Alabama's Gulf State Park Pier
Out with the Old & In with the New... by Alton Wallace
April 29, 2009 Update:
The Gulf State Park Pier is currently scheduled
for completion in June, depending on water conditions.
Strong winds this spring have churned up the Gulf of Mexico making
it difficult to get the equipment needed to complete the pier out on
the site. We hope to have updated information and pictures
available in the next couple of weeks.
to view pictures of the construction from May 19, 2008.
Click here to see later
Sept. 2008 pictures of the pier on the Outdoor Alabama web site.
February 27, 2008 - Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, AL - When many people think of Gulf State Park, the first thing that comes to mind is the saltwater fishing pier that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The 825-foot-long pier was Alabama’s most popular place to fish and watch others fish. Hugh Branyon, Gulf State Park's superintendent, says the
pier attracted about 250,000 anglers and sightseers each year. On the busiest days, he said, almost 5,000 people would visit the pier.
Renderings created by David Thornton, also known as Pier#'r
(pronounced Pier Pounder)
Construction of a new pier – this one 1512-feet-long and the longest on the Gulf Coast – began in December, and a lot of anglers are counting the days until it opens. Some have already built new fishing rods and say they will plan vacations to coincide with the pier’s opening, which is scheduled for March 2009. If construction isn’t delayed by bad weather or rough seas, park officials say the work could be finished a little sooner.
Terry Boyd, chief engineer for the Alabama Department
of Conservation and Natural Resources, oversees construction projects
for the state park system. "Since Hurricane Ivan hit,” he said, “of all
the calls we get concerning what we're doing at Gulf State Park,
probably 98 percent relate to what's going on with the pier. It’s
obvious that building the new pier will bring people back to the park.”
The new pier is being built 250 feet east of the old one. It will be 20 feet wide, 6 feet wider than the old pier. At the base of the new pier, there will be a concession area with rest rooms, picnic tables, an air-conditioned snack bar and a tackle shop. Those who need fishing licenses will be able to buy them at the new pier. The pier’s middle section, which will have an octagonal shape, will contain more restrooms.
“The new pier will be considerably bigger and have a lot more restrooms,” Boyd said. “It will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so there will be a wooden handrail and that will make it a little more difficult to fish. But all-in-all, this should be a really good fishing pier.”
New pier will be approximately 550' longer than
the old pier.
On the old pier, anglers caught a wide variety of
saltwater fish that included sheepshead, mackerel, redfish,
flounder, pompano, jacks, whiting, cobia, bonito and,
occasionally, tarpon. Experienced anglers say the new pier will provide
more opportunities to catch these fish.
When rough seas stir the water along the beach, a
longer pier will allow anglers to cast their lines farther offshore
where fish are feeding, says David Thornton, an avid pier fisherman and publisher of the Alabama Coastal Fishing Association’s newsletter. “At the old pier, a lot of days were just nominally fishable because of rough water,” Thornton said. “Out beyond the sandbar about 200 or 300 feet past the end of the pier, you could see clear water. You’d know that if you could get your line out there, you could catch some fish. So instead of having 100 good fishable days in a year, I expect it will be double that with the new pier.”
Thornton, 52, says he caught a bonito and mackerel the first time he fished at the old pier in 1972. “I had just gotten my driver’s license, and I drove to the pier and caught a king mackerel,” he said.
Chris Vecsey, a 23-year- old assistant at Top Gun Tackle in Orange Beach, said the first fish he caught on the pier was a king mackerel and the last one, just a few days before Hurricane Ivan hit, was a 32-pound redfish.
Vecsey said he began fishing the old pier when he was about 10 years old. Like Thornton,
Vecsey is excited about the new pier’s additional length. “On a rough day, the breakers were right near the end of the pier -- now we won’t have to contend with that,” he said.
And it should be possible to catch more king mackerel and cobia at the new pier,
Vecsey said, because anglers will be able to cast their lines into deeper water. When the beach was renourished at Gulf State Park in 2003, sand settled around the pier, he said. At the end of the pier, the water was only about 10 feet deep. Plans for the new pier, in comparison, call for it to end in water about 26 feet deep. “After the beach renourishment , the king fishing was not very good,”
Vecsey said. With the (new) pier going out to deeper water it should be a lot better. We’ll probably see more cobia, too.”
Boyd said park officials visited some of the Gulf Coast’s most popular fishing piers when the design was developed. It was decided, Boyd said, that the new pier will be built at an elevation of 20 feet above sea level, two feet higher than the old one.
“We went to the Pensacola pier and a couple of others in the Florida Panhandle, and we talked to the people using them,” Boyd said. “We’ve tried to take the best features of those piers and avoid the things that people didn’t like about them. Elevating the pier a couple of feet more than the old pier will make it a little bit less vulnerable to storm surge, but it won’t be so high that people lose that many more fish when they reel them in. We wanted the pier to be higher but not so high that it negatively affects fishing.”
After the next hurricane, rebuilding the pier should take months instead of years, Boyd said. “We’ll use 5-foot-square wooden panels instead of concrete panels for the pier’s decking,” he said. “When the storm surge blows those out the next time there’s a big hurricane, it will be a lot easier to get treated lumber than concrete panels. Wooden panels were used in the construction of the Pensacola pier, and it was operational fairly quickly after Ivan.”
After the new pier is completed, what remains of the
old pier is probably going to be used to build a reef (pending
permitting) around the new pier to enhance the fishing, Boyd said.
The endcap, the octagon-shaped area at the end of the pier, will be substantially larger. It will be 90 feet wide, whereas the old pier’s endcap was only about 30 feet across. This will give anglers like Thornton and
Vecsey more space to cast their lines “The prospect of having that much fishable room at the end of the pier makes me lick my chops,” Thornton said.
The old endcap was 65' wide, the new endcap will be 90' wide.
Thornton is also excited about the opportunities the new pier will provide to meet anglers who share his love of fishing. “The pier attracted broad range of people from all over the country, it’s a magnet for people,” he said. “You get a unique cross-section of folks – it’s America in a microcosm --that’s one thing my wife
Susan always remarked about.”
Perhaps no one misses the old pier and looks forward to the day a new one opens more than Cher Villanova. She and her husband began fishing on the old pier about 30 years ago. When she retired in 1990, the Villanovas moved from Conyers, GA to
their new home about seven miles from the pier. “I really miss it,” she said. “I went almost every weekday --I guess you could call me an addict fisherwoman.
Villanova said she saw some things at the old pier that she would have never expected. “I’m not kidding -- we actually saw a whale,” she said. “We couldn’t believe it, but it was a whale. A manatee being there surprised us, too. Someone also caught a sailfish onetime. When I got there in the morning, I could never know what I might see that day.”
Villanova usually fished for whiting, mackerel and flounder. Like many other anglers, she is excited about having more opportunities on the new pier to catch mackerel and cobia. And Villanova looks forward to the camaraderie she enjoyed with anglers who shared her passion for fishing. “A bunch of guys would have
picnics at the end of the pier. It was a great place to have fun with your friends,” she said.
There were funerals on the old pier, too, Villanova said. The end of the pier would be closed for a few minutes at sunrise, she said, while a few words were spoken and the ashes of the deceased were spread in the water.