South Georgia Gator Hunt

The author shares his hunt story from a gator hunt on the St. Marys River.

Capt. Bert Deener | August 5, 2007

Expert gator hunter Larry Carter said it’s important to know the body of water you are hunting. When the sun goes down, things look very different. Arrive early and make sure you are familiar with your area during the day before striking out after dark, and take a GPS unit to back up your memory.

The population rebound of the American alligator is one of the great wildlife stories of my lifetime. I have been applying for a permit since Georgia’s first alligator season and was finally selected for the 2006 season. As I reflect on that awesome hunt I had last year, my excitement level builds in anticipation of the upcoming season.

It was almost surreal as we launched our 14-foot jonboat on Georgia’s southernmost river, the St. Marys, and eased off into the darkness. We were hunting alligators… big gators!

Just the previous day, my partner, Don Harrison, of Waycross, and I had decided NOT to hunt the giant reptiles due to the flack I was catching from essentially all the females I had ignorantly told that I was drawn for the hunt. Each envisioned the gator turning immediately after being harpooned and eating me with the first bite and Don with the second. There were even prayers lifted for me in the Wednesday night service before opening day — prayers not for my safety, but for me to get SICK so that I could not go on the hunt. (Note to self…. do NOT tell females if I get drawn next year!)

However, the last-minute crew addition of expert gator-getter Larry Carter, of Racepond, flipped the scales in favor of going, and we were off. He has assisted with the harvest of hundreds of gators through the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) nuisance alligator agent trapping program. Larry’s specialty is hunting them at night by easing up and harpooning them. This is how things unfolded for us last year on opening day of alligator season.

As we eased our way upstream against the slow current, our three spotlights randomly pierced the darkness, reminiscent of spotlights used to get your attention when a car dealer has its weekly mega sale.

Frog… frog… cat… leaf… frog, but no tell-tale coals on the water, the description Larry used to describe the reflection of gator eyes when spotlight- ed. We had not scouted before the season, but we knew that behemoth gators inhabited the St. Marys. As we eased back through a narrow entrance of a Georgia side oxbow lake, pushing branches out of the way, anticipation was high. Surely, we would sit in the middle of the lake, look around and choose from at least a dozen sets of eyes staring back. Not to be. While it was a beautiful lake, lined with lily pads, no sets of blazing charcoal eyed us from the darkness. Up the river we continued. Another small backwater yielded the same blackness. Confidence was waning a little, as our visions of choosing from scores of gators was not materializing. Maybe, just maybe we could get a 4-footer by the end of the evening. Frog… sandbar camper… frog… riverside cabin… on we went. We came to a narrow opening barely wide enough for our jonboat to squeeze through. We wound our way through, bend after bend, expecting a gator at any moment in this beautiful but narrow backwater.

Finally it happened… charcoal in the water. Don first saw the pair of eyes, and Larry confirmed them just before they dis- appeared into the blackwater. Larry’s advice was for me, the captain for our night’s venture, to get the boat about 50 feet away and just sit and wait. And wait we did — in perfect silence — with only a few mosquitoes buzzing around our heads for what seemed like an eternity but was only about 15 minutes. We agreed that the critter had probably moved, so we headed deeper into the back- water. When we reached the point at which it submerged, a quick shine of the light revealed a 2-foot-long head just under the surface heading up for air. Our light was too much for it, so it slowly eased back to the depths, thinking it could again wait us out.

The adrenaline was really pumping now that we knew the quality of critter we were dealing with. Larry urged me to come out of the clouds back into the boat, calm down, and back us up to wait some more. Probably needing air, the gator resurfaced in the same spot only minutes later. As I was the first to see it reappear, my adrenaline spiked. We headed straight for the monster, Motor Guide trolling motor stealthily propelling us forward, Don poised with a harpoon on the front deck.

Closer… more adrenaline… closer… adrenaline meter pegged… off the trolling motor… drift the last few feet… adrenal gland about to explode when I realized that Don was going to get a shot at this one… gator head out of my sight under the bow of the boat when Don lets it rip! With a hollow thud as the harpoon found its mark and a huge boil, the line peeled off the deck, and the float whizzed past Don’s leg. High fives ensued before we gathered the harpoon pole, which had separated from the point perfectly.

The gator went 20 feet to the other bank and sat in a moderately deep hole, likely his initial retreat for so many years whenever an annoying angler ventured into his backwater. We eased over to the float, and Larry the gator-wrestler assumed the front deck. As soon as he grabbed the float, the gator made a bee-line toward his long-time refuge, an even deeper hole with blow- down trees about 50 feet downstream. Our trolling motor might as well have been off, as its 41 pounds of thrust did not slow down the gator’s run, even on its highest setting. We did not realize how deep the hole was until the gator powered the rope from Larry’s hands and sounded, pulling all 15 feet of rope and the float under. Don and I just stared at the water in disbelief. Larry calmly explained that the gator would probably come back up right in the same spot in a few minutes. We stowed the useless trolling motor and prepared to fire the Mercury when he resurfaced.

Just as described, the float popped up right where it went down. I quickly fired the 9.9 horsepower engine and eased Larry into position. When he grabbed the line, I threw it into reverse and pulled against the gator. This time,  he swam strongly the same direction I was backing. I gave it a little more juice and overtook him about the time he decided that the deep hole was the place to be. As the big boy turned 180 degrees, I could almost hear the joints in Larry’s shoulders creaking against the pressure. I was amazed the 2-inch harpoon point could stay attached with all that pressure as the gator water-skied us back to the deepest hole against the resistance of the gas motor. At one point during the strong run, the bow of our boat lacked only a couple inches from being pulled under. Although strong as an ox, Larry had to  let go of the rope as the gator dove into the deep hole for the second time. I am not sure an additional 20 horsepower could have stopped that blazing run. This time the big reptile was not anxious to come back to the surface, and he stayed down for about 45 minutes. As we waited, we were afraid he had gone into his cave and would not come back out, but this was not the case. When the float finally popped up, we fired the motor and quickly got hold of the rope. Larry swore that he was not going to let go this time. After a back and forth tug of war, the Mercury finally won out and pulled the beast into open water where Don was able to dispatch it with a 9mm handgun.

Our first gator hunt ended with a much bigger trophy than I expected. After pulling the gator to a sandbar and attaching my tag, we took a few photos and rolled it into my jonboat. Back at the “gator hut” at the Carter residence, we measured the gator at 11-feet, 3- inches long, and Larry estimated it at 450 pounds. The walk-in cooler was a wonderful benefit, as we were able to get in bed before dawn and clean the gator the next day. The short drive back to Waycross was filled with chatter as Don and I relived the most exciting hunt of our lives. Even after a shower and relaxation time, it took an hour for my adrenaline level to fall enough to drift off to sleep. Don and I might as well quit gator hunting, as it will be very difficult to top our first hunt… yeah, right. Our names are in the drawing again this year.

This first gator hunt was an excellent learning experience for me. Larry was kind enough to share some of his tips for Georgia alligator hunting with GON readers.

• Be patient: Larry said that our gator really did not stay down that long. Left to my own intuition, I would have been long gone before our gator surfaced.

• Drive the harpoon point home with authority: When using a harpoon to secure your gator, if you do not drive the point deep, it could pull out. Also, if you tentatively poke a gator and you hit one of the hard scutes, it will not penetrate. You need to use all your might. Larry described it to us this way — when harpooning a big gator, you want to put force into your thrust as if you are trying to drive the point all the way through the gator.

• Do not use a super-strong light: A 2-million candlepower spotlight seems like it would be the ticket to see gators, but it will usually spook them, especially the larger gators that may have been hunted before. Larry uses an adjustable head-lamp, like those used by raccoon hunters, and he likes to keep it set as low as possible, where he can still see the reflection of the gator’s eyes.

• Know your waters: Things look very different at night. Make sure you are familiar with your area during the day before striking out after dark, and take a GPS to back up your memory.

• Buy good equipment: Do not try to make something work that is not designed to be used for gator hunting. These beasts are too powerful to try to make inferior equipment work. If you are drawn for the hunt, your mailbox will be full of brochures with gear designed for gator hunting, so you will be able to choose from an assortment of quality products.

• Be careful: Hunting alligators in the dark can be dangerous. In my opinion, professional guides are the way to go for newbies chasing gators, such as I was last year. Guides will provide all the equipment and have the experience to properly react to each of the wild beast’s shenanigans.

The alligator quota-hunt drawing is held after the July 31 deadline each year. Resident and non-resident hunters are allowed to apply for Georgia alligator hunts. Click here for Georgia quota-hunt information and to begin your free registration process.

Alligator hunting provides an adrenaline rush like no other type of hunting I have ever experienced. Good luck to those who get selected. I wish you well in making a memory like we did last year!


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