By DAVID RAINER
It was already past time to head to the house and get ready for another day of framing houses on his construction job, but Eric Easley and fishing buddy Michael Myles had a big adventure remaining in the upper end of Mobile Bay during the wee hours of Aug. 14.
The pair had been catching redfish around McDuffie Island at the mouth of the Mobile River and was packing up their gear to get ready for an interesting ride back to the boat ramp in a 14-foot jon boat with a 15-horse outboard.
“We went out between eight and nine that night, so we were running kind of late anyway,” Easley recalled. “We were rushing to
get to our spot around 10-11. That’s when the redfish have been coming in. They turn on for a little while and then go cold turkey. When they shut down, all you see are schools of menhaden.
“That night Michael was getting everything ready for the run back across the bay and I had one line out. We had been catching 15- to 20-pound redfish one right after the other for a while and then they quit biting. My rod was laying in the boat and I heard blap, blap and saw the rod move.”
Easley figured it was another of those nice redfish and didn’t think much about it.
“I picked the rod up and tightened the drag. I set the hook and when I did, I could have sworn it was a shark,” he said. “I knew it was big. He was running line out pretty good. Michael was complaining that he hadn’t caught many fish that night, but I told him I didn’t think I was going to hand this one off.”
Easley still thought he had a shark as the fish made runs up and down the mouth of the river. Then the line went slack until Easley realized the fish was running straight at the boat.
“I started reeling as fast as I could, then he turned and ran back out to deep water,” he said. “Then he’d take a little and I’d take a little. I’m still thinking it’s a shark. I never expected it was a redfish. About 10 minutes later there he was. I saw his head come out of the water. Then knew it was redfish. I said, ‘Look at that redfish.’”
That’s when Easley and Myles realized they weren’t prepared to land a fish that size.
“We didn’t have anything to catch him with,” Myles said. “I’d never really caught anything that big, so I didn’t have a gaff. Eric forgot his net. We weren’t set up to catch anything big. We weren’t in boat big enough to handle that kind of fish, either. I’d just bought that motor, it’s a 1965 model Gamefisher I bought at the pawn shop for $200.
“I told Eric the only way he was gonna get him in was to get out of the boat and get in there with him. He jumped out on the fish. That’s no exaggeration. He had him pretty much wore down by then and had to grab him by the gill plates and wrestled him to the bank.”
Easley didn’t hesitate as he bailed out of the boat in the 3-foot deep water.
“I pulled him over around to the back of the boat,” Easley said. “I had to get him somewhere I could handle him. Water is his territory. Land is my territory. I got him up on the bank. I thought he was going to weigh as much as my dog. I didn’t know it was state record, but I knew it was the biggest fish ever caught in my life.”
That’s saying something for a fisherman as diehard as Easley.
“My Paw Paw (the late Sanford Regan) used to take me fishing in Weeks Bay and Fish River,” he said. “We’d catch bull bream and green trout or bass as most people call them. It didn’t matter to me as long as I was fishing. I’d catch everything from tadpoles to big redfish. He used to run the bait shop at the mouth of Fish River and I’d fish all day on the dock. Sometimes I wouldn’t come in when he called me and he had to get my mom on the phone to threaten me before I’d quit fishing. And I fish every chance I get now. We try to go fishing every night when it’s not raining.”
Myles added, “Instead of going out and partying, we spend our money on gas to go to the Causeway and go fishing. We end up fishing about four nights a week.”
It was a call from Myles the day after the eventful fishing trip that got Easley’s attention. One of Myles’ co-workers had a copy of the calendar from Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division with the state records listed. The record for redfish was caught by Wayne Snoddy from Auburn in 1982 and weighed 43 pounds even.
“Michael called me at work and told me it might be state record,” Easley said. “I told him it wouldn’t ever make it. We had to ice the fish down in the bottom of the boat because we didn’t have an ice chest big enough. I figured he had lost too much weight. He said it’s worth a shot to go see.”
The fishing buddies drove to Marine Resources on Dauphin Island and had it weighed on certified scales, which recorded 45 pounds, 4 ounces.
“We were all giving each other high-fives,” Easley said. “On the way back, I was screaming. I was a happy son of gun. Catching fish is
as bad as any drug in the world. I know it sounds like a joke, but I’m doing something I love.”
Although Easley and Myles fish around McDuffie Island regularly, both commented that it’s very unusual for a fish that size to be that far away from the Gulf of Mexico.
Vernon Minton, Director of Marine Resources, said the spring and early summer drought is the probable cause for the bull redfish hanging out in the north end of Mobile Bay.
“You expect to find this kind of fish in the lower end of the bay and not in the river, like it was,” said Minton, who said the record fish could be 30 years old or older. “With the drought, we’ve had saltwater move way up in the rivers, and saltwater species like tarpon, redfish and bull sharks have moved right on up. They expand their range where they can forage and find appropriate food.
Minton said typically the mature redfish school up anywhere from August to late September and form spawning aggregations offshore. Eggs hatch and ride the tide back into the estuaries. The redfish stay in the estuarine system for three to seven years and then tend to move into offshore populations as adults.
“That’s where the inconsistency of this fish comes in,” he said. “You expect this fish to be offshore. But like everything else, he’s out there to make a living. As long as they find forage, they’ll follow it. And as long as the salinity is good, they won’t get in trouble.”
Alabama’s saltwater fishing regulations set a redfish bag limit of three fish from 16 to 26 inches with an allowance for one fish over 26 inches.
“At one time there was no allowance for a fish over 26 inches, but you could keep two undersized fish,” Minton said. “What we saw was so many of the undersized fish being kept as part of the normal bag instead of an allowance for a fish that was deeply hooked.
“That’s why we went to the allowance for one oversized fish. Although we encourage anglers to release the larger fish, we certainly don’t want to prohibit the landing of future state records.”
After completing the process for certification of a new state record, Eric Easley is sure glad about that.