Alligator hunting is another reason Arkansas deserves to be the Outdoors Capital of the World.
On Sept. 25, Travis Bearden, 31, of Dumas killed an alligator that an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologist measured as 13 feet, 111/2 inches long. The Game and Fish Commission does not recognize official state records for alligators, but the agency has recorded data for hunter-harvested alligators since 2007. Bearden's gator is the longest on record, and it weighed 800 pounds. The previous record (13 feet, 10 inches) weighed 1,380 pounds.
Bearden, an employee at the Little Rock Water Reclamation Authority, killed the alligator in Merrisach Lake in Arkansas County during the second half of the alligator season. After an unsuccessful first weekend, Bearden said he assembled a new team that included his father Jerry Bearden, brother Cody Bearden and friend Tommy Kelley.
"We didn't have real high expectations," Travis Bearden said. "Within the first hour or two on Friday night, we came up on a good size one. He evaded us a few times, but when I finally threw the harpoon, it stuck and the fight was on."
Space is limited inside a 17-foot aluminum boat with a center console. Four grown men and assorted gear further reduce space and grossly limit mobility inside the boat. A coil of rope on the floor was attached to the harpoon, which was attached to a powerful 800-pound locomotive with unlimited room to run. One loop around an ankle would take a man overboard and underwater before he had time to scream.
"As soon as I harpooned him he took off, the rope was flying freely out of the boat," Bearden said. "It was going out so quick, and we were all jumping around hoping it wouldn't get around somebody's legs and take them into the water. It almost got me."
Bearden said the alligator towed the boat a great distance and in many directions.
"He was fully alive," Bearden said. "We held the rope as tight as we could and tried not to get thrown out of the boat. He went down and around. He had the boat going all over the lake. When we finally felt slack in the rope, we started pulling on him."
The previous week, a smaller gator pulled loose from the harpoon. Bearden said he was worried that this much larger gator would break their hearts again, and he was determined to gain some extra leverage.
"When we got him up, I tried to get another snare around him," Bearden said. "I almost got it around his snout, but he went nuts. My brother was in the back. He rigged up another harpoon, but we couldn't get it to penetrate the skin."
Bearden finally managed to get a snare around the gator's neck, and it was only a matter of time before the men subdued the beast.
"We felt more confident and bullied him around a little bit," Bearden said.
Bearden harpooned the gator at 9:15 p.m. He shot the gator with a shotgun (12-gauge, No. 4 lead) at 11 p.m. Getting the beast in the boat presented a different challenge.
"That was a whole other two hours trying to figure that out," Bearden said. "We tried to do like Swamp People, where they get the head in and then roll the body in. It tipped the boat over so far that we could hear water trickling into the boat."
Another group of hunters came over to assist. They held one side of Bearden's boat while Bearden's team wrangled the beast into it.
"We had to sit on one side, and the gator was on the other side," Bearden said. "We were scared that we might hit a stump and get stuck."
On shore, the first tape measurement was 13-4. The next morning, when the gator was curled up in the back of a truck, it measured 13-9. Bearden called Mark Barbee, the Game and Fish Commission's alligator biologist, who sent a field biologist to record the animal's data.
"I told him, 'I don't know if we have the state record, but we're flirting with it,' " Bearden said.
The group rejoiced when the tape measure hit its final mark.
Bearden said he wants to get a full body mount, which will cost about $5,000. He said he wants it to be displayed in a high-traffic location, like a major sporting goods outlet, where the public can see it.