September 14, 2013 8:28:22 PM
William Browning - [email protected]
They couldn't get it in the boat.
This was last Sunday at midnight. Ben Mask and his father, Wayne Mask, and their friend, Dusty Kelly, had caught it a couple of hours earlier, about 10 p.m., in Tibbee Creek in Clay County: a 620-pound alligator.
It had been cruising the water's surface -- the spotlight glistened over the muscular body floating near the bank -- when Ben Mask cast an 80-pound braided fishing line with a hook tied to the end across its back. That's how you mainly catch them, with a rod and reel.
As soon as Mask hooked it, it went under, and in the hunting party there was a mood shift.
"We were pretty excited when we caught it," Mask, 32, said. "But then we figured we better get it together. After you catch it, it's real."
Half an hour later it surfaced and Kelly got another hook in. Then it vanished again. The waiting game was on, Mask said.
The boat slowly skimmed water for two hours. Mask guessed they crossed the Tombigbee River "six or eight times" until the reptile wore out and surfaced. When it did, they got beside it. With a .410 gauge shotgun, Wayne Mask shot. That wounded it. He shot again. That killed it. He shot again.
"That third one," Ben Mask said, "was an insurance shot."
But now they couldn't get it in. They tried, but the 16-foot aluminum boat the three Lee County men were in took on water. So they tied three ropes around it -- one on its head, one around its middle, one around its tail -- and began the trek back to Waverly Boat Ramp with the alligator cruising parallel.
It took a little more than an hour to get there.
Mississippi alligators have made world news recently.
The 10-day season to harvest the things (scientific name: Alligator mississippiensis) ended last Sunday. In all, 642 were harvested. During the 10-day season the weight record for males was broken three times. The first was 723.5 pounds. The second was 727 pounds. The third -- and current record-holder-- was 741.5 pounds.
Those record-breakers were all caught in the state's southern-half. While state wildlife officials say alligators are "all across Mississipppi," the southern two-thirds of the state -- everything south of Highway 82 -- has the highest population.
But as the Mask hunting party proved, the Golden Triangle is home to some healthy alligators.
"We've got them. And we've got some big ones," Mark McCleskey, a Lowndes County game warden, said. "But compared to the southern regions, not that many."
McCleskey said bodies of water connecting to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway will have alligators. In those waters, if someone spent a night in a boat actively searching, McCleskey estimated they might spot 50 to 60. Around Jackson, and toward the Coast, that number might be 150 to 200, he said.
"They are found throughout the Golden Triangle region but become less abundant as you move north across the state," said Francisco Vilella, professor of conservation biology at Mississippi State University.
What they eat are turtles, fish, crab, birds, beavers, raccoons and any "mammals that frequent bodies of water," Vilella said.
"Pretty much anything that swims by and they can handle," he added.
Vilella guessed that the average Mississippi alligator is around five to six feet long. The Mask hunting party, though, had heard from a fisherman friend that Tibbee Creek was home to nice-sized alligators. That's why they ventured down from Shannon, where they live. The fisherman was right.
The 620-pound alligator Mask and company snagged was 12 feet 7 inches long.
"The one we caught, that's not the only big one out there," Ben Mask said.
When they got to the boat ramp, a friend from Shannon drove over with a trailer. With two men pulling ropes and two men pulling legs, they got the alligator loaded.
Back in Shannon the sun had risen on Monday morning. They weighed it at a grain elevator's scale and started the cleaning process. That took about four hours and afterwards, Ben Mask said, "I went home, cleaned up, cooked supper and went to bed. Everyone was exhausted."
Away from his day job with Tupelo Water and Light, Mask is an outdoorsman. He hunts all things. This was his first time taking part in the alligator harvest season, though.
"That was the most intense hunt ever," he said. "You're hunting something that can hurt you."
He is tanning the hide. The head is sitting in a deep freeze and will cost roughly $200 to $300 to get mounted.
The meat filled a 120-quart cooler. The hunting party had a little get-together one night last week. For a taste test, they fried some.
"It was just a little bit tough," Mask said. "But that's to be expected for a 13-foot gator."
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.