Alligators

 

“Oh it’s dead Andy, quit your worrying.”

“But it’s eyes are still open.”

“Pshhh….its dead,” my dear old Dad taunted.   Then the alligator whipped its tail out of my hand, and violently drove its taped mouth into my old man’s leg. I lost balance, went to one knee and the boys screamed as she death rolled a couple times at my feet.

“Really dead huh?”  I harrumphed as I sat on its back and finished the gator by jamming my knife just behind its skull and wrenching.

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It was me, Dad, and my two oldest boys Keegan and Oliver on the hunt.   There are times it is clear God has set things in place perfectly, when the timing is just too perfect to be accidental. This adventure was one. This is how it transpired that we got to chase gators in the delta of the Guadalupe River:

First, we’d won tags through the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s lottery draw system. Some guys have been applying for over 10 years and have yet to be drawn, and this just our 5th year.  

Second, the hunt happened to fall during a week I’d already taken off back in April, for a completely unrelated reason.  So my wife could go on a cruise with her mom. The hunt took place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Normally, I can’t take a vacation without a few months notice, and never just in the middle of the week.

Finally, my mom had also taken off work and agreed to baby sit my 6 and 3 year old while in her words “we went off to get eaten by an alligator.” In fact, a survey of the women in our family and likely a few men,would have revealed  a lack of confidence in us returning unharmed.

This staged photo and caption caused a generalized panic in the family:

Here’s Keegan pulling my alligator from the reeds as I prepare to dispatch it.

Still, no blessing goes uncontested and a few weeks before our hunt Oliver broke his left arm playing football with friends. A couple pins in surgery and a 90 degree cast on his arm made shooting an alligator a down right difficult proposition. He would give it his best shot.

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I didn’t have a long time to learn how to hunt alligators, only 39 days.   I called and spoke with Kevin Kriegel the biologist who runs the unit we drew. Turns out I know a really good friend of his. He was excited to talk, and shared the basics of the hunt. The finer points allowing past hunters success. He did say the excessive rain we’d had would make the hunt more difficult.

We discussed my initial plans, and he pointed out some potential problems. Like how the last canoe based hunters had to wade out of the marsh because an alligator ripped a hole in the side of their canoe. Obviously since Oliver couldn’t get his cast wet, we opted out of the plan that might require swimming in an alligator infested lake.  I bought a jon boat and trolling motor instead.img_6397

My friend Sabrina hooked me up with Janek’s Alligators, a family run business in El Campo, Texas that raises, processes and guides for alligators. I didn’t need a guide, but did want the gators professionally skinned and butchered.

I swung by with my whole family, and we got to talk to the owner who was mega helpful.  As you can imagine their offices are all about the alligator.  Live baby gators take center stage of the office in a big aquarium.   A fourteen footer’s skull adorns the top of a file cabinet, its impressive skin stretched across a wall. All kinds of alligator leather goods are on display with various gator mounts.

We’d decided to go after the gators with a bait and hook.  Oliver’s broken arm made bowhunting for them out of the question.  We could also harpoon them, but again, a broken wing makes spear chunking a challenger.

After showing him the leader I planned to use, based on the TPWD minimum specifications, Mr. Janek politely suggested I buy some of theirs. Fine by me, I hated the thought of losing a gator due to my line breaking.

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1500 pound rope, a size 14 carbon hook, clothes pin, and some baling wire round out the gator set.

For bait he uses two chicken quarters per hook, and has a specific method for getting the chicken ready. Around 4 days before you hunt, buy chicken quarters in those big plastic bags sold in grocery stores.  Set them in the sun for about 12 hours then put the bags in a cooler full of ice.  He saves the juice from the bag and pours it into a bucket along with a bottle of clam juice and a can of sardines in oil. He then spreads that savage smelling cocktail on the leaves in trees, or even better, dips an old rag and lets it drip into the water from above the bait.  

I double bagged it in a giant zip lock to prevent a spill.

About the bait, he hangs it about 14 inches above the water.  I’d always heard the higher you hang it the bigger the gator, but apparently this isn’t true.  If you seen or been on one of those alligator feeding tours then you know what I mean. Even small gators can launch the entire length of their body out of the water if they want. So just place the bait high enough to keep it away from turtles, gar and catfish, but no higher.  Gators are also curious creatures like cats, so he ties a white ribbon to flutter in the wind above the baits which looks like a feather from lots of the birds they munch.

A T post driven in the mud holds the hooked gator in place and a long bamboo pole holds the bait over the water. Arrange the excess rope (about 30 feet or so) so it won’t get tangled or stepped on by a raccoon. Some bailing wire is used to attach the bamboo to the T post and the tag end of the wire holds the coiled rope. A clothes pin holds the baited rope to the pole. The chicken should be easily removed from the pole by the gator.

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Day 1 Orientation and Setting Lines

We arrived at 10:00 am with it lightly raining, and met several lucky dudes from around the state.  The main group we spoke with were from San Angelo, and like all the public hunts we shared in the mutual excitement of a special hunt.  

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While we waited for the other drawn hunters to arrive, they moved us into their barn out of the rain. There we got a sneak peak into what equipment and projects the techs and biologists were working on.

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I did not get to use this fine looking machine, though one day hopefully…

After the rules and regs were reviewed, and general tips given, Kevin and the techs took everyone to their hunt areas. We were the last group taken, and the waiting fueled our growing excitement.

While we waited, we got to meet the natural resource specialist Tori Haynes of the new Texas WMA, The Powderhorn Ranch, and I got a chance to talk to her about her career path.  Biologist positions are highly competitive and like others I’ve met, she did her studies at Texas A&M Kingsville and was happy to tell about her work.   Tori’s doctoral thesis was on invasive plant control.  We have the these rosebushes brought in by Shanghai Pierce intended as live stock fencing, but I’ve seen them swallow whole ducks to never be found.  They will ruin waders, tires, and I’ve dug a ton of their thorns from my boots and body.  Her research concluded the best way to control these heathen plants, is to burn them like the satanic curse they are.  Controlled burning.  Lots of fun. 

 We also got on the topic of the Florida python problem, and she said if people started releasing them here, they could probably survive our mild winters.  That would add an interesting element to the September teal hunts.  

Finally it was our turn.  We left the headquarters and travelled a short distance to our hunt area.  On the way, we saw a couple different groups of pigs, several deer and, and flocks of blackbelly whistlers.

Mid September can be absolutely miserable in terms of heat and humidity, and mosquitos on the Gulf Coast can be devastating.  Neither were a problem on this hunt. Miraculous. The rain kept things pleasant if not a bit soggy. Really lucked out there.

Within minutes of launch we were greeted by a nice sized gator. It followed us across the lake, but disappeared as I began setting our first line off a point.

The wind made it hard to set the baits.  I drove T posts, arranged the bamboo, baited hooks, placed the juice soaked towels, and tied on the white ribbons, all while the boat swung from one side to the other. 

Making the first set driving T post

Papas Set

 

We were setting up the next bait off another point about 300 yards north of the first one. As we were cruising along with the trolling motor, we look back and see an alligator mouth open, under our bait!

To avoid ruining trips, I like to ask experts what are a couple things that can really foul up a hunt. Things not to do. The Janek’s unanimously said that if you see a gator take a bait, do not approach it immediately. They swallow slowly, like a boa. If you try and bring it in too soon, it will spit the bait, or the hook will straighten in its mouth.

We watched for a while, but it was just hanging out under the rotting quarters. So we started putting out the second set, and while doing it we looked back and the pole, bait and line were gone!

Our activity attracted another curious gator who watched us finish the second set. We left with high hopes to the third set.

Papa’s set.

While Dad and I were getting it set, Oliver was dangling his hand in the water making small waves in the water, just daydreaming. In fairness, he was hopped up on dramamine to overcome some carsickness on the way down.  Papa looked up and 15 feet away about a 5 foot gator was making a beeline to Olivers splashing little hand.

“Oliver! Look out!” Shouted Papa and Oliver jumped hard enough to shake the boat. We all had a good laugh and the small gator stuck around watching us the whole time.  The fear of getting chomped made the trip so much fun.  Weird, but true. 

Keegan’s set

The fourth set looked like our best. We found a beaten down alligator lair with a well used slide into at least 4 feet of water. A nice pecan tree allowed us to set it without a bamboo pole and T post. This set was Oliver’s tag and though we had practiced, we were all a tad worried about him shooting with his arm in a cast. 

 

The Fourth Set Approach_Moment

Leaving the fourth set, I cruised by the second set to see if it was down as well. We rounded the island and heard a powerful snap as its bamboo broke. Whether the gator had just taken it, or we spooked the gator I dont know. We were about 50 yards away when it snapped.  Looking back, I think it was a mistake trolling this close.

Nonetheless spirits were high as we drove back home. Oliver worried about shooting with his arm in a cast, Keegan felt confident, Dad and I were a tad anxious about leaving the gators on the lines over night. But it was already close to dark, and the rules were no hunting after sun down.  

Day 2.  Getting the Gators

The next morning, in the predawn drive to the WMA we decided to go check all the lines before we remove the ones we knew had gators. We launched and started to Oliver’s line which was the furthest away and we’d drive past all three to get to his.

Unfortunately, his was the only one untouched. Three out of four lines were down! Seeing his was the only one not down, we decided we would move it after we brought in all of the gators.

On the first set, the line disappeared beneath a tangle of hydrilla, water lilly and algae. The water was clear, but the clouds made much past 18 inches a black murk. Gently pulling on the line, it was apparent the line was hung on something heavy and well anchored. I couldn’t move it at all.   I had hoped a gentle steady pull would bring a giant water lizard to the surface, allowing me to dispatch with a 20 gauge slug to the spine. Dad suggested I reach into the water the remove the hydrilla by hand—-uhh not happening.

 

But then we looked to our left and discovered the line heading directly into the bamboo. Staring intently through its reptilian eyes was Alligator mississippiensis, seemingly ready to jump into the boat with us. I didn’t give it a chance as I quickly dispatched it one handed with our slug loaded youth Mossberg 510 20 gauge.

Well, mostly dispatched.  Right after I taped its eyes shut, it’s yellow eyes flipped open. Of course Papa forgot what the biologist said about “open eyes means its alive”. I have no doubt the gator would have tasted Dad’s leg with an untaped mouth. When I tried to slip my knife under its scale on its tail to place the tag, it looked at his calf and swung its head into his exposed leg. He jumped, I jumped and Keegan squealed. Then we all laughed as I sat down on its back. 

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I used one of those ridiculously giant survival knives that are fun to own, but don’t seem to be useful for anything, to cut through the third cervical.  So I guess there’s a use for you. Now we had our first gator.

When I grabbed the downed line of my Dads we were sickened by the slack in it. The gator was gone. Looking back, we shouldn’t have driven so close and I’d imagine when it broke the cane pole, is likely then the hook got spit. Live and learn.

There wasn’t any doubt about Keegan’s. The water boiled as the angry gator rolled over and over in the 2.5 feet of now chocolate milk colored water. When it stopped rolling it hissed and made a strange bellow sound that did not suggest good will toward the listener.

 

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img_3028img_3021-1img_3022-1img_3023-2I had pretty much decided to shoot this for Keegan, because I didn’t want him to fall in while the boat rocked from the mad gator’s thrashing. He was just 9, and he’d only just shot his first dove about a week before. This is Texas’s biggest predator.

I turned, about to tell Keegan to hand me his gun when I saw he was already bearing down on the beast and firing. My GoPro caught the sequence nicely:

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Keegan: “All right Dad, pull it in now.”

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The gator sunk. There was a moment of trepidation as I suddenly worried he’d missed and cut the rope. Then an air bubble with a stream of blood rose and it surfaced. This time I went to the Ridiculously Oversized Survival Knife™ and severed his cord.  

Finishing Keegan's_still alive

Finishing Keegan's

Finishing Keegan's Knife

When we returned to Oliver’s line to place it where I caught mine, but there was a nice gator under his bait! So we left it alone and rebaited Dad’s and headed back to the WMA headquarters. 

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We had a blast.  Kind of like floundering, this felt like a combo of hunting and fishing.  Next time, the plan will be to go after them with a bow and arrow attached to a line and buoy. We will hunt all day for a big one, then set lines about 2 hours before dark if unsuccessful with our bow. Harpooning one these water lizards might be in the works, too.

My gator measured 7 ft 1 inch and Keegan’s 7 ft 3.5 inches. Ours were the biggest gators taken in the unit. img_2862-1

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Keegan filling out his Harvest Record

Talking with the game biologists and their techs is alway fun and Kevin and his crew were no different. Glad to see you and proud of their units, they were as interested in putting us on the gators as we were excited to be hunting them. Many thanks go out to them for hosting us on such a grande adventure. No doubt about it, wonderful memories were made.

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2 comments

  1. Unfortunately, I’d be the one sending you off with wailing and gnashing of teeth! It looks like the trip of a lifetime, though. I know you guys will be sharing stories about this adventures, sitting around campfires, for the rest of your lives.

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