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Thornton's Delta Gator Enters Record Book

By DAVID RAINER

The 2009 Alabama alligator hunting season is officially over with a new alligator added to the record book. The 701-pound alligator taken by Matt Thornton of Mobile and his hunting partners was harvested on the first night of the hunt in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and held up for the remainder of the season.

The season was split into two areas this year with similar regulations for the Mobile-Tensaw Delta but a significant twist to the regulations for the hunts in the four-county area of Barbour, Houston, Henry and Russell. That season in southeast Alabama ran from Aug. 21-31 and hunters were not required to bring the harvested animals to a central check station, as is required for the Delta.

The final numbers for the Delta were 78 gators taken by 125 permit holders, a 62-percent success rate. Chuck Sharp, supervising biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, thinks the alligators are starting to adapt to the increased activity on the Delta.

“I think part of it is the gators are feeling the pressure of the hunt,” Sharp said of the fourth gator season. “The first year these gators had never been hunted. These gators are long-lived, so they’re adapting to the pressure.”

Still, hunters were able to take 14 alligators larger than 400 pounds on the first weekend of the Delta hunt.

“We saw a good number of big gators that first weekend,” Sharp said. “As you take out these big gators, you’ve got one just a little bit smaller ready to take its place. The hunting area is basically 100,000 acres and we’ve taken 78 animals off that large area. We are just taking off the surplus animals in this population. We do an annual survey in July each year and we haven’t seen any decrease in numbers. The population is healthy.

“There were more females taken this year. Generally, females are smaller. I think the second weekend the hunters weren’t passing up as many gators looking for that big one. That’s probably the main reason for the increase in females taken.”

Sharp said although the harvest numbers weren’t quite as high as expected, he considered it a successful season.

“First of all, we had good, safe hunts,” he said. “We’re not aware of any accidents. We’re getting more and more people who are experienced in hunting gators. We’ve got guys who have hunted in the past, so we’re seeing a good bit of experience starting to develop. That’s always a good thing to have people more aware of what’s going on and what methods to use, and to develop confidence in the methods they’re using. In hunting, a 62-percent success rate is not too shabby.”

Sharp said there has been a definite preference for the method of taking alligators after much trial and error.

“I think most everybody is using the rod and reel with a snatch hook,” he said. “They’re using other methods – harpoon and archery equipment – as intermediate weapons. But you get so much more reach with the hook and line that you don’t get with the harpoon or archery equipment. Even a crossbow is only good for a few yards to get enough penetration.”

Thornton even resorted to bass tackle to get a line on the record gator after a couple of hours of playing cat-and-mouse. He had seen a big gator in the area while bass fishing and decided to hang out around Lower Bryant Landing. When they spotted the gator, he had to crawl over a limb to make his getaway and the crew realized it was a big one.

“We sat there for 45 minutes waiting for him to come back up,” Thornton said. “When he did finally come up, it sounded like a whale coming up for air. We played that game for two hours. I had been trying to cast saltwater spinning rods that I use for snapper and king mackerel fishing but I couldn’t get the distance I needed. So I picked up my Curado reel and 7-foot rod I use bass fishing and got him hooked. He went straight down and we were able to get three more rods hooked up. Then we got a rope with a snatch hook in him.”

When the gator came up, the team was able to get a snare on him, but the gator submerged for another 30 minutes.

“We were lucky,” Thornton said. “Once we got him hooked, it only took about 45 minutes to finish him off. I think he wore himself out before we hooked him by staying down that long.”

Thornton and his buddies – Richie Hurt, Paul O’Dell, Josh Parnell, Ben Harrell and Ross Odom – soon realized the difficulty of dealing with a dispatched gator. They moved to shallow water so Thornton and one of his buddies could jump in to get better leverage on the 13-foot, 5-inch behemoth.

“The hardest part of the whole deal was getting him in the boat,” he said of his 21-foot bay boat. “We got his tail in the boat. Then with me and one other guy pushing and the others pulling we finally got him in the boat. He filled up the bottom of the boat.”

With several days left for hunters to report their gator harvest in southeast Alabama, Supervising Biologist Bill Gray said 15 animals had been checked in with several more expected to be checked before the reporting period ends on Sept. 11.

Gray said three alligators that are in excess of 12 feet and 400 pounds had been taken, including a 12-4, 627-pounder taken by Bryan Hughes of Gurley.

The southeast Alabama hunt was lengthened and expanded to the four-county areas for several reasons, according to Gray.

“Last year we were completely rained out by Tropical Storm Fay,” Gray said. “We wound up with only three alligators harvested because of the weather. We were basically looking for a way to provide the most amount of hunting for the public. We also get a lot of nuisance complaints in private ponds in the counties. We wanted to expand it so the permit holders could work with landowners who needed alligators removed. We wanted to tap into that resource. We’re trying to provide the most access to resource we could.”

Although the final numbers are not in from the 80 permit holders, Gray thinks the new format has worked well.

“The drawback is that, as a biologist, you want to put your hands on the animals you’re sampling,” he said. “We just had to make our peace with that. But the folks and processors are doing a good job of collecting the data. The hunters really like it and it’s been manageable all the way around. We’re considering it a success. Another drawback is having to wait 10 more days to get all the data collected and get the final tally.

“It also reduces the pressure at the reservoir (Lake Eufaula) where people were stacked in there trying to accomplish their harvest. People who work weekends or work shift work can get out there during the week. I think the changes have greatly enhanced the convenience and enjoyment of it with this format. One thing I would change is adding a couple of more counties where we have considerable gator populations and problems. And we might consider having a longer period of time to hunt. The hunters really seem to like it because they can hunt at their leisure more.”

PHOTO: Matt Thornton of Mobile is now in the record book with this 701-pound alligator taken on the first night of the season in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

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