Anyone who watches Swamp People knows that alligator hunters care about how much money they make. Sure, they hunt for their love of the land, but they do it for their living, too. And they’re not shy about it. With the notable exception of the Guist brothers, the hunters featured on the show are quick to talk about what makes the difference between a profit and a loss during the one-month alligator season in Louisiana.
As the show’s narrator often reminds us, many of these men make half their income for the year from the alligator we see them catch on the show. We hear about tags and maps and the quality of an alligator’s skin, as well as the all important question of its size. But how much are these guys really making? What kind of money are we talking about?
Well . . . its complicated. As it turns out, the alligator business is pretty volatile. The market fluctuates wildly, and the alligator hunters’ fortunes come an go with it, if they’re not careful. The Louisiana Alligator Advisory Council has all the information (and more!) that you would ever want about how to lawfully hunt wild alligators in Louisiana and sell their hides and meat for a profit, but they tell a little bit rosier story about the industry than any of my other sources. According to their site, alligator hunting has become steadily more profitable over the years. While skins went for $6/foot in the 1960′s and $9/foot in the early 1980′s, they rose to over $40/foot in the late 1980′s.
What the Louisiana Advisory Council fails to mention is that prices have come down since the late ’80′s. Way down. One Louisiana newspaper, Vermilion Today, reports that in the 2010 season
“A wild gator that is seven feet or longer sells for around $12 to $15 a foot. A 10-foot gator at $13 per foot will be purchased for $130. When the price was $40 per foot, that same gator was purchased for $400.”
So, according to these estimates, when Troy Landry pulls a 12 foot monster alligator out of the swamp, risking his life and straining his body, he might get up to $180 for a perfect hide. If the gator has lived hard and has the scars to show for it, he’ll get less. And, if there’s a little alligator on his line, he has wasted a precious tag on a hide that won’t bring in enough to cover the cost of catching it.
UPDATE – Click here for an updated 2011 alligator price chart! (As mentioned in Swamp People Season 3, the prices have gone way up since Season 2!)
UPDATE - The prices continue to inch up in the Swamp People Season 4 Alligator Price Chart!
Hunters can harvest as many alligators as they have alligator tags. That’s why you hear folks on the show talking about tags all the time. Each tag represents a potentially profitable alligator. Each lost tag represents a loss, since they cannot be replaced. (Which is why Bruce’s helper dove into alligator invested waters to retrieve some tags that had fallen overboard, and why Bruce didn’t stop him.) When you catch a gator, no matter what the size, you have to put one of your tags on it. You can’t cut the little ones loose and save your tags for the big boys. That’s why the hunters get a little disgusted when they put small alligators into the boat; each one takes a tag that could’ve gone on a monster (and earned them a lot more money).
Alligator tags don’t cost anything if you own your own hunting grounds. All you have to do is prove ownership of a piece of land deemed sufficient to sustain alligators, get a $25 Alligator Hunting license, and make an application. The number of tags you’re assigned is based on the size of your land and (if applicable) the number of tags you filled the previous year. The hunters on the show often talk about “tagging out,” which means using all your assigned tags. If you don’t “tag out,” then you aren’t likely to get as many tags the following year, so a bad alligator season one year also means fewer tags in the next. Ouch.
While we’re on the subject of the costs of alligator hunting, don’t forget the equipment, the help you have to hire (or raise), and the time you have to take off of work to be out on the swamp for a month every year. When you add it all up, there’s not much of a margin in Alligator hunting.
But, let’s do the math. The alligator season lasts 30 days, but serious hunters stretch that to 37 days by owning land in both the East and the West regions, since the Western region’s 30 days starts a week later than the Eastern region’s. Troy Landry, who is the big daddy tag-rich King of the Swamp got 320 tags in 2010, but most professional hunters have far fewer. Let’s say our hypothetical hunter has a healthy allotment of 200 tags and property in both regions (for a 37 day season). So, that means, he needs to average 5.5 alligators a day. Let’s also assume that he’s a really skilled hunter and that 1 out every 10 alligators he catches is a 11+ foot monster. Hunting is hunting, though, so we’ll say that 2 out of every 10 is a baby 5-6 footer. Everything else (7 out of 10) is 7-10 feet.
Here’s how that would look: 20 monsters, 40 babies, and 140 respectable gators.
Pricing is also tough to estimate, but I’ll go out on a limb and take an educated guess. The average price for a respectable gator in 2010 was $11-$12 per foot, but monster gators went for $15/foot or more and babies went for a touch less, say $9/foot. So, more math . . .
20 monsters @ 11 feet each x $15/foot=$3300
40 babies @ 6 feet each x $9/foot=$2160
140 respectable gators @ 8 feet each x $12/foot=$13440
That’s a grand total of $18,900.
This is the profit off the hides, alone. Besides frying up into a nice dinner, the meat has some value that could also be added to the alligator hunters’ profits. And, of course, the more big gators you get, the more this total goes up. On the other hand, you have to pay for all your equipment and all your help out of this total. I’m guessing you have to pay normal income taxes, too.
When you watch your first episode or two of Swamp People, the connections to the crab fishing portrayed on The Deadliest Catch jump to the fore. Here are incredibly tough men (and a woman or two) throwing themselves at an incomprehensibly hostile world and wrestling with it until it gives them a living. But the more you watch, the more the similarities evaporate. Successful crab hunters go home with tens of thousands of dollars in their pockets, if they can stand the stress and effort of the work (which most people, of course, can’t). Most don’t live anywhere near Alaska (unless Seattle counts), and few can trace their connection to crabbing back more than a couple of generations. (The Hansens, with their Norwegian roots, may be an exception to this, but that just proves the rule.)
Alligator hunters, on the other hand, have to either have some other gig or have to live very simply in order to stay in the hunt. RJ Molinere fishes for shrimp and hunts for every sort of game that will turn a profit that lives on his family’s 500 acres. The Landrys own a gas station and buy crawfish from local fisherman. The Guists? Well, they go the “live simply” route.
Alligator hunting really isn’t a great way to make a living, at least by most middle class Americans’ standards. And, despite what any of them might say, they’re really not in it for the money. It runs deeper than that. It’s a way of life.