By Frank Sargeant, Editor At Large
The alligator was stuck in the yard-deep muck of Lake Hancock, and nothing Charley McKee and gator guide Josh Garland could do would dislodge it. McKee had snatch-hooked the beast with a long cast from his heavy-duty spinning rig, and all but had it to the boat when it suddenly got smart and burrowed down into the bottom. Clouds of flocculent muck bubbled up into the lights as Charley strained the 150-pound-test braided polyethylene line to near breaking, but the gator was not moving.
“I’ll give him a little encouragement,” said Josh. He took out the 2-inch-thick hardwood pole he used to propel the boat through the shallows and thrust it down to dislodge the brute.
Josh pulled up the pole. A couple feet of the end of it was sheared off as though cut with a power saw.
“Guess he didn’t like that,” said Charley.
Finally, the hunters determined they might be able to “plane” the gator up like a tuna from the deep, by moving the boat away and varying the angle of pull. That quickly did it; the gator took off, and so did the heavy 20-foot johnboat; we were on a gator-powered sleigh ride through the night.
After about 10 minutes, Charley was sweating like he’d just finished a marathon in the hot, humid night air, but he managed to winch the boat up to the rolling, snapping, hissing saurian. Water and mud flew 10 feet into the air, and the gator beat the side of the aluminum boat like a kettle drum.
Josh dropped a cartridge into the .44 bangstick. But just as he was about to deliver the coup de grâce, the hook pulled free.
“He was too little anyway,” said Charley. “Only nine feet or so—I’m looking for a 10-footer or better.”
No problem; we went back to the hunt, and as Charley swept the black waters with his spotlight, the night lit up with what looked like dozens of orange-red fireflies.
“Gators everywhere,” Charley said happily. “Now we just need a big one.”
McKee and pal Josh, who hunt together any time Josh doesn’t have a charter, love gator hunting and gators of every size, but what really turns their crank are the dinosaurs 10 feet and up.
“When a gator gets over 10 feet long, it’s just a whole other animal from the smaller ones,” says McKee. “They get so much heavier and stronger, and they’re a lot smarter, too.”
McKee and Garland had earned the right to pursue gators last season by being drawn in the state’s permitting system. Alligator hunting in Florida is tightly regulated; only hunters with permits are allowed to take, or even to handle, these large, dangerous reptiles. Both are avid anglers, and so it’s natural that their chosen weapon is rod and reel, in a sport where most use harpoons or bow and arrow. A 14/0 weighted treble hook does the catching; they cast it across the gator and snatch-hook him.
“If you get the hook in the head or neck, you can handle him after a while, but if you get it in the tail you’re in for a long fight,” says Garland. Like a tail-hooked gamefish, the gator manages to keep pulling for a long time.
We went on to hook five more gators that night, all in the 8- to 10-foot range, but each time luck was on the alligator’s side; hooks pulled, lines busted—and in one case, the anglers simply decided the gator was too small. Though “catch-and-release” gatoring was not specifically permitted, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) had a tacit agreement not to cite hunters letting go uninjured gators through last year. According to FWC gator program leader Harry Dutton, however, that’s not the case in the 2008 season, which began August 15 and runs through November 1. From now on, says Dutton, if you catch it, you bought it.
“I like using the rod and reel because you can reach alligators a lot farther from the boat than you can with a harpoon, or even with a bow for most people,” says Garland. “And sometimes, you can even hook them when they’re lying on bottom, because on muck bottom you can follow the bubble trail.”
Fishing for gators will have a familiar feel to anglers who’ve sight-fished for tarpon; there’s the same anticipation and excitement as you ease into range, and the same pressure to make a perfect cast on the first shot, because hard-hunted gators often disappear as soon as the line drags over their back.
The fight is more like tangling with a big shark, however. It’s absolutely arm-breaking, back-wrenching pulling against a locked-down drag. Adult gators typically weigh 400 pounds and sometimes a lot more, and they’re enormously strong; it’s a real test to pump one in with a spinning rig. There’s typically an initial run of a hundred feet or so, then the gator goes to the bottom and hangs on until you pull him up a bit, then another run, some thrashing on top, likely rolling in the line, another run, and so on. Once the critter is at boatside, a harpoon is struck, and then the long-handled bangstick is used to put him away.
Pluggin’ for Gators
Starting this year, those wh
o like to cast for gators get a new tool in their arsenal, as the FWC now authorizes “fishing” for alligators with artificial lures. Of course, many anglers have caught small gators accidentally on lures, particularly topwaters, while fishing for bass. But under the new regulations, lures designed for the task of capturing alligators for harvest will specifically be made legal.
As mentioned, however, there won’t be any catch-and-release gator fishing.
“The intent is to allow hunters another way of harvesting alligators,” says Dutton. “We don’t want injured animals to be released; if you hook any alligator and bring it to the boat, you are obligated to go ahead and harvest that animal.”
When it comes to alligator lures, all will be homemade this season; there’s no commercially available model as yet. Of course, building a lure that will withstand the attack of a big gator and still survive is going to take some doing; it may be that only expendable lures will be possible, because anything that would float could be easily crushed by gator jaws. Likely lures similar to offshore saltwater lures with heavy steel leader cable running through the body to the hooks will do the job; when the body is sheared away, the hooks will still be attached via the cable.
Some experienced hunters doubt that artificials will be much of a factor in hunting trophy gators.
“I know small alligators love topwater lures, but I think the big guys are going to be hard to fool with anything that you could actually cast,” says Phil Walters, one of Florida’s best-known gator guides. “Maybe if you could make an artificial poodle and cast it out there…”
Another change this year is in hunting hours, with the time extended to allow hunting an hour after sundown, and an hour after sunrise. This is a big advantage to those who want to “fish” for alligators, because it will allow them to spot gators with natural light and make a presentation to them that the gators can easily see, without being blinded by a spotlight. Though alligators are most active at night, they’re often on the prowl at dawn and dusk, as well, and this provision should make it much easier for hunters to take their quota.
Florida is thought to have at least 1.25 million alligators these days, which is about all the available wetlands can hold. That’s a huge success, given that unregulated commercial harvest in the early 1900s decimated the species. The season was closed in 1962, followed by intensive, often very dangerous, efforts to curtail organized poaching. (For a great read on this subject, pick up a copy of Game Wars, by Marc Reisner, about legendary federal game warden Dave Hall.)
The American alligator was listed as Endangered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service on the very first listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1967. It was reclassified as Threatened in 1977, due largely to the fact that it closely resembles the American crocodile, and that a small market for meat and hides still exists. The Florida FWC considers alligators a Species of Special Concern.
Regardless of designation, robust alligator populations now support sustainable hunts on a limited basis.
Annual harvests in Florida include about 6,000 on public waters, another 6,100 on private lands, and some 10,000 under the nuisance alligator program. The take puts no dent in the huge population, and biologists say that it’s not intended to control the numbers. Some say the meat is delicious, and there are many uses for hides and parts; besides terrific sport, nearly the entire animal is utilized.
According to the FWC, the longest alligator ever taken in Florida came from Lake Monroe and taped 14 feet, 5⁄8 inch. The heaviest came from Orange Lake and weighed 1,043 pounds. Alligators reach sexual maturity at around seven feet long, which takes females 10 to 15 years, males 8 to 12 years. They live up to 50 years.
Alligators lay clutches averaging around 35 eggs in late summer. Of these, only four survive to 6-foot lengths according to the FWC. In dense populations, survival can be even lower; cannibalism is a major source of mortality in young alligators.
A permit is required to hunt alligators. Permits for 2008 were granted by drawing in June. All permits have been granted for this hunting season, but you can act as an agent for a licensed hunter. Gator charters typically cost $800 to $1,000. Visit www.myfwc.com for full regulations and permit information. For the 2009 season, begin watching the FWC Web site and news releases in April for the application process.
If you want to apply for a gator permit next year, you may also want to attend the free FWC alligator hunting class, which covers regulations, allowable gear, harvest methods, safety and processing. The three-hour classes are held in July and early August at various locations around the state; www.myfwc.com/gators.