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Gator bait: White tour boat lures Sabine alligators closer

ORANGE — If you’ve lived in Southeast Texas at any moment in time, whether it was for a couple days, several years or a lifetime, chances are you have an opinion on a local staple — alligators.

Our swampy friends have been seen in bayous and rivers, along trails, parks and highways. But coming across the big, scaly, long tailed, beady-eyed, modern-day dinosaurs always solicits one feeling or another — love or fear.

Love them or hate them, there is no better thrill than getting up close and personal with more than a dozen gators in their natural habitat along with eagles, egrets, wild bulls, fields of fauna and more. Swamp and River Tours, based in Orange, provides that thrill in their custom-made speedboat in an unforgettable 90-minute trip down the Sabine River.

Capt. Eli Tate, owner of Swamp and River Tours, points out several sightings of wildlife including alligators, eagles, egrets and fauna during a 90-minute boat tour, Thursday in Orange. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

Since 2000

“We started doing these swamp tours in March 2000,” Capt. Eli Tate, owner of Swamp and River Tours, said. “We really started it because of my love for nature.”

Since 2000, Tate said the tours have changed and adapted as the diverse wildlife became more and more familiar with the little white boat.

“After 20 years, the wildlife get used to the boat,” he said. “During thousands of trips we see more gators, bigger gators and more eagles all because of the repetition. That’s the key. Anyone can do the same thing if they’re willing to commit to thousands of trips right here.”

The tour travels along a section of the Sabine River that flows from Texas into Louisiana, allowing viewing of a vastly distinctive area.

The scenery and wildlife along the Sabine River is visible during a 90-minute boat ride provided by Swamp and River Tours in Orange. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

“Here, you have some of all of the different type of swamps because the area is unique,” he said. “You have many fields of beautiful flowers which you don’t see in most swamps. Things that are here exist all along the river, there is just more of it in this spot. The scenery is better and there is more wildlife. There are no houses. No one lives in this area and there’s nothing to scare the wildlife away.”

Boat beckons

Aside from the scenery, what makes Swamp and River Tours stand out from others is the vehicle it employs for tours. Tate, who used to work for an airboat company, said he saw the drawbacks of the airboat and wanted to develop a boat that was fast, quiet and shaded for comfort in the summer.

“The shade, and keeping the boat moving are what makes the ride comfortable,” he said. “The key is to be fast to cover a lot of area but quiet to not scare the wildlife away. The airboat is slower and loud to where you have to wear ear buds. It just scares everything away.”

The Great Egret is one of many birds that can be found along the Sabine River during the Swamp and Rivers Tour in Orange. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

Another defining difference of the boat is that it is white.

“The gators’ favorite snack is a Great Egret,” Tate said. “It’s a white bird, so the white attracts the gators to the boat. Airboats often camouflage their boats. Some laughed at me for wanting to paint mine white, but wildlife aren’t fooled if they can hear the boat 10 miles away, so then the camouflage doesn’t help anyway.”

Tate said along with the color, subtle vibrations the boat gives off attract more alligators to come within closer distances.

“The vibrations attract the attention, or the killing instinct at night,” he said. “Gators are killers but not during the daytime. Daytime trips we are visiting with them while they’re resting. They like the vibrations and the warm water that trails the engine.”

A bee pollinates on a purple flower among the fauna that can be found floating along the Sabine River. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

Summer thrills

Although the popularity in trips varies with the season, Tate said in in summertime it is common to go out on at least five trips a day, weather permitting.

“People who come out often like the gators, eagles and the fast-moving boat ride,” he said. “This boat is real quick with the pickup and everyone, even from the oldest age, love that motion. That’s why people go to attraction parks. They don’t usually go on a boat to do that but this one can do it. So, our tours are different and people of all ages are welcome to come and see that for themselves.”

So, whether seeing an alligator up close gives you chills of excitement or a dreaded pit in the middle of your stomach, Swamp and River Tours is an exciting activity for anyone who loves wildlife and beautiful scenery, and just a little bit of thrill.

During the Swamp and Rivers Tour viewers can expect to see eagles souring in a ruined shipyard where they build their nests. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

Swamp and River Tours are available Tuesday through Sunday and closed on non-holiday Mondays. Tours are open to all ages and operate out of the Sabine River. Each tour lasts about 90 minutes and cost $29 with tax for adults, $19 plus tax for children under 12.

To schedule an individual or group tour call Capt. Eli Tate at 409-988-9342 or visit the website at http://swampandrivertours.com/index.php.

Tours are also available in Spanish with Maria Tate. The office is located at 813 Lutcher Drive, Orange.