Folks have called him "Hammer" for so long that Mike Cottingham isn't exactly sure how he earned the nickname. "I guess it's because everything I do, I'm all in on," says the 53-year-old taxidermist from Prescott, Arkansas, who set a new state record on opening night by snaring a 13-foot, 3-inch gator that weighed more than 1,300 pounds. In an exclusive interview with Field & Stream, Cottingham shares exactly how he snared The Natural State's biggest alligator ever.
Using an 18-foot Alweld boat he customized especially for alligator hunting, Cottingham has been an enthusiastic gator chaser since Arkansas offered its first season back in 2007. That year he boated this 12-foot-6-inch specimen, which he mounted himself. When he doesn’t draw his own tag he assists his buddies who drew. Over the past six years they’ve landed gators measuring 10 feet 4 inches and 11 feet 2 inches. “We all take turns helping each other out,” Cottingham says. “You’ve got to have helpers who know what to do and when to do it. Everything has to go perfect, and to get a really big gator you’ve got to have some luck too. The big man’s got to send him to you.”
Cottingham and his crew set out in a thunderstorm on September 14, the first night of Arkansas’ 2012 alligator season. With him was his son-in-law, Eric Gonzales, left, who was tasked with helping Cottingham (second from left) work the rope. Austin Robbins (third from left) and Wes Boulden (right) were also on board. Gary Chambliss (not pictured) ran the trolling motor–a key job that can make or break a stalk, as Cottingham explains.
Gator-hunting Arkansas-style works like this: The tag-holder rides in the bow with a beaver snare tied to a rope. A pole is used to extend the snare in front of the boat–in Cottingham’s case a 12-foot dowel about an inch in diameter. The cable snare is taped to form a loop, and when the boat gets close the hunter slips this loop over the gator’s head. If all goes according to plan, a sharp tug takes up the slack, the tape pops off and the dowel drops away, leaving several hundred pounds of angry gator at the end of a single rope-and-cable line. “It’s kind of like frog gigging: You ease on through and try to keep the lights in the gator’s eyes,” says Cottingham, who uses Streme lights on his boat. “You can’t move if you’re up front, so you gotta have someone on the trolling motor who can put the gator right where you need him. He’ll ease you up there, and you’re relying on him to stay at the same speed so you can time it right to drop the noose over the gator’s nose.”
The first stalk of the night came on a 12-footer. Cottingham slipped the snare over the gator’s head, but the snare didn’t tighten when he jerked the rope. “I’d put too much tape around the snare,” he says. “It ended up being a blessing, because if I hadn’t had it fixed right on the big gator, I’d never have gotten him.” A few minutes later, he spotted the 13-footer. “I told Eric, ‘That’s the one we want. That’s a big son-of-a-gun, bigger than any we’ve ever had on.'”
On the first pass, Cottingham maneuvered his snare to within a couple feet of the big gator before it submerged. In six hunting seasons and in his taxidermy business, Cottingham has learned to size up gators quickly. “I’ve seen 10-footers that looked like a lizard next to the 12-6 that I caught,” he says. “Well, when I saw the head on this 13-3, I knew he was fixing to make that 12-6 look like a lizard. I knew I better make my noose bigger, or I’d never get it over his head.”
A few minutes later, with the snare retaped, they returned to find the gator had resurfaced. This time Cottingham was able to drop the snare over the gator’s head and maneuver it behind the giant’s eyes and jowls before cinching it tight. The fight was on. For 20 minutes the gator towed the boat around as it clawed the bottom and thrashed its tail in the shallow water. When it tired and rested on the bottom, Cottingham tugged it to the surface. “Even though you’re kind of give out from fighting, you got to pull him up and make him fight some more,” Cottingham says, “and pretty soon he’s just wore slap out.”
Arkansas regulations require a gator be brought to the boat before being dispatched with a firearm. Cottingham accomplished the job with a 12 gauge loaded with No. 4 shells. “My only concern was that I noticed the rope was wore about half in two where it dragged across the front of the boat,” Cottingham says. “I knew that the first chance I got, I had to get a shot on him. So the first time he gave me any kind of shot, I took it.” He added a second shot for insurance. “His eyes were still closed after the first shot, and that usually means they’re still alive. They’ll play possum on you. We didn’t want to take that chance.”
“We knew we had an awesome gator, because we couldn’t do anything with him. Five men couldn’t lift him in the boat. We had to tie him to the side, and the boat was leaning. We trolled up to the boat ramp, and there we were able to use ropes to roll him in to the boat.” It took everything they had, with three men pulling and two in the water pushing. “If he’d weighed 20 more pounds,” says Cottingham, “we’d have never made it.”
Mike Harris, a wildlife technician with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission measured the gator at 13 feet 3 inches and told Cottingham he’d just eclipsed the state record by 2 inches. He asked for a favor. “He said, ‘I know it’s going to be a bit of trouble, but I’d really like you to get this gator weighed.'” Cottingham used truck scales to peg the weight at 1,380 pounds. Estimates place the gator’s age between 30 and 35 years old. It took five hours to skin the hide. Harris plans to tan part and make boots for everyone who witnessed the catch, including his daughter, Cassie Gonzalez, who was also on board.
Cottingham plans to mount the head, which alone weighs more than 200 pounds. When he gutted the 13-footer, he found the remains of a 6-foot gator inside. “He could eat a man, no problem,” Cottingham says. “With a big gator like this, when you look at them, they’re just prehistoric. It’s unbelievable how big they are, and they’re just built for battle. They’re just tough. Ain’t nothing going to kill them except another gator or a human.” “One of the boys said before we went, ‘Do you think we’ll get a gator?’ I said, ‘Oh, we’ll get one. I just don’t know how big he’ll be. But we’ll try to get a good one.’ After, he said, ‘Man, this is unbelievable. It’s more than I ever dreamed of.’ It’s more than any of us ever dreamed of, that’s for sure.”