by John M. Collins
Over time, river channels experience directional changes, creating islands and "oxbow" lakes. Oxbows are natural loops of meandering rivers that become isolated by these channel changes. Oxbows differ in shape, width, length, and depth, but regardless of their footprint on the landscape, they share a common bond: they create exceptional habitat for all species of wildlife, fish, and waterfowl. One of the oldest and most common residents of oxbow habitat in the southeastern United States is the American alligator. Feeding on fish, turtles, beaver, muskrat, shorebirds, and other lakeside species, alligators can grow to exceptional sizes.
Oxbows and sloughs formed along the Mississippi River flood plain are too numerous to count. For hundreds of years, these water bodies have been and still are refuges for alligators and other species. For centuries, hunters and anglers have been drawn to these fertile areas for subsistence and outdoor recreation.
In the early to mid 1800's, brothers Joseph E. Davis and Jefferson F. Davis - future President of the Confederate States of America - had large adjacent plantations about twenty miles south of Vicksburg, bordering the Mississippi River on what was known as Davis Bend, Mississippi. Joseph built his estate in the 1820s, and as was the custom named his estate "Hurricane Plantation." Younger brother Jefferson began clearing and building his plantation home which he named "Brierfield" in 1835. The pre-Civil War plantation known as Brierfield is the setting for this oxbow alligator hunt.
Hurricane and Brierfield were accessible by horse and wagon from Vicksburg until a Mississippi River channel change during a period of high water actually cut across Davis Bend and isolated the two plantation properties from Vicksburg, effectively forming Davis Island, now accessible only by water. After the Civil War and the passing of the Davis family heirs, the island was divided, complete with its oxbows and history. New owners that have devoted the entire island to timber and quality wildlife management ultimately purchased it. The island boasts thousands of acres of exceptional hardwood timber and healthy populations of alligators, deer, black bear, wild turkey, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, and other lesser species.
In late September of 2008, my good friend, John Dale from Natchez, invited me to participate in the first private lands alligator hunt ever held in Mississippi. Although I had only one night to hunt, I eagerly accepted the invitation. The Dale camp on Brierfield would be our hunt headquarters. The club caretaker, Scott Skipper, would be operating the boat; I would be manning the crossbow; John would be in charge of the video camera.
The weather turned foggy and cool - not the best situation for hunting alligators at night. The big lizards simply would not cooperate! Every time we got within range, the gators would silently slip beneath the surface and disappear. I did manage to get one arrow into a big alligator, but he managed to pull off after a brief fight in the thick brush and aquatic vegetation. I had to leave the next day, but Scott was able to fill all the club tags during daylight hours with his rifle over the next few days while the big ones were sunning along the shore.
Fast forward to Friday, September 18, 2009, this would be my second attempt at getting an alligator on Davis Island with a crossbow. This year I would be shooting my new Horton Vision 175. I arrived early in the afternoon, and Scott and I prepared our equipment for the hunt. Boat batteries had to be charged, arrows and buoys checked, and the boat launched before dark.
After an early dinner, we headed to the lake. Our good friend Kent Breard from Louisiana joined Scott, John, and me. Scott would operate the boat and handle one light, I would operate another light and hold the Vision 175, Kent would hold the buoy and make sure the line canister was pointed in the right direction, and John would operate the video camera.
As darkness fell on the oxbow, there was an eerie quiet, punctuated only by the calls of owls and frogs, and ever present buzzing of mosquitoes. We pushed away from shore and glided between the cypress trees to the open middle of the lake. We immediately located several sets of eyes along the brush and tree line. Just like the previous year, the alligators were timid and slipped beneath the surface before we managed to get in range.
Eventually, the gators began to hold better for the light, and we passed up quite a few small ones that we could have easily taken. As we approached a large floating mass of aquatic lotus plants, we spotted the orange eye of a large alligator swimming almost directly toward us. The alligator stopped about thirty feet away, and appeared to be thinking seriously about a trip to the bottom. Our whispers were unanimous, "take the shot!"
I had a clear quartering shot at its neck, so I settled the cross hairs just behind the jaw at the beginning of the neck and squeezed the trigger. As the AMS Gator Getter point found its mark, all hell broke loose! The canister Kent was holding popped open, and forty feet of 640# Fast Flite line streaked out like a bolt of white lightning. When the line became taut, the buoy was ripped from Kent’s hands; the break-a-way shaft separated (as designed) from the embedded, barbed point lodged deep in the gator’s neck.
For half an hour, we followed the white buoy, taking in slack as we could and trying to put another shaft into the gator. Each time we got close, the gator would thrash and dive, drenching us with lake water, and stripping the gained line from Scott’s leather gloves, causing him to turn loose of the buoy. The alligator’s subsurface meandering around and through the floating lotus pads and other vegetation prevented us from getting a clear second shot. The gator eventually tired and Scott got him alongside the boat. I dispatched him with a shot into its brain. For a moment we all just sat there quietly, wringing wet. After catching our breath, it took all four of us to roll the gator into the boat. We had been on the water for about six hours; it was an experience we will all remember.
Once the tag was inserted in the tail as required, we returned to shore. As it had begun, the sounds of the Davis Island owls, frogs, and mosquitoes still droned in our ears. On this moonless night, Brierfield and the old oxbow had given up one of its own. Many more alligators remain, hopefully to battle the bolts and buoy lines in seasons to come.