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New Customers Keep A-Team Fishing Afloat

By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Capt. Bobby Abruscato pushed the throttle forward as he maneuvered the 24-foot bay boat between pilings of the Dauphin Island Bridge and headed to the grass beds at the west end of the island with speckled trout on his mind.

This trip was more of a rarity than the norm for 2011. The two anglers on board – me and Bobby Cleveland, outdoors editor of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger – have been fishing with the inshore guide for more years than we’d really care to admit.

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, Abruscato and his fellow A-Team Fishing Adventures captains have welcomed a majority of new customers onto their boats because of the stigma of the oil spill.

“I’d say we have about 75 percent new business,” Abruscato said. “The old customers who are coming back are the locals who know the fish are safe to eat and have fished with us for years. The people we lost are the ones who were coming down here to vacation. They were coming down for a week and would fish with us a day or two during the trip. Those are the people I’m not hearing back from right now.”

That perception that oil has tainted the entire Gulf Coast caused the A-Team captains to change the way they do business – they went looking for it.

“This is the first year since I’ve been guiding that we’ve done any advertising,” Abruscato said. “With word of mouth, outdoor writers and the radio shows and stuff we’ve been doing, we haven’t needed to advertise. But we didn’t know if the business was going to come back. We were talking late last summer and in the fall and we didn’t want to be sitting around this May wondering whether this business was going to come back. There was a big question mark as to whether it was going to come back.”

So Abruscato and his fellow captains – Chip Deupree and brother Joey Abruscato – had 15,000 business cards printed and started distribution.

“We went everywhere that would let us put cards out – anywhere that looked like they might have clientele that could be potential fishermen,” Abruscato said. “We had never done that before. We took out an ad in Great Days Outdoors (magazine) and we did some online advertising. I’d say the combination of the three got us some business.”

The A-Team had been sailing along with as much business as it could handle in 2009 and the bookings for 2010 were on par with 2009 when the extent of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy was realized.

“The word that we were going have this oil ‘thing,’ the word really didn’t get around until early May,” Abruscato said. “The explosion where the guys lost their lives was terrible, but it was a couple of weeks after the rig blew up that everybody realized – we’ve got this rig 5,000 feet under the surface and they don’t know how to cap it. So that’s when it started. People started calling and cancelling trips. We went from our best year in ’09 to our worst year in 2010.

“They shut down Mississippi Sound the third week in May. There was one opening in Grand Bay to get in and out. Luckily, all the boom wasn’t necessary, but it sure did make it difficult for us trying to fish. The closure was the big thing. Then it got crazy. I even had some people from Birmingham this spring and we caught a nice redfish. We held it up, took pictures and I released it. They said, ‘Why did you do that? Oh, I know, it’s the oil.’ I said, ‘No, it has nothing to do with the oil. We just don’t kill redfish.’ So that shows you that one year later, we’ve even got people from Birmingham who think we still have a problem with the oil. People ask if it’s safe to eat the fish all the time, all the time. We never stopped eating the seafood. We had the best fish fries we’ve ever had last year.”

Although Abruscato says he can’t completely relax because marine scientists aren’t sure when the full extent of environmental damage will be evident, he does realize there are several positive aspects of the spill

“The good thing is that NOBODY was fishing,” he said. “With the closures and all the charter captains running VOO (Vessels of Opportunity) boats, all the commercial guys and recreational guys weren’t fishing. For species like speckled trout, that are prolific, these fish just blossomed. The population just explodes. Just one year of pressure off of that is going to be a good thing.

“The other thing is there is going to be some money available for coastal restoration. Whether that gets spent correctly is the key. We need public water access. Our ramp situation in Alabama is ridiculous. You can’t launch a boat on the east end of Dauphin Island on a busy weekend. Billy Goat Hole is basically the only ramp in Mobile County that’s on Mobile Bay. The other thing is fisheries monitoring. There should be money available to get a better handle on what’s going on with our fisheries.”

As far as negatives, and he admits they are big negatives, Abruscato said 11 people lost their lives on the rig and a charter boat captain (Allen Kruse, captain of the Rookie) committed suicide because of it.

“There are people who are being affected a lot worse than me – the people actually supplying seafood to eat,” Abruscato said. “If that perception (as unsafe for consumption) is not corrected, then you’re going to see people lose something they’ve done their whole lives.”

Abruscato is optimistic that the darkest days are in the past, although he realizes it took action to get the recovery started.

“I feel better, but I think if we had sat on our hands and waited for that business we lost in 2010 to come back, we’d probably be down 50 to 70 percent probably still,” he said. “If we hadn’t done what we did to go out and generate business, we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are. We’re still not back to 2009 and the bookings we had at the start of 2010, but we can keep chugging along with three guides.”

Outstanding inshore fishing doesn’t hurt, either. During our half-day trip, we caught speckled trout and loaded the cooler with white trout. We also caught and released 10 slot redfish.

“The fishing is fabulous,” Abruscato said. “Just like our trip, we just kind of winged it. We went to places where I haven’t even been guiding. We just went there because we wanted to try some different things and we caught fish. It was the day before a neap tide with very little tide movement and it was windy. That’s the way it’s been – go where you need to go and catch fish. And it hasn’t always been like that in Alabama.”

The one thing Abruscato, above all else, said that he has learned from the oil spill disaster is gratitude.

“I’ll never complain about having to get up at 3:30 to get ready for a guide trip ever again.”

Visit www.ateamfishing.com or call (251) 661-7696 for more information about an inshore fishing excursion on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Bobby Abruscato, inshore fishing guide on the Alabama Gulf Coast, sails a plug across a grass bed on the west end of Dauphin Island in the dawn’s early light. Abruscato shows off a nice redfish that fell for a live shrimp under a popping cork.

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