JASPER, Texas – The Pineywoods Service Association (PWSA), with cooperation from Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Fort Worth District’s Town Bluff Project staff, hosted their Annual Veteran Alligator Hunt at Walnut Ridge Unit, Martin Dies Jr. State Park on B. A. Steinhagen Lake, affectionately known as “Dam B,” Sept. 9-12.
TPWD has been hosting a public alligator hunt since the mid-1990s at the lake. They worked with the Town Bluff Project office to provide four tags for Veterans to use starting in 2012, in addition to the normal adult and youth tags they have been making available for the last 25 years.
According to Town Bluff Project Manager Floyd Boyett, the purpose of the hunt is to honor the veterans, give them a fun event where they can see that folks appreciate what they have done for the country, create a time where they can visit with other vets in similar circumstances, and of course help manage the resource.
“I am not a vet, so it gives me a chance to say thanks,” Boyett said. “I get to contribute my presence in an official capacity as lake manager, work with the sponsors and volunteers, cooperate with TPWD Wildlife and State Park folks, etcetera. But mostly I do it because it’s fun. I get to scout throughout the year, then drive an airboat around watching the guys have a great experience. Makes the job more fulfilling and gives me something to look forward to throughout the year.”
This year’s Veterans include James Garrigus, Staff Sergeant, U.S. Air Force; Daniel Juracek, Specialist, U.S. Army; Mike Harper, Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps; and David Sadler, Petty Officer 2nd Class, U.S. Navy.
Juracek, who is a Fort Worth District teammate, and who has been involved with the hunt for 10 years as the safety specialist, says he enjoys meeting fellow Veterans and the thrill of the hunt.
“The camaraderie during this weekend is unforgettable, no matter what branch of service you served in, that feeling of family always rises to the top.” Juracek said. “I really appreciate everything the volunteers do for this hunt. The hunt was great, but receiving my custom engraved Army Bible from the Pineywoods Service Association was very much appreciated.”
To prepare for this hunt, multiple people went out to various areas of the lake and rivers to scout alligators. As the event got closer final scouting was done in the evening when alligators are most active. Then the "best" locations were determined.
Bryan Heffernan, Natural Resources Specialist/Park Ranger at Town Bluff Project, and a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, who has been involved with this hunt for five years, including two years ago when he was selected as a hunter, was a guide this year in one of the air boats. This role included helping two Veterans set up their hook and line sets, as well as making sure they knew how to handle the line if an alligator was on and how to dispatch it.
“There is a lot of coordination with all parties involved with the hunt including the Piney Woods Service Association, who selected the Veterans and provided food and activities; and Texas Parks and Wildlife, who graciously donated campsites for volunteers, cabins for the hunters and use of the dining hall for the duration of the event,” Heffernan said. “It is very rewarding to be able to be a part of allowing Veterans who may not have an opportunity to hunt alligators, get a chance. It also means a lot to me to be able to hang out and talk with the Veterans about our shared experiences which is not something that happens a lot.”
The weekend of camaraderie and hunting started Friday afternoon. Veterans, lake staff, PWSA, and other volunteers spent time getting to know each other over a dinner provided and prepared by PWSA. After another meal provided by PWSA Saturday morning, the hunters and volunteers gathered for a safety brief and instructional session presented by TPWD. After the safety brief, the hunt officially began!
Four airboats left the state park in search of the perfect places to hang their sets: a chicken leg quarter placed on a four-inch hook, attached to 300-pound test line leader and nylon rope, tied to a Cypress tree, and suspended about 10 inches over the water on a cane pole.
As the midday sun was high above the lake affectionately known as “Dam B,” Veteran hunters, their guides and the air boat captains sped across the glassy water, busy canvassing the shoreline and sloughs of the lake, and setting hook and line sets for the Annual Veteran Alligator Hunt.
These sets would remain in place until 6pm when the hunters would go check for possible catches. None were caught Saturday evening. The evening ended with another meal provided by PWSA and more camaraderie.
After another early-morning PWSA breakfast, the crews hit the water again at 9am. None were caught yet. The Veterans and their guides reset the lines to place them closer to the water for a higher chance of hooking a gator. The crews made their way back to shore. At about 11am, they went out again teeming with anticipation of catching an alligator; and they were successful!
The excitement was on as the crews pulled on the lines to reveal large green bodies rolling and thrashing in the water. After fighting the gators for some time, then getting them close to the boat and safely dispatching them, they taped their mouths shut and arms behind their backs, then finally pulled them in the air boats.
Two Veteran’s caught alligators: Mike Harper with a female that was 8 feet 1 inch long and weighed in at 108 pounds; and David Sadler with a female that was 7 feet 6 inches and 76 pounds.
After being measured, weight and tagged by TPWD, the Veterans and their teams spent the rest of Sunday evening cleaning the gators to harvest their skin and meat.
SprayCo, who provided three of the four airboats used, is contracted by Lower Neches Valley Authority (LNVA) to apply aquatic herbicide via airboat at Town Bluff and Sam Rayburn Lakes under a memorandum of understanding between USACE, LNVA and TPWD to manage invasive aquatic vegetation.
“Since SprayCo spends so much time on the lake as LNVA’s contractor and sees the gators during the year, they recently have volunteered their airboats and operators as the hunt boats for the event,” Boyett said.
The individuals that make up the PWSA got together as a group of volunteers in 2010, but the PWSA did not officially form until 2016.
Mitchell W. Holland, local business owner and President of PWSA, says he became tired of watching other organizations taking 50-70 percent of everything for themselves, and decided to start a 501c3 non-profit organization.
“None of our board members receive any compensation for what we do; 100 percent of everything goes back to our nations hero’s,” Mitch said. “As long as I am apart of PWSA you have my word it will stay that way. I have had many family members who have served this great country in the Armed Forces, I however never had the honor of doing so. I deeply respect those who have served this country and believe they should be honored! PWSA gives me a way to do just that, to give back to those who have given so much of themselves.”
PWSA uses various outdoors activities to improve the quality of life for Veterans.
According to their website, their mission is to empower Veterans, wounded warriors, and warriors in transition with self-reliance to choose and enjoy the outdoor sport of their interest. Their vision is to create a network that links Veterans with volunteers through an online community, that all Veterans become self-sufficient to enjoy hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities, and to build on the camaraderie that military service members enjoy by creating a ‘net’ for Veterans to connect with other patriotic persons: retired, former military, active/reserve military, or the dedicated citizen. Learn more at https://thepsa.net/
The Town Bluff project is located midway between Jasper and Woodville, Texas, in the heart of the East Texas Pineywoods. Their mission is to assist Sam Rayburn Reservoir in providing flood control to the Angelina & Neches River basins in Southeast Texas, supply water to the LNVA and the Beaumont area, produce a clean source of electric generation, and to offer some of the best fishing, camping, and birding in Texas, all at just a little slower pace. Learn more at https://www.swf-wc.usace.army.mil/townbluff/