By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Unlike the previous two years, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division recommended few changes for the 2015-2016 hunting seasons and bag limits to the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board last weekend in Montgomery.

Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. also used the Advisory Board meeting to compliment the work of the Marine Resources Division and Director Chris Blankenship in regards to the Red Snapper Reporting System, which showed a considerable discrepancy in the red snapper catch estimated by NOAA Fisheries. Alabama’s reporting system estimated 455,000 pounds of snapper were taken last year, while NOAA Fisheries’ estimate was 1.2 million pounds.

“Red snapper fishing for our coastal counties here in Alabama is a huge part of what we’re about,” Guy said. “It greatly affects the economic impact not only in that area but all over Alabama. There are many people who enjoy fishing for red snapper off our coast. You can imagine what each additional fishing day means in terms of people spending money for gas, food and recreation. I want to congratulate and thank Chris Blankenship and the Marine Resources Division for what they have done. Chris has pointed out to the federal government that they are wrong in what they are doing. They are missing it. When you look at the difference in the numbers for red snapper landing estimates, that’s huge. Imagine how much they were missing it with a 40-day season.

“What I’m most proud of is that Alabama is taking the lead on all this,” Guy said. “Other states are following us because of this, and we have gotten the federal government’s attention.”

The 2015 red snapper season in federal waters will be set at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in Biloxi, Miss., in early April.

Back to the hunting discussion, last year Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) incorporated most of south Alabama into the south zone, which swapped 10 days of deer hunting in December for hunting the first 10 days of February. WFF Director Chuck Sykes said most people were satisfied with the change.

“The reports we got were overwhelmingly positive,” Sykes said. “We can’t make everybody happy, but we try as much as we can. I want to give props to our biologists. They’ve taken more than 3,000 does in the spring and summer since 1995, and about 1,000 of them have been done in the past two years. It’s not any fun, fighting mosquitos in 110-degree weather, trying to get these deer taken. But this data is what allowed us to work with the hunters and give them what they wanted and give them that February season.”

Sykes said WFF will continue the sampling process, moving farther up the state, but will not make any recommendation to change the zone boundaries for the 2015-2016 season. He said WFF personnel want to monitor the impact of the February season on the resource before any changes are recommended.

After showing a slide with several trophy bucks taken at Alabama Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) last year, Sykes said there are a few tweaks to WMA regulations, but the main point he wants to make is about the quality of hunting available to the public.

“Anybody who says you can’t kill a big deer on public land in Alabama, they haven’t hunted it yet,” Sykes said. “We killed some outstanding deer this year. We’ve added some significant acreages to WMAs this year. We’re adding about 2,000 acres to Lowndes, over 9,000 acres to the Geneva State Forest WMA and more than 4,200 at Autauga. We’re trying to provide as much quality public hunting access as we can.”

Responding to hunter requests, Sykes said several of the larger WMAs will be divided into zones for deer season. Zones for the hunting of quality bucks (three points on one side) only and zones for taking any legal deer will be set up for the 2015-2016 season. The quality buck zones will protect the yearling bucks.

“We’re also going to have two special opportunity hunts,” he said. “At two WMAs in north Alabama, we’re going to have two hunts before the opening of regular gun season. Some of the areas up there rut early according to our conception data. We’re going to try it to see how that works.

“On a couple of WMAs in south Alabama, we’re going to have a couple of special opportunity hunts during the closure in December. We want to take advantage of all the work our guys are doing on the WMAs. There is some outstanding public property out there, so we’re adding a couple of more opportunities.”

One of the biggest changes WFF is recommending deals with feral swine, which are a major concern because of the damage they do to agricultural land and crops as well as wildlife habitat.

Last year, the regulation was changed so that feral swine no longer become personal possession after the animals are caught to try to curb the illegal transportation of the swine. Any feral swine captured must be dispatched before moving. This year, WFF recommends an additional classification for feral swine.

“I think everybody will agree we’ve got enough of them, and they don’t need to be put in any other places,” Sykes said. “When we did that, we had to change their status. Feral hogs are now a game animal and furbearer. The reason we did that was to provide a legal means for you to trap them and to sell their carcasses. Licensed trappers are allowed to sell the carcasses of designated furbearers.

“At the request of a lot of dog hunters, we’re working with the Alabama Hog Dog Hunters Association on a limited permit system on a trial basis for the lower Delta WMAs to see how effective they are at removing some hogs and to open it up to another user group.”

Sykes said a few changes are recommended for waterfowl season. WFF recommends that the Upper Delta WMA, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and W.L. Holland WMAs cease all-day hunting and go to one-half hour before sunrise to noon.

“I think anybody who duck hunts realizes the importance of having sanctuary areas,” he said. “This will give time for the ducks to rest and feed in the afternoons and will provide a better hunting opportunity.”

Sykes said squirrel and rabbit hunters made a pitch for more days of hunting after the February deer season was implemented over most of south Alabama last year.

“We looked at doing it the first of March, but all the biologists did not support it,” he said. “They were concerned about pregnant females or ones that already had little ones. What we decided was to give squirrel and rabbit hunters 15 days in September. Instead of starting on October 1, the seasons will start on September 15.”

Regarding the alligator season, Sykes said it was an overwhelming success with the capture of a world-record gator by Mandy Stokes and crew in a slough off the Alabama River. The gator officially measured 15 feet, 9 inches and weighed 1,011 pounds.

However, Sykes said the alligator season in southeast Alabama is in need of adjustment because of Lake Eufaula.

“We’ve had quite a bit of conflict in the Lake Eufaula area,” he said. “Despite what many people believe, most of Lake Eufaula is Georgia waters, not Alabama waters. We’ve been working closely with Georgia. What we’ve decided to do is break Lake Eufaula off into a separate zone. We’re going to run that season concurrent with the Georgia season to try to cut down on user conflicts.”

Lake Eufaula will also have an 8-foot minimum size for alligators to protect the breeding females, and daytime hunting will be allowed on Lake Eufaula only.

In response to concerns from the fishing public, Sykes proposed a cumulative limit of 100 hooks for trotlines fished by recreational-licensed anglers. Also, trotlines will be required to be tagged with the angler’s name and address or license number or phone number. There is no restriction on hooks for commercial fishermen.

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