The last fishing line had nothing but half eaten heads of bait fish on the remaining two hooks, and to make things worse this last trot line felt like a snag. As I started to pull in the line, I began to worry that I would be going back empty handed, when suddenly my 13-year-old, 115 pound frame was jerked toward the surface of the Mississippi River. My eyes widened, my heart started to race, and I began to fight back. After I had won most of the line, I could only see a white blur dancing beneath the surface of the cold, murky water. Then quickly, with a splash, my step-dad dipped in the net, scooped up the fish, and threw it in the bottom of the boat. Back home, we weighed it at 23 pounds, cleaned it, and then ate the blue catfish for at least two goods meals in the days after.
Now, 676 miles down the Mississippi, I find myself living in Sportsman’s Paradise: a place that’s peppered throughout the state with swamps, that produce hundred’s of trophy size fish, game birds, and alligators year after year. After living here for a couple of months, I realized I had still had not taken advantage of this luxury; so I decided that when my parents came to visit, I would try to get a glimpse of this wildlife paradise, and take a swamp tour.
On a warm, Saturday afternoon, my mom, step-dad, and I arrived at an old shack, which housed the headquarters for the Honey Island Swamp Tour, with an empty stomach. My step-dad and I decided to have a taste of the gator filled menu. We both agreed on the gator dog, but this wasn’t a good choice; I think the whole menu might have been the same way. After eating half of this tough-skinned gator dog we, boarded the boat and headed off, down the Pearl River.
Once on the river, we took detours off the main channel through little pockets of swamp land. Inside these finger-like extensions of the river, the first thing I noticed was a three foot ribbon of water-lines that stretched across all of the trees. What I noticed about the best way to live in the swamp is to build a corrugated metal shack on floating devices that moves up and down along with the water levels. Since this was a nature reserve where trees are not allowed to be cut down, most of the structures had been built around these densely growth of trees.
Suddenly, my attention was pulled away as the boat dipped forward and the wake behind the boat rushed back towards us, sending the boat rocking back and forth. At the same time, the tour guide stood up, raised his hand, and pointed out the first gator of the day. He described how to estimate the length and guessed it to be at least 12 feet long. After everyone got a picture of the animal, he started the engine and continued forward towards a denser part of the swamp. While snaking the boat through the Cypress trees and knees he continued to describe how one would go about fishing for alligators. “Now, the key to getting the biggest gators,” he explained, “is to hang the chicken higher up, about one and a half to two feet above the surface of the water. You see, the bigger the gator, the stronger it is, so the higher they can jump for the bait.” He continued to describe how the alligator will actually swallow the chicken whole; the hook would then set itself inside the stomach, and later kill the gator.
After that, we began gliding through an area of water blanketed with small green leaves that moved with every little ripple in the water. Because of these leaves, we ended up right next to two beady eyes popping out of the water. It was a gator that had been watching us approach him from some distance away. Once the tour guide spotted it, he playfully threw marshmallows at the motionless alligator. Most likely bored of marshmallows from previous tour guides doing the same thing, the alligator swam off after the third mallow hit him straight between the eyes. Once the excitement was over, the setting sun and chilly breeze recommended that we head home. While zipping up the Pearl River for the last time, I noticed a fishing camp on the bank with a fisherman unloading his catch of the day. In that moment, I was reminded of my sportsman’s paradise 676 miles up the Mississippi River.