Big Teeth, Long Tail
When the offer to trap a couple of alligators arrived, I probably made some crazy Cajun sound such as “WHOOOeeee! Yeaha!” just like those reality swamp shows about toothless swamp people waving guns around in their gator boats. Except it was 1979 and those shows didn’t yet exist. Actually, I needed the hide money. I trapped and sold hides to supplement a paltry stipend and some help from parents to put myself through college. I was not raised rural nor was I born rich, just boringly middle class with a dad holding a steady job as a city judge in a small Louisiana town. He also had a wife and seven kids to feed, clothe and help educate. We all tried to take some of the pressure off him by working our way through school. Besides, I enjoyed being out and interacting with creatures.
My wildlife studies at Louisiana State University involved trapping and radio-collaring gray foxes but I maintained a small trap line on the sly in the nearby wetlands. Bobcats with good bottom spots were fetching $100 each- the spotted cat boom was on; good money in 1979, but alligator skins were bringing $18 per foot!
I was trapping, skinning and selling nutria, bobcat, raccoon, fox and coyote hides after class. I sold them green since stretching and drying hides in a Baton Rouge apartment is problematic considering the heat, rain, humidity, bugs, dogs and a roommate. Besides, I am not good with a knife and would rather be duck hunting than turning out ears and scraping fat! I didn’t bother with opossums or southern beavers either — too fatty, much work, not enough money. Besides, the big Connibear 330 kill traps scare me.
The American alligator was still on the endangered species list in 1979 though some think that was simply a ruse to jack up enforcement fines so that when officers broke up international smuggling rings they had more leverage against alligator poachers. Scarcity drove up prices though and the easy-to-poach roadside gators probably took a beating, however, I still saw them regularly in remote areas. Somehow though, in 1970, Louisiana’s forward-thinking Legislature (!?) wrangled an exemption allowing an experimental alligator hunting season. Remember, this is the same legislature that supported the Federal anti-dog-fighting laws banning the “fighting of animals for sport or gambling”. That law only passed though after a qualifier was inserted stating “In the State of Louisiana, the chicken is not considered an animal”, thus, cockfighting continued for another 20 years! I had chickens but no fighting chickens.
While in school, I was moonlighting as a forester for a wealthy businessman whose land holdings included most of one of the largest islands in the lower Mississippi River; an isolated chunk of alluvial earth called Profit Island that was actually only 20 miles from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Near the middle of Profit Island were a series of rich oxbow lakes surrounded by tall cypress trees and mossy bottomland hardwoods. If Voodoo Queen Marie Ladeaux ever had a swamp cabin, it would be on Profit Island! The eerie sounds of river tows, push barges actually, sounding their horns on the hard bend around the island gave an ethereal and desperate overtone to the place.
The island’s murky history records that in 1837 a drunken steamboat captain sank his sternwheeler that was filled with incarcerated Cherokee prisoners being forced to Oklahoma as part of the Trail of Tears expatriation. Of the 700 prisoners on board, about 300 drowned in the dark cold waters that night. Maybe some were taken by the abundant alligators of the era. It is a spooky swamp full of ghosts. On earlier visits I had seen plenty of water moccasins, heard the barred owl’s plaintive call, coyote choruses, bullfrog profundo and caught some stout drumming — always on the lookout for an Ivory-billed woodpecker. Importantly though, I had noted the resonant bellowing of bull alligators cruising the sloughs. I knew there were mature gators in residence!
To reach the Island required a short barge or boat ride and some dry weather so the clay soils didn’t suck you down to your truck axles on the rutted island trails. Thankfully, the alligator season opened September 1, a typically hot dry time of year. It was also the same as early teal season, so I had a brace of fresh Blue-winged Teal carcasses (minus their delectable breasts) with which to bait hooks. My plan was to hang hooks fairly high above the water, say 18 inches up initially, then lower them each day. A 10-foot long gator should reach up 15 inches, a 9-footer around 12 inches etc. I started at 16-inches high not really expecting much but on day two, as I waded out through the dense button willows to check my lines, one was underwater! Success?
The trapping pistol I wore on my hip was my mother’s leather-sheathed Hi-Standard .22; I used it for humanely and conveniently dispatching trapped animals. I had upgraded from .22 shorts to .22 long rifle solids for the gators. The plan was to put on hip boots, wade out, and gently lift the line then, at point-blank range, shoot the gator between the eyes. Simple, eh?
Wading out through the flooded shrubs though, I glanced at my feet and there, submerged knee-deep and 6 inches from my boot was a log-like object with a white cord attached to it. It slowly dawned on my subconscious monkey brain that my next step was going to bump the snout of a giant, toothy and pissed off crocodilian! For a moment, both hunter and hunted had cold blood running in their veins.
After I levitated, Jesus-walked back to the shore, and performed a Neil Peart drum solo in my chest, I re-organized the plan. Alligators are not like crocodiles; gators are mostly timid and try to escape to another day of eating turtles and muskrats. However, a serious bite while alone in that remote setting would have been . . .ummm . . . a nuisance. Arms-length work made more sense, so using a shovel handle, I slowly lifted the scaly head to the surface and smote him twixt the eyes with a .22 LR as I would a raccoon, hog or coyote. There was some rolling and a lot of splashing but now I had him! Now, just cut the line and drag the 9 ½ foot beast to shore! There are no photos of this because I was ummm . . . fully engaged and cell phones didn’t exist at the time.
Creepily, the reptilian reflexes kept his legs and tail slowly swimming as I hugged the 200 pounds of cold platy dance partner trying to slither him into the truck bed. On the Baton Rouge highway home, a car drove alongside and frantically pointed to the back. The gator’s reflexes had it arching up above the truck box. I stopped and tied him to the spare tire. At a small roadside bar I stopped for a well-earned amber beverage because in 1979, Louisiana had no open-container law, just a blood alcohol prohibition. Though nonplussed at the muddy hip boots, the clerk raised his eyebrows at the pistol on my hip. ~meh~ its legal carry if not concealed. Exiting the store, I saw a cluster of drunken lurkers grabbing their crotches, monkey-hooting, and chicken-necking around the truck box. Adrenaline sure does funny things to people.
Back home, my herpetologist, rabbit hunter, biologist friend Steve tried to hide his envy. He asked “Is it a male or a female?” Hmmm… dunno. So he climbed in the truck to palpate the cloaca, (polite talk for sticking his fingers in the anus) to check for a male’s paired hemi-penis. Then a funny thing happened. The gator whirled with a mighty hiss and snapped at Steve’s chest, missing by inches. Steve imitated a missile launch out of the truck bed, landing in a curbside heap. I think he threatened my life midair. Hell man, I never SAID the gator was dead, though I sure as hell thought he was. Seems their brain is behind their eyes, not between them so, all along, the gator was just stunned. We hauled him across the river levee and killed on him some more to finish the job.
After skinning and packaging the delicious white meat, I used the beautiful belly skin to make 22 belts for the landowner, my dad, me, and all six brothers. Probably should have given Steve one too with a promise it was truly dead.