By JIM HARRIS/Managing Editor Arkansas Wildlife Magazine
MONTICELLO – Arkansas hunters harvested more alligators than ever before in the 2020 alligator season, which was held the third and fourth weekends in September in three hunting zones in the lower half of the state. Included in that harvest was the longest alligator taken since the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began setting an annual alligator hunting season.
Collectively, 170 alligators were taken in the state on both public and private land. The previous record for alligator harvest was the 98 taken in the 2017 season, according to Mark Barbee, an AGFC wildlife regional supervisor in southeast Arkansas and coordinator of the alligator hunt.
“This has been our first season going to a quota system for our private land hunting and it went great,” Barbee said. “People followed the protocol. Everybody did what was asked to make it a successful hunt. You couldn’t have asked for better weekends to hunt either with the weather. The nights were cool and the days did not get too hot. So, the season went great and the weather was perfect for it as well.”
An alligator believed to be the longest ever harvested in Arkansas – and definitely the longest since the state has had an alligator season – was taken on Merrisach Lake near Arkansas Post last weekend. The AGFC does not maintain an official state record on alligators but has recorded data on length since beginning the annual alligator harvest in 2007.
Travis Bearden, Gary Bearden, Cody Bearden and Tommy Kelley took an alligator that measured a half-inch shy of 14 feet and weighed 800 pounds. The length and weight were verified by AGFC personnel. The Bearden clan – Travis with his dad and one of his brothers – and Kelley were hunting from a boat and spotted the gator in the water of one of Merrisach’s coves.
Travis Bearden said, “We had gone there the week before. I went with my other brother and some other friends but we didn’t get one. I don’t know if the cold front had messed with them or what. My other brother had gone back to Florida. I had invited them all back, but going out two weekends in a row with everybody having family is tough for folks. They were definitely bummed they couldn’t make it again.”
Kelley was back, though, along with Travis’ dad and another brother. “Our expectations weren’t real high. But we were only out there two hours before we saw him and were able to get close enough to harpoon him. We had no idea how big it was. You can see their eyes but you can’t see their whole body under the water.”
Then, the fun really began. The alligator “was pulling us around like we had a motor on the boat. We didn’t get it to the boat until 11 o’clock before we could shoot it.”
Bearden had been on a hunt with friend John Spradlin to take an alligator that was 10 feet, 2 inches in 2015. He said, “Once you get one, all the wait is worth it. It can be grueling waiting it out, though.
“Just having them, my dad and brother, with me was special,” he said. “It was my dad’s first alligator. We camped at Merrisach and a lot of bowhunters were there. My dad was walking around telling story after story to stranger after stranger. When another person came up, he’d tell them about it.”
Alligator hunting is by permit only in Arkansas. The AGFC issued 38 public hunting permits, with hunting allowed only on designated areas of the Dr. Lester Sitzes III Bois D’Arc WMA, Sulphur River WMA, Little River below Millwood Lake, Millwood Lake, Lake Erling and the Lower Arkansas River Wetland Complex. All other public areas are closed to alligator hunting.
The AGFC created more opportunity for hunters pursuing alligators on private land this year. Hunters who own or had permission to hunt on private lands within the three Alligator Management Zones were able to hunt through a quota-based system similar to private land elk hunting and bear hunting in Arkansas. They were required to obtain a permit through the AGFC’s online licensing system. Harvested gators had to be reported as soon as possible to the AGFC.
“We don’t want to go over the quota, but with the call-in system, it is like with the bears,” Barbee said. “People called in each day to see it was open, they were told the zones were still open for that day and they went out hunting. To my knowledge, there were no violations of the harvest.”
In Management Zone 1, in southwestern Arkansas, 72 total alligators were harvested. Eight were taken on public land and 64 were harvested on private land. In Zone 2 in the middle south portion of the state (there are no public permits issued), three alligators were taken. In Management Zone 3, which includes Merrisach Lake and all of southeast Arkansas, 95 total alligators were harvested, with nine of those being taken on public land. The harvest on private land was six more total than the planned quota for the zones.
“We had planned on a total harvest limit of 164 gators for public and private land,” Barbee said. “We harvested 170. So we’re looking at six animals over. That’s acceptable.”
Zone 3 reached its quota on Saturday night of the first weekend. Zone 1’s quota was not reached until Saturday of the second weekend.
He added, “I’ve talked to a lot of hunters this year, and all were supportive of the quota system. It worked out well for everybody.”