Washington: It was well before dawn, and Will Thomas and his group of Mississippi hunters were trying to capture an alligator. They had no idea how big it was, only that it had given them all they could handle for seven hours in the Yazoo River.
Eventually, after destroying almost all the equipment on the boat, the massive animal was brought to land early Saturday. Its measurements left the hunters astounded: They had landed a male alligator weighing 802.5 pounds and measuring 14 feet 3 inches long. Its length broke the state record as the longest alligator ever caught, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (WFP).
“It was pandemonium. It was chaos,” Thomas, a 43-year-old lawyer from Madison, told The Washington Post. “When you have an 800-pound animal on the end of a fishing rod, and he’s coming up and he looks like a beast, everybody is kind of going crazy, and your adrenaline is pumping.” The hunters eventually dispatched the gator with a shotgun blast - after getting a noose around it in accordance with state law, Thomas said.
Photos shared with The Post show the smiling hunters - Thomas, Don Woods, Tanner White and Joey Clark - holding the enormous alligator with its mouth wide open. The hunters have earned praise from Mississippi WFP, Governor Tate Reeves and observers who said the sight of the record-breaking alligator was “nightmare material.”
“The sheer size of him was impressive, but we didn’t think he was anything that special,” Thomas said. “But when we got him out, pulled the tape measure out and we realized that he was over 14 feet, the level of excitement went up.”
The WFP confirmed the record-breaking alligator’s measurements, saying in a Facebook post that the animal had a belly girth of 66 inches and tail girth of 46.5 inches. The agency noted that the previous record for longest alligator harvested was set in 2017 with an animal that was 14 feet 3/4 inches long.
“I was actually shocked,” Andrew Arnett, the alligator program coordinator for the WFP, told The Post. “It’s not every year you get something of this magnitude.”
The world record alligator length is 15 feet 9 inches, measured in 2014 in Alabama. Mississippi began offering seasons of alligator sport hunting in 2005. More than 950 alligator hunting tags were awarded in a lottery system to Mississippi hunters this year during the 10-day season, Arnett said. This year’s season began on Friday and ends on Labor Day.
Thomas did not get picked in this year’s lottery, but Woods, his cousin, was selected for a tag, he said. The two of them went out with White and Clark on the first day of the season last week in the state’s west central alligator hunting zone, Thomas said.
Hook breaks off
The group had an alligator in mind when they set out on Friday. It was a rather large one that they had spotted on the Yazoo River that would probably still be there for them to hunt, Thomas said. He declined to say where it was exactly, as a hunter “doesn’t want anyone to know his spot.”
“We knew he was at least a 12-footer and knew kind of where he was. When we put the boat in that night we went straight to that spot,” he said. “Gators are territorial, and the big ones will stay in one spot. This one was particularly territorial, and he would not leave a 200-yard area.”
At 9pm on Friday, Woods got a hook on the alligator before it broke off. The group did the same thing again. And again. And again. For hours, the alligator broke off the hook nine or 10 times by going under logs or sitting at the bottom of the river, Thomas said. In the process, the alligator tore up their reels and even broke a rod.
“We probably didn’t have top-of-the-line equipment because he broke everything we had,” Thomas said. “By the end of the night, I didn’t think we could catch him because our equipment was shot.”
Woods recounted to the Clarion-Ledger the size of the alligator that they were trying to bring onto their really small boat for hours.
“His back was humongous,” Woods said, adding that the experience was “surreal.”
The men knew they didn’t have a lot of time before the sun came up and the brutal Mississippi heat returned. They gave it one more shot with the equipment that was still usable.
Exhausted and excited
Then, at 3:30am on Saturday, they were able to kill the alligator. Thirty minutes later, the alligator was safely on the boat. Exhausted and excited, the men soon turned to the question of their own safety on a small boat carrying an 800-pound alligator that covered the entire craft.
“The boat started taking on water, and we had to get him to other side to keep him from sinking,” Thomas said. “You had four guys and a 14-foot alligator in a 14-foot boat, so it was touch-and-go there for a minute.”
The group made it to land and headed to get the alligator measured at Red Antler Processing, a wild game processing and hunting store in Yazoo City, more than 40 miles north of Jackson. Shane Smith, the owner of Red Antler Processing, told The Post that the alligator immediately got his attention.
“When they pulled up, they said they had a really big alligator and close to 14 feet. I’ve heard that numerous times, and most of the time it’s an exaggeration,” Smith said. “But this one was not.”
Smith notified the WFP that the alligator was a record-breaking 14 feet 3 inches. After Smith saw that the alligator had a metal toe tag on it, he realized it had been previously caught and released, and he called the WFP to learn more.
“In 2005, a resident who lives near Vicksburg called [WFP] to have this alligator removed from their property because it was a nuisance gator,” Smith told The Post, adding that it was relocated to the Yazoo River. At that time, the alligator was 10 feet 11 inches long, Smith said.
The days since they caught the record-breaking alligator have been overwhelming for the men, Thomas said.
“Talking to someone from The Washington Post was not something I thought I’d be doing on a Monday morning,” he said.
The men donated the 340 pounds of alligator meat to Red Antler, which will give it to hunger shelters in need. Woods, the tag holder, will get the alligator’s head, and the others would be “doing something special with the skin,” Thomas said.
Asked what he was feeling when the giant alligator was brought into the boat, Thomas said he will always remember feeling mentally exhausted and drained knowing that the group had finished the greatest hunt of his life.
“We had been fighting, and you’re kind of glad the fight is over,” Thomas said. “We all felt like, thank goodness the fight is over, and we have won.”