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Gulf snapper beckon anglers through Oct.

Artificial reefs and oil rigs offer structure that stoke fish stocks

By Alan Clemons
Special to ? Aug. 24, 2004

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. ? As summer draws to a close and autumn's cooler breezes blow across the Gulf of Mexico, it's common for anglers to heed the call.

Ty Parham took a 32.25-pound red snapper during Alabama's inaugural Red Snapper World Championship.

The six-month season for red snapper ends at midnight on Halloween in one of the best areas anywhere for the popular saltwater fish. Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, two beach cities along Alabama's narrow coastline, boldly proclaim themselves as the "Red Snapper Capitol of the World" and it's hard to argue.

Snapper season opened April 21 with a bang as the Orange Beach Fishing Association staged the inaugural Orange Beach Red Snapper World Championship. More than 6,000 anglers and 90 boats participated, and
similar numbers are expected in the annual October fishing rodeo that closes out the season.

Red snapper are among the most prolific fish in the Gulf of Mexico and a decades-old program to build artificial reefs has only improved the bounty. The Gulf of Mexico is primarily a sandy bottom with little structure to hold fish, especially off Alabama's coast, so the artificial reefs are beneficial.

"The state has special areas open to public fishing where they have developed artificial reefs," said Mike Thierry, who skippers the 60-foot custom Lady Ann out of Dauphin Island Marina.

"For years anglers also have put out private reefs after receiving a permit from the state to do so," he added. "You might put out one or two reefs, or maybe a few more, and for the overall cost of the boat, equipment, mate and such a few hundred dollars to build and put out artificial reefs isn't much money when you figure you'll catch more fish."

In the early days before the beaches were developed as they are today, pioneering anglers in the eastern Gulf trolled for fish or found subsurface changes through trial and error.

Some used heavy lead weights covered with grease, dropping them to the bottom and retrieving them; if sand coated the weight, they moved on until they found hard bottom that typically attracted fish.

? We pretty much catch our limit every day. I've been doing this for more than 35 years and seeing people enjoy the trip keeps me going, whether it's their first time or they've been with us before. ?
? Mike Thierry, skipper of the Lady Ann out of Dauphin Island Marina

In the mid-1940s, the development of natural-gas and oil rigs in the western portion of the gulf changed fishing dramatically. The immense structures provided vertical habitat for bait and all types of fish. Thousands of rigs today dot the gulf from Florida to Texas, at a variety of depths.

In 1953, the Orange Beach Fishing Association asked Alabama officials for permission to put out junked cars as reefs. That spawned today's reef-building program, which with more than 1,200 square miles of public reef areas along with the numerous private reefs gives Alabama the nation's largest private reef-building program.

In 1974, several liberty ships were sunk as reefs, and in 1994 a program called REEF-EX was begun to utilize obsolete military battle tanks that had been extensively cleaned to meet environmental requirements. These tanks were sunk in specific areas in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean; off Alabama waters they're about 70 to 110 feet deep, which is close enough for fishing and diving.

"Anything down there that attracts the bait will work," said Thierry. "When I started fishing about 40 years ago, we had a few reefs that we hit and now there's all kinds of stuff out there. The oil rigs are really good, and that's where the light line pays off."

Thierry and other captains sometimes employ 50-pound line with two hooks, sometimes called a "sow rig" or "fly line." Instead of keeping it on the bottom, the double-hook rig is baited with cigar minnows, pogeys, squid, menhaden or other baits and lowered to a specific depth.

Typically, Thierry said, they use 80-pound line to reduce the chance of breaking off. The big line also helps if a giant grouper, amberjack or huge snapper decides it wants the bait.

Melvin E. Dunn Jr. of Theodore, Ala., boated an Alabama state-record 44¾-pound red snapper 60 miles south of Dauphin Island on June 1, 2002.

The lighter 50-pound line, he said, is for "finesse fishing." That sounds like an oxymoron, but that difference in line size can amount to putting more fish in the icebox.

"It's really a finesse rig and you just let 'em eat it," Thierry said. "I know people get excited, they're ready to catch something and when that rod starts jumping you want to set the hook.

"But with the sow rig, you have to let them eat ? you get the hook in them a lot better and you're less likely to lose a good fish because it's not hooked just in the lips."

Legal red snapper in Alabama must measure at least 16 inches from the end of the lower lip to the tip of the tail. Anglers may keep four a day. Other species such as vermillion and lane snapper have a daily limit of 20.

"We pretty much catch our limit every day," Thierry said. "I've been doing this for more than 35 years and seeing people enjoy the trip keeps me going, whether it's their first time or they've been with us before. Plus, we're helping take care of the resource with the limits and reefs in the gulf."

Gary Bryant, who captains the Red Eye out of Fort Morgan Marina, also runs to deeper water to chase snapper around rigs and reefs. But in the early part of the season, Bryant often stays closer to shore ? maybe 5 to 15 miles out, instead of 20 miles or more ? which gives his anglers more fishing time.

To keep from wearing out a spot, Bryant moves around and targets smaller reefs, working the snapper into a frenzy with a Chum Churn. It's a large PVC pipe with holes and an internal, spring-loaded chopping system.

One inserts pogeys, shrimp or other desired bait, tosses the Chum Churn overboard and pumps the handle several times. Blades shred the bait, which then floats out of the holes. Within minutes, baitfish begin feeding and that brings in the bigger fish.

The first time I saw the apparatus, we were floating in water 70 feet deep and had snapper coming within 20 feet of the surface to nip chum chunks. The action was almost immediate, with snapper, mackerel and grouper showing up.

Bryant freelines a big pogey on a spinning rod and also drops big chunks of pogey, soured mackerel or fresh bonito to the bottom on a baitcaster reel.

If you're going ?

If you're interested in fishing along Alabama's coast for red snapper, here are some contacts:

Mike Thierry, the Lady Ann, at Dauphin Island Marina: or (251) 861-5302
Gary Bryant, the Red Eye, at Fort Morgan Marina: or (251) 540-6982
Orange Beach Fishing Association:
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, lodging and amenities:
Additional details: Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources,

"I've cut up bait and tossed it in, but I didn't have the same results as when I use the Chum Churn," Bryant said. "As long as the current is reasonable, I'll freeline. The pogey looks like a dead minnow floating along, which is exactly what you want."

"I've been using it for several years after seeing the guys in Venice use it for big tuna," he added. "I figured if it worked there, it would work for snapper and mackerel. We've caught some really good fish with it."

Snapper weighing 30 pounds or better aren't uncommon, including a 32.25-pounder that won the springtime world championship derby. Ty Parham of Athens, Ga., landed it while fishing on The Intimidator during the month-long tournament, and it earned him and Intimidator skipper Johnny Green $25,000 apiece for boating the biggest snapper in the event.

The Orange Beach Fishing Association's autumn rodeo offers cash and prizes, attracting anglers looking for a final fling before the season closes and old man winter arrives to put the kibosh on offshore trips.

"There's some awfully good fishing when it starts to get cooler in autumn," Thierry said. "I'm not sure what causes it, but something is going on before winter gets here.

"But we don't overfish our reefs, and too much pressure makes a big difference, so fishing is good throughout the summer and on into autumn

Ty Parham took a 32.25-pound red snapper during Alabama's inaugural Red Snapper World Championship.

Melvin E. Dunn Jr. of Theodore, Ala., boated an Alabama state-record 44¾-pound red snapper 60 miles south of Dauphin Island on June 1, 2002.
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