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A week before the opening of Texas’ first alligator hunt in fifteen years Sidney Dupuy sat on the porch of his office, directly across from his skinning shed on the banks of Taylor Bayou, west of Port Arthur, spitting tobacco juice and contemplating the abundance of life in the marshes. Sidney had had no quarrel with the wildlife biologists when they put alligators on the endangered species list back in 1969. “It was getting so you could hardly find them,” he acknowledged. “Sure, that was a good law they passed.” Sidney never doubted, however, that the day would come when the alligators returned and the law would be rescinded. The marsh could abide the eccentricities of law and science; the marsh had secrets that science hadn’t begun to consider. A biologist could spend a lifetime back there measuring alligators and calculating and recording data and never come close to discovering the monstrous reality. When all those data were correlated and published and the biologist had been roundly hailed for his achievements, all we would really have learned would be a little more about the limitations of man. The marsh was like a malevolent deity; it didn’t care who believed and who didn’t.

The 53-year-old Dupuy—pronounced “Doo-pree,” as in Cajun-to-the-bone—was looking forward to the big alligator hunt. He had contracted with the state wildlife department to harvest seventy gators from the state-owned J. D. Murphree Wildlife Management area, 12,400 acres of marshland near the Louisiana border. He had won the contract by agreeing to give the state 30 per cent of whatever the alligator hides brought on the market. Those were the rules of the game nowadays. If a trapper wanted to trap, he had to abide by the regulations of the biologists and the bureaucrats.

Sidney was no stranger to the biologists at Murphree. “I been trapping ’round here thirty-seven years,” he said, spitting tobacco into a paper cup. “Last fifteen, twenty, I had my own ’rat [muskrat] outfit. Hell, I do a little of everything. I pimp, I sell drugs, I’m an oil field contractor. When I get up in the morning, there’s only one thing I like to do—make money.”

Sidney laughed—roared, actually—a sound something like the bull gator makes when he’s horny. Sidney was just kidding about the pimping and drug dealing, but he was dead serious about the money. Besides making his deal with the state, he had signed on as an agent for a number of private landowners who were eager to rid their property of nuisance gators and at the same time cash in on the newly legalized market for alligator hides. Sidney would account for nearly half of the 437 gators taken in Texas during this initial season. He would furnish his own equipment and pay the wages of eight additional hunters who would help with the harvest, but he still figured to clear about $6000 during the seventeen-day season. Sidney was guessing that the hides would bring between $18 and $20 a linear foot—a ten-foot gator, for example, would yield a hide worth $180 to $200. Sidney also planned to bid on the hides taken by other hunters. He had already lined up a buyer for his hides, though he wouldn’t say where it was. “If I told you, you’d know as much as I know,” he said. “It’s either France or Japan.” There was not yet a market in Texas for alligator meat, but Sidney was sure that that time would come. “Gator meat in Louisiana sells for five dollars a pound,” he said. “A ten-foot gator’ll weigh two hundred fifty pounds.”

Sidney had spent so much time in the marshes that he seemed to have scales. He was wide as a bull gator, and his face and arms were baked the reddish brown of mahogany. His salt-and-pepper hair and moustache grew in layers, like the age rings of trees, and his voice crunched like boots on gravel. Twenty or thirty years ago, when a good gator hide sold for maybe $6 a foot, Sidney did all his hunting at night. “That old gator, unless he’s been hunted he don’t have no enemy,” he said. “You blind him with a spotlight, you can get right on top of him.” Sidney used a shotgun with double-aught buckshot, blasting the gators in the back of the head at close range so as not to damage the most valuable hide, at the throat and neck. Even in those days gator hunting was a business, not a sport.

Back in the thirties, and even as late as the fifties, there were no rules or regulations and the marshes were open to anyone brave enough or stupid enough to go there. Hunters and trappers willing to work could make good money. When the first norther blew across the coastal prairie, old ’ratters said good-bye to their families and paddled off to some desolate spot where they built primitive shacks and lived until spring, running their traps at first light and skinning in the afternoon. The skinning area was also the place where they ate and slept; it’s said that the smell was unforgettable. Trappers ate gator meat, muskrat, fish, whatever was handy. A favorite was snow-goose breast. A ’ratter would shoot several hundred snow geese early in the season, then fry and preserve them in hog lard to last for the duration of his stay. In the days when refinery workers were lucky to make little more than 50 cents an hour, some ’ratters earned $15,000 a year. There was a thriving international market for alligator hides; gator shoes and handbags were in big demand. But in recent years it has been illegal to import or export alligator hides, and even poachers are becoming scarce.

Alligators have been considered a threatened or endangered species—and therefore have been protected by federal and state laws—for fifteen years. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) estimates that during that time the state gator population doubled and redoubled. Now there are an estimated quarter of a million gators in Texas, about a third of them in the coastal marshes of Orange, Jefferson, and Chambers counties; that figures out to more than three hundred gators per square mile. Gators have been found as far north as the Red River and southeast of a line running through Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio to Del Rio. Some of the largest dwell on the rivers, marshes, and private lakes of the coastal plains, in places like Columbus, Eagle Lake, and West Columbia.

By the early eighties there were enough gators in the state to take them off the endangered list and reestablish gator hunting. The purpose of the hunt, according to Bruce Thompson, who headed a TPWD study of gators, was to “meet recreational and market needs” while still protecting the species. Recreational needs are self-explanatory in Texas; if the species isn’t endangered, why shouldn’t it be hunted? When Thompson spoke of market needs, however, he was not necessarily referring to alligator boots and handbags. Ranchers and rice farmers along the coast have reported losses of livestock and costly damage to levees, earthen dams, and canal banks, which are nicely suited to the gator’s habit of burrowing dens up to twice its own body length. During mating season bull gators are frequently found strolling through back yards and moseying along major highways. One biologist told me that a Volkswagen had hit a bull gator, or vice versa, near the Trinity River bridge not long ago. Female gators are not hostile, except when their nests are threatened, but bull gators become increasingly aggressive as they age, expand in volume, and discover they have nothing to fear. Some old bull gators have been known to gobble hunting dogs and even attack hunters.

There was yet another, more noble purpose for promoting the hunt, though. The season was designed as an incentive for landowners to maintain their marshes and wetlands rather than drain and develop them. “Opening the hunting season was the best thing we could have done to ensure a healthy gator crop,” a biologist said. “There was no incentive before for a landowner to protect gators. There is nothing aesthetic to ranchers about an alligator. But now they will see some income. Some ranchers will kill gators themselves and sell the hides. Some will sell hunting rights and hire out as guides. Cash money will perpetuate the species.”

That was the sort of noble purpose with which Sidney Dupuy agreed completely.

Knee-deep in Gators

Gator season opened on a warm, damp Friday in September, and by Saturday morning Sidney Dupuy was knee-deep in dead gators and chin-deep in reporters and cameramen. Sidney made no secret that he much preferred the dead reptiles. His loathing of the media was based on his belief that the press had unfairly depicted men of his profession as cretins, savages of the wilderness who blasted away at anything that moved. “I never seen a damn reporter did me any good,” Sidney grumbled. But this wasn’t Sidney’s show. He was the star, but the biologists of Murphree were the producers, and part of their mission as employees of the TPWD was to promote the hunt. What had been billed as a recreational opportunity soon turned into a media event, as more than a dozen media representatives pushed and shoved to find a place in one of the two airboats provided by the state. Since Murphree was divided by levees into compartments, the flat-bottomed airboats, with their rear-mounted airplane engines and propellers, were essential for jumping from one part of the marsh to another.

After the Murphree staffers had seated the media people in the airboats, there was one photographer left over. “Okay,” Sidney called to the startled cameraman, “come on with me.” An overnight rain had drenched the southeast Texas coast, and it took Sidney half an hour of cussing and fuming to start his 265-horsepower engine. “Okay,” Sidney roared finally, and the photographer was almost knocked overboard by the acceleration as the airboat raced out of the basin.

The TPWD had established complicated new rules for the hunt, and they were models of bureaucratic excess. In the old days hunters had used two primary methods for taking gators—either they hunted at night with jacklights and guns or they used long poles with hooks on one end to pull gators out of their dens. Hunting with firearms and gator poles is now illegal, as is night hunting; the prohibitions supposedly ensure that the gators that are killed will also be taken. Currently, there are four legal methods of catching alligators: a baited hook and line, a harpoon or gig, a bow and barbed arrow, and a hand-held snare. Firearms, axes, and hatchets are permitted only to “dispatch”—the bureaucratic term for “kill”—animals already caught by legal means.

Almost everyone used a baited hook and line, a technique similar to trotline fishing and only slightly more thrilling. Thick, heavy-test nylon lines are anchored to posts driven into the levee banks, and in order to get the lines away from the banks and over the gator holes, hunters attach them to cane fishing poles with rubber bands. Hunters thread the hooks with beef lungs, pork liver, pig frog entrails, whatever seems best, and dangle the bait fifteen inches above the water, out of the reach of smaller gators. Alligators swallow their food whole—all those marvelous ivory-colored teeth are used to capture, crush, and dismember prey, twisting and tearing the flesh from larger prey when necessary. When a hunter checks his line and finds the rubber bands snapped loose and the hook below water, he knows that just beneath the surface waits a large and very unhappy alligator with a steel hook buried deep in his gut. That’s when things get interesting.

Sidney and his team of hunters had baited their lines the previous day and had already caught maybe a dozen gators. As Sidney approached one of the lines, the two airboats of reporters and photographers pulled alongside the canal bank to watch the action. Cameramen scrambled and thrashed about in the thick cordgrass, trying to get a good angle to photograph the kill. Sidney’s mood appeared to lighten as he leveled his shotgun and watched his son Cole pull in the line. In an instant a huge black head broke through the water hyacinths, and in almost the same instant there was a thud from the shotgun and the top of the gator’s head blew off. “I believe I dispatched him,” Sidney announced.

Sidney fired a second shot, and then, with a heroic effort, Sidney and Cole muscled the throbbing black carcass into the boat and dropped it at the feet of the photographer Sidney had invited aboard. In a couple of hours the bodies of half a dozen gators, eight to eleven feet long, were piled on the bottom of the boat. Slipping and reeling in the gore, the photographer searched for someplace to steady himself. The air was still and hot and swarmed with insects, and bilious banks of clouds, swollen and close to rupturing, hung like dead meat above the slender silhouette of oil refineries across the marsh. “You send me one of those prints, hear?” Sidney said, mugging for the cameras. In his twinkling eyes you could read his real message: you boys having any fun?

The hardest, most tedious part of the hunt, the skinning, came late in the day after Sidney had landed a massive bull gator that measured almost twelve feet long. Skinning, too, was subject to precise TPWD regulations, which were not issued until the morning the season opened, in order to prevent poachers from killing ahead of schedule. This season the skinners had to cut a prescribed flap from the hide near the base of the gator’s tail. It had to be three inches wide and cut to the left, otherwise the skin would not be certified and approved for sale.

Hardly any of the hunters had ever skinned a gator before—and certainly wouldn’t acknowledge it if they had—but Sidney went about his task as skillfully as a surgeon having breakfast. First, he and Cole amputated one of the gator’s legs and cut the meat away from the femur, which would be studied by scientists in an attempt to determine the gator’s age. Then they cut along either side of the gator, scraping away flesh that clung to the skin, then along the incredibly soft, golden-white skin of the jaws and neck, the section of hide most valued. As Sidney pulled the skin away from the jawbone, pea-size double-aught buckshot dropped out and rolled across the skinning table. As a final act of the ritual, Cole held the gator’s back legs while at the opposite end Sidney shucked the skin free of the carcass with one violent jerk. What was left of this giant that had once ruled the marsh was a large head—wearing a slightly puzzled look—attached to a huge piece of naked pink meat.

Sidney wasn’t interested in the meat, so two of his men cut off the tail section to take home to their freezer. I caught up with them later as they were climbing into a pickup that was loaded with skinned alligator carcasses.

“What are you gonna do with all those?” I asked.

“We’re gonna pile ’em up on the steps of the Sierra Club,” one of them cackled.

That night I had dinner at a legendary local hangout called the Boondocks, located on Taylor Bayou between Port Arthur and Winnie. The Boondocks was a ramshackle old relic that probably hadn’t been painted since the Hoover administration. The menu was steak, fried chicken, and fried catfish and shrimp, and customers waiting for tables milled about the dock, throwing hushpuppies and pieces of biscuits to the alligators that glided through the dark waters below. Unlike their cousins the crocodiles, gators are not considered man-eaters, but the biologists had warned me that gators who are used to being fed sometimes forget the vital distinction between man and food. “An alligator has a very primitive brain,” one biologist had said. “Once they are fed, they associate man with food. Unfortunately, they can’t disassociate man from food.”

One of the gators in the bayou below was enormous, at least as large as the one I had watched Sidney dispatch that morning. He moved without apparent effort, silent and deadly, his eyes and nostrils just breaking the surface, his broad, flat snout pushing off schools of mullet and catfish that were not to his immediate taste. Across the bayou, in deep shadows, several sets of unblinking orange-red eyes watched us and waited their turn.

The Night Has a Million Eyes

The native Alligator mississippiensis is an amazingly resilient creature, as is demonstrated by its having outlived such contemporaries as the dinosaur and pterosaur by more than a hundred million years. The gator is a creature of mythic proportion and scope, all but invisible in its habitat. So many myths about it have evolved over the years that even scientists aren’t sure what to believe. Kirby Brown, manager of Murphree, has heard old ’ratters say that gators sometimes run upright on their rear legs, as their dinosaur kinfolks did. Alligators live to the age of 65 in zoos, but biologists have been studying them in the wild only about 25 years. Young gators are plentiful and easy to study, but granddaddy gators are seldom seen, much less caught. A ten-foot gator is just a ten-foot gator, but a thirteen- or fourteen-footer is positively awesome—some of them seem as massive as buffalo.

The largest documented alligator in Texas is a giant bull whose body was found near Powderhorn Lake, just inland from Port O’Connor, after last winter’s big freeze. It measured sixteen feet two inches long. Its arm span was six feet, and the circumference of its neck measured four feet six inches. Journals of early Spanish explorers trekking along the Texas coast mention encounters with eighteen- and twenty-footers. The Spaniards called the species el lagarto (“the lizard”), a term that was anglicized to become “alligator.” Maybe the Spaniards were exaggerating about el lagarto’s size —but modern scientists aren’t so sure. The American record is a nineteen-foot-two-inch beast killed years ago near Avery Island, Louisiana. “If they documented a nineteen-footer in Louisiana, there’s no reason we shouldn’t find one that big in Texas,” says Floyd Potter, another TPWD biologist. “It’s exactly the same species.”

According to accepted wisdom, alligators attack humans only in self-defense or if they are accustomed to being fed by people; yet most biologists I talked to could cite exceptions. An alligator attacked and drowned a teenager in Florida last summer. A gator nicknamed Fat Albert, who lived in one of the compartments at Murphree, took a hunk out of the side of an aluminum boat. Another wrecked a plywood airboat. A duck hunter laying decoys in shallow water stepped on what he thought was a sunken log, then watched in horror as a giant set of jaws grasped his thigh—he was wearing waders and long johns and escaped with only a bad bruise. Perry Smith, a fish and wildlife technician at Murphree, told me that he’d hit a gator with the prop of his outboard motor and an instant later the beast was in the boat with him. “He left a couple of teeth in the side of my boat,” Perry pointed out. “I’ve still got the holes and the teeth to prove it.” Perry believes that gators have some sort of built-in measuring device that keeps them from attacking adults. “If a dog or a kid jumps in,” he said, “that’s another matter.” These stories were flashing through my mind as Bruce Thompson and another TPWD biologist, C. D. “Stutz” Stutzenbaker, took me out in an airboat for a nocturnal inspection two nights after Sidney’s big kill.

By day, the marsh is dreamlike and lethargic. Speeding along the narrow maze of canals, you are startled by the sudden flight of herons, spoonbills, and egrets, and you see tiny rails and gallinules scamper nimbly over thick mats of alligatorweed and white-flowered water lilies. A chocolate-brown nutria ambles along a nutria trail, and a water snake slithers from dense vegetation and pops below the water. You see gator trails too, places where the millet, salt grass, and bulrushes have been worn away, and if you know where to look, you see soil banks dredged up where a gator has been excavating a den. What looks like a log floats on the surface of a shallow lake, then disappears without a ripple or a sound. Your boat closes fast on a pair of huge yellow eyes, and you barely see them sink as the boat passes directly over them. Then you look back and see that the eyes are watching you recede. The marsh by day can put you to sleep, but the marsh by night pulses with life. You can’t move at night without your jacklight’s catching at least one set of orange-red eyes, burning like the coals of the devil’s own headlights.

Stutz raced the engine, and the airboat shot across a levee into another compartment. Sweeping the light from bank to bank, we moved slowly along the canal, or ditch, as the biologists call it. Just below the bow a ten-foot alligator submerged in front of us, carrying something in its mouth—the body of a four-foot alligator! I’d heard that alligators are cannibalistic only when food is in short supply, but apparently that is not the case. Kirby Brown, surveying the marsh in a helicopter last year, spotted an enormous set of black jaws trying to drag the body of a mere eight-footer into its den.

At the end of the canal, we turned into an open area called Mud Lake, and there before us, like the lights of a landing strip, were more alligator eyes than I could count. Stutz slowed the boat, and Bruce leaned over the bow and caught a three-footer by the back of the neck. “This one probably hatched in eighty-one–eighty-two,” he said. Stutz observed tiny patches of algae growing on the white underside of its jaw. Bruce released the gator back into the marsh and caught another, slightly larger one. “You’ve got to hold one,” he told me. “Use both hands—one on the tail and the other behind the neck.” The hands that type these words held that small gator as firmly as they have ever held anything. The skin was surprisingly soft and supple, and up close the eyes appeared bright and frightened. The little gator and I would both have stories to tell.

Presently our boat came upon a nest of gator hatchlings, no more than a few days old. We couldn’t see the mother, but she could no doubt see us. Nevertheless, Bruce reached down and snatched an eight-incher that squeaked and squirmed as he brought it aboard. A tiny leech had already attached itself to the baby’s underside.

“Almost everything in the marsh is an enemy to the baby alligator,” Stutz said. “Fish, snakes, birds, otters, turtles, other gators.”

“What do the ones that small eat?” I asked.

Stutz shined his light in front of a patch of cattails. It was then that I saw what you can see and appreciate only at night—every nook and cove of the marsh boils with life. Minnows, small perch, catfish, bowfins, crawfish, tadpoles, insects of every description, swirling and swarming, weaving and dancing, living out the seconds of life like particles under a microscope. It’s tough trade being a little alligator but you don’t go hungry.

Guided by the lights of an oil rig, we turned back to headquarters. Stutz throttled down as we entered the basin where the fleet of shrimp boats was moored. I removed the earmuffs that had protected my ears from the scream and howl of the engine, and I watched the moon crawl to the top of the sky.

“What did you think?” Stutz asked me.

“One of the great experiences of my life.”

When we got back to the office, Kirby Brown said he had just talked to a biologist in Eagle Lake. “The hunters down there tell him they’re on the trail of a sixteen- or seventeen-footer,” Kirby said.

The Baddest Gator in Texas

Old George was not the biggest alligator in Texas, but there was evidence that he was the baddest. This scarred and ill-tempered old warrior lived near the Colorado River in the Eagle Lake region—I promised I wouldn’t reveal the exact location—and the hunters and fishermen who had encountered him estimated that he would go thirteen feet. He had claimed as his territory the area around the boathouse of a rod-and-gun club, and Charley Braden, the club’s guide, had gotten into the habit of throwing fish heads and duck wings to Old George. Folks around Eagle Lake told the story of what happened to Charley Braden in the summer of 1983. Old George grabbed the leg of Charley’s overalls, which Charley happened to be wearing at the time, or so went the story. Fortunately, Charley was able to step out of the overalls in time to ruin Old George’s dinner plans. But the beast was a genuine nuisance, and he was on every hunter’s list.

After my experiences on the coast, I recognized that gator stories have a way of being embellished with every telling. There is something about seeing a monster in the wild that causes blood to rush to your brain and enables you to speak in tongues. One afternoon I was walking along a levee with rancher and wildlife artist Tom Stallman when we spotted what appeared to me to be a twelve-footer sunning itself on the bank. Stallman guessed that the gator was around nine feel long and told me his theory, which he calls the Leviathan Quantum Oscillation Syndrome: “Say you see a world-record twenty-foot boss gator. By the time you get him to the bank, he has shrunk to fourteen feet. And by the time you get him to the skinning table, he’s only twelve ten. But there’s the amazing thing. Once he’s dead, that gator starts to grow, inch by inch, until he’s back up to the thirteen-to-fourteen-foot range. He never quite gets back to his original size, but it’s well known that gators draw down and grow back at a phenomenal rate.”

If there really was a record-size monster gator in Texas, the area around Columbus and Eagle Lake looked like the perfect habitat for it. In addition to the Colorado River, there were any number of creeks, marshes, gravel pits, and prehistoric natural lakes. Hidden for centuries in gently undulating coastal prairies, the lakes had more recently been hidden behind fences with No Trespassing signs. The seclusion of the lakes was a serious obstacle to potential poachers.

Back when the first European settlers arrived, there were at least a dozen primitive and pristine bodies of water like Eagle Lake, Manor Lake, and Albert George Lake. They were low and shallow sinks shaded by Evangeline-type oaks and walled off by cattails, bulrushes, and dense junglelike vegetation. Sweeping back from the lakes in all directions were prairies of bluestem grass—in the winter they turned a brilliant orange. When it rained, water washed down from the prairie as clean and clear as water from a spring. Then, about the turn of the century, the prairie was converted to rice farms. That was the end of the bluestem prairie and the pristine lakes. Farmers used the water from Eagle Lake to irrigate their fields, and when it rained, silt from the fields washed into the lake. When irrigation demands increased after 1900, farmers replenished Eagle Lake annually by pumping in water from the Colorado River. Today Eagle Lake retains some of its past mystique, but it has been decades since the water was clear, and the only place you can find bluestem grass now is in a few old graveyards.

People in the small farming town of Eagle Lake seemed more excited about gator season than the people I’d met in Part Arthur, possibly because hunting is regarded as a light industry in Eagle Lake. The town bills itself as the Goose Hunting Capital of the World, and a chamber of commerce leaflet lists almost as many hunting clubs as restaurants and saloons. The Farris 1912, a landmark Texas hotel, has been a gathering place for hunters since before World War I.

It didn’t take much prompting to get people talking alligators. Old-timers said that a gator was killed about the turn of the century that measured nineteen—or maybe it was twenty—feet. In the office of the Ashby Mud Company I saw photographs of two ancient monsters. One, caught in the late thirties, measured fourteen feet nine inches. Another was a thirteen-footer some guy killed in his back yard in the fifties. That gator was pictured hanging by its neck from a crane, and judging from the size of the two men standing beside the upright carcass, the tail alone was a good six feet long. Workers at Lone Star Industries gravel plant swore that much more recently they had spotted a seventeen-footer. A rice farmer told of a giant gator that had challenged his tractor, and several men volunteered stories about unfortunate Labrador retrievers. The most bizarre story was told by a trapper’s wife; she said she knew a game warden who used live puppies as gator bait.

The hides of several local twelve-footers killed during the hunt indicated that the gators here were indeed larger than those I had seen on the coast. Or maybe it was just that the hunters were more selective. “Big-game hunters argue about the great predatory beasts stalking the North American continent—the grizzly, the Kodiak,” said Tom Stallman. Well, they’ve left out Alligator mississippiensis, which can pack better than twelve hundred pounds.” Stallman had heard the story of Charley Braden’s overalls, and Old George was at the top of his list.

Stallman had been a gator fancier most of his life—he raised several hatchlings during his high school years in Columbus. His favorite, named Luggage, lived indoors during the winter. “He loved to watch color television,” Stallman said. Luggage also loved to watch Stallman’s mother frying bacon. He loved Timex watches too, and he ate Stallman’s after Stallman made the mistake of leaving it on a rock where Luggage’s meals were usually served. When it was time to go away to college, Stallman ignored his own maxim—that gators once fed by man are apt to look on man as food—and returned Luggage and the other gators to the Colorado River, where they presumably live to this day. “Luggage would be about a ten-footer now,” Stallman guessed.

The agent of the hunting party that included Stallman, Texas Ranger Ray Nutt, and others was Bufford Ashley, chief deputy of Colorado County. Bufford had contracted to kill ten of the eleven gators allowed for the Eagle Lake region, and he intended one of them to be Old George.

Nobody saw Old George for the first couple of days of the season. On the third day, Bufford and the others hooked a monster in the general area where Old George lived. This gator appeared to be even larger that George, and judging from its numerous cuts and scars, it had met George once or twice. After it was hooked, the gator crawled out of the marsh and was waiting on a narrow strip of land when the hunters arrived. Stallman wanted to rope the gator live and take a few pictures, but Ashley decided that the situation didn’t allow for excessive displays of bravado. The men began backing the truck along the narrow strip so they could get close enough to the beast to kill it and load it. At this point the eyewitness accounts differ wildly. Stallman swears that the gator lifted its head and tail and charged the truck, wedging itself under the rear axle and rocking the vehicle on its springs. Ashley and Nutt have absolutely no recollection of that, but they agree that it took two shots from Ashley’s .357 magnum to dispatch the monster.

At a local feedstore the hunters weighed and measured their catch. The old bull measured twelve feet nine inches and weighed 850 pounds. Obviously, it had done some living—some of the other twelve-footers weighed only 600 pounds. This particular beast was as broad as a door, and it would have measured more than thirteen feet if the tip of its tail hadn’t been chewed off.

Ashley and Ranger Nutt spotted Old George about a week later, not far from the rod-and-gun club. They threw him a hunk of calf’s liver but made no attempt to take him. Six days before the end of the season, Ashley and Nutt returned to the spot, tied a fifty-foot rope to a tree, and attached the rope to an eight-hundred-pound leader and a number 12/0 stainless steel hook. They could see Old George drifting on the surface. “We baited the hook with beef lungs and threw it out in front of him,” Ashley said. “He swam straight over and swallowed it.”

Old George didn’t put up much of a fight. He made a couple of runs as Ray Nutt drew in the rope, but when the gator was close to the bank and his head was out of the water, Ashley blasted the beast behind the eye with his .357. “It stunned him,” Ashley said. “He was dead, but he was still moving. We got him up on the bank and tried to cut through his vertebrae with a three-foot ax. Those stories people tell about killing gators with a hand ax—don’t you believe it.”

I asked Bufford if they had cut open Old George’s stomach, as the biologists sometimes did to study the species’ eating habits. Biologists had found barbed wire, staples, shotgun-shell casings, turtle shells, the ribs and shoulder blades of an adult deer, and railroad spikes—so-called gizzard stones that help grind coarse food. I was curious to know if they’d found any Timex watches or maybe Charley Braden’s overalls, but they hadn’t. Old George measured out at twelve feet four inches, a full foot shorter than a monster caught that same week at Manor Lake near West Columbia. But a foot here or there no longer seemed to matter, not in the theater of mythology.

The season had ended by the time I contacted Charley Braden and asked him about Old George and the overalls.

“I was cleaning fish when he came up behind me,” Charley told me. “I heard him blowing air through his nostrils like he did when he was mad and thought I ought to be feeding him. I didn’t pay much attention at first. Then I saw him up on all fours, coming after me. There was a boat between me and the gator, so I jumped in the boat, and he came up and put his paws over the side. I grabbed the paddle and started beating him back. But, naw, he didn’t get my britches. I don’t know how that story got started.”

Charley said it was just as well that Old George had finally been dispatched, though there was a clear note of nostalgia in his voice. “There’s another one out there just as big,” he said. “I saw him this morning.”