Couples bond over hunting giant alligators

Michelle and Jeff Barnes with 11-foot-11-inch gator from Old Homochitto.

Some couples like wine and roses. Others prefer dinner and a movie. But in southwest Mississippi, some couples bond by hunting giant alligators in the swamp at night.

During the recent alligator season, Jeff and Michelle Barnes of Walthall County brought in an 11-foot, 3-inch behemoth in the Old Homochitto River — and that was after Jeff and pals had already bagged an 11-foot 11-incher.

For those who prefer double-dating, Dwain Brister of Pike County and his girlfriend Angie Walsh Bateman of Liberty teamed up with Chris and Amiee Campbell of Brandon to bring home a 12-foot 51⁄4-inch gator from the upper Pearl River.

This was the first year the Barneses hunted gators, while Brister and company are old hands.

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Brister, Bateman and the Campbells were hunting in the Ross Barnett Zone north of Highway 43 in the Pearl River around daylight this past Sunday when they tied into their big one.

They had already caught and released numerous other good ones, but decided this one was a keeper.

“We got him hooked and he fooled around for probably 45 minutes on the hook,” Brister said, referring to treble hooks cast from rod and reel.

“We got him beside the boat and knew he was a good one.”

They discovered the gator had been tagged by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, which keeps up with some of the big ones, especially in Ross Barnett Reservoir.

When the hunters got it to the boat, they snared it and secured it with hand lines before dispatching it with a shotgun blast to the center of the head.

Brister is pretty sure this was the same gator they had hooked and lost the morning before.

“He pulled 150 yards of line off the reel. We couldn’t stop him, we couldn’t turn him. He got in the lily pads,” Brister said, noting the gator snapped the line and escaped.

On Sunday, though, “we got a chance to get on him, and we made it happen this time.”

The gator weighed 4611⁄2 pounds. It was longer but lighter than the 11-foot, 5-inch, 540-pounder they caught last year in the upper Pearl.

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When the Barneses were chosen to participate in their first-ever alligator hunt this season, they expected it would be exciting. They just didn’t realize how exciting.

As in two monster gators, one an inch shy of 12 feet long, the other 11 feet 3. Both in the Old Homochitto River, where the couple fishes.

“Although I knew there were alligators in the Homochitto because we fish Homochitto all the time, I had no clue how many or how big,” Michelle said.

She and Jeff both put in applications for the Southwest Zone.

“Both our names were drawn, and we decided to keep all four tags,” Michelle said.

Season opened Friday, Aug. 30. Jeff got his first big gator the next night.

With two boats containing three people each — Michelle wasn’t along on this hunt — they hung a big one around 1 a.m. that Sunday, using rods and reels outfitted with treble hooks, Jeff said.

The method is to shine the gator, then cast beyond it and reel it to the boat.

“We hooked him with three rods,” Jeff said, noting the gator was a few miles upriver from Lake Mary.

Hooking it was one thing, catching it another.

“It took four hours,” Jeff said, citing “him fighting and going under logs and breaking lines, and we’d actually hook him again. And then we had to snag him with a throw line with treble hooks.”

When they finally got the giant reptile alongside the 17-foot, 52-inch wide boat, they slipped a snare around it to secure it.

“They fight the whole time, but once you wore them out they settle down,” Jeff said.

Following strict state guidelines, they dispatched the gator with a blast to the top of the head from a 20-gauge shotgun loaded with No. 6 shot. The excitement didn’t end there.

“You’ve got to roll him over in there,” Jeff said. “It took, I think, six people to get that big one in the boat.”

They took the gator to their camp at Lake Mary where they weighed, measured and photographed it.

“It wasn’t his length that was so impressive, it was his weight, although you may not can tell by the picture.” Michelle said. “He was extremely fat at 11 feet, 11 inches, weighing 621 pounds.”

When they were done, Jeff gave the animal to some other gator hunters, who took it to a processor.

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The Barneses got their second big gator — Michelle’s — on the night of Friday, Sept. 6. It measured 11 feet, 3 inches.

“The fight wasn’t near as long as the bigger one,” Michelle said. “This gator was in the boat within 45 minutes.”

It was plenty exciting anyway. “I wanted big. It was a little scary at some times,” she said.

“First of all, I don’t care what the game wardens tell you, you don’t really know how big they are till you get them up.”

She referred to the rule of thumb that says the length in inches between a gator’s eyes and nose is the length in feet of the whole body.

“I knew he was big, but not that big,” she said. “He really didn’t put up a big fight like I thought it would, but it was real exciting.

“I was more so scared for our son and daughter-in-law in their boat. Their boat was rocking a little more than ours.”

She was shocked to find so many alligators lurking in their fishing waters. After catching her gator, they saw 14 more before getting back.

“I had no clue that there was that many,” Michelle said.

“I knew there were alligators because I see them all the time, but to see that many at night, it was unreal.”

The couple filled their small gator tags with a 5-foot 5-incher and a 5-foot 10-incher.

Jeff, 53, is a house painter and had decided to try gator hunting for the thrill of it.

“I figured we could do it,” he said, noting some of his companions were experienced.

“It took teamwork to make it happen,” Michelle said.

They didn’t give the second alligator away.

“The second one we skinned out,” Jeff said. “We eat the meat. Most people fry it. That’s about the only way I ever do it.”

Just another romantic evening in southwest Mississippi.

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