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Wildlife encounters rival anything on TV

I recently watched a video of Steve Irwin, the charming but certifiably nutty Australian who makes a living playing with deadly snakes and equally deadly crocodiles. His seemingly careless manner of catching these creatures will absolutely make your hair stand on end.

He reminds me of the times I've spent watching alligators in Alcorn Brake, a sunken brake of cypresses, tupelo gums and button willows that lies just on the outskirts of Jonestown, Miss. The brake, known more commonly as Eagle Nest Brake, was named in honor of Gov. James L. Alcorn, whose plantation included most of the old brake.

Alcorn is buried just across the road that runs from Jonestown out to Highway 61 on the shore of Swan Lake, sort of a twin to the brake (but more open) that still offers superb duck hunting. American bald eagles once nested each year in the brake.

But back to alligators. As far as I can determine, the gators in Alcorn Brake are native and have been there for a long time. Some of the old folks used to say that Gov. Alcorn stocked them, but no one really knows if that is right. At any rate, I've been watching these gators for more than 50 years — long before any gator re-stocking took place.

The best time and way to observe these critters is right now (late March or early April) and from a light plane flying low and slow over the brake's unbelievable density. Almost every species of aquatic vegetation is so abundant that I doubt a man could paddle through it even in a small boat.

Several years back there was enough open water in spots to make fishing possible. I used to catch bass there, to say nothing of bream and goggle-eye (warmouth bass). It was never an outstanding fishing hole, but it was a fine duck spot in some years.

Flying over the brake in a light plane I often have counted as many as 10 or 12 huge gators lying perfectly still on top of masses of vegetation or on the plentiful long-fallen cypress logs. Back in the old days, some gators taken out of the brake were 12 feet long. Some of the ones I've seen might have been longer than that.

Alcorn Brake was also a fine place to frog hunt at night. Many years ago I hunted it regularly with the aid of a friend who lived on its shoreline. One night as we slipped quietly along in a small cypress boat, we ran smack into a submerged gator that almost swamped our boat trying to get out of the way. That broke up my frog hunt for the night.

Worse than that was an experience later on a duck hunt on a warm November day. A small bayou runs out of the brake southward, emptying into another piece of watered wasteland with gators. Ducks love the place, and I spent many productive hours pursuing them there.

On that particular hunt I began to notice that many ducks were going down in a thick spot on the side opposite from where I was hunting. I took off across the wadable water. About 50 yards before I reached the other shoreline I stepped right on top of a submerged gator! When my foot hit the beast it seemed like an explosion as the gator threw water all over me. I was almost frightened out of my waders.

I'm not sure which one of us took off the fastest, but I made it to a beaver lodge nearby and scrambled up on it, quite shaken, as you can well imagine. I stood there trying to catch my breath and suddenly became aware that a huge cottonmouth moccasin coiled up not 6 feet away was staring at me with his head up and his mouth open!

I vacated the lodge as fast as is humanly possible, and without giving it another thought concluded my duck hunt for that day.

My longtime hunting buddy Newt McWilliams seemed to doubt my tale of that day, but believe it or not, he had the same identical experience when we were hunting that same brake several years later. Newt is still around and can verify this if any of you doubt it.

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