The night life on Florida's aquatic boardwalks can get downright dangerous when you're bowhunting gators.
We chased countless gators before I had my first shooting opportunity.
No more than 15 minutes after we launched the 18-foot johnboat, an alligator's red eyes flashed in the beam of our high-powered spotlight. Then, as suddenly as the gator's eyes appeared, they vanished into the night.
Our gator hunt had started at sunset, and as we'd done dozens of other times that night, we continued on across the lake in search of more red eyes. Finally, after hours of spotlighting, we came within 30 yards of a gator. Once again the gator submerged, and another attempt failed. My preconceived notions of simply floating up to an alligator and shooting him for an easy kill were quickly sinking with these gators.
Cameraman Don Belles of Spiritual Outdoor Adventures and I were hunting with TNT Gators, a licensed nuisance alligator company located just west of Tallahassee, Florida. Owners Tony Hun-ter and Tiger Godwin have a combined 35 years of alligator experience.
Alligator hunters, or trappers, as Florida classifies them, have four one-week seasons, running from mid-August through the morning of November 1. Each hunter is limited to two gators per permit. If a hunter does not use all of his tags, he must return them to the state. The tags are not transferable. All hunters are advised to attend an alligator training course, provided free of charge throughout the state prior to the opener.
When planning my gator hunt, I learned that hunters with an outfitter/ guide are required by law to kill a gator prior to bringing it into the boat, and to do this they often use a device called a bang stick. Aimed behind the gator's skullcap and angled toward the brain, a bang stick discharges a firearm cartridge.
This option didn't really appeal to me. I'm a guy who likes to jump on just about any critter, so capturing an alligator alive seemed much more exciting.
Through research, I found 38 nuisance alligator trappers licensed through the state, including TNT Gators. A nuisance alligator is defined by state law as one measuring four feet in length and posing a threat to people, pets, or property. Nuisance alligator trappers, who remove these "pests" from neighborhoods, garages, backyards, and swimming pools, can capture them alive. Better yet, their season runs 365 days a year. Perfect.
For ammunition, I used the Muzzy Gator Getter system. It's similar to Muzzy's setup for gar and carp, with one exception -- is a float or buoy attached to the line. Once the Muzzy fish point hits the gator, the 500-pound test restraining line and float go out with the main line. You then use the line to pull the gator to the boat.
Tony's son, Mike, and Tiger were amazing at spotting those eerie, red gator eyes. Collectively, Don and I probably saw only half of the gators Tiger and Mike spotted. In addition, they could estimate a gator's size with a quick look. Mike explained that every inch between the eye sockets and the tip of the nose roughly equates to one foot in total body length.
Upon hatching, baby alligators are only nine inches long. Here I'm holding a two-year-old gator we captured by hand from the side of the johnboat.
Finally, near 4:30 a.m., we located tell-tale red eyes that didn't submerge at our approach.
"C.J., get ready!" Tiger whispered. Trust me, I was! Trouble was, the gator kept swimming a little faster than our boat, and shooting a 1,900-grain arrow out of my 70-pound bow, I was not confident in taking a 25-yard shot. We needed to get closer. Eventually the gator slowed, and I released my Muzzy fiberglass arrow. Upon impact, the string and float flew off my bow as if I'd harpooned Moby Dick.
The gator plunged some 20 yards and stopped, and that's when the real action began. Recovering the float attached to the line was critical to prevent the line and float from tangling in underwater debris. If the float got stuck under water, retrieving the gator would be difficult, if not impossible. Knowing this, Tiger cranked up the outboard motor and raced to overtake the float.
Following Tiger's directions, I grabbed the float and started pulling in the line attached to the gator. At first, it was easy because I was simply pulling in slack, but then the line tightened directly from me to the critter, and I'ˆfelt like I'ˆwas pulling in a runaway truck with a kite string.
And this critter wasn't giving up. Every time we got close, he took off on another powerful run. After 15 minutes of this game, the gator went under the boat, and I thought we finally had him.
Wrong! Off he went again, and as we watched the float fly out of the boat and skim across the water, I clinched my teeth and determined this was his last run. We would get him alongside the boat this time.
For added leverage, and to prevent further rope burns -- I'd forgot to put on my gloves -- I wrapped the string around my hand. As soon as Tiger saw this, he yelled, "Stop!" but it was too late, and the gator took off with my hand attached to the line. Luckily, Mike grabbed the line and created enough slack for me to free my hand. His quick move prevented the gator from dragging me into the water!
After more back-and-forth, I finally wore the gator out and pulled him next to the johnboat, where Tiger put a noose around the gator's neck. With water flying everywhere, the gator did the characteristic death roll and chomped the side of the boat. When he finally calmed down, Tiger pressed his jaws together and had me tape the gator's mouth shut with electrical tape. We then taped the legs together and wrestled the monster into the boat, where we measured him at 8 feet, 8 inches long and estimated his weight at 250 pounds.
The next night, Don and I switched roles -- I would shoot the camera, he would shoot the bow. Since it took us over seven long hours to tag mine, we didn't expect to have much luck until the wee hours of the morning, but by midnight Tiger had us on the tail of giant. For 15 minutes we followed the critter across the lake and back again, and when it never submerged, Tiger decided to try swinging ahead to cut it off. This strategy worked, and Don's arrow found its mark directly behind the alligator's neck.
Don Belles, C.J. Winand, Mike Hunter and Tiger Godwin all proudly pose with the two gators they hunted. Gator meat is delicious and runs around $7 — $10 per pound.
The look on Don's face was priceless, and watching him strain against the line was like a case of bad déjÃ vu. Only this time, I could laugh at Don as he wrestled his big gator into the boat. Once we got the reptile on board, Tiger measured it at 9 feet, 4 inches in length. Determining its gender, Tiger said, "Don, this is one of the largest females we've ever captured. In fact, very few females ever get over nine feet." We later found out that Don's 400-pound female gator was only 10 inches shy of the all-time state record.
Although Don's gator was fully re-strained with electrical tape in the boat, she was still very much alive. As Don was watching the video I'd shot of him, the gator moved her large tail. The girly sound that came out of Don's mouth was something we would just as soon forget.
Gator hunting is filled with excitement that produces a pile of great eating meat. In my mind, every bowhunter should experience this unique challenge. The good folks at TNT Gators were simply the best, and I can't wait to get back out there with Tiger and Mike next May to search for red eyes. It's pretty special.
Author's Notes: Both Don and I used Mathews bows; Muzzy Gator Getter System arrows, points, and floats; and Carter thumb release aids.