Decorated in alligator bones, Spanish moss and lazy outdoor cats, Dave Turgeon’s beautiful swamp shack in Lafitte, Louisiana sits at the end of a bleached white oyster shell driveway that his family laid down by hand. Today, fifty-one-year-old Turgeon readies the small, army green mudboat in his yard, four days into September’s month-long alligator hunting season, a lucrative period that helps assure his swampland is more than just a huge tax burden.
Turgeon has been known for the last 35 years as Dee Slut, legendary lead singer for New Orleans punk band, The Sluts. He still looks the part in his ripped denim outfit and crumpled straw cowboy hat, even if his long, stringy hair is now grey, and his back has been so broken by hard work that he can no longer rage on stage. In Lafitte though, he is just one of many residents who make their living off land that they own – in Turgeon’s case, 5,200 acres of swamp purchased by his family at a tax auction in 1910.
Turgeon’s heavily bearded, 23-year-old son Reed appears, walking on the oyster shells that lead from the Acadiana-style treehouse he is building for himself around back. Reed is wearing his swim trunks, “In case I have to get down in the water with an alligator today,” he says, not joking.
A man Dave’s age who wants to hunt alligators definitely benefits from having a young son, like all the hunters on the popular cable TV reality show Swamp People do. While readying the mudboat, we all discuss the program, which pits the swamp against the people who inhabit it. Reed claims the show is only about 80-percent real, still he’s happy for its effects on the region. “It’s amazing, the world’s sudden fascination with Louisiana culture,” says Reed, who is a little crestfallen when I tell him it can probably be attributed more to Hollywood’s fascination with Louisiana’s Digital Media Tax credits, which make filming here a bargain; 2013 was the first year that more movies were filmed in Louisiana than California.
The Turgeons have tried everything to make their swamp profitable. They recently ditched their seafood delivery business because “our love for it died,” says Reed, though his dad cites, “lower catch, higher prices.” They are getting permitted and insured for dolphin and birding tours and canoe rentals. At one point they were even pitching a fishing show that would take one local musician and one Bourbon Street stripper out on a boat with a cooler full of beers. “It would have combined all of the Louisiana clichés into one show,” jokes Dave.
The Turgeons have hunted gators for three years now. Dave spent last year’s gator profits on the new mudboat he now pulls behind The Sluts’ old gray Econoline van, a vehicle he starts not with a key but a small metal rod he sticks directly into the engine. His driver’s side window is rolled up but busted out at the bottom, creating a sharp M of glass that threatens to jab into the top of his straw cowboy hat when he sticks his head out the window to back his boat down into the water.
Dave tells me he’s taken many journalists, photographers and other gawkers out on his two-seat boat. He gives them the best spot, in between his legs as he steers. Reed barely fits in the very back with gas tanks and burning hot exhaust pipes. Looking around me, I have no idea where they’d put even a small gator in this tiny boat.
Various long-dead pipes and wellheads protrude from the water everywhere. The oil companies have promised to remove the gear, but who knows when. They’ve offered Dave’s family a couple million dollars to relinquish all liability. “Now they’re doing directional drilling, from where we launched at,” Dave explains. “We’re getting money for that, but out of that you’ve got to pay lawyers, and make deals with the people who make the deals, so the money just gets distributed down the line. No one around here’s getting rich like before.” They’ve had no real environmental problems, at least not with the current company. “The biggest damage was done when they dug canals in 1950s to get oil barges in and out,” says Dave. “I don’t think they meant any harm, but the canals created stagnant areas where the water and nutrients couldn’t flow through.” Like a lot of rural Louisianans Turgeon has what might seem like an odd tolerance for the oil industry. “We all use the oil and gas, and drilling has definitely lifted more people out of poverty,” he says. “So I don’t want to badmouth the industry.
Turgeon’s boat has a special Subaru truck engine under his seat that helps him cut through the invasive plant-life so dense it makes the water look more like verdant dry land. Locals trace the hyacinth back to the World’s Fair held in New Orleans at Audubon Park, where it was used for decoration at the century’s turn—if not for that Fair, Dave would be driving a different type of boat. In the last couple of years, the spaces between the hyacinth have been filled in by giant salvinia. When the invasive salvinia clumps together thick like cabbage, regular grass begins to grow up from the center, forming faux-wetlands. “It’s actually great for coastal restoration,” says Reed. His dad cuts him off: “It’s a real mess, actually. It means at least one less area we get to hunt this year,” says Dave Turgeon who, in contrast to his tolerance of the oil industry’s effects on his land, assumes that the new salvinia plague was caused by, “Some asshole emptying his aquarium into the water.”
All this invasive water foliage seems to cry out for the helpful destruction of nutria rats, but we don’t see even one all day. Dave explains: “The alligator was overhunted and so the muskrat took over, chewing the marsh down like goats, and so the muskrats were trapped. A lot of marketing was done for the furs, and that’s when the nutrias were brought in–partly for their furs, since so much was made from Muskrats. But unlike muskrats, the nutria actually dig plants up by the root, taking out much more than they eat.” In 2000, aU.S. Geological Survey stated that nutria, “feed on vegetation that is vital to sustaining the Louisiana coastline. Their eat-outs create openings in the marsh vegetation… With Louisiana’s coastal wetlands converting to open water at a rate of 25-35 square miles (65-91 square kilometers) each year, nutria are an additional burden to an already stressed ecosystem.” Nutria became so problematic that local police began hunting the giant bucktoothed rats as part of their job description.
“Unfortunately, my grandfather was one of the people who thought the nutria was a good thing,” says Dave, whose grandfather first released nutria in this very swamp—the problem started here. By now though, the increased alligator population, plus the government’s five-dollar-per-tail incentive (for land-owning-or-leasing, specifically licensed hunters only) has put a remarkable dent in local nutria numbers. The Sluts even have a song about it:
Nutria, nutria, I shoot you in the head
I push pull my pirogue to see if you are dead
I throw you in the truck, take you down the road
I’m gonna sell yo ass for three dollar
Yeah I’m gonna sell yo ass for three dollar
One would think that living off the fruits of your own land might be a way to escape the world’s bureaucracy, but Turgeon’s life is one of constant governmental hoop-jumping: permits, insurance, taxes. Turgeon wouldn’t be allowed to hunt gators on his own land if his taxes weren’t paid up. Insurance costs thousands of dollars, and permits cost $25 per person–because I have neither, the men won’t even let me pass raw chicken to them on the boat. “Wildlife and Fisheries first does an aerial inspection to count the alligator nests. The more nests they see, the more alligator tags they are gonna give you,” explains Dave, who this year got 47 tags. “If you don’t kill 47 gators, you don’t get as many next tags next year.”
Today the Turgeons will check 25 different gator lines, each baited with a large piece of raw chicken hooked on a thick line dangling from the end of a 15-foot pole. Many gator hunters use PVC poles, but in an attempt to get as close to nature as possible, Turgeon uses green bamboo he grows at home for the purpose. We smell the rotting flesh as Turgeon’s boat breezes past two or three of the dangling, uneaten chicken he hung out yesterday. A couple of the lines are down in the water, with the bait missing but no gators. “We get a lot of lines that are knocked down where they’ve dragged it onto the shore and the chicken’s gone,” Reed tells me. “They might knock it off with their tail. Some of them learn to nibble.”
“You don’t get to be 80 to 100 years old by being stupid,” his father adds.
The fifth line is down and taut. “There is a big one that lives around here,” Reed tells me as we approach the line. “Last year he straightened a hook. It’s gotta be at least ten feet to straighten a hook.” Reed grabs the line and pulls, but it won’t budge. Wincing, he runs his hand down it into the water.
“We caught a 10-footer yesterday,” Dave tells me as his son blindly searches for the line’s end. “He was a fighter. When I shot him, he was so big, I thought I was shooting the back side of his head, but I accidentally shot in front of his head.”
“The bone sprayed my eyes,” Reed laughs nervously, feeling around in the water. “I had bone in my eyes and mouth. It hurt, like a bullet ricocheting and hitting my lip.”
“Usually they are pretty docile because they’ve swallowed a hook and its been rippin em up inside,” adds Dave. “They’re pretty chilled out then. If it’s a fresh hook, they’re still pretty alive and you’re in for a fight.”
Reed’s face relaxes as he finally unhooks the line from a log.
Dave tiny boat whizzes on past all the chicken parts still hanging in the air. The Turgeons wonder aloud if I am not bad luck. As they check more fruitless lines and rebait stripped hooks, a carpet of black clouds rolls in overhead. “When there’s thunder and lightening, they reaact like a dog; they get uncomfortable and move around a lot,” says Dave. “Instead of sitting on the bank, they swim around their canal, their territory, and basically they’re worried.”
Finally it starts to rain on us. The water is strikingly cold for August, still I laugh at Dave’s overreaction to the chill as he pulls the boat under some trees. “Hey man, I slept in a van in New York in the middle of the winter when The Sluts were on tour in the 80s,” he snaps back. “I know from cold.” Luckily the squall lasts under 20 minutes, just long enough to thoroughly soak our clothes cold.
The clouds remain dark as we head off to check the rest of the lines. The Turgeons have checked 24 lines by the time they approach a massive field of what Dave calls “Lundi Buf,” a Cajun word meaning ‘bull tongue.’ The entire horizon is carpeted with this taller and thicker hyacinth-like plant that the boat just cannot cut through. “Last month this area was all clear,” says Dave, as he and his son stand on their toes to look over the brush at their very last gator line.
“It’s down,” Reed says calmly. “And there are waves around it. That’s a massive gator.”
Anxious Dave rips his boat in a giant arch around the Lundi Buff, looking for a way in. There is excitement but little tension, since clearly the Turgeons will not accept giving up on the day’s only catch. Dave bullies us through a weak link of hyacinth and pulls the boat up to the downed line. Reed moves to the bow and I switch to the back, where I immediately singe my calf on an exhaust pipe.
All plants lay flat in a wide circle around the bamboo pole. In the center sprouts a bouquet of reeds wrapped tight in the black gator line. Just to the right of the trashed area, ominous bubbles rumble to the surface. Reed gets to work, dipping a paddle into the water, trying to hook onto the taut line he is tasked with pulling up. Reed’s oar eventually grabs it, but it takes him another few moments to untangle it from the weeds enough to start pulling it up. His face strains. The bubbles intensify.
Finally, an enormous green-black dinosaur head breaks the surface. The monster is in no mood to fight, but is still scary as hell. Turgeon quickly presses his 22 rifle’s skinny barrel directly against the back of the armored skull. A single hollow point bullet pops off almost quietly, and the gator’s eyes close, more like a wince than sleep. The hollow point shatters upon entry, instead of tearing all the way through the gator. One small red hole is left behind. Just to be sure, Turgeon squeezes off a second bullet before he and Reed wrap the gator’s mouth in pink tape then begin struggling to lift it. The two men together manage to haul the gator up and in without capsizing the boat. Curled in a giant circle, its tail almost touching its wide snout, the gator completely fills the bow where I’d sat on the way out.
“You never see one over eight feet that isn’t at least missing a foot,” Dave says, pointing out the gator’s leathery right-hand stump. This won’t matter in the sale, but the gator is also missing almost twelve inches off its tail, which puts it in a different size class altogether, costing Dave five dollars per foot off his final price. The men are a little disappointed but still happy. “Gators will fight for dominance,” Dave explains. “That is nature’s way. The badass is always getting taken on by the younger ones. When the badass goes, next year there will another one approximately that size in that same spot.”
They still guess him to be ten feet, meaning he will bring about $300. “They grow really fast up until six feet,” Reed tells me. “Then they only grow a half inch a year.” They estimate this gator would have been just about eligible for social security. The meaning of this isn’t lost on Dave, who kneels for a second for a private moment of blessing down by the giant head, as even thicker clouds roll in, gunmetal grey.
Within minutes it is raining again, harder than before, with stronger wind. I wedge myself in between Dave’s knees and the big twitching alligator under my feet. Despite that we are not on true open water and surrounded by trees on every side, the tiny, weighed-down boat in the icy rain and wind feels dangerous as we cut a huge arch back around the thick Bull’s Tongue. Dave can’t stand the cold, and the boat really feels like it might capsize, so we pull into an enclosure of Chinese tallow trees, another unwelcomed invasive species. “They’re the scourge of the swamp, choking out cypress, gum and maple, valuable native hardwood trees,” explains Dave. “Seems people planted them for the beautiful fall color–we don’t get a lot of trees out here that will produce the gorgeous reds and yellows. Or it coulda been birds poopin the seeds out in the swamp.” Either way, the skinny trees do very little to keep us dry or warm.
“A ten foot gator, in the cold-ass rain in September! Woohoo!” Dave shouts over the wind, trying to boost spirits, which deteriorate regardless. The thick tallow trunks begin to sway dangerously around us. “Maybe we should step onto the shore so we don’t get crushed,” worries Reed, and before we can all agree, one medium sized tree cracks and falls onto the boat. Instantaneously, we are all transported onto soggy “land.”
After we each take a cold lash, the squall lightens up enough that freezing Dave decides to make another break for it. Racing across the swamp again in the mudboat though, the rain only intensifies. But we continue forward. I barely notice the cold wet as, for the next two miles home, I molest the humungous gator. Most people will never get to touch an alligator, much less one this big. Every inch of him is covered in armor. Even the pliable sections of his skin is covered in small shields that I’m surprised even bullets could penetrate. I grab and squeeze the huge white tits of fat on the sides of his jaw, and pull at the dangling skin tabs where his right hand used to be. I hold one of his surviving claws up to my similar-sized hand and he tries to make a fist. I run fingers along the giant spikes that trace down his back to the scars on his truncated tail. I rub the finger-sized teeth in his taped shut mouth. All the while he is still moving, reacting to my exploration. Every few moments he seems to try and stand back up, despite that he is definitely not breathing.
The gator stays curled up twitching in the boat, towed by the grey van, which Dave starts with the rod. We are on our way to sell the giant beast, but first: “You know I own a cemetery,” Dave says. “It’s the family graveyard, and I maintain it. Actually, anyone who is close the family is buried there.” He ads that the headstones will be extra photogenic in the continuing light grey drizzle. We decide to stop on the way.
The private cemetery is littered with traditional white headstones and New Orleans-esque aboveground concrete “copings,” all shaded by Live Oak trees. Water rushes by where the Intercoastal waterway meets the Bayou Barataria. An old Indian “midden,” the high ground has been built up with oyster and clam shells. Some claim it was once an Indian burial ground, but while digging several of the plots himself, Dave has never found one bone “We’ve had enough water though that a few cement have tops popped off,” admits Dave, who increasingly encourages his family to choose cremation. “Because coffins float.”
After the cemetery, we pause to buy ice from his neighbors the Higgins, who Dave swears sell “the best crab meat in the world.” While the neighbors gossip, I photograph the goats and pigs in the Higgins’ keep in their yard not for breeding and selling, but for next time the food delivery trucks refuse to come down to Lafitte for several months like they did after Katrina and Rita. City folks might laugh at people like the Higgins when they talk of preparing for when the shit goes down, but out here, it already went down. People like the Higgins are simply applying what they learned.
After covering the ten-foot gator in ice, we head out to a Ryder truck parked along another lonely rural road. A small crowd is gathered around staring into the truck at a pile of 100 alligators. The biggest is 12-feet long. The guy manning the truck, Troy Pizzani, works for American Tanning and Leather. “Troy used to be a tanner himself,” Dave tells me. “They used to have a gator processing area on the bayou, but it closed, so now he just buys them and delivers them. He’s also running for Constable.”
Dave is in good spirits but I do catch him pacing beside his boat, worried that the shortened tail will cost him a lot of money. Meanwhile, everyone else is having fun opening the various gators’ jaws and encouraging their children to stick their heads inside the mouths for photo ops – in the process letting out the atrocious stink. “They throw up when you shoot them,” Reed tells me. “All the rats, nutria, muskrats, fish, it all comes up into their mouths when they die.”
Finally, Pizzani measures the Turgeons’ catch: nine feet, ten inches. Dave gets $35 a foot—$40 a foot if the tail had been in tact. In the end Dave loses about $35 for the tail.
At that length, Pizanni estimates Dave’s gator was 50 to 62 years old. When he tells us this, I can’t help but think about all the grey-haired seniors respectfully buried in the gorgeous ground of Dave’s cemetery –- while this alligator will be sold for a mere $300, then made into boots. Despite its advanced age, Dave says nothing will be wasted: the meat will be processed and eaten. The skull will be sold, possibly in some tacky French Quarter bead shop.
As we ready to leave, a boy of about six years old sits down on Dave’s gator for a photo, creating a striking juxtaposition of young atop old, and a symbol of the dominance by even the smallest human over one of the world’s largest, most intimidating beasts.