What do a couple of computer gurus, a mom and a pipe fitter do to occupy their time on muggy summer nights?
They hunt alligators, of course!
Scott Gruel of Pascagoula has been a fan of Swamp People on the History Channel since it hit the airways. A conversation at work on the subject got the wheels turning for a summer adventure for him and three friends, Cory and Susannah Moore, also of Pascagoula, and Tammy Wood of Biloxi.
“Initially it was that show (Swamp People) that got me interested,” Gruel said. “I watched it for a few years and one day I was at work and a guy I work with said we got the alligator tag drawing coming up in two or three days.”
When Gruel inquired, his co-worker explained Mississippi’s public alligator hunting program, and explained the draw system.
“I came home that day and said ‘Cory, you want to catch an alligator?’” Gruel said. “He’s like, ‘yeah!’ We entered, Cory won tags and we experienced our first year of alligator hunting.”
With gator tags in hand, the crew set out learning the ins and outs of hunting alligator in Mississippi, and found numerous valuable sources. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks website (MDWFP.com) is loaded with useful information, they discovered a Facebook page devoted strictly to hunting alligators in the state, watched numerous YouTube videos and questioned friends who’d hunted alligators before.
“Cory is a computer guy so he went online and read a lot about the skinning, different catching techniques and watched videos,” Gruel said. “I work with a bunch of guys who’ve hunted gators before and they’re good at it. Every day I picked their brains.
“So it was a combination of those two. The technical side, Cory really did that with the lights and how the boat was supposed to be set up.”
When an individual draws an alligator tag for the first time they must attend a training course on hunting alligators in Mississippi. Both Moore and Gruel emphasized the benefit of the class and all the useful information shared by the instructor.
“They teach you safety, biology, capture techniques and skinning techniques; they cover everything,” Cory said. “It was very helpful for those of us who didn’t know anything about it.”
On the way home from the class Gruel and Moore started strategizing and building an equipment list. Academy Sports in Gulfport was their first stop where they picked up a heavy duty Penn spinning combo. Wayne Lee’s in Pascagoula helped them out with the rest of their gear.
While there is a limited season to catch an alligator there’s no off limits on scouting. The crew started scouting the Pascagoula River marsh two weeks before the official season.
They used this time to get comfortable navigating the marsh at night and to get an idea of how alligators move and how they react to a boat being in their territory.
With a plan in place the crew set out on the first evening of the season; Moore at the helm, Wood helping navigate and watching, with Gruel and Susannah Moore on the bow with spotlights watching.
“Susannah and I sat on the bow of the boat watching the grass,” Gruel said. “The light reflects off the eyes; you see their red eyes. When you finally see it you know it.”
“The red is unmistakable,” Moore said.
The crew had staked out a narrow bayou about 30 yards wide south of I-10 to start their hunt. They had seen alligators above I-10 in the main river and other bayous but felt their chances were best down south.
“The night we caught our first alligator we were heading in,” Gruel said. “It was 2 or 3 in the morning.”
“We were running slow,” Moore said. “Scott and Susannah were up on the bow. Susannah saw the nutria rat on the starboard side. We immediately saw the gator crossing from our port side across our bow to the starboard side.
“I killed the motor and just coasted right into her. They kept the spotlights on her, I grabbed the pole and cast as far as I could, went about 8 feet past her and started reeling back. She went under; I kept reeling and she took off.”
The fight was on.
“She tried taking off and I just wrestled with her,” Moore said. “We had killed the motor and were just kind of drifting in the bayou. She got right underneath the boat and sat on the bottom. After that it was just a matter of wearing her out and getting her to the surface.”
Gruel got in on the action with a second line.
“I was throwing it (the large treble hook on 650-pound line) trying to hook her,” Gruel said. “Once I hooked her she rolled up in the rope. When she rolled up in the rope it was over.”
With two treble hooks in her along with a long fight the alligator was tired and ready to give up — so they thought.
The group had the gator hooked in the front leg with the rod and reel, and it was rolled up in the big hook and rope, too.
Said Gruel: “She was wore out by now; she was tired. She came up and snapped a couple of times.”
Added Moore: “I took the 2 X 2 (snare pole), wrapped the anchor line around it, made a noose and put it around her neck, then removed the 2 X 2 from the rope, and pulled tight.”
Over, right? Well, no.
“She started fighting again; more so than she’d done before,” Moore said with a big grin.
After a few minutes playing tug of war with an angry alligator that had found a second wind Moore got her alongside the boat. Even though the crew was tired from a long night of searching and wrestling with an angry alligator they stuck with the plan drawn in preparation for the event.
“Before you dispatch it you have to secure the alligator with a rope,” Moore said. “By Mississippi rules you have to secure it around the neck or around the leg before you can dispatch. I used anchor line. Most people use a steel cable; I used my anchor line.
“You have a choice to land it, measure it and release it if it’s too small, or dispatch it” he said. “She was legal size so we dispatched her.”
When killing an alligator a shot has to be placed in a quarter-size spot behind the skull plate. A miss can result in an alligator that is simply knocked out only to wake up later and be extremely cantankerous or it could mean bone or bullet fragments sent back at the shooter.
“Mississippi rules say you have to keep the gun and the ammunition separate until the alligator is secure,” Gurel said.
Keeping the gun separate from the ammunition is a matter of safety.
After the shot, the finishing touches involve taping the mouth shut and dragging the gator into the boat. Once it’s in the boat, it’s time secure the legs by tying them behind its back, another safety practice just in case the alligator wakes up.
“We put (duct) tape on its mouth,” Gruel said. “Use all the tape you want.”
It is recommended you wait at least 24 hours after death before attempting to skin the gator, allowing the muscle reflexes to stop.
In preparation for the monumental event Moore had a creative idea to keep their catch fresh.
“I got an old refrigerator from the junkyard just to keep an alligator in,” he said. “We turned it on its side and filled it with ice to keep her until the next day.”
Once the necessary time had passed and the crew had gotten some much needed rest, they set out on yet another adventure none of them had experienced — skinning an alligator.
“We skinned it, cleaned it, ate it and used the other parts, the bones and stuff, as memorabilia,” Moore said.
The Pascagoula Crew didn’t get drawn for the 2014 season, but it’s a good bet they’ll keep applying as long as Mississippi has an alligator season. Plus, by getting the word out that they have a boat, gear and experience, there’s a chance one of the lucky applicants might enlist their aid. That’s how many experienced gator hunters get it on the action each year.
The 10-year-old program, which initially started on a section of the upper Pearl River at Barnett Reservoir, has expanded statewide in seven regions. Nearly 7,000 people applied for the 920 available permits.
The 2014 season is Aug. 29-Sept. 8, and will be hard-pressed to match the excitement of 2013 when all four state records — both length and weight for both male and female gators — were broken. The record for heaviest gator was broken three times in the season — 697.5 pounds, then 727 pounds and finally 741.5 pounds. The record length was pushed to 13 feet, 7 inches.
If you have an adventurous spirit and think you’d like to hunt alligators in 2015, check out the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks website. It features an encyclopedia of information along with numerous videos.