By Terry Tomalin, Times Outdoors-Fitness Editor
Published: Oct 01, 2010 02:30 PM
LAKE OKEECHOBEE — Standing knee deep in muck, I struggled to shove our airboat back into the water.
“You can’t push it,” Dave Markett explained. “You’ve got to rock it.” The veteran alligator guide wasn’t happy. We’d just missed a chance to snag a 10-footer, but my beginner bumbling cost us not only a trophy gator, but it also left us aground on a floating tussock island with a violent thunderstorm closing in from the east. “We don’t have much time,” Markett said. “We do not want to be out here when that thing hits.” As daylight faded and the first raindrops fell, I stopped thinking about gators and started worrying about lighting. “Let’s go …” Market said, his patience running short. Then, inch by inch, the airboat began to slide toward the water. Markett hit the throttle and we raced back to the boat ramp as the clouds opened up. “Am I fired?” I asked as we sought shelter in the pickup truck. Markett didn’t answer. He just bit his lip and stared into the darkness.
Florida’s oldest sport
More than 1 million alligators live in Florida’s rivers and lakes. Every summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission awards roughly 6,000 permits through a lottery system to hunters who want to bag the state’s signature reptile. But killing a gator isn’t as easy as the popular television series Swamp People makes it out to be. “We can’t use firearms or bait hooks in Florida,” said Markett, who’s been hunting Alligator mississippiensis for more than a decade. “Alligator hunting is a different ballgame down here.” Most gator hunters either “snatch” their prey with a fishing rod and oversized treble hook or shoot them with a crossbow or traditional bow and arrow. Some also use a pole spear or harpoon, which is how Florida’s original inhabitants hunted alligators.
By the mid 1900s, however, the number of alligators in Florida began to plummet as years of unregulated hunting took its toll. The state shut the season down in 1962, and five years later, the federal government put alligators on the endangered species list. But sound management helped the population rebound and in 1988 the state re-opened the public hunting season. Last year state officials issued 6,296 permits (each one good for two gators), which translated to 7,729 legally-harvested animals. The $271.50 permits are issued for particular harvest areas. Some lakes are better than others, but Florida’s largest lake is always a big producer.
Snatch or spear
When we hit the lake about 20 minutes before sunset, Markett spotted a big gator cruising across a patch of open water. He tried to snag the beast but missed. I followed up with a second cast, but all I managed to catch were some cattails, which led to our grounding and my banishment to the pickup truck. “I’d really feel more comfortable with a harpoon,” I told Markett, stowing the fishing rod. As a youngster, while other boys were playing baseball, I was using my mother’s steak knives to make spears to hunt saber tooth tigers I was convinced still prowled the woods behind my suburban New Jersey home. “When you see a gator, I want you to throw that thing as hard as your can,” Markett instructed. “They have pretty tough skin.” Cruising along the shoreline, we scoured the darkness with headlamps, looking for the red eyes of alligators. We passed several 4- or 5-footers, but I wanted a big one, at least 8 feet in length. Standing on the bow of the airboat, we came upon a 6-foot gator.
– “Throw, throw …” Markett yelled!
About 30 minutes later, we spotted an 8-foot alligator as it slid off the bank about 25 feet away. I didn’t think. My primordial alter ego took control and I hauled back, heaved the spear and hit the living dinosaur in a soft spot between the head and shoulder. “Now what do I do?” I asked.
The chances of making a throw like that again were one in a million. The gator, unhappy with its predicament, tried to swim away, but the spearhead (attached to a rope) was imbedded beneath its thick hide, and foot by foot, I fought it back to the boat. “Watch out. … It’ll bite you,” Markett said as the gator chomped down on the side of the boat. “Don’t let it bite through the rope!” The gator rolled several times, snapping at air, but eventually I got it close enough for Markett to pop it in the head with a bang stick (a pole with a .44 Magnum cartridge embedded in the tip). Then the guide quickly wrapped the gator’s jaws with electrical tape and together we hauled it into the boat. “Nice shot with the spear,” Markett said. Like an amateur dart player who scores a bull’s-eye on the first throw, I dared not tell him that I could never repeat the feat. “Let’s get it on ice as quickly as we can,” Markett said. “We don’t want the meat to spoil. “We will use every bit of this animal … meat, skin, teeth,” he added. “Nothing will go to waste. That is the right thing to do.”
If you go
To learn more about alligator hunting in Florida, go to www.MyFWC.com/Hunting. Alligator season runs 11 consecutive weeks from Aug. 15 through Nov. 1. The FWC offers a no-cost, three-hour training and orientation program for first time alligator hunters. Permit holders are not required to go, but first-time participants are encouraged to attend. Dave Markett, one of the Tampa Bay’s most experienced charter boat captains, has been running guided alligator trips for 10 years. He operates Sport Fishing Guide Services out of Odessa and can be reached at (813) 927-3474 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The 8-foot alligator in this story was processed by Chad Wright of Gators R’ Us in Lacoochee. “Every bit of this animal is put to some use,” Wright said. “Nothing goes to waste.”
By the numbers
The longest gator on record measured 14 feet, 5/8 inches and was taken from Lake Monroe in Seminole County. The heaviest gator on record weighed 1,043 pounds (13 feet, 10 1/2 inches long) and was taken from Orange Lake in Alachua County.
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