By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Looking much like a synchronized swimming routine, anglers at the end of Gulf State Park Pier gracefully yielded their positions along the rail to the fisherman with the bowed rod in hand.
Laughingly called the “Pier Shuffle,” the regulars at the 1,540-foot pier in Gulf Shores know the angler must go where the fish on the end of the line takes him, which means cooperation takes priority if the fish is to be landed.
David Thornton got hooked on pier fishing some 40 years ago, and his enthusiasm was only boosted when the new pier was completed in 2009.
“I’m from Mobile and this type of action just appealed to me,” Thornton said. “We started coming back every chance we got. I just enjoyed the good fishing aspect of it and the good people. One of the things is you meet people from all over – different parts of the Southeast and even the country. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”
There are basically two types of pier anglers. There is a group of diehard anglers who head to the octagon at the end of the pier as the sun begins to rise each morning. The fishing on the end is usually intense. Visitors tend to gravitate toward all the action at the octagon and can find themselves somewhat overwhelmed. That’s where the pier veterans come in if they’re welcome.
“You can tell pretty quickly if someone is lacking some of the skills for pier fishing,” Thornton said. “Sometimes all it takes is offering a little advice like, ‘Why don’t you loosen your drag a little bit, or hook the bait this way or try this hook and leader.’
“We’re just basically trying to teach people how to fit in so they don’t disrupt the anglers around them. That’s why the rules are laid out like they are. That’s why you see the pier carts, so people can keep their tackle away from the rail. Back down the pier, people lay their rods on the rail. On the end, if somebody hooks a running fish like a king or bull red, it’s hard to follow that fish to tire him. You’re going to have to move along the rail. So all you have to do is hold your rod up, step back and the fisherman can go right under you. That way it’s no intrusion to your fishing.”
Farther back toward the shore, the species that anglers catch are likely to change.
“Primarily, we’re catching king mackerel and Spanish mackerel on the end,” Thornton said. “As you progress toward the beach, you’re catching Spanish, bluefish, ladyfish and your inshore species like redfish, speckled trout and flounder.”
Pier anglers who fish the shallow water can also load ice chests with whiting at certain times of year, mostly when it’s a little cooler.
At times, according to pier regular John Giannini, schools of bull redfish (15 pounds and larger) will move past the pier and the action gets frenetic.
“When the bull reds come by, you may have 40 people hooked up,” Giannini said. “If they’re lucky, they’ll be able to land about half of them. It gets really hectic when the bulls come through.”
When someone hooks a big fish, the experienced anglers who aren’t hooked up spring into action, grabbing gaffs or nets to aid in the landing of the fish.
“It’s the spirit of cooperation,” Thornton said. “People who aren’t hooked up will grab a gaff or a net and help people with their fish a lot of times. If it’s a bigger fish, like a 30- to 40-pound king, we might use two gaffs. You don’t want to take any chances with a fish that big.
“I’ve hooked a couple of tarpon out here, and I just saw one swim by. They’re just starting to move in. That’s probably the premiere fish to hook out here. I actually landed a tarpon during the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo in 1978.”
Of course, the pier in 1978 that stretched 825 feet into the Gulf of Mexico is no longer with us. Hurricane Ivan took care of that. The new, improved pier is much wider and longer.
“I can’t tell you how many times we stood at the end of the old pier and said, ‘If only if it was 100 yards longer,’” Thornton said. “Well, it’s not 100 yards longer, it’s 200 yards longer. And the fishing is phenomenally better. Instead of having 60 to 80 days when we catch king mackerel, we probably now have twice that many. It’s really opened up a whole new world for mackerel fishing.”
Jim Egbert, who had landed his daily limit of two king mackerel and was practicing catch-and-release, agreed wholeheartedly that the length of the new pier provides a great deal more opportunity to catch big fish.
“It’s extended our season on the front end and back end,” Egbert said. “In the fall, it was almost unheard of to catch any kings after October. Now we look forward each year to a Thanksgiving run. Now we’re able to compete with the piers in Florida for the entire year.”
For king mackerel, Thornton and Egbert recommend spinning tackle with a rod 7-9 feet long in medium to medium-heavy action. Also, line capacity is more important than the break strength of the line. The reel should be able to handle 250 to 300 yards of 15-pound-test line.
“The main thing is they need to make sure they have a light drag to start with,” Egbert said. “When a fish leaves here at 40 miles per hour, I don’t care if you have 150-pound line, it’s going to pop it. It’s all about line capacity and playing the fish. That king will probably run 200 yards when he’s first hooked, and you want him to make that run to tire him out.”
Thornton has teamed up with charter boat captain Troy Frady to provide visitors a wealth of coastal fishing information at http://www.fishingorangebeach.com/Surf-Fishing-Guide.htm.
“One of the aspects of coming out here to fish is nobody knows it all,” Thornton said. “The idea is to teach people coming out and help them learn the basics from rigging to how to read the water and how to read the beach. We want people to be able to make the best of their time when they’re down here. I’m just trying to offer some of my experience of fishing down here.”
Robie Ray is among a dedicated group who prefer to fish for the shallow-water species in a much more laid-back atmosphere.
“This is my fifth day this week,” said Ray, a retired professional photographer. “We meet out here just about every day when the weather is halfway decent. We have a lot of tourists who love to go to the end. I don’t care about catching any of those big fish, except I would love to catch a big speckled trout. We usually catch flounder, Spanish and speckled trout this time of year. We were catching some big whiting this spring.”
Ray moved to Orange Beach two years ago after living in Daphne for the previous 10 years. His son moved to the coast and Ray followed.
“Every Christmas my son gives me a six-month pass to the pier, so that’s why I’m here every day,” Ray laughed. “And the good fishing.”
To fish the pier, a valid Alabama saltwater fishing license is required as well as a pier permit. The daily pier fishing permit is $8 for adults and children 12 years and older. Children 11 and younger are admitted free with a paying adult. Passes are available for a week ($40), month ($80), six months ($160) and annual ($320). Visit http://www.alapark.com/gulfstate/Gulf%20State%20Park%20Pier/ for a list of rules, regulations and amenities at the pier.
PHOTOS: Harley Rogers, right, helps Robie Ray unhook a keeper speckled trout in the pre-dawn hours at Gulf State Park Pier in Gulf Shores. While Rogers and Ray fish the shallow waters for the inshore species, many anglers end at the octagon on the end of the 1,540-foot pier to catch king mackerel and other larger species. Jim Egbert shows off his limit of king mackerel landed at the pier last week.