For three hot, glorious days beginning on July 29th the waters of lower Mobile Bay and the nearby Gulf of Mexico adjacent to this bit of Alabama coastline will see a flotilla of fishing boats such as have never plied the area before. The occasion will be another gala running of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, inaugurated in 1929 and believed to be oldest of its kind in the country.
For 26 years the rodeo's headquarters have been on Dauphin Island at the foot of the bay, an elongated strip of piney woods, dunes and beaches which until recently was inhabited by only a few fishing families. This year a bridge was completed connecting the island to the mainland, so the Mobile Junior Chamber of Commerce will not, as in all previous years, have to load a barge with field-kitchen equipment, cots and mosquito netting, light plant and intercom system, ice and beverages for the 27-mile trip to ancient, abandoned Fort Gaines; it will send the stuff by truck. Actually, not so much of this equipment will be needed this year because of new facilities on the island, though plenty of well-used camping necessities will be there for the day-boat fishermen and the outboarders.
Last year 308 boats anchored at Dauphin Island and were thus right on their fishing grounds, a difference between this rodeo and all others, according to Alex Lankford, president. This does not, however, mean that it is a safe anchorage. Fishing adventure, not safety, is what Mobile anglers strive for. Last year, just at dusk, while the day's entries were being judged, a squall came up from the north, the worst old-timers had ever seen. The violent weather sank one cruiser, rolled 14 up onto the beach and blew one out to sea, dragging its anchor, before its owner could get back aboard. It looked like a marine disaster but was accepted with bemusement as just a mood of the Gulf.
The dates of the rodeo are picked for a season when days of hot bronze sunlight may be expected on water slick and green and teeming with fish feeding on bait species coming down the bay with the outgoing tide. Mobile is blessed with wonderful fishing. The rodeo pays for itself in entrance fees of $10 per participant. Business firms donate the prizes, and presumably receive adequate return in newspaper publicity. The more items a businessman donates, the more often his name appears publicly.
A REMARKABLE CATCH
How far this can be carried is illustrated by a remarkable event of last year's rodeo. There is always a prize for the largest sailfish, although one is seldom caught in that part of the Gulf. Last year the boat Sportsman, owned and captained by Earl Bryant, had 10 anglers out on one of the week-long fishing voyages upon which the vessel embarks every week. This voyage overlapped with the rodeo, so the customers paid their fees and entered. One of the anglers aboard was Frank Samford Sr. of Birmingham. Samford's whole fishing day was filled with the unusual.
First, Samford hooked a bonito, on the bottom, mind you, fishing with cut bait for red snappers. Then, by some angling oddity, a second bonito got its tail half-hitched onto the line. So Samford decided to fish for bonito on the surface, where this fast fish lives and belongs. Using a mackerel-sized hook he got hold of a 200-pound shark which amazingly struck an artificial lure on the surface. Samford played it a while before it broke off. Okay, then, he would fish for sharks. He put a white trout on a large hook, no sinker, and let it drift away from the boat. He fed line out. He felt a tap. He fed more line. He felt a strike. He hauled back and hooked a sailfish. He fought and whipped it, and Slim, the mate of the Sportsman, gaffed it (an indignity to a sailfish, but Slim had no previous experience as a billfish mate). It was strange sailfishing, but it had worked, so now the Sportsman went to floating dead white trout at the end of lines, trying to catch another. So what happened, and to whom? Samford caught a 750-pound shark.
There are prizes for everything, and enough of them that a prize may be won by nearly anything. Then there are titles to be awarded, such as King Fisherman or King Fisherette. Samford, by winning in the most classes (sailfish, bonito and shark), became King Fisherman, an honor which in itself carried the award of merchandise. His winnings were a recapping of a set of tires, a bed, an ashtray, a down payment on a Ford, a pair of pants, a shirt, a pair of shoes, a record player, a cookie assortment, a chrome smoking stand, a folding chair, an assortment of lures and a down payment on a truck.
The Gulf of Mexico is a beautiful sea. To be there fishing—prizes or no prizes—is enough. The coastal fishermen chat gaily over the radio telephone all day while they fish. Everybody listens to all the conversations for amusement and fishing hints. Thus, during the rodeo, a remark about a catch will cause boats to converge from everywhere upon a certain spot. Say a tarpon is seen to swirl up in the bay. It is remarked, and here the boats come, from up the sound toward Petit Bois Pass or from over the horizon out past Sand Island Light.
Then John Curtis Bush, famed as the area's greatest tarpon angler, may remark: "No tarpon here. There are so many boats they would run the tarpon off. Why, the outboard skiffs are floating around up here like lily pads."