In this marshy country where rice paddies bump up against oil refineries and some of the stinkiest pollution ever to confront the human nose, 100-odd men took to "harvesting" a new crop this weekend.
They needed no tillers or plows, no chunk-chunk-chunking combines and not much outside help. To pick their crop, the once-endangered Alligator mississipiensis, these hunters had only to buy $25 hunting licenses, find landowners with state-provided gator-tags (one for about every 625 alligators) and, by roaring about in airboats, bring hooked gators to marsh level just long enough for a fatal shotgun blast or two.
So began Friday the first gator season in Texas since 1968, when a federal push to protect the then-endangered reptile put a lock on legal hunts. Like Louisiana, whose fourth annual statewide harvest opened Saturday, Texas moved to renew gator-hunting because the creatures proved remarkably procreative and a little too restive for human good. In this experimental season slated to end Sept. 23, roughly 500 of the more than 100,000 alligators in Texas will be taken from this bayou country, a state-set "crop" equal to 4 percent of those estimated to be four feet long or more.
On the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, a 12,400-acre network of state-protected marshland just west of Port Arthur, manager Kirby Brown told hunters going through orientation that once they had a biggie hooked, harpooned or shot through with an arrow, "There is no limitation on the caliber or gauge of firearm for dispatching them."
Ka-blooey! Shotgun pellets tore at the slimy green gator heads at the rate of three an hour in some two-man hunting teams Saturday. And if a hunter felt like the gator still danced too much, well, ka-blooey! again.
After all, the head is only worth 50 cents a foot, compared with anywhere between $15 and $30 a foot expected for the pale, green-yellow underbellies -- prized especially in Europe and Japan for boots, handbags and expensive clothing. (Twenty years ago, when hunting was popular and legal along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard as far north as North Carolina, hides drew less than $10 a foot.)
Estimating prices at between $7 and $30 a foot, an average gator -- nine feet long, weighing 250 pounds -- would be worth anywhere from $63 to $270. That kind of money could have been pouring into the state treasury and hunters' pockets a few years ago, except that Texas officials had to wait 21 months, until last November, for the U.S. Department of the Interior to grant the state authority to supervise the gators.
"It was more or less a question of getting eight years of data compiled," said Bruce Thompson, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist who wrote the state's alligator management plan. "The alligators weren't waiting for the paperwork. They were doing what comes naturally out there."
So this harvest, like the Louisiana effort that takes 17,000 gators of a 500,000 total each year, was established to stabilize the population and cut down on "nuisance" complaints by hunters who have lost their Labrador retrievers or housewives who preferred domesticated strays to back-yard gators.
Yet look to swarthy Sidney Dupuy to understand what this hunt is really about.
Dupuy may chew Wintergreen tobacco and stomp around in well-worn hunting boots, but after a lifetime of trapping every animal from bobcat to nutria rat to muskrat, Dupuy won by bid a contract to take 70 alligators in the Murphree area, not for sport, but cool cash. He expects to clear at least $5,000 -- and will probably make more -- after paying Texas 30 percent of the gross revenues derived from the hides.
"I pimp. I sell drugs. I'm an oil-field contractor. I'm a trapper," said Dupuy, 53, offering his line on the truth. "When I get up in the morning, there is only one thing I like to do -- make money."
His brown face stitched by a curt salt-and-pepper mustache stares squarely out from under a gimme cap. His barrel frame, as wide as an 11-foot gator (nearly two feet), appears hardy enough to handle 50 more hunting seasons.
For this gator harvest, Dupuy starts an hour after dawn by revving his 260-horsepower customized airboat ("I bought it three years ago anticipating this") at the Murphree docks and splashing through the marshland, accompanied by his son Cole, 22. Slapping over whitewater lilies and green-water hyacinths, their brown boat careens through all the sharp turns it takes to reach the ditch canals where bait has been laid.
Father and son check their nylon lines, which were baited with cow hearts and lungs, secured to a tallow-wood post on the levee bank and perched a foot over marsh level the day before. If a line has dipped under water, then an annoyed gator awaits too, submerged with a stainless steel hook buried in its gut.
Cole gradually pulls a 300-pound test line out of the water while Sidney, glaring over his airboat's reinforced front-guard, waits for a telltale green snout to break the water. Then the shotgun blast, a successful dispatch.
Pulled aboard, the still-flapping but brain-dead alligators are tagged as required by the state and, after docking, will be skinned, salted and rolled up for storage -- a messy task necessary to maintain the hide's value.
"After the hunt, that's when popcorn turns to s---," Dupuy said. "You ain't going to have no fun skinning and scraping."
Perhaps uncertainty about the skinning process kept "weekend fishers" away. Whatever the reason, park officials were surprised by a dearth of hunters wanting to get a gator for private mounting or to make into $1,000 boots. Roughly 130 of an anticipated several hundred licensees signed up by the Friday deadline.
During an afternoon of measuring, sexing and tagging bloody alligator corpses, the state's Brown said, "This has turned out to be a fairly high commercial type of operation. A lot of landowners are going after the large males, trying to clear space for duck hunting season which begins in November ."
The veteran hunters are hardly complaining about loneliness, what with reporters and photographers crowding onto every available airboat to watch the proceedings.
They agree, however, that the harvest could be over in just a few days, if only the state allowed old methods of hunting: poking gators from their holes with poles, night hunting with lamps that temporarily blind a gator for the seconds it takes to fire a shotgun, or simply shooting gators on sight, as allowed in Louisiana, rather than having to hook the gator first.
"Give me 24 hours," said Tommy Peveto, who assisted Dupuy in the hunt.
"We don't let them dynamite gators, neither," countered warden Bill Jones as he checked isolated docks for illegal poachers. Jones said he anticipates 400 poached alligators this year -- caught without a license, at night or by illegal means.
Like 15 other wardens who oversee the muddied freshwater flats that curl along this southeast Texas coast, Jones has had his rapprochement with "nuisance" gators that citizens report and want removed from their yards. "I've seen one in downtown Port Arthur and heard of some as far north as the Big Thicket," where ancient pine trees far outnumber lily pads, Jones said.
Jones said he wrestles the gators still before removing them from yard or field, first by tying down both ends with rope and then by climbing on piggyback, throwing his weight over the gator's neck and easing his hands over its scaly eyes to clamp shut the dangerous jaws. Three heavy-duty rubber bands quiet any extra gnashing.
Texas, fortunately, has no recent history of gator attacks on humans. In contrast, Florida recently marked its fourth violent death in a decade this August when an 11-year-old boy was killed by an alligator. Although that state has a high concentration of gators, it has only an experimental harvest program at this point.
To the biologist and wardens who watched a horde of media people and a few hunters sloshing through the Texan marshes this weekend, the future of the alligator has little to do with isolated attacks (usually provoked) or the price of skins. Instead, they talk softly about a balance of nature.
They might remember a state of Louisiana publication of 1928, which warned "that this giant and characteristic reptile is doomed to disappear from our fauna -- and within the next few years."
In culling out a few each year, the biologists might also keep in mind that gators are among the oldest species on Earth. When dinosaurs and flying reptiles perished in "the great dying" 65 million years ago, the gators held on.
Indeed, depending on the economic success of this year's gator hunt in Texas, the alligators could outlast professional hunters who, a decade ago, lost the freedom to blast as many as a 100 gators a night.
"It took me 32 years to put all this stuff for hunting together," Sidney Dupuy said as an evening shower spritzed his patio. "You're looking at the end of the line. Nobody can afford this equipment any more." Ironically, in the morning Dupuy's custom airboat died after he and his son had picked up two gators.
"Take these reporters home," he told a parks official, turning to fiddle with the boat's engine parts, and knowing full well where he stood -- in nearly six inches of oozing alligator habitat. Later, the prized boat would be abandoned, and Dupuy would seek other machines with which to harvest the marsh.