960. That’s the number of alligator tags that Ricky Flint, of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, gives out each year. Zero. That’s the number of tags that myself, or any of my gator hunting buddies have this year. To say that I am lost is an understatement.
For the last several years, either myself, or someone as foolish as me, has been drawn for alligator tags. The application process is the first week of June and is free to any resident with a valid hunting/fishing license in Mississippi. A week later, the drawing takes place. The winners have only a couple of days to purchase their tags. After that, another drawing takes place to fill the unpurchased tags. After two drawings, nobody I know has tags…and it pains me.
The first time that I ever went alligator hunting I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t quite understand how you’d catch an alligator on a rod/reel, especially with no bait. I certainly didn’t have a clue what you’d do with the gator once you hooked it. There were a lot of rules and techniques to learn. I wasn’t sure whether or not this would be fun or more like work. Either way, I was committed to going and learning something new.
My first gator trip was also my first Big Black River experience. I joined my cousin, Brandon, and we met up with two other guys at the river. Let me be clear about our boat launch situation. There was no boat launch. There may have been one here years ago, but it had since disappeared…entirely. Ten minutes into my first gator trip, my anxiety running rampant, I’m already thinking what a screwed up trip this is going to be. However, Matt, whom I affectionately refer to as the “Gator Whisperer” will not be denied access to the Big Black River from this location. No launch, no problem. We launch the boats using the winch on Matt’s Jeep. It is a sight that even the most seasoned redneck would appreciate. With the boats in the river and the sun going down, it was time to find alligators.
Being a newbie, I got the privilege of riding in the “gator boat” with Matt to begin with. Brandon and Conrad trailed closely behind in the “rest boat.” The “gator boat” consisted of all of the gator hunting equipment. The “rest boat” didn’t have any rods/reels, snares, or guns aboard due to the rule of not having…let’s just say “groceries” on board. Therefore, we carried two boats. One for hunting and one for relaxation. I enjoyed the action and anticipation of the “gator boat”, but almost equally enjoyed relaxing on the river in the “rest boat.”
I’ve always thought myself to be fairly decent at casting. What I didn’t realize is casting a very large treble hook in the dark is not even close to the same thing as your typical bass lure in the daytime. After my first couple of unsuccessful casts on a gator, I can very distinctly remember Matt asking me, “Are you drunk? Have you ever been fishing in your life?” Sadly enough, I wasn’t drunk, and I had been fishing all of my life. That’s how bad my casts were. They were nowhere near coming close to hooking a gator. Instead, we spent the minutes after my first few casts getting the hook out of the trees, or dislodged from the bank of the river. I wasn’t even hitting the water! Each time I’d cast, raucous laughter would fill the night air from both boats. I know it was frustrating for Matt watching this disaster, but to his credit, he never told me to sit my butt down for the night like he probably should have. Finally, I made a cast that hit water, and pretty soon I was hooked up with a Mississippi alligator.
When I felt the hook snag into the gator it was like discovering the opposite sex for the first time ever. You can’t really describe the feeling, but you know dang well that you better not touch it or it’ll bite you! I cranked down on the reel, careful to keep tension in the line. After about ten minutes of back and forth with the gator, it surfaced next to the boat. According the Matt, the gator was a little over 8 feet long, which meant it was not big enough to keep for the large tag, and too big to keep for the “runt” tag. It didn’t really matter to me, I was absolutely hooked. From that moment on, I didn’t want to be in the “rest boat” ever again. I’d hunt alligators all night long, or as long as Matt would let me.
We didn’t end up keeping a gator that night. We caught a few more and had a couple of nice ones give us the slip, but none of them measured up to Matt and Conrad’s standards. The two of them are notorious for catching gators over 11-12’ each year, and the only way they will settle is if it’s the last minute of the last night. Getting the boats back out of the river was an even bigger spectacle than putting them in. Of course, I fell in the river during this process (something Brandon reminded me of). We headed to get some sleep, but sleep didn’t come easy, even after being up all night. Something in me had changed. I couldn’t wait to get back to the river to do it again.