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GALLAGHER: Cherokee man gets his gator

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CHEROKEE, Iowa | The annual Needy Children's Auction at The Brightside Lounge in Cherokee featured a first in its 47 years on Saturday.

At least, I'm betting so.

Rich Hinkhouse, who owns and operates The Brightside with his wife, Peggy Hinkhouse, donated three 1-pound packages of alligator meat to be sold. Those packages attracted bids of $30 apiece, a portion of the $7,200 raised in an event started by Stan Sitzmann, Cherokee's "Citizen of the Year" in 2015.

Alligator meat being auctioned at a bar for a children's charity in Cherokee? OK, I'll bite...

Rich and Peggy Hinkhouse got to know some Louisiana residents during Iowa's bird flu crisis in 2015. Billy Duplechein, of St. Martinville, Louisiana, led a team that specializes in environmental reclamation as it built an incinerator in Cherokee County to help dispose of chicken and turkey carcasses. He resided in an apartment near The Brightside Lounge while he worked around Cherokee that year. He and his crew often shared hunting stories with the Hinkhouses at their bar.

"Whenever they talked about hunting alligators, you could see how interested Rich was," Peggy said. "So, I thought I'd surprise him."

Peggy began dropping hints of a hunt she planned for her husband. He stitched the mystery together last Christmas when he found a puzzle piece that featured an alligator. They booked a flight for the first week of September.

The couple arrived at St. Martin Parish southeast of Lafayette, Louisiana, in the first week of September, the only month state officials allow alligator hunting. Duplechein met the couple at the airport and presented two items to Rich Hinkhouse: A Cuban cigar and a roll of electrical tape.

"He figured I'd need both after I got my gator," Rich said. "The cigar was for the celebration. The electrical tape I'd need to keep the gator's jaw shut once we got him in the boat."

Widespread flooding at the time limited Hinkhouse's hunting expedition to one day. On the day before the hunt, Hinkhouse fished with Duplechein and co-worker Kelly Camille in a canal that's part of the Atchafalaya Basin. They scouted a 1,000-acre site Duplechein leases.

"They hunt gators, they fish, and they hunt ducks," Rich Hinkhouse said of his friends. "They have a 2-story treehouse built amid seven cypress trees in the swamp. The treehouse has a kitchen, a bathroom and a generator."

On the day of the hunt, the three men used an 18-foot flat-bottom boat. Peggy recorded some of the action from another boat, but stayed out on the water only during morning hours. The 103-degree heat and humidity forced her back to a house boat that had air conditioning.

Rich pressed on with his pals, who were determined to help him bag a gator that could one day welcome patrons to The Brightside back in Cherokee.

"At about 2:30 that afternoon, Billy spotted one with my binoculars," Rich said. "Billy could tell by the space between the gator's eyes and his nose that he was big, so he hit the motor and we peeled down the channel."

The trio followed the gator's air bubbles and snagged the animal's back end with a hook. The gator thrashed and actually used his might to drag the boat until they stuck a second hook in his thick skin. After getting the second hook in the gator, Duplechein and Camille struggled to bring him to the surface, allowing Hinkhouse to get a shot with the .22-calibre rifle they carried.

"There's a quarter-size spot that's the kill zone on a gator," Hinkhouse said. "And that spot, if you were to think of a human, is at the base of the skull, just above the neck."

Hinkhouse missed that spot with his first shot and the bullet ricocheted. He made good on his second and third shots, however, and recorded his kill.

"We hooted and hollered and began to get this thing in the boat," he said.

Hinkhouse wrapped the electrical tape around the giant jaw of the beast, which was estimated to be around 40 years old. He measured 10 feet from head to tail and tipped the scales at 450 pounds.

"After I got it, my license and tag had to follow the meat (to a processor), the head to a taxidermist and the skin to get tanned. They keep a good tab on their gator population," he said.

Hinkhouse brought home 50 pounds of meat. The rest he gave to his friends who led his memorable hunt. He's in the process of having alligator boots custom-made. The head, he said, is with a taxidermist and will one day grace space on the wall at The Brightside Lounge.

"One of our local customers at The Brightside wanted me to a get a full mount, as people from all over would come to look at it," Hinkhouse said. "The problem with that is that it costs $550 per feet. I didn't want to spend $5,000 to $6,000 on a mount."

The meat, which Peggy said tastes like fish, but has the texture of chicken, was prepared and served by Rich Hinkhouse at a family Thanksgiving feast, a feast that in past years has featured elk, rabbit, pheasant and deer, all game harvested by this avid hunter.

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