February 16, 2011
Hunting Florida's alligators can pose a serious question: Who gets the worst end of the deal -- the hunted or the hunter?
"Put another arrow in him!" Captain Chris Horsman barked in his British/Rhodesian redneck accent, a muddle of language from the three continents he calls home. My wife, Karen, slipped on the deck handing me a newly rigged bow, her other arm spilling harpoons and cameras. "He's coming up!" Chris warned from the Captain's seat above. His voice broke on the last word. Karen tipped me the new bow from her knees and pulled back the one I had just fired. White gator cord streamed over the red railing into the night. I leaned into the rail for a second shot as the line stirred the water into a boil. "Here he comes!" Chris shouted. The 10-foot gator breached and rolled -- a long spinning spot for my second shot. I missed. He rolled again, snapped off my first arrow, and swam past the lights into the night, free of the floats and lines. "Oh bloody hell," Chris muttered.
Chris Horsman is a big, personable man with a small, personalized business. He guides for gators. He's good at it. Karen had tagged her first gator with him on a mad midnight hunt a week earlier. I was happy about her hunt and happy with Chris, but unhappy about my gear. Chris had called at the last minute with his last gator tag and I wasn't ready. But if my hunt was like Karen's, I would see hundreds of alligators. All I had to do was hit one, reel it in, and return with 10 fingers and two hands.
Maybe I wasn't ready, but I took the tag. You would've done the same.
Under a spotlight at night, a gator's eyes shine like wet rubies. Alligator hunting is a vampire-like crocodilian cruise that ends when you fall asleep or at dawn, whichever comes first. We were hunting red eyes on black water with white lights, looking for the wide space between the eyes that means a big gator. Over a million alligators prowl Florida's waters, crowding retention ponds and bass lakes, eating anything that moves. Alligator mississippiensis made a remarkable recovery from endangered status in the mid-twentieth century. Alligators were downgraded from "endangered" to "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 1987. They remain threatened only because they resemble the American crocodile. In Florida, gators are as common as cowpies, and hunting thins the herd.
Chris met us at the river with his airboat and his tough old dad, Pete. Pete is a gator trapper too. He has the added distinction of having survived two assault rifle rounds to his head during the Mugabe wars in Rhodesia. Eventually Mugabe's thugs took Pete's home, and he took his family to England, and then America. They survived as Rhodesia became Zimbabwe -- many did not. Pete and Chris are hard men, not easily impressed, steady in a fix, and perfectly suited to chasing crocodilians.
They inspected my AMS Retriever reels and slide devices that keep the line out in front of the bow at full draw. I had two longbow setups: one a Robertson, the other a 21st Century, with bow-mounted floats designed to pop off and follow the gator. The fishing arrows were tipped with Muzzy harpoon heads. Chris wanted me to rig my line directly to the harpoon instead of to the AMS slide, but there wasn't time to change my setup. It proved to be a costly mistake.
Alligators are tough critters, and this 10-footer gave me all too many opportunities to draw and shoot my bow.
KAREN HELD ME CLOSE as Chris roared off, sitting high in the pilot's seat ahead of the prop. Pete washed the water with light, looking for the glowing red eyes of a gator. On Karen's hunt we'd seen hundreds of eyes, but this night we powered up side creeks, through heavy reed beds, and along brushy banks for an hour, and got no more than a bullfrog's croak for our trouble. Chris finally throttled the prop off. We stopped and floated mid-river, disappointed. Pete quietly worked the light.
"There's the bugger!" Pete shouted. A pair of red reflectors danced at the end of his spotlight, 100 yards away. Chris throttled up the prop as I balanced on the forward deck. The deal was simple: Chris would tell me when to shoot on a gator 10 feet or better. I turned from Chris to the gator, waiting for a sign. He ignored me and throttled forward until we were almost on top of the lizard.
"Shoot, cripes, shoot!" Chris shouted over the prop noise. I drew three inches past my normal anchor, leaned over the rail, and released the harpoon. White cord played out in the air behind the arrow. The shaft sank in with a thunk, and line piled up on the gator's back. His spiked tail flipped up, and he came at the boat. "You hit him good!" Chris called out, excited. The gator dove under the boat, stripping the reel. I stood there useless, but Chris barked me back to action. I had another bow rigged with a reel, float, and harpoon for a quick second shot. Karen handed it to me as the gator plowed to the surface. Everything went according to plan. Then â€¦ I missed.
That, I hadn't planned on.
When the gator broke free I stood alone in the dark with a pounding head, two empty reels, and no gator. Oh Bloody Hell, I thought, sounding just like Chris, who was already pointing out my poor aim and arrow setup. He was sure the slide had fractured and released my gator. So was I. I felt stupid, and regretted not re-rigging the arrows. When I reeled in the arrow, we were both surprised to see the solid carbon shaft snapped in half. The slide had held but the arrow had failed and released the line. If I had rigged the line to the head, or hit with my second arrow, I would have been reeling in the gator instead of feeling sorry for myself.
I pulled the wet mess of lines and floats on deck while Pete and Karen smoothed the knots and I rigged one bow. Chris stayed above us in the pilot's seat, searching for the gator. The lizard had swam away on the surface, giving us his direction. That was fatal. Chris watched for bubbles, ripples, wakes, or ridges -- anything to signal a hiding place. Pete swept the surface with spotlights.
After we'd motored along the banks for an hour, Chris caught a glint in the willows 100 yards away -- a flash off the gator's long, ridged back. He throttled forward again until the rippled back and broken shaft were close. When I shot and connected behind his head, the gator boiled out of the willows toward us, towing the float. I hit him with a third arrow, and he dove again, taking the ar
rows, lines, and floats with him. He was gone.
The propeller sputtered and stopped. It was late. I was tired. A hunter's moon rippled on the water. The boat gently rocked. Karen handed me a broadhead harpoon, one of three remaining. We couldn't rig the arrows; all the line was on the gator. The reels were empty. We sat in silence.
The floats surfaced first, then the big gator. He came up in the shallows beside the willow roots and rolled. Another harpoon snapped. Only one line held. We drove closer and he swam across the river again. I sent a broadhead through his chest at 15 yards, and then another. Bubbles blew into the water. He turned back to the willow bank and buried himself there. There was one arrow left. Chris eased the boat to the willows and I drove the last harpoon through.
I thought he was dead. We all did.
I pulled him in by the harpoon and my "dead" gator snapped his head back at my hands, his jaws open. Chris pushed Karen aside and gaffed the mouth shut with a hook. The gator jerked against the gaff as I taped his mouth shut, and the steel hook bent straight. The lizard slid off the gaff backwards under the boat and lay on the bottom. Under a spotlight, the tape on his jaw looked tight. Chris and I plunged our arms deep in the water and hauled the gator on board by hand while his tail snapped and he tried to roll. Chris held him down, and I let an old Randall fighting knife finish the work. The hunt was over.
Or so I thought. We cut free the lines and floats. I salvaged one harpoon, and sat next to my alligator on the deck. Then Pete made me an offer: "I've still got another tag, my last one. Let's find another gator."
I sat beside my 10-foot trophy and looked at the broken shafts and the rips and tears from six harpoons. I felt like Ahab. I felt aches in my back and my arms, and I was lucky to have this big gator on the deck. Chris and Pete brought the animal in against all odds, using hard work and experience to overcome my mistakes. On the other hand, I knew how to do it right this time, and my bow, reel, and harpoon were all rigged and set to go.
I was ready, but I said, "No." You would have done the same.
The author and his wife live in Tampa, Florida.
Author's Notes: Alligator hunts require a $51 Trapper's Agent permit from the state of Florida (available online the day of the hunt). A hunting license is not required. For more information about hunting Florida alligators, and for a list of guides, go to the Florida State Wildlife Commission website at www.MyFWC.com. You can reach Captain Chris Horsman at (727) 420-4218 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.