The One That Got Away

Fort Worth District, USACE
Published Oct. 11, 2023
Gator hunt

Andy Gray, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Fort Worth District volunteer, pilots an airboat to check on the sets put in place by the hunters. U.S. Army veterans Craig Hammer and Tim Hammond joined U.S. Marine Corps veterans Bian Aft and Aaron Brittain for the annual alligator hunt put on by the Piney Woods Service Association (PWSA) on B.A. Steinhagen Lake. PWSA has been hosting the hunt in cooperation with USACE and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department since 2012.

Gator hunt

Shane Iverson, a volunteer with the Piney Woods Service Association (PWSA) and Andy Gray, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Fort Worth District volunteer, look on as U.S. Marine Corps veterans Brian Aft, left, and Aaron Brittain attempt to land an estimated 11-foot alligator during the PWSA annual alligator hunt on B.A. Steinhagen Lake. Unfortunately for the veterans, this alligator was the one that got away. PWSA has been hosting the hunt in cooperation with USACE and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department since 2012.

gator hunt

U.S. Army veteran Tim Hammond, kneeling, begins a fight with an 8-foot alligator during the Piney Woods Service Association (PWSA) annual alligator hunt on B.A. Steinhagen Lake. PWSA has been hosting the hunt in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department since 2012.

The line went taut as it was pulled into the boat, there was no telling what laid below the murky water, but they knew a fight was ahead. Suddenly the water erupted, and the beast burst forth, it’s mouth wide open looking for something to bite. After a short fight and several rolls the estimated 11-foot alligator snapped the line.

For the volunteers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Piney Woods Service Association, a 501c3 non-profit, this was just like other alligator hunts they have sponsored. But for four veterans, what lay ahead is unlike anything they have done before.

This is the 10th alligator hunt sponsored by the PWSA in cooperation with the USACE and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. For Mitchell Holland, president of the PWSA, whose grandfather and brother served in the military, this is a way to give back to our veterans.

“The alligator hunt is quite unique,” Holland said. “It seems to get a little bigger every year. But we’ve partnered with the Corps of Engineers from the very beginning, and they’ve been a tremendous help in making this happen. From the facilities to providing park space for everyone to stay at, whatever we need, they’re ready to help.”

The hunt took place on B.A. Steinhagen Lake, September 15-17. While the TPWD has been hosting public alligator hunts at the lake since the mid-1990s, it wasn’t until 2012 that the veteran hunt began on the lake with TPWD providing the tags for the hunters. Cody Hammer, a regional geographic information system specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers and a Marine Corps veteran, found out about the hunt when he first started working for the Army Corps of Engineers 11 years ago and has participated in the event ever since.

“Everybody has a good time,” Hammer said. “It’s probably one of the more entertaining events for everyone involved. There are five or six Army Corps of Engineers employees here in camp this weekend.  They’re not on duty, they’re here as volunteers to help in any way they can.”

Hammer’s older brother Craig, an Army veteran along with fellow Army alum Tim Hammond and Marine Corps veterans Brian Aft and Aaron Brittain, were chosen by PWSA to take part in this year’s hunt.

“I found out about the hunt through my brother,” said Craig Hammer. “He’s been talking about it for years and told me I should register to see if I get chosen. I knew about the PWSA and what they do for veterans, so I registered. Getting some outdoor therapy is always a good thing.”

Friday night gave the lake staff, PWSA members, volunteers, and veterans the chance to get to know one another while sharing a meal. 

“PWSA is awesome,” said Brittain. “It's just great to come out and get together with other veterans, have a good time and get outdoors while not having to worry about setting up the tents, the gear or anything.”

Later in the evening guides and airboat captains scour the lake to find the best places for the veterans to set their lines the next day. 

Come Saturday morning, the hunters, guides, and airboat captains travel to the state park for a briefing by a TPWD biologist. The biologist briefs the hunters on the rules and regulations governing the hunt and issues each hunter a license. At exactly noon the 24-hour hunt window opens. The airboats speed across the calm waters to the points scouted the night before.

Each veteran sets their line consisting of a 6-inch stainless-steel hook on 100-feet of nylon rope rated at over 400-lb test. The line is attached to a nearby cypress with a cane pole holding the hook between 10-12 inches above the calm water. Once everything is in place the veteran dons a pair of rubber gloves and opens the container holding the vilest smelling quarter of chicken known to man. The scent is what will attract the alligator. Once all four lines are in place the teams go back to camp with fingers crossed in hopes that their line will be down when they come back to check on them.

Brian Aft appreciates the hunt. This is his second hunt with PWSA.

“I did the crossbow hunt at Lake O’ the Pines,” Aft said. “The next year I volunteered to support the deer hunt and they asked me to participate in this hunt. I said absolutely.”

None of the lines were down Saturday. So, all the veterans went to sleep with dreams of alligators at the end of their lines. For Hammer and Hammond, their dreams came true. The Army veterans were able to harvest two female alligators just over 8- feet long and weighing more than a 100 pounds.

“When I pulled on the rope and it tugged back, I thought it was a 3- or 4-foot gator,” said Hammond. “But it turned out to be pretty good.”

Although not everybody harvested an alligator, everybody did have a good weekend.

“The program PWSA is offering is fantastic,” said Aft. “The best part of it is that the guys running it are just awesome.  It’s invaluable for the veterans that take part in the hunts.”

Texas is one of 10 states that have an alligator population.  Floyd Boyett, lake manager at B.A. Steinhagen said the TPWD uses the hunts as a means for population management while also providing the public with a unique and quality outdoor recreational experience to accomplish that goal.