All we know is that a live alligator is at the end of the nylon line disappearing into the marsh’s vegetation. “You’d better move back,” Donnie Broussard instructs his two guests. “I’m afraid he’ll come right over that hyacinth and into the boat after us.” Earlier he had pulled in a ten-footer he thought he had killed, only to have to shoot it again when the gator rose up. Now Broussard moves to the bow of his airboat and gently tugs on the line, and we can hear the gator fighting. Finally the captured reptile, its blackish-green body thrashing, comes into view. From ten feet away, Broussard dispatches it with a single round from his rifle.
There is something woozily surreal about watching an alligator that weighs more than one hundred pounds being hoisted over the purple hyacinth and into the boat against a hazy, dusk-hour backdrop of the lit-up Port Arthur refineries. This beast is a beauty, almost seven feet long with a smooth, clean, nearly white belly. As Broussard tags his catch, another dead gator flops about the boat. “He’s gonna twist and turn forever,” the 57-year-old Broussard says, chuckling about the muscle spasms. He dips a tattered blanket into the water and uses it to cover his catches so that they won’t dry out before he can get them to the processing plant. I look off to the side of the boat and see another gator, even bigger than the one Broussard had just pulled in, nonchalantly poking his head out of the water, eyeballing us. Two more rise out of the shallows a little farther off to our right.
It’s September 10, 1999, the first day of alligator hunting season in Texas, and Broussard is doing what he likes best (well, second best—duck hunting comes first). The retired petrochemical worker, whose life is in these marshes, is one of the few people who have applied for a license from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to hunt alligators during the twenty-day season. Broussard and his partner, 54-year-old Dennis Savoy, who still works in the refineries, already have their sights fixed on Big Boy, a gator they swear is a good thirteen feet long. “I’d love to get him while you’re here,” Broussard declares. “I tried all last season, but he outsmarted me.” They’ve set a couple of traps for him just outside the J. D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, where they believe he spends most of his time.
Broussard estimates that he has killed as many as 10,000 gators since he began hunting when he was a young boy. Back then there were no restrictions on how to hunt. He could hop in his pirogue and shoot several every night. Sure, it was more dangerous. One night, while he was standing in the marsh, he accidentally stepped on a gator. It knocked him over, and his shotgun flew out of his hands. With the alligator in pursuit, Broussard scrambled to find his gun, and when he did, he dropped about 25 shells trying to load the 3 that killed the beast. For the hunters in Jefferson, Chambers, and Orange counties, that’s just how it was, but it was worth it. “I put myself through college hunting gators,” Broussard says. “I always had a good checking account from the time I was eight on.”
In 1969 alligators went on the federal and the state endangered species lists, and hunting them became illegal. By 1984, though, it had resumed because the population had increased so much that gators were killing cows and damaging levees and dams. And biologists worried that landowners would drain and develop their marshland if they couldn’t make money off it in other ways, such as selling gator hides. Parks and Wildlife now estimates that more than 100,000 gators live in the tricounty area. “There are more gators in these marshes than ever before,” Broussard says, though to him they seem to be smaller.
Still, the hunting of alligators is strictly regulated. First, you must purchase a license similar to one you would need to hunt any other animal in the state. Second, you must be issued special tags from Parks and Wildlife. Based on an estimate of how many gators are on their property, landowners receive a certain number of tags—at $10 each—that determine how many they can kill, though most people pass them on to a licensed hunter for a percentage of the take. (Broussard, for example, has 65 of the 1,200 tags issued statewide for the season, and they came from eight sources.) Though alligators are also hunted in the Coastal Plains—Eagle Lake is a choice area—and have moved as far south as Brownsville and as far north as Dallas, residents in Jefferson and Chambers counties received roughly two thirds of the tags issued.
Florida is the only state that allows hunting at night, and it is the only one that allows hunting in the traditional manner, with a gator pole (which has a long hook at the end for pulling the reptiles out of their holes, or dens). Texas law prevents hunting at night and permits just a handful of techniques, of which the baited hook and line is the most common. Guns and hatchets can be used to kill a gator only when he has been hooked. The hook-and-line method involves making a trap called a gator set. One end of a nylon line is secured to a tree (Broussard often drives two-by-fours deep into the bottom of the marsh and ties the line to that); the other end, which has a hook on it, is attached to a bamboolike sea cane pole that is stuck into the ground. The hook is then baited with rancid chicken, roadkill, or anything else that smells unbearable to humans. Since large gators can surge up to six feet out of the water—more if their tails can reach the marsh bottom to provide leverage—the bait is placed high above the water, out of the reach of smaller gators. This is