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A quick lesson in hunting gator

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / October 2, 1998

BAYOU GAUCHE – The sun rising over the cypress trees. The dew on themarsh grass. The dead quiet except for a few birds twilling in the distanceand the breeze softly blowing through the branches.

A morning on the marsh is a tranquil sight. But in that tranquility lies anancestor from an ancient age, an age when large lizards roamed the earth.

The Spanish called it el largato, “the lizard.” The scientific classificationis Alligator mississipiensis. The common term is American alligator, oneof the swamps most dangerous predators.

On this quiet, cool September Saturday morning Arthur Matherne, Ned Brou, three tourists and myself take off from Matherne’s Airboat Tours on Highway 306 in Bayou Gauche in pursuit of this creature. It is the firstweek of the alligator harvesting season, and Brou is in possession of 45 tags.

Putting on earmuffs to cut down the sound from the airboat, we head out into the marsh. The airboat allows us to ride over the marsh, letting usgetting deep into nature.

As we enter the marsh with the sun rising in front of us we come upon the first trap. The trap is a simple mechanism, a pole with a string and hookand a piece of meat hanging over the water. But it is highly effective aswe find out a few traps later. Matherne and Brou, both experiencedharvesters, quickly recognize the tell-tale signs of a catch – the pole moving or crushed grass.

As Matherne pulls the cord, Brou reaches into the boat for his rifle. As thealligator’s head appears above the water, Brou fires one shot into it. Thealligator, about 5 1/2 feet, is then hoisted into the boat and leaned over the side, allowing it to spit up blood and past meals. Brou then cuts a slitinto the alligator’s tail and attaches a blue tag to it. Meanwhile, Matherneis rebaiting the hook with a chicken neck and attaches the string to a slit in the pole.

Brou has been harvesting alligators since 1980. A cousin taught him thebasics, such as how to split the pole for a trigger, but he taught himself the nuisances. He said he usually gets about 45 tags a season and hasfilled them every year.

Brou has been working with Matherne for about eight years. The first jobis finding the poles, preferably straight, sturdy ones about 2 inches around the base. Two weeks before the season starts in early September Brou andMatherne head into the marsh to place the poles in spots they find promising, over a 100 poles in all. The poles may be moved during themonth-long season.

The day before the season opens (this year on Sept. 2), the two will goback out and bait the poles. Just about any kind of meat will suffice, fromchicken necks to melt to mullet. Freezer burned pork and deer meat worksas well.

We continue into the marsh with Brou and Matherne checking and rebaiting the traps along the way. This is Brou’s family property, and black and redtags distinguish which traps are his. Brou said he prefers baiting them ashe checks the trap rather than making a separate run in the evenings.

As we travel along, we can see a hunting stand in the trees. An abundanceof wildlife surrounds us, from alligators to teal. Matherne said at timesyou can see deer bounding through the high marsh grass.

An hour later we come along another trap that has promising signs.

Matherne pulls on the line while Brou takes the shot. This one is about 71/2 feet long. Brou, who has already harvested a 12-foot, 6-inch gator,said you can likely tell a big one is on the line by how tight the line is.

Generally the tighter the line, the bigger the alligator.

Brou said when he pulls on the string he pulls himself to the alligator to keep it from getting overly excited. Matherne shows marks on his arms andhands, describing what happens when you get careless around one of the creatures.

While the season lasts until Oct. 1, Brou said he will probably use up histags by the second week of September. Matherne said they used to cleanthe skins themselves, but it got to be too much for the money it paid.

The alligators will be sent to a processing plant the same day they are harvested. Matherne takes out Brou and other hunters and in turn gets ashare of their profits from the sale of the alligators. They also let himhunt on their leases.

After about two hours on the water, we head back to the dock. Matherneand Brou will go out later to check the traps again, looking for more of the dinosaur of the marshes.