For most people, winning the lottery conjures up images of carefree days enjoying turquoise waters, waves crashing on the beach and an endless supply of piña coladas delivered by your attentive server.
But for Roger Rivers and his daughter, Christina, winning the lottery means being lucky enough to get drawn for two alligator tags and having the opportunity to concoct an odiferous bait cocktail of chicken, wild hog and nutria guts — all in an attempt to get down and dirty with a couple of monster gators on the northern end of Toledo Bend.
Fortunately for Rivers — and unfortunately for the gators — Christina, 21, got selected for two of only 16 tags distributed on the lake this year, and the duo made the most of their opportunity: They tagged out on Sunday with two almost identical 14-foot-1-inch-long gators taken where the Sabine River opens into the lake.
“It’s real swampy up there, and the water is real deep with a lot of flooded swamp bottom joining into it. We caught twin brothers,” said Rivers, 40, of Zwolle, who estimates each gator weighed about 1,200 pounds. “I tell you what — that’s making the most of our two tags.”
And if you’re thinking this is all just about hanging a chunk of chicken under a tree and getting lucky with a big gator, Rivers puts a lot of effort into scouting, setting his lines and creating just the right mix of bait to lure true trophy gators into biting.
He lets his recipe of chicken, hog guts and nutria parts ferment for about four days before creating soccer-ball-sized bait balls that he dangles about 16 inches above the water.
“I have a special cover for my bait. It’s an airtight cooler, because you have to have this bait airtight and sealed up. Then I put a tarp over it, because you don’t want any flies or ants to get it. If the ants get in there, it’s over,” he said. “If the flies get in your bait, you’re going to have a ball of maggots.
“So you have to let this bait get stinky and rot and marinate out in the sun without getting insects in it to break it down.”
And the stench it creates when the seal is finally opened — well, one can only imagine.
“I clear the neighborhood out,” Rivers said with a laugh. “I don’t have any problems finding me a spot at the gas pump when I pull up there.”
He also attributes his success to the equipment he uses — last year he harvested a 12- and a 13-footer from the same area, and his personal best is a 14-foot, 9-inch monster taken on the south end of Toledo Bend several years ago.
“When I set up to catch a gator, I use a 1,200-pound-test tarred nylon line, and I double about 25 feet of that for a main line to a big 1,500-pound-test swivel,” he said. “From that swivel, I run 8 to 10 feet of No. 120, 1,200-pound-test-wire lead to a No. 14 gator hook.”
Tree selection is also carefully considered, and he usually prefers either cypress or willow limbs about 3 to 4 inches in diameter.
“That sucker’s not going to break, and that’s what I usually tie to,” he said. “I look for a tree limb that’s going to give, that’s real springy.
“In other words, the more he pulls, the more he’ll wear himself out just by the resistance the limb is offering.”
And when he goes out to set the lines (which are also soaked in the bait marinade to increase the scent factor), he uses the head and hide from a wild hog to chum the waters and get the gators’ noses going into overdrive.
“The whole time I’m setting the hooks, I’ve got the head and hide of the hog tied behind my boat,” said Rivers, a residential contractor in Zwolle. “I’ve got the whole place smelling.”
So on the afternoon before opening day, which was Sept. 2, Rivers and his crew set out in his 17-foot Grizzly flat-bottomed boat to place four hooks on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River.
“On the Texas side, there’s a big canal off the river that goes up into a 10,000-acre flooded out swamp, and I knew that’s where the big gators were living,” he said. “So what I did was drew him out of that side all the way over to our side to catch him.”
Sure enough, when they checked the lines on the afternoon of opening day, a big ol’ gator had pulled the bait down on the last hook of the day and was sitting on the bank underneath a tree.
The gator headed into the water when they approached, so Rivers positioned Christina with a .22 Ruger rifle, then battled the beast up to surface for the kill shot.
“He was putting up a good fight and I got him in position, and she came up to take the shot and shot a little higher up and hit the top of that skull and the bullet ricocheted,” Rivers said. “So he kind of went a little crazy and I had to get control of him again.
“Then she put the medicine where the pain was, and the second shot put the hurt on him pretty good — enough to where he didn’t go back down.”
That’s when everyone noticed how long the gator was — Rivers originally pegged it as a solid 12-footer.
“I get to looking at him, and this joker’s almost as long as my boat,” he said. “I put the boat even with his nose — and I know my measurements because I’m a carpenter — we had about 3 feet of boat left.
“I said, ‘This gator is 14 or 15 feet long.’”
After using a couple of come-a-longs to get the giant into the boat, the gator measured 14-1 at Rivers’ house before it was skinned.
“When we kill one like this, me and my family skin it out, take the meat and distribute it out through the community,” he said. “We feed the neighborhood. We tan the hides out, and we mount the heads and they go in the trophy room.”
With one tag left, they set the hooks out again on Saturday, Sept. 12, when an early cool front passed through the state on the opening day of teal season — which was great for duck hunting, but not an ideal scenario for chasing big gators.
“They’ll move and you might see them around in the daytime when the sun is out, but at night it locks them up and they won’t feed,” he said. “But we put hooks out anyway, because they said once that cool front hit, it was going to gradually warm up until the weekend after, and the nights would be hot and everything would get right again.”
As expected there was no action all week long, and on Saturday Rivers put fresh bait on the hooks. Sunday morning his persistence paid off — on the exact same tree he caught the first 14-footer.
“The line was down and bait pole was nowhere in sight. I pulled up to the bank and got out, and there was a lot of slack in the line,” he said. “I actually thought we lost a good gator. But he must have not been on the line long, because as soon as I tightened up and felt a little pressure, this dude explodes.
“He goes freaking nuts.”
Rivers got in the boat and readied the gator for Christina’s kill shot, which she planned to deliver this time with her bow and a Muzzy fixed broadhead.
“She got the first arrow in, and a second arrow in, but this one here was a helluva lot fresher than the other gator was,” he said. “He’s fighting twice as hard, full of energy.”
With two arrows in him, the big gator launched into a continuous roll that wound all of the lead wire and part of the main line around his midsection and two front legs.
“All of a sudden, the line pops and he starts heading out to deeper water” Rivers said. “On instinct, I just bailed right on top of him. The only thing I was holding him by was the arrow stuck in his head. When I bailed in the water, it was probably up to my waist.”
The big gator rolled again, forcing Rivers to let go of the arrow.
“So I just took another crazy dive at him and when I did, I grabbed the arrow again and got him up,” said Rivers, who appeared on Season 5 of Swamp People. “He had about 6 feet of that lead line hanging out his mouth where he busted it off, and that’s what I grabbed hold of and worked him back up to the bank.
“Christina came up there and put some finishing shots in him, and thank God the battle was over.”
The second gator — which needed four arrows to finish off — was a near carbon copy of the first, and also stretched the tape to 14-1. Both gators had wounds and scars Rivers believes an even bigger alligator inflicted.
“There’s another big boy out there, and I’m betting my money he’s touching 16 foot,” Rivers said. “I know he’s there — ain’t no doubt about it.
“Some people don’t think they exist. I don’t argue with people — they can believe what they want to believe. But I know they’re there. God willing, I’ll keep getting tags and we’ll see him eventually. I’ll show him to you.”