By Craig Hastings
So who are these “Swamp People?” Several years ago when I watched the first commercial preview of this show I laughed out loud. I began to wonder if this show was going to somehow make fun of a group of people in the south, maybe unbeknownst to them. Or was it going to be a comedy that was dressed up like a down to earth reality television series? Fish on! I took the bait the commercial had tempted me and was front and center for the first episode.
Well I watched that first episode and every one since….twice. If you haven’t watched this show please make room for an hour one evening and take a look. I was in my late 50’s when this series first aired, and I can tell all of you that I honestly had never even heard of such a way of life. These people make a living by hunting alligators when the season is open to do so. Buyers are at the docks waiting for the boats to return from the swamps eager to purchase these beasts by their total length. It’s amazing to me how this process happens. From dark and murky water, to baited hook, fought and shot, to small two man/woman boats, and before dark back to the dock.
We get to watch the hunt of up to five teams a season usually made up of family members cruise the bayous, swamps, canals, and channels connecting the swamps all together for dangerous predatory alligators. The fishermen bait giant steel hooks with rotting chickens or other decaying flesh and hang the hook and line tied to a tree limb or swamp stake. The hunters will set several of these in a day and after the last, return to the first line the next morning to see if an alligator is on the line. If an alligator is on the line, one person will pull in the line as the alligator wrestles to free himself. The other person maneuvers to get a shot at a quarter size spot on the back of an alligator’s head. If the bullet hits the mark it only takes one shot. The alligator is then heaved into the boat and tagged. The tag is placed in a small cut six inches from the tip of the tail. Why the tags?
If I remember right, the state of the hunt will issue each hunter a predetermined number of tags, which is the number of alligators allowed to be killed. A hunter is issued one tag for every 100 acres of property he is hunting. A hunter either has to own the land or have permission of the land owner to hunt the land. It seems to me from watching the hunts, it’s important to fill all of those tags, because it may somehow effect the number of tags a hunter can get for the same property the next season. So, does a hunter throw a small alligator back in hopes of catching a larger one before the season is over? Here’s the hitch to this.
There are only so many days in the season, only so many tags a hunter possesses, and some of the days hunters are plagued with bad weather, mechanical equipment problems, and occasionally the hired help may be late to work. Some of the old timers brag, and rightfully so, about hunting these giant reptiles by themselves back in the day. Today it seems all teams have at least two hands on board if not three. Through the seasons we have seen episodes that included a story line that inferred “bait lines” had been stolen or worse; probably an alligator was hooked on that line and taken by another hunter. From the mood and tone of the hunters we were exposed I believe the retaliation on the thieves was something the producers of the show wanted to avoid having any knowledge.
This is part of our country that is truly its own world within itself. The families go back generations living in the same homes on the same property they’ve owned since it was possible to stake land claims. Some of the characters we meet have left home only to come back after a brief experience in the chaos the rest of us live. These are the younger characters we see. They leave in search of a better life; to experience the digital age, wear cloths besides jeans and T-shirts, maybe even striped golf shirts when dressed up for a night out on the town. It appears these younglings return home with the new bling but not the new job. I think they returned home because they saw how screwed up the rest of us seem outside the swamp. Retreating back to the swamp was their most practical option.
You know what you haven’t seen in the approximately seven seasons of Swamp People? The police! No city police, no county police, no state police, and no conservation police. What show on television today doesn’t have law enforcement events? Not this one, and it’s refreshing! Here’s another “what I think” observation: these people take care of their own. They have their own rules of conduct and only a newbie to the community might break those rules. It would be easy to make someone disappear forever in these badlands of swamps, snakes, and reptiles so all unruly visitors need beware.
When these hunters are on the water, and I’m laying on my couch watching I can get a sense of most of what’s going on. I can feel the searing heat causing the sweat, I can hear birds that the film crews can’t record, I can feel the water splash on me when it splashes on the hunters, and I can smell that fishy/lake water smell. I can “be there” all the while being comfortable and lazy on my couch at home. These are tough guys and gals that do this for a living! But, there is one thing I just can’t grab a hold. I’ve tried my best to imagine this each and every time a new alligator is landed in the boat but I can’t. What does that dead, monster-size alligator smell like when he/she is dead and being drug into the boat?!!!. I want to know! I also want to know what ten dead alligators smell like on the ride back to the docks! Yes I’ve been to a psychiatrist before, and for the most part I’m graded average/normal.
Approximately three weeks ago the new season series started, and I’m worried. The price of alligators has plummeted worse than Hillary’s popularity. The stars of the show, e.g. the hunters, are telling us that they don’t think the prices they are getting for the size of the alligators they harvest will pay the cost it takes to hunt them. It’s not a new drama geared for the show either, it’s for real. The market for alligators has tanked. I hope its temporary, because I don’t want to see these people lose their way of life they’ve lived for generations. It’s a simple life compared to most. These people don’t seem to have the wants and needs of the spoiled rest of us. Their kids still play outside day and night and talk, not text. The adults will also gather outside with their neighbors at the end of the day to sit, talk, and share a beverage or two, or six, or ten, or more. It’s a good way of life, a way lost to most of the rest of us. Instead we bury our faces in cell phones, lap tops, LED televisions, too many cars and trucks, and over sized egos.
I’m old enough to remember the Hillcrest gang gathering in one place at the end of the day, after supper, and after dark. Usually one of the vacant lots or one of the new houses being built was where we would congregate. We would talk and laugh for hours about the things we were part of that day. The truth: we just wanted to be with each other for as long as we could before our parents called us in for the night. Had we had cell phones probably we would have never gathered as a group to enjoy each other’s company for hours on end. How different the lives of about 30 of us kids (Hillcrest gang) might have been if we were dropped back into the same neighborhood scenario today. I think all of us would be less of who we are today had we been plagued with today’s social media electronics. Does this lifestyle still happen somewhere in America other than the swamps of Louisiana? I pray it does indeed.