By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Now that the bulk of the 2016 alligator season is in the books, one hunter and his crew got to experience the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory during one harrowing season in the Southwest Alabama zone.
It’s not often that a hunter gets more than one shot at a trophy animal, but that’s what happened to Lee Wright of Daphne, who drew a tag after seven unsuccessful attempts.
“I’ve been applying for eight years,” he said. “I didn’t even realize I’d gotten one at first. It didn’t say ‘Sorry,’ like it had in the past. When I looked it up, it didn’t say ‘Congratulations’ or anything like that. It asked which (training) class I wanted to attend. I was looking, and said, ‘Did I get one?’
“I sure did. I couldn’t really sleep that night I was so excited.”
Wright quickly assembled a crew of Jackson Woodson, Phillip Brooks and brothers Alvin and James Nelson. The Nelsons are alligator-hunting veterans and have a boat already rigged to pursue one of the huge reptiles that inhabit south Alabama.
“All I had to do was bring a light and the tag,” Wright said. “We knew there was a gator hanging out at the Cutoff (a channel between the Alabama and Mobile rivers) We went up the first Thursday night and saw this big gator. We got two hooks in him, but he broke 100-pound braided line like it was nothing. That’s when we knew it was a pretty big alligator. We hunted him for another six hours that night but couldn’t get another cast at him.”
The team decided to try the lower Delta for the next couple of nights but didn’t have any luck finding a big gator. They saw plenty of 8- and 9-footers. With the season coming to a close, they decided to go back north to the Cutoff.
Instead of going home empty-handed, Wright said he was prepared to take home an 8-footer and call it good on the last night of the season.
“We had hunted all six nights, and I was about worn out,” he said. “We got on the water about 7:30 and finally spotted him about 10 o’clock. We managed to get three hooks in him. We actually fought him for about 45 minutes.”
The team then deployed a grappling hook to put more pressure on the big gator, but the team found out the gator put more pressure on the equipment.
“The gator broke one of the hooks off the grappling hook,” Wright said. “We ended up throwing the grappling hook down again to try to get the gator off the bottom, and he straightened another one of the hooks. We had only one hook left on the grappling hook, but we managed to get him up. Then we got a harpoon in him.”
Wright and crew were then treated to another example of the power in the beast when they tried to loop a snare around the gator’s snout.
“He didn’t like that at all,” Wright said. “He freaked out and turned around and bit the snare. He bit the aluminum pole square in half. He got some of the rope with it. He turned and thrashed and broke all three lines and two ropes with harpoons in him. Everything just snapped. He just about pulled the boat over. He was a monster.
“My heart just sank. We had hunted this thing that long and now he was gone.”
Instead of giving up right away, the team decided to wait a little while because the gator still had a harpoon in him.
“Finally, about 45 minutes later he came back up about 30 yards from us,” Wright said. “We were able to ease up, and, miraculously, Jackson Woodson was able to get a hook in him, right in the tail. We ended up getting four lines in him, the grappling hook and another harpoon before we could get him up. We finally got him secured to the boat and got a shot in the back of the head.
“It was the biggest adrenaline rush of my life. I’ve killed a lot of big deer and been on some great hunts, but nothing compares to this.”
After the woo-hooing and celebrating subsided, Wright and crew realized they had a big task at hand. It was all hands on deck to get the big gator into the 20-foot boat.
“James (Nelson) couldn’t help because he had a wrist injury, so it took the other four of us to get the gator in the boat,” Wright said. “It took about 45 minutes. We tried that Swamp People thing – getting the head over the side and rolling the gator in the boat. That didn’t work for us. We got ropes tied to him and finally got him in the boat.”
At the weigh station on the Causeway, the gator measured 12 feet, 10 inches and weight 684 pounds, the heavyweight of the season so far with only the Lake Eufaula zone still open. Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Chris Nix, the WFF’s Alligator Program Coordinator, said 33 tags were filled from the West Central zone, while 92 from the Southwest Alabama zone were filled.
Wright’s spouse, Kristie, had hoped to watch Lee weigh in a big gator, but she missed it for obvious reasons.
“My wife is pregnant with twins, and she has hunted with me the entire time we’ve been married and dating,” Lee said. “She was very upset she didn’t get to go. She tried to get me to let her go and be the spotlight person. I told her she couldn’t do it. She was not happy. Since she couldn’t go, she wanted to be at the weigh-in, but we were so late she went to sleep. So I had to take the gator for her to see it and get a bunch of pictures.”
Wright had heard Dauphin Island Sea Lab was doing research on alligators, and he contacted the folks at the Sea Lab to see if they were interested in studying his big gator. The Sea Lab jumped at the chance.
“The Sea Lab doesn’t have a chance to get gators that big and that old that come from the wild,” Wright said. “They’re going to do a necropsy and see what he had been eating and other tests. They think he’s about 60 years old. I am going to have a head mount made.”
Wright said that anyone who hasn’t been drawn for the gator season so far should be a little more patient and wait for the full force of the points system to kick in. The points system awards points for every year a person is not drawn. Each year people aren’t drawn, their points are cubed, which means the points are now accumulating very quickly.
“The points system helped me out,” he said. “I had the most points you could have. I thought I had a good shot, but I didn’t know for sure. I think the points system is a great way to do it. If I can get a tag, anybody can get one because my luck’s not that good.”