Alligator Hunting: Big Business Across the South
Stretched taut, the rope led into the dark water, holding a prehistoric animal in an extremely bad mood at the other end.
The guide snatched the cord with a rake-like pole and pulled it toward the flatboat. Grabbing the rope, he pulled with all his might. Tangled in the aquatic vegetation, the prehistoric reptile erupted from the murk, snapping at anything it could find. Flinging vegetation and spray, the gator attempts a "death roll." Unable to chew, alligators snap their heads and roll repeatedly to rip prey apart with their razor teeth or destroy enemies. The powerful tail, almost as dangerous as the toothy jaws, whipped the black water into froth.
"Aim for the head between the eyes," the guide shouted to the guest who drew his .357 revolver. "Gators have small brains and it takes a well-placed shot to kill them. Even after they die, their nervous systems still cause them to writhe for a long time."
When the Spanish explorers first began to trek across Florida and into North America about 500 years ago, they discovered "dragons," dubbing these giant hard-to-kill toothy reptiles, "El Lagarto," or "the lizard." Over the centuries, English-speaking people corrupted the Spanish phrase into "alligator," known to scientists as "Alligator mississippiensis."
Once fully protected, alligators made a remarkable comeback in the last 40 years. They became so numerous that they caused problems in many states that now allow strictly managed hunting opportunities. Alligators range from Texas to North Carolina and as far north as eastern Oklahoma, southern Arkansas and parts of Tennessee. Living more than 50 years, alligators can grow to more than 14 feet long and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. E. A. McIlhenny of the Tabasco pepper sauce fame claimed to have killed a 19-foot, 2-inch alligator on Marsh Island, Louisiana, early in the 20th century, but that length remains in dispute among alligator biologists. The largest Florida alligator on record measured 17 feet, 5 inches long.
Possessing impressive teeth and large jaws capable of crushing bone, alligators look fierce and can take down an adult deer. They occasionally bite or even kill humans, but generally act timid toward people. However, settlers along the Gulf Coast considered them vermin and attempted to eradicate alligators, shooting them on sight for centuries. Fortunately, they usually lived in isolated, swampy places or nearly inaccessible marshes. Even after centuries of "target practice," alligators numbered in the millions along the Gulf Coast until after World War I. In the 1920s, products made from alligator leather became chic.
A few intrepid Louisiana gator hunters walked those marshes with long hooked poles. When one located "gator holes," or a wallowed out depression in the marsh, he probed it with his poles. If he hit an alligator, the trapper thrust the hooked end into the wallow and attempted to snag the beast at the bottom. After pulling up a snagged alligator, the trapper clobbered it with an axe blow to the head.
With the invention of outboard motors and better boats, many previously inaccessible marshes became more easy to reach. Armed with modern firearms, people devastated alligator populations, wiping out entire populations in some areas. Even in Louisiana and Florida, the states with the most alligators, these large beasts that witnessed and survived the extinction of the dinosaurs nearly unchanged became exceedingly rare.
In the 1920s, more than 200,000 Florida gators became wallets, boots, shoes, purses and other items each year. By 1943, that annual harvest dropped to about 10,000, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Alligators just about disappeared from Alabama by 1941. Moreover, Louisiana lost more than 90 percent of its alligators from 1938 through 1958 said Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries sources. Louisiana closed its season in 1961. Most other southern states established laws protecting alligators by the early 1960s. In 1967, the federal government put alligators on the Endangered Species List, giving them full protection.
Left alone, alligators rebounded quickly and began to repopulate marshes, becoming pests again in some places. By 1972, Louisiana opened a very limited 13-day season in Cameron Parish at the extreme southwestern part of the state. The following year, the state added adjacent Vermilion Parish to the hunting zone. In 1975, Calcasieu Parish, just north of Cameron, opened for gator harvests. By 1979, alligators recovered to the point that the state permitted harvests in all coastal parishes. In September 1981, the entire state opened to alligator harvests.
Eventually, alligator hunting became big business. During the month-long season, trappers bag about $8 to $14 million worth of alligator hides and meat each year. Farm-raised reptiles add millions more to the economy. In 2006, the wild and farm-raised alligator harvest contributed more than $53 million to the state economy, according to the Louisiana Fur and Alligator Advisory Council.
Louisiana issues about 35,000 alligator tags to landowners each year. Landowners may use those tags themselves or allow others to fill them. Several commercial operations conduct alligator hunts along the coast. Hunters also gather eggs to give to the state. State biologists incubate the eggs and return the young alligators to the wild where they stand a better chance of surviving than alligators hatched in the wild.
In more of a commercial harvest than a recreational hunt, Louisiana gator trappers fill most tags by setting lines similar to catfish limblines. They anchor stout hook-laden ropes to immobile objects. With clothespins, they attach the cords to long poles or dangle them from overhanging tree branches. They bait the hooks with chicken, fish or other meats and suspend the baits from the poles hanging over the water. As gators smell the rotting meat, they jump from the water to gulp the bait, hooking themselves. Since larger alligators can jump higher, trappers targeting bigger gators simply hang their baits higher off the water.
The next day, the trapper, usually accompanied by a partner or a client, "runs the lines." If they see a rope stretching into the water, they pull on it. When the gator comes to the surface, they dispatch it with a rifle or handgun, putting a well-placed shot right between the eyes at the top of its head. Even a .22 handgun can kill an alligator at close range with a well-placed shot. Some people use archery equipment to dispatch alligators "on the line." Instead of shooting the hooked alligator with a rifle or handgun, they stick it with an arrow.
Doug Miller, a guide from Grosse Savanne Lodge, pulls in another alligator shot
by Bob Albrecq of Gardnerville, Nev., in the marshes near Lake Charles, La.
Louisiana law also allows hunters to shoot "free roaming" alligators with firearms or archery equipment during daylight hours, as long as they possess a tag or fill a tag of a designated trapper. At daylight and dusk, hunters roam the marshes in boats, looking for the low silhouettes of swimming gator heads. Offering very little to shoot at above the water, gators make extremely difficult targets. Unfortunately, dead alligators also sink quickly so hunters must reach them immediately or only shoot them in really shallow water. Sometimes, hunters use hooked poles like the trappers of old or drag grappling hooks across the bottom to recover dead alligators.
Bob Albrecq of Gardnerville, Nev., and Doug Miller, a guide from Grosse Savanne Lodge,
lift an alligator that Albrecq shot in the marshes near Lake Charles, La.
Since bow-hunters can seldom get within effective range of unhooked alligators, archers sometimes wait for alligators on shore or, rarely, in trees along the shore and wait for the gators to make an appearance. They often use bow-fishing equipment to shoot barbed arrows attached to stout line spooled off reels. Although they look ungainly, alligators become extremely wary when hunted. They can appear and disappear almost without notice, often exposing little more than their eyes and nostrils. For more on hunting Louisiana alligators, see www.wlf.state.la.us.
Bob Albrecq of Gardnerville, Nev., and Olan Menard, a guide from Grosse Savanne Lodge,
return to the landing with some alligators that Albrecq shot in the marshes near Lake Charles, La.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed alligators from the Endangered Species List in 1987, allowing other states to hold limited alligator hunts. In Florida, people can hunt alligators at night during highly regulated seasons. Gator eyes shine bright red when illuminated by lights, making them incredibly easy to spot at night. Many guides take clients on nocturnal adventures, bagging about 3,000 to 3,500 alligators with snares, harpoons, gigs, snatch hooks, spears, spearguns, crossbows or archery equipment each year.
Most often, Florida hunters use harpoons attached to lines. Like the whalers of the 19th century, they stealthily approach close to gators at night and fling harpoons at them. If the barbed point penetrates the thick hide of a gator, the hunter finds himself or herself in quite a battle. Some also toss "snatch hooks," or grappling gear across the backs of gators and haul them to the boat. Others slip snares or wire nooses over the heads of swimming alligators. The rope runs down the length of a pole or through it. With the loosely-mounted snare draped around a gator's neck, the hunter pulls tight on the line, lassoing it. Usually, hunters dispatch captured alligators with bangsticks that discharge bullets or shotgun pellets upon contact with a gator's head. For more information on hunting in Florida, see www.myfwc.com.
Texas hunters can also use a variety of methods to bag alligators. Many hunters, especially in the southeastern counties along the Gulf Coast, copy the Louisiana hook and line methods, but Texans may also bag alligators in season with archery equipment, snares or an alligator gig. An alligator gig resembles a harpoon, but the head cannot detach. On private waters, Texas hunters may take alligators with firearms, but they may not use rimfire ammunition. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does allow limited hunting opportunities on Guadalupe Delta, Mad Island and J. D. Murphree wildlife management areas. For more information, call 800-792-1112 or see www.tpwd.state.tx.us on line.
Mississippi began very limited alligator hunting in 2005. Most of the hunting takes place in the Pearl and Pascagoula river deltas. Some hunting takes place at Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson. About 1,200 people applied for the 50 permits issued in 2005. Those who received permits could hunt for two three-day weekends in September. They used the hook and line method to bag 30 reptiles. In 2006, the state issued 100 permits for public waters and 40 permits for private landowners. For more information, contact the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks at www.mdwfp.state.ms.us.
After protecting alligators in 1938, Alabama opened its first gator hunt of the 21st century in 2006 and expanded hunting area in a lengthened season for 2007, said Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources sources. In 2006, 46 hunters bagged 40 gators ranging up to nearly 12.5 feet long. Most of the hunting takes place at night in the wetlands surrounding Mobile Bay with some hunting at Lake Eufaula. Alabama hunters used nooses to snare alligators around the neck or legs. They could also harpoon them or use archery equipment. To kill the gators, hunters could use firearms or bangsticks. For more information, see www.outdooralabama.com.
Home of the 400,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp and marshes along the Atlantic Coast, Georgia supports about 200,000 alligators. The state holds a limited season each year with the 2007 dates set for Sept. 1 through Oct. 7. The state set aside 550 permits in 2007. Georgians may use ropes, snares, snatch hooks, harpoons, gigs or bow-fishing equipment to harvest gators at night or during the day. For more information, see www.georgiawildlife.com.
Arkansas will hold its first alligator hunt in 2007. From 1972 to 1984, the state released more than 2,800 juvenile Louisiana alligators in parts of southern Arkansas, said Arkansas Game and Fish Commission sources. Those stockings help repopulate southern Arkansas. The first hunt begins 30 minutes after sunset Sept 21 and ends 30 minutes before sunrise Sept. 23. The second season runs from Sept. 28 through Oct. 1. Permitted hunters may bag one alligator at least four-feet long. For more information, see www.agfc.com.
With proper management, this magnificent animal can continue to thrive and offer outstanding commercial and recreational opportunities indefinitely, as long as habitat remains.
John N. Felsher is the managing editor of Sport Fishing magazine and an award-winning freelance writer, photographer, broadcaster and media consultant with nearly 1,100 credits in more than 85 publications. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com.