When Keith Fancher put in for one of 295 alligator tags offered in Alabama this year, he obviously hoped his name would come up in one of the computer’s slots. It didn’t. Instead, Fancher drew two alternate tags. He was the ninth alternate in the alligator-rich Delta region, which has had a season for 6 years now, and he drew the first-alternate slot in the newly opened west-central area that includes the Alabama River. After another hunter dropped out, Fancher chose to hunt the newly opened west central area near Selma, Ala., because it was closer to home and he reasoned that being a new area, there might be some big lizards swimming the waters that hadn’t been harassed by hunters. In his words: “It turned out to be a wise choice.”
That’s a bit of understatement, however, as Fancher and six friends and family members brought the largest alligator ever legally caught and killed in Alabama to the scales the night of Aug. 19. The massive lizard taped out at 14 feet, 2 inches and stretched the scale cable, literally, as it had to be replaced, at a massive 838 pounds. The gator’s girth at the mid-way point was 65½ inches and the circumference at the base of his tail was 44½ inches. As Alabama doesn’t officially recognize alligators in its record book, Fancher and the behemoth reptile will have to settle for something like, “the largest alligator ever killed during hunting season.”
There might be more to the story, however. “We got a call from the taxidermist and he measured it at 14 feet, 7 inches from the bottom jaw. I don’t know where the conservation officer came up with 14-2 since the bottom jaw is lower, but that’s what he measured it at,” said J.C. Peeples, Fancher’s first cousin who was part of the seven-man hunting party. “Not to mention, he was missing 4 to 6 inches of tail. That would have put him close to 15 feet!”
The colossal creature was taken in the main channel of the Alabama River, he was hooked at about 9:00 p.m., and took nearly 2½ hours to subdue. After they killed the gator, the seven-man hunting party had to then secure him to the side of the boat and slowly work their way back down river with the nearly half-ton of lizard carcass trying to sink to the bottom. Once back to the launch, they then had to get beast to the check-in station – which is mandated by the state to take place overland. You can’t simply pull your boat up to the scales and have it weighed.
All told, it took the crew about 7 hours to fight and transport the gator. “Everyone did their job and everything fell into place. It was exciting and there was some yelling but we couldn’t have gotten that done without everyone’s help,” said Fancher. “Nothing worked out the way we planned it, but it worked out best.” The hunting crew consisted of Fancher’s cousin, J.C. and his wife Stacy Peeples, Mike Bailey and son Destin, along with David and Mindy Hatchett. The Hatchett’s supplied the 19-foot pontoon boat, which David drove through hellish field of trees, stumps and murky water in pursuit of the snared gator, while Mindy and Stacy shined spotlights on the beast and illuminated the waterway. Destin Baily was in the mix, pulling branches out of the way, helping to navigate and taking his turn on the lights when required. Fancher, J.C. and Mike worked the beast over with hooks and lines, finally subduing it – but not without some drama.
Fancher admits he didn’t have a clue as how to hunt gators when he drew the tag. “I was lost. I had heard my cousin talk about it and knew he had been a few times before, but I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. He and Peeples hit the Alabama River a few times in the weeks leading up to the hunt. Part of this was just to learn how to navigate it, since the hunt would take place at night. “We saw a lot gators in the 6- to 10-foot range, but most of the time was spent down there learning the river and trying to find some good-looking spots to go,” said Fancher. During scouting they encountered an alligator they estimated went 12 feet in length. It was 10 miles upriver from the launch and became the original target of the crew. En route to their prey, the party encountered and boated a couple of smaller 6-foot alligators but ultimately released them.
“We were going after the one we saw way up the river,” said Fancher. “And then a little after 9 o’clock we saw this one in the main river and were able to hook into him. J.C. was the one that got the first hook into him.” “I took the heavier rod because I could tell it was bigger; I thought about an 11-footer,” said Peeples, noting the rod and reel were loaded with 100-pound braid tipped with a treble hook that found its mark with the first cast … At first wasn’t much of a fight,” he said. “But then we put pressure on him and that’s when the fight really started!”
Peeples recounted that in the beginning the party didn’t have a lot of say in the matter. It was more of a hold on and pray situation. “For the first 30 to 45 minutes it was all him,” said Peeples. “He took us all over the place, wrapped us around logs, went to the bank, everywhere!” During the chaotic 2½ hour fight, lines got crossed, rods passed back and forth, and at one point, the gator’s armored skin released Peeple’s hooks. “When J.C.’s hooks came out, I went on a ride!” said Fancher. After running through tree limbs, navigating stumps and pulling loose from rocks, the crew faced a moment when the 838-pound alligator tried turning the tables on his predators and upending the food chain. “We had one instance when the gator came right us aggressively and we’re backing up giving him slack, hoping he’d turn and eventually he did but it was something for a moment,” said Peeples. When the crew of hunters was finally able to tire the monster out and get it close to the boat, Peeples handed his rod to Fancher and grabbed PVC-pipe snare lined with cable. “I got it around the rear right leg which gives you a good angle on the head shot. I had a pretty good fight there hanging onto that rope!” said Peeples, noting that the tired reptile quit running and submerged itself, only coming up for air when necessary. “The first time he came up he didn’t give us a clear shot, but the second time he came up I told my cousin pop him! Pop him! Pop him! And he did, and that’s all it took with a gator that big believe it or not.”
Fancher’s first alligator shattered the previous record by more than 100 pounds. That alligator was taken by Matt Thornton (pictured here) of Mobile, Ala., and was hunted up on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in 2009. It measured 13 feet, 5 inches and weighed 701 pounds.
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With a crowd of about 60 people looking on, conservation officers stretched the measuring tape and cables on the scale to come up with the record-setting digits. “He was a big animal. There’s not much else you can say and not many other words you can use but B-I-G!” said District 3 wildlife biologist Chris Cook. “The girth of the animal was what was most impressive. How big he was. Just his girth around the gut, the head, the tail – it was obvious that he was going to weigh more than anything I’ve ever seen.” Cook says the goals of the hunt were: one, give hunters an opportunity to take alligators and, two, to reduce the number of nuisance alligator complaints in the area. An increase in weekend fishing camps and full-time residents has led to more alligator-human conflict, with some gators becoming accustomed to humans and hanging around boat piers and other areas frequented by residents, raising concern for the safety of pets, children and others. The biologist also mentioned that big gators were expected. “It was the first gator hunt in that area so we figured there would be some big ones coming in. You’d expect it this first year,” he said. “Most of them were killed in the middle of the river after coming out of the creeks and backwaters. It was just a matter of riding around, looking and finding the right one.” In addition to the Fancher’s record-setting 838 pounder, there was a 720-pound alligator taken the next night from the main river channel. “That 720 pounder came in the next night and it was a real big one – and it had a big piece of tail missing or it would have gone over 13 feet,” said Cook.
All told, 25 out of the 40 gators taken from the west-central area were 10-feet long or more and 11 of them were 12-feet long or more. Six of the prehistoric beasts topped 600 pounds. Cook mentions that a “smaller” gator was taken near a popular swimming area. “There was one that was 13 feet, 4 inches and only weighed 500-something pounds and he was killed almost right in Selma and close to one of the areas lots of people hang around in during the weekends,” he said. While the harvesting of these big gators will hurt the super-sized, top-of-the-food-chain population, since they’re males the overall population won’t be impacted much, if at all. Biologists will continue to monitor the area, this particular 20-mile stretch of Alabama River opened this season in the west-central area has been informally surveyed for the last 10 years, and allocate tags based on how the population responds to the hunting pressure and continued sprawl of human encroachment. The huge gator pictured here was also taken this season in Alabama. It was killed by Clint Norris. It weighed 720 pounds and measured more than 12 feet.
As for Fancher, he received 100 pounds of gator meat from the bruiser and has the animal at the taxidermist. His hope is to display the large lizard in a local establishment, hopefully some place that will use it for educational purposes and relay not only the story of the brute but also that of wildlife and hunting for future generations. While Fancher says that he’ll be applying for a tag again and “wouldn’t miss it for the world!”, he did mention an incident that put size and power of the animal into context. “What scared me was just how dangerous this thing could be. We took it over to friend’s house and there was a crowd there and I was taking pictures with it and letting people take pics with it,” he said. “Standing around the back side of it was a little girl, she was maybe 4 or 5 years old, and [the gator] could have taken her whole and she wouldn’t have filled him up. That gave me chills.”
It took Keith Fancher and six buddies about seven hours to fight and transport this state record alligator. It weighs more than 838 pounds and measures more than 14 feet.