By Ben Smith:
Growing up most of my life in South Mississippi, I spent plenty of hours on the river. We fished on pretty much every river around the Pine Belt area and sometimes we’d make our way over to the Alabama River, or the Tombigbee River. I always liked fishing the bigger rivers because from time to time we’d see an alligator, which was a treat. Fishing the Leaf, Chickasawhay, Bouie, and Pearl rivers didn’t normally afford us the same opportunity. To see one on the Pearl around here was somewhat rare, but occasionally there’d be one. I never recall seeing one on the others when I was growing up.
I remember one trip on the Tombigbee, we had run trot lines the night before and were checking them the next morning. Riding down the river we approached what appeared to be a nice sized log floating down the river. It wasn’t. As we got closer, the gator turned sharply throwing a wake big enough to violently rock the boat. I was amazed at the size of the gator. It was every bit as long as the 14-foot jon boat that we were in. From that moment on, I was hooked on alligators.
We moved to Jacksonville, Florida not long after that trip and my obsession with alligators grew even more. The great thing about Florida is there is an alligator in every single body of water. That’s one thing you learn as a kid in Florida. We’d go to a restaurant on Julington Creek, and you could feed the alligators from the pier while you waited for your table to be ready. I’m fairly sure that’s where I got my first taste of alligator, as well. Our apartment complex had two small lakes where I’d fish almost every day. The best part about one of the lakes was that it had an alligator in it. I always thought that was so cool, obviously not fully understanding the danger that could accompany it.
Fast forward thirty years, and I’m still the same alligator obsessed kid. Unlike years ago, I’ve now seen alligators in all of the rivers around here. Heck, you can’t go 100 yards on the Pearl River at night without seeing one. Most of them are small, but they’re there. I don’t know whether we’ve forced gators into these areas by building in what used to be swamplands, or if the population has just exploded. Maybe it’s both, but either way I’m like a kid at the zoo when I see one. It gets me fired up to see them! The only negative is when I’m running lines, they’ll sometimes beat me to the fish, which is frustrating, but they still get my blood pumping!
In 2005, Mississippi finally decided to let us start hunting gators. I was in college, and didn’t have time, not to mention the necessary equipment to do it, but I kept up with what was going on. At the time, hunting was confined to just a few areas in the state, but in 2013 they opened it up statewide. The state was divided up into different zones and over 900 permits were issued. It took me a couple of years to get up with a group to go hunting, but once I did, I became a fanatic really quick. In 2019, I finally got drawn for tags.
I’d been on trips before where other guys had tags and it was a lot of fun. I learned how to cast a giant treble hook in the dark, how to snag the gator, and the overall dos and don’ts of the trade. I learned how to tell the difference between a dominate gator and a non-dominate one by their actions. The group of guys I went with were always great to include me and be patient while I learned the sport. But 2019 was finally my time to put my name on an alligator. I was more excited on this trip than any of the others knowing that if we played our cards right, I’d have a trophy to talk about for years. The trip itself ended before it even seemed to begin. We hadn’t been on the water more than a couple of hours before we had a twelve-foot gator dead in the boat. It doesn’t always happen that way.
Most of the trips that I’ve been on result in us spending an entire night on the water. You put the boat in at sunset and make your way back to the ramp when the sun comes up. Then, you go sleep a few hours and repeat the process. With as many alligators as there are in Mississippi now, it’s strictly a matter of how picky you are. Anybody can go out and kill a runt gator, but are you willing to put in the time to kill that truly special one? With a twelve-footer under my belt, I’m not going to say that I won’t kill one that’s ten (I will), but that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for that “special” gator. As of now, the record alligator killed in Mississippi for length is 14 ft. ¾ in. The heaviest on record is 822 pounds. I believe records are meant to be broken. Then again, I could come home empty-handed eating tag soup.
This year, for the first time since 2019, I’ve got tags again. With just a few days to go until the season opens, I’m feeling that adrenaline coming on again. It’s a special time of the year where I get to fight the best apex predator our state has to offer. Maybe this time I won’t run out of gas in the middle of the Mississippi River. Maybe this time we’ll finally join the thirteen-foot club.