March 30, 2016
Hunting dangerous game with a bow is exciting, but having an alligator come directly toward you at only 10 feet is definitely a bowhunting rush. "I've had experienced hunters who have taken Africa's Big 5 completely freeze up on a gator and not shoot," Morrell said. "Just like buck fever, some hunters can't handle the pressure and are rendered completely immobile."
Morrell should know, not only has he been guiding gator hunters for over 20 years, he's also a licensed Florida alligator trapper. Being a licensed trapper means he gets to guide nuisance gator hunts within his region of the Florida Panhandle.
This is one of the largest regions in the state, which means Morrell knows where the big gators live. The typical Florida gator season runs from August to October, but because Morrell is a trapper, he can run his hunts year round.
Since this was Jesse's first out-of-state hunt, Morrell tried to make this extra special. He had two trophy gator tags for the coveted Lake Seminole, and one was earmarked for her. Data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) showed Lake Seminole was one of the best for success rates and average gator length.
With all his years of experience, Morrell has learned the hard way what not to do when it comes to tying the string onto a Muzzy detachable Gator Getter point. The way he ties and rigs the string to the arrow and Gator Getter, and then through the string container bottle and to the buoy, is a work of art. This setup took years to master and is the primary reason Morrell is one of the best alligator outfitters in the state.
As our mid-August hunt drew close, the weather around Panama City, Florida, looked bad — real bad. A tropical depression was due to hit the day we arrived and not leave until after we left. Morrell called and told us that although gators hate rain (go figure), we would hunt in between the rain events.
What none of us expected was that over 10 inches of rain would fall over the weekend! Luckily for us, the torrential downpours of rain generally stopped during the nighttime hours, which allowed us to hunt.
FWC has an annual lottery for 5,000 alligator tags that they sell statewide. If drawn, each tag holder gets two tags. Nonresidents can also apply, but they can expect to pay $1,034. We considered the do-it-yourself option, but determined too much could go seriously wrong.
So we opted to go with an expert, and that's how we found Tate Morrell. Unbeknownst to us, Morrell is the guy Muzzy Technical Support Manager Mark Land worked with to develop Muzzy's Gator Getter Kit. "C.J., you don't know it, but you'll be hunting with one of the best in the state," Land told me. "Tate is an incredible gator hunter."
After arriving in Panama City, Jesse and I watched it pour down rain all day from our hotel room. The good news was the weather was forecast to clear around 8 p.m. At the dock of Lake Seminole, we met JD and Mrs. Jackie, who would be accompanying us on the hunt.
Mrs. Jackie had drawn two alligator tags but opted to have Jesse use one of her tags if she could go along and watch the action. State law allows the transfer of tags as long as the tag owner is present.
Morrell hunts out of an 18-foot, aluminum jon boat. Gators hate noise, and any water hitting the sides of the boat can ruin a hunt. Gators also shy away from bright lights. For this reason, Morrell uses a headlamp with a rheostat to keep the brightness to a minimum. He can adjust the light's brightness so he can see the gators but the gators cannot identify the boat during a nighttime approach.
Prior to the hunt, Morrell instructed us on the exact time to draw and when to shoot. Because many hunters shoot too soon or take their eyes off their sights (which can easily happen when a trophy gator is within mere feet), Morrell squeezes his hunter's shoulder when it's time to draw, and then squeezes again when it's time to shoot.
We were only on the water for an hour when JD spotted the red eyes of a big gator about 100 yards across the lake. "You ready, girl?" Morrell whispered to Jesse. "It's a big gator! Things are going to happen fast. Get ready!"
As Morrell started to imitate the distress call of a young gator, the big gator headed directly toward the boat. Many believe these calls work because males want an easy meal, while females come in to protect their young. Whatever the reason, Morrell's calling ability was working on the trophy gator.
With Tate calling, and the gator only 20 yards in front of the boat, I could tell Jesse was getting nervous. But, just like Morrell had rehearsed with her, with one squeeze Jesse drew, and by the time the gator was within 10 feet, Tate squeezed again and she fired. Jesse hit the gator right between the shoulders — a perfect 10-ringer!
This is when all heck broke loose. With water splashing all over us, the fight was on as the 500-pound test line flew out from Jesse's bow. At this point, her composure started to fall apart because the line on her containment bottle got tangled up.
Although Jesse and I were definitely rattled, Morrell kept it together as he expertly untangled the line. Then, just as quickly as it had started, the splashing stopped. Morrell explained the gator went about 30 yards from the boat and was now resting on the bottom.
Morrell told us the gator doesn't know the line is connected to your bow. As Morrell tried to calm down Jesse (and her daddy), he said, "Now the real fun begins. It's just like playing tug-of-war." Although I wanted to help my daughter, Morrell guided her with precise instructions on what exactly to do.
As Jesse slowly started to pull the line into the boat, the gator reached the surface, saw us, slapped its tail, and took off again. At this point, rope burns and getting the line wrapped around your feet or hand are a real concern.
Once again, Morrell calmly worked with Jesse to pull the gator back toward us. And just like before, when the gator surfaced and saw us, he took off. After about five minutes, Jesse was winning the tug-of-war contest. With the gator now exhausted and next to the boat, she handed the line to Morrell.
He then instructed Jesse to grab the bang stick, a long, handheld pole that fires a .357 Magnum bullet. Aiming directly behind the eyes, Jesse slammed the bang stick into the gator's skull. At this point, the gator was totally dispatched. As a cautionary measure, Morrell assisted Jesse in taping the gator's mouth shut, and then we all helped pull the beast into the boat.
With Jesse's legs and hands still visibly shaking, I asked her which was more exciting, shooting her first deer or gator? Without hesitation, Jesse said, "Gator hunting with Mr. Tate!" Although this really didn't surprise me, one thing was certain, no one was more proud of her than me. After taking lots of photos of Jesse's 8', 8" gator, we headed back to the hotel for some well-deserved sleep.
The next day it rained even harder. My hopes of taking a gator started to diminish as we watched our hotel's parking lot transform into a small pond. But again, just after sunset the torrential rains started to taper off. Before we knew it we were headed out to another lake in Walton County. Unlike the hunt the night before, the gators were not responding to Tate's calling.
Morrell explained that he generally finds his bigger gators in the deeper water, but tonight was definitely different. After going to all his favorite locations, it looked like we would head back to the hotel empty handed. Just then, Morrell's keen eyes spotted a gator over 200 yards away. And just like with Jesse's gator, his distress calls had this gator coming directly toward us€¦full speed.
Then, without reason, the gator slapped its tail and headed away from us.
I knew our long night on the lake had just ended. But Morrell wasn't about to quit, and once again he called to the gator. Like magic, the gator slapped its tail and turned back toward us. Within seconds the gator was directly in front of us. Morrell didn't have to squeeze my shoulder because I was already at full draw when the gator reached our boat.
And even though I didn't have time to turn on my lighted sights, Morrell's headlamp shined just enough for me to see and use my top pin to shoot and my arrow went completely through the gator.
Although my 6' 4" gator was a little bit smaller than my daughter's, the experience was huge!