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Red Snapper Plentiful as Fall Season Closes

October 17, 2013

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

The final day of the special fall red snapper season yielded the expected results – plenty of big snapper hitting the docks in Orange Beach.

Because the 14-day season ended on a Monday, the number of boats that were booked for the final day was understandably modest. However, the previous three days were bonanzas for the marinas and charter services along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“This past Saturday we had 48 trips, just out of here,” said Tom Steber, general manager of Zeke’s Landing Marina in Orange Beach. “From Friday through Sunday, we ran about 120 trips.

“This weekend was better than any weekend we had this summer.”

The first week of the fall season was not what anglers had hoped. Tropical Storm Karen formed in the Gulf of Mexico and wreaked havoc on the scheduled trips for almost a week.

“The first week we had 16 trips because of the storm,” Steber said. “It’s all weather. This time of year is the best time to fish. Plus, the last weekend we had the Shrimp Festival, which is a big factor. I wish we had about five more of those weekends.”

Despite running on just a few hours of sleep because of the busy weekend, Capt. Jason Vickers watched as deckhand Kyle Partain pulled big snapper after big snapper out of the ice box on the Legacy’s stern.

“The fall snapper bite is always great,” Vickers said. “This year we had the opportunity to take advantage of it. The main difference this year, as compared to last year, is we got to keep the fish. I guess it’s the lower water temperature that makes the fish a little more aggressive than in the summer.

“We lost the first weekend because of the storm that thankfully wasn’t much. It did make it rough offshore. But we ran the last six days, so we ended with a good week of fishing.”

Another bonus about the fall red snapper season is that anglers were also able to keep amberjack and triggerfish. The triggerfish season, however, ended at 12:01 a.m. on October 15.

“That was like the old days,” Vickers said. “It was fun. It was great for customers. I just hate to see it end.”

But that doesn’t mean Vickers is going to stop fishing.

“Snapper fishing is not the only thing that’s good in the fall,” he said. “Amberjack, vermilion snapper, grouper, everything is going to get better and better every week. Even when the hard cold fronts come through, if you can get a good weather day, you can catch plenty of fish.”

Capt. Sonny Alawine, who runs the Intruder, echoed Vickers’ assessment of the fishing.

“When you could get out there, the fishing was great,” Alawine said. “There’s plenty of fish out there, and they were biting. It’s like it always is this time of year, except we had some business because people knew they could keep a red snapper.”

Orange Beach’s reputation as the Red Snapper Capital of the World still affects the charter business, according to Alawine.

“When you don’t have tourists down here, people come to go fishing,” he said. “When they know they can’t keep something they like to eat, they’re not going to come. If the weather had been good, we would have probably fished all 14 days.

“If we hadn’t been able to catch snapper, we wouldn’t have had a trip today (the last day). Most of the people were local, and the reason they went was because they could keep two red snapper.”

Alawine said the charter fleet is just “barely getting by” because of the short red snapper season and its timing.

“It would really be better for us with the limited number of days if we had the main snapper season in May,” he said. “You have your tourists here in June and July where you can go catch some type of fish. The fishing is better for other species then, so they’re happy.

“We used to book 20-22 days in May when we could catch snapper, and we just don’t do that any more. School is not out, so it’s not tourists. People just come then to go snapper fishing. The real snapper fishermen have a hard time booking in June because of all the tourists, who may not even know what a snapper is.”

Capt. Ben Fairey, who has been a mainstay on the Alabama coast at the helm of Necessity, said the fall snapper season confirmed what he suspected about the consequences of such a short season in the summer, when everybody with a Gulf-ready boat tries to catch snapper as often as possible.

“To me, inside of 20 miles, you can see that there was a fair amount of effort,” Fairey said. “The fish weren’t biting nearly as good. Outside of 20 miles, the fishing is still good and the size is still good. There are still a ton of fish out there. With such a short season, close in gets beat up pretty good.”

Fairey has been one of the members of the Orange Beach Fishing Association to try to gain relief from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets seasons and creel limits in federal waters in the Gulf. He’s not optimistic about a solution that will help the charter industry survive.

“At this point, I don’t see anything good happening right now,” he said. “Florida still has another week of season in state waters because of their 9-mile limit. With our 3-mile limit, we don’t have any snapper fishing in state waters.”

Now that the fall snapper season has ended, Fairey said he has two more Saturdays booked for the rest of the year.

As it turns out, the 2013 fall snapper season was the last hoorah for Fairey, to a certain extent.

“To tell you the truth, this is our last year as a multi-passenger vessel,” he said. “The owner of the boat and I have decided it’s time to step back. We’re converting this boat into a six-passenger vessel, and I will not fish nearly as much as I have been.

“I’ll turn 63 next year, and it’s time to slow up. I’ve been very fortunate that I have an owner who agrees with me. Having to fish on a lot of rough days, it’s time for that to come to an end. If it was where we were making money, it might be different. For 60 days out of the year, we’re busy. The rest of the time, we’re not. It just doesn’t make good business sense to keep doing it.”

Fairey said the economics also don’t make sense for customers whose main goal is to keep fish to eat, which is why many charter captains are trying to sell the “experience” of fishing in the Gulf more than what can be consumed later.

“We charge $1,800 for seven people,” he said. “Today (the last day) we caught probably 50 snapper and kept 14. When you think about it, those snapper cost over $100 apiece. Snapper fishermen are having a hard time dealing with that.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Legacy deckhand Kyle Partain pulls a big red snapper out of the ice box after a successful trip on the final day of the October red snapper season. Anglers on the Legacy not only caught a limit of nice red snapper but added a couple of amberjacks as bonuses to the charter’s catch.

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