Arky Alligators

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NEAR FULTON, Ark. — The anticipation leading up to a thing is often what makes the thing so appealing in the first place, and there's definitely a strong sense of anticipation, bordering on anxiety, on the opening night of Arkansas' first legal alligator hunting season.

Matt Wilson is leaving over the bed of his pickup, storing an unseen object as the waning rays of sunlight filter through the trees. His father, Sans, is the holder of one of 40 alligator hunting permits issued for the inaugural Arkansas season.

Sans Wilson shuffles out the front door of his rural home on the banks of the Red River and greets several visitors with a quick but nervous smile. His older son, Drew Wilson, and long-time friend William Wright soon pull into the yard with a cloud of dry Red River dust trailing their respective vehicles.

The atmosphere is definitely festive. There's a cooler of beer in one of the trucks, and Sans passes around a Styrofoam to-go box of fried catfish that Drew brought from the Cotton Patch a few miles up the road. Everyone's laughing and joking. Sans Wilson gives his alligator-hunting helpers, all certified to take part after a mandatory training session by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, with alligator-themed gifts — a silver salad bowl with an engraved alligator for Wright, alligator salt and pepper shakers for Matt, and a silver alligator champagne/ice bucket for Drew. The entire scene is drenched in the golden light that turns stoic photographers into ebullient artists.

Wilson seems to understand the significance of this evening, the legal hunting of a prehistoric reptile for the first time in Arkansas. You can tell it's a proud moment for Wilson, his sons and Wright. They've received instruction on how to catch an alligator with a snare, basically a wire loop attached to a long rope on a long, thick wooden dowel, or a harpoon; and how to dispatch the gator with a bang stick, a blatantly simple device by which a 12-gauge shotgun shell fits into a small cylinder at the end of a long dowel, exploding into an alligator's brain when the hunter jabs the device into the knotty, greenish-black skin atop the alligator's head.

But the instructions came with a caveat: These techniques work, but nobody's vouching for their safety. And it's not just the obvious danger that lurks in the back of your mind; there's also the fear of the unknown. No one has ever done this in Arkansas.

Someone asks Sans Wilson if he's ready.

"Yeah, very ready," he says. He goes on to explain how the hunt will take place, where he'll go, how he'll approach the small lake. He explains that he's after a particular gator, a 12-foot behemoth he's been watching for six or seven years on a small wetland at his Three Lakes Hunting Club. "If everything goes right, we'll go in and get this thing done and be over with it before you know it."

But a lot of things can go wrong when you engage a prehistoric reptile with deceptive speed and incredible strength and big, powerful jaws.

How do Sans and his assistants know this is going to work the way they've planned it?

Sans hesitates before answering: "We don't know."

How'd we get here?
Alligators have been around these parts a lot longer than Wilson and his hunting party. Living descendants of the dinosaurs, they've prowled southwest Arkansas' wetlands for thousands of years. By all accounts, alligators got along fine on this land until the country's westward expansion. Arkansas' early settlers took their toll on stocks of many game species, and alligators were no exception. This reptilian survivor persisted, even as the human population developed the land, but not without losses. After years of excessive hide hunting and the loss of wetlands — and a general ignorance of alligator management by wildlife scientists — in 1967 the U.S. Department of Interior listed Alligator mississippiensis, the country's largest reptile, as endangered.

Like other state wildlife agencies in the southeast, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission soon tried to restore alligator populations. Between 1972 and 1984, the agency released almost 3,000 gators in suitable habitat that was part of the reptile's historical range.

Arkansas' alligators responded favorably to protection and advances in management, and where suitable wetlands existed, they prospered. The state got serious about the possibility of regulated hunting about seven years ago. Wildlife managers embarked on a plan to assess the alligator's status, and from 2002-2004, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began counting alligators.

The survey revealed population ranges between one and 30 alligators per mile of survey route, with an average of 2.3 per mile. By comparison, coastal areas of Louisiana, Texas and Florida can easily exceed 30 alligators per survey mile; Arkansas' population estimates are comparable to similar areas in Mississippi and the Carolinas.

With hard facts in the form of population studies and nuisance alligator calls from the public, the Game and Fish Commission began crafting a plan for a limited hunting season. Because of what the federal government calls "similarity of appearance" to the American crocodile, the alligator is still listed as a threatened species, even though its numbers are stable or increasing in many areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Interior Department, reviewed Arkansas' season proposal and approved it this summer.

Arkansas' first legal alligator hunt began 30 minutes after sundown on Sept. 21, a Friday night that started hot and muggy and got only a little more comfortable as the night progressed. The AGFC issued 40 permits, including 23 public-land permits that were randomly drawn from nearly 3,000 requests. The AGFC issued the remaining permits to private landowners in areas with strong alligator populations.

The hunt took place in Arkansas' southwest and southeast corners, largely along the lower Arkansas River in the east and the Red River bottoms in the west, with several other wetland areas included in the open hunting zones. Over two weekends, Sept. 21-24 and Sept. 28-Oct. 1, Arkansas residents (non-residents weren't eligible for permits) captured and killed 21 alligators, a success rate of 52 percent. The gators ranged in size from a 4-foot, 6-inch specimen, taken by Harold Damron on Arkansas County's Merisach Lake in southeast Arkansas, to a 12-foot, 8-inch, 550-pound giant hauled in by John McClendon on a wetland in southeast Arkansas' Drew County.

Sans' alligator or sans alligator?
Sans Wilson and his helpers slip their johnboat into the water about 45 minutes after sunset, not quite 8 p.m. on a steamy Friday night in southwest Arkansas. A healthy-sized alligator, but one not nearly the dimensions of Wilson's target, glides through the small lake, a V of water trailing its protruding scaly head.

A cloud of mosquitoes is never far away along the banks of the still, thickly vegetated waterway where Wilson and his crew are slowly working back and forth, slowly laboring through the grassy water in search of a huge gator.

The hunters' intense spotlights wave back and forth like beacons in the night. They suddenly stop on a clump of lily pads near one end of the lake, and a pair of glowing amber eyes are reflected in the beam. But it's not the alligator Wilson wants.

Meanwhile, a veritable parade of trucks begins trickling into a field next to the lake. Someone has put out the call that history is in the making, and the first Arkansas alligator hunt is drawing a crowd at Three Lakes Hunting Club.

After traversing the small lake for a little more than an hour and a half, occasionally stopping the lights on other sets of glowing eyes, the hunting party pulls to the bank and disembarks into the darkness, their lights dimmed for the moment. Wilson nervously walks back and forth along the bank and periodically shines a beam across the lake's surface.

"There's one there. And another one," he says. "But neither one of them is anywhere close to the size of the one I'm after."

Wilson seems frustrated with the gathering that has now assembled. He's worried the gator has been spooked by all the traffic, the crunch of gravel beneath truck tires, the myriad lights and voices piercing the inky darkness.

Wilson has had enough for the night. He decides to call off the hunt, electing to give it another shot the following night. With little fanfare, he announces his decision to a handful of the gathered observers, leaving everyone wondering what might have been.

History will be made this night, though. Nick Britt, 21, tags the first alligator in southwest Arkansas, a 10-foot, 1-inch male taken on private land near Cypress Bayou in Hempstead County. Within an hour, a call comes in from Lake Millwood, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake that's well known as an alligator hot spot. An 18-year-old permit winner named Aaron Carver has taken an 8-foot, 5-inch male gator. The kid seems stunned as wildlife officers, biologists and reporters surround him and fire a barrage of questions.

Sans Wilson never did get his big gator. But his younger son, Matt, captured and killed one during the second segment of the hunt. For at least one member of the Wilson clan, the anticipation is over.

It won't be so easy for Sans Wilson. He'll have to wait at least another year before getting another shot to tag an Arkansas alligator, the anticipation building all the while. But make no mistake, if and when the chance arises, Wilson will be out here again trying for the big one.

He badly wants an alligator. And why?

"Because they're here."