Lindale’s Bob Staton and his son, Robert, are no strangers to adventure. While they have traveled around the country hunting a myriad of animals their latest trip was homegrown on the Sabine River where the duo took an 11-foot, 400-pound alligator.
This adventure actually started in 1985 when the Statons were squirrel hunting along the old Sabine River channel. A then-10-year-old Robert was leaning back on a tree when he spotted a pair of eyes looking back at him from the water. He told his dad there was an alligator.
His father, in a cocksure tone, replied, “It’s just your mind playing tricks on you.”
The debate continued when after a few minutes Robert again said, “There’s an alligator in the water.” Having spent a lifetime in the woods between Van and Lindale, the elder Staton suggested, “It’s probably just a piece of driftwood,” to which the youngster fired back, “Why is the driftwood blinking?”
That got the father’s attention, and once he had his eyes on the alligator’s eyes he decided to make a stalk. They made it about eight steps and the gator disappeared.
Metaphorically the alligator stayed out of sight for 30 years. Oh, they were still spotted in the water from time to time, but it wasn’t until Robert wanted to hunt them under Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s non-core area tag that it was really important again.
“It was 30 years later before I became interested in trying to catch one,” said Robert, who lives in Georgetown. “It was not seeing Swamp People on television that piqued my interest. It was when I learned two friends had a successful alligator hunt through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Draw Hunt program. I began asking questions of how to go about doing it.”
In 2007, TPWD began allowing hunters to take alligators on private property not in 22 core counties using a tag on their hunting license. The primary requirements are that the set-up must be on private property and that any harvest must be reported within 72 hours to the department by way of an Alligator Hide Tag form.
That is the easy part. The hard part was talking his dad into the idea.
“Being confident that my dad and I could do it ourselves I had to get his permission. He had been telling people not to shoot his alligators for 30 years. The first year, I asked he said no. The next year he said he would think about it. Finally, the third year he agreed that we could each take a gator,” Robert Staton recalled. That was in 2018 and the two each took 7-footers.
Hunters average taking only about 200 alligators each spring season in the non-core counties, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Hunters in Smith County have on average taken about five a year the last five years.
According to Jon Warner, TPWD alligator program leader, the non-core area population is healthy with the majority being found throughout East Texas.
In 2019 they tried again, but struck out. This June the two set out a line on the farm again. The first night the soured chicken was untouched. When they drove up the second morning they found something had taken the bait that had hung from a bamboo pole. The line was stretched, but still anchored to a persimmon tree.
“I exited the truck trying to determine the gator’s direction. I could see his tail slightly underwater and parallel with the bank. I walked back to the truck and told my dad, ‘He’s big. He’s real big!,’” Staton said.
The plan was for the younger to pull the alligator until its head surfaced enough for his dad to shoot it, but the animal had a mind of its own, and after a brief appearance dove to the bottom of the river and sat there, winning the ongoing battle of tug-a-war.
“After probably 20 minutes I was finally able to get the gator moving our way. Once near the bank he rolled, trying to escape before my dad was able to make the killing shot,” Staton said.
At that point the Statons were unable move it and a tractor was called in to pull it ashore and onto a trailer.
The Statons’ alligator was only one out of 23 gators 10-feet long or longer taken in the non-core counties out of a total of 211 recorded, according to TPWD.
“We had seen numerous alligators in 35 years but never one of this magnitude. Because of his size I thought maybe my mind is playing tricks on me,” the younger Staton said, referencing that first sighting years ago.