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Alabama's anglers go to great depths

Rolling waves and subsiding seas made the trip a bit unstable for some, but the catch numbers and sizes made the trip well worth stomaching later that day.

An Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) fishing trip to Alabama's Orange Beach and Gulf Shores area April 15 to 19 was an enjoyable exercise in angling-anticipation of great catches and practicing patience.

High winds had anxious writer-anglers checking weather forecasts -- and the horizon -- for two days before we could get onto Gulf of Mexico open waters off Orange Beach.

Jo Duncan, trip coordinator, had booked a group trip with Capt. Albert "Cuz" Stinson, skipper of the 50-foot charter boat Rookie. Stinson, along with first mate Tony Blake, have decades of experience with the fish, fishery and foul weather forecasts.

By Wednesday a north wind had leveled some of those rollers that made Alabama's sugar-white sandy beaches look more like a Hawaiian surfer's paradise. The Rookie was still rockin' and rollin', but Capt. Cuz had his headings set for cobia, king mackerel and possibly even blackfin tuna while top-water trolling.

First Mate Blake had trolling rigs set as we moved along at speeds of no less than nine knots, heading to deeper waters to do some bottom fishing. Fish tapped the lures along the way, but the only solid hookup came for Michigan outdoor writer Bob Holzhei, a nice king mackerel. Holzhei handled the line crossings and rod bending -- remarkably similar to a king salmon run -- before mate Blake had the mackerel gaffed and on board for photos and a centerpiece for dinner that evening.

Everyone who has gone deep-sea fishing along the Atlantic or Gulf shore knows each trip varies. It sounds simple to just line up a bunch of folk along the gunwales of a big boat, drop the line to the bottom and wait for a bite. Not always.

On this pleasant day 80-degree day with bright sunshine light north winds of less than 10 mph we were fishing in old roller waves that lifted and pitched the 50-foot Rookie in all directions.

Capt. Cuz put us over good bottom schools, but he had to work the tiller and throttle to stay over fish. What's more, "bottom" fish here were not necessarily on bottom -- just near it.

The catching formula was simple: Drop to the bottom, reel up 10 cranks and count to zero. A bait -- mostly cuts of squid on a circle hook -- set on bottom picked up small bait fish; a two-hook rig set higher than 10 cranks rarely got bit.

Bites, from even the largest of bottom fish, came as a tug on heavy boat rods similar to a yellow perch tap. Setting the (circle) hook was a simple lift that had to be timed just right. Too fast and the rig gets pulled from the fish's mouth; too slow and both hooks become bare in seconds. "If it's down there more than 45 seconds, you got bit off," said Blake as we worked lines off the back of the boat in those rollercoaster waves.

Big fish honors went to Bob Whitehead, outdoor writer and editor from Chesterfield, Mo. Whitehead took a corner post and connected with an amberjack that worked his line around both sides of the boat's transom. Once aboard and measured, Whitehead's 'jack went well past the 30-inch legal length, falling just shy of 35 inches. That fish became the other half of our dinner's table-center fare.

Out in deep gulf waters the red snapper, another prized table delight, has seen reduced numbers in years past. Federal regulations of season closings have restored sizes and numbers of these fish, but the season does not open for red snapper until June 1 now.

Sadly, many of our biggest catches turned out to be monster reds that had to be returned as soon as they were unhooked. Even sadder, some could not make it back to the bottom in waters we fished, some as deep as 140 feet. One nice snapper did not make it 10 feet from the stern before a dolphin hit and killed it. Dolphins eat smaller fish released, but the bigger snappers were just left on the surface for sea birds' suppers.

For our sea-food supper, the main course consisted mainly of vermilion snappers, a sharp-finned smaller version of the red snapper, along with the mackerel and amberjack. These vermilions, caught in numbers well past 100 and 57 kept for dinner, supplied fillets for a seafood feast that evening.

Capt. Cuz and mate Blake noted that their peak charter-fishing season goes from June to August. They added, "Every month of the year offers some kind of good-fishing prospects at Alabama's Gulf Shores."

To check out this area's fishing and seaside attractions, go to either or