Despite not taking an alligator during the first three nights of the two-weekend-long Alabama season last week, Mobile native Joe McAleer said he and his friends aren’t disappointed; in fact, it’s just the opposite.
Even though he and his compatriots spent an estimated 45 hours traveling by truck and vessel over three days and a rearranged sleep schedule, McAleer said he enjoyed the experience.
“It was worth it,” he said Monday morning. “I’d do it again tonight if I could.”
On Thursday night, the first night of the season, McAleer, Charlie Daily and Harris Oppenheimer had a gator in their sights and stayed on it all night, with their boat south of Cliff’s Landing on the Tensaw River.
“We saw the gator at 8:30 and stayed in the same place,” he said. “We waited for her to come up out of the water.”
The gator stayed down in the water for 10 to 15 minutes at a time and the group kept their boat within 100 yards of it the whole time, McAleer said.
“We finally got an arrow in her and fought for nearly an hour,” he said. “Eventually, we cut the line at 3:15 (a.m.)”
After a long fight, the group decided to let the roughly 10-foot animal go in hopes of snagging a bigger trophy later in the season, McAleer said.
“Harris kept looking at it and asking me, ‘What do you think?’” McAleer said. “I told him ‘If it was the right one you wouldn’t be asking me.’”
Even though the group didn’t fill the gator tag — the permit allowing the taking of one alligator — the first night, McAleer called it “as good a hunt as you can get.” He said there were no regrets about letting it go.
“It was kind of a tag and release for us,” he said. “It’s a lot of work to mess with those things, you want to get one that’s worth it.”
The group also hooked a small gator overnight Friday, but released it as well because it was only about 4 feet long, McAleer said. But they would keep going.
Possession tag system
Registration for the state’s ninth alligator season opened in June. Hunters in the state could apply for tags in any of the state’s three hunting regions, west central, southeast and southwest. The southwest region, which includes Mobile and Baldwin counties, had the most available tags with 150 out of the total 240 awarded statewide, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokeswoman Kim Nix said.
The application fee for an alligator tag is $22, and those registering for tags must also have a valid hunting license through the state, Nix said.
The tags are awarded by a computer program that randomly selects names of those registered to hunt, she said. Next year, the system will be tweaked to allow an advantage to folks left out this year.
Nix said while hunters can register in any of the three regions to “increase your chances” of being picked for a tag, only one tag can be awarded per year, meaning if a hunter earns multiple tags he or she has to decide which tag to use. A hunter must accept a tag within a limited amount of time, or that hunter will be passed up. One gator can be taken per tag.
Hunters who register for a tag are required to take a class before setting out to bag a gator. If a hunter is awarded a tag in two consecutive years, class is not required for the second year.
McAleer said he has been lucky enough to receive possession tags in the past, but this year he was helping Oppenheimer bag a gator.
“One of us has always gotten a tag,” he said. “I’ve been (on a hunt) every year since 2009.”
Hunter David Murphy, a partner in local engineering firm Cowles, Murphy, Glover and Associates, said he’s received a tag five out of six years since 2009, including this year.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said.
Alligator hunting origins
The state’s alligator population has been increasing since regulations were put in place to outlaw poaching in 1938, according to an ADCNR release. Before then, unregulated harvests threatened alligators with extinction.
In 1967, American alligators were placed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list, but the animal was removed from the list in 1987.
ADCNR District Wildlife Supervisor Steve Burnett said gator season first opened on the delta in 2006. The opening of the season wasn’t based on overpopulation, he said.
“The population, based on our surveys, was such that we could allow legal hunting,” Burnett said. “There was an increase in nuisance complaints in addition to a population increase.”
While periodic reports of poaching remain, even after the first season kicked off, Burnett said it’s really not a problem now.
“It’s not a huge issue,” he said. “It’s not impacting the numbers.”
While the number of gators has increased over time, so has the popularity of the gator hunt.
Last year, McAleer said he was part of three successful hunts, one of which was on his own tag. That hunt marked his personal best, an almost 12-foot-long animal weighing in at 512 pounds.
“There’s really nothing like it,” he said of alligator hunting. “It’s a lot harder than any hunt I do.”
That gator is currently being stuffed and mounted by a local taxidermist, he said.
A gator McAleer caught in 2012, a 442-pounder, is mounted and on display at Lap’s on the causeway. The skull is in the bait shop and the hide is hanging on the wall.
Hunting equipment can vary, depending on the hunter, but it usually consists of a fishing pole with braided line and a treble hook. The fishing line is used to hook the gator initially, McAleer said.
“The name of the game is getting a hook in him because you know where he is,” he said.
Once a gator is hooked, it will go down to the bottom “from anywhere between five and 45 minutes,” McAleer said.
“We’ll be out there as long as it takes,” he said. “We’ll wait him out. He might go down and pop up a quarter mile down the river.”
When the gator surfaces, the group uses a bow and arrow to try and attach a second line to its body and then will oftentimes have to wait the gator out again as it goes under water.
“When he comes up for air we shoot him with a bow to put a second line in him to get better control,” McAleer said. “We get a harpoon on him after he comes up for air a second time.”
The harpoon allows McAleer and his friends to get the gator “boat side” were they can “dispatch,” or kill it, usually with a shot to the back of the head.
But even before the season began last Thursday, hunters were putting boats in the water and scouting different areas, looking for the biggest and best gator.
“It’s like any other game you’re going to hunt,” Burnett said. “You go out and scout beforehand. That way they are ahead of the game.”
McAleer and friends chose not to go out ahead of time this season, instead relying on their knowledge of the area to help them find the perfect animal. The day of their first outing, McAleer said the group planned to hunt around Cliff’s Landing in Washington County.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in and around that area, but not in the last couple of days,” he said.
On the hunt
On Saturday, on private water just off of the Tombigbee River, the group found its gator, a beauty of about 11 feet in length.
The group of friends, working as a team, managed to hook the gator, but it fought back before heading under water for about 10 minutes. When it resurfaced, the hunters missed with what McAleer estimated was a 25-yard bow shot. The gator went under again and, this time, stayed under for about 40 minutes, he said. They waited another hour before they cut the line because it got snagged on a log.
Murphy had a more successful trip Friday night, as he and Chad Cole hooked a 10-foot, 2-inch, 354-pound gator, after stalking it for six hours.
Murphy and Cole used a standard fishing line to hook the animal initially, but then upgraded to two bottom reels normally used for deep-sea fishing to help bring him in.
“We started at the normal hunting time (8 p.m.) and chased him until about 2 (a.m.),” Murphy said.
He said they followed the gator from Grand Bay to nearly the causeway in Spanish Fort before reeling him in.
“That’s the furthest I’ve ever chased one,” he said. “It took forever with the boat traffic.”
Although it appeared that the animal had drowned itself during the fight before they reeled it in, they still shot it for safety reasons, Murphy said.
The friends had trouble getting the animal into the 18-foot johnboat, but a conservation officer assisted them, Murphy said. From there it was a mad dash to the weigh station.
The skull of the gator will be mounted, Murphy said, but he plans to give the hide and its meat to a friend because gator meat is “too fishy tasting.”
Murphy said he has been on a series of successful hunts, filling all five of the tags he’s been awarded. He’s also assisted on enough successful hunts to have seen 12 gators harvested in six years. His personal record was a 560-pounder that had to be dragged to the bank before it could be lifted onto the boat.
Tammy Barnhill, of Loxley, filled her tag Thursday night, after a three-hour fight with an almost 10-foot, 204-pound gator. Tammy, her husband, Roger, and her father James Matthews were waiting to get the gator weighed Thursday night.
Roger Barnhill initially hooked the animal close to Conway Creek at about 8:30 p.m. before it went to the bottom and stayed there.
Matthews had the honor of holding onto the braided fishing line, while the group waited in the airboat for it to come back to the surface.
“It was my first time with it and I think I’ll stick to fishing,” Matthews said. “I didn’t think he’d ever come up.”
Tammy Barnhill said she’s applied for a tag every year, but this was the first time she’s gotten a tag herself. She said she’s been on several successful hunts.
After some initial problems earlier Thursday, Terry Brown and his son, Kenneth, made it to the weigh station with a 165-pound female gator.
The Browns were initially lucky, securing the last tag of the season on their first year registering for one. Terry Brown, a regular deer hunter, decided to try gator hunting this year because it had been in his head.
“It’s just one of those things that’s on the back of your mind,” he said. “I had thought about it for years.”
The luck the father and son had experienced before the season started ran out the night of the hunt, shortly after they put in at Scott’s Landing. First, the boat’s outboard motor was “acting up,” which kept the Browns closer to shore than they had planned, after scouting a location for the two previous nights.
“It was just typical,” Terry Brown said. “I thought ‘here we go again’ although we were confident we were going to try.”
Later, the Browns hooked a larger gator than the one they eventually caught, but it broke the line.
ADCNR weighing process
All gator hunters with tags in the southwest region must bring their harvested gator to the ADCNR office adjacent to Five Rivers in Spanish Fort, so the weight, girth and length of the animal can be measured, ADCNR Wildlife Biologist Chris Nix said. The size of the animal and the location it was found are recorded to help the department study trends and track the health of the gator population in the area.
“The population is stable to increasing,” Nix said.
Hunting is open between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. during the six-day split season because alligators are cold-blooded and are more active at night when it’s cooler, he said.
Marine Toxicologist Dr. Alison Robertson, from Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the Unversity of South Alabama, accompanied conservation officers to take blood and tissue samples of each gator harvested last weekend.
“We’re interested in environmental health and we have currently funded projects in the delta to do that,” she said. “We look at all trophic levels, so all levels of the food web to try and understand, you know, the health, get baseline data and see how everything’s going.”
She said the tissue samples can be tested for natural toxins, pollutants and any other manmade contaminants that get into the animals system. One thing Robertson can’t test for is the presence of heavy metals because many times the gators are shot when they’re harvested.
The research looks for stable isotopes, Robertson said.
“What that does is give us an indication of where they’re feeding and at what level of the food web they’re feeding,” she said. “It gives us a characteristic signature at every level.”
Robertson added that she would also study the animal’s DNA to see how each is connected to further study the health of the entire ecosystem.
As part of the hunt, Robertson was asking hunters to provide her with the entrails of the animals once they were extracted. She said she was after the gators’ stomach contents, livers, kidneys and hearts. She said she is hoping to study the organs of 50 of the harvested gators this season.