I’ve Had My Fill, But My Tank is Empty

Some people look at football season as the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Some base it off of Labor Day, generally the final summer vacation weekend before filling the house with all things pumpkin spice. For me, alligator season brings summer to an end. Lasting only ten days, it’s the final opportunity to say goodbye to summer, and hello to the fall hunting seasons. After gator season, it’s time to break out the camo and get ready to shoot stuff. I guess you could either call it the end of summer, or the beginning of hunting season. Either way, it’s a pretty cool ten days.

This year was a little different because it is the first time that I’d planned to take my boat on a gator hunt. That doesn’t sound like anything special, but my boat is only a 16’ aluminum boat. It’s only slightly larger than the smallest craft that I’ve been on the Mississippi River in, which was a 15’ aluminum boat with a 25-horsepower motor. That’s a story for another time. The major difference in the two trips is that on this one I’d be operating the boat. Therefore, this story pretty much wrote itself.

I spent the better part of the week making sure all of my equipment was up to par. I checked the motor, the trolling motor, lights, batteries, and my trailer. All seemed to be in good working condition. If you’ve never been on the Mississippi River before, the last thing you want is equipment failure…especially at night. With every item on my list checked off, and my bags packed, I headed toward the river on Friday. I was to meet fellow Pinstripes to Camo partner, Matt Langford, at the ramp. This was his first ever gator trip in the Mississippi River, and he landed the unfortunate role of being in the boat with me for the night. In the other boat were good friends, Matt Alliston and Brad Bridges. Brad was the “guest of honor” since he was the one that possessed the tags for the alligators.

We launched our boats and headed toward our hunting grounds. Before we crossed the largest river in North America, I’ll admit feeling a little nervous. I pushed the feelings back and tried to take in the scenery. The fading sun shimmering on the water coupled with the first glimpses of blue skies in days shuttered any fears that I had. This was shaping up to be a fantastic trip. We took off across the river and entered a creek on the other side. This is where the first “uh oh” takes place. I noticed that my motor all of a sudden does not want to plane out. It feels bogged down. Not knowing what it could be, I figure it might be a little bit of bad gas and will work itself out eventually. We make our way through the creek and arrive at our hunting spot, a large oxbow lake. The motor doesn’t want to cooperate, but we’ve come this far, and it still works, so we continue.

Not long after being in the lake, we spot a smaller gator. Since Langford has never caught one on a rod and reel, I encourage him to cast on this one to “get his feet wet”. After missing with the first cast, he hooked up on the second one (pretty good for a first timer). He fought the gator for a few minutes, and I realized this might be a perfect “runt” gator for Brad. *Note: a runt gator is what we refer to as the smaller gator that the tags allow for. After taking some measurements, we all agreed that this was about as perfect of a “runt” gator that we’d find. He measured around six and a half feet, which is pretty much what you want. We secured the gator with a snare, and Brad did the honors of dispatching him. Less than two hours in, we already had one alligator in the boat. This was absolutely shaping out to be a great night.

What started off with a bang slowed just as quick. With our “runt” in the boat, we were now searching for something over ten feet. Hours passed by with no luck. We took a break for a while, ate some sandwiches, and just hung out. The night sky was as clear as I’ve ever seen it, exposing thousands of stars. I bet we saw almost a dozen shooting stars that night. With the first one I saw, I couldn’t help but think of the scene from the movie “Jaws” on the last night they hunted the shark. Just before daylight the shark attacks the boat, and the scene shows the boat in the distance with a couple of shooting stars in the background. I wondered if we’d encounter a similar scenario.

We hunted a few more hours but never saw another gator that we deemed worthy of catching. We decided to pack it in and head back. Only problem with that was my boat would only run at the speed of smell. The trek back across the lake to the creek that led to the big river took forever. Apparently, time is not all it took. We all agreed that the motor had enough “get up” to get us safely back across the Mississippi River, and I think we were right. What I didn’t consider is how much gas I used, running it at full throttle all night.

We made the cut out of the creek into the Mississippi River and I hammered down on the throttle. The boat took off and I felt confident. Langford even commented on how it sounded better than it had all night. We were going to be just fine…then we weren’t. All of a sudden, the weary motor sputtered and died. I tried frantically to crank it multiple times. Then it hit me…we are out of gas. Now, this doesn’t seem like a major calamity. However, the problem we had wasn’t just a lack of gas. We hadn’t cleared a giant rock jetty just downstream of us when the tank went dry, and the clock was ticking before we were swept into it. Hurriedly, we dropped the trolling motor, which was almost out of juice too. It had just enough to move us to a spot where we could float past the jetty unharmed. Had it not, we might not be here to talk about it.

With my pulse rate somewhere around 200 and my knees shaking, I called Brad for them to turn around and come get us. They quickly made their way over and towed us across the river to the boat launch. I’m pretty sure they laughed the entire way across the river while Langford and I now suffer from PTSD. At the end of the day, we caught another alligator, and nobody was injured in the process. And I learned another valuable lesson in the outdoors…take someone else’s boat.

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