Public hunts on Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife management areas are all about opportunity.
Whitehouse's Hunter Weaver, 13, took the most of that opportunity last weekend when he took a 12-foot alligator on a youth hunt on the state's Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County.
Although the WMA is outside the state's core alligator range, it is among the special properties allowed to conduct a fall season. In the last two year Engeling has held two adult hunts annually. This year biologists at the area added a youth-only hunt open to hunters 16 and under chosen through a public drawing.
Located along Catfish Creek in the northwest portion the county, the 11,000-acre area has had an alligator population for years. Area biologists believe they can take about six of the reptiles a year and still maintain population numbers.
This year's hunts were expected to be a roll of the dice because of low water levels.
"Actually we have very little water. As little water as there is this year you can step across Catfish Creek in some spots right now," said biologist Tucker Slack.
Slack said there is no exact population count for the area, and some may have left this summer in search of better water. Those that stayed were expected to be more confined than normal to remaining pools or wallows the gators created.
Weaver and his father arrived at the area with nine other teams last Saturday for orientation and to be assigned the portion of the creek that would be theirs to hunt that day and the next.
The Weavers actually started preparing for the hunt as soon as they were drawn by first talking with Tyler's Ron Lott, who last spring took an 8-foot-2 alligator hunting on his farm in Anderson County.
They also practiced tying knots to their leader line and anchor rope, using a truck winch to determine which had the most strength.
Once they found their hunting area, the Weavers began walking the creek, looking for a site to set out their bait, a well-aged chicken attached to a hook hung about 18 inches above the water.
"In one area we found an opening that looked like a slide. It was the freshest one we found. There were no leaves in it or anything," said Chad Weaver.
A lot of gator hunting occurs when no one is around at night. The bait is set out with a steel leader running to a rope tied to a tree or anchor. Set out in the afternoon, hunters return the next morning to check their rig.
"We hoped chicken was what they were hungry for and that our knots were strong," the elder Weaver said.
When the Weavers arrived the next morning they used the scope on a .22-magnum rifle to see fthat the bait was down and the leader was in the water.
Weaver tried to contain his son's enthusiasm by reminding him the bait could have been robbed by a raccoon or if it was a gator that it might be a small one.
"As soon as we got to the line (Hunter) tugs on it and it tugs back," the father said.
Unable to move it an inch, the Weavers worked their anchor line around another tree and began a process of pulling as much as possible together, tying off the slack and then pulling again.
Eventually the Weavers won the tug-of-war and the big alligator surfaced for the first time about 10 feet away.
"Honestly, I didn't think about anything, and then the fear kicked in," Hunter said of his first close-up encounter with a gator.
The youngster, who has been hunting since he was 6, said getting the alligator up was nothing like what is portrayed on television. There was no fighting an animal that weighs an estimated 550-600 pounds.
"It was a lot of dead weight," he described the alligator's response to the pull of the rope.
With the rope tied down, Hunter grabbed the rifle, and that was the first time he began to feel nervous. The kill zone on an alligator is a spot on its head about the size of a silver dollar. Miss it and wound the reptile and the real battle begins.
"I was nervous and hopeful that I would hit it at the right spot. I didn't want to mess up the hide," he said.
With the gator three feet away the rifle's scope was more of a liability because the young hunter wasn't able to pick out the target through it. The ironsides were also useless because they were blocked by the scope. Instead, Hunter had to aim down the side of the barrel, but ended up dead on.
TPWD's Slack said Weaver's gator is the largest taken on the area in three years by about an inch.
He added that alligators can live to be about 40 years old in the wild. The biologist could only estimate this big male was at least 30, but could have been closer to that 40 range.
"We don't know because the creek is so small this may be as big as it was going to get," the biologist explained.
"It was a once in a lifetime experience," Hunter said of the hunt. "I got lucky for getting drawn and for taking a 12-footer."
He added he would like to go again, noting that gator hunting is different from deer or pig hunting, something he is more familiar with, because it doesn't involve sitting in a stand and waiting.
"We had a fantastic hunt," said Chad Weaver, recognizing the efforts of the TPWD staff that assisted them throughout the weekend.
Of course wrestling the alligator to shore was the easy part. Skinning and processing the meat from one this big was an all-day job that required numerous knives and plenty of help.