David Thorton with King MackerelsEditor’s Note: David Thornton of Mobile, Alabama, fishes Alabama’s new Gulf State Park Pier at least one day a week, every week. He fished the old state-park pier before it was destroyed in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan. Since Thornton fishes the pier often and has a history of pier fishing, he knows what’s biting and when. Thornton will tell us what’s biting at the new pier in October and how to catch those fish.

Question: David, what’s the difference between the new Gulf State Park pier and the pier that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004?Pier fishing in Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, AL
Thornton: The new pier is almost twice as long as the old pier, and we’re catching more pelagic species of fish, such as king mackerel, Spanish mackerel and cobia. There are more ways to catch mackerel off the new pier than there were off the old pier, especially king mackerel. Too, the new pier allows fishermen to fish deeper water than the old pier did. Today, the water’s twice as deep at the end of the new pier as it was at the end of the old pier. Now when you’re fishing at the end of the pier, you’re fishing 1/4-mile from the beach, which is a tremendous difference from the old pier that went just to the outer edge of the sand bar.

Question: What will you be catching this month off the pier?
Thornton: Early in October, I’ll be catching the same species of fish I’ve caught during the summer months. I’ll have plenty of king andKing Mackerel caught on the Gulf State Park Pier Spanish mackerel to catch throughout the rest of the month. However, toward the end of October, I’ll catch fewer of them. As the mackerel begin to move out of the area, the big giant redfish will move in, and October is one of the most-productive months to fish the pier for redfish.

Question: How will you catch the redfish on the pier?
Thornton: You can’t beat live bait. Most pier fishermen use scaled sardines, also known as alewives (or LYs locally). There will be a number of LYs holding next to the pier for protection from the predator fish, like redfish and king mackerel. You can catch the LYs using gold-hook and red-ribbon rigs. Once you catch the bait, hook one in the tail, cast it out away from the pier, and be prepared to catch both redfish and king mackerel. For redfish, we generally fish the LYs on the bottom, and if we’re fishing for king mackerel, we’ll cast the LYs out away from the pier and let them swim on a free line. However, many times the LYs we put out on a free line also will catch redfish. Often we’ll have big schools of redfish come right in to the pier.

Question: When you’re fishing for king mackerel or redfish, what hook, line, rods and reels will you be using?
Thornton: For mackerel, I’ll use a 7 or an 8-foot rod with a reel that will hold 250 yards of 15- to 20-pound-test monofilament line. If we’re fishing for mackerel, at the end of the line, I’ll have a barrel swivel and then 12 to 18 inches of wire leader of at least 30-pound test. On the end of the wire, I’ll use either a No. 2 hook or a larger treble hook. I usually hook the LYs in the back and cast them out on the free line. Some Redfish caught in on the Gulf State Park Pierpier fishermen will put a float up the line 2 to 3 feet from their baits to keep the LYs high in the water column, if they’re fishing specifically for mackerel, or if the water’s rough, and they don’t want their LYs to go down and hide in that churned-up bottom. More people free-line LYs with no floats or leads. Then they’ll have the opportunity to catch both mackerel and redfish. I’ve learned that the closer I hook the LY to the tail, the more it will swim away from the pier and get out in the open water, where more mackerel and redfish seem to hang-out.

Question: What happens when those large schools of big redfish come down the beach and under the pier?
Thornton: I’ve seen 20 to 25 redfish hooked-up at one time by different fishermen on the pier. These bull reds will weigh 20-pounds each and sometimes more.

Question: So, you’re catching really-big fish off the Gulf State Park Pier. How do you get a 20-pound bull red or a king mackerel that may weigh from 10 to 30 pounds from the water to the top of the pier?
Thornton: There are two options. Most pier fishermen use nets designed to land fish from the pier. The front of the hoop net is 36 inches in diameter and is attached to a stout rope. So, a fisherman can let the net down when he or she gets a fish played-down and bring it close to the pier. Then all the angler has to do is lead the fish over the top of the net and pull the rope attached to the net up to the deck of the pier. This technique of landing fish is generally preferred for redfish, flounder, speckled trout, sheepshead or any of the smaller types of fish we catch. We’ll also tie a gaff to the end of a rope that we let down in the water to gaff the bigger fish, like the king mackerel. The king mackerel is a soft-fleshed fish, and it’s long. Therefore, gaffing a king mackerel is a much-more efficient way to get the fish up to the deck of the pier than using a net. The gaff easily penetrates the fish’s skin. When you get the fish over the gaff, jerk the rope with the gaff on it to set the gaff in the fish. The gaff looks much like a grappling hook, rather than the kind of gaff you see on charter boats. Our gaffs have five prongs on them, and each point of the gaff is extremely sharp. To land fish from the pier, make sure the fish is really played-down and tired and is laying on its side as it comes up to the net or the gaff. Once you get a king mackerel gaffed, you can haul it up to the deck of the pier using the rope.

Question: David, what about the small species of fish caught around the pier?
Thornton: October is a great month to load the cooler with whiting (ground mullet), flounder and a few speckled trout and sheepshead. Although the whitingSpeckled Trout bite will be good all month, by the end of October, they really start to stack-up. You can catch plenty of them. As soon as the water begins to cool this month, the flounder will move out of the estuary areas and into the Gulf of Mexico. The flounder usually will stay in close to the beach during October to fatten-up before they move further offshore. October and May are the two best flounder-catching months, but we catch flounder year-round off the pier. The first week the pier opened in late July 2009, I saw close to 1,000 flounder caught. Some days 250 flounder were caught off the pier then.

Question: What effect have the artificial reefs built near the pier had on pier fishing?
Thornton: The artificial reefs drastically have increased the amount of fish holding in the area by the pier. By putting more structure on the bottom in the vicinity of the pier, we’re drawing-in more fish. There’s hope that these artificial reefs may pull-in some reef fish. However, remember that the piers and the reefs have been open only a couple of months, and reef Spanish Mackerel and Orange Beach fishingfish take much longer to concentrate than pelagic and inshore species do. The pier is the main fish attractor, especially with the addition of the lights on the pier.

Question: How’s the night fishing at the pier?
Thornton: It’s fair. Because of federal regulations, the state park wasn’t able to put floodlights that shine strongly down into the water like we had on the previous pier. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn’t allow this because of some type of turtle regulations. But the pier does have some pretty-good lights that you can fish around at night. The Alabama Marine Resources Division used all the influence they had to get the strongest lights they legally could use to shine-down in the water and still get the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Question: At this time of year, how many anglers generally will be fishing the pier at one time?
Thornton: Some weekends, early in the month, there may be no more than 100 people on the pier, and on weekdays, you’ll have about 50 people fishing the pier. Because of the size of the new pier, fishing is never really crowded. If the area has a strong mackerel run, early Saturday and Sunday mornings, there may be 50 people at the end of the pier. However, there’s enough room on the end of the pier for about 150 people to fish comfortably. The new pier not only is twice as long as the old pier, but the end of the pier, where most people fish for king mackerel, is twice as big arSheepshead and Orange Beach fishingound as the end of the old pier. So, the new pier allows about three times as many people to fish comfortably off its end as the old pier did.

Question: How will the pier fishing be throughout the winter?
Thornton: Fantastic. We’ll have king mackerel through the end of October, and then the redfish will start moving into the region. I’ll be catching bull reds through the coldest part of January. Sheepshead will move in around Thanksgiving and be here until warmer weather brings in the mackerel, the cobia and other summertime fish. Ground mullet, speckled trout and flounder can be caught all year here. So, the pier offers an inexpensive way to catch a lot of really-good fish all winter.