Later, alligator!

Published 11:59 pm Monday, August 24, 2009

If someone said, “Walt Merrell wrestled an alligator,” most people who know the Andalusia attorney would assume he had a tough case in court.

But this past weekend, the statement was literal. Merrell and two lifelong friends, Jeff Faulkner and Danny Deese, bagged a 12-foot, 401-pound alligator.

The trio grew up hunting and fishing in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. When Deese was among the 125 people selected in an Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources lottery to receive a tag granting him and a team permission to hunt alligator during the two-weekend season this year, the friends had little doubts they’d be successful.

What made them think they could do it?

“Well, we studied a lot before we actually did it,” Merrell said. “We talked with dozens of people far more qualified than us (including the previous state record holder) and we felt that it wasn’t that complicated.

“We all grew up hunting deer, hog, birds, etc., and alligator hunting is not much different than any of those,” he said. “It’s just that the thing is so big!

“It was never, in our minds, a question of whether we could, it was a question of ‘how big can we catch?’ ” Merrell said. “We caught and released two others: one six-feet long, the other nine.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources issued hunting tags for two areas in Alabama – the private and public waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta south of the Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties, and an additional 80 tags in Houston, Henry, Barbour and Russell counties.

Merrell and crew hunted both weekends of the season. They actually spotted the gator they eventually bagged during the first weekend.

“We first spotted him last Sunday night but we had an unsuccessful hunt,” Merrell said. “We went back this Saturday night and found him in the same place. We stalked him from 8 p.m. (when hunting can begin) until 2:30 a.m. That’s when we got the first hook in him.

“It then took us over an hour to get him to the boat. During that hour he drug us up and down the river. At one point we even put the anchor out to try to slow him down. It did not.

“After he was dead we moved him to the edge of the river… There was no ‘bank’ as the whole southern delta is mostly river and marsh. We tried unsuccessfully for over an hour to get him into the boat to transport him. We finally tied him with everything we could find to the outside of the boat. We think he is the fourth longest caught during this season.”

The largest was a 13-foot, 5-inch, 701-pound gator, which set a state record when it was caught the first night of the season in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta,

Merrell said once the creature was hooked and they got a good look at him, he and his crew “debated whether we had bitten off more than we could chew.”

“Up until that point, we thought we had a 10-foot, 250-pound alligator on the other end of the line,” he said. “When we realized his head was as big as our torsos, it gave us pause.

“In the end, we all agreed that to cut the line was to not finish what we started. That’s how we were raised, so we never gave up,” he said.

Asked what advice he’d give to anyone interested in hunting alligators, Merrell said, “They are not nearly as ‘simple’ as others might have you believe, but they are every bit as dangerous.

“We stalked that alligator for 12 hours over a two-day period,” he said. “He was very sly and knew full well how to use the environment to his advantage.

Would-be hunters shouldn’t underestimate the element of danger involved, he said.

“Earlier in the week we caught a smaller gator for practice since we have never done this before,” he said “We thought him to be about four-feet long. When we got him to the boat he was two feet longer than we thought and he became ultra aggressive and showed how that even as small as he was, he meant business. We let him go rather quickly.”

While Merrell doesn’t plan to make boots out of his portion of the hide, look for his wife, Hannah, to have a handsome purse.

“We’re all having purses made for our wives as a way to show our appreciation to them for putting up with us.”