Usually a bustling hotbed of activity on opening day, Zeke's Marina in Orange Beach was virtually placid. Charter boats that normally put anglers on the great fishing in the Gulf of Mexico sat eerily idle at the dock.
Allen Kruse, captain of Rookie, said years of strict regulations have allowed red snapper stocks to explode and his job was extremely easy on opening day.
"It was just like I expected," Kruse said. "There were fish everywhere. We used a lot of big baits so we wouldn't catch the little ones. I don't think we had anything smaller than eight pounds. All the fish were about 20 feet under the boat so we didn't hurt any of the ones we released. It was a really awesome day."
Kruse said there was no chum involved in getting the snapper so close to the surface.
"You don't have to use chum," he said. "There are so many of them, all you have to do is stop and they swim up. They're that hungry. They've been catching them on everything. They've been catching them on the Three-Mile Barge. They're everywhere. That's the truth. There's no shortage of red snapper."
Tom Steber, general manager at Zeke's, said everyone connected to the Alabama Gulf Coast is scrambling to make ends meet.
"Snapper season, of course, is lukewarm to say the least," Steber said. "We're off 60 percent. We've had trip after trip after trip canceled because all you hear nationwide is we've got oil all over the place. Up until right now it's been absolutely gorgeous. It's not pretty. We actually sent our party boat (Zeke's Lady) out looking for oil, working for BP. There was some oil seen as close as eight miles. We're going to get some, but I hope it's not ugly. Bottom line is they've got to get it capped or we don't know what's going to happen. It could devastate this whole ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm hoping and praying not, but it doesn't look good right now.
"Accommodations (hotel and condo) were down last month 30 to 40 percent. Charter fishing has been off right at 70 percent. I'm not sure what's going to happen. BP says they're going to make it up to everybody. If they do, then I'll go out of my way to buy BP gas. Right now, we're hearing one story after another. That is the problem. BP has to produce what they're talking about."
Steber said that 80 percent of the business that occurs in the Orange Beach-Gulf Shores area takes place between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
"Without that 80 percent, I don't think there's a business down here that can make it," he said.
Boats with solid fishing reputations like Summer Breeze II, Aquastar, Intruder, Summer Breeze I and Misty were among the boats at Zeke's that were idle on opening day.
While the other boats had cancelations, Bobby Walker's Summer Breeze II had a different reason for not fishing opening day.
"There's the weirdest things going on around here that have ever happened," Walker said. "I had a trip today, but I got called up to go to (haz-mat) class for BP. We had to have the training before we can go offshore with the oil. I gave my charter to another boat so I could go to the class. If I missed the class it might be another week or two before another class, so I didn't want to miss our slot.
"The way it's shaping up, the zones where we fish are fixing to be closed anyway. It's kind of a no-win situation for snapper fishing. So I had to get lined up with the oil company. I've got to try to make a dollar when I can."
Walker said every day of the red snapper season (June 1-July 23) had been booked before the oil spill.
"We've lost at least 50 percent of those," he said. "I had another trip this week that canceled because they didn't want to make the drive from Mississippi and get down here and not be able to fish. As soon as the word got out (about the oil spill), the phones went dead.
"It's as bad as it can possibly get. There are so many unknowns. Oil is moving around. It's going a lot of places. Some of that oil could move farther offshore. A lot of the oil, undoubtedly, is sinking down and we don't know how that will affect the fish populations until they are able to study it. We could be affected for years. That's the scary part. Nobody knows."
Ben Fairey, president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association and captain of the Necessity, showed me a photo of a reddish-brown patch of oil sludge he encountered 12 miles south of Perdido Pass on opening day. Despite the ominous photo, Fairey said his opening day trip couldn't have been better.
"It was absolutely wonderful," he said. "We fished public spots from six to 19 miles out. I had nine young anglers from six to 12 years old out with their dads. We caught a limit of snapper from six to 15 pounds. We caught four amberjacks, a few vermilion snapper and a few triggerfish.
"It was a very good day, but also a very sad day because of the stuff that I saw. I've made my living for 37 years in the Gulf of Mexico. This is really a tragic time for us."
-- David Rainer
Rainer is Outdoor Writer for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources