Debbie’s Gators: A Quest Fulfilled

Her first Seminole gator was only the beginning of this story.

Debbie Southerland | October 15, 2015

I have wanted to do an alligator hunt since 2007 when I first starting applying for and saving up priority points. When I read a GON article about a Georgia state record gator from Lake Blackshear in 2008, I knew without a doubt it was something I wanted to experience at least once in my life!

“It was probably the most adrenaline-pumped four hours of my life. The strength I felt when I grabbed a hold of that buoy the first time was like trying to hold onto a pickup truck.”

When you read that statement… how can you NOT want to experience it? It gave me chill bumps just reading the article. THIS was the story that fueled my desire and determination, that kept me applying year after year to build priority points until the time was right. In 2013, I decided to actually apply to get a permit. I applied for Zone 2, where I could hunt at Lake Seminole, with some of my priority points, and waited to see if I would draw a tag… and I did! I still remember the overwhelming feeling of excitement, knowing without a doubt that I was finally going gator hunting.

I had originally planned to hire a guide for my hunt, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I would not be happy with that choice. So I contacted my good friend Nick Baker, aka Nicodemus on the GON Forum (, and asked him if there was any chance he could help me with my “DIY” gator hunt on Lake Seminole. He said, “YES!” Shortly thereafter we were at the GON Blast and I met Jay Reed, aka Spooner from the Forum, and he immediately offered to loan me his gator hunting gear and let me use it for our gator hunt. He then left the GON Blast, went home to get his gator gear, and brought it back to me the same day. It never ceases to amaze me the generosity of the people I have met through this Forum!

My fiancé, Tim Sandford aka rutandstrut, talked to his friend, Bill George, of G&B Gator Gear, and he hooked us up with two harpoons, a snatch rope and extra treble hooks.

Everything was coming together, and I was getting excited!

We finally started hunting on Friday, Sept. 13, a full week into the gator season. We proceeded to hunt every Friday and Saturday for three weekends in a row. The first day we hunted, my son was in the boat hunting with Nick and I. We saw a huge gator, but he went under never to be seen again. There were a few gators in the 6- to 8-foot range I could have taken—one so close we could have reached out and touched him with a harpoon, but that is not what I wanted. I wanted a big gator, at least a 9- to 10-footer, hopefully even bigger.

We tried several times to get close enough to get a hook in a gator with the saltwater rod rigged with 150-lb. braided line. We even connected a couple of times, but the hook would come out almost immediately. We were usually in the water well before daylight, and we would stay on the water hunting for 10 to 12 hours straight. This was no easy task, spending hours on the water, looking through binoculars until your eyes hurt, right through the heat of the day. When we would finally quit for the day, we were all tired. We would get a few hours of sleep and do it all over again.

By the Friday of our third weekend of hunting, we felt like we had a few things figured out. One was a location where two particular gators liked to hang out. I wanted the bigger gator that I had nicknamed “bright-eyes” because of the light-colored ring around its eyes that really stood out. This gator had a lighter colored skin, too. But I would have settled for the smaller one because it was a decent gator with dark skin and a big knobby-looking head.

Nick looked over at me and said, “Have you ever heard the story of the mule that starved to death?”

I said, “No…”

Nick got a real serious look on his face… “Well this mule just stood out in the pasture between two big bales of hay, and he starved to death because he couldn’t decide which bale of hay he wanted.”

I told Nick we were not going to starve to death because I was going to kill a gator! We were sitting there waiting for the gator to show up again. Then Nick saw him, hiding back up under the bank beneath the roots of a cypress tree, nothing but his eyes above the water. We decided to go around a corner of the island, then take out on the bank, and try to sneak up on the gator with harpoons. Nick and I went after him while Tim stayed with the boat. When we got there, we both knelt down and tried looking over the bank, but we couldn’t see up under the roots of the cypress tree. Nick got down on his belly and leaned way over the bank, then almost fell in on his head! I just knew he was going to fall in, and I would have to harpoon the gator as he tried to eat Nick for lunch! Then I saw him back out in the hydrilla where we had been only a few minutes ago. We went out hunting again for several hours on Friday night, but we didn’t have any luck.

We spent most of Saturday morning hanging out in the same area. We were waiting for the gators to come up, trying to get close enough to cast a hook, casting hooks and missing, the gators submerging, and then waiting for them to come up again.

After a while, we decided to go up the river to look for gators, and if we didn’t find anything, we would come back to this area. We stopped on an island for a quick break. Nick had no sooner said, “Y’all watch out for snakes, they’re crawling this time of year,” then I heard him yell, and I swear I heard a cuss word or two… He just about stepped on a big fat water moccasin! Of course Nick immediately started playing with the snake and making him coil up for a picture, and then it slithered down a gopher hole.

That afternoon we ended up back at the same place hunting the same two gators. There was a reason we chose to hunt these gators, but that is a secret that must be kept. We saw the gators a couple of times but never got a hook in them. I was kicked back relaxing, listening to Nick tell stories about the Indians from many years ago, when all of a sudden Nick’s eyes got real big and he said, “There he is, right behind us!”

Of course, right behind us was still quite a distance from the boat, so Nick started easing the boat that way. We threw a hook at him a couple of times, wanting to wait until we were closer but also not wanting to let him go under again. It was at this point we all realized this was NOT one of the two gators we had been hunting. This gator had a very large and wide head. I started praying right then that the Lord would bless our hunt with THIS gator! After several times trying to get closer, trying to hook him, him going back under, then waiting 30 minutes for him to re-surface, Tim finally got a hook in him. We were all so excited! Nick was trying to keep the boat between the gator and the hydrilla, hoping to keep him out in open water. I had the snatch rope with the big treble hook trying to drag the bottom and get another hook in him. Nick and I had two harpoons ready so that we could get a harpoon in him when he came up for air. Several times I could feel his weight against the hook, and I would snatch trying to set the hook only to have it break free. That really upset the gator, and he would try to take off all over again. I was afraid to keep trying and afraid to not keep trying. I knew we needed two hooks in him because if the one came loose, we would lose our gator. After what seemed like forever, I finally got him hooked good with the snatch rope.

I felt a little more secure with two hooks in him, but suddenly he seemed to make a run away from the boat and then surfaced for air, too far away for Nick to get a harpoon in him. We waited, trying to keep the lines tight. He did it again, took off away from the boat and surfaced for air, still too far away. The next time he tried to do it, I pulled hard on the snatch rope and got him closer to the boat. Nick had the harpoon ready and buried it in his back. At this point the hook Tim had in the gator came loose. It wasn’t long before he came up again, and I buried the second harpoon in his back. Then I got the pistol out, and they pulled him up again. I shot him five times in the head, but his eyes were still moving, and he was still breathing, so I fired two more shots just to be sure. Nick and I quickly tied a rope around his jaws, both of us thinking that at any second he might decide to wake up, and then I held his mouth closed while Nick wrapped electrical tape around it. We could finally breathe again!

You can’t even imagine the adrenaline that is pumping through your veins while all of this is happening…. you are completely on edge, wired, constantly trying to be prepared for what might happen next. We were literally ecstatic! We had our gator, and he wasn’t just any gator, he was a great big monster gator. We couldn’t put him in the boat, so Nick used the boat to drag him to shallower water (still not shallow) then Nick jumped in the water with the gator. I kept thinking about the other two gators that were still out there, and with the blood coming from the gator we shot, I was hoping they didn’t come get Nick. We secured him to the back of the boat, so that we could tow him to the boat ramp several miles away. I thought we would never make it back. By the time we got there we were towing at least two tons of hydrilla along with our gator, and he looked more like a Loch Ness Monster than a gator.

When this all started, I knew I wanted a big gator, not just any gator, but a BIG gator. I was almost afraid to hope for what I really wanted. I never once dreamed I would get a gator this big. He was 11-feet, 8-inches and right at 500 pounds. Not too bad for a “Do It Yourself” hunt by three totally inexperienced, never-done-it-before gator hunters. The Lord truly did bless our hunt that afternoon. I killed this gator with the Ruger Single Six 22 Mag pistol that my Dad gave me before he died in December of 2012. I don’t know if he ever killed anything with it, but he had it for many years, and he was very proud of it. I know he was smiling down on us that afternoon, and he was very proud of me, too.

Fast forward two years to 2015…

I decided once just wasn’t enough, I wanted to do it again. I applied for another gator tag in Zone 2, and once again I got it! This stuff is addictive, once you feel that rush of adrenaline, the feeling of accomplishment, the excitement of the hunt, you can’t help but want to feel it again.

In May of 2015, I lost my only sister after a three-year battle with colon cancer. She had asked me to please keep hunting with her son because he loved hunting so much, and I was his hunting role model. I knew I wanted him with me on this gator hunt. Nick couldn’t go with me this time, but another friend, Ricky Kent, had volunteered to take us in his Skeeter bass boat. I put together a team of four—my friend Ricky Kent, my nephew Aidan Norene, my fiancé Tim Sandford and me. I have to admit, I was apprehensive, worried that there was no chance lightning could strike twice. How could this hunt possibly measure up to the hunt of 2013? I wanted Aidan to have the opportunity to experience the awesome feeling of accomplishment, the rush of adrenaline, the same excitement of the hunt that I experienced two years ago.

Alligator season this year started at sunset on Friday, Aug. 14, but we were all traveling to get to Lake Seminole, two from as far away as Orlando, Fla. and Navarre, Fla. We all got there around midnight Friday night, and after about four hours sleep, we met at the boat ramp at 5 a.m. Saturday morning. The morning was pretty slow with us seeing just a few gators, and only one of those a decent size. We took a break midday to get something to eat and a nap before meeting at a different boat ramp around 4 p.m. to head back out on the lake. We all felt better after food and rest, but the afternoon started off like the morning, very few gators seen even though we were covering a lot of water. It was around 5:30 when I finally spotted what looked like a big gator several hundred yards away at the edge of a hydrilla mat. Ricky turned off the big motor and used the trolling motor to get us in closer. This was definitely a gator we wanted to take, so Tim and Aidan both tried casting the saltwater rod rigged with 150-lb. braided line and a 12/0 weighted hook, but they didn’t get him.

We knew from the last hunt to sit and wait him out. He would go under, and we would wait 20 minutes for him to resurface so we could try again. One time he came up right behind the boat, but we were caught so off guard that he was gone again before we could do anything. The last time he went down we waited almost 40 minutes for him to come up again. We were starting to wonder if he was gone when suddenly he reappeared less than 20 yards from the boat in the edge of the hydrilla. In the hydrilla is not where you want to cast with a big weighted hook because you will get tangled in it every time. We did it anyway because it was getting late, and we were ready to hook this gator. Tim cast with the saltwater rod, and his hook hung up past the gator, but as he tried to pull it free it was also pulling us closer to the gator. Aidan and I both threw snatch ropes, missed and got our lines tangled together. I untangled them as fast as I could, but at that moment the gator disappeared into the bed of hydrilla. I told Aidan to throw anyway, that he was still right there.

He did, and suddenly he yelled, “I got him!” The fight was on, and we all had that awesome adrenaline rush. The gator swirled and went under the boat, getting tangled with the boat motor, so we let go of the line. He pulled the buoy free and headed for open water. We went after him, and I grabbed the buoy, using the rope to pull him up again. I told Aidan to get ready to harpoon him when I pulled him up. We still didn’t realize just how big this gator was until he came to the surface and Aidan sunk the harpoon in him. He churned in the water as he dove back down, and we knew without a doubt this was another monster gator. Wow what an awesome feeling! When he had churned in the water, the hook from the snatch line came out, and we realized the 14/0 hook didn’t just come out, it was broken off. I knew we needed two lines in him, so they pulled him up again for me to try to get another harpoon in him and he lunged up out of the water at us with jaws wide open. For a second we thought he was coming in the boat, and we all about jumped off the other side of the boat! I finally got the other harpoon in him, but when we pulled him up to shoot him, we couldn’t get his head above water—all of our lines were too far away from his head. I took the harpoon pole to try and pry his head up, and he promptly grabbed the end of it in his teeth causing my end to fly up and hit me in the side of my head. I finally managed to get several shots in him, and we thought he was done. His eyes were closed, and he appeared limp. Ricky and I got a rope around his mouth, but every time we would tighten up on the rope it would start sliding down. I took the electrical tape and started wrapping it around his jaws—after going around several times I saw his eyes were wide open again! This gator wasn’t dead yet, and I got away from his mouth quick! Ricky handed Tim a different pistol, and he put two more rounds in the gator. Finally, I felt safe to tape his mouth securely shut. As we were trying to pull him in the boat, I saw his eyes open again and felt him trying to pull his foot away from me! Ricky pulled out a knife, jabbing it in the gator and severing the spinal cord. We tried as hard as we could, but we couldn’t pull him in the boat. As all of this unfolded we had gained an audience from three gator hunters in another boat, and we were all relieved when they offered to help. I don’t think they realized just how much help we needed because it was still all we could do to get him in the boat with five people in our boat pulling and two in the other boat pushing! Thank you to Brent Pettis and his crew for lending a hand.

We finally got the gator back to the boat ramp, and then well after dark we made it to the processor where he measured a whopping 12-feet, 7-inches.

Not only did this hunt measure up to 2013, our gator was almost a foot longer and a lot heavier. What an absolutely wonderful day of gator hunting it had been, everything I could have hoped for and more. I do believe my nephew is now hopelessly addicted to it, too. God had blessed our hunt again, and I have no doubt my sister was smiling down on us that day.

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