Alabama has a new big-alligator hotspot after the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) opened an area in west central Alabama for the 2011 season.

The west central zone, which includes Monroe County (north of US Hwy. 84), Wilcox County and Dallas County, had 50 tags and 40 of them were filled.

One of those tags was filled by Keith Fancher of Shelby with the largest alligator taken since Alabama opened a season in 2006. The monster gator measured 14 feet, 2 inches and weighed a whopping 838 pounds.

WFF Wildlife Biologist Chris Cook helped check in Fancher’s gator at Roland Cooper State Park on Millers Ferry (Dannelly Reservoir) on the Alabama River. Cook quickly realized this gator was special.

“It was obviously bigger than any I’d ever seen,” Cook said. “I’d weighed in one at 13-1 and a little over 600 pounds on the Saturday before, but this one was obviously a lot bigger. It was in another class. It outweighed that earlier gator by 230 pounds and was a foot longer. It was just huge. Everything about it was bigger, the head and girth. The head was huge.”

Cook said the Fancher party hooked the big gator before midnight near Pine Barren Creek, and it was quite some time before their pontoon boat made it to the check station at Roland Cooper.

“They hooked him a little after 11 in the river,” Cook said. “They weren’t but about three miles from the state park, but it was 3:30 before they got him to the check station. They were hunting from a pontoon boat, so they couldn’t get the gator in the boat. They just tied it off and eased down the river. It was a load, so they just floated it down the river. When they got to the park, they backed the pontoon trailer into the water and got the gator on the trailer. Then they brought it to the check station on the boat trailer. We winched it up and weighed it and sat it back down in their truck.”

But Fancher’s gator wasn’t the only big one taken from the west central zone. In fact, the list (length, weight, hunter) is long.

14-2, 838 pounds, Keith Fancher of Shelby;

12-4, 720 pounds, Clint Morris of Sardis;

12-9 1/2, 661 pounds, Keith Rosetta of Odenville;

13-1, 604 pounds, Jamie Thomas of Selma;

12-2, 625 pounds, James Glennon of Birmingham;

12-10, 607 pounds, Dale Herring of Saraland;

12-4, 578 pounds, Craig Gamble of Camden;

13-4, 528 pounds, Frank Carnes of Tuscaloosa;

12-6 1/2, 522 pounds, Colby Sisson of Moody;

12-0, 511 pounds, Leslie Bryan of Saraland;

12-1, 444 pounds, Robert Akins of Madison;

11-11, 498 pounds, Roger Boaz of Adger;

11-10, 465 pounds, Dawn Daley of Camden

Cook said he wasn’t really surprised that the gators in the west central zone were that large.

“You would expect them to take some really big ones up there just because it’s basically an unhunted population,” he said. “If they could escape a poacher, they’ve been able to live without a threat for decades. There are definitely some big, healthy gators up there.”

WFF Wildlife Biologist Keith Gauldin, who coordinated the alligator hunts for the second season, said there are very few gators in the wild that would match Fancher’s behemoth.

“They don’t get much bigger than that,” Gauldin said. “A 12-footer is a big alligator, so one that is 14 feet is a really big gator. The gators in the west central area were more robust for some reason. I don’t think there are as many gators up there. It’s more riverine habitat than marsh, like it is in the Delta. When I worked the check station at Roland Cooper that night, I found out the alligators aren’t as numerous up there, but they’re a lot more robust.

“There are probably better ambush points for prey. Being there are not as many, there is probably a lot of competition for those optimal forage spots. They probably eat each other quite a bit. When we’re doing our surveys, we often see alligators with another one in their mouths. That’s very common.”

Fancher’s gator was in very good condition compared to some of the other gators weighed in. One big gator was missing almost a foot of its tail.

“Usually the older age alligators are missing a forelimb or a back limb or part of its tail,” Gauldin said. “They’re very territorial. These large gators typically inhabit the mouths of creeks or main bays that empty into the main river. These are optimal foraging areas, so the competition is pretty intense for those optimal spots.

“When people ask me where to go look for a gator, I always tell them to go to the mouth of a creek or bay where it empties into a main body of water.”

Gauldin said when the word got out about the big gators, Roland Cooper was the place to be around Camden.

“We had people all over the place,” he said. “And we had probably as many as 40 people waiting for gators to come in at Spanish Fort. There were people who had never seen an alligator before. They wanted to see it up close. They wanted to touch the scales and see what it was like.”

Gauldin said there was definitely a renewed interest in Alabama’s alligator season from a spectator and potential-hunter standpoint. More than 2,000 applications came in for the 50 tags in the west central zone, while there were 3,700 entries for the 120 tags in southeast Alabama. There was a significant increase in the number of applicants for the 125 tags for the Mobile-Tensaw Delta zone. There were 9,000 applications for the 125 tags.

As far as Gauldin is concerned, blame it on Troy Landry and cohorts from the History Channel’s reality TV show “Swamp People.”

“Last year I think we had about 6,000 applications for the Delta, so we had a big increase in interest in the Delta area,” he said. “I don’t know if more people are finding out about it or if they’re watching ‘Swamp People.’ Three thousand is a pretty big increase in the Delta area. I really think it’s because people are watching ‘Swamp People.’ I’m serious.

“What I think it has done is it puts activities on TV that people haven’t seen before. I just think it’s a natural curiosity that people have, to see that people actually do that kind of stuff for a living, and people over here have an opportunity to do something similar to that. It’s not exactly the same(no baiting allowed in Alabama), but it’s similar. Plus, there’s no other hunting opportunity at the time, so this provides an additional opportunity.”

In the Delta zone, 78 tags were filled, but the size couldn’t match those of the west central zone. John King of Spanish Fort had the big gator at 12-7 and 593 pounds, while Eric Thompson of Stapleton checked in a 12-8 at 514 pounds, and Angela Flynn brought in a 12-4 at 543 pounds. Three other gators passed the 12-foot mark: Michael Gamotis of Fairhope tagged a 12-4, 434-pounder; Tim Carner of Mobile had a 12-1, 523-pounder; and Brad Bennett of Hueytown had a 12-2, 405-pounder.

The southeast zone that includes Lake Eufaula reported 40 alligators tags filled. Five alligators measured 12 feet or longer. Those big gators taken were: 12-4, 650 pounds by Jeff Mann of Smiths; 12-4, 650 pounds by Jonathan Perkins of Collinsville; 12-3, 600 pounds by John Henderson of Alexander City; 12-3, 550 pounds by Justin Turner of Hartselle; and 12-0, 500 pounds by John Halburt of Phenix City.

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