The Atchafalaya River Basin in southern Louisiana has one of the most varied ecosystems in the world. The million-acre swamp is home to hundreds of fascinating species, like snapping turtles and the great American alligator. Yet for all the region's lushness, it's the people who live in the swamp that make this area so unique.
Joe LaFont, a.k.a. "Trapper Joe," has been living in the wetlands of the Atchafalaya his entire life. During the month of September, you can find him out on the swamp doing what generations of Cajuns have done before him: hunting alligators. For him, it's nothing more than a way to survive. For the History Channel, it's a gold mine.
In 2010, the History Channel began airing Swamp People, a series that documents the unusual lives of several fisherman and hunters in the region, including LaFont. On Jan. 27, he'll make his first trip to Charleston for an appearance at the 32nd annual Charleston Boat Show.
Traveling the country to sign autographs is a hectic way to live compared to his days spent in the swamp, but LaFont says he's happy to spread the hype about the show. "Since the show aired, more people want to hunt alligators and more people want to eat them, so it's really helped the meat market out," he says. "Even tour companies are doing better because more people want to come here to see the swamps. It's helped out a lot of people down here."
Though the show's popularity has boosted the river basin's economy, it hasn't been easy for LaFont to adjust to. "There's no such thing as just running into the supermarket anymore because everybody wants to stop and take pictures," he says. "I try to just be patient with them and answer all their questions. I wouldn't want to be rude."
One of the most popular questions he's asked is whether he ever gets scared hunting alligators. He usually shrugs it off, explaining that after 30 years of gator hunting, it's no more threatening than an office is to a businessman. That's not to say he hasn't had his fair share of close calls.
One time, he says an alligator snuck up behind him and knocked him into the marsh when he wasn't looking. "He'd been hiding in the marsh grass on a bank behind me so I couldn't see him. He darted out and knocked my legs out from under me, but luckily he didn't turn back around to attack," LaFont says. "That was the scariest time I ever had hunting alligators."
Since hunting and fishing is highly regulated in the Atchafalaya, LaFont only gets 30 days to hunt a year's worth of alligators. "We're out there every day, rain or shine, no matter what," he says.
When the season is over, everybody in the community gathers for a gator-filled feast, which is the only time that LaFont eats what he catches. After a brief break, he's back out on the swamp, this time in search of shrimp. "My favorite thing is to have a boat filled up with shrimp."
You can find out more about the swamp life at this week's three-day boat show, where LaFont will be answering questions and signing autographs.
The Charleston Boat Show takes place Jan. 27-29 at the Charleston Area Convention Center. Admission is $8 for adults ($5 on Friday), $3 for ages 4-12, Free under 4, and $5 for military.