Bernie Heggeman Memorial Reef

Posted on April 19, 2017

"A Reef to Remember" 
by Jeff Dute 
Out of tragedy, sometimes triumph is born. Such is the case with two new CCA-sponsored inshore reefs completed this past winter in the inshore waters off Alabama's Dauphin Island.

On Memorial Day weekend in 2014, CCA Life Member Bernie Heggeman and 
two out-of-town friends were trying to make the best of a bad-weather situation. Running Dauphin Island's north shore to avoid a stout southerly wind, they made their way to the island's secluded west end.

Not long after the trio had exited the boat to wade fish for speckled trout and redfish, Bernie's brother Scott said the south wind caused the boat to lose its beach anchorage and begin drifting into Mississippi Sound.

"As was his want, Bernie jumped in and started swimming after the boat," said Scott Heggeman, while noting that even at 56, his brother was in top physical condition and a strong swimmer. On this day, however, something went terribly wrong, and Bernie went under before reaching the boat. His friends ran a couple of hundred yards along the beach and enlisted help from another group of fishermen to look for their friend. It was 15 minutes before they found him floating. Despite their best life-saving efforts, they could not revive him.

"I think Bernie would want the lesson communicated to the fishing community that if something like this were to happen to them, let the boat go. It ain't worth it and this is the example why," Scott Heggeman said.

As he and his family dealt with their loss, Scott Heggeman said he was approached by several of Bernie's friends about memorializing his brother's legacy as an outdoorsman and conservationist in some way. The entire Heggeman family was raised as hunters and fishermen. They enjoyed the state's natural resources from land and the water, and came to understand the importance of the conservation ethic so there would be a bounty for the next generation to enjoy.

With the Heggeman name well-known among local outdoorsmen and women and within the southwest Alabama business community, word spread quickly that CCA Alabama was taking the lead in collecting donations for the Bernie Heggeman Memorial Reef. Grey Cane has been with CCA Alabama for 30 years and led the charge for the chapter. "Once word got out that we were going to build a reef for Bernie, the donations started to roll in from Friends, Family, Fishermen, Businesses, and other organizations like the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club," said Cane. "It was an incredible process to watch it all happen so quickly and hear from all the people who loved and cared about Bernie."
The donations continued to flow in and local CCA chapters were able to match $50,000 with an equal amount from a percentage of the sales of CCA Alabama car tags. The state chapter then secured another $30,000 from CCA's national habitat program - the Building Conservation Trust.

Alabama's Marine Resources Division (MRD) was able to use those dollars to secure federal matching money from the Sportfish Restoration Act fund. With CCA and federal monies combined, Alabama's MRD had $400,000 dedicated to building not only the Bernie Heggeman Memorial Reef, but also one other that later became the Pelican Bay Reef.
Scott Heggeman said choosing the location of the reef that would bear his brother's name was easy. The rig in the Mississippi Sound had stood for years, the hulking, painted metal platform's real name long ago given over to its simple local moniker, "The Blue Rig." It was Bernie Heggeman's favorite place to take folks when he wanted to put them on a bunch of nice speckled trout and/or introduce them to trout fishing. Like a host of other southwest Alabama inshore fishermen, he was devastated when the platform was removed about a decade ago. The shell pad quickly became covered by mud and the spot lost its fish-holding appeal.

"The Blue Rig - when they put that up out in the middle of the Mississippi Sound, it just produced volumes of nice fish," Scott Heggeman said.  "The vertical structure combined with the shell pad they put down on that otherwise soft bottom, it just very quickly became a very productive fertile area. So when I was asked where I wanted the reef to be, I picked that spot because it would be what he would have liked. It's what we need to help disperse some of the tremendous fishing pressure that area gets and it's good at just flat producing fish."

Because of the soft, muddy nature of the bottom at the old Blue Rig site, CCA Alabama's Grey Cane said the group looked at several locations for the memorial reef before Alabama's MRD suggested using "eco-reef" technology that had been successfully deployed offshore.

"The reef modules used in the Bernie Heggeman Memorial Reef are unique in that the concrete and limestone reef structure is suspended four to five feet above the bottom," said MRD biologist and reef coordinator Craig Newton. "Each module is constructed by jetting a piling into the seabed, then concrete/limestone discs are placed on the piling."

Newton believes the reefs suspended above the seabed will allow for use by a more diverse finfish community than the state's inshore reefs constructed with limestone aggregate piled on the bottom alone.

"We anticipate these reefs to produce good numbers of sheepshead during March and April, spotted seatrout from May through August, and red drum and flounder in the fall," Newton said.

The center of the 8.26-acre Bernie Heggeman Memorial Reef is at N30.283316 W88.287194, and consists of 121 eco-reefs. The center of the 15.84-acre Pelican Bay Reef is located at N30.239196 W88.114514, with 242 eco-reefs. The reefs are grouped in pods of three and are spaced between 70 and 75 feet apart, Newton said. Limestone rock, oyster shell and/or repurposed concrete will be deployed between the reef pods, Newton added.

"Bernie was well-loved in our community and it was a privilege for CCA to be involved in a project to build a reef in his honor," said Blakeley Ellis, CCA Alabama executive director. "We share his passion for the outdoors and for angling, and we hope this reef will inspire future generations to embrace his legacy of conservation."