I finally got to go alligator hunting, thanks to my neighbor, friend and fellow church member at Covenant Presbyterian, Judge Jeff Weill.
I’m not the biggest hunter man, prefering golf and tennis, which has more consistent action. I lack the patience and determination of a hunter. Plus, I don’t relish blood, guts or even death. That being said, I have hunted deer, duck, turkey, quail and dove.
Alligator hunting caught my fancy. For one thing, it’s on the water, which is alluring. Second, the alligator can be dangerous, which is exciting and finally, there is just something primordial and monstrous about the alligator.
I was not disappointed. Alligator hunting is fun and exciting.
Jeff, son Joshua and I headed out at around 5:30 p.m., a pleasant hour, and put our jon boat in at the Rez just below the Pearl spillway. There were a couple other alligator hunters on that three-mile stretch of the Pearl. Even though we were just a half-mile from suburbia, it feels like the wilderness.
The river was shallow. Submerged logs made navigation tricky. It was hard to imagine the river had been 30 feet higher just a few months before during the flood. Snow white egrets and blue-gray herons watched us calmly as we surveyed the river. The lush sub-tropical vegetation felt like a jungle.
We saw no sign of gators during the waning daylight. As dark settled in, a beautiful full moon rose, which started an unresolved debate about whether this was good or bad for gator hunting.
Once dark, we used handheld spotlights to search for gators. The gators float on the water’s surface with their bodies just below the surface and their snout and eyes just a few inches above. The gator’s eyes reflect the beam of the spotlight, creating two round bright green lights that are unmistakable even a hundred yards away.
We easily spotted 30 gators in our several hours on the river. They were everywhere, but mostly hanging near the bank around logs and brush, where they’re harder to catch.
How do you catch a gator? With a big fishing rod, 150 pound line and a two-inch long treble hook. Once you get a gator out in the open, you cast the treble hook over its back and reel it in, hoping the hook gets hooked in the gator’s scales.
Once hooked, the gator fights like a massive fish. They dive and hide under logs, which often tangles or breaks the line. It can take hours of exhausting effort to finally reel one in.
Once beside the boat, the gator is usually exhausted and less dangerous. At that point, you can harpoon the creature and/or put a snare around its jaw. The creature is dispatched with a rifle shot to the head and pulled into the boat.
The harder part is catch and release, which is required for gators under four feet. Veteran hunters like Jeff aren’t interested in anything below nine feet, so gators up to eight feet are released. That is quite tricky. You have to dislodge the treble hook while the gator is snared.
We used a small gas outboard to cruise up and down the Pearl looking for the elusive “channel gator.”
A channel gator is the bold alligator, presumably the big alpha male, who has the moxie to leave the protection of the bank and cruise in the open water. When you spot a channel gator, you cut the gas engine off and use the trolling motor to slowly creep up to casting range.
It took us three hours to find our first channel gator. We crept up behind him with the trolling motor and we were easily within casting range, but Jeff and Joshua both decided he was six or seven feet. Too small, especially with another five days left to the nine-day season.
We kept motoring up and down the river. The spotlight illuminated a horde of flying insects hovering above the Pearl’s surface and especially around the boat, presumably attracted to the lights. I wondered how many species were involved. I know a few were mosquitoes. The blood suckers weren’t overwhelming us and I did resort to one good spraying of Off.
We saw a beautiful big doe reclining by the river bank. Bass jumped and splashed. A huge raccoon waddled down to the water’s edge, just asking to be gator bait. I wonder if the coon knew he was surrounded by several nearby gators.
The air was full of mysterious animal and bird sounds. Despite the city light pollution, I could make out a few planets and stars. The temps had dropped down to 80. There was a perfect night breeze. If I had had the sense to bring my low-to-the-ground folding chair with a back pillow, I could have comfortably stayed all night.
The huge number of gators we saw made me wonder how many were in the reservoir. Their presence is disturbing to potential swimmers. Wife Ginny thinks it’s crazy that we allow alligators to occupy a recreational lake and encouraged me to kill as many as possible.
In 1967, alligators were considered endangered, but within 20 years, they had fully recovered, not surprising for an animal that has survived for 80 million years. Now there are an estimated five million alligators spread across Southeastern United States, most in the swamps of Florida and Louisiana. There are an estimated 35,000 alligators on 400,000 acres of habitat in Mississippi, almost all in the southern two-thirds of our state.
Gator hunting resumed in Mississippi in 2005 and is closely regulated by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. About 750 permits are awarded by lottery every year and each permit allows one small and one large alligator to be harvested.
The permits are about $150. In addition, I had to spend about $50 for my own alligator hunting license.
The average length of a harvested alligator is about seven and a half feet. Brian Burnside of Brandon has the state record for the longest alligator at 14 feet and 3/4ths of an inch. Clayton Gibson of Natchez caught the heaviest at 822 pounds. Jeff’s personal best was over 12 feet.
The equipment is not expensive, probably not more than $1,000, not including the boat. You need some reels, treble hooks, a harpoon, a snare, a trolling moter and a bunch of handheld spotlights.
We didn’t catch a gator the night I went, and we were home before midnight. Jeff and Joshua put in at Mayes Lake the following night and caught the nine-footer pictured above. I will go again, this time with a comfortable sitting apparatus. Boating up and down the river under the moonlight, surrounded by lush vegetation and dozens of reflecting green alligator eyes, soothed by a mild summer breeze, listening to the hoot owls and what not, all while anticipating an epic battle with a huge prehistoric creature. That’s not a bad night once a year.
If you are lucky like me and get an invite, I wouldn’t hesitate to go. Be sure to blast out Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River before you leave the house.
Northsider Jeff Weill successfully harvested his 10th alligator and first of this season. It was nine feet six inches and 250 lbs.