On the last Friday of August each year, a select group of hardcore wildlife enthusiasts and thrill seekers begin pushing out onto Mississippi waters in search of the long nosed, sharp toothed, boot-leather clad monsters that lurk in the muddy rivers of the Magnolia State.
Armed with some combination of heavy duty rods and reels, unbaited snatch hooks, harpoons, snares, and bowfishing equipment, plus a No. 6 or smaller shotgun or .38 caliber or larger bangstick, some 900 official state license holders, and their support crew, begin scouring the shore lines and topwaters for tell-tale signs of an alligator hovering just below the surface.
Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks estimated the state is home to around 32 to 38-thousand alligators, approximately 20% of whom are over 10 feet or longer, although that depends heavily on where exactly you’re looking.
Outside of the quality tail meat and excellent raw leather, it seems clear to me that hunting alligators is at least half for the thrill of doing it. Sure, there’s plenty of great ecological reasons for dispatching these dog-eating creatures, but to deny that it takes a certain type of motivation to go out and try to hook one in the mouth, fight it to the surface, and then put one well-placed round in its brain, would be dishonest.
To be clear, I am in favor of the activity and want to do it myself, but denying that the adrenaline rush and brutality of a pointblank shotgun blast doesn’t make up the lion’s share of the draw is purely dishonest.
Some hunters are new to this half-fishing, half-executing an exhausted animal experience, but some have been stewards of this uniquely southern tradition for longer than children have been running around schoolyards sing-spelling “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I” and driving teachers mad.
One of these longtime Mississippi gator hunters is Donald Woods, an Oxford resident who pushed out onto the Yazoo River in eastern Mississippi around dusk on August 25th in search of a monster.
Joined by 3 others, the crew passed on numerous smaller gators that first night. They’d collected their fair share of big ones over the years and they were hoping to take in an absolute monster this time around, but little did they know just how much of a monster they would find.
“We got on the water right at dark. We were seeing a lot of alligators. It was a calm night. We saw a lot of 8-footers, 10-footers, but that’s not what we were after. We’ve been hunting these things a long time, we’ve killed a lot of 12-footers.”
It didn’t take much time for the crew to spot what’s become known online as “nightmare fuel,” an alligator so large they described it as the width of a jon boat.
Around 9pm, Donald hooked the beast and the fight was on. As you may expect, it wasn’t easy. What followed was a seven hour battle for swamp supremacy, a test of man (and material) versus monster.
“We held onto him a while — until 10 or so. He broke my rod at that point. We hooked him eight or nine times and he kept breaking off. He would go down, sit and then take off. He kept going under logs. He knew what he was doing. The crazy thing is he stayed in that same spot.
There was no moving him. We couldn’t do anything with him.
He dictated everything we did. It was exhausting, but you’re adrenaline is going so you don’t notice it. It was more mentally exhausting than anything because he kept getting off.”
Around 3am, down to their final two rods and reels, the alligator began to tire out and a half hour later they got the beast close enough to the side of the boat to dispatch it. At 4am, the crew had the creature in their craft and was heading back to the shore, still unsure of just how big this thing was, but knowing it was the biggest they’d ever seen.
“We just knew we had a big alligator. We were just amazed at how wide his back was and how big the head was. It was surreal, to tell you the truth.”
As the morning sun rose and the adrenaline rush faded, the alligator was measured by Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Alligator Program coordinator (they really need a better title than that) Andrew Arnett. Officially, the alligator was 14 feet, 3 inches and 802.5 pounds, a new state record. The previous record was 14 feet, 3/4 inches, 766.5 pounds, harvested in 2017.
When asked what he plans to do now, a weary, but victorious Donald Woods floated the idea of riding off into a delta sunset.
“We’re done with chasing big ones this year, I might even call it a career after that, honestly.”
What weird and wild things we do for a thrill. Some find it enough to bet modestly on professional football, some strap into a floating piece of metal and rip modern day dinosaurs from the depths.
A tip of the cap to Donald Woods and the other Mississippi madmen on their trophy.