No Pier Pressure at Gulf State Park

It didn't take long to fall in love with the quality of fishing found at the Gulf State Park Pier and the “society” of anglers who welcomed this newcomer into their world.

[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he Gulf State Park Pier in Gulf Shores, Alabama, juts out from the powdery white sand and islands of sea oats that form the state park’s three and a half miles of beaches. It is an impressive structure stretching into the turquoise Gulf of Mexico, providing its visitors accessibility to a smorgasbord of fish species that inhabit the underlying waters.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to be warm enough on this cool and breezy fall day, but the quality of the fishing soon proved to be a distraction from the early-morning chill. Even though I claim to be an avid fisherwoman, I can’t say I remember doing much fishing from a pier in my lifetime. I’ve always had a fascination with piers and like to walk the length of those that I have encountered during my travels. I enjoy peering into the fishermen’s buckets and ice chests to see what’s biting.

I only had a couple hours to fish this morning and to be honest I can’t say my expectations were high, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Anglers were catching a wide variety of fish and I managed to reel in a few myself.

The outing began with a visit to the small Go Fish Bait & Tackle store located on the pier. The shop manager Corey Stieve was knowledgeable about the fishing and provided us with suggestions for a successful day. My fishing partner and I brought our own gear and bait was the only item on our list. We settled on frozen shrimp, as well as a couple locally-made white bucktail “Looney” jigs that would come in handy if the pompano or Spanish mackerel showed up.

The bite was hot this morning with a number of species being caught. A 20-pound redfish was landed earlier in the morning. November brought cooler temperatures and with that the bull reds were beginning to show. The species being most cooperative were Atlantic croaker. The fishermen were loading their ice chests with these tasty fish. These were not the croaker that I have caught in the past only to be tossed back for being too small, but large fish weighing from 1.5- to 3-pounds. In fact, when I first glanced into one of the angler’s coolers I thought they were redfish. Atlantic croaker are related to the red drum and during their spawning period from August to December, turn a deep golden color adding to the resemblance.

In addition to the croaker, within just a couple hours I saw redfish, white trout, flounder, blue fish, pompano and Spanish mackerel reeled in. Pier rules do not allow for shark fishing. With a little practice and help from the other anglers, I was able to land a few good-sized croakers before the pinfish picked my hook clean of the shrimp offering. King mackerel and cobia are other popular targets from the pier.

Most anglers were catching their own bait, mostly pinfish and menhaden. Frozen shrimp worked just as well. Bottom rigs were used with the most common having the hooks above the barrel weight on separate lengths (8- to 12-inches) of fluorocarbon. Two young female anglers were outfishing everyone out there using only Sebiki rigs; even keeper sized pompano, croaker and redfish were caught on the tiny hooks. They used a pair of scissors to cut a single shrimp into about eight sections and dropped their bait directly under the pier. They would drop a line directly under where I had been standing for an hour and reel in two fish in a single cast. It was entertaining to watch and they even graciously offered to share their bait or their catch with anyone who asked.

The pier is clean and well maintained. There are benches and bait-cutting platforms every few feet. At the end of the pier, there is a painted line a few feet back from the railings for placing gear, carts and extra rods. This keeps the rails free for plenty of access and allows the anglers to move about. The water depth at the end is around 32 feet. It seemed that the bite would move to different sections of the pier – you know, the grass is always greener…, and I learned that tossing the bait just a couple feet under the pier often made the difference in whether I got a bite or not.

The best part of the experience is the camaraderie that exists among these fishermen. It didn’t take long for them to notice I liked taking photos of the fish, and someone would invariably come get me when a different species was reeled in. There was plenty of offers of bait, suggestions and encouragement going around and it didn’t escape me that there were several women out there as well. It was a friendly crowd and a place I would visit often if I lived close by.

Go Fish Bait & Tackle sells rod and reel combos, lures, nets, and most any item needed for fishing the pier. The shop sells bait ribbons and Sebiki rigs for catching your own bait, as well as frozen shrimp and cigar minnows. A computer in the corner is handy for visitors needing to obtain a fishing license. Rods and reels are available for rent as well. Two other larger sister stores – Mo Fishin’ and Top Gun Tackle are located just down the street in nearby Orange Beach. Medium sized rods and reels are well suited for most of the fishing on the pier. Corey recommends the Daiwa 4000 that he keeps stocked in the shop.

The Gulf State Park Pier re-opened in 2009, replacing the old pier destroyed by Hurricane Ivan five years earlier. It is sturdy and well-designed to comfortably accommodate dozens of anglers along its 2,448 feet of rails, including wheelchair accessible rail space. The newer pier boasts a concession area with indoor seating and restrooms at the midpoint, in addition to the small tackle shop. The pier is the largest public fishing pier found in the Gulf of Mexico at 1,540 feet long with a total area of 41,800 square feet.

Lynn Byrd, Gulf State Park Ranger and the pier manager shared some interesting statistics with me. Since the first of the year, 53,600 paid fisherman have used the pier in addition to another 35,750 paid sightseers. On average this means that 173 anglers or 288 people overall visit the pier each day. March through August are the busiest months. The pier is open 24 hours a day. Daily, weekly, monthly, semi-annual and annual fishing passes are available.

Hook and Cook

To have your fresh catch prepared for you, head on down the road just a few miles toward the Alabama/Florida state line. Oceanside is the infamous Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar. Across the street toward the back of the parking lot is the Flora-Bama Yacht Club, an open-air restaurant located on the Ole River. At the Yacht Club, everyone is a member and you can join the chef-to-table experience by boat or by land.

Another fine dining option with a piscatorial connection is Fisher’s located at Orange Beach Marina. It is two dining experiences under one roof. Downstairs and dockside is the more casual restaurant with the upstairs being noticeably more upscale but comfortable. In just over a year’s time, Johnny Fisher and his staff have turned this dining establishment into one of the south’s premier restaurants.

Other popular places for savoring fresh-cooked seafood and a cold libation are LuLu’s in Gulf Shores and Tacky Jacks with two locations nearby in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.