Arthur Matherne danced a jig on the bow of his airboat after finding the second big alligator of a busy morning of hunting.
Matherne, 60, serves as a guide for those who want to go on alligator hunts and is one of only three people licensed to operate in St. Charles Parish. The hunts have become extremely popular following the airing of “Swamp People,” a reality TV series that follows alligator hunters in south Louisiana.
The money that can be made from a successful catch has also risen drastically in recent years. The average price of alligator skin, which went for $7.50 per foot in 2009, is now worth $27 per foot this year. The price of alligator meat has more than tripled from $3 a pound only a few years ago to $10 a pound this year.
Although Matherne, who lives in Des Allemands, has been asked to be on “Swamp People” several times, he has turned them down both times to focus on his popular airboat tour business and provide services to oil companies who need airboat pilots to take them out into the field.
But it was alligator hunting that started it all for him back in 1992.
“I started off in the back of Bayou Gauche,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for about as long as alligator hunting has been going on in this area.”
Matherne said it was through alligator hunting that he was able to build his business.
“I bought my first airboat to fish alligators and then people wanted to come on them and go riding. As more people wanted to come take a ride I ended up turning it into a business,” he said.
Now with his airboat tours being one of the most popular attractions in the New Orleans area, alligator hunting has taken a back seat.
However, for between $700 to $1,100 a hunt, adventurers from across the country come each year to have Matherne take them on a guided hunt.
In addition to Matherne’s fee, for out of state hunters there is a hunting license fee of $150. In-state hunters only have to pay $25 for a license.
Last weekend Matherne took out two oilmen, Jethro Bundy from Ada, Okla. and Dale Dodd from Whitesboro, Texas, who have come to hunt with Matherne for each of the past three years. With Bundy and Dodd along for the ride, Matherne went to a piece of property in Raceland he has been hunting for a number of years.
In just a small area of bayou, Matherne had three alligators on lines he baited with chicken and set out the day before. Included in the lot was the day’s prize, a 10-foot-long beast.
The reptile was rolling over in the water and splashing with its tail as Matherne pulled on the line connected to the hook it had swallowed.
After getting it up to the edge of the boat, it took five shots from a .22 caliber revolver before Dodd was finally able to sneak a bullet in past the alligator’s hard skull. Matherne uses hollow point bullets and a low caliber weapon to ensure the bullets mushroom and fall apart.
“If the bullet goes all the way through, it punctures the bottom part of their skin and that takes the price down,” he said.
For the hunt, Bundy and Dodd will only get the satisfaction of shooting the alligators, anything more, such as keeping the hide or meat, will cost them extra. Although they both intend on having the heads of the large alligators they shot that day preserved by a taxidermist, that is all they will take home with them.
Bundy said he got hooked on alligator hunting three years ago after visiting New Orleans with his wife. Being disillusioned with the city, they decided to visit Houma and happened to come across Matherne’s airboat tour business on Highway 90.
Since then, Bundy has been bringing back customers for getaways he plans through his business.
“I like the adrenaline of pulling them up,” he said. “It’s kind of like Christmas, you never know what is going to pop up.”
In addition, Bundy said alligator hunting is a less costly alternative to other hunts he brings customers along on, such as a $20,000 hunt in Idaho that Bundy and Dodd took part in earlier this year for black bear.
Despite his extensive travels, Bundy said nothing quite compares to alligator hunting.
“When you are looking at something through a scope you know what you have, but when it’s underneath the water you don’t know,” he said.
Matherne admits that he charges much less for alligator hunts than others in the New Orleans area. Due to that, he is thinking about raising his prices next year.
“Most people do a guided hunt for $1,400 to $2,000 and they ask me how I can charge so little,” he said.
In addition, Matherne may go back to processing his own alligators. Although he used to process the meat, of which about 40 to 50 percent is edible, and alligator skins, the prices dropped off for a few years during the recession and it was more cost effective for him to sell the game to processors.
With the price of alligator meat and skin rising dramatically over the past few years, he sees a better price margin in doing the processing himself.
With 100 tags to fill each year, that could add up.Now with less than two weeks to go in the season and the number of tags running low, Matherne called it a good hunt, especially because of the two large gators they brought in.
As he drove the airboat back to his business, he talked about perhaps buying a yacht and retiring to spend his days fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I’m getting ready to turn 61 next month. It’s about time to stop all of this foolishness,” he said.
But with a beaming smile, he was quick to yell out to a passing boat and point out the big catch they hauled in that day. Then he talked about his plans to buy some of the land he is currently leasing so he can hold the rights to hunt there outright.
It seems like he may just have too many plans to give it all up just yet.
For a comprehensive list of alligator hunting guides, call the Louisiana Fur Advisory Council and Alligator Advisory Council at (318)354-1229 or visit www.alligatorfur.com.