Sunday, October 18, 2009

Paradise Reopens

Fort Pickens Park, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, was closed for five years after Hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Dennis (2005) battered its home—the slender, peninsula-like Santa Rosa Island that protects Pensacola Bay. Finally, in May of this year, the rebuilt road to Fort Pickens was opened for public traffic. For fishermen, birders, campers, and history buffs, this reopening was welcome news.

Santa Rosa Island after Hurricane Ivan @

Back when I lived in Mobile, trips over to Pickens were fairly regular events, mainly because of the excellent fishing. With the island being so narrow, it is easy to fish both the bay side as well as the Gulf side, but the biggest draw for fishermen involves the pompano runs that occur along the beaches, particularly in early spring. Pompano, gamefish in the jack family, are usually caught on sandfleas and are valued for their robust fight as well as for their tastiness.

Yesterday, my friend David drove over to Orange Beach, picked me up, and hauled me over to Fort Pickens for some fishing. David's the Mobile native who first introduced me to inshore saltwater fishing and took me around to places like the Perdido jetties, Dauphin Island, and Santa Rosa Island.

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Temperatures were only in the mid-50s, but we decided to make a go of it anyway. We rolled east to Pensacola, made our usual stop at Gulf Breeze Bait and Tackle, and despite the fact that no sand fleas were available, we forged on with a couple dozen live shrimp and two frozen mullet.

However, when we stepped out of the car at the first beach access in Fort Pickens Park, I had my first "maybe this isn't such a good idea" moment. A cold wind was howling out of the north—picking up sand which felt like tiny needles on my skin and which immediately gummed up the worm drives on my two baitcasters. Just like that, not even out of the parking lot and without running water to flush the sand, I was down to one rod and reel.

Still, we fished. David was able to scrounge up some sandfleas with his fancy rake, but after a couple of hours with no bites, we decided to pick up and move. Before we left though, I grabbed a couple of .mov files on my digital camera. With the sound turned up, these two clips should give a pretty good sense of just how hard the wind was blowing. I feel compelled to note that we did see other fishermen that day, so we weren't the only nuts out there.

We relocated down the island to a place where we've fished a lot in the past. There, near the ranger tower, the dunes and part of the Pickens battery provided a much welcome wind break, and at this new spot, we found that the crystal clear water ran out thirty yards or more without getting over waist-deep. The water, unlike the wind, was surprisingly warm, so we stayed out in the shallows for most of the rest of the trip.

David finally managed to hook into a nice skipjack (ladyfish) that, for the longest, we thought was a pompano. It ran sideways like a pompano and did not jump like a typical skipjack. But it turned out to be the only fish of the day. We had lots of nibbles, and something kept taking our bait, but we never could figure out what was doing it. David guessed crabs. I have no idea.

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It didn't matter to me that I went 0'fer on the fishing. I had a great time catching up with David, and the park itself was reward enough. I mainly wanted to see beaches as beaches should be seen—free of condos and surf shops and restaurants. To gaze on the shore at Pickens is to step back in time and realize what early inhabitants or early explorers saw when they came upon a coastline. Truly, it is one of the more beautiful places I've visited, and I hope to take my son and daughter there one day to see its splendor. Maybe we'll even fish for pompano.

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