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Kids Learn to Surf Fish at Gulf State Park

Owen Matlock shows that the size of the fish really doesn't matter when you're having a great time on Alabama's beautiful beaches. Photo by David Rainer

By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Picture-postcard weather greeted the youngsters and volunteer mentors last weekend for the Kids’ Free Surf Fishing Clinic at Gulf State Park.

David Thornton, renowned surf and pier fishermen, and Cindy Langston, Special Events Manager at Gulf State Park, wanted to see if the coastal community would respond to another kids’ event after a successful day teaching the youngsters how to fish the surf last spring.

The answer was a resounding “yes” with a huge turnout for Saturday’s event on the sugar-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Cindy and I have been talking about making this a biannual event,” Thornton said. “The participation has been fantastic with people wanting to try this, most of them for the first time. What I’ve really been tickled pink with is the support from the surf fishing community. A lot of these fishermen are just wanting to share their experience and seeing this next generation get plugged into it.

“It’s so much fun. You see so many smiles that it’s just a grand thing to be a part of.”

Thornton said Gulf State Park has embraced the event, which garnered the support from the fishermen and local businesses and the participation from the community.

Thornton said the clinic received donations of fresh dead shrimp from Christi Wallace at Hooked Up Bait and Tackle, Fish Bites from Brett Burford and Salty’s Pompano Rigs from Justin McCrory.

More than 50 youngsters were signed up for the event and more than a dozen experienced surf fishermen volunteered to help with the event that was held at the Gulf State Park Pavilion.

Fishing poles reached skyward for more than a quarter-mile east of the pavilion as the kids, parents and mentors enjoyed a morning of fishing and great weather.

“We contacted everybody through social media, primarily Facebook, to get the word out,” Thornton said. “We got everybody here on time. As the kids came in and signed up for the event, we had the mentors come out on the beach with a certain number of kids. We stretched out down the beach. Then we networked back and forth down the beach to make sure everybody was covered, making sure all the kids were catching fish.”

The mentors taught the kids the basics of fishing from tying knots to baiting the hook.

“Some of these kids don’t have any casting experience, so we start there,” Thornton said. “We just take whatever level they bring and take it to the next level for saltwater surf fishing so we can expand their experience and make them want to continue fishing and enjoy it like the rest of us have been. It’s a ‘pay it forward’ thing for us.”

One of the clinic mentors, Jordan Gooding of G2 Coastal YouTube channel, was in law enforcement for 10 years before deciding to make surf fishing his new vocation.

“I decided to chase a dream and I love fishing with kids,” Gooding said. “They’re the future of fishing down the road. I want to encourage them to get out and enjoy it.

“We just try to teach the kids how to tie rigs, what to look for along the beach in terms of structure, and how to cast into the areas where they are most likely to catch a fish.”

Harper Henson landed a whiting during the Kids Free Surf Fishing Clinic at Gulf State Park Pavilion. Photo by David Rainer

Thornton said new anglers and seasoned fishermen will soon find one of the most productive times to fish the surf on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“I think we’re right on the cusp of some good fall fishing,” he said. “The days are getting shorter, and the fish sense that. We saw a good bit of that during the clinic with a lot of ladyfish in the surf zone. The (bottlenose) dolphins were pushing them.

“We’re kind of in a transition where the pelagic species like ladyfish and the other jacks are getting restless in the surf zone. They’ll be moving out by the end of the month when the water temperature falls below 80 degrees. They’ll be gone for the rest of the year.”

That means the bait stealers and nuisance species will become less prevalent and fishing for species like whiting, also known as Gulf kingfish, will become hot. For those new to surf fishing, whiting will be silvery colored with a black tip on the top of the tail fin. While they don’t get much larger than two pounds, they are great table fare.

A few Southern kingfish (ground mullet) will be mixed in. Redfish and pompano will be more willing to bite as well. Remember, redfish (red drum) has a slot limit of 16 to 26 inches with an allowance for one oversized fish in the three-fish daily creel limit. The daily creel limit for pompano is also three fish with a minimum length of 12 inches. Whiting and ground mullet do not have daily creel or size limits.

“That’s when our local, our resident, species really shine,” Thornton said. “That’s when the whiting bite really comes in and will last through October. The redfish bite also picks up. We’ll start seeing slot reds, primarily because the amount of bycatch goes down. There aren’t as many jacks and little fish to worry with.”

The surf angler’s most desired species is the Florida pompano. The pompano bite ebbs and flows during the year on the Alabama Gulf Coast, but fall is one of the better times to target pompano.

“We even managed to catch a couple of nice keepers during the clinic,” Thornton said of pompano. “The bite cleans up as the fall progresses, and the pompano fishing just gets better.

“From about Christmas to spring break, the pompano bite can be a little slow. There’s not one fish you can hang your hat on during that time. It may be good one day; then when you come back the next, the conditions have changed. Winter weather is unpredictable and hardly ever the same two days in a row. Then after spring break, the pompano fishing explodes. It’s as good as it gets in the spring.”

Don’t forget that you will need a saltwater fishing license to fish the surf. All licenses expired on August 31. Go to www.outdooralabama.com/licenses/saltwater-recreational-licenses for information on annual and trip licenses. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/license-packages for information on saltwater fishing packages. If you are resident license-exempt (65 or older, or holder of lifetime license or fish exclusively from a pier that holds a pier fishing license), you will still need to complete the Saltwater Angler Registration that is available free at www.outdooralabama.com/saltwater-fishing/saltwater-angler-registration.

Also, for those who catch reef fish species, including gray (mangrove) snapper and red snapper, a Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement is required.

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Kids, families and mentors lined up on the beach west of the Gulf State Park Pavilion to participate in the Kids Free Surf Fishing Clinic. Photo by David Rainer

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