Party Boats: An Alabama Fishing Tradition | Great Days Outdoors

The ‘Good Old Days’ Are Now for Catching Alabama Reef Fish

After the boat ride from the marina in Orange Beach, the anglers filling the rails of the party boat Emerald Spirit were eager to do some fishing. When Capt. George Pfeiffer’s voice crackled over the boat intercom, the anglers smiled at their neighbors and got ready for some fun.

“OK, now drop ‘em. Count to 10 and hold on!” was Captain George’s direction.

A chorus of splashes ran around the boat as anglers let the heavy sinkers and baited hooks fall into the clear blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. Most anglers remembered the instruction they had received from the deckhand and Captain George before the boat left the dock about how to control the big, deep-sea reels they were using, so there were few backlashes and tangles, thankfully.

Almost immediately, several voices rang out as anglers found that the red snapper were there, and the fish were hungry. Just a bit after the first cries of excitement rang out, more cries seeking help were heard. These Alabama red snapper were not only present and hungry, but they were big and strong, too.


When the first red snappers of the day were brought to the surface and the gorgeous red sides of the most prized fish of the Alabama Gulf Coast could be seen in the clear water, more cries rang out. “Deckhand! We need some help here? Big fish here! Gaff, Gaff, Gaff!” came from anglers who needed help getting their hooked snapper safely aboard.

This was only the first stop of this day on this party boat trip into fishing paradise. All day long, this scene would repeat as anglers came to appreciate the experience of having a wild, good time aboard a party boat.

This is my kind of party.

Shallow-hooked red snapper fight hard all the way to the boat. Photo by Ed Mashburn.

The State of the Fishing

Party boats, those big, inexpensive, sometimes crowded boats that take anglers into the gulf for 6- to 8-hour or longer fishing trips, are a Gulf Coast tradition. These party boats have given anglers a chance to hook and catch big fish at a very reasonable cost for a long, long time. The big difference between the party boat fishing back then and the party boat fishing now is the fishing is much better now than it was back then.

Capt. George Pfeiffer operates the party boat Emerald Spirit (888-558-3889, out of Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach. He says, “Red snapper fishing is better now than it has been in a long time. There are more and bigger fish. Yep, they’re bigger, no doubt.”


Alabama party boats are federally documented vessels, so they must follow the regulations set down in federal laws such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This means that party boats can’t fish in state waters under the new state regulations.

“Because of laws to protect smaller fish, the average size of red snapper caught on Alabama party boats is from eight to 10 pounds.”

Captain George says, “As part of the federal regulations, we do daily online catch reports. We even have to log non-fishing days. This holds us accountable for our catches.”

In years past when regulations allowed party boats to keep smaller red snapper, the average fish kept by party boat anglers was perhaps three pounds. That is a nice eating size fish, but not the size that can put up a great fight on the heavy gear used for red snapper fishing. Today, because of laws to protect smaller fish, the average size of red snapper caught on Alabama party boats is from eight to 10 pounds. A 10-pound red snapper will provide as much fight as most anglers want. The Gulf of Mexico waters off the Alabama coast are full of these big, mean red snapper.

As Capt. George Pfeiffer says, “We catch big red snapper because that’s what we target. We harvest larger fish because we fish for them specifically. We fish shallow in the water column because that’s where the big red snapper will be. We keep what we catch and we catch the big ones.”

No doubt about it, the “good old days” of red snapper party boat fishing are here right now.

Where to Find Party boats

With its very short coastline, Alabama has limited places for anglers to find party boats. In fact, there are only two places where party boats are located. Dauphin Island has a number of party boats and Orange Beach has more party boats. For visiting anglers, it only makes sense to check out the party boats closest to where vacationers will stay.

Many Alabama boat captains build lots of offshore reefs during the offseason. These reefs attract hordes of red snapper, so no matter where a party boat might depart, anglers aboard should find excellent red snapper fishing off the Alabama coast.

The best way for visiting anglers to locate a party boat is to do a quick online search. All of the party boats have websites that provide a great deal of information about the cost and duration of trips, dates of operation, times of departure and arrival time back at the dock.

It is always a good idea to call the boat before a trip. Please don’t assume the boat will have room for you on any particular date without a reservation. Call and make reservations. Quite often, especially during middle of the week, party boats will have room for walk-ons who want to go fishing, but were unable to call and make reservations. Just don’t be surprised when you find that the boat is booked full and has no room left.

What to Bring

Although party boats are big, safe and roomy, anglers coming aboard for a fishing trip can’t bring everything they own with them.

First, the boat will supply bait, tackle and all required licenses for anglers. Some anglers may want to bring their own gear. This is fine on most boats, but just keep in mind that red snapper fishing is heavy-duty fishing. The bass rig that works fine for 5-pound largemouth back home won’t work well in the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a good idea to use the party boat supplied gear.

Captain George advises first-time party boat anglers. “Bring only what you want to eat and drink in a small cooler. Don’t bring glass containers. We on Emerald Spirit do allow alcohol on board, but only in moderation.” Anglers will want to check with specific party boats. Some don’t allow alcoholic beverages.

Anglers will want to bring sunscreen, a good hat, and perhaps a small pack of hand wipes. It goes without saying, if motion sickness is a concern, bring medication. If necessary, remember to apply the motion sickness medicine in time for it to work during the trip.

Don’t forget the camera. There’s a good chance that on an Alabama party boat fishing trip, you might very well hook and catch the biggest fish of your life.

No doubt about it, right now is the best time for party boat anglers to catch some massive red snapper. Photo by Ed Mashburn.


What to Expect

For those who have never been on a party boat running in gulf waters off the Alabama coast, a real treat lies ahead. Party boat anglers will get to see Alabama from a totally different point of view. On the run out to the fishing grounds from the party boat dock, anglers will see birds, dolphin, boats of all kinds and some beautiful water.

When the boat arrives at its fishing destination, anglers will be able to see and experience some very exciting fishing. There’s nothing quite like the first glimpse of a hooked big red snapper as it comes up through the clear water.

“Party boat anglers will learn how to use deep-sea fishing gear to hook and catch big red snapper.” — Capt. George Pfeiffer of the party boat Emerald Spirit

Alabama party boats offer anglers air-conditioned seating inside the cabin. This is the place to be on hot summer trips when the boat is running between fishing spots. There is running water and clean restrooms. Both men and women are provided bathroom facilities. Party boats are quite comfortable, in fact.

Captain George Pfeiffer tells us, “Party boat anglers will learn how to use deep-sea fishing gear. We will instruct you. Anglers will learn how to actually use the gear to hook and catch big red snapper. We’ll show you how to take care of your caught fish. We’ll give you advice on how to prepare the fish you’ve caught for some great eating.”

Anglers can also expect to meet some new friends. Party boats are famous for having mixed crowds of anglers. Since everyone helps everyone else when aboard, some long-lasting friendships are often made on party boat trips.

Anglers can expect a lot of help from the boat deckhands. These trained and hard-working deckhands will help anglers all day long with any problems with gear or with fishing technique advice. These deckhands will also clean the catches after the trip. This cleaning service costs 30 cents per pound, the same price it has been for 30 years. Tipping the deckhands is not only considered polite behavior, but for many deckhands, it’s the only pay they get. A 15 to 20 percent tip at the end of the trip is a good idea. It’s a very reasonable price for all of the service the deckhands provide.

What about Seasickness?

For those who are subject to motion sickness, many good medications are available that help with this devastating malady. However, for some folks, like my wife, there’s nothing that makes an offshore trip possible. For these folks, going on a party boat may not be a good idea. Please understand, the boat WILL NOT return to port if someone gets seasick. So, when you get on a party boat and leave the dock, you will be on the trip for the entire run that day. Please keep this in mind when booking a party boat trip.

When asked for his advice about dealing with seasickness, Captain George said, “First, if you feel seasickness coming on, go outside. Don’t stay in the cabin. Get some fresh air. This helps. Try to look at the horizon to get a more stable and fixed line of sight. If all fails, just let it go over the side. No one will make fun and no one will hold it against you. No one has ever died from seasickness.”


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