Adventures With Alligator Trapper Jack Douglas
Trapper Jack makes his living in the outdoors.
Perhaps only if you’ve been there can you appreciate the dank, damp darkness of a river swamp in the first gray mists of morning. On the banks of the Ogeechee River near Savannah, all is black, or nearly so, with indistinct shapes melding into a swirling gloom. The only sounds are the lapping waves of the river, a few birds slowly awakening and the occasional topwater slappings of fish. Three hundred yards away, the Hwy 17 bridge spans the waterway, and once in a while the noise of an especially loud automobile drifts down. But for the three of us slipping and sliding while tip-toeing down the banks of the Ogeechee, all this is irrelevant, and only filters in because we are super-sensitive to every surrounding sensation.
In the lead, I notice a drop-off of some three feet to our final destination, a washed-out cutback jutting into the bank. There is one tree between my boots and the stepping-down spot, and as I reach for it, tightly-strung nerves twang a warning: a 10-foot alligator has erupted like a Polaris missile from the mud and splashes into the black depths of the Ogeechee.
Had he decided to come my way instead…
If you’re going to face off with a 10-foot, 300-lb alligator, you’ll want at least one of my two companions along. After all, Savannah’s Jack Douglas is not called “Trapper Jack” for no reason. When it comes to locating and hauling in gators, there’s no one better, whether you want that reptile alive or dead. Trapping or hunting, Trapper Jack goes about the task in his quiet, determined, deadly effective manner, and the results are all but guaranteed.
Want proof? Consider the story of how he corralled his number one catch: wife Amy.
“I’ve been in Savannah all my life, but one year I was working a summer job in Nag’s Head, North Carolina,” Jack relates with a sly grin. “I told my mom before I went that I was going to bring back a wife, but she didn’t believe me. Well, I was up there trapping wild boars on the beach, where they would come to nose around for fish or whatever washed up. I had taken my dogs up there with me, and when I’d spot a boar I’d turn them loose, and we’d go catch him. I had one real good boar down one day, and these three girls came over to see what was going on. They had been up there just laying out in the sun, and I had been hog hunting, so you might not figure that would be a very good matchup. But I brought one of them home to mama!”
Jack and Amy have two grown children, Amanda and Chase, both deeply involved in the outdoors. Amanda drew a gator permit three years ago, and dad put her on a 10-footer, which she nailed. As luck would have it, she was drawn again this year, too. Chase bowhunts, but big-game fishing tops his list. Like Jack, he chases large stuff that bites back, with sharks being particular favorites.
There was one brief period when Jack moved away from his outdoor life, working in the plumbing business But one day, out of the blue, came the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Hall Brothers came to me and asked me about running their hunting operation, 12,000 acres of hogs and deer on the coast around Savannah,” Jack recalls. “They didn’t have to ask twice. I gave my two-week notice to the plumbing folks that day, and I’ve made my living off the woods ever since.”
That gig lasted over two decades, and he’s been in the gator-hunting business for nearly 20 years since then. Jack caught over 100 alligators in May and June of this year alone! Two past trips with him stand out among my all-time favorite hunting memories — and I nearly got chewed on both times.
So when the calendar flipped over once more to June, and complaints of nuisance gators began to roll in, I again joined this old friend in the swamp. This trip, too, provided lots to look back upon. It’s an eye-opener into a day in the life of a man who makes his living in and from the outdoors.
With alligators, you just never know. They’ll become fairly predictable for a while, then strike out for parts unknown. And especially at this time of year, during the breeding season, a big bull gator will go pretty much where he pleases in search of females.
That doesn’t always set well with the human population.
“We’ve taken a lot of their habitat away, so you’re going to have a lot more calls of nuisance gators because you’re going to have more human/alligator encounters,” Jack commented. “It used to be that folks would get them to put into ponds to keep beavers down or just as a different type of pet to show off, but since the three killings of women by gators in Florida recently, everybody wants them gone now.”
While it’s a fact that every gator is not necessarily a killer, it’s also true that they are simply creatures of instinct, taking advantage of whatever happens to be available. And if a certain person walks a certain path around a certain gator’s hangout at the same time every day, that patterned behavior can have disastrous consequences. Worst of all is when big gators lose their instinctive fear of humans. I wrote of such a case in my book, Rabbit Stompin’, and a massive gator, well over 500 pounds, that Jack and I teamed up on a few years back. That one’s boldness cost him dearly. To further illustrate the encroachment point, also in the book is that second memorable episode with Jack, in which I killed a big boar hog as he came popping toward my kneecaps, dropping him with his head literally between my feet. On the tract where the hog was killed, developers are at this moment building 6,000 houses.
But for now, as we stalk the banks of the Ogeechee this June morning, lightning is about to strike for a second over-bold gator.
We are 300 yards from the front door of Savannah’s popular Love’s Seafood Restaurant, situated on the Ogeechee’s banks. Two hundred yards downstream from Love’s is a public boat ramp and a cordoned-off swimming area in the river. Another hundred yards finds the three of us and a 10-foot alligator with a 12/0 stainless steel hook and a three-foot portion of super-tough cord down his huge maw. He’s presently straining with all his might to escape our attempts to haul him ashore.
Once he sailed into the river, the gator had plunged under a submerged log, snagging the line and wrapping it tight. We eventually discover that all our heaving is against the log, not the gator. Somehow, we must unwrap the cord — preferably without slipping off a super slick bank and into eight-foot-deep water occupied by a very peeved reptile.
My sidekick of many years, Johnny Fountain, has been through the wars with all manner of things that bite, like bears, hogs, coyotes and snakes, but this is his first tussle with an alligator. He’s got a strong back, however, so he and I begin attempting to roll the exposed portion of the log the gator is under as Jack tries to make him move and free himself from the wrapped line. A half hour of this back-breaking business proves fruitless, so Jack calls for a boat and another pair of hands. When all is in place, there comes quite a bit of poking and prodding beneath the surface with a six-foot boat paddle before the cord’s wrap is finally discovered and freed. Now comes the fun part: getting a braided steel noose attached to the gator’s head and then hauling over 300 pounds of highly agitated creature to shore.
He proves too heavy and dangerous to pull into the boat, so he’s dragged slowly toward shallows near the boat ramp. A quick beaching, then his jaws are pushed together and held down with the long — but seldom long enough — catch pole while Jack climbs onto his back and tightly wraps the mouth closed with tough strips of rubber bands sliced from tire tubes. Tie the back feet forward, the front feet backward and he’s a caught gator.
And it’s on to the next one.
Jack has placed several “sets” out in waterways around the area where gators need to be removed. These consist of the same 12/0 hook/cord combos baited with hunks of juicy cow lung. Yes, alligators will eat just about anything. The next area checked is a large series of ponds several miles away. Three sets produce two gators; the third features a tremendously battered bank showing where a big gator was hooked and rampaged until he finally severed the line, an extremely rare occurence for Jack. One of the attached pair is a six-footer that is quickly subdued, the second a four-footer immediately hauled in and set free because of its size.
While we’re working, two other six-footers pop their heads up and watch the action from a distance. But for one of them, the distance proves not quite enough.
Jack reaches into the bed of his pickup and retrieves a spinning reel spooled with stout line and a heavy snatch hook. Expertly casting past the gator, he reels back and slams the treble hook home. A handful of minutes later, Johnny and I go to the bank’s edge and attach the wire snare, hauling in keeper number three. The last gator has seen enough and glides to safety in the middle of the pond. But Jack Douglas knows where he’s living, and Jack’s contract with the owners of this place call for him to clean the gators out. It’s only a matter of time…
This is all in a day’s work for Trapper Jack, with several such contractual obligations for gators and predators over the Savannah area. It has been this way since he first became a licensed agent trapper of alligators some 17 years ago. I’ve roamed the Ogeechee muck and sawgrass islands of the Savannah marsh with him over the years since not long after that, and if he’s slowed down a lick now at 61, I can’t tell it.
“I work several quail plantations through the winter trapping and doing predator control, then a lot of beaver trapping in the spring. Then it’s a roll into gators heavy about May and June and into July. September starts back on coyotes and that’s when we get into guided gator hunting. We’ll guide the gator hunters the whole month of September.”
If you’ve ever wanted to hunt an alligator, here’s where you need to start. A guided hunt is not cheap —Jack’s rates are $600 for the first day, then $400 for a rarely-required second day — but arm and leg replacements are much more expensive. Many times I’ve flashed back to the stormy night that 12-footer was caught and a remark Jack made at the time. The huge bull was snared from a public boat dock, frequently used by boaters and swimmers.
“If a man fell off this dock right now,” Jack grunted during the melee, “he wouldn’t last three seconds.”
At the time, he had a death grip on my leather belt from behind, straining to hold me on that dock. As I said, Jack is a man you want to have around in such a case, and going off half-cocked and ignorant of what you’re doing on a gator hunt is asking for trouble. Another plus: he does his gator hunting during the daylight hours.
“I do all my hunting in the daytime, where the client can see everything that’s going on and have an appreciation of what he’s doing. I have some guys that help me that will take a client out at night, but I just think it’s a better experience during the day.”
The process runs roughly —again, you just never know, which is what makes it hunting — like this: Jack snags a gator on a snatch hook; the client, armed with a roped harpoon, slams it home, and the fight is on! Jack’s success rate with clients is around 90 percent, and with all the variables surrounding this type of activity, that is extremely high.
To get a proper perspective on just how good Jack is, consider a coyote-trapping competition several years back. Jack and a fellow trapper made up one of 12 two-man teams loosed on a one-million-acre Indian reservation in New Mexico. By the way, you read that right: one million acres.
“We would ride a 300-mile circuit every day checking traps,” Jack recalls. “Some of the best trappers in the country were there.”
And among that elite crowd, Jack and his partner finished second in the seven-day competition with 15 coyotes.
But back to the gators, and what happens once one has been taken. Besides being a hunter and trapper, Jack also has an on-site, state-approved processing facility where the gator is dressed out. The hide is placed in a salt barrel in preparation for tanning and later sale, and the meat will also be sold. Ironically, Love’s Seafood Restaurant purchases about 80 percent of Jack’s gator meat, and our 10-footer is now on the menu! We were on the ‘Geech on June 28; the following Wednesday, July 5, Jack caught a nine-footer in the same spot the 10-footer came from, as two more big gators lazily watched the process from out in the river. On another set directly behind Love’s, he brought in yet another nine-footer!
“That’s been a super spot for me this year, right around the bridge on 17,” he said. “You just never know; some years you’ll catch one, other years 10 or 12 will come out of the same area.”
For now, this quiet, unassuming, super-efficient trapper is as busy as he can be attempting to hold down the soaring gator population in and around Savannah. But it is a chore that he dearly loves, this God-fearing man who begins every hunt with a prayer and commands the respect of all who come to know him. Jack Douglas is the kind of guy who enriches folks’ lives just by being around them. Besides all the trapping and hunting, he is busy doing seminars and enlightening all who will listen, from grade-school kids to church groups to nursing-home residents, about the ways and the joys of the outdoors, along with the wild things it contains. His store of knowledge is tremendous, and his way of sharing confirms a life spent in the midst of the wilds.
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