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Travel

Killing a Ten-Foot Alligator in the Swamps of Louisiana

When you own swampland in Louisiana, it can be a bit like owning an inefficient alligator farm. I took a trip with Dave Turgeon to the swamp where he makes part of his living.

by Michael Patrick Welch
Sep 25 2014, 2:00pm

All photos by the author 

Dave Turgeon has been known for the last 35 years as Dee Slut, legendary lead singer for New Orleans punk band the Sluts. Now, at 51 years old with gray hair and a broken back, he still looks the part in his ripped denim outfit and crumpled straw cowboy hat. During a day's work in Lafitte, Louisiana, however, he is just one of many residents who make their living off land that they own—in Turgeon’s case, 5,200 acres of swamp purchased by his family at a tax auction in 1910.

When I arrived at his swamp shack, he readied the small, army-green mudboat in his yard. It was four days into September’s month-long alligator hunting season, a lucrative period that helps assure his swampland is more than just a huge tax burden. The shack's decorations consisted of alligator bones, Spanish moss, and lazy outdoor cats.

Turgeon’s heavily bearded, 23-year-old son, Reed, walked down the oyster-shell path that led from the Acadian-style treehouse he was building for himself around back. Reed wore his swim trunks—“in case I have to get down in the water with an alligator today,” he said.   

The Turgeons have hunted gators for three years now. Dave spent last year’s gator profits on the new mudboat he pulled behind the Sluts’ old gray Econoline van, a vehicle he started not with a key but a small metal rod he stuck directly into the engine. His driver’s side window was rolled up but busted out at the bottom, creating a sharp M of glass that threatened to jab into the top of his straw cowboy hat when he stuck his head out the window to back his boat down into the water. Reed barely fit in the very back with gas tanks and burning hot exhaust pipes. Looking around me, I had no idea where they’d put even a small gator in this tiny boat.

That day, the Turgeons checked 25 different gator lines, each baited with a large piece of raw chicken hooked on a thick line dangling from the end of a 15-foot pole. Many gator hunters use PVC poles, but in an attempt to get as close to nature as possible, Turgeon uses green bamboo he grows at home for the purpose. We smelled the rotting flesh as Turgeon’s boat breezed past two or three of the dangling, uneaten chickens he'd hung out the previous day. A couple of the lines were down in the water with the bait missing, but no gators. “We get a lot of lines that are knocked down where they’ve dragged it onto the shore and the chicken’s gone,” Reed told me. “They might knock it off with their tail. Some of them learn to nibble.”

“You don’t get to be eighty to a hundred years old by being stupid,” his father added.  

The fifth line was down and taut. “There is a big one that lives around here,” Reed told me as we approached the line. “Last year he straightened a hook. It’s gotta be at least ten feet to straighten a hook.” Reed grabbed the line and pulled, but it wouldn't budge. Wincing, he ran his hand down it into the water.

“We caught a ten-footer yesterday,” Dave told me as his son blindly searched for the line’s end. “He was a fighter. When I shot him, he was so big, I thought I was shooting the back side of his head, but I accidentally shot in front of his head.”

“The bone sprayed my eyes,” Reed laughed nervously, feeling around in the water. “I had bone in my eyes and mouth. It hurt, like a bullet ricocheting and hitting my lip.”

“Usually they are pretty docile, because they’ve swallowed a hook and it's been rippin' 'em up inside,” adds Dave. “They’re pretty chilled-out then. If it’s a fresh hook, they’re still pretty alive and you’re in for a fight.”

Reed’s face relaxed as he finally unhooked the line from a log.

Dave's tiny boat whizzed on past all the chicken parts still hanging in the air. The Turgeons wondered aloud if I wasn't bad luck. As they checked more fruitless lines and rebaited stripped hooks, a carpet of black clouds rolled in overhead. “When there’s thunder and lightening, they react like a dog; they get uncomfortable and move around a lot,” says Dave. “Instead of sitting on the bank, they swim around their canal, their territory, and basically they’re worried.”

Finally it started raining on us. The water was strikingly cold for August, but I laughed at Dave’s overreaction to the chill as he pulled the boat under some trees. “Hey, man, I slept in a van in New York in the middle of the winter when the Sluts were on tour in the 80s,” he snapped back. “I know from cold.” Luckily the squall lasted less than 20 minutes, just long enough to thoroughly soak our clothes.

The clouds remained dark as we headed off to check the rest of the lines. The Turgeons had checked 24 lines by the time they approached a massive field of what Dave calls “Lundi Buf,” a Cajun word meaning "bull tongue." The entire horizon was carpeted with this taller and thicker hyacinth-like plant that the boat just could not cut through. “Last month this area was all clear,” said Dave, as he and his son stood on their toes to look over the brush at their very last gator line.

“It’s down,” Reed said. “And there are waves around it. That’s a massive gator.”

Anxious, Dave ripped his boat in a giant arch around the Lundi Buff, looking for a way in. There was excitement but little tension, since clearly the Turgeons would not accept giving up on the day’s only catch. Dave bullied us through a weak link of hyacinth and pulled the boat up to the downed line. Reed moved to the bow and I switched to the back, where I immediately singed my calf on an exhaust pipe.

All plants lay flat in a wide circle around the bamboo pole. In the center sprouted a bouquet of reeds wrapped tight in the black gator line. Just to the right of the trashed area, ominous bubbles rumbled to the surface. Reed got to work, dipping a paddle into the water, trying to hook onto the taut line he was tasked with pulling up. Reed’s oar eventually grabbed it, but it took him another few moments to untangle it from the weeds enough to start pulling it up. His face strained. The bubbles intensified.

Finally, an enormous green-black dinosaur head broke the surface. The monster was in no mood to fight, but was still scary as hell. Turgeon quickly pressed his .22 rifle’s skinny barrel directly against the back of the armored skull. A single hollow point bullet popped off almost quietly, and the gator’s eyes closed, more like a wince than sleep. The hollow point shattered upon entry, instead of tearing all the way through the gator. One small red hole was left behind. Just to be sure, Turgeon squeezed off a second bullet before he and Reed wrapped the gator’s mouth in pink tape then began struggling to lift it. The two men together managed to haul the gator up and in without capsizing the boat. Curled in a giant circle, its tail almost touching its wide snout, the gator completely filled the bow where I’d sat on the way out.

“You never see one over eight feet that isn’t at least missing a foot,” Dave said, pointing out the gator’s leathery right-hand stump. This won’t matter in the sale, but the gator was also missing almost 12 inches off its tail, which put it in a different size class altogether, costing Dave $5 per foot off his final price. The men were a little disappointed but still happy. “Gators will fight for dominance,” Dave explained. “That is nature’s way. The badass is always getting taken on by the younger ones. When the badass goes, next year there will be another one approximately that size in that same spot.”

They still guessed him to be ten feet, meaning he would bring about $300. “They grow really fast up until six feet,” Reed tells me. “Then they only grow a half inch a year.” They estimate this gator would have been just about eligible for social security. The meaning of this wasn’t lost on Dave, who knelt for a second for a private moment of blessing down by the giant head, as even thicker gray clouds rolled in.

Within minutes it was raining again, harder than before, with stronger wind. I wedged myself in between Dave’s knees and the big twitching alligator under my feet. Despite not being in true open water, and surrounded by trees on every side, the tiny, weighed-down boat in the icy rain and wind felt dangerous as we cut a huge arch back around the thick Bull’s Tongue. Dave couldn't stand the cold, and the boat really felt like it might capsize, so we pulled into an enclosure of Chinese tallow trees, another unwelcome invasive species. “They’re the scourge of the swamp, choking out cypress, gum and maple, valuable native hardwood trees,” explained Dave. “Seems people planted them for the beautiful fall color—we don’t get a lot of trees out here that will produce the gorgeous reds and yellows. Or it coulda been birds poopin' the seeds out in the swamp.” Either way, the skinny trees did little to keep us dry or warm.

“A ten-foot gator, in the cold-ass rain in September! Woohoo!” Dave shouted over the wind, trying to boost spirits, which deteriorated regardless. The thick tallow trunks began to sway dangerously around us. “Maybe we should step onto the shore so we don’t get crushed,” worried Reed, and before we could all agree, one medium sized tree cracked and fell onto the boat. Instantaneously, we were all transported onto soggy “land.”

After we each took a cold lash, the squall lightened up enough that Dave, who was freezing, decided to make another break for it. As we raced across the swamp again in the mudboat, the rain only intensified. But we continued forward. I barely noticed the cold and wet air around me, because for the next two miles home, I molested the humongous gator. Most people will never get to touch an alligator, much less one this big. Every inch of him was covered in armor. Even the pliable sections of his skin were covered in small shields that I was surprised even bullets could penetrate. I grabbed and squeezed the huge, white tits of fat on the sides of his jaw, and pulled at the dangling skin tabs where his right hand used to be. I held one of his surviving claws up to my similar-sized hand, and he tried to make a fist. I ran fingers along the giant spikes that traced down his back to the scars on his truncated tail. I rubbed the finger-sized teeth in his taped-shut mouth. All the while he was still moving, reacting to my exploration. Every few moments he seemed to try and stand back up, even though he was definitely not breathing.

The gator stayed curled up, twitching in the boat, towed by the gray van, which Dave started with the rod. We were on our way to sell the giant beast. 

After covering the ten-foot gator in ice, we headed out to a Ryder truck parked along another lonely rural road. A small crowd gathered around, staring into the truck at a pile of 100 alligators. The biggest was 12 feet long. The guy who was manning the truck, Troy Pizzani, works for American Tanning and Leather. “Troy used to be a tanner himself,” Dave told me. “They used to have a gator processing area on the bayou, but it closed, so now he just buys them and delivers them. He’s also running for constable.”

Dave was in good spirits, but I did catch him pacing beside his boat, worried that the shortened tail would cost him a lot of money. Meanwhile, everyone else was having fun opening the various gators’ jaws and encouraging their children to stick their heads inside the mouths for photo ops—in the process letting out an atrocious stink. “They throw up when you shoot them,” Reed tells me. “All the rats, nutria, muskrats, fish... it all comes up into their mouths when they die.”

Finally, Pizzani measured the Turgeons’ catch: nine feet, ten inches. Dave gets $35 a foot—$40 a foot if the tail had been intact. In the end Dave loses about $35 for the tail.

Pizanni estimated that Dave’s gator was 50 to 62 years old. This alligator will be sold for a mere $300, then made into boots. Despite its advanced age, Dave says, nothing will be wasted: The meat will be processed and eaten; the skull will be sold, possibly in some tacky French Quarter bead shop.

As we readied ourselves to leave, a boy about six years old sat down on Dave’s gator for a photo, creating a striking juxtaposition of young atop old, and a symbol of the dominance by even the smallest human over one of the world’s largest, most intimidating beasts.