ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — “It's nice to have activity,” said Tom Steber, the general manager of Zeke's Landing Marina, as he scanned a busy dock of tourists who were about to embark on deep sea fishing trips.
Orange Beach is the closest white sand to Oklahoma, which is why I chose these Alabama shores and those just across the state line at Perdido Key, Fla., as my summer home for two weeks when my daughters insisted on a summer vacation at the beach.
Zeke's Landing is home to the largest charter fishing fleet on the Gulf Coast and is owned by Oklahoma oil man David Stewart.
Two years ago, Zeke's booked more than $3 million in fishing charters, Steber said. Last year, that number was just $288,000 because of the BP PLC oil spill.
Instead of putting bait in the water, the 41 fishing boats chartered out of Zeke's Landing last year were busy pulling oil booms and helping BP PLC clean up the Gulf of Mexico.
This summer, they are back doing what they are supposed to do, catching fish. Beach combers might still find some black sand this summer, but anglers on Orange Beach are discovering that the oil spill hasn't hurt the fishing — at least in the short term.
Fishing charters out of Zeke's Landing Marina are up 25 percent over two years ago. The tourists are back, and the fishing has been fantastic this summer, especially for red snapper.
“I feel like the red snapper were smart enough to move away from it (oil spill),” said Capt. Eddie Hall of the fishing boat, Shady Lady.
Anglers can catch and release red snapper all year but since June 1 have been allowed to keep two daily during the season, which continues through July 18.
The fishing charters at Orange Beach also provide overnight fishing in the Gulf of Mexico for marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna and other deep sea species. Anglers can also opt for inshore fishing trips for speckled trout, redfish and sheepshead.
But it's the red snapper fishing for which Orange Beach is best known, and it's better than ever, according to local angler Bill Wilson, who has been fishing these Alabama waters for 30 years,
“It's amazing,” Wilson said of the size and numbers of red snapper being brought into local marinas.
Having a year with essentially no fishing in the Gulf because of the oil spill is paying dividends this year for anglers.
The Alabama waters have always been good for red snapper. Steber said 42 percent of the red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico are caught off the Alabama coast, even though Alabama has only 3 percent of the Gulf's shoreline.
That's a direct result of Alabama's artificial reef program, Steber said. For years, Alabama anglers have been dropping artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico to attract and grow fish.
It started in the 1970s with fishermen sinking cars, buses, tractors and even Army tanks into the ocean to create reefs, Steber said.
Fearing that vehicles would break up and eventually find its way to shore, that practice is no longer allowed, he said.
Now, concrete pyramids specifically made for reefs are most commonly used. There are tens of thousands of artificial reefs in Alabama waters.
“The state of Alabama has put together this reef program to create habitat for the fish, so, instead of a flat bottom, you've got 1,200 miles of reefs, and every reef has a GPS number,” said Stewart, an Edmond resident who grew up in Mississippi.
Many of the reefs are public and the state of Alabama provides GPS coordinates. Red snapper and other fish are caught off those artificial reefs that start just a few miles out into the Gulf of Mexico and are as far away as 60 miles from the Alabama shores.
Since June 1, daily fishing charters out of Zeke's Landing have been bringing in limits of red snapper. Cobia, mackerel and big triggerfish are frequently being caught as well.
For $10.99, the Wolf Bay Lodge restaurant at Zeke's Landing Marina will even cook the fish fillets for anglers with all the fixings when they arrive back from a fishing trip. Seafood can't get any fresher.
“I don't care where you go, or what kind of fishing you are doing, the fishing is phenomenal right now,” Steber said.
Still, Steber and other local saltwater fishermen are worried about the future of the beautiful Gulf of Mexico despite the current bounty that it's producing.
“Everything is great right now, but what about five years from now? What we don't know is what that fishery is going to be 5 or 10 years from now,” Steber said.
“That's our biggest concern. We don't know what the bottom is going to be like 10 years from now because we don't know what last year's oil on the bottom did to that year's babies. We won't know that for a long time.”