Adult Mentored Hunt Program prepares Mobile woman for a successful gator hunt
By David Rainer
AL Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources
As far as Leslie Welch is concerned, she was hooked at “Boom.” That report from the deer rifle happened a couple of years ago when she was among the lucky people who were selected to go on an Adult Mentored Hunt in Mobile County.
That experience set in motion Welch’s latest episode in her outdoors journey – alligator hunting. On her third try, Welch was drawn for one of the 150 tags in the Southwest Alabama Zone that includes private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84.
Welch, who grew up in a household that seldom ventured outdoors, had never even fired a gun before the mentored hunt, which made it even more interesting that she would pursue an alligator tag. However, Welch said that first outdoors experience opened a whole new world of adventure. Duck hunting is next on her to-do list.
“I grew up with a daddy who was a professor of religious studies at Alabama and a mom who did IT (Information Technology) before she became an industrial engineer in computer science,” Welch said. “We didn’t have these opportunities because my parents never presented it. I dated a boy in high school who hunted. He asked me to go hunting, but I never went.”
Welch, a former teacher, once worked with Amy Doss, wife of Jeremy Doss, a State Lands Division Enforcement Officer with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“Amy would always have good stories for me about the outdoors,” Welch said. “And Amy was telling me about this hunt for first-timers.”
Jeremy Doss and Daniel Musselwhite, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ South Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, were involved in starting the Adult Mentored Hunt (AMH) program in Mobile County. Welch fit the AMH target profile of a non-hunter and was chosen to go on her first deer hunt. She didn’t even see a deer, but several of the other hunters bagged their first deer that day.
“It was fun to watch and fun to be a part of,” Welch said. “Everybody was so welcoming, and nobody made you feel like an idiot for not knowing things, which is important, especially to a first-time person. Everything was explained to me.
“When I got to shoot the gun, oooh, I loved it. It scared the bejesus out of me, but I was really good at it. Then I bought a gun after that.”
She still hasn’t been able to squeeze the trigger on a deer, but that hasn’t quelled her enthusiasm.
Then Amy shared another outdoors story about gator hunting after a friend of the Dosses got a tag. Welch started applying for alligator tags until she was finally drawn this year.
“I was shocked I got a tag,” Welch said. “I texted Jeremy and Amy that they had to take me.”
The Dosses agreed, and Welch entered an environment she had never imagined in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
“I had never been on a boat at night except for a cruise ship,” Welch said. “It was fabulous. It was gorgeous. It was peaceful. It’s a totally different world at night. I got to go under the bridge on the Causeway. There were all kinds of things I got to experience that I’d never done before. And we saw lots and lots of gators, but they were spooked that first night.
“We didn’t get a gator, but I was ready to go again.”
With the Causeway gators somewhat leery because of all the boat traffic, Welch and the Dosses moved to the upper Delta for the second round. With a little help from Matt Horton of the Upper Delta Gobblers NWTF chapter, their luck changed quickly after launching the boat near Stockton.
“This gator popped up right after we launched the boat,” Welch said. “I named him ‘George’ by the way.”
Welch quickly hooked the gator, but she didn’t realize it at the time.
“I thought I was hooked on the bottom,” she said. “Then I told Jeremy the line was moving. He said, ‘The gator is walking on the bottom.’ I said, ‘What?’ I didn’t know they walked on the bottom.”
Doss said, “He was pulling the boat. It’s dark, so you don’t realize he’s pulling the boat because you have no frame of reference. He was just easing us down the river.”
Welch was soon up for another surprise when the alligator finally decided to come to the surface.
“When everybody put their spotlights on him, I literally backed up behind Jeremy,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh, heck, that thing is real.’”
Doss said the fifth time Welch was able to reel the animal to the surface they were able to get a harpoon in the gator.
“He was in 36 feet of water,” Doss said. “The problem was when he came up, he wouldn’t come straight up, he came up away from the boat. We finally got him up close enough to get a harpoon in him.”
Minutes later, the 10½-foot gator was dispatched and the celebration began.
“I’m sure there was a lot of squealing going on,” Welch said. “I tried not to because I was with a bunch of guys, but I’m afraid to say there was some squealing.
“Then I was just staring at the gator. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is real.’ Then I got to touch the gator. I had never touched an alligator before. I had never even been to Alligator Alley and touched one of the baby alligators.”
Doss added, “I don’t believe we would have gotten the gator so quickly without Matt’s help. Matt also helps with the mentored hunts, and he helped put us on the gator.”
In this world of social media, it’s no surprise that Welch shared her gator hunt on Facebook.
“I did brag,” she said. “Since then, I’ve had people asking me when I’m going again. I told them it doesn’t work that way, but let me tell you how to apply for a tag. So, there are at least seven people more who are going to put in for tags next year.”
Musselwhite said Welch’s story and her outreach to friends about her outdoors experiences are exactly what the AMH program is designed to do.
“It’s important that we did make her a hunter, but she has that ripple effect to go out and recruit new hunters,” Musselwhite said. “By creating one hunter, we may be able to recruit several more hunters.”
Last year, Brian Nettles was highlighted as a newly recruited hunter through the AMH program, and Musselwhite has followed Nettles’ outdoors journey.
“Since last year, Brian has killed his first buck,” Musselwhite said. “Two of his kids have killed bucks. He came to me pretty raw and had no idea what to do. Now, he’s got two kids that maybe wouldn’t be hunters if not for the program.
“And Leslie shows that it’s not about killing a deer. There’s so much more to hunting than killing deer. It’s enjoying the little things you see in the woods. That’s the demographic we’re going after.”
Welch said it’s hard to describe the sensory input she has experienced during her outdoors adventures.
“How do you explain to someone the sound of the wind coming through the trees while you’re sitting out there in the blind?” Welch said. “I didn’t know what that sound was. I’d never been still in nature long enough to know what it was. It’s the prettiest sound I’ve ever heard. It was so calming.
“It’s one of the reasons I want to experience more of the outdoors. I want to try these things I was not offered as a teenager growing up in Tuscaloosa. I want to go duck hunting, and I’m going deer hunting again.”
And, rest assured, her name will also be on an application for an alligator tag again next year.
The gator application process will come next year. However, applications are being accepted now for AMH events throughout the state. You must be at least 19 years old, have a valid driver’s license and be new to hunting (or have limited hunting experience) to apply for an AMH hunt. You can apply for up to three AMH events with a single application. Depending on the number of applicants, you may be limited to a single event. The AMH application must be completed online at www.outdooralabama.com/mentored-application. Email Justin.Grider@dcnr.alabama.gov with questions about the application or selection process.
Pictured: Leslie Welch managed to tag this 10½-foot alligator on the second weekend of the Southwest Zone season.