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 important because a hunter must kill each gator he hooks, even if it’s too small to be of any use. Killing a hooked gator is more humane than setting the bleeding victims loose to die a slow death or to be ripped to shreds by larger gators. The hunter can erect no more gator sets than he has tags, and he must check them daily. Once he kills a gator and hauls him into the boat, he must immediately attach a tag to the tail. He then fills out a detailed form for each kill and delivers it and his catch to a processing plant.
The hook-and-line method takes some of the sport out of gator hunting, but skill is certainly involved, not only in knowing where to look for the prey but also in easing hooked gators to the edge of the boat. “I have never taken anyone out who did not say he had the time of his life,” insists Broussard, who guides hunts for a fee. There are plenty of thrills just riding in his $30,000 custom-built airboat, which takes off so fast it pins me against my seat, rides so smooth I continue taking notes anyhow, and handles like a Harley-Davidson. When the boat hits a dry patch—as it often does on these drought-stricken days—it threatens to fishtail out of control, but he always manages to straighten it back out until he hits water again.
The march also offers more to see than alligators. The boat follows “alligator drags,” which are trails cut through salt grass, green cattails, yellowish freshwater lotus, and purple hyacinths (imported from Japan, they’ve become the kudzu of the marsh and are sprayed with selective herbicide to keep them from taking over). Green-winged teal ducks fly overhead as clapper rails and purple gallinules, their wings too short for anything but brief bursts of flight, dart about the vegetation. Though nutria and muskrats have disappeared, we see a number of otters, which are wily enough to avoid capture by the gators. The marshes are also home to minks, coons, bobcats, herons, doves, egrets, geese, and more.
It’s that environment and that way of life that draw Broussard and Savoy into the marshes. “You go into those chemical plants every morning with the same guys, and they lock the doors behind you. Twelve hours later, they let you go out,” Broussard says. “I worked there for twenty-two years, and when I retired in ’82, I swore I was gonna do something else to make a living before I died.” Broussard certainly doesn’t hunt for the money anymore, though he appreciates what little he brings in. When the amount paid for alligators peaked, between 1989 and 1991, he’d get about 250 tags. The hide—which is prized for its use in boots, purses, and belts—and the meat from an eight-foot gator brought him $70 per foot. (“Between you and me, I’d rather eat a burger,” he grimaces, and I agree. Though the meat is popular among the Cajun population of Texas and Louisiana, I’ve eaten alligator cooked a number of ways, and it always tastes like a thousand-pound lizard that lived in the mud.)
Today, with farm-raised gators flooding the market and driving prices down, a gator that’s about seven feet long brings $23 per foot, including meat, while shorter ones bring $18 per foot. Because an alligator’s weight increases considerably after seven feet, an eight-footer will weigh about 150 pounds, a ten-footer can hit 350 pounds, and a twelve-footer can reach anywhere from 550 to 850 pounds. During the season, Broussard’s overhead—mostly insurance—is about $2,000. “We basically make just about enough to pay for fuel,” Broussard says. But that’s okay. He also makes money leasing his three other airboats, with drivers, for seismic work, pipe laying, and surveying.
At sunset, we head to Savoy’s camp—a building on stilts that contains a kitchenette, a living room, and a bedroom with a bunk and four single beds—where we’ll spend the night. Before docking, Broussard fixes one last set for Big Boy. Then, while he takes the day’s haul to the processing plant, the rest of us douse ourselves with extra-strong insect repellant and sit on the porch, watching mullets jump out of the water and gators circle hungrily. “Look over there!” Savoy suddenly cries, “We should have baited that other pole over there. I think that’s ol’ Big Boy.” Even from a distance, Big Boy looks as huge as his legend. (When Broussard and Savoy bag him two days after I left, though, he measures in at “only” eleven feet eight inches, well below Broussard’s personal record of thirteen feet nine inches. He now wonders if he got the right one.) Once the night turns black, we flash a powerful searchlight across the water, and luminous, orange-red alligator eyes glow back at us from every direction, watching us watching them. They’re spooky, yet they’re beautiful. You bet I had the time of my life, and you can bet there are more Big Boys out there for the taking.