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A LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY | COLUMN ONE

A Pair of Yellow Eyes and a .44

In the still waters of a Louisiana swamp, alligator hunters face off with a prehistoric quarry. Modern fashion houses are waiting.

October 08, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

GROSSE TETE, La. — There is no easy way to get to Smith Lake. The road ends half a mile away, beside a narrow channel dense with waterlilies. When the hunters slide their skiff into the canal, the whole swamp billows beneath them like a curtain at an open window.

After that they enter a long corridor. The water is gray-brown, as thick as sauce, and the air has the sweet-foul smell of swamp gas. Around them, everything twitches: The wings of dragonflies tremble, spiders skitter over the water, and sunlight flickers through a tangle of plants overhead. The hunters get out and push.

Finally they see the open water of the lake. They stand motionless before the water, and its surface is broken by the black-ridged back of a 10-foot alligator. Another slides by, this one 8 feet long, judging by the distance from eye to nostril.

The lake is on private property, and is so secluded that no one has hunted here for 11 years. Blinking knots poke out of the scum at the water's edge. Trails of bubbles curve across the surface and then vanish.

It is a good day to be an alligator hunter.

Like every other industry in south Louisiana, the alligator business was bruised by this fall's back-to-back hurricanes. Salt water rolled into farmers' pens, allowing about 1,000 hatchlings to escape, and saturated the marshland where alligators will build their nests next summer. It threatened to swamp storehouses where alligator skins waited -- cooled, salted and rolled in barrels -- for purchase by fashion houses in France and Italy. After the storms, with anxiety high among buyers, the going price for wild alligator skin rose to $36 per foot, $10 higher than last year's price.

And so, last week, Larry Dees decided it was worth the effort to reach Smith Lake, deep in the marsh west of Baton Rouge. Alligator hunting is an age-old skill in these parts; Cajun men reminisce about the days when it was a way to support a family.

In the 1960s, with the wild alligator population dwindling, hunting was banned. Since then, it has been phased back in, but under strict control of game wardens, who allocate tags to property owners based on the density of the alligator population. For a month every year, those hunters lucky enough to get tags from landowners set out for the swamps, just like the old days.

Carrying their tags in a pouch, Dees and his two assistants took a good, long look around Smith Lake. Jeff Brown, whose regular job is selling insurance, pulled out a handgun and shot a 4 1/2 -foot alligator in the head. It jerked in the water, and Brown, 35, waded through the lake and picked it up by the tail. He threw it in the boat. He was not impressed.

"That," he said, "is a po' boy and a wallet."

It wasn't 4-footers they had come for. Guiding the 18-foot skiff around the shoreline, Dees stopped the boat at regular intervals. At each stop, Travis Dardenne, an electrician, jammed a long bamboo pole into the muck at an angle, so it jutted over the water.

Then he took a length of rope. One end he tied firmly to a tree limb, the other he attached to the bamboo pole, so that a curved steel hook was suspended above the water. From a cooler, he took a hunk of raw chicken and speared it onto each hook -- high enough so that only larger alligators would be able to jump out of the lake to reach it.

As afternoon turned to night, the hunters had gone again, leaving the spot as wild and quiet as it had been for the last 11 years. The chicken pieces dangled, dripping, several feet above Smith Lake.

The alligator has survived almost unchanged since the age of the dinosaur. When threatened, or when attacking prey, an alligator will clench another animal between its teeth and go into a "death roll," designed to stun its prey or twist off an appendage.

Once an alligator's jaws snap shut, it is nearly impossible to break its hold. A researcher at Florida State University recently tested the bite force of a 12-foot alligator and measured it at 2,215 pounds, about the weight of a small car.

These defensive tools, however, do not help an alligator that has swallowed a hook attached to a length of rope. Alligators gulp their food without chewing, so they typically ingest the hook, which comes to rest deep inside the stomach. When they realize they are stuck, alligators react by rolling, which entwines them in the rope.

By the time hunters return, they have crawled, exhausted, to the shoreline.

Dees, who grew up in nearby Maringouin, has bright blue eyes and a drooping white handlebar mustache. He gauges oil wells for a living, but hunts when he gets the chance, selling the hides and guiding trips for paying tourists. At 54, he is nimble enough to jump up on the rim of his aluminum boat and run back and forth between bow and stern without tipping it.

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