get back on him.”

Finally, about 15 minutes later, the dog pack turned back to where Shanklin was stationed on a bush-hogged lane next to a thicket.

Shanklin spotted movement in the thicket as the rabbit bolted past him. He fired once and quickly followed up with a second shot. “Got him,” he said.

Much to our surprise the rabbit was a cottontail, or hillbilly to seasoned rabbit hunters, instead of the swamp rabbit we had expected.

“Another thing is they’ve messed up a lot of the habitat for rabbits,” Cheatham said. “A lot of the places are set up for deer hunters with the food plots and thinning the thickets. The rabbits have got to have the cover they need. I just don’t see the cover like I used to.”

When Cheatham and his buddies hunt, they leave most of the hunt’s direction up to the dogs.

“About the only time I call the dogs is when I jump a rabbit and try to get them on his trail,” he said. “About the only other time I call them is when it’s time to go. We try to hunt them in a certain direction. When they strike, I just try to find a shooting lane.”

After retiring from the Army in 2007, Cheatham went to work at Redstone Arsenal outside Huntsville. Thomas retired from the Army and worked at Redstone until his retirement several years ago. Because of their service, they get to hunt Redstone.

Unfortunately, the rabbit hunting at Redstone has declined as well.

“We used to go to the arsenal, and killing 15-20 rabbits was just an average day,” Cheatham said. “Now we go and we may not kill but two or three rabbits, and that’s for the whole party not the individuals.

“I don’t know if this year’s drought had anything to do with it,” he said. “It was really dry. We’re just not seeing the rabbits.”

“We’re not even seeing any rabbit sign,” added Thomas, who played high school football with the Payton brothers, Eddie and NFL Hall of Famer Walter, and is mentioned in Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton. “You don’t see any rabbit pills on stumps and logs.”

Thomas, who still loves to hunt rabbits with his two replacement hips, said it’s really not about killing rabbits anymore.

“I love to see these kids out here,” Thomas said. “I don’t care if I shoot a rabbit. I want these kids to have a good time.”

Cheatham knows that diehard rabbit hunters are hard to find these days. He knows of only one other dedicated group of rabbit hunters that hunts the arsenal.

“The thing is that you get to hunt for five months, but you’ve got to maintain the dogs for 12 months,” he said. “You’ve got the upkeep of the dogs with the vet bills, shock collars, dog food and on and on. When you’re only killing one or two rabbits, that can get pretty expensive.”

For Goldsby, the WFF’s Northern Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, the hunt is a chance to get more youth into the outdoors and to offer gratitude for the many volunteers who help WFF teach and practice hunter safety in Alabama. The hunt is a partnership between the Alabama Hunter Education Association and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

“We’ve been doing the hunt for five years,” Goldsby said. “We’ve been using the same group of hunters out of Huntsville with rabbit dogs. They’re a good group of guys who are dedicated rabbits hunters. They hunt Redstone and the Wildlife Management Areas like Swan Creek and Mallard Fox. When they have an opportunity to hunt new ground, they’re ready.

“The intermittent rain really didn’t deter the hunters and we had a couple of good races in the morning. I told the youth and instructors that we were on a hunting trip. If they wanted to shoot a squirrel, I told them to go ahead. I told them if they saw a bobcat or coyote to please shoot them. We used to have wild turkeys on our place, but the predators have run them off.

“We went to the river side of the property in the afternoon, and we jumped a bobcat and coyote and managed to get both of them.”

The hunt also proved the hunting community has many interlaced connections. Several years ago, I wrote a story for Outdoor Alabama Magazine about a group of dedicated rabbit hunters from Tuskegee that was headed up by Robert Collins.

Cheatham happened to see that story.

“You’re not going to believe this, but Robert Collins was my First Sergeant,” he said. “It really is a small world.”

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. 

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. 

New regulations attempt to prevent CWD outbreak in Alabama deer

Deer hunters who travel out of state to pursue deer, elk and moose as well as bowhunters in Alabama need to be aware of changes in regulations regarding those activities.

Bowhunters will find relaxed regulations, while hunters who harvest deer and other affected cervids in states with confirmed cases of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) will be under strict regulations on the importation of deer carcasses.

cwd-map-16

CWD has been confirmed in the dark green states and provinces.

Under the new regulations, hunters who harvest white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose in those CWD-affected states are not allowed to bring the whole deer carcass back to Alabama. Any deer body part that contains spinal or brain tissue is specifically banned from Alabama.

“Alabama’s late to the dance, but we’re at least there now,” said Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “We have now joined 36 other states with similar regulations. It’s been prohibited to bring live deer into the state for some time now. The intent of that regulation was to help prevent the potential to spread diseases. A dead deer can transmit diseases just like a live one. So this was just logical. We finally did something that should have been done a long time ago.”

Sykes said to be in compliance with the new regulation, hunters who harvest a deer in a CWD-affected state must debone the meat, cape the deer and cut off the skull plate with the antlers attached. That skull plate must be thoroughly cleaned of all brain material before it is imported into Alabama.

CWD is a disease similar to Mad Cow Disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep that affects deer, elk and moose. CWD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that starts to debilitate the affected animal and results in death.

Thankfully, adjoining states have not had any confirmed CWD cases. However, the insidious disease has been confirmed in Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Ohio and numerous other states and parts of Canada. States with confirmed cases of CWD have been severely impacted by the disease.

“Unfortunately, that’s not that far away,” Sykes said. “The threat for us is the fear of the unknown. I just know what other states are going through. I know I don’t want the state of Alabama to have to go through it. I know people in Ohio and Arkansas, and it’s devastating to the way of the life, to the economy and to the resource. This is something that impacts me, too. I’ve hunted in Ohio. I’ve hunted in Texas. I’ve hunted in Missouri.

“No, you can’t just go kill a deer in those states, throw it in the back of the truck and come back to Alabama. That may be an inconvenience, but it pales compared to the inconvenience if CWD gets to Alabama.”

Sykes said some states with confirmed CWD cases have set up CWD containment zones where every deer harvested in those zones must be taken to a check station.

“Not only is that interfering drastically with what hunters are used to doing, but look at the budget drain it is causing the agencies that are having to devote all this time and manpower to check all those deer,” he said. “We don’t want it here. The only way to stop it is to never let it cross the border. This is one more step to help that.

“Remember, this is just from states with confirmed CWD cases. If you go to Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky or Florida, you’re fine. If the state has CWD, you can’t bring the whole deer back.”

Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) has been testing deer since the 2001-2002 season and none of the more than 5,000 deer sampled have tested positive for CWD.

“We sampled about 300 deer from the wild last year,” Sykes said. “All captive cervids over a year old that die, by regulation, have to be tested for CWD.”

Sykes has been traveling all over Alabama conducting seminars to help hunters understand the new regulations, including the Game Check harvest-reporting system, which is mandatory for the upcoming deer and turkey seasons. One thing he discovered during the seminars is that between 60 and 80 percent of the hunters in attendance said they hunted deer in states other than Alabama.

“With that many people hunting out of state, this is a serious, serious matter,” he said. “CWD never goes away. It is 100 percent fatal. If the deer gets it, it dies, plain and simple. If you get it, you never get rid of it, not just in the deer but the environment. It’s always there.

“When I say you never get rid of it, in Colorado where it was first found in captive mule deer, they killed all the deer and waited many years to put more deer back there, and CWD killed those deer, too. Once you get it, you never get rid of it. We don’t want it in Alabama, and the best chance to keep it out is to make sure it never crosses our border.”

Sykes said deer infected with CWD will exhibit symptoms similar to EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) – lethargic, a need to be around water, loss of the fear of humans and emaciated bodies. Hunters who see a deer that has any of those symptoms should contact WFF biologist Chris Cook at 205-399-5716.

On a more upbeat note, WFF has relaxed some of the regulations that govern the use of archery equipment to hunt deer. The minimum draw weight for bows has been reduced from 35 to 30 pounds. The restrictions on arrow length, broadhead weight or blade thickness have been removed. However, arrows must have a broadhead with at least two sharpened edges and a minimum cutting diameter of seven-eighths of an inch.

The revised regulation also states that crossbows must be equipped with a working safety and have a minimum peak tension of 85 pounds at normal draw.

“The technology has improved so that the kinetic energy and speed are there to hunt effectively and be responsible to the resource,” Sykes said. “Things are a lot different from when I started bowhunting with an old Bear Whitetail II. You had to get that thing up to the highest draw weight to get the arrow speed needed.

“These changes are just to make it as simple as possible and make it easier for anyone who wants to get into bowhunting and enjoy the outdoors. This could apply to anybody. My neighbor just had rotator cuff surgery, and he had to dial his bow down to where he could shoot.”

Speaking of new technology, one air gun company has produced a model that uses compressed air to propel full-length arrows at lethal speeds.

Sykes said those type weapons will fall under the air gun regulations and not archery. The air bows will be allowed during the air rifle and muzzleloader season and open gun deer season. Air guns must be at least 30-caliber to hunt deer and are legal during the same seasons as air bows.

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. 

Lifetime hunting licenses present issue with new mandatory Game Check

Since the lifetime hunting and fishing licenses became available in Alabama several decades ago, more than 80,000 people have taken advantage of this opportunity.

It wasn’t until the Game Check harvest reporting system was implemented three years ago that a problem with the lifetime licenses surfaced. It seems a large number of duplicate numbers are among those 80,000 lifetime licenses. This causes a major problem when the holders try to use Game Check, which will be mandatory for the upcoming hunting seasons.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has been hard at work trying to find the duplicate numbers and notify the license holders when possible.

“Of the 80,000 some-odd lifetime licenses, about 48,000 had duplicate license

Lifetime hunting licenses with duplicate license numbers have created an issue when hunters report their game via the mandatory Game Check in Alabama. (WAW | Contributed)

Lifetime hunting licenses with duplicate license numbers have created an issue when hunters report their game via the mandatory Game Check in Alabama. (WAW | Contributed)

numbers,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes. “The reason we discovered the duplicates was we had people who called us and told us they had tried to use the voluntary Game Check to report a harvest and it wouldn’t let them do it. It turned out to be a two-fold problem. A lot of the lifetime licenses didn’t have the number of characters needed to access the system. If it was bought 20 years ago, it may have only six digits where it needs 10 to enter the system. The second issue was the database couldn’t identify it to a specific hunter because more than one person might have that license number.

“So we had to figure out a way to solve that problem. The first step was to let people know about the issue with the old licenses and give them an opportunity to have a new license issued. We’ve always allowed people who have lost their lifetime license to get a new license for $5, or, if it was damaged, they could send it in and we would issue a new one at no charge.”

The new system also affects those lifetime license holders whose licenses are in perfectly good shape and in their possession, but they don’t have the number of digits required to enter the Game Check system.

“We have been going back through the license sales and cross-referencing,” Sykes said. “I’ll use myself as an example. I bought my lifetime license in 1992. I tried to utilize Game Check and it wouldn’t let me. So I got a new license with a unique number. There were a lot of people like me. I still get a HIP (Harvest Information Program) license for doves and waterfowl. I buy a Wildlife Management Area license. I buy a trapping license and a state duck stamp. I asked our IT department to cross-reference those licenses with my old lifetime license number. This cross-referencing allowed us to identify those lifetime license holders that we previously had no contact information to reach these individuals.”

After several months of work, Sykes said the IT staff has been able to reduce the number of duplicate licenses in half, but almost 25,000 are still out there.

“Another way we decided to attack this issue – other states already have this – is to issue hunters an individual number that follows them throughout their lives,” he said. “It’s called a Conservation ID number.”

With Game Check mandatory this year, anyone who harvests a deer or turkey must report it through Game Check, including those who are exempt from buying a license – hunters under the age of 16 or over 64 and those who hunt on their own property. To access the Game Check system, those exempt from buying a license must acquire a H.E.L.P. (Hunter Exempt License Privilege) number each year or get a new Conservation ID.

“For example, if you have a 10-year-old child who hunts, they’ll need a way to access the mandatory Game Check system if they harvest a deer or turkey,” Sykes said. “They have to get a H.E.L.P. number each year until they can buy a license. The Conservation ID is a six-digit number versus a 16-digit number. So it’s a lot easier to enter and remember. So for that child’s lifetime, all they will have to remember is their date of birth and that six-digit Conservation ID number. It’s going to simplify the process greatly. Once they get the Conservation ID number, they never have to do it again.”

For those with the lifetime licenses without the required number of digits, WFF is offering two ways to remedy that situation. First, they can get a new lifetime license, or they can go online and create a Conservation ID and use that number to access the Game Check system.

“There is a lot less room for error with a six-digit number versus a 16-digit number,” Sykes said. “Our most common error comes in entering that 16-digit number. And it’s the most time consuming as well. You’ve got to pull your license out and enter that long number. So, right now, you enter a six-digit number and you’re in the system.”

Sykes encourages people to take advantage of the Conservation ID because there is no guarantee that the number will remain at six digits.

“I hope so many people take advantage of the Conservation ID that we may have to go to seven digits,” he said. “But, right now, we’re starting with a simple, six-digit number. If you use the Outdoor Alabama app on your smartphone to use Game Check, it will cut your reporting time down from about two minutes to 45 seconds.”

Purchasing a hunting license online or through the Outdoor Alabama app has another benefit as well.

“What we learned going around the state doing the Game Check seminars is that between 75 and 80 percent of the people who attended have smartphones,” Sykes said. “If you buy your license online or through the app, you do not have to carry a paper license. When I go to the woods, I might forget my bow release or binoculars or ammo, but I’m going to have my smartphone in my pocket. Now you can have everything on your phone. That includes your license information and your harvest record on your phone. I can prove I have a hunting license. I can prove I have a harvest record. I can prove I have Game Check.”

Some critics of the Game Check system insisted the reason for Game Check was to increase the number of tickets issued by the WFF Enforcement Section. Sykes said nothing could be farther from the truth.

“People don’t realize that almost our entire budget comes from license sales,” he said. “Only about 2.2 percent of our budget comes from fines. We hope we don’t have to write tickets for Game Check violations. We’re just trying to make it as simple as possible to be in compliance and for us to have access to data we need to make sound wildlife management decisions.”

Go to https://game.dcnr.alabama.gov/ and look at the top of the page in the far right corner for Conservation ID. Click on that link and enter the information that will allow you to create a Conservation ID. If you just purchased the license online, you will need to wait about 30 minutes for that information to be updated in the system to be able to create the Conservation ID.

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. 

Youth, physically disabled hunt dates announced for Field Trial Area

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) announces the youth deer and duck hunt schedules at the M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area (FWFTA) in Hale County. The hunts will take place in late-November 2016 through January 2017. Registration will open September 1.

In addition to the youth deer and duck hunts, the FWFTA will host hunt days for hunters (of any age) with physical disabilities. The hunts will take place on the youth deer hunt dates. Registration for the physically disabled hunting days will open October 1.

To register for the hunts, call or leave a message for Bill Mason with the ADCNR State Lands Division at 334-624-9952. When registering please include a first choice and alternative date for your hunt. Reservations will be filled for the selected dates in the order they are received. If you have questions about the location or hunt details, call the number listed above or email Bill.Mason@dcnr.alabama.gov.

Youth deer and physically disabled hunt dates:
• November 23 and 26
• December 21 and 31
• January 11, 14, 18, 15 and 28

Youth duck hunt dates:
• November 26
• December 21 and 31
• January 11, 14, 18, 15 and 28

To participate in the youth hunts, hunters must be age 15 or younger and accompanied by an adult at least 21 years old (or a parent) who holds a valid state hunting license and a Harvest Information Program (HIP) stamp. Hunters must obtain their license and HIP stamp before the hunt since they will not be available on-site.

Each hunt date can accommodate four youth deer hunters, two groups of youth duck hunters, and three hunters with physically disabilities. The duck hunting groups can consist of one adult and three youth hunters or two adults and two youth hunters.

Hunters with physical disabilities are required to fill out a Disabled Hunter Permit Application prior to the hunt dates. For more information on the permit process, call the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries at 334-242-3465 or visit www.outdooralabama.com/ physically-disabled-hunting- and-fishing-trail.

Mandatory reporting of all deer (and turkey) harvests through Alabama’s Game Check system will be in effect for the 2016-17 youth and physically disabled hunting dates at FWFTA. Hunters will have 48 hours to report their harvest through a mobile app, online at www.outdooralabama.com, or by phone at 1-800-888-7690.

Information required to Game Check a harvest includes the date of harvest, the type of animal (deer or turkey), sex of deer (or age of gobbler), county of harvest, public or private land, and a hunting license or H.E.L.P. (Hunter Exempt License Privilege) number.

Hunters are encouraged to utilize Game Check via the Outdoor Alabama mobile app or go online to report their harvest. Reporting via the mobile app can be completed offline regardless of cellphone or data coverage. Just input the information and the app will automatically submit it when cellphone or data coverage is restored. The phone number is provided as a service for hunters who do not have internet access.

Besides providing a convenient way to report your harvest, a smartphone with the Outdoor Alabama app will be accepted in lieu of a paper harvest record. Hunters who plan to Game Check online or by phone are still required to possess a harvest record and hunting license during their hunt.

To learn more about Alabama’s Game Check system, visit www.outdooralabama.com/ gamecheck.

The M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area consists of 4,300 acres in Hale County and is managed as a nature preserve and recreation area. In addition to developing a sporting dog Field Trial/Hunt Test grounds and a youth hunting program, the ADCNR State Lands Division is currently restoring the tract’s native prairie grasslands and managing its numerous ponds for future public fishing.

ADCNR does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, age, gender, pregnancy, national origin, genetic information, veteran status, or disability in its hiring or employment practices nor in admission to, access to, or operations of its programs, services, or activities.

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

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. 

Alabama turkey hunters say 2015 worse than recent seasons

Recently the Wildlife Section of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries emailed Alabama turkey hunters to gather information about their turkey hunting experiences in Alabama. More than 1,500 hunters responded.

Responses were received from all 67 counties and more than half of turkey hunterspotd - turkey thought the 2015 season was worse than the 2014 season. In fact, more than half said the 2015 spring turkey season was worse than the average for both the past 5- and 10-year periods. However, more than 60 percent said they like the season starting and ending dates as they are.

Here are results from additional questions:

Does your hunting property have more, less or the same number of turkeys as last year?
More: 13%
Less: 48%
About the Same: 39%
What do you consider to be the major factors limiting turkey numbers in your area?
Weather: 40%
Predators: 73%
Disease: 5%
Too many hunters: 13%
Too liberal of a bag limit: 11%
Other: 17%

Complete results from the survey are on the wild turkey page of the Outdoor Alabama website.