By Ben Smith:
Darius Rucker, formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish, sang “Time, why you punish me.” Last week, I wrote that I’d hunt until I killed a big gator, or until time ran out on me. After coming up emptyhanded in my final hunt, I cranked my truck up at 4:00 in the morning to head back to Hattiesburg. Ironically, the song playing on the radio was “Time” by Hootie and the Blowfish.
Upon arriving at the Mississippi River for my final hunt of the 2023 alligator season, I was certain that we’d get on some big gators. It was the middle of the week, and I didn’t expect many boats to be out on the water. I was right about one thing: there weren’t many boats at the ramp. When I walked down to the water, I understood why. The Mississippi River obviously rises and falls fairly quickly depending on the amount of rain in the northern states. I should have known how quickly it would fall given the shortage of water, but I didn’t really pay much attention. The river had fallen over eight feet in less than a week! This was going to be a problem for us. We were now unable to access our top places to hunt. Where water flowed freely the week before was now replaced by mud and sand.
We decided to launch the boat anyway and go down river to Bayou Pierre. It’s a fairly good ride for a seventeen foot boat with a 50hp motor, but we didn’t have too many options. As soon as we arrived, we started seeing gators everywhere. This is both good and bad. Usually, when we are seeing a bunch of gators it means that there aren’t any large ones lurking about. A dominant gator is pretty territorial and will run off the other males from the area. We pushed on down Bayou Pierre in hopes we’d catch a big gator cruising.
I failed to mention another problem with shallow water: Asian carp. The weekend before, we’d hunted a different zone with another friend trying to fill his tags in the Little Sunflower River. The river was so low that we couldn’t do much more than idle speed. Due to our lack of speed, we soon became the targets of these hardheaded torpedoes. I’d say a generous estimate of the number of carp that landed themselves in our boat was forty. The entire boat, ourselves included, was covered in slime and now everything I own smells like Asian carp. As we went further down Bayou Pierre the depth got shallower and with each splash of water I was back on the Little Sunflower, an obvious case of PTSD. Fortunately, none of them ended up in the boat with us.
We decided to turn back around before we got stuck in “no man’s land” without a way to get back. On the way out of Bayou Pierre, we started what we call “ground checking” alligators. Any alligator that looked like it was over seven feet long was hooked and checked. The largest we caught was an estimated nine and a half feet, not the plus ten that we were after. There were so many alligators in that six to eight category, further solidifying my theory of no dominant alligator in the area. We decided to push back up the Mississippi River toward the Big Black River for one last shot.
It was after midnight, and for some reason unknown to us, barge traffic on the Mississippi really picked up. Believe it, or not, there was a fall chill in the air, and I was actually cold. We headed upriver, a barge a half-mile ahead of us creating an extremely uncomfortable ride. I was in the front of the boat getting beat to death by the wake. We finally caught up with the barge and passed it on the left as another barge was heading downstream. If you’ve never been beside one of these barges, especially in a small boat, they are pretty impressive, and even a little scary. We “threaded the needle” between the two barges before putting some distance between us and them.
Arriving at the Big Black River was disheartening. The river level was far too low to try and push up. I toyed with a smaller gator for a few minutes before we decided to call it quits and head home. For the second straight year, we’d failed to put a gator in the boat over ten foot. All I could do is sing along with Hootie…” Time why you punish me, like a wave bashing into the shore, you wash away my dreams…”