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To catch a gator.

(IT'S NOT AS EASY AS IT SOUNDS)

THE FINE GRAVEL was blistering hot as we slowly crawled along the levee, picking our way between fire ant mounds. The gator lay sunning on open sand on the far side of a canal. We'd glassed him at 500 yards, and he looked big. At 200 yards he looked huge ... and that's when we ran out of cover and started crawling. Innate pessimism kicked in. I never gave us good odds of getting within crossbow range, but we had to try at least. At 100 yards we almost ran out of cover, but we kept crawling and the big lizard kept sleeping.

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At 60 yards the weeds along the verge got taller. Suddenly it seemed we had a chance. We pitched up behind a leafy clump, 34 yards. Hoppy Kempfer set the sticks low for a sitting position, and I had the brain shot memorized. As I put the crossbow on the rest, the alligator slipped smoothly and silently into the canal. At least we got some exercise!

A GATOR COMEBACK

No, we're not talking about a Florida football game. Long pursued for its valuable leather, just a generation ago the American alligator was seriously threatened. Management works, and the recovery of the alligator--though rarely cited--may be one of our most successful conservation stories. Today there is some form of alligator harvest in all of Our Gulf Coast states, and unlike our management policies for most native wildlife, there is an active (and well-managed) market for both skins and meat.

As we'll see, the hunting is a bit different, but today the alligator is properly recognized as a serious big-game trophy. I think that's good, but there are some anomalies. Like all reptiles, an alligator continues to grow throughout its (long) life ... but growth slows with age. It doesn't take all that long to grow the medium-size gators that are most prized for leather. A good stretch of swamp habitat may hold dozens, if not hundreds, of purses, belts, and shoes in training. These are the gators that the commercial hunters all along the Gulf Coast are mostly looking for.

On the other hand, an outsider, whether he considers himself a "trophy hunter" or not, is probably looking for one big gator, call it a ten-footer or more. The alligator is not quite as big (and possibly not as aggressive a predator) as the crocodile. The current Safari Club International record (Boone and Crockett doesn't recognize the alligator) is 14 feet 8 inches. That would be a big crocodile, but there are bigger. That's a huge alligator. An alligator of 12 feet, which is still a nice crocodile, is the Holy Grail. An 11-footer is outstanding, but that's now a very average crocodile. An alligator that breaks 10 feet is excellent.

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Whether we're talking 10 footer or true monster, this is a different animal from the six- to eight-foot gators preferred--and commonly harvested--for skin and meat. Girth and weight increase along with length, but this takes time. A big gator is probably 60 or 70 years old ... which means that it survived the time when its tribe was scarce. It has seen it all, has learned all the lessons man can teach it, and grown ever more wary with age.

THE SWAMP MONSTER

On the first day of my gator hunt with Osceola Outfitters' Hoppy Kempfer, we penetrated thick cypress swamps looking for a hidden lagoon where a big gator had been seen. It took some looking--and we just about got penetrated by a cottonmouth in the process--but we found the lagoon and the big bull gator ... along with a big female and a whole bunch of small fry.

The first time we saw him, he was fully exposed on a mud bar, seen through a screen of trees at maybe 100 yards. I have no experience with gators and don't pretend to be able to judge them, but Hoppy has taken hundreds, and he was excited. I do have some experience with crocodiles, and this gator would make a darn nice croc. Minimum 11 feet, maybe a bunch more ... but he had found an ideal haven. Alligators, like crocodiles, have a full complement of senses. They smell, hear, and see extremely well. We could get the wind right and could find cover to conceal our approach, but the lagoon was surrounded by thick, noisy forest. And big alligators are always switched on. We approached his lagoon four times, and saw him four times, but there was no way we could close to crossbow range. We thought we had him every time, and then--just as we got into range--he dropped into the murky water and did not reappear.

More about techniques later, but we baited for him, using the regulation wooden plug. When we returned, the bait was taken, and the line led us to his cave at the far end of the lagoon. The location wasn't obvious, and now we understood why and how he had dropped below the surface and never came up for air. With a bit of luck we would have him; Hoppy and Jimmy Roseman on the line; me with the crossbow; Conrad Evarts behind me with the camera. It had the potential for the most exciting hunting video ever filmed. The line came in slowly, against much resistance. Bubbles came up ... and then the line broke. And that, folks, was that. The cave, which this gator had excavated over decades, was clearly extensive, and we were out of options. He would regurgitate the plug and survive just fine. He might move, or he might stay put ... but having spooked him this badly, we weren't going to see him again during the course of our hunt.

HUNTING OR FISHING?

Legal methods and licensing for alligators vary widely among the Gulf Coast states and may depend on where you're standing. In some situations, it really is more fishing than hunting. A trotline with hooks might be legal, thus just a matter of pulling the gator in then finishing him off with a revolver or "bang-stick"--or perhaps wrestling him to submission. On public land in Florida, neither hooks nor firearms can be used, although the previously described wooden plug--cut to very exact dimensions--is legal.

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A couple of years ago, I hunted public waters in Florida with my friend and ace alligator hunter Nelson Lopez-Reyes. It was a real different deal! We hunted strictly at night with crossbow and harpoon arrow with line. I skipped an arrow off a big gator early on the first night, which can happen, but that was the only chance we got at a big one. We brought in a small gator shortly before dawn (legal cutoff) on the fourth night, and I was left with the impression that there was a whole lot more to this gator hunting than I'd realized!

On private lands in Florida, the game changes. There is no drawing for a permit. Landowners are issued permits in accordance with gator counts, and a visitor can assist in the harvest with an "agent" license. Methods of take also expand. Daylight hunting is legal, as are firearms. So you can hunt alligators exactly as crocodiles are hunted: stalking to certain rifle (or bow) range, then taking the very difficult brain shot or the slightly simpler spine shot "behind the smile." Because you're working against allocated permits, you can "hunt" with a hook and a bang-stick. Our problem on the big gator I mentioned earlier was that we knew there were multiple gators in that lagoon, so although perfectly legal, we couldn't use a hook for fear of the wrong gator taking the bait. (That gator was taken with a rifle on the next hunt, and he was every bit as big as Hoppy had thought.)

EVERY WHICH WAY

In a frenetic five days, we did it all. Hoppy Kempfer's family established the ranch in the 1890s, initially to harvest cypress timber. Cattle ranching remains a primary business, but in 1995 Hoppy began his commercial hunting operation, offering Osceola turkeys, Seminole whitetails, wild hogs, and, of course, alligators--all of which he has aplenty. I did a spring turkey hunt on a neighboring ranch maybe 25 years ago and shot a hog but didn't get a turkey, and at that time nonresident alligator hunting didn't exist. This was a different experience!

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Turkey season had just ended, but we saw lots of turkeys and quite a few good gobblers. We saw lots of deer, but the bucks had dropped their antlers. What surprised me the most was the oceans of wild hogs! They could be found in major sounders mornings and evenings, and we encountered quite a few rumbling around at midday. We needed gator bait, and an order was in for a couple of pigs for a barbecue, so I arrowed two with the Wicked Ridge with little difficulty. The Kempfer family has done a good job with their country, and there is lots of game.

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There are also lots of gators, and we hunted them every which way. We stalked the swamp monster and several other big gators we glassed up along the levees. Taking a big one that way was far from impossible, but we were hunting with Wicked Ridge crossbows and had to get close. This is not easy, but as we hunters often do, we made a commitment to use certain equipment, and along with that comes limitations. At this writing, the big gator we stalked along that levee has not been taken. But if we were hunting with a rifle, we would have stopped around a hundred yards and had an easy shot.

Variations on the theme include calling. We were hunting during the primary mating season, late April, and a weird "chirping" call brought in several gators. They weren't big, but it could have happened that way as well.

ALMOST

We messed up on the beached whale, and we failed miserably on the swamp monster. There were quite a few other stalks that went awry, and other tactics (like calling) that didn't work. But there were lots of gators--lots of big gators--so I genuinely believed it was only a matter of time. On a hot midday, it almost happened. There was a medium-sized pond adjacent to a levee, and it was full of croco ... excuse me, alligators. We pitched up there, glassing for bedded gators, and a very big head surfaced close to shore. I readied the crossbow, looking at a small oblong in the water. No way can I judge alligators from such a presentation, but Hoppy was sure this was a big one. So, offhand at 30 yards, quartering to me, I tried for the eye. I missed; the bolt skipped just over the top of his skull.

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VICTORY AT SUNSET

Here's where the game changed. As with the swamp monster, it was no longer pure hunting but some combination of hunting and fishing. We knew this was a good gator, and we knew he was in this lagoon. We also knew the water held several other alligators of varying sizes. So we had no option but to bait with the wooden plug and hope the boss gator would take the bait before his little buddies got to it.

We baited the pond. When we came back a few hours later, all three floats were gone. We put a boat in and found one float on the far side, plug still attached but bait gone. The other two floats were in grass leading to an overgrown slough, a connection between the pond and a canal. This was not good. If he had gone into that tangled mess, there was no way we could get him out. That was pure speculation, because we didn't know if it was one gator or two or if there was anything on the end of either line.

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Now the job was to pull the line in, slowly and carefully, hoping the plug didn't dislodge. The lines converged in a twisted tangle and came against resistance, almost certainly one gator. Then, instead of continuing up the slough, the lines turned and streamed out for open water. That was our big break. We definitely had a gator on--but how big?

He took us around the pond several times before we saw his head through the murky water. He looked big to me, and Hoppy confirmed it. I loaded the harpoon arrow and stood on the bow. As clumsy as I am, that was no small task--and I didn't want to go swimming with this thing! Then we went around some more, gaining and losing line, increasingly worried that he would spit out the plug. He came up splashing and snapping, and I bounced the harpoon off his thick hide. Good Lord, this was crazy!

We lost line while I reloaded, but after a few more splashes and snaps, I planted the harpoon in the softer skin behind his jaw. Now we had him ... or he had us. I reloaded with a broadhead, and the rodeo continued for several more minutes before I could get a clean shot at the brain. We dragged him onto a grassy bank just at sunset, not quite the biggest gator we'd seen, but a much bigger gator than I'd expected.

We spent the next day looking for a big hog and then went out that night to get Conrad a management gator. We switched roles: Conrad on the crossbow and me on the camera. I was perfectly happy about that. It was wild enough messing with one in daylight ... but in the dark--totally nuts. Using the harpoon arrow and lines, I'm still not sure if it's properly hunting or a bit more like fishing. But I've had few experiences so completely exciting!

To book your own hunt with Hoppy, visit--osceolaoutfitters.com

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Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Sep 1, 2012
Words:2333
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