It's early. The moon lingers in the sky and the chilly air lets the mist hang just over Alabama's Gulf Coast.
Our van heads east along Highway 182. Traffic is almost nonexistent at this hour. We stop at a marina called Zeke's, located on Perdido Bay in Orange Beach.
Four of my fellow fishing buddies grab their gear and we head down the wooden docks to our charter boat, appropriately named the "Fish'n Fool." Capt. Nathan Cox sits on the stern, dressed in shorts and T-shirt as if it's high noon in summer.
Moments later, as we try to shake off the last wedges of sleepiness, First Mate Erik Manthei casts off the lines, then explains what we'll be fishing for and basic rules on board.
Cox's "Fish'n Fool" is a 44-foot Bonner. It's equipped with a flying bridge and all the comforts of home - VCR, TV, microwave, and heating and air-conditioning. Ten people can fish from it comfortably. It has all the electronics needed to find the fish, but there's one problem this morning - the Loran tower is down and won't be back up till 9 a.m.
Cox sees some gulls feeding on baitfish about 500 yards offshore and steers us in that direction to fish for Spanish mackerel, while we wait for the tower. Manthei sets our rigs with silver spoons, and it isn't 30 seconds before the first mackerel lands in the boat. On either side of us, a rod with a lightweight spinning reel sits in the rod holders. They're armed with live pinfish. Before long, Cox is hollering "fish on the line!"
Manthei grabs the rod and calls to one of the women: "Want to land this one?"
Kay Mohr from Amarillo, Texas, takes the rod and fights the red but it gets away. Her disappointment only lasts for a couple of minutes. Another red strikes and this one feels like raising an anvil into the boat. It's a beauty, weighing more than 22 pounds. Since we're eventually heading out into federal waters, where it is illegal to keep redfish, the big fella is released. Meanwhile the others on board are tossing mackerels into the cooler as Cox keeps his eye on the Loran. We catch and release two more reds before it is back on-line and we head south into federal waters. On the way, we troll for king mackerel, using imitation squid lures.
"They run faster than the boat," Cox tells us.
We do not get lucky with the kings, but several minutes later, four miles offshore, we stop and find ourselves right in the middle of fishing heaven.
Red snapper, vermillion snapper and triggerfish. We can't get our lines in the water fast enough.
We use cigar minnows and squid. It doesn't matter which. The fish strike like they're starving. The lines are double-hooked and, more often than not, we land two at a time. It is nonstop action: bait the hook, drop the line, reel it in fast - if you wait until you feel the weight hit bottom the chance is good that the triggerfish steal the bait on the way down.
Cox says, "You gotta snatch 'em fast - not jerk it - or they'll take it on the way to the bottom." He underscores the point by casting casually from the bridge. Within seconds he's hauling in a nine-pound red snapper.
Artificial reefs are part of the reason that the fishing is so good off the Alabama coast. The manmade reefs make this section of the Gulf of Mexico a fisherman's dream, especially in October-November, when the water temperature is around 70-degrees. The red snapper minimum limit is 15-inches and seven per person. For vermillion snapper, it's eight inches. These reefs are made of cars, plastic pipes and Army tanks.
"The old cars are like a Snapper Hotel," Manthei says.
Reefs, and the fact that this area is a spawning ground, result in three times more red snapper here than elsewhere in the Gulf. Cox carries about 10 cars a year out to make reefs. It costs him an average of $5,000 to do so. Conservationists inspect the cars, making sure the engines are removed and the gas tanks and transmission lines are flushed clean. Cox says the cars are biodegradable.
"In three to five years, there's nothing left."
This area of the Gulf's bottom drops off quickly. At 40 miles out there is a spot called "The Nipple" where it is 130 fathoms, or about 780 feet. Another area known as "The Steps" ranges from 45 to 90 miles out. Depths reach 640 fathoms, or 3,840 feet. During an October 1994 tournament Cox and Manthei caught a 91.2-pound wahoo on 30-pound line. It was 71 inches long, had a 29-inch girth and took 45-minutes to land. It was just seven pounds short of the state record.
Cox hails from Georgia. He was a general manager for a construction company. But he's been fishing all his life and is now living a dream inspired by his father, who wanted to be a fishing guide. Cox is president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association and a full-time guide these days. He takes pride in providing his clients with the best fishing experiences the area has to offer.
This half-day trip was only a taste of that experience. Our actual fishing time, due to the Loran problem, was only about 2 1/2 hours and the five of us on board caught 10 red snappers, three vermillion snapper, seven triggerfish, two redfish and 12 Spanish mackerel. The total weight was more than 250 pounds of fish.
I'd call that a good day's fishin'.
Offshore - red snapper, triggerfish, amberjack, grouper, wahoo, bullnosed dolphin, king and Spanish mackerel.