Lance Nacio, Alligator Hunter

by / Newsroom Ink on September 2, 2014
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Lance Nacio was raised surrounded by alligators. He now returns each year to harvest the large semiaquatic reptile during the state’s annual gator season. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

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Nacio struggles to get a 10-foot alligator weighing more than 300 pounds into his flat bottom boat. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Lance Nacio was raised surrounded by alligators. Living in a camp off of Grand Bayou in the swamps of Southern Louisiana, as a child he took a boat each day just to reach the school bus. Nacio now returns each year to just a lease a few hundred yards from where he was raised to harvest the large semiaquatic reptile during the state’s annual gator season.

For gator hunters like Nacio, a shrimper by trade and owner of Anna Marie Shrimp Company, the season actually started the previous day when lines with massive hooks baited with such delectable treats as rotten chicken were hung two feet above the waterline. Before the sun even thought about rising the last Wednesday of August, Nacio joined other family relatives at a boat dock near a William’s Company natural gas plant to load boats with guns, blankets, bait, hooks and poles before setting off to run more than seventy lines.

The eager gator hunters started their flat-bottomed boats powerful engines and journeyed down Grand Bayou toward their designated leases. Minutes later Nacio arrived at a locked gate leading to a pipeline canal across the bayou from his boyhood home.

A History With the Land

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The Louisiana gator hunter uses a 17-caliber pistol to kill the gators before bringing them into his boat. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“This land had been in my family for more than a hundred years,” explained Nacio as he fumbled with the lock. “The land is now owned by Apache Oil, but I hold the rights to hunt and fish, and of course that includes alligator. ”

Nacio and his nephew Jake Cressionie, accompanied by Norris Foret, slowly head up the canal checking lines along the way, while his 80-year old uncle, Albert Nacio, accompanied by his cousin Edward Billiot head toward their lines further up the bayou.

As the first rays of sunlight hit the still waters of the marsh, the experienced hunter checked more than 12 lines, all with bait still hanging intact or hooks pulled into the water. Plunging his boat into the salvini-covered waters off the main bayou, Nacio finally hits pay dirt.

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It is important to tag each gator and keep them covered with wet blankets so the hot sun does not deteriorate the hide. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

At the intersection of a small canal and open lake, the Louisiana native finds a line that has been dragged into the tall grass.   With a 17-caliber pistol held firmly in one hand, he slowly on pulls the parachute rope line with the other. As the boat is pulled into the grass, the line tightens, then with an unexpected lung the rope is pulled from his hands as the gator splashes his way to deeper water.

“Wow, that’s a big one,” cried Nacio. “That has to be at least a ten-footer. That’s why we’re out here.”

Struggling to once again regain the line with his homemade wood retriever, he finally finds a piece and once again starts to pull the gator to the surface. Ever so slowly, and with pistol at the ready, he pulls until the outline of the gator starts to emerge in the cloudy water.

The silence of the swamp is suddenly broken as his pistol cracked and one shot enters the head of the gator. “I got one into him,” he exclaimed as the gator once again dove deep.   Again, he brings the gator to the surface, this time with less resistance, and a second shot again breaks the silence and the gator slowly rolls onto his belly.

“We’ll leave him here for now and pick him up on our way out,” he explained. “We have some pretty shallow waters to go through to reach the other lines, and we don’t want one as big as that to weigh the boat down, especially if we have a lot to bring out from the back.”

Wild Alligator Season

Once a year the state of Louisiana sets aside 30 days for the hunting of alligators.   The states wild population exceeds two million, and more than 28,000 are harvested during the season.

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Once a year the state of Louisiana sets aside 30 days for the hunting of alligators. The states wild population exceeds two million, and more than 28,000 are harvested during the season. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

In the 1950s and 60s alligator harvesting was haphazard and unregulated. In the mid-60s, the state saw its alligator population decrease. Then, in the late 60s and early 70s, an environmental emphasis began to protect and harvest gators.

“Alligators were once an endangered species,” explained the third generation alligator hunter, on why the season is important to conservation efforts. ““The state has developed programs from the approach that the alligator is a renewable, sustainable natural resource – setting a defined, wild-alligator harvest season and the development of a farm-raised gator program.”

The alligator is one of the prime reasons driving the conservation of coastal wetlands, according to Mark Shirley, specialist for Louisiana State University (LSU) Agricultural Center (AgCenter) and field agent for Louisiana Sea Grant.

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Approximately 38,000 tags are issued to alligator hunters by the state each year. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“The protection of alligators during the 60s and 70s allowed the population to build,” Shirley explained. The first, experimental alligator harvest occurred in 1972 in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes. A few years later, it spread statewide.”

Coastal wetland owners are paid by alligator farmers for the rights to harvest eggs on their property. State law requires the farmer to return 12-percent of all hatched-eggs back into the wild once the baby has grown to four feet in length.  This allows the wild population in the wetland areas where eggs were collected to be compensated and insures lasting sustainability.

One of the seven gators Nacio caught on the first day was a farm-raised gator. “You can tell a farmed raised gator because they take two notches out of its tale before it is released back into the wild,” he said.

Landing the Big One

As the vegetation covered bayou water shallows, Nacio’s boat is slowly fills with the twitching carcasses of gators ranging from seven to ten feet. Taking a break from the running of lines, he unsheathes his knife to start the process of tagging.

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Once a year the state of Louisiana sets aside 30 days for the hunting of alligators. The states wild population exceeds two million, and more than 28,000 are harvested during the season. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“The tail is one of the most powerful parts of the gator,” he said struggling to cut a small hole in the tip to run the tag through. “Even though they are dead, the tail seems to have a mind of its own and you can get slapped around pretty bad if you are not careful.”

With four tagged gators in the boat, the powerful engine once again roars to life and he once again off to check on the final few lines.

At the edge of a small bayou he again finds success. Slowly positioning the boat toward a broken pole, he again searches the water with his hand to find the elusive line.

“This one broke the pole, look at the tension on this line,” he said excitedly, almost talking to himself.

Once again the hunter slowly pulls upon the rope in search of his prey, once again the line is jerked from his hands with such force it throws him aback as the bayou waters explode with alligator filled spray.

“Did you see that, this one is huge,” he shouted as he searched the waters for the elusive line. “This one has to be over ten feet.”

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Nacio’s nephew Jake Cressionie (l) and Norris Foret struggle to get an eleven foot gator into the boat. During the process the tail of the gator slapped Cressionie hard in the face. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsrooom Ink

Standing tall in the boat with pistol ready, he again starts the process of reeling in the cannibalistic reptile. Ever so slowly the line is reeled as the boat slowly drifts toward a collision with its destiny. The shape of the large gator appears, and the silence is again broken by the deafening sounds of the pistol. This time the gator slowly turns belly up in the water.

“Damn, I am going to need help getting this one into the boat,” he exclaims. “This one is definitely over eleven feet, look at the size of that head.”

Modern alligator hunters have one tool generations past never imagined. Using his cell phone he called his nephew, who was running lines nearby, to come help load the prized gator into the boat.

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Nacio shows off his day’s work to his cousin Edward Billiot (l) and 80-year old uncle Albert Nacio in the middle of Grand Bayou. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“We definitely have an advantage over past generations, can you imagine doing this in a small pirogue, and without cell phones or motors?” Nacio said.

Help arrived after a few minutes. As the two youngsters struggled to get the gator into the boat, his nephew is thrown aback taking a hit to the face by the gator’s powerful tail. Shrugging off the setback, the two managed to get the trophy set in place with the others and covered with wet blankets to keep the skin from deteriorating in the now hot morning sun.

As the motor once again sprung to life, the heavy weight of the gators now impeded progress; a two-foot wake now followed the boat headed toward its dock.

A Family Affair

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Nacio, Foret and Cressionie unload the prized 11-foot gator with the aid of a winch. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

After 30 minutes, Nacio once again reached Grand Bayou approximately the same time as his uncle and cousin.   After ten minutes of comparing catch and exchanging a few tales in the middle of the bayou, his boat again started its struggle dockside.

At the dock the three boats unloaded their catch into the bay of a pickup truck using muscle and a sometimes a wench. The more two tons of gators were then taken to a processor forty minutes away by Nacio’s uncle.

“This has been a very good day, we caught 24 gators from six to eleven feet between us. Last year on the first day I only got one gator. We should get around $10,000 for the day’s work, not a bad haul,” he said.

Wild alligator hunting has caught the fascination of the American public. History Channel’s “Swamp People” follows the day-to-day activities of Cajuns living in the swamps of the Atchafalaya River Basin who hunt American alligators for a living. The Molinere family who is featured on the show lives a few miles from the Nacio’s lease.

Hunters are paid according to the size of the gator. Gators seven feet and under are compensated at $25 per foot, and those more than seven feet are paid $35 per foot.

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Not a bass day’s work. Nacio joins his uncle Edward Billiot, nephew J Jake Cressionie, friend Norris Foret and his 80-year old uncle Albert Nacio posing with the 24 gators caught on the first day. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“The processors use almost every part of the gator; hides are sold to make articles such as shoes, belts or watchbands, the meat is healthy and more popular than ever, and the heads are sold to both locals and tourists,” he said.

Alligator meat is a delicacy, a novelty dish or downhome good eatin’. According to Nacio, “The price is much higher than it has ever been thanks in part to the Swamp People show.

This year the state issued more than 38,000 tags to hunters. Nacio and his relative received 140 of the prized rights.

“Wild alligator hunting has become big business, valued at more than $11 million dollars a year,” he said. “Of course I have to split my income 60/40 with my landowner Apache Oil, but that is only right. The money is only part of the reason that I do this, it’s because I love being out in those swamps. It just a big, big part of who I am and how I was raised, surrounded by alligators.”

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the former editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. .

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