Go on a gator hunt, and you’ll match wits with one of the oldest, wisest predators in existence.
You should never underestimate an opponent whose ancestors hung out with Tyrannosaurus Rex.
John McQueen of New Orleans learned that lesson on opening day of alligator season last year.
An avid angler, McQueen had seen many gators during his years casting baits around his favorite port of Bayou Dularge, but his admiration for this species had always been from afar. He was never afraid of alligators, but he respected them. To him, close encounters and alligators went together like ice cream and ketchup.
So McQueen held a camera and watched as Capt. Andre’ Boudreaux and John Eichorn pulled a 7-foot gator, which had taken a bait set out the day before by Boudreaux, alongside the boat.
The gator thrashed and rolled trying to regain its freedom, but the hook that was now lodged in its belly wasn’t letting go — and neither was Boudreaux.
Eichorn grabbed a .44-caliber rifle, angled it toward the gator’s head and fired. The round met its mark, and the gator became significantly more subdued.
Boudreaux hoisted it into the boat, and McQueen snapped several pictures.
After the crew checked a few more traps — scoring on three of them — McQueen was ready for action.
“Can I pull in the next one?” he asked Boudreaux.
“Sure, that’s fine. Anything you want to do,” the guide responded.
After checking a couple more traps, the crew came upon one that was tripped. The coated nylon cord stretched almost parallel with the water’s surface.
McQueen grabbed a gaff, used it to hook the line, and with gloved hands began pulling. The gator didn’t resist, but came to the side of the boat with the dead weight of a stingray or an old boot.
The rookie gator hunter asked for a gun to dispatch the prehistoric beast, and the gator showed that it apparently could understand English.
It darted from the boat, and thrashed like a frog in a blender. McQueen held on with two hands, trying to keep the reptile as close to the boat as possible.
Finally, it was still, and Eichorn had an easy shot at the top of its head. He and McQueen pulled it aboard.
“That was fun,” McQueen said. “It was kind of dull until that gator went crazy.”
He had no idea what was yet to come.
The crew checked all of the 13 traps Boudreaux had set in that area, and had six alligators ranging in size from 6 to 8 feet to show for their efforts.
“That’s a very good percentage,” Boudreaux said. “Normally, you get a gator on about 25 percent of the traps you put out.”
Boudreaux had four more traps set off the Houma Navigation Canal, which he intended to check on his way to Bayou Dularge, where he’d sell his day’s haul.
With 400 pounds of alligator piled on the bow of his boat, Boudreaux motored past his Dulac marina, into the Houma Navigation Canal, under the Dulac pontoon bridge and north to his four traps.
He turned left into a dead-end canal, and looked at the first trap on the south bank. It had been tripped.
“That’s good to see. I usually get some nice ones in this canal,” he said.
McQueen hopped up, grabbed the gaff and shot toward the bow. He apparently wanted another battle.
He lowered the gaff, gripped the nylon cord, and began pulling, but the gator wouldn’t budge.
“He must be wrapped around some stumps,” Boudreaux said. “Let me move the boat a little closer.”
He backed away from the shore, and angled the boat toward the spot where the string entered the water.
Again, McQueen gaffed it and began to pull.
“He’s not budging,” McQueen said.
The words were still hanging in the air, when the surface of the murky water erupted. Instincts made McQueen’s body jump with a start, but he held firm to the line and pulled with all his might. He gained ground, and within seconds an enormous gator head punched through the surface.
McQueen’s face looked like that of the guy who had the extraterrestrial creature pop out of his belly in the movie “Alien.”
He didn’t utter a word, but his eyes had the size and shape of ping-pong balls.
Boudreaux was also impressed with the size of the gator, but being a veteran of this type of adventure, his only concern was with making sure the beast ended up in his boat.
Boudreaux noticed that the hook had lodged in the corner of the gator’s mouth — not in its stomach. That’s never a desirable situation because a gator’s mouth is bony, and what flesh is there is soft and easy to pull a hook from.
“If they’re mouth-hooked, most of the time you lose them, but I’ve never lost one that was hooked in the stomach,” he would later say.
While McQueen stood still as a statue, somewhere between shock and oh-my-God, Boudreaux darted to the gator while ordering someone — anyone — to grab a gun.
Ray Wicklund answered that call, and lowered the muzzle of the rifle toward the water while Boudreaux, remarkably, reached his hand in to attempt to grab the gator’s hind leg. The indescribable passion to harvest his trophy, a feeling that only a hunter knows, had obviously clouded his judgement.
Wicklund pulled the trigger at the exact moment that the hook pulled free from the gator’s maw.
It wasn’t a clean kill, and the gator went into a death roll while Boudreaux reached in with his hand and Wicklund did the same with the gaff. The gator rolled and kicked, mostly out of sight in the murky, waist-deep water. Boils and feet and tail erupted from the surface in the chaos.
McQueen held onto the rope, and though the hook had definitely pulled free, he could tell that the cord somehow still was attached to the gator.
He pulled for all he was worth, and the mammoth’s head emerged from the depths.
“Shoot him again! Shoot him again!” Boudreaux ordered.
This time, Wicklund’s shot met the mark, and the gator went limp. Still, it required three corn-fed men to pull it onto the bow.
“That’s not my biggest ever, but it’s a nice one,” Boudreaux said with effectual understatement.
Indeed it was. At the dock where Boudreaux sold it, the beast stretched a measuring tape to 10 feet, 10 inches — almost 11 feet long. A grown man couldn’t have wrapped his hands around its belly, which contained a nutria or a fawn or a doberman or something.
An 11-foot alligator is a real trophy, according to Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Ruth Elsey.
“Every year we see a few 12s, and every few years we’ll see a 13, but that’s about the biggest you’ll ever see,” she said.
Boudreaux can’t guarantee a gator that big every time, but he’s one of several leaseholders in the state who now offer guided gator hunting trips.
It’s a short season — generally stretching for 30 days in September — but those who get to do it say it makes for an unforgettable experience.
“People who come out with me on a gator trip say they’ve never seen anything like this in their lives,” Boudreaux said. “It’s a prehistoric animal that they’re actually getting to trap. They love it.”
Boudreaux will set the traps the evening before a hunt. He baits a heavy-duty hook with beef fat, melts or chicken parts. The hook is tied to thick cord that is attached to a stake that is driven deep into the wet marsh. The bait is then hung from a thin, cut tree limb a foot or two above the water’s surface.
Overnight, a gator will pick up the scent of the rotting meat, ease over to the bait and erupt through the surface to eat it.
“It’s kind of a fine line on how close to the water you want to put the bait,” Boudreaux said. “If you put it too close, you’ll catch nothing but small gators, but if you put it too high, you won’t get anything.
“You want to put it high enough to keep it away from small gators, but not too high that the big ones can’t get to it.”
Hunters like Boudreaux have mastered the craft, and now collectively harvest 30,000 to 35,000 alligators every September, according to Elsey.
The season is set for September, Elsey explained, because alligator eggs hatch toward the end of August, and breeding females are typically tending to their little ones far back in mostly inaccessible marsh areas during September.
“What is harvested in September is mostly surplus males and non-breeding females,” she said.
Under this regulation strategy, which has been in place since 1981, Louisiana’s alligator population has regained its former health. Biologists estimate that 1 million to 2 million alligators currently live in the Bayou State, Elsey said.
In addition to the limited harvest scheme, alligators have also benefitted from a program in which gator farmers harvest eggs from the wild, hatch them, raise the gators and return a regulated portion to the wild. The rest they process, and sell the meat and skins.
“It’s truly a win-win,” Elsey said. “Most of the eggs would be eaten by coons or ruined in floods (if left in the wild), so the rancher is providing a real service to the alligators.”
Every year, farmers harvest 300,000 to 350,000 gator eggs from the wild, Elsey said.
The success of these programs can be seen on the bows of the boats of hunters like Boudreaux every September. The veteran fishing guide has been hunting gators all his life, but it wasn’t until three years ago that he began guiding for them. The response has been strong.
“I get a lot of referral business on it,” he said. “Somebody will come make a hunt with us, and they’ll refer somebody else to come. It’s something everybody has to do once.”
Boudreaux offers the guided gator trips by themselves or in conjunction with guided fishing trips.
McQueen’s looking forward to doing it again this year.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it was a lot of fun,” he said.
Fun and educational.
He now has a whole new respect for T. Rex’s old buddy.
Capt. Andre Boudreaux can be reached at 985-563-4356.
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