Alligators live in Piney Woods
Full grown male caught on street near bayou in Winnfield

By Jay Huner
Journal Correspondent

Imagine driving through Winnfield, Louisiana in mid-October and finding an 8-plus foot long, 200-plus pound alligator in the road?! Well, that’s what happened to Piney Woods Journal staffer Shannon Mercer of Winnfield, and her husband recently. (See separate story, right.)

There are plenty of alligators in southern Louisiana’s lowlands. Their range extends northward into southern Arkansas, eastward to the Atlantic Coast, and westward into Texas. But, there isn’t a lot of choice alligator habitat in the red dirt, piney woods hill country in this range. So alligators are seldom encountered away from reservoirs or permanent bayous and rivers making the Winnfield gator so much of a surprise.

Based on the size of the Winnfield gator and its location, it was most likely a male. Male gators move around quite a bit. There are two probable explanations for its appearance. First, it could have been a wandering animal moving from the Ouachita River area up various waterways until it found itself in Winnfield via the Dudgdemona River. Alternatively, it may have moved into the region some years ago at a smaller size following a similar route. It then set up house-keeping in a local pond or bayou where it terrorized fish, turtles, nutria, beavers, dogs, cats, feral hogs, etc. before finally deciding to move around a bit.

It’s highly unlikely anyone caught a full grown alligator and moved it to Winnfield as a prank! While gators seem pretty docile when sunning themselves, they can move into instant action slashing prey or molesters with their powerful tails and/or clamping down and tearing up victims with their teeth studded jaws.

Alligators aren’t really “cold blooded” because they can adjust their body temperature by sunning themselves. But, their grow

best at temperatures around 80 F. They simply don’t grow during winter in most of their range with the exception of central to southern Florida. So, it takes about 10 years for a six-inch hatchling alligator to reach sexual maturity at about six feet in length - sooner in south Louisiana and later in northern Louisiana.

Female alligators build nests of decomposing vegetation in late spring-early summer. The composting vegetation heats up and incubates the eggs. When the eggs begin to hatch after some weeks, the mother uncovers the hatchlings and guards them for some months. The little gators eat almost anything a bass would eat - small turtles and snakes, insects, crawfish, and minnows. Once they leave their mother’s protection, all manner of creatures will eat them including their own mothers!
Alligator numbers declined greatly in the first half of the 1900s and “trapping” and hunting was banned in the 1960s in most of the range. But, by the 1970s, numbers had reached a point where it only made sense to reinstitute alligator seasons, at least in Louisiana. Alligators are now farmed, with most farms in Louisiana. By keeping water temperatures around 80 F in culture facilities, hatchlings can be grown to commercial sizes of 5-6 feet in about two years. Farmers get their eggs from wild alligator nests and incubate them. By law, they have to return a percentage of the “grown” gators to sustain natural populations. In fact, the Winnfield gator might have been a farm-raised alligator!

[Side Bar - One often hears about alligator trappers. There is no such thing as an alligator trap. “Trappers” actually catch the alligators with a set line and hook normally baited with a chicken drumstick or thigh. The bait is hung from a pole about a foot above the water surface. The line is tied to a tree or post on the bank. Once hooked, an alligator is carefully tugged to the surface where it is shot or hit with a hatchet between the eyes. No sane alligator trapper horses an alligator to the surface as all manner of bad things can happen if the gator, especially a big 300-plus pound one starts thrashing around.]

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409
318 793-5529