HAMSHIRE — Willie Nelson doesn’t want to be the bearer of bad news.
But on the Friday afternoon before alligator hunting season ends, it’s all he has to share.
“Do you wanna hear the bad news?” Nelson — no, not that Willie Nelson — asks his partner and co-conspirator-in-all-things hunting, Andrew Thorn. “Or the really bad news?”
Thorn, with a Miller Lite in hand and a raised eyebrow, laughs.
“Lay it on me,” he says.
The bad news is that there are no gators hooked on any of the lines Nelson set up a day before.
The real bad news is that not only are there no gators, but someone mowed the grounds of a 4,000-acre crawfish farm the duo hunts on, cutting through the strings of their gator traps and sending bait careening into the pond — destined to be turtle food.
“Well, this is the first time I’ve ever seen that,” Thorn says.
Gator hunting is a decades-old tradition for those who live near Anahuac, designated by the state as the “Alligator Capital of Texas,” a half hour outside of Thorn and Nelson’s hunting grounds. After all, the town is home to Gatorfest, an annual celebration of the American alligator in nearby Chambers County.
While this is old hat for the duo, they know many Houstonians less than 70 miles away might not fathom how or why they pursue a reptile so many avoid, so they decided to share the lore.
This isn’t Nelson or Thorn’s first gator season. The pair have been hunting together for nine years across the animal kingdom, from hogs to duck to gators to deer, during designated Texas Parks and Wildlife hunting seasons.
They both have full-time jobs, wives and five kids between the two of them to juggle, but hunting is their escape from the craziness of life, Thorn says. It’s a place where they can clear their minds and connect with nature.
Out of gator bait, the pair agrees to regroup and set another couple lines. Nelson heads to the store for supplies: raw chicken for the gators, beer for the humans.
But the clock is ticking. If a gator isn’t hooked in the next few hours, Nelson and Thorn will have to wait for the morning. You can’t shoot after sunset, they explain.
However, the morning is their last chance. Saturday, Sept. 30, marks the end of gator season.
On the prowl
Thorn is easily distracted.
Armed with a fresh package of chicken thighs and legs, Nelson, 42, rests in the backseat of the buggy as Thorn navigates their way through the crawfish farm, headed toward a pond where they had previously set gator lines the day before.
“Willie!” Thorn says. “What’s that over there?”
Up ahead, a small critter huddles over the side of the gravel road.
“William, look,” Thorn says, “I think that’s an armadillo.”
“Mmhmm,” Nelson says, agreeing with his partner. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
With an impish grin, Thorn, the 34-year-old father of three from nearby Winnie, parks the buggy, hops out of the driver’s seat and carefully tiptoes toward the armadillo.
“They’re deaf, you know,” he says.
In fact, armadillos are both very hard of hearing and have poor eyesight — neither of which made Thorn’s attempt to catch the little guy any easier.
As soon as he reaches for its tail, the armadillo scurries off, prompting Thorn to give chase in classic Wile E. Coyote versus Roadrunner fashion. After hoofing it for 30 seconds, Thorn finally grasps the tail, bringing the armadillo back to the buggy for Nelson to see.
“You gotta quit smokin’ Andrew,” Nelson says. “Looked like you were strugglin’ out there.”
“I don’t smoke!” the younger hunter protests, before letting the armadillo go. “I’m just fat.”
Back on board the buggy, they head to set the gator traps. At the pond, Nelson glides a piece of chicken thigh onto a sharp hook.
“The oil base from the chicken drips off into the water — attracts the gators,” he explains.
The operation is similar to fishing, but if your fishing pole was anchored to a tree and reinforced with rope.
After assembling two lines, Thorn and Nelson climb aboard the buggy and start setting up for the upcoming deer season, which overlaps with the last day of gator season, while they wait to see if any beasts will bite before sunset.
“He thinks he’s gonna kill something,” Thorn says as Nelson wrestles with an oak tree, installing a seat to scope out deer. “Jokes on him because the only thing we’re gonna kill this weekend is a six-pack.”
Unfortunately, dusk is settling in the sky, and there still are no gators in sight. They’ll have to wait for tomorrow.
Inside the marshy base of the pond, Nelson looms over the edge of the water.
It’s 12:24 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30 — the last day of gator hunting season — and there’s an alligator on the line.
“We got one overnight,” he says, poking through the tall grass with a large stick, trying to unearth the camouflaged gator with a belly full of raw chicken hooked somewhere inside it.
Thorn is off somewhere on the farm, probably holed up in a tree watching for deer, Nelson explains.
Decked out in camo himself, Nelson pulls at the rope he assembled last night — the pole it was attached to is long discarded — and tugs again, dragging the gator as close as he can to land.
“Now, he’s probably gonna jump,” he warns, centering a rifle on top of the gator’s head.
A soft pop goes off as Nelson pulls the trigger and dragonflies flit away at the disturbance.
This marks the eighth alligator Nelson and Thorn have caught this year. The duo can hunt up to 10 gators for the 10 tags the state gives them, which is based on the size of the crawfish farm they lease from to hunt.
Most of those hunts were guided, meaning that others pay the duo to track down gators for them.
They donated the proceeds from two of those hunts to raise money for Oath Inc., a nonprofit Nelson is a member of that supports veterans, military and first responders who enjoy hunting and the outdoors.
“Dang it,” Nelson says after flipping his catch over.
The gator is female, which is never ideal because the females help repopulate the species, whereas males, especially dominant bulls, are more likely to eat their young, he explains.
After measuring her at 6-and-a-half feet, Nelson hoists the dead gator over his shoulders before laying her down inside the bed of his pickup.
It’s time to head to Porters.
A trip to Porters
There’s only one official place that processes alligator meat in southeast Texas, and it’s Porter’s Wild Game Processing and Alligator Farm.
The outfit is based in Anahuac, the Chambers County seat, and has been in business since 1987, when Texas legalized gator hunting due to overpopulation.
Typically, Porter’s processes anywhere from 650 to 800 alligators a season, which only lasts 20 days from Sept. 10 to Sept. 30. But this year, numbers are down, owners Casey and Lindsey Hedges say.
The drought-plagued summer has forced gators to move from their usual hiding holes in the bayou and marsh, making it more difficult to track them down.
Nelson’s is the 527th alligator Porter’s will process this season.
As he pulls into the winding drive off FM 563 with his gator in tow, the Hedges are managing controlled chaos.
Hunters pull up, dump carcasses into the processing center and head back out to the marsh at a rapid pace. Everyone is trying to catch as many alligators as they can before the season ends at sundown.
“Willie Nelson!” Casey Hedges says, before shaking Nelson’s hand and wrapping the man into a one-armed hug. “Good to see you, sir. Want a beer?”
Nelson laughs and declines, chugging his Gatorade instead as the midday sun beats down.
Inside Porter’s, a small-scale disassembly line is in full operation. Dozens and dozens of bloodied dead alligators line the floor, waiting their turn to be power washed and prepared accordingly.
“Scrape, salt, hide is the mantra,” Casey explains.
Gators’ insides are scraped of their meat, which is then prepared by a dozen or so workers in the adjacent kitchen. Porter’s processes too many gators to prepare hunters’ meat that comes from their specific gator, but they can purchase varying packages of alligator meat.
The outside of the gator is another story.
Porter’s labels each body based on the hunter’s preference, who determines what parts of the gator they want. That includes everything from a head mount to the hides, which are often tanned and made into belts, sandals or boots.
Inside the center, workers salt and freeze the hides before shipping them to American Tanning & Leather, a Georgia-based tannery that Porter’s contracts with.
Casey’s wife, Lindsey, mans the office in the building next door, helping folks figure out what they want and calculating costs.
“I wanna have the hide tanned in cognac,” Nelson says. “I wanna get some sandals made for my wife.”
He orders two 5-pound bags of red meat, from the legs and ribs area, and seven 1-pound bags.
Normally Nelson usually makes sausage, both links and breakfast, out of alligator meat, but this year, he wants to try something new.
“I’m gonna call it Willie Swamp Chilli,” he says with a grin. “Fifty percent red (alligator) meat and 50 percent fat back, pork meat.”
As the day comes to a close, Porter’s will process just under 560 alligators across 20 days of 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. nonstop action.
Nelson will head back to the farm to check on Thorn, as the pair bids farewell to gator season and ushers in the first day of deer hunting season.