Go For Gator!

Hunting alligators in Georgia.

Daryl Kirby | June 16, 2006

This gator was taken on the Savannah River near Screven during the 2005 Georgia season.

Last summer when a gator permit arrived in the mailbox, a great, grand adventure was hatched. An endless night doing battle with a 10-foot beast fully capable of causing significant damage… and we’re now wise enough to understand that alligator hunting should not be a casual endeavor. If you’d like to read about that adventure, the story is online here.

Read it or not, don’t attempt what we did, which was throw together a hodgepodge of equipment and put faith in good fortune and luck.

Instead, pay attention to those with alligator-hunting experience, who have over the years have also developed and modified specialized equipment for the task at hand. That task, to get a line attached to a prehistoric beast, at night, in a setting fit for alligators, not humans, can be accomplished several ways. Legal methods range from a bow or crossbow, a giant treble hook, to a harpoon. The law and ethics dictate that a line is secured to the alligator before you make a killing shot with a gun or bang stick.

The harpoon is the method preferred and recommended by Capt. Bruce Castle of Port Orange, Fla., who has been hunting for gators since the early 90s.

“I’ve almost always used harpoons,” Bruce said. “I use the ones made by Capt. Phil Walters out of Tampa, a company called Rat Works. It’s ugly, but it works. Everything that’s on there, as crude as it may look, it has been developed after years of experience.”

These harpoons have heavy-iron shanks at the bottom to give it weight to make them penetrate the thick skin of a gator. The harpoons are designed to deliver a barbed point, or dart, under the skin of the alligator. The point is attached to a rope, then the shaft, a wooden dowel, pulls free and floats so you can retrieve it.

“With the weight of the harpoon, once it’s flying, it hits them pretty solid. And once you get a barb under the skin, it’s not going to come out. You can hardly cut it out sometimes,” Bruce said.

The grandaddy gator of Georgia’s 2005 season, a 13-footer, was killed at Lake Seminole by Lenny Watson of Ringgold, who was hunting with a guide when he used a harpoon to get a rope attached to the monster. Lenny recommended trying to stick the point just under the rib cage below the armor-like scoots that line a gator’s back.

“We were within three feet of him when I harpooned him,” Lenny said. “The guide I was with was really good, and he grunted like a gator, and I think that calmed the gator down so we could get right on top of it. The harpoon had a good, sharp point, and that pole makes a good driver, it’s heavy.”

Bruce said that if you miss with your first throw, an alligator will go down, but it will often come right back up.

“Eight times out 10, they pop back up pretty quick. I don’t know if they’re trying to get a big gulp of air or if they want to get a good look at where you are, but they tend to come right back up, and you can get a second chance. That’s why I always carry two harpoons. I’d say about 50 percent of my gators are captured on the second throw,”
Bruce said.

There are probably some bowhunters with their hearts set on using their compound or recurve to hunt an alligator, but Bruce cautioned against using a bow on gators approaching 10 feet. The first few times he went, Bruce tried a compound bow, but he found that it wasn’t the best method for him.

“If you use an arrow or crossbow bolt, you still need to put a harpoon in the gator. The main thing is that you can’t use a big enough line on an arrow or it won’t fly good. The line you have to use is small, so all that’s really good for is to track the gator. That small line will give you a massive rope burn when the gator takes off. I’ve had it cut through gloves. With a thicker rope, you can haul them in. Unless the gator is substantially under 10 feet, say nine feet or less, a harpoon is the way to go,” he said.

“Another problem with compound bows is when you draw, you’re pulling the bow back and getting more line out that’s more likely to get tangled on something,” he said.

If you want to try a bow or crossbow, Bruce mentioned a couple of tips. First, Bruce said to go ahead and buy the 600-lb. test Gator Getter line sold by Muzzy — it’s the best, strongest line available to attach to an arrow. Then, find an orthodontist or someone who wears braces, and get some of the tiny rubber bands used to rearrange teeth.

“They fit perfectly over the arrows. Take that little piece of elastic and roll it down to the end to the end of the arrow so the Muzzy cord stays tight against that arrow. When you draw, you don’t get the string tangling on everything. You want the string to trail off the back of the arrow, not the front.”

Another method to get a line secured in a gator is to snag it with a giant treble hook that you cast on a stout fishing rod.

“When a gator goes down, you can usually see a bubble trail or some kind of wake,” Bruce said. “Throw a snatch hook over him, and try bring it up on his belly.”

He said to cast it over the bubble trail, and when you feel it come up against a log — the gator — bring it up quick.

“I would recommend using heavy-test line, like the 300-lb. test Spiderwire. It will tangle in his back leg usually, then run up his body. A lot of time the hook grabs him in the back leg. They go into that death roll, and they’re all caught up. Then you use it as a tracking method to get the boat over him. The bigger the gator, the farther they’re going to go. It depends on the body of water, but they typically run about 150 feet. They pop up to see where you are, then they go back down and disappear for a while,” Bruce said.

Getting close to an alligator is not always easy, and it may be getting more difficult in Georgia on public lakes and rivers. In 2003, Georgia’s first alligator season, 40 percent of hunters got a gator. In 2004, it dropped to 34 percent. Last year, 26 percent of hunters who had a permit ended up with an alligator hide and tail meat. One factor is that some hunters initially see lots of gators but hold out for a big one.

“You might buzz them once or twice, but after that, they’re done with you,” Bruce said.

If just the gator’s head is showing, judging the size is difficult.

“The bigger ones, when you get six feet or up, the eyes glow a darker orange. The little ones are green. Another thing I pay attention to is the habitat,” he said. “Typically, females will run to the shoreline, but a big bull male tends to go to the deep water. If I’m approaching one, and he goes to deep water quick, that’s probably a good-sized gator.”

Bruce said the light you use is important, and that people who use too much light will have trouble getting close.

“I have a 12-volt, 150-watt headlamp. The key is that it’s a rheostat, so I can control the voltage. I can turn it down when we come up on a gator to where you can just barely see the orange glow of his eyes. Then, when you’re about 10 feet from the gator, turn it on full blast so the hunter can see what’s going on. As you’re approaching a gator, you don’t want to shine the light directly on them. Point it up to the sky, then bring it down slowly until you can just barely see his eyeballs. Use a low-wattage bulb, and you’re going to get a lot closer.”

Once you get a line attached to a gator, it’s time for the real moment of truth — time to get up close and personal and bring the gator to the surface.

There’s a phrase we use to describe the moment when you pull the trigger on a deer. We call it “slant eyes,” a reference to a gun fighter at the moment of truth. Picture Clint Eastwood at high noon waiting on the bad guy to draw. It’s a focus that blocks out the possibility of getting the yips, that lack mental breakdown that could cause a bad shot. In deer hunting, it’s an ethics issue. In gator hunting, having a slant-eyes mentality means you go home with the desired number or digits and limbs.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to grab people by the back of the life jacket and sit them down in the boat,” Bruce said. “When that big gator comes up right next to the boat, people just lose their mind, they lose common sense. It’s very exciting. You can get caught up in the moment, and it’s hard to keep your wits. It’s kind of like a story a friend of mine told me about hunting lions in Africa. A 600-lb. lion is charging, and a guy who said over and over, ‘Don’t worry, I’m good.’ Then the lion is charging, and he freezes.”

Alligator hunting is not a video game, it’s the real deal with a critter that will hurt you. Or worse.

“Once you tire them out and you get them up to the boat, they’re going to appear very submissive. Then at the last minute they’ll bite at your boat or take off. Guys with smaller boats, you need to kill the thing as fast as you can. You don’t want that thing under your boat,” he said. “And don’t ever tie a gator to the boat. If that gator wakes up and runs crossways under the boat, he’s going to flip you.”

Killing the alligator isn’t as easy as it sounds. In Florida, a bang stick is required by law, so that’s what Bruce uses.

“With a bang stick, my goal is to pop them right there in the soft spot behind the head. If you’re looking at the back of the head, there’s a very obvious bony shelf, then where it ridges back down, just between that and where his scoots start on his back, there’s a soft section of skin. That’s where you want to hit him. His spinal cord is only an inch or two down, but it’s only the thickness of your index finger,” Bruce said. “If you miss and hit the top of head, a .357 won’t go through him.”

In Georgia, you can use a handgun, and for smaller gators Bruce recommends a .38 caliber wad cutter, a short, blunt load. For big gators, he recommends .357 Magnum with a 157-grain hollow-point bullet. The hollow-point slug mushrooms out, so you don’t have to be as precise to hit the spinal cord like you do with a bang stick.

Once you’ve shot your gator or hit it with a bang stick, a snare or a rope attached to the end of a long pole is useful to get a line tighten around the gator’s mouth. The goal is to secure the gator’s mouth so you can tape it shut.

“Do not use duct tape,” Bruce said. “It gets wet and slips right off. Use electrical tape. Go halfway up his snout, and go around four times tight, and that’s plenty.”

Once the gator’s mouth is taped shut, Bruce said to pull its head up on the edge of the boat — with its body and tail still in the water — and stick a knife in that soft spot to severe the spinal cord.

“Pop it down with your hand, and work the blade back and forth. Once you stick the spinal cord, you’ll know it. He’ll bleed like crazy.”

Once you’ve severed the spinal cord, you can tie the gator off to the side of the boat and let it bleed out for 15 or 20 minutes. This may sound like a lot for a gator you’ve already hit with a bang stick or handgun slug, but Bruce cautioned against assuming your alligator is dead.

“It’s really hard to figure out whether you’ve killed them. I’ve had alligators that I thought were totally dead — hit with a bang stick, blood ran out for 20 minutes — absolutely thought they were dead, then we get to the processor’s and the gator is still alive. The only way to be sure is to put the knife down on that spinal cord and twitch it back and forth. If he jerks, he’s still alive.”

Bruce said you can also poke them in the eye.

“If he blinks, he’s still very, very alive. He’s not dead, he’s just waiting.

“Never take the tape off his mouth. Also, take his front legs and hog-tie them over his back. If he wakes up, he can only cause so much trouble with his tail.”

To preserve some incredible meat, an alligator needs to be on ice fairly quickly, definitely within four hours. Skinning an alligator is difficult to say the least, and you might want to consider one of the following alligator processors: Chatham County — Jack’s Gourmet Gator, (912) 925-4459; Clinch County — Prehistoric Ponds, (912) 487-5878; Effingham County — Herbert T. Bruner, (912) 754-6189; Emanuel County — Richard Jones, (478) 763-3144; Mitchell County — Glass Enterprises, (229) 881-4074 or Alligators Unlimited, (229) 336-7622.

If you skin the gator yourself, Bruce warns of a nasty bacteria these creatures harbor.

“If I get even a little cut, I’d go to the emergency room and get a heavy dose of antibiotic. If you get cut, it needs to be treated. Guys that want to open the gator’s mouth and take pictures, be careful. If you nic a finger on a tooth, you need to get it treated.”

Final advice… first-time gator hunters should consider a guide.

“Spend the money and go once, and you’ll be an expert,” Bruce said of a sport he absolutely loves, but also respects for its potential danger.

“I’ve never done anything like it. The excitement of alligator hunting… everything else just pales in comparison,” Bruce said.

WRD began an online quota-application system. The applications are not on the WRD website yet, but should be soon Last year, the deadline for alligator applications was July 31. Call your local WRD Game Management office for details.

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