For six nights in August, alligators are not on top of the food chain in Alabama's swamps and rivers.
Those six nights constitute the entirety of gator hunting season along the state's Gulf Coast. This year, Williamsport native Dennis Blakely, 36, was one of those lucky and good enough to take home a gator for his freezer and wall.
It was Blakely's first shot at hunting gators, and he hooked a big one on Aug. 23: a 12-foot, 3-inch fattie that weighed 518 pounds.
Lucky for Blakely, he had lots of help: his friend Gerald Colville and Gerald's son, Jake, came along on the hunt.
"In Alabama, you must catch the gator by rod and reel, hand line, harpoon or bowfishing equipment," Blakely said. "Then you bring the animal close to the boat, get a snare around his head and have control of the animal. Then you may shoot the animal. Once you have harvested the animal, you have to put a tag in his tail. So, we can't bait them, or use limb lines as seen on 'Swamp People.' "
Learning the nuances of lighting up the gators was the first learning experience, Blakely said.
"At a distance, they don't mind the light in their eyes, but as you get closer with a bright light in their eyes, they submerge. It's best to spot them with a spotlight and then hold the light off them some, or swap to a headlight."
Finding the right setup to get in the all-important first hook was the next step. After two nights of struggling to cast size 12 and 14 treble hooks, Blakely hit on the idea of bringing along one of his bass rigs, with a 3/0 treble hook.
"Man, did it work like a champ! It was accurate and gave us the distance we needed. The trick now was to set the drag so they could pull it freely, but hope they didn't pull all the line off. We had been told, once hooked, most gators go to the bottom and lay there. We also learned the average gator can hold his breath about 50 minutes or so."
That night, Blakely hooked three "small" gators, each about 6 feet long.
"These smaller gators put up a nice battle. They swam their hearts out until they were exhausted," he said.
On Blakely's fourth night out, the last shot for him to get a gator because of his work schedule, he said a prayer over his 17-foot Ranger fastboat.
"I was asking the Lord to please let us be safe, have fun and harvest a gator," he said. "Then I started thinking about the Bible verse ... with a mustard seed, you can move a mountain. Well, tonight's mountain was to catch a good gator."
The gators were hiding from 8 p.m., when hunting begins, until about midnight, Blakely said.
"Finally, around midnight, we spotted a gator and he let us get near him. But, boy, little did we know, we just decided to pick on the quickest gator in the state. Even with my trolling motor wide open, we couldn't keep up with him. We gave him the nickname Kyle Busch."
After losing that gator, Blakely's boat was checked out by the game warden, and they switched to the other side of 12 Mile Island, where they focused their hunt.
"About halfway down the island, we spotted a set of eyes. My friends checked him out with the binoculars and informed me he looked like a good one," Blakely said.
He got his bass rig into the gator, then they trolled over top of it and got a hand line with a size 14 hook into his paw.
It took an hour to pull the gator up and get him into the boat, and that was the
easy part, Blakely said.
"You got to have help. There ain't no way to do it by yourself, especially trying to load that joker. We put him over the cooler, and we wanted something to drink. I said, 'there's no way we're moving him again.' "
As they motored back to the dock, the boat got low on gas. Blakely realized he had a problem.
"I told my partners we (were) about out of gas and at this point realized we forgot to put the extra gas in the tank and covered the gas cap with the gator as well. I told them there was no way I was moving that monster again. I started thinking again about the mustard seed. I said, 'Lord, you let us harvest the gator, now please don't let us run completely out of gas.' So, we slowed down to an idle, got 10 feet from the dock and ran completely out of gas."
The hunters were able to get towed into the dock by two men standing there, then with the help of three fishermen, the whole crew of eight was able to load the gator into Blakely's truck just a bit after 5 a.m. The Colvilles headed home for some sleep, and Blakely had to make some calls to get help skinning and butchering the gator, which he did in his front yard.
"I told some friends, 'If I kill a big gator now, I might have to have some help,' and they all laughed. I called my friend Jimmy Stokes at 3 o'clock, and he said, 'You must've got a gator.' He didn't know how big he was. He knew when I got there I was being serious when I said I got a gator."
Stokes, Alfred Glasscock, and Sondra and Kyrsten Blakely helped Dennis skin the animal. Blakely sent the head and paws to a taxidermist, the skin to a tanner, and filled his freezer with meat.
"There's a lot of ways to eat them. Grill them, fry them, barbecue them. Most times if you're going to eat an alligator, you want one under 10 foot. A lot of times, (ones) over 10 foot are extremely tough and have a very strong taste. This one has a very good taste. Wasn't tender, but it wasn't tough, with a texture kind of like a sirloin steak," Blakely said.
For his first time gator hunting, Blakely did very well for himself.
"It's very unusual for first-time gator hunters to kill a 12-foot-plus gator. That's the trophy hunters' range ... they want to kill a 12- to 14-foot gator," he said.
Blakely moved from here to the Mobile area when very young and spent a couple years living here in his teens, hunting and fishing.
He wants to hunt gator again, but one of his "bucket list dreams" is to "come home and hunt black bear," he said.
"I had a great time. It was a lot larger journey than I ever expected," Blakely added.