Fishing Saltwater Fishing

Watch: ‘Jubilee’ Draws Millions of Fish into Gulf Coast Shallows, Where They’re Ripe for Gigging

The strange phenomenon occurs every summer in Mobile Bay, and it's beckoned Alabama anglers for generations
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An angler spears a flounder in the shallows.
Jake Markris stands over shallow water teeming with flounder, stingrays, baitfish, and other marine critters; Markris gigs a flounder. Photos by Jake Markris

Jake Markris has lived along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay on Alabama’s Gulf Coast all his life. It’s a renowned saltwater fishery, and one of only two places on Earth where anglers can witness an incredible shallow-water phenomenon known as a “jubilee.” These summertime occurrences are caused by a lack of oxygen in the water, which forces all kinds of bottom-dwelling fish into the shallows where they congregate along the beach and are easily targeted by local fisherman.

Markris, a 52-year-old resident of Fairhope, has witnessed dozens of jubilees over the years. But he says the one he experienced and filmed on Wednesday was one of the best he’s seen. He says he was planning fishing the bay that morning, but then he got a call from a friend who told him there was a jubilee occurring near Point Clear.

“I knew we’d be wasting our time fishing because a jubilee is [caused by] oxygen depletion in the water, and the trout weren’t going to be where I expected them to be in the bay,” Markris tells Outdoor Life. “So, we loaded up and headed to the Point Clear area, and it was unreal. Flounder, shrimp, croakers, spots, even sheepshead and some trout were in inches of water, trying to get oxygen.”

A few other family members met Markris and his son on the beach, where they each gigged a limit of five flounder in just minutes. The family didn’t even put a dent in the number of flounder, and they weren’t the only ones harvesting fish along the beach. Video footage that Markris captured shows the staggering number of fish, shrimp, and other marine critters that were gathered in the shallow water. Many of them seemed to struggle for air as they slowly milled around, which is typical with these events.

“Jubilees are caused primarily by up-wellings or upward movement of oxygen-poor bottom waters, forcing bottom-type fish and crustaceans ashore,” according to the experts at Auburn University and Alabama A&M. “Due to the lack of oxygen, these jubilee-affected fish and shellfish cannot carry out normal muscular activities, such as swimming. They move slowly and seem reluctant to swim even to escape capture.”

Markris emphasizes that he’s no authority on jubilees. But he and his family have observed them for generations, studying weather patterns and discussing their theories with other fishermen. Markris estimates that he’s seen around 50 different jubilees over the years, and his parents have witnessed even more.

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He explains that jubilees typically begin in June along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. (Tokyo Bay is the only other location in the world where these events take place, according to the City of Fairhope.) Normally there will be one in June, a few in July and August, and they can sometimes extend into September and October. Each event affects the fish differently, and sometimes it’s just shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans that are forced into the shallows. Other times it affects nearly all the bottom-dwellers in the bay, including rays, flounder, and other finfish. Markris says he’s seen them localized along 100 yards of shoreline, while others have extended for a mile or more.

Markris likens the even to a forest fire. He says the fish sense the oxygen levels dropping and run ahead of it. They’ll head to areas with more dissolved oxygen, like the mouths of feeder creeks, and Markris says there are several of these areas along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

“It all depends on bay conditions, and you can just sense when one is going to happen. It must be hot and very calm, with no wind. And it normally begins before dawn with an incoming tide,” Markris says. “No wind, and an incoming tide during a few days of hot weather is prime conditions. People along the bay know this, and there’s a network of folks who spread the word when it happens. It’s just part of the eastern shore life here.”

And it has been for some time. Coastal Alabamians have been recording jubilees since before the Civil War, and before modern fishing regulations came about, old-timers would eagerly await the shallow water free-for-all.

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“Back in the old days there were large bells along the eastern shore and when a Jubilee was underway, they’d ring the bells and people would head to the bay to pick up fish, shrimp, crabs, and more,” Markris says.

He still recalls a story his dad tells him about one of the jubilees he experienced as a kid. It lasted for several days, and his dad used a flounder gig to take full advantage of the opportunity.

“After that fourth day of getting so many flounder from the jubilee, my dad’s mom told him that if he brought home another flounder, something bad was gonna happen to him.”