Alligator Man: The Legend Of Trapper Jack
At 76, Jack Douglas is still trapping everything from gators to coyotes.
We go back more than 30 years now, even before the first year he obtained an alligator trapping license, 1989. When I think about him, the word “legend” comes to mind. But every single definition of legend I’ve found includes either “famous” or “fame.” But he never cared for being famous; he simply wanted to be Jack Douglas. And that’s more than good enough for both of us.
Should you care to root out why I even mentioned the word, consider his answer to the question, “Any idea, even roughly, of how many gators you’ve caught over 30 years?”
His face lit up with a soft smile as he said quietly, as always, “I was telling people five years ago 12,000, and I’ve sort of semi-retired since then. I didn’t kill all those gators, by the way; an awful lot of them were relocated.”
But you still gotta catch them first, and I’ve watched him on one end of a snare with an enraged gator on the other so many times. One in particular, but we’ll get to that.
Cherry-picking episodes from all this stretch is not an easy task, but if you want to delve into a life lived outdoors, you need to know about the man. And the alligators. And the hogs.
Twelve thousand alligators? I’m sure there are those who refuse to believe there are that many in the state, when in fact DNR estimates the population between 200,000 and 250,000.
In 1999, Jack Douglas was featured on an episode of GON-TV that appeared nationwide on the Outdoor Channel.
Jack is a lifelong resident of Savannah—a city of canals on top of swamps on top of ponds on top of rivers. I well remember one morning as the two of us were en route to a call about a nuisance gator. That’s what licensed agent alligator trappers do: remove “nuisance” gators before they get so comfortable in a spot that they become deadly gators. To most folks, any alligator is a nuisance, so they call law enforcement, which calls Jack. Before we even got to the original destination, we stopped TWICE and snared a 4-footer and a 6-footer from roadside ditches!
The original gator, by the way, was holding down a parking space at a local Walmart; guess he qualified as a nuisance. But when the weather begins to warm and a bull gator gets the urge to propagate, he goes searching for the ladies wherever he pleases, permission be hanged. And all those waterways come in handy.
I first met Jack Douglas, well before dawn one very cold morning in 1988, when he was guiding for Hall Brothers Wilderness Hunts. I wanted to kill a boar in the sawgrass along the Ogeechee River, up close and personal. Jack made that happen—on a scale much more personal than I had envisioned. When I shot the charging boar, the bullet went through the top of his head, came out his lower jaw and took off one of his toes on the right front foot. I’ll let you figure that angle out. He slid through the coal-black river mud almost between my boots, dead as a hammer. My heart was slamming in my ears, but I wasn’t the one bleeding and now you know what hog hunting is all about. I’ll never forget that wry smile and his soft, “That was a close one, wasn’t it?” Right then I knew I was going to like this guy…
“In my early 20s, I was working in plumbing and catching a few hogs on the side,” Jack said. “I caught a few out of corn fields for folks, and word got out. Hall Brothers asked me if I wanted a job, and I’ve never looked back. I’ve been right here all my life.”
Hall Brothers Wilderness Hunts comprised around 15,000 acres in those days. Now? Condos.
“All my hog hunts were up and down the Ogeechee. I’d cruise the river with a lead dog on the front and bay dogs tied in the bottom of the boat. You didn’t want a catch dog because he would be right on top of the hog where you couldn’t get a shot. I wanted handgun only, so the hunter would be close enough to know what he’s seeing and shooting. With a rifle, the hunter is looking through a scope and can’t see anything but a piece of the hog. As sure as the world, a bay dog will jump in and you have a shot dog. I didn’t want a bulldog for this type of hunting; I wanted three bay dogs.”
The dog that I’ll never forget was Snowball: half Alaskan Malamute, half Catahoula Leopard hound; one brown eye, one blue eye. Snowball would be perched on the boat bow as Jack half-throttled in and out of the sawgrass island waterways. A silent trailer, should Snowball catch a whiff of hog, he would either hit the water or turn slowly and give Jack a look that meant, “Slow this boat down ‘cause we got pigs close by!”
There wouldn’t be another sound from him until he was eyeball to eyeball with the hog. Jack could always tell what we were dealing with, whether or not to loose the bay dogs and hit the grass. Sawgrass is no misnomer; it is woven like barbed wire and will rip you to shreds. And after frenziedly bulling your way through it, there will be a small beaten-down patch featuring darting dogs and one highly provoked pig…
This type of hunting is not for the faint of heart—especially among the dogs.
“I’ve had some dogs get cut up,” Jack said, “but I’ve had a lot more gators get dogs than I have hogs. At night you’re on the river bank and your dog is tied, tired and whining. That’s a dinner bell for a gator. I’m 76 now, and done with all the hog hunting. I got a few spots where my wife and I still hunt, because we love our deer hunting as well as ever.”
We’re going to move back to my favorites—the gators—in a bit, but there’s no way I can turn you loose without relating the story of the wild-then-tame, beer-guzzling, pointer of a pig named Pork Chop. He’s likely the most important porker in Jack’s life, and Jack still can’t talk about him without laughing.
“Years ago I used to go up to Nag’s Head, North Carolina, ” he said. “I had three of my dogs with me, just me and my dogs. When I was 27, I planned to be up there for a while catching hogs on the beach and told my mama I was going to bring a wife back with me when I returned. We both laughed about it.
“This time I had a bulldog to catch and two bay dogs. The fishermen up there near Virginia Beach and Corolla would go through their nets every day, keep the good fish and throw the trash fish on the beach. Every afternoon, hogs would be all over those fish, feeding like crazy. I bought an old 1960 Ford car and put wide, slick tires on it; that thing would go up and down the beach like it was 4-wheel-drive. One day I drove it up toward the fish, loosed the dogs and they got right into a pile of pigs. I caught one before they could kill it, about a 10-pounder.”
And this is where things really get interesting.
“He just got to be a pet and would follow me everywhere I went. I’d take him up to the pier there and folks would feed him beer three or four at a time. Everybody thought it was hilarious, and that pig would drink until he passed out and I’d have to tote him back to that old Ford.
“One day I was walking down the beach and he was running in and out of the waves behind me, just like a pet dog. There was a girl lying on a towel, and that pig suddenly stopped and went right up to her. We’ve been married 47 years now; Amy is the one who named him Pork Chop.”
I didn’t have the heart to ask but, knowing Jack, I’m thinking Pork Chop likely became a few…
In late June of 1989, my GON bosses told me to either go catch an alligator and turn in a stupendous story or get ‘et’ trying. Little did either of us know…
Jack, newly licensed, was my only choice. This was my first gator trip, and things were very different back then. There was no open season, and no “hunt.” One did not simply go out and kill an alligator, which is where that new license came in. Oh, no; in those days, gators were CAUGHT. Alive. Peeved. I don’t have room here to tell the whole story, but it’s included in my book Rabbit Stompin’ And Other Homegrown Safari Tactics (darylgay.com). This is one of those other homegrown safari tactics…
Jack had received word of a gator popping right up and crushing the traps of crab fishermen as they pulled up the wire baskets from the public dock on President Street. Head to Tybee Island and you’ll pass by it. Boats putting in at the ramp, kids in the water and that gator right under the long pier. I still shudder thinking about it.
I had watched Jack catch several gators on the day, including a trio that were tied up in the back of his truck as we pulled into a drive-thru. As the young lady at the window reached out with two large sweet teas, an 8-footer decided he’d try to flop his way over the side of the bed—and all that tea went skyrocketing over the truck.
It was later decided—by Mister Douglas—that if I was going to write a story about catching an alligator with a wire snare and bamboo pole, then I should know what it feels like. So, late in the day, to President Street we went.
Five hours, two lightning-packed, rain-drenching squalls, and severely bruised ribs later, we tied up a 12-foot, 4-inch alligator on the bank of the Back River. At that time, it was the second-largest ever caught in Georgia, and I had no immediate plans for chasing anything bigger—or smaller, for that matter. Two things stand out: Jack holding the back of my belt so that I didn’t get snatched over the dock railing even as my ribs were being battered, and the tremendous initial surge of that monster when he felt the snare slam shut.
Jack has a quiet, calm way of always seeing things exactly as they are. He’s been there and done that. When he talks, I listen.
“You better be holding on or tied down when they feel the tickle of that snare, because something is about to move,” he sagely noted.
With the onset of a season for gator hunting via tag draw, Jack guided, “more for the fun of it than for the money, up to 15 hunters” in one August-October season. Always observant, he has noted some changes in the population since.
“I’ve seen a decline in the big ol’ gators because people have passed up so many little ones to take out the big ones. Gators are slow growers; it takes 25 or 30 years to produce a really big alligator. If a guide gets a 10-footer for a client now, they’ve had a good hunt.”
One Savannah River Ecology Laboratory study asserts that a 100-lb. dog will eat more in a year than an 800-lb. alligator. Just as a comparison, we estimated that 12-footer at well over 600 pounds. (There aren’t all that many places in Savannah to weigh a 12-foot gator in the daytime, much less the dead of night.) No telling how many years he had eased up and down that waterway.
It’s a good thing that alligators don’t actively hunt humans. Sure, they might get in our way at times, but we’re likely more of a nuisance to them.
A nuisance gator, by the way, is defined by DNR as one that is located outside of its normal range; has been fed, intentionally or not, by humans; or become so habituated to humans that they no longer move away from humans or become aggressive. Think about it: folks think it’s cute to toss a golf course alligator marshmallows, then get all bent out of shape when the same gator comes waddling up for more or even has the brass to scarf a Titleist that happens to look an awful lot like a treat. In the blink of an eye, he’s a nuisance, not a pet. To that 12-footer, humans were much less important than the aromatic chicken necks used for bait in those crab traps. Besides, what did he have to fear? Other than Jack Douglas?
There has been but a single recorded fatality by gator attack in Georgia. It occurred in 2007 on Skidaway Island, less than 20 miles from Jack’s front door. And he, of course, was the trapper called in to catch that gator. It haunts him still.
“She was a small, elderly lady, probably 85 pounds, and I think she just got too close to the edge of the pond and fell in,” he says softly, pain still showing in his eyes. “She probably panicked and was splashing around trying to get out on a high bank. The gator was more than likely just cruising by, and I’ve heard it said that a gator can pick up a single drop of water falling into a 50-acre pond. He saw an opportunity and took it, because that’s what they do. They called me, and I got him pretty quick. Opened him up, and there was no doubt. Eight-foot, 1-inch gator. Took two more out of there just to be sure…”
So, he’s 76 years of age now and, in his words, semi-retired. Time to hang it up? Well, just how do you go about retiring from the only way you ever wanted to live your life? Besides, he’s got this little spot…
“I’ll be spending six weeks at Okeetee Quail Plantation near Ridgeland, South Carolina, trapping basically anything that will eat a quail,” he laughed. “It’s 46,000 acres along Highway 21 and just about everything on both sides of that road. I love trapping a big place; it can be raining on one end and you go to the other end and it will be sunny so you can work traps. I’ve been doing this place about 20 years now. I’ll be out at the break of day, every day, running about 100 land sets for coyotes and bobcats and 30 to 40 water sets for coons, beavers and otters.
“They will be quail hunting, so I have to get out early and check and cover my traps, then reset them later. By the time I get through at Okeetee, my phone will be ringing off the hook because the gators will be lying all over the banks and getting in folks’ way back home…”
Being the best there is at what you do comes with a price. But Jack Douglas is not complaining. And he’s not looking back.
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