The Gator Wranglers
Landing alligators is an exciting mix of hunting and fishing.
By Abe Moore
It’s a muggy, buggy afternoon in an East Texas marsh. While hungry alligators lurk nearby, the “gator boys” jump out of the boat to scramble around with rotten chicken — all part of the fun of gator hunting.
It’s mid-September at the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area near Port Arthur, time for the annual public alligator hunt. During September, 100 or so lucky hunters win the chance to come out to this wild and remote coastal marsh habitat to try to hook, tussle and land an American alligator.
After a classroom orientation, long cane poles, 300-pound test line, some rather large hooks and that rotten chicken are loaded on to the boats. Hunting buddies Spencer Burke, Terry Scull and Scott Moore are off to look for just the right spot.
From left, Terry Scull, Scott Moore and Spencer Burke after their successful gator hunt.
J.D. Murphree has some of the best gator habitat in Texas. It’s 24,000 acres of prime coastal marsh with meandering oxbows, canals, managed wetland impoundments and tidal lakes. First stop for the gator boys is the dead end of a long canal, deep in the marsh.
“I think this spot’s good,” says Burke, who has the most experience in this gator game. “We’ve got wind direction that will carry the scent down the canal, and we’ve actually got a gator down there looking at us right now.”
The plan is to dangle a huge hook with chicken on it just above the water. Not just any chicken — this stuff is days old, baked in the hot Texas sun, rotten and rancid. The smell is so strong and powerful, it’s sure to attract any hungry gator from miles away. Burke is mighty particular when it comes to poultry placement.
“I like putting bait about 18 inches above the water,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll catch a little bit bigger gator putting it that high above the water. If you put it too low to the water, the small gators will knock it down. If you put it too close, even turtles can get to it.”
Positioning the cane pole deep in the levee bank is tough. Only first-time hunter Scull is brave enough (or perhaps naive enough) to actually get in the water to try to dig it in just right.
“Alligator hunting is not like anything else I’ve ever done,” Scull says. “You know, it’s not like fishing or hunting. You want it to be like that, but you’re dealing with an animal that can potentially injure you or bite you while you’re pulling him in or trying to get him in the boat. It makes you anxious.”
The hook-and-line setup belongs to Moore, who’s happy to help, but only from the safety of the levee bank.
“It’s something unique and different,” Moore explains. “We’re out in a harsh environment with mosquitoes, alligators and snakes. The adrenaline rush is way more than deer hunting or anything else, because you’re after something that can actually get you.”
Each hunter is allowed one setup, so the guys have two more spots to find. It all looks like prime gator habitat — runs sliding down off the levee banks, plenty of gators eyeballing the guys as they motor their boat through the canal. As the sun starts to fade on the day, they decide to place the other two sets within a mile of their first spot.
Scull likes his location.
“If we were alligators, this is where we’d live,” he says. “You see the alligator shows on TV, and this is exactly what it looks like.”
Burke saves some rotten chicken marinade to chum up his setup.
“Upwind is better than downwind,” says Scull. “Oh, that smells terrible.”
Burke laughs. “That’s perfect!”
It’s been a rough five years for the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area. Hurricane Ike flooded the marsh with saltwater in 2008. That was followed by severe drought that contributed to poor habitat conditions through 2012.
“Ike came through and really affected the alligator populations,” says Andrew Peters, a biologist at Murphree. “Our leveed impoundments (which offered great alligator habitat) were overtopped with saltwater, causing the alligator population to decrease rapidly. Our alligator numbers were down for a few years, but since then, we’ve recovered quite well.”
Peters says it’s taken until now for the damaged marsh grasses to recover, and the wildlife management area is now back to pre-Ike alligator numbers. Today, it has two to three alligators per acre.
“The wetland impoundments almost offer a super habitat for alligators,” he explains. “The levees are high — that allows for great nesting areas for alligators. The deep water acts as a safe haven for alligators to use during drought and cold.”
While outfitters charge thousands of dollars to take clients on a guided alligator hunt, the public hunt is far less costly. As part of the TPWD Public Hunt Drawing System, interested alligator hunters can choose from five wildlife management areas. (Murphree is by far the most popular choice.) Once a hunter has picked a WMA, the drawing entry fee is only $3. With persistence and a bit of luck, you can win one of the 100 or so permits handed out every year. Staff biologists say hunters have a 70 to 80 percent success rate at Murphree.
It’s the next morning and the guys are up early, in the boat and ready to check those sets they put out the day before.
Burke looks a little tired.
“I had trouble sleeping last night,” he admits. “I was so excited about checking the lines.”
Moore shares Burke’s enthusiasm.
“It’s almost like Christmas morning, being a little kid and waiting for Santa Claus to come,” he says. “We’re all pumped up and ready to go see what we got.”
The hunters tag their catch.
It’s overcast, and there’s a slight sprinkle as the boat heads out. The guys have been trying for years to win the drawing for this hunt. They actually all were selected in 2008, the year Hurricane Ike blew in. That storm canceled the public hunt, so for Scull, today’s chance to finally pull in a line and tussle with a gator has been a long time coming. “We’ve been drawing for eight years,” Scull says.
As they head out, Scull says, “It’s kind of nerve-racking. It’s the anticipation — do we have one on, how big is it, how mad is it and is it going to bite us?”
Quickly, the gator boys head back up the bayou and into the canal, where they’d set up the rotten chicken bait the day before. The first stop is Moore’s setup. The bait and huge hook are no longer dangling over the water. Once out of the boat and safely on shore, Moore grabs tightly to the rope and holds on.
“You’re just anticipating; you don’t really know what’s on there,” he explains. “Then he’s pulling against you and you’re fighting against him. All of a sudden, he shows up. And then it’s on. He sees you and you see him! You get amped up, adrenaline pumping, totally stoked.”
Moore brings in an 8-footer, the largest of the gators caught by the gator boys that day.
Nearby, Scull’s line is down, too. This time, the team works from inside the boat. As they get close, Scull grabs the line and slowly pulls on the rope.
“They get close to the surface and see you, then the snout comes up,” Scull says. “You get a rush every time they thrash.”
He ends up with a 6-footer.
The last line to check is Burke’s. The gator-hunting veteran is confident his chummed chicken will bring in a big one.
“I enjoy hunting alligators,” he says. “There’s a lot of anticipation.”
His gator ends up putting up the biggest fight. It is a tense situation: three tired hunters, two dead gators taking up most of the space in the boat, and out of the boat, one mean, angry alligator thrashing about.
“It’s a little like jug-lining or catfishing — you set lines and come back and check them,” he says. “There’s a little bit of hunting involved, and of course, you get to wrestle the gator. This is like hunting and fishing combined — pretty exciting.”
Heading back to the check-in station, wide smiles are evidence of a good time. For Scull, the enjoyment came from being out in the elements in the marsh, with the danger of
“You watch it on TV, and you get an idea of what it’s like,” he says. “But once you’re out here, it’s much more exciting. If you like to hunt and fish, or even if you are just interested in something that is completely different than anything you have ever done, this is a great experience!”
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