By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

The frenetic activity on the tip of the Gulf State Park Pier last weekend is more proof the northern Gulf of Mexico’s premium fishing and education pier is reeling with action.

Fishing on the Octagon at the end of the 1,542-foot pier that reaches into some prime Gulf fishing waters is not for the faint of heart.

Anglers are lined up against the rail. Some are rigged for free-lining cigar minnows, while others have long plugs tethered to the ends of their lines. Still others play a waiting game with a large cobia jigs ready to cast in front of the migratory fish that swim past the pier on their westward journey in the spring.

When one of the anglers hooks up, Octagon rules kick in. Those along the rail quickly make room for the engaged angler as the fish runs in one direction and then back.

David Thornton, who regularly travels to Gulf Shores from his home in Mobile to feed his pier-fishing addiction, calls that dance the Gulf Shores Shuffle. Pier anglers gladly yield right-of-way to keep from tangling lines, which results only in a lost fish.

“The pier has really perked up,” Thornton said. “The weather has been real conducive to the king mackerel run. Some of the regulars are talking about how an average day will yield five to 10 kings. An exceptional day will be 20-30 kings, and they’ve had a couple of days where the count has been 50-plus.”

Thornton said you can probably triple those numbers to get the number of hookups on the pier, but broken or cut leaders are just part of the game as well as sharks looking for an easy hooked-fish meal.

“Spanish (mackerel) are a little slow right now,” he said. “There have been a few good days, but a lot of the fish have been relatively small. The numbers are off from what we’re used to. But the Spanish fishing tends to run cyclically. There’s speculation the kings are coming in and feeding on the Spanish because there’s not a lot of baitfish around the pier right now. But the bait should be showing up soon. Things are on a very good upswing.”

Pete “Tater” Ludlow, a regular who lives almost across the street from the pier, said he’s the most local of all the locals, a group called the Pier Rats, a name embraced by some and eschewed by others.

“I’ve been a Pier Rat since 1974,” Ludlow said. “I fished the old pier until the late ’80s. I got out of it and started boat fishing for a while. When they rebuilt the pier (which was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004) in 2009, I was right back out here. As a kid, all we wanted was a longer pier. That’s what everybody talked about even back in the ’70s. They finally extended it.

“This pier is awesome. I love everything about it.”

Ludlow said the difference in weather patterns from last year to this year has been a welcome change. Water clarity is much improved after fishing last year was plagued by nasty water.

“Last year we had so much rain during the spring migration season that the water was completely muddy,” he said. “The clear water allows the fish to see better so they feed more. This year has been really good because we’ve had very little rain.

“We’re not doing that good on cobia, but this has been the most big kings, 30-pounders, that we’ve seen in three or four years. A king is pretty easy to catch if you let them run themselves out, but we’ve got sharks that are trying to eat them, so it makes it harder to get one on the pier.”

Ludlow said pier anglers have caught just about every species that swims past the pier in the last two months except for sailfish. The anglers on the end can, at one time or another, catch king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, cobia, tarpon, bonita (little tunny), jack crevalle, bull redfish and bluefish.

The regulars advise those who aren’t Octagon veterans to come and observe for a few days before getting into the thick of the action.

“My suggestion is come watch first and then ask for help,” Ludlow said. “And use a little caution to make sure nobody gets hurt from hooks or gaffs.”

Thornton said a key to being successful on the pier is cooperation among the anglers.

“We who regularly fish the pier take it for granted,” Thornton said. “We try to educate the newcomers about things like the Gulf Shores Shuffle. That’s especially true for kingfishing on the end. On days when there’s a crosswind and you have a current, people are cognizant of crossing lines. That way you can prevent tangles before they ever start.

“One of the common questions we get on the pier is if people need to buy a gaff or a net. The cooperation level is so good that all you have to do is ask. People are eager to help and will come running with a net or gaff. It’s a neat atmosphere of cooperation and camaraderie.”

Thornton adheres to the Boy Scout motto of being prepared when he heads out onto the pier.

“The key for me is being flexible to adjust to the conditions,” Thornton said. “A lot of people specialize. They’ll target king or Spanish or speckled trout or flounder.

“I like to be prepared for a variety of fish, whatever is biting best. If I’m on a bite and it shuts down or I reach my limit, I can fish for something else. If it’s crowded out on the end, I might fish for the inshore species, or I might concentrate on jigging for Spanish or pompano. I try not to lock myself into one type of fishing. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for people who are specialists in what they do.”

Thornton said cobia fishing is a perfect example of specialized fishing.

“Some of those guys may not put a line in the water all day long if a cobia doesn’t pop up,” he said. “But the rewards can be really good. There was a nice 40-plus-pounder caught by John Gaines late last week. And there was a really nice one lost. They said it had to be 60 pounds. It was so big, the gaff tore out as they were pulling it up.

“The cobia fishing kind of reminds me of billfishing. It’s long periods of boredom and, bam, there’s a fish. It goes from boredom to bedlam in one-and-a-half seconds.”

Heading back toward the sugar sand beaches, pier anglers catch speckled trout, pompano, flounder, redfish and whiting.

Usually by this time, one species that is hard to find is sheepshead. This year is an exception, according to Thornton.

“They are still catching a few sheepshead,” he said. “That’s usually over after the full moon in April, but there have been several caught that were over 10 pounds. And some big whiting have been caught. I caught one about 2 1/4 pounds a couple of weeks ago.

“It’s shaping up to be a good spring.”

Lisa Laraway Atchley, Gulf State Park and District Superintendent, said several changes are in store for the pier this spring. The park has now taken over the bait and tackle shop and is busy stocking all the supplies anglers need. A new restaurant, Anglers on the Pier, is scheduled to open this spring across from the bait shop.

“Gulf State Park Pier is more than just a fishing pier,” Atchley said. “It is an educational pier, and we encourage everyone who wants to experience the Gulf maritime environment to visit, including those who have never fished or just want to sightsee. We offer everything you need to get started at our bait and tackle shop including rental poles, and our bait shop staff is happy to help you get started.

“We also offer a Fishing 101 class from one of our Park Naturalists that can get anyone’s fishing bug stimulated. For those who don’t care to fish, just watching the fishermen is a sport to come and enjoy.”

Atchley also said the park has applied for funding to replace the treated wood on all the pier’s removable floor panels with a composite material.

Visit www.alapark.com/Gulf-State-Park-Fishing-and-Education-Pier for more information on the pier and pier fishing.

PHOTOS (David Rainer, David Thornton) Jeb Brantley hoists a 25-pound king mackerel that was reeled in at the Octagon on the end of the Gulf State Park Pier. Anglers, like Tyler Matherne, had luck catching bonita (little tunny), while David Thornton landed a trophy-sized whiting at the pier recently.