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Old Joe Didn't Know He Was Supposed to be a Goner

An essay by Kevin Henderson

Midnight on the Kissimmee River, dead calm, overhanging trees a ragged silhouette against the starry sky. Mike Rafferty, headlamp probing forward, hunched over the trolling motor. Patty and me in the stern, enjoying celebratory beverages over a nice gator trussed up in the bottom of the 14' skiff.

Mike eases up an oxbow. I occasionally turn my lamp on to the rear, just in case a wily gator hides as we pass and then surfaces to look. Not that it happened before, but…suddenly, twin red spots: bright gator eyes in the blackness behind us.

I hold my light steady on the eyes, twisting as Mike turns the boat and covers with his lamp. I switch mine off and ease forward. Poised in the bow, I gradually lose the reflected eye gleam as we close the gap to throwing distance. I cast my harpoon and the water erupts. The harpoon line streaks out, taking the float to the end. Mike grabs my leg, saying, “It's a big one! It's a big one!”

We follow the float into a lagoon choked with hyacinth. I rig the noose pole. Mike slowly and gently pulls in the harpoon line. When the gator's head is visible I slip the wire noose over it with the pole and jerk it tight. Kaboom! In an explosion of violence the gator eats the noose pole right up to my hand before I can let go.

I hang on to the noose rope and we take a Nantucket Sleigh ride through the lagoon. Shaking a little, I confirm “he's a big one.”

He eventually tires. Mike pulls him carefully to the surface. I quickly apply the bang stick between his eyes, Kaboom! Back atcha. He is big all right. To be extra safe, we pull him up and hit him again with the bang stick, then wait 5 minutes on silent water, no bubbles, no movement...two perfect shots with a .44 magnum. Ok, he's dead.

I begin hoisting dead weight, Mike gets the duct tape ready, and Patty gets ready to shoot a picture. We are all on the gunwale as the gator surfaces limp alongside. Mike reaches out to grab its nose. Then, suddenly, one very large gator eye pops open. I yell something not usually published, and the gator lunges over the gunwale jaws agape. Whoa!

The three of us end up on the far side of the boat counting limbs and fingers. It's a good thing we have 250 pounds of gator already in the bottom for ballast. We recover some wits, kill that gator again and drag him behind the boat for a half hour.

Back at the ramp, fellow hunters recognize him as the famous Old Joe. We try to weigh him but he easily maxes out the 600-pound scale. He measures 12 feet, 4 inches with a bobbed tail.

Old Joe's head hangs above our fireplace in “over the gunwale” pose. I keep the punctured and torn remnant of 2-inch schedule 80 PVC noose pole in a closet. Reminders of a harrowing time capturing “the big one” from a small skiff one September night on the Kissimmee River in 1991.

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