Beams of sunlight crept through as the fog settled on the Tensaw River signifying dawn’s approach – that’s when it happened.
The horrifically exciting sound of 30-pound, braided test, fishing line being stripped violently from a Shimano reel filled the air, breaking the silence that had eerily settled over the still waters earlier. Like a possessed spirit, the line ran further and further away from the boat, growing thinner and thinner until the stainless steel spool at the center of the reel became bare.
The rod bent to resemble the shape of the St. Louis Arch. It seemed either the rod or line was about to give out at any second. And then, as quickly as it began, it ended. With only 15 feet of line remaining on the reel, the rod standing straight as an arrow, the familiar silence fell over the river once again.
All was calm. As calm as it can be while waiting on a gigantic reptile at the other end of the line to make his next move.
Sean LeBlanc, or “Obscene” as he is called, is one of the lucky 125 residents of Baldwin and Mobile County to have had his name randomly drawn by computer to be eligible for an Alligator Possession Tag this past season.
However, LeBlanc is no stranger to gator huntin’.
In 2009, Obscene found himself among those fortunate enough to obtain one of the elusive gator tags. He made the best of it – filling his tag on the last day of the season in the early morning hours, landing an 11-foot-6-inch, 400-pound gator.
Impressive as this gator was, it turned out to be both a gift and a curse. He killed quite a gator, but also set the bar for this year high, extremely high.
*Night One: August 20*
*Deckhands: Brian “Blackie” LeBlanc (Sean’s dad), Harper Kranz and Kyle Maddox.*
First weekends are for amateurs.
With the sun beginning to drop, Obscene slowly backed the 18-foot, aluminum, G3 jonboat down the ramp at Byrnes Lake. The boat slid smoothly off the trailer and glided into the water. The owner of the boat, Kyle Maddox, secured the vessel, tying it to the pier with a bowline, while Obscene parked the car and the rest of the crew took care of “nature’s call.”
An old man clutching a cane pole in one hand and a beer in the other sat on the end of the pier and watched as LeBlanc, accompanied by his motley crew, boarded the boat.
“What you fellas got in dem coolas,” the old man asked, taking a drag of his cigarette and pointing to the two large coolers on board.
“Depends on whatchu’ lookin’ for,” Blackie replied, pulling an ice cold Busch Light out of the cooler.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” the man said, staring at the beer as if it were the last remaining food source left on the planet. As the boat drifted away Blackie tossed the old man the beer and laughingly said, “You need a sign that says: Will work for beer.”
Obscene cranked the 40 hp Tohatsu engine, gave it some gas and the old man sippin’ his beer slowly disappeared as the boat glided around the creek bend.
Not more than a minute after the boat made its way around the bend, the motor stalled out. The stressed looked on Maddox’s face didn’t seem to be a good sign. The captain and the boat-owner huddled around the engine, contemplating what the problem might be.
“It’s probably bad gas,” Obscene said. “That’s not it,” Maddox replied. “We just ran this puppy a couple of weeks ago.” In between all of the engine discussion, the fact that the boat was still cruising from the inertia produced by the motor before it crapped out seemed to have slipped Obscene’s mind. He realized this a little too late.
The boat slammed into the thick brush of a sunken tree in the middle of the creek, jarring the crew momentarily. While Blackie and Kranz worked to push the boat out of the brush, hundreds of spiders spilled onto deck. Kranz frantically tried to stomp each eight-legged creature, but realized he was outnumbered and retreated to the back of the boat. Blackie opened the cooler and took out a beer, popped the top and took a seat.
It was 7:30 p.m. and the motor was running full throttle – 10 mph. “It’s gunna be a long night cruisin’ like this,” Blackie said, crushing his empty beer can and tossing it in the trash bag.
Making what felt like the thousandth turn in the creek, the Tensaw River came into view. The vastness of the river engulfed the tiny jonboat as it entered the channel. The sun had disappeared, leaving only the moon and the stars in the sky, creating a peaceful reflection on the water.
Obscene grabbed one of the four car batteries on board and hooked a cable to it. The cable ran to a green hard-hat with a light mounted on the front. He placed the hat on his head and flipped the switch on – 1 million watts of candlepower illuminated whichever direction Obscene looked.
Blackie followed his son’s lead, grabbing one of the other batteries on board and hooking up his hand-held spotlight. He squeezed the trigger slowly until the 3 million watts of candlepower lit up the riverbanks, making Obscene’s light appear feeble.
“We’re looking for eyes,” Blackie said. “Red eyes. Gator eyes.”
Five years ago, The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources decided the population of alligators in the state “had grown to the extent that they pose a nuisance in many areas,” according to ADCNR Commissioner M. Barrett Lawley.
Blackie and Obscene shined their lights on the banks, moving from the left to right. Red eyes were strung across the water like Christmas lights. Lawley’s perception of the gator population appeared quite accurate with all of the eyes glowing from the LeBlanc’s spotlights.
Lawley said, “Implementing a regulated alligator hunt on a small scale is an important step toward controlling populations and better managing this unique reptile.”
Moving off the Tensaw, the captain navigated his vessel towards Raft River.
Blackie held up his fist as a signal for Obscene to kill the motor as the boat approached the mouth of the river. He handed the spotlight to Kranz and told him to shine the light on the set of eyes that were moving across the river. Pressing a set of high-powered binoculars to his eyes, Blackie studied the moving red eyes.
“Eyes are pretty close together, Sean,” Blackie said. “Probably just a little ol’ piss ant.”
The closer gators eyes are together it’s most likely that they are smaller, Blackie explained. Conversely, if they are further apart, it means a bigger gator. A gator must be 6 feet or larger, in order to be hunted. This one wasn’t worth fooling with – Obscene cranked the engine and the boat slid further back into the Delta.
He navigated through creeks, bayous and lakes with extreme confidence and precision. A task that seemed impossible since everything looked the same. Everything.
A bend in the river here, a fallen tree there, a uniquely shaped Cypress knee poking out of the water, these looked the same everywhere. No distinguishable landmarks to see. And the night only made things more confusing.
Turning around a bend, Obscene shinned his light on the riverbank, the sight that came next cast a desolate and uninviting feeling over the jonboat.
In the middle of nowhere appeared an old man just sitting on the bank, surrounded by red glowing eyes at his feet, holding a cane pole that didn’t even have a line attached to it. As the light bathed over him, it revealed the color of the mans eyes – all white. Obscene quickly moved his light to the other side of the bank, but kept pushing forward.
“It’s 4 o’clock, Sean,” Blackie said. “Let’s turn around. We only have two more hours, might as well start backtracking now.” The legal times for gator hunting are between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Shining lights from left to right for what seemed like hours was the only thing that helped the crew stay connected to reality. The Delta is not only an easy place to get lost, but possibly lose one’s life.
The boat slowly made its way back to the mouth of the Tensaw. Blackie held up his fist and looked through his binoculars, but this time was much longer than the last.
“Harper, grab that rod,” Blackie said. “When we get a little closer, go ahead and make a cast. Sean, use the trolling motor and get us parallel with him.”
Kranz removed the large treble hook, which had a lead weight tied about three inches below it, from the eye of the rod. Obscene navigated closer to the set of glowing eyes.
“NOW!,” Blackie whispered.
Kranz’s first cast fell short. He reeled the line in quickly and cast again, this time getting hooked on the bottom. The eyes went under. “Cut the line,” Obscene said. “No, go over and get it,” Blackie replied. “No point in wasting a perfectly good hook. Besides, he isn’t going anywhere.”
Thirty minutes passed by like 30 hours. Obscene looked down at his watch, “It’s 5:35, we have 25 minutes,” he said in a distressed voice. Right after those words left his mouth, a set of eyes appeared 20
“There he is,” Kranz said. Maddox pointed the spotlight on the eyes. Daybreak was approaching fast.
Once again, Kranz cast the line. This time it landed left of the eyes. Frantically, Kranz reeled the line to cast again. The eyes were moving away from the boat at pretty generous speed. Obscene kept up though, driving the boat quietly next to the floating eyes.
“It would be so much easier with a piece of chicken on the end of this hook,” Kranz said.
Using bait is prohibited while gator hunting in this fine state. Instead, gators can only be caught by using one of the following: hand-held snares, snatch hooks, harpoons or bowfishing equipment (all must be attached to a line).
With a cast so ferocious the boat shifted tremendously as Kranz let the line fly. The hook sliced through the fog that had settled on the water and landed directly over the set of eyes – the perfect spot.
The line already over the gator’s head, Kranz reeled slowly. Feeling the gator’s rough skin brush against the metal barb, he set the hook.
The fight was on.
The gator took off, stripping the line from the reel at incredible speed. Then it stopped. Obscene grabbed the rod from Kranz, “I can feel him on the bottom,” he said. “Kyle, motor towards the line until.”
When the boat was next to the line, Obscene handed the rod to his dad and grabbed a setline, a quarter-inch thick nylon rope with a large snag hook on the end. He tossed it about 15 feet past the gator, letting the hook sink to the bottom before dragging it along the muddy river floor. Pulling the rope back in by hand, Obscene felt the hook make contact with the bumpy skin. This time Obscene set a much larger hook. The gator didn’t like this.
Holding the setline in his hands, Obscene battled the beast for sometime before cleating off the line to the side of the boat. As the gator flailed the cleat began to bend. And just when the cleat was about to snap, the gator surfaced, all 10-feet- 6-inches, and 275 pounds of the gigantic reptile.
“He’s big Sean, but he ain’t anywhere close to last year’s,” Blackie said. The gator took offense to the criticism and bit the front of the boat, leaving a nice set of tooth marks for Maddox.
It was 5:58 a.m., two minutes left on the ticking clock when Obscene made a decision that might haunt him until next gator season, “Let’s get these hooks out of him. We’ll get a bigger one tomorrow.”
*Night Two: August 21*
The events that took place this night are not worthy of taking up Lagniappe’s valuable paper space.
Needless to say, no gator was tagged.
*Night Three: August 22 – The Final Night*
*Crew: David LeBlanc, Blackie LeBlanc*
Losing Maddox and Kranz due to some obligation they described as “work,” Blackie rejoined the crew, along with Obscene’s brother, David.
The Delta hadn’t changed – it still looked the same – like always. And of course, Obscene navigated through lakes, basins and even creeks that were only 9 inches deep.
By the time 2 a.m. rolled around, David, along with Blackie were asleep, which was perplexing. Blackie told stories earlier about train wrecks and slave ships sinking in the Delta, and how it’s rumored that the victims’ souls still haunt the area. How could anyone sleep?
Obscene worked his headlamp from bank to bank. Six footers and below were the only gators out.
It was 5 a.m. when the boat made its way back out to the Tensaw. “I wanna circle Gravine Island one time,” Obscene said. “Whatever you wanna do is fine with me,” Blackie replied.
Circling the island, a sickening realization fell over the captain and his crew – time wasn’t on their side.
At 5:35 a.m. the boat finished its long circle around the island. The sun was coming up, and Obscene was beginning to show signs of exhaustion. He had only gotten six hours of sleep over the past three nights.
With fatigue setting in on everyone, Blackie sat up quickly. “Over there, Sean,” Blackie said, pointing
towards the middle of the river.
The light from the sun was bright enough to see a pair of eyes perched atop the water. A nice wide set of eyes.
David manned the trolling motor and got his brother in casting distance of the gator. Obscene sent out a beautiful cast, but it was too far. To everyone’s surprise, the gator didn’t go under. On the next cast Obscene hooked the gator. It was 5:48 a.m.
In an act of desperation, Obscene fought the gator with every ounce of strength left in him. With the gator under the boat, Blackie cast a setline, and hooked him. Shortly after, the gator came to the top. David grabbed the wire noose on board and placed it around the gator’s head in order to control him and also to comply with hunting law.
Obscene loaded his 12-gauge Benelli shotgun and placed the barrel against the soft spot on the gator’s head. With his finger on the trigger, Obscene began to squeeze back when Blackie yelled, “Sean! Stop! It’s 6:02!”
While time had spared this gator’s life, it robbed Obscene of his second gator in as many years.
The ride back to the boat ramp was quiet. Obscene was the only one who spoke, “I should have killed the one on Friday night.”
The original title of this story, as published in Lagniappe: Gator huntin’ on Alabama’s Delta: Lagniappe takes you for a ride. It originally appeared in the September 7, 2010, print edition.