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'Gator huntin' gives a little bite to life

When it comes to Texas critters, the majestic Longhorn steer typically jumps to mind. A recent trip to the Lone Star State gave me an up-close-and-personal look at a less visible, but equally ornery creature there – the Gulf Coast alligator.

I’ve done a lot in my life. I’ve been hired and fired, divorced and remarried. I’ve had a house burn down and then rise from the ashes. I’ve soared in the Goodyear Blimp, chased the cases of several serial killers and ventured deep inside prisons, mental hospitals and a nuclear power plants.

I’ve visited 16 countries, driven across the United States twice and crossed paths with komodo dragons in the wild. I explored life as a chameleon, changing my colors and my clothes to suit each new world that I explored.

But it took me 56 years to get nose-to-snout with a 10-foot alligator in its own watery realm. That alligator was to end up as a rug in somebody’s house or turned into belts, boots, wallets or purses. I lived to tell this tale.

But first, I must start with the place.

Texas, for me, has always been a place of myth, magic and massive proportions. She became my mistress of the mind when I tossed my bedroll and cowboy boots behind her massive couch for a decade as a jack of all trades, college student and eventually a newspaper reporter.

My parents and sisters eventually undertook their own pilgrimages to “Tejas.” Our clan has dwindled to my dad, my son and me since then. My dad, who is in his mid-80s now, can’t travel far these days. As a result, I find myself making periodic 1,800-mile pilgrimages from the West Coast to the Texas Gulf Coast.

My dad and stepmother live in an assisted living center there. It is a second home to me, a spiritual, prayerful place that seems to exist on the doorstep of heaven itself. I am welcomed back like family every time I visit.

Audrey Huddleston, the center’s marketing director, is one of the many special people there. It was her husband, Jake, a massive fellow cut from the earth’s rugged cloth, who leads the alligator hunts. He is a wildlife guide who leads hunting expeditions for ducks, doves, teal, wild pigs, alligators and just about anything else that can be hunted or fished.

He has an alligator tattooed onto his arm and a stingray etched upon his back. They have five mounted heads – deer and wild hogs – tacked to their living room wall. Getting to know him is like gaining a glimpse into another world.

I went on one alligator outing with Jake, an assistant and a paying customer and his 12-year-old son. Using two bass boats, we slipped through seemingly endless creeks, bayous and bays. Birds and waterfowl lifted from the reeds in vast clouds. Alligator eyes, snouts and spines could be spotted in the water ahead, only to drop below the surface as we approached.

On the next outing, I rode in the bass boat piloted by Jake. Audrey came along, as did their young son, Avery. Audrey said the boy, who was 19 months old at the time of our outing, is following squarely in his father’s footsteps.

“Jake loved the outdoors since he was Avery’s age,” she said. “When (Jake) was 2, he’d always stand at the bow of the boat looking for game wardens.”

As a result, the wild is their world. The outdoors, Audrey said, is like a cathedral to them. It is there, she said, that the stresses and strains of everyday life drift away like twigs on a current.

Audrey, who grew up in her father’s boat shop, has become nearly as adept at hunting hogs and ‘gators as her husband.

“It’s all about the adventure,” she said, her senses sharpened by countless outings.

“This spot smells gatory,” she noted as our boat churned its way up a narrow slough lined by muddy banks. The foul smell, she explained, was due to alligators regurgitating their food and stashing it in soil caverns along muddy creeks.

“They kill something fresh, and then they park it and wait for it to rot,” she said.

It was there that we encountered a 10-footer at the business end of a hook and a rope. It roiled the water as Jake pulled it up to our boat for an inspection before the clients coming on our heels in another boat would kill it with a single shot.

Jake can tell an alligator’s size while it’s still in the water by length of its snout. Jake obtains about 50 alligator take permits a year from about 15 property owners.

It’s not a sport for the financially faint-hearted, Jake notes. A hunter can expect to shell out a couple of thousand dollars in guide, permit, skinning and tanning fees. The costs climb even higher if the proud hunter wants their alligator mounted or turned into a rug or other products. Most of the hunters turn their alligator meat into meals.

But alligators aren’t much of a cash crop these days, as the recession has taken a big bite out of Jake’s business. Unemployment has cut into the flow of hunters, and a drop in demand for alligator hides has reduced the prices that buyers will pay.

There are also endless reams of paperwork to submit to the state and a need to pay for helpers, fuel and boat and motor maintenance.

“It takes so much work and takes so many people, that when it gets done there isn’t much money left,” Audrey said.

But the thrill of the hunt and the leathery byproducts make it all worthwhile, several of Jake’s clients said outside a refrigerated storage locker where their quarry was briefly stored. One of the half dozen or so alligators there was missing a chunk of its leg, a silent testimony to the beasts’ fiercely territorial nature.

“It’s been great, just great,” said Gary Hancock, who was part of a four-member group of hunters from Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas that had been planning its expedition for a year.

“Oh yeah, it’s worth it,” said Hancock, 53, who uses a wheelchair to overcome a physical disability. “That 11-footer gave us some trouble before we got it.”

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