Alabama Sampler

By David Zoby

Three Days of Fishing Fun on the Gulf Coast

This is a fishing story, I promise. But I must first begin with the vibe at Gulf Shores State Park. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources manages the area with a progressive vision that ensures a consistently high-quality visitor experience. With over 6,500 acres of protected marshlands, brackish creeks, and a spectacular beachfront, this was unexpected. 

Park facilities, many built in the 1930s, fit into the landscape in the same manner as bird nests and sand dunes. The lodge, the cabins, the campgrounds, the restaurants, the bike trail—all are respectfully appointed to blend into the landscape. One is reminded of Yellowstone and its fabled lodges built from the surrounding timber and rocks. People who want to snatch glimpses of an intact ecosystem will encounter science-based programs and low-impact activities such as birding and kayaking. The park offers bicycle shares for visitors to cruise the miles of paths and free education programs daily.  

Sure, Gulf Shores and its sister city Orange Beach are replete with T-shirt shops, pirate-themed experiences, all-you-can-eat seafood buffets, and other nods to full-blown consumerism, but the Park is a force of its own, a reprieve from regular America, a totally separate experience.   


Kayaking with Kennedy

At Gulf Shore State Park, it gets extremely quiet and dark at night as you look up through the canopy of live oaks and pines. With headlamps on our foreheads, three of us launched our fishing kayaks into the bath-warm waters of Terry Cove an hour before sunrise. I could see the camelback of a bridge spanning Perdido Pass in the distance. 

Scott Kennedy, of Whistling Waters, has over thirty years of fishing experience in these waters.  Known as Kayaking Kennedy on his YouTube channel, Scott offers personalized wading and kayaking trips all over southern Alabama. He uses wide Hobie kayaks that are stable and easy to master, even for the uninitiated like me. We were after redfish, speckled trout, and whatever else might bite. By pedaling around islands and into coves, we were able to cast surface plugs and cover an enormous amount of shoreline. Scott explained that redfish have mouths that are positioned downward on their heads, and you must give them a chance to take an artificial bait. He said the natural tendency is to jerk the lure out of the fish’s mouth, but you have to pause before you set the hook, as hard as that may be when a huge fish erupts on your bait. 

“I’ve missed thousands myself,” he said. This from a guy who has caught thousands of trophy fish in his career.

As the sun crept up, a redfish crushed my plug. I missed, predictably.  Speckled trout and ladyfish harried my lure the rest of the morning, but only Scott hooked up with a redfish, a beautiful twenty-five-incher we kept for one of the catch-and-cook restaurants in Orange Beach. When he landed it, his hands were trembling.

“I still get like this every time I catch a red,” he said. 

We pulled our Hobies up on a white sand beach and made a lunch out of PBJs and potato chips. I filleted the red on the lid of a cooler. My fillet knife, which zinged through dozens of salmon this summer in Alaska, halted and shuddered as I tried to deconstruct the redfish. They are built tough. I dropped the two slabs of meat into Ziplocs and tucked them deep into ice. 

Beach traffic picked up on the bridge. The quiet morning in the bay seemed like a dream. 

Forever Young

Captain Ralph Young is a 70-year-old surfer who found his niche as a fishing guide specializing in fun, fast-paced fishing, with a joke or two thrown in at inopportune moments. I boarded his skiff and Captain Ralph sped us off to explore the vast inshore fishing opportunities. With twelve dozen lively gulf shrimp in the live well, we were fishing for whatever was biting.  

Captain Ralph, a lifelong resident of the area, knew the history of every nook and cove; he knew where we’d find holes and shoals that held hundreds of fish. In particular, he had a spot in Wolf Bay where a brackish creek poured into the main bay. But first, we sped off to the jetty at Perdido Pass to try for a keeper redfish. As he set the anchor, the captain made jokes about Viagra, Spanish Conquistadors, and unavoidable baldness. Outside of the Pass, the Gulf of Mexico roiled with whitecaps; we would not be able to sneak outside to try fishing near some of the oil and gas platforms. My stomach churned just watching the large pleasure craft struggling to make headway in the swells. 

Casting shrimp into the turbulent water where the inlet met the Gulf, we were immediately bit by all sorts of fish, mostly juvenile jack crevalle grabbing shrimp at an astounding rate. It was fun to pull one fish after another out of the water never quite knowing what species you had on the end of your line. We caught jacks, hardtails, saltwater catfish, croakers, but no redfish. Eventually, using a piece of croaker as cut bait, Captain Ralph hooked something solid.

“Dave, you need to reel this one in,” he said.  

After the usual arguing about the pitfalls of reeling in another man’s fish, I relented and brought the fish to the net. Another keeper-size redfish, this one also destined for one of the catch-and-cook kitchens so popular here. 

We dipped into Florida waters and cast bait into distraught docks holding croakers and juvenile redfish. We drifted over an immense grass flat near Ono Island where we couldn’t keep the speckled trout off our shrimp.  Next, we were in Wolf Bay, casting to all manner of gamefish; stingrays, small redfish, pinfish, ladyfish, and bluefish that snapped their teeth at us as we tried to set them free. Captain Ralph insisted there were some keeper redfish and snapper in the area, we just hadn’t found them yet.

“We’re casting hundreds of dollars of shrimp to fish we can’t keep,” I said, suggesting we hold back at least a few pounds of crustaceans for a rendezvous with some boiling water. Captain Ralph would not hear me. He was convinced that something great would happen if we kept casting our precious shrimp as close as possible to the marsh grass. I switched over to plastic swim baits just as the last of the shrimp went onto the hooks. We never caught that bull red, but we caught and released twelve species of fish and I laughed the whole way back to the marina. 

Pier Review

My whole life I have been suspicious about the adage that claims a bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work. In my experience, it just isn’t true. 

The Gulf was rocking and rolling when I woke up. There was a stiff breeze in the pines near my cabin. The swells were even worse than the day before, and I knew what was about to happen. Let’s just say that I paid a heavy price—all twelve of us onboard did. We endured a sloppy ride out to the reef system just offshore, bits of cut squid for bait, and tried in vain for snappers and bottom fish. But I made a friend out there, and he told me about an out-of-the-way restaurant that had excellent grouper sandwiches. 

Hours later, dock-rocked, and happily back onshore, I received a text about trying the pier with one of the locals. The public pier at Gulf Shores hosts its own unique citizenry. Pulling carts behind them, these folks are totally self-sufficient. They have multiple rod and reel combos, their own bait, rags, radios that somehow primarily play Chris Stapleton’s hit “Tennessee Whiskey”, sodas and snacks, pliers, cutting boards, bait knives, and anything else an angler may need.

After a meal of fresh-caught redfish (Fresh off the Boat is one of the many restaurants in the area that will cook your fresh catch), I walked onto the pier. The sun was down and the waves crashed ashore. In the lights of the pier, I spotted shapes of fish zooming below in the surf. There were pinfish, whiting, sheepshead, and the long deliberate shapes of occasional redfish, the one fish that seems to define the whole ecosystem, the Alabama coast really. 

I landed a few hardtails and a pinfish or two. But the reds eluded me. It seems that, in my life of fishing, when I can see fish, often, I cannot catch them. I went out to the end of the pier, out to where Hurricane Sally sucker punched the coast in September 2020. The octagon section, which was poised to become one of the premier public fishing features along the coast, was isolated from the pier. Sally had torn that section away. 

I leaned on the pier railing and watched the combers roll in from the Gulf. The fishermen out this far were taciturn in the darkness, content to cast their frozen cigar minnows out into oblivion. They smoked and looked out at the stranded section of the pier, and beyond. In the lights below, the long, sleek shapes of sharks faded in and out of the light.  I couldn’t stop watching the beams of light, rewarded as I was every five minutes or so with the shape of a shark; hammerhead, reef shark, blacktip. 

The hotels and condo lights twinkled along the beach. There was one empty section where the raw surf piled ashore. You could see clearly where the Park was, where it began and ended, and where the rest of the world began. Another shape swept through the green water below. I couldn’t get enough of shark spotting. I knew it was time to go, but I stayed.

About the Author

Dave Zoby has been writing stories about the outdoors for over twenty years. A regular voice in publications such as Gray's Sporting Journal, The Drake, Wyoming Wildlife, and others, Dave is an avid fly fisherman and upland hunter. His essays have won awards and been anthologized. Dave lives and teaches in Casper, WY.

Photography by the author.