Alligators share one thing in common with big fish and all snakes—the more the story is told, the bigger they get.
Like many longtime outdoor enthusiasts in southeast Texas, I have seen thousands of rough-scaled, snaggle-toothed, bulbous-nosed alligators along weed-choked shorelines of sloughs and ponds and brackish canals. Most were between four and eight feet in length.
All were of the same species, the American alligator (Alligator mississipiensis). In North America, the rare American crocodile with its distinctive tapered snout (typical of crocodiles) is native only to brackish or salty habitat in extreme south Florida.
Despite campfire and clubhouse embellishments, an American alligator taping longer than an honest 10 feet is not a common sighting. Big Boys topping 12 or 13 feet are downright rare. At least, this has been my observation, and I believe the overall population numbers would back me up.
Keep in mind that an alligator twice the height of a full-grown man might be 40 or 50 years old. The odds are slim for such a borderline dinosaur surviving in proximity to the ever-expanding crush of civilization.
Some years ago, a 14-foot, 8-inch, 880-pound brute was killed from Chalk Creek in East Texas. The massive alligator reportedly was documented by officials from Safari Club International.
In 2013, during a public hunt on the Daughtrey Wildlife Management Area (near Choke Canyon Reservoir), an alligator measured 14-3 was caught. It apparently weighed 800 pounds, and is credited by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as the official state record.
Take your pick, but 14-foot-class ‘gators have been authenticated in Texas. But they are trumped by the behemoth benchmarks of several southern states.
Alabama reportedly documented a 15-9 that scaled 1,011 pounds. Florida has sketchy reports of a long-ago 17-5 from the Everglades, but the official record for the Sunshine State stands at “only” 14-feet, 5/8-inch. Still, Florida being Florida, you have to believe that some awesome alligators have reached full maturity and maximum size in the low-country latticework of swamps and rivers.
Southern Louisiana is the mother lode.
Based on a recent survey, the Pelican State boasts more than one million alligators. But Texas can’t be far behind, with alligator numbers increasing dramatically since the reptiles were placed on the state’s protected game species list in 1985. (Harvest limits are strictly regulated during the annual September alligator season. Consult TPWD’s 2017-2018 Hunting and Fishing Regulations booklet available free at license outlets.)
Back to Louisiana—rumors persist of a titanic 19-2 scaling approximately one ton that was taken near Vermillion Bay. However, the story of the mega-gator originated in 1890. For all I know, it was conjured up by several Cajuns sitting around a jug of ‘shine. I’d be more inclined to accept such a report if it had been documented by, say, Raymond Ditmars, the famed turn-of-the-century herpetologist at the New York Zoological Park.
On the subject of Ditmars, his classic book, Reptiles of the World (1910), substantiates several species of the crocodile family in the elite 20-foot-plus club. They include the Indian gavial, the saltwater crocodile, and the black caiman.
The African (Nile) crocodile might also be in there. Keep in mind that such huge reptiles were more common 100 years ago.
Ditmars credits the American alligator at 16 feet, with no mention of the alleged Louisiana monster. However, another well-respected book published half a century later, A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians (Roger Conant, 1958), pegs the maximum length at 19 feet, 2 inches, an obvious nod to Vermillion Bay.
Well, maybe. That’s awfully big—like a nine-foot man.
Regardless of top-end potential, all alligators start as runts, little more than chubby lizards. In fact, the name most likely evolved from the Spanish word, lagarto, for “lizard.” They hatch during late spring and average 9 or 10 inches in length.
The female alligator deposits 30 or 40 eggs in soft shoreline loam or sand and builds a large mound to protect them. The babies hatch in about two months. During the incubation period, the scaly, swarthy, snaggly mamma is apt to hover near, guarding the clutch. This is not exactly what the nearest berry picker or bird watcher or perch jerker needs to hear.
Worth noting, American alligators, normally, are not as aggressive as crocodiles. The runty Chinese alligator, with a maximum length of approximately six or seven feet, is much more irritable, perhaps suffering from an inferiority complex. I know of this nature first-hand.
Once, during a behind-the-scenes tour of the Houston Zoo, an adult Chinese alligator rushed at me with open jaws from an indifferent sunning posture. It banged headlong into the wire-mesh fence of the holding pen about three or four feet away.
But, unless you slip and fall into the Yang-tse-Kiang River, I wouldn’t overly concern myself about the disposition of the Chinese alligator.
Remember, several species of crocodiles are much more prone than alligators to attack humans. Prime among them are the saltwater crocodile and the Nile crocodile.
On an African safari to the wilds of Mozambique seven years ago, I was shocked to hear that primitive villages along the nearby Zambezi River reportedly lose 40 or 50 people a year to big Nile crocodiles.
Most victims are snatched from banks and shallows while bathing, washing clothes, fishing or gathering water. And, of course, it’s a ghastly way to go, with the hideous monster tearing and rolling with its hapless prey.
I cannot absolutely verify this modern-day tally, but the horror stories are backed by common knowledge in the region. Without question, villagers along the Zambezi are killed and eaten on a recurring basis. To put it mildly, the hardships of Africa—I mean, in the real bush—are a long way from what we consider day-to-day living.
Unprovoked attacks on humans by American alligators are rare but they do occur. Several fatal encounters (one in southeast Texas, one in central Florida) were documented during the past few years. Frankly, unprovoked attacks may increase as wild alligators living in or near expanding urban areas increasingly lose caution.
For example, regularly feeding a big alligator in a neighborhood lake is not a good idea. “Old Fred” the resident ‘gator starts associating people with food. He eases up looking for another handout and maybe gets the wrong idea if a foot is dangling off the dock.
Allowing a dog to run free along a marshy or brushy bank known to harbor alligators can be a heartbreaking mistake. This especially is true early and late in the day during the warm-weather months when the cold-blooded reptiles are most active.
The upcoming September teal season should trigger all sorts of warning signals for the owner of an eager retriever. Even during winter, a mild trend can re-juice a sluggish ‘gator.
And you really cannot blame the alligator if you allow a pet to roam within its kill zone. The dumb brute is acting from natural impulse to grab an easy meal—same thing with a nutria or a raccoon or a feral hog.
Experts maintain that the larger alligators tend to become loners, more territorial, while the smaller one often-congregate more-or-less according to size. In other words, if you see a ‘gator of double-digit length, the odds are good that smaller ones are not in the immediate area. The Big Boy routs them—or maybe eats them.
Of course, a sustained flood can reshuffle alligator populations. The aquatic reptiles either wander, seeking new habitat, or they get washed downstream along with trailers, trashcans and other flotsam.
The record-breaking rains of May 2015, scattered alligators all over southeast Texas, causing them to show in the most unlikely places. During early June of that year fellow TF&G columnist Doug Pike and I were wading waist-deep in the Quintana Beach surf (near Freeport/Brazos River) for speckled trout. The late-afternoon tide was green. The mullet were popping, and the gulls were wheeling. Everything was looking great—well, until a displaced six-foot alligator popped up about 10 yards in front of us.
It floated, drifting slowly, then slowly submerged. The trout left. Come to think of it, so did we.
—story by Joe Doggett