It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a large alligator population in Alabama, but, at one time, they were prevalent throughout the state…even in some unexpected places. My husband, Jason, told me, back when he was in high school, he and some of his friends saw something swimming in the pond at the hunting camp one night. He said one boy from the group, who shall remain nameless, shot whatever it was, stripped down, jumped in and pulled the creature out of the water. They never expected it to be what it was – a 3-foot long "baby" alligator. Because they figured its mother might be nearby, they wisely decided to leave before the situation got ugly.
Many years ago, a family friend was fishing in a small pond in South Alabama when he and his friends realized they were being closely followed by an alligator. The gator further harassed the fishermen by continuously eating their corks. The alligator continued to follow them around every time they fished the pond. Even though they were a little nervous due to his presence and even more annoyed by his antics, they left the gator alone for a while. But later they decided they should get rid of the reptile because there were lots of kids who swam in and played around the pond. They relocated the persistent gator to another pond.
If you have ever lived in North Alabama, you have probably heard about the alligators living in the reserve and other swampy areas. It is said they were brought in during the 1970s to curb an indigenous beaver problem, while other people say alligators are actually native to the area. Alligators are high on my list of wild animals I would prefer not to encounter, gun or no gun. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t head for a swamp or marsh if invited.
Driving from Huntsville to Decatur in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you would almost always see a few men sitting on white buckets fishing at the edge of watering holes along the highway. I always assumed they were fishing for brim since the ponds appeared so small. Considering the potential for alligators in the vicinity, it seemed like a bad spot to catch bait since you might actually become the bait. But if you are hungry enough, you take a chance.
While most stories I have heard about alligators are only sightings or chance encounters, you can actually hunt gator in Alabama. The rules for hunting gator are different than pretty much all other wild game, so don’t just grab your shotgun and head for a swamp. Also, although I would normally encourage parents to take their kids hunting and fishing, young children should never go gator hunting.
According to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, alligators were hunted almost to extinction in Alabama until 1938. That was when the state began regulating alligator hunts. There are alligator hunts in August each year in Eufaula, west central Alabama and the Mobile Delta. This year, more than 3,000 hunters registered for the hunts. Not everyone who registers will get to hunt, but, if you don’t sign up, you definitely won’t be chosen.
Hunters can only kill and keep one alligator, and it must be six feet or longer. One alligator can provide a lot of meat, but since you can only kill one per hunt and you don’t know whether you will bring home a 6-foot or 12-foot gator or none at all. For long term meal planning, it is better to think of the alligator meat as a nice, exotic supplement.
Alligator meat can be eaten several different ways, but one of the alligator recipes I am sharing is one my late uncle, Clarence "Dusty" Rhodes, served at his restaurant, Dusty’s, in Panama City Beach, Fla. Dusty was a Vietnam veteran who moved from Alabama to Florida in the 1970s and got into the seafood business in Laguna Beach. After many years with the seafood shop, he and his wife Judy opened a restaurant. The restaurant is still thriving long after his passing.
Aunt Judy’s Gator Balls started with a recipe given to them by a Cajun fisherman from Louisiana and then she added her own touch. She said they used farm-raised gator. She used tail meat for this recipe, putting it through a grinder like making sausage. Dusty was always looking for something different to serve and the Gator Balls, like crab meat stuffing deep-fried and crispy, were a good choice.
If you are in the mood for something a little different, be sure to mark your calendar for the June registration for the 2013 hunt. You can find more information on the Department of Conservation’s website http://outdooralabama.com/hunting/game/alligatorhunthome and http://outdooralabama.com/hunting/game/alligatorhunthome/regulation.cfm.
FRIED GATOR BITES
Creole seasoning, to taste
Cut alligator tail meat into medallion-size pieces. Mix milk, egg and some Creole seasoning. Mix some Creole seasoning in flour. Dredge meat in liquid, and then dredge in the dry mixture. Pan-fry or deep fry until golden brown.
1 pound alligator meat, ground like sausage
2 Tablespoons onions, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons celery, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons Old Bay (or poultry) seasoning
1 cup bread crumbs
Corn flour or regular flour
Combine all ingredients except flour, form 1-inch balls. Allow to set in fridge one hour. Dredge in flour and fry till brown. Serve hot.
Dip in garlic butter or horseradish sauce (sour cream, horseradish and lemon juice).
Christy Kirk is a freelance writer who lives in Little Texas.