Quick swim, dropped shotgun, successful outing leave hunters wanting more

By Keith Sutton Originally Published October 13, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated October 11, 2013 at 4:22 p.m.
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Courtesy of Keith Sutton/Contributing Photographer

Keith Sutton poses with the 7 1/2-foot alligator he killed in the Arkansas River on Sept. 27. This year’s season, Arkansas’ seventh, ran Sept. 20-22 and Sept. 27-29. Hunters killed a total of 44 alligators statewide.

I should have worried that a 7 1/2-foot alligator with a harpoon point in its hide would do its best to bite off my appendages, but I did not.

I should have worried that such an alligator would be powerful enough to yank me out of my boat, but I did not.

I should have worried that I might drop my shotgun into the river when I attempted to dispatch the alligator, but I did not.

In fact, these things hardly crossed my mind — until they happened. Then it was too late.

Gators were scarce on the Arkansas River that night, a fact that puzzled me and my companions, Alex Hinson of Paron and Chuck Long of Jonesboro. A week earlier, Alex and I, along with another friend, Lewis Peeler of Vanndale, had seen dozens of gators on the river in Desha County. But on the evening of Sept. 27, the big reptiles had seemingly vanished. During four hours of hunting, Alex, Chuck and I had seen only four, and these were either less than legal length (4 feet), or they submerged when approached.

To compensate, we motored up a bayou to a shallow lake. At first, we saw nothing, but then Alex’s spotlight illuminated the ruby-red eyes of an alligator in the distance.

We had little hope of reaching the creature. We would have to maneuver the boat through dense aquatic weeds to do so. Chances were good that the gator would spook before we were near enough to harpoon or snare it as required by law.

Alex held the light on the alligator, while Chuck eased the boat forward with a trolling motor. Soon we were close enough so I could estimate the crocodilian’s length. The length of a gator’s snout in inches equals the animal’s body length in feet. I knew this gator stretched 7 to 8 feet long.

On July 10, when I had learned I was one of 64 lucky hunters to have drawn an Arkansas alligator-hunting permit, I decided I would make a determined effort to kill not just any alligator, but a big alligator. I arbitrarily set a goal of 8 feet or longer. But little did I know then how ambitious that objective would be.

Our hunting had actually begun the weekend before when the season opened. But on opening day, Sept. 20, torrential rainfall postponed our start. Fortunately, Alex, Lewis and I were staying on the river at Pendleton in a friend’s shantyboat. Our hunting boat was in the water adjacent to our sleeping quarters ready to go when the rain subsided at 1:30 a.m.

In the four hours we hunted that night, we saw dozens of alligators, including at least one 12-footer. But having never been gator hunting before, we had much to learn. We learned, for example, that these reptiles are extremely wary and cannot be approached closely using an outboard motor. A trolling motor or paddle is needed. The bright spotlight we were using seemed to bother them as well. A dimmer light was required for a close approach.

The weather was excellent on the night of Sept. 21, and the gators were still active. But we found ourselves in competition for hunting spots with fellow gator hunters. Dozens of other boats were on the water throughout the night, and we listened forlornly to gunshots as other hunters killed the gators we had already found the night before and had wanted to kill.

One enormous gator we dubbed Big Boy gave us a chance at him that night. This 12-foot-plus dinosaur played a game of keep-away, staying just beyond reach as we followed him for more than two hours. Then he sank into the depths and vanished.

Work prevented us from hunting on Sunday night, but we were back at Pendleton

for the start of hunting on Sept. 27. To our dismay, however, the gators had all but disappeared. Hunting competition was almost nil, but after a three-hour search, we’d seen only three small alligators.

Which takes me back to the larger alligator we finally found that night. Although I had hoped to kill a bigger one, our lack of gator sightings convinced me to try for this 7- to 8-footer. When Chuck got me close enough, I hit the gator hard with my harpoon, and … nothing.

I thought the harpoon point had bounced off the gator’s thick hide. The harpoon line, attached to the boat, stayed limp, although the alligator quickly shot away when struck. Then suddenly, the line went taut, and the boat turned 90 degrees.

“I got it!” I shouted. And the excitement began.

The gator disappeared in the thick vegetation, but Chuck used the outboard to pull the animal to open water. Up until this point, the gator actually had seemed fairly docile. I was standing on the boat’s front deck holding the harpoon line tight as we waited for the big reptile to settle down. Then, in less time than it takes to tell, the beast surged away, pulling me off the deck and into the water.

To say I was frightened is an understatement. As I fell, I imagined the gator’s powerful jaws clamping down on me as it did a death roll. But somehow, I landed beside the gator, not on it, and was back in the boat before the gator could bite me. We quickly snared the animal and pulled it close.

Chaos ensued. When the snare tightened around its neck, the gator went berserk, biting at the boat, the lines and everything else in sight. I heard Chuck say, “It’s bigger than I thought.”

All I had to do now was dispatch the gator with a shot from my 20-gauge. But the alligator was facing the wrong way for me to shoot it behind the head as I knew I should. To compensate, I held the shotgun in one hand, reached out past the gator’s head, pressed the gun barrel down and pulled the trigger. The blast caused the gun to jump from my hand and fall into the river. But, finally, the alligator was dead.

I never found the gun, despite wading in the leech-infested water for more than an hour trying to feel it with my bare toes. It hardly seemed to matter, though. When we pulled the alligator into the boat, all of us were impressed. It stretched 7 1/2 feet, a healthy female with huge teeth and claws.

I had invested weeks of study, on-the-water scouting, and hunting time trying to achieve my goal of killing an Arkansas alligator. My friends had given up two weekends of their time to

assist me. And now that it was done, I could think of only one thing: I hope one of us draws a gator tag next year so we can do it all again.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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