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ANAHUAC — The first thing you notice about an alligator is its majesty.

Really, it ought to be wearing a crown the way its scales glisten on a sunbaked Saturday in September, because who in their right mind would willingly disturb a menacing 12-foot, 11-inch prehistoric beast weighing in at 620 pounds?

It’s tough not to imagine a reptile of that size swallowing you whole.

The second thing you notice, of course, is the smell.

Because this is a dead alligator, after all.

With the threat eliminated, all that remains is that smell of gamey meat mixing in with the ripe scent of a 90-plus degree day along the marsh in southeast Texas.

It’s a combination of mud, sunscreen, fried food and Miller Lite that coats Gatorfest, the annual celebration of the American alligator in Anahuac, the “Alligator Capitol of Texas.”

It's the kind of odor that lingers, making the shower after Saturday at Gatorfest the best of the year, one festival organizer swears.

  • Dr. Garth Fisher, Suelyn Medeiros, Eric Johnson and Angela Johnson arrived at the Great Texas Alligator Roundup from Beverly Hills with hunted alligators and an airboat
  • Alligator hunters carry an alligator onto a pick up truck after getting the alligator measured at The Great Texas Alligator Roundup, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Anahuac.
  • Alligators are measured at The Great Texas Alligator Roundup
  • Hatchling alligators are on display inside the educational tent during the 2023 Gatorfest
  • An alligator is weighed in during The Great Texas Alligator Roundup at Gatorfest in Anahuac
  • Gomer Pyle, an alligator caught in Beaumont is on display in Gatorfest's educational tent
  • The Great Texas Alligator Roundup participants arrive at the roundup with alligators at the annual Texas Gatorfest

This past weekend, the Chambers County seat ushered in the 34th festival, which began in 1989, two years after Texas legalized gator hunting to address overpopulation, with a few gaps during Hurricanes Ike and Harvey as well as the COVID pandemic.

In a town like Anahuac, where alligators outnumber residents three to one, the festival’s main event, the Great Texas Alligator Roundup, draws a lot of attention.

That was never more apparent than when an air horn blasted — the sound of another gator en route to the roundup — as Mark Wood pulled up behind a caravan of pickups on Saturday, hauling this year’s longest gator, just shy of 13 feet and weighing every one of those 620 pounds.

As one onlooker put it: “That’s a big-ass gator.”

Anahuac institution

The 2023 Texas Gatorfest Queen Tina Ly, 16, poses with an alligator during Anahuac's annual Gatorfest
The 2023 Texas Gatorfest Queen Tina Ly, 16, poses with an alligator during Anahuac's annual Gatorfest, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Anahuac. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

Gatorfest attracts folks from around Texas and the country to this tiny town between Houston and Beaumont every year. This year, that included a designer camouflage-wearing group from Beverly Hills, Calif., that included Hollywood plastic surgeon and “Extreme Makeover” TV star Dr. Garth Fisher, who paid a guide to hunt down seven gators for them.

Each hour, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday, a victor was crowned for bringing in the longest alligator. Checks also were cut for the longest alligator caught each day, the overall winner, two “random length” winners and the longest gator caught in Chambers County.

More than 100 gators were brought to the roundup during the two-day event.

Wood’s nearly-13-foot behemoth from the Trinity River in Liberty County, which won him a combined $1,600 from Gatorfest, was the talk of the festival Saturday.

“When I seen his head pop out, I said, ‘Oh man,’” the Louisiana native said. “It was super exciting.”

His gator drew dinosaur comparisons from the crowd and required Wood and his buddies to bring a tractor to the river’s edge to wrestle the beast out of the water.

While Wood took home the title this year, the real royalty was Tina Ly, a junior at Anahuac High School and this year’s Gator Queen.

Tina has volunteered as a survey taker at the festival since she was a kid, and recalls greeting attendees from South Africa and the U.K.

This year, however, she held court, taking to the stage to greet attendees, and cementing her family’s royal Gaterfest lineage, Her sister, Tracy, won the crown in 2018.

“It’s all in the wrists,” Tina joked, waving to the crowd outside the roundup as she posed next to another dead gator, blood dripping from its claws in stark contrast to her bright pink dress, silver tiara and white cowboy boots.

  • Children peek over a fence to see the hunted alligators arriving to The Great Texas Alligator Roundup
  • Leo Martinez playfully rides an alligator in ice at the Texas Gatorfest
  • The 2023 Texas Gatorfest Queen Tina Ly, 16, poses with an alligator at the annual Texas Gatorfest
  • The 2023 Texas Gatorfest Queen Tina Ly, 16, feels the texture of an alligator leg at The Great Texas Alligator Roundup during Gatorfest
  • The 2023 Texas Gatorfest Queen Tina Ly, 16, takes a look at the first alligator brought to The Great Texas Alligator Roundup at the annual Texas Gatorfest

The festival supports the Gator Queen with a $5,000 scholarship, which Tina hopes to apply to a future engineering degree from Stanford University, where her older sister will graduate next year.

“I want Gatorfest to continue to expand and eventually branch out into other parts of Chambers County,” she said. “Maybe we can start doing parades in Winnie or Mont Belvieu to spread the word.”

‘Unforgiving environment’

In Texas counties where alligators naturally live, including Chambers County, the hunting season runs from Sept. 10 through Sept. 30.

If you think about it, Casey Hedges said, it’s kind of a game.

Hedges, who reckons he handles about 650 to 800 alligators through his meat processing shop, Porter’s Processing, across those 20 days, said gator season is a three-week, 6 a.m.-to-11 p.m. daily slog.

Through Porter’s, Hedges can turn a gator into a month’s supply of meat, mount its head, tan its hide and even make customized wallets or boots.

“Gatorfest is a chance to put on a showcase,” he said.

Hedges and his wife, Lindsey, who bought Porter’s Processing from its original owner, Mark Porter, back in 2020, spent most of the festival in a mad dash to properly tag and move the gators competing in the round-up into a walk-in freezer truck.

“The value of a gator is not fully tapped,” Hedges said. “I think the fest gives you an opportunity to get to know Anahuac and learn about gators.”

They are mysterious creatures that attract all sorts of people, Hedges’ longtime friend and fellow Anahauc native, Rance May said.

“It’s an unforgiving environment and we’re an anomaly, growing up here being used to gators,” May said. “But I think Gatorfest gives the outside world a good opportunity to show what we have to offer.”

Alligators are measured at The Great Texas Alligator Roundup in Gatorfest which takes place annually in Anahuac
Alligators are measured at The Great Texas Alligator Roundup in Gatorfest which takes place annually in Anahuac, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

Pride in tradition

Greater name recognition and hometown pride is a big part of what drives Meredith Turner Croyle, who has grown up with Gatorfest even as Anahauc’s population has dwindled and the local economy has remained stagnant.

“I call this my gator-cation,” she said. “I took two weeks off of work and everything.”

Croyle has been volunteering at the festival since she was 12.

For the past few years, she and Meredith Schimek – they call themselves the M&Ms – have been in charge of the roundup, organizing the flow of gator traffic into Fort Anahuac Park, keeping track of all measurements and eventually awarding the winners.

Croyle said she and her friends recently took over the festival from their parents' generation, hoping to build on their legacy, spread the joy and absurdity of Gatorfest and, they hope, draw larger crowds and greater revenue.

Fisher Nelson, 11, helps place hunted alligators into a refrigerated truck at The Great Texas Alligator Roundup in Anahuac.
Fisher Nelson, 11, helps place hunted alligators into a refrigerated truck at The Great Texas Alligator Roundup, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Anahuac. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

Katelynn Rose Smith, the executive director of the Anahuac Area Chamber of Commerce and the festival’s organizer, agrees.

She has spent the past several weeks preparing for the festival, and by the time she has a chance to reflect on Sunday evening, all she can do is laugh as the sound of air boats racing in the marshy Anahuac Channel drowns out any and all conversation.

All of the festival’s volunteers and organizers gathered at the edge of the park to celebrate the end of Gatorfest.

“I love my city and I want it to still be here for my kids when they grow up,” Smith said as she joined friends for a joyride across the water.

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Céilí Doyle covers the region’s suburbs and rural communities for the Abdelraoufsinno. She comes to Texas by way of the Midwest, most recently working for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio through the...