Duck hunters and some deer hunters at Bell Island Hunting Club north of Vicksburg were well aware of the giant alligator that made a 500-acre lake its home at the hunting camp. Gators like that earn nicknames. Club members called this one Gus. “Everybody at the club knew about Gus, whether they’d seen him or not, especially duck hunters,” Jody Fortenberry said. “He was always on your mind when you were in or around that lake.”
He was certainly on the minds of Fortenberry and friends Clinton Sennett, Jake Ponder and Brian Jackson, all of Brandon, when they went alligator hunting on the night of Sept. 16.
And Gus was soon on one of their hooks and at 690 1/2 pounds headed for the record books as the largest alligator ever taken by a hunter in Mississippi.
The animal was 12 feet, 7 inches long, with as much as a foot missing from its tail, probably due to a fight with another large gator decades earlier.
The story of the gator’s capture perfect example of the craziness that is sport hunting for alligator.
Hunting on a private lands permit from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the group had to abide by that state’s rules. No baited hooks, like they could use for their two gator tags from Louisiana.
“The lake is actually in both states on the border, so we had both (options),” Fortenberry said. “But we like the casting and snagging method, and that’s what we were doing.”
The four buddies launched the 14-foot boat at sunset and began scanning the waters with beams of lights, and they started seeing the reflections of eyes.
“Everywhere,” said Sennett. “We saw so many gators.”
Problem was, the gators also saw the boys, and before they could get close enough to make a cast the reptiles would submerge and disappear.
“Until we spotted this one gator out in the middle of the lake,” Fortenberry said. “When we moved up on him, he didn’t seem to care.”
Ponder had the 7-foot spinning rod in hand — a $40 catfish combo bought at Bass Pro Shops and spooled with 100-pound braided line tipped with a 12/0 weighted hook — and Jackson eased the boat in position with the tiny trolling motor.
They still had no idea it was Gus. They had a side view of its eyes, and just figured it was about 8 feet long.
“Jake made the cast, and it was perfect, right across the back,” Fortenberry said. “He reeled up right, got the hook in the gator, and that’s when we knew it was bigger than any 8 feet.”
How did they know?
“Well as soon as he snagged it, all hell broke loose in the water,” Sennett said. “The water erupted with a splash and he took off.
“And he took us with him.”
Gus became the leader at that point, and would take the guys on a swamp tour that would last over three hours.
“We only got that one hook in him with a rod,” Fortenberry said. “Jake just held on and we followed him.”
Sennett said they really had no choice in the matter.
“Where Gus wanted to go, we went,” Sennett said.
Gus first wanted the cover of lily pads. No problem. The boys followed, and the braided line tore right through the pad stems.
Then Gus wanted open water, heading back to the middle of the lake.
Then the pads, and then the middle. Then the pads and then the middle.
Finally, after two hours of lugging the overloaded boat around, the gator tired, stopped and went to the bottom to rest.
“We still didn’t know what we had, only that he was pretty big,” Fortenberry said.
They got a better idea after pulling over the top of the gator.
Sennett grabbed for the power tool, a rope handline with another weighted hook. It was their winch line for pulling gators in.
It was not designed with Gus in mind, apparently.
“I dropped it down, slid it over the bottom until I hit something solid and I figured it had to be the alligator,” Sennett said. “So I yanked as hard as I could and set the hook.”
He quickly realized that was a mistake.
“Don’t think he liked that yanking,” Sennett said. “That really pissed him off. He took us, and we went down like dominoes in the boat.
“He pulled me down, and I hit Jody and he went down and Jody hit Jake and Jake went down. Bam. Bam Bam.”
Fortunately, Fortenberry said, Ponder kept a clear head and a clear line.
“I looked up and I could see the rod still sticking up with the line going out,” he said. “Jake kept the rod high the whole time, and the hook stayed in the gator.”
Part Two of the joy ride began with the hook on the rope line straightening out and pulling free.
Gus started another tour of the lake, this one lasting an hour, until he went to the bottom again and stopped. The boys got over the gator again, and this time a wiser Sennett grabbed the hand line and dropped it down.
“This time I didn’t set the hook, I just sort of eased it into him and started pulling him up,” Sennett said.
And up Gus came.
"We pulled him up, and his head popped up by the side of the boat," Fortenberry said. "We all started screaming and hollering. It looked like we were pulling up a tree trunk."
It was their first sign that it could be Gus.
After getting a rope around the gator’s leg as required by law, Fortenberry grabbed the 20-gauge shotgun. He struggled to get a clean shot at the one vulnerable spot a gator has – the back of the skull where it connects to the spine.
"The problem was, in that small of a boat, we had to keep it balanced and we knew that the alligator could flip us over anytime he wanted to,” Fortenberry said. “It was hard to get over there and get a shot."
After several minutes, Gus leveled off and gave Fortenberry a target. He fired the load of No. 6s into the gator’s head.
"I made a good shot, right where you're supposed to," he said. "It just made him madder."
And Part Three of the ride began with an irate Gus heading for the trees, and the gator wasn’t messing around.
"We were headed right for the bushes and trees as fast as we had gone all night, and I just knew we'd lose him," Fortenberry said. "If he got in there and got around stuff, we were done. Our first problem was he went to the bushes that hang low to the surface and we had to get through that."
The group managed, and then got a big break. Gus picked two trees to swim between that had a gap wide enough for the boat to pass through, and then it headed for open water again.
The boys had a tense moment when the gator turned in the tight quarters and Ponder had to move the rod.
“Jake had to go low and, when Gus turned, the rod tip ended up between the trolling motor and the boat and that was no good,” Fortenberry said. “We thought we were done for sure. But we got it free.”
Gus settled down just outside the tree line, starting to slow from a combination of tiring and the hole in his head.
The hunters had time to get in position for a second shot. Fortenberry thought he made another good one, but not good enough.
"He took off again and went back to the middle," Fortenberry said. "Then he kept going side to side, from the lily pads back to the middle, and finally he stopped and we got on top of him again."
With a new hook — the others kept straightening due to the gator’s strength and apparent distaste for getting shot — Sennett got the handline rope on the gator again and pulled him up.
Fortenberry shot him a third time, another good shot in the right spot. The gator went berserk, but this time he stayed right beside the boat.
"I really thought he was gonna turn us over," Sennett said, "but he never got under the boat. I got him up and Jody shot him a fourth time, and he just sank. He was deathly still, but he sank. I pulled him back up and we decided to shoot him again.
"Just to be sure."
The lifeless hulk sank.
"We took a break to rest and to get a plan as to how to get him in the boat," Fortenberry said. "The head was so big. We hadn't seen how long he was at that point, just the head.”
When they got the now-deceased animal back to the surface, Fortenberry took charge.
"We pulled him up to the surface, and I grabbed a leg with the rope and started pulling him over the back side of the boat, and I looked at (Sennett) and told him to grab his head,” he said. “I said, 'Dude, you're gonna have to grab his head.' "
Sennett admitted to hesitating.
"Yeah, you would have, too," he said. "Then I just went for it, grabbed him under his jaw, got a handful and pulled with everything I had. We got his head and front shoulder over the side and his head was between my legs.
"Then Jake looked at him, and said, 'Hey, guys his eyes are open! You sure he's dead?' "
Sennett said he looked down, right between his legs, and was looking Ol' Gus right in the eye.
"Thank God, it was lifeless, but I grabbed a rope and started wrapping it right around his jaws, just in case," he said.
It was sunrise before they made it to camp, where they iced the gator down in the bucket of a frontend loader and went to sleep.
Saturday afternoon, they drove the gator over to Barnett Reservoir where the public lands hunt was being held and where it could be officially weighed.
Sunday they drove it to a taxidermist in Louisiana to be mounted.
Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks officials weighed it and certified it as a new hunting record.
"It is the heaviest taken by a hunter since we began holding hunts in 2005," alligator program leader Ricky Flynt said. "We've had bigger ones caught by our people and by our licensed gator trappers, which don't count as hunting records."
The heaviest Flynt knows of?
"Years ago, we had one of our agent trappers get one on the Pascagoula River that weighed over 930 pounds," Flynt said.
That boggled Fortenberry’s mind.
"I can't imagine," he said. "We'd need a bigger boat."
Word of the giant gator spread and the other Bell Island members came to see the beast.
“We had killed two big ones two years ago, a 12-footer and an 11 1/2(-footer), but all the guys said they didn’t think that either was big enough to be Gus,” Fortenberry said.
“Yeah, they all agreed it had to be Gus,” Fortenberry said.
Better be, Sennett added.
“If it’s not, and Gus is still out there, we’re going to need new equipment,” he said.