“Alligator on!” Perry Stribling yelled. Three of us were just upriver observing from another boat, and we made our way closer at this announcement.

In the other boat were Stribling, his son Matt, and Matt’s friend Adam Lewis. Matt had the tag/permit; Stribling and Lewis held licenses to be in the catch boat.

As per legal guidelines, Matt Stribling had made the initial hook-up, and Lewis later got attached to the gator to assist in wrestling the critter up so that it could be dispatched and boated. The time was approximately 10:30 p.m. on the first of a two-night season.

Alligator hunting has been allowed on some Mississippi waters for several years now, and the pursuit is gaining in popularity. Each year hundreds of hunters and spectators go to gator haunts, spotlights in hand, and seek out the scaled monsters that are now quite plentiful in most areas. Alligators are quickly becoming the new big game of the Magnolia State.

“I saw him swimming across the river and managed to hook him,” Matt Stribling said between fits of labored breathing. “I think this is a big one; I can’t even move him by myself.”

Adam Lewis agreed.

“He’s heavy,” he said. “Matt and I can’t even get him off the bottom.”

Both Matt Stribling and Lewis are big, strong young men. Such a statement from them added to the validity that this was indeed a big gator.

After tugging and coaxing for more than an hour, the two had the gator directly beneath the boat. With stiff rods bent into a “U,” they kept pressure in an effort to bring the alligator to the surface. And he did come up, but only for a quick breath. He was gone again to the bottom before anyone could get a solid look at him to make some judgment of size.

The next time he came up, however, things were instantly put into perspective. All present stared in amazement when a leviathan broke the surface beside Stribling’s boat. The craft was 16-feet long, and there was precious little boat protruding past the head and tail of this alligator.

“Too big for the slot,” Perry Stribling noted. “We have to let him go.”

It would be less than true to say that there were no regrets in this decision. There were moans of disappointment, but all were in agreement that this must be done. A new law mandated it.

So with one last effort of energy, Matt Stribling and Lewis pulled the gator up and snipped the heavy line near the water’s surface so that the hooks could release their grip and drop from the tough hide of the behemoth. This done, they slumped back in the boat seat with mixed emotion.

“Now, let’s go get our small one,” Perry Stribling said.

But that small one, one of the size slot required for the fist of two gators, was not to be on that particular outing. From midnight until 3 a.m., the Stribling boat was put into every nook of the river with very few encouraging episodes. Matt did manage to bump one alligator he deemed suitable, but the hook didn’t set. All that remained was to head in for some rest and be back on the river come 6 p.m. the following day — the last day Matt was allowed to hunt on his tag.

As daylight began to fade on that second evening and mosquitoes began to buzz around in the beams of spotlights, alligator action picked up. An 8-footer here, a smaller one there. Matt Stribling once again grasped the grip on his heavy rod and reel in anticipation of the opportunity to cast and hook a gator.

And he did.

By 9 p.m., he had what was likely a legal first gator alongside the boat.

A quick calculation of length revealed that this was indeed the one they were looking for, so it was quite handily subdued by a wire loop; a .410 single-barrel finished the job. Matt had his first 2009 alligator, perhaps with time remaining to chase a second. The trio packed it in and took Matt’s gator to the check station.

In later discussion among the group present on this hunt, much emphasis and admiration were focused on that big alligator that was released. None had ever been that close to one of such size. All had seen them while fishing and/or boating along this stretch of river, but to be within touching distance of a veritable monster on a dark night added a totally new dimension to the entire affair.

Perry Stribling concluded the exchange with a suggestion that found favor: “Let’s all apply for a tag next year. That way maybe somebody will get drawn and we’ll do this again.”