By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Whether the 2015 alligator season in Alabama can create the excitement of the record-setting 2014 season is anybody’s guess.
What is certain is that Alabama hunters will have plenty of opportunities for to search for a big alligator in multiple areas in Alabama.
The main change for the 2015 season is that Lake Eufaula has been separated from the Southeast Zone and will have its own regulations.
Wildlife Biologist and Alligator Program Coordinator Chris Nix said the riverine habitat at Lake Eufaula presented a challenge for hunters and was better suited for a separate zone with flexible hunting times. Lake Eufaula will have 20 tags, and hunters can pursue gators during daytime and nighttime hours from sunset on August 14 to sunrise on October 5. Only nighttime hunting is allowed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the remaining zones. There is also a minimum length limit of 8 feet on Lake Eufaula, with this special zone encompassing the public Alabama state waters only in the Walter F. George Reservoir (Lake Eufaula) and its navigable tributaries, south of Hwy 208 (Omaha Bridge). This zone excludes the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.
The Southeast Zone (excluding Lake Eufaula) includes the private and public waters in Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Russell counties. This zone will have 40 tags for 2015. There are no length limits on any area except for Lake Eufaula.
Again this year, the area with the most tags, 150, is the Southwest Zone, which includes the private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke, and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84.
The West Central Zone, where Mandy Stokes’ world-record gator was taken last year, will again have 50 tags. The West Central Zone includes the private and public waters in Monroe (north of U.S. Highway 84), Wilcox and Dallas counties.
The registration system for the 2015 hunts was tweaked a bit with the addition of preference points for those who aren’t selected.
“We made the change last year to one application per person instead of multiple applications,” Nix said. “It is still a $20 application fee and a $2 processing fee. People can apply one time for each zone. If they get drawn for multiple zones, they have to choose which one to keep. If John Doe gets pulled for tags in two zones, he will accept one and decline the other. The tag that was declined will go to the first alternate in that zone. The number of tags in each zone will be matched with the same number of alternates.”
Nix said hunters who apply for a tag and are not selected will get a zone-specific preference point. Applicants who did not receive a tag last year receive a preference point for this year’s drawing. The preference points will accumulate each year that person does not get drawn as long as that person applies for a tag each year. Once the hunter gets drawn, the preference points are eliminated in that particular zone. If a hunter fails to apply, all preference points will be lost for previous years.
“If you skip a year, you lose your preference points,” Nix said.
Hunters who draw tags are required to attend mandatory training classes. See www.outdooralabama.com for mandatory class schedules and season dates. A 17-minute video in five segments has been developed for alligator hunters to watch online. Permit holders will then answer a series of questions related to the video.
Registration at www.outdooralabama.com/registration-instructions is currently underway and will continue until 8 a.m. July 14, 2015.
Unless you’ve been “off the grid” for the past year, you know all about Stokes’ alligator, which was confirmed as a world record by the Safari Club International at 15 feet, 9 inches long and 1,011.5 pounds.
“We’ve gotten a lot of publicity since the first alligator season (2006),” Nix said “We’re not seeing the interest decline in this at all. It seems to be getting more and more popular, especially when you get a world-record gator.”
Nix isn’t taking any bets that Stokes’ gator can be topped this year, but he certainly does not eliminate that possibility.
“I’d say the odds are very low of something like that happening again,” he said. “There are plenty of big alligators out there. A 13-foot, 800-pounder is a big gator. A 15-foot, 1,000-pound gator doesn’t come around very often.”
Whether she can top last year’s gator or not, Stokes already has her name in the hat.
“We’ve already put in for a tag. I think they ought to just give me one because I’ve got the record, but I’m already seeing that’s not going to happen,” she laughed.
Stokes, her family and team members were joined by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association to unveil the mount recently at the Mann Wildlife Learning Museum in Montgomery.
“Until you see it in person, you really don’t get the effect of how big it is,” she said. “The pictures are impressive, but they don’t compare to the real thing.”
The record gator will be on display in Dallas County during July and Wilcox County during August.
Stokes said her family’s lives were turned upside down after word of the record gator went viral last August. Accounts of Stokes’ gator-hunting success spread like wildfire around the world.
“I think the reason this gator caused such a stir was experts didn’t think a gator this big could survive in the wild,” she said. “They didn’t think one this size would exist.”
Mandy and her husband, John, were getting ready to build a house as the 2014 alligator season approached. They’re still getting ready.
“We haven’t even started the house,” Mandy said. “We’ve been so consumed with this gator that we’re just now talking about trying to start the process again. We were so consumed all last year it was a good thing we hadn’t started the house because it would have had to just come to a halt. It was that crazy.”
Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes helped celebrate the unveiling of Stokes’ record gator.
“Hunters have taken a little more than 100 alligators per year since the season started,” Sykes said. “That is due to the work of the Wildlife Section and our Enforcement Section, doing surveys, taking population estimates, making sure that the numbers of alligators were there for a sustainable harvest for decades to come, not just for now but for future generations to enjoy this hunting experience. They are constantly looking at new areas where we can create new zones, where we can give more people those opportunities.”
Commissioner Guy said he could testify about what a big deal the record gator was by the response he got from the public.
“I go around the state talking about different topics from deer hunting, turkey hunting, red snapper, whatever the case may be, but after this world-record gator was harvested, that’s all people wanted to hear about,” Guy said. “It was the biggest thing going.
“I see this as a celebration. It’s really a celebration of the American hunter. It’s a celebration of hunters, anglers and outdoors recreationists in this state who support our department. According to the latest information, hunting, fishing and outdoors recreation is a $2.7 billion industry. That’s important, and let me tell you why. The American alligator is a shining example of how hunters actually brought this animal back from the brink of extinction.”
Guy said that Alabama was one of the first states to restrict the harvest of alligators in 1938. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the American alligator to the endangered species list in 1967.
“In 1987, the American alligator was removed from the endangered list, and that population has continued to grow for two reasons – the hunter and those who support conservation and because of the conservation departments that make sure the harvest is regulated and the species protected,” Guy said. “It’s because of the dollars we get from the hunters that we are able to do that. If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t. That is really the big message.”
PHOTOS: (Billy Pope) The world-record alligator at 15 feet, 9 inches and 1,011.5 pounds was unveiled recently at the Mann Wildlife Learning Museum in Montgomery. Mandy Stokes, second from right, and her team of (left to right) Kevin Jenkins, Parker Jenkins, Savannah Jenkins and her husband John Stokes, caught the gigantic gator in a small creek on Miller’s Ferry, an impoundment on the Alabama River. Registration is underway for the 2015 Alabama alligator season at www.outdooralabama.com.