Tuesday, August 30, 2011
The Trophy Gator
“Never insult an alligator until after you have crossed the river.” – Cordell Hull
Down in a cove on the southwest corner of the lake, the gator moseyed towards shore. A beast, we didn’t figure we could cut him off with the trolling motor. But the surface drive would have definitely spooked him. We had to try – this gator had given us the slip on a couple other occasions, and the situation had grown personal.
Luck appeared to be in our favor. He ceased swimming and bathed in the open. Still, a gator this size could make it to weeds and cattails along the bank in a handful of tails swishes. I manned the motor, hoping to maneuver into a position where we’d block him from reaching the lakeshore where he’d be safe from snatch hooks. At least if he sank in the open, we could seek out his bubble trail. But, the best scenario was for him to stay surfaced - just had to get close enough to pitch the large treble hook.
We reached the brink of range as the gator started feeling the pressure and slowly resumed his cruise towards land, his gnarly head poking above the lake’s horizon leaving an inverted V of a wake to mark his trail. Cole was given the go ahead. This was no fire-for-effect situation – the gator would surely spook once the hook hit the water. It was just a matter of getting the hook and line over his back, reeling quickly and digging a prong deep into his hide.
Cole’s attempt had the distance of a worthy try, but not the accuracy. The three-pronged snatch plopped in front of the gator, missing by several feet. A tannic-stained wave of water erupted as he beat his tail and disappeared once again into the depths of the mucky lake.
Trophy animals – regardless of species – attain their status through the years. A trophy alligator, especially, is a worthy prize. One, they live for decades, surviving numerous assaults like the one described above, to say nothing of the violent relationships with other gators and predators in their youth. I would not depict them as crafty, as one would call a big buck whitetail, but they are certainly of a different mindset than their younger counterparts. Bull gators are often all too visible on lakes and rivers but have the capability to vanish in surprisingly shallow depths, the normal tricks plied to dig out the younger guys rendered ineffective.
And, like other trophies, a combination of hunter effort must usually overlap with an environmental or physiological change that exposes vulnerability in the animal. Take whitetails again. While a great many big bucks are taken outside of the rut, the majority are laid low when they shrug off their normal wary instinct to chase does. The problem with gators is the hunting season does not coincide with their breeding cycle. We desperately needed such an event to get the drop on this bad boy or we’d spend more time in fruitless pursuit, educating him even further.
We returned to the lake the next morning. I had drawn second phase tags for a popular Central Florida lake. By this point in the season, no doubt, the gator, and his hunted brethren, had endured a pestilence of hunters. A trophy specimen mixed with intense hunting activity only distances the odds of triumph. But he was firmly implanted in our minds. I’d never taken a truly large gator and was only lukewarm about taking a meat gator. This morning was sloppy, though. Winds coming from the advancing Hurricane Irene created a chop across the lake, making it awfully difficult to spot heads on the surface. It appeared that a repeat shot at this guy was slim to none.
So, Harris drove us across the lake - opposite the haunt of our villain - to hunt along a shoreline protected from the wind. Wimpy gators – 5-7-footers – popped up and down, but none were of any interest. Then I spotted a barge of a lizard floating in the middle of the lake.
Trophy judging gators is difficult. There are a whole lot of medium-sized reptiles out there that are 8-9 feet long that are big by reasonable standards and represent fine catches, but are not the leviathans of nightmares and campfire stories. And I know hunters probably help gators grow a few feet, too, when carrying a warm tag in their pocket as the nights drag on and on.
But, as the saying goes in trophy hunting, the big ones look big, and this one was a warhorse. This gator displayed his veteran status, as well. He submerged before we got close enough to even think about picking up a rod. I helmed the trolling motor until we neared where he went down and sat back to wait for him to show himself, careful not to kick gear around the boat and create startling noises and vibrations.
Thirty minutes passed and nothing. Good ideas were fleeting, with little hunting time left. We decided to circle the lake in hopes of spotting any action, but the waves thwarted us.
As we started back to the ramp the wind mercifully eased. We noticed an abundance of dead shad floating on the surface. The evening before, a huge thunderstorm dumped several inches of rain on the area. The influx of cool rainwater sank to the bottom of the lake releasing decomposing vegetation that removed dissolved oxygen from the water. Unable to breathe, the fish suffocated. Shad are particularly vulnerable to this in the shallows. We noticed one runt gator on the surface enjoying this feast.
That’s when I noticed our Man back in the cove where he had given us the slip the day before. He was surrounded by dead shad.
This time he allowed us to get fairly close before sounding just out of casting range. But unlike before, he surfaced quickly, hanging in that general area and not beating tail to shore. The shad buffet kept his attention fixed. His vulnerability was exposed.
This didn’t mean he was completely off his grind. The gator went back down as the anchor was lowered. We got a bead on where he was and prepared to wait him out, hearts absolutely racing. When he did resurface ten minutes later, he was off our port side and quickly sank after a quick breath. The gator wasn’t any closer to shore, but given any more time, it was a cinch he could make it there, no sweat. The decision was made to do a little prospecting with the snatch lines.
The gator betrayed no bubbles or other sign, but the snatch hooks were tossed with educated guesses. It was a long shot, but our only hope at this juncture. Time and opportunities were burning. Harris hung something on his third or fourth cast. Near a shoreline with cypress and oaks, it was a safe bet he’d hooked a large, waterlogged treetrunk. Indeed, it was coming up far too easy. We stood on the bow of the boat peering into the muddy water, hoping it was gator.
That warty head surfacing at our toes is a moment that cannot be forgotten. We all jumped back startled and scrambled to find gear with sharp points attached. Those yellow eyes, set so far apart, glanced up over us briefly before thrashing into a tug of war. I grabbed my new rod rigged with triple treble hooks and frantically tried to set another line to him as Harris tried to keep tension on the gator without snapping the line or rod. A gator that size would not be real impressed with one angler, and his thick skin could easily toss the hook. After several attempts – nearly fouling the original line more than once – I struck hide.
The old boy made several runs – not the high spirited streaks younger gators will do; just a constant freight train charge. A harpoon line was a necessity to try to gain control over him as our drags moaned, reluctantly giving up line. He could easily have pulled us into the debris around shore, or that powerful tail could rub through the braided with his scaly hide. I handed my rod off and prepared the harpoon. Finally, enough line was retrieved and a few pumps on the rods brought the gator towards the surface along the portside gunnel. I tried twice to sink the point into whatever leather I could hit but without success. Eventually, I drove the harpoon head in his massive tail, not the ideal spot, but it was what I could do.
I prepared another harpoon line when the gator rolled. The harpoon point and all hooks came loose and he was free. Harris immediately grabbed another rod and began pitching it at the gator, who realized he had an opportunity to reach safety but seemed discombobulated by the action. He whirled close to shore as I rushed to untangle the other lines. Finally, Harris – this hunt would have failed without him – hooked up.
Again, we couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a tree. Harris was unable to budge him. I went ahead and snagged whatever it was with another line and reeled. The line came tight and rod bent over to the water. Whatever it was wasn’t budging.
Thoughts of failure crept in. Almost certainly we were fighting a cypress stump. The object gave no ground. It was like trying to pull a screw straight out of a bolt without turning lefty-loosey first. We kept the pressure on, though. My back began aching and my arms shook from fatigue, sweat blurred my eyes. After what seemed like an hour – but more like 5 or 10 minutes – I felt a quiver on my line and knew we had him again.
He didn’t fight like he had before. The gator was clearly exhausted. Harris and I decided to go ahead and heave him to the surface. That wide, landing strip of a back, resembling tank tread but constructed of blown semi-truck tire, peaked out of the water before rolling over and displaying a dark yellowish underside flecked with scars, leeches and mottled patches of hide.
This time, we put two harpoons in relatively easy despite our remaining reserves of collective strength hovering in the red. The fight had led us into the cattails and aquatic plants along shore, but with four lines in him now, Harris used the trolling motor to free us from this tangle and tried to use the momentum of the boat to bring his head up for the bangstick.
It worked but only briefly. I failed on my first chance, his dome rising and falling without a shot. The anxiety had built to a head; I could not afford to let another attempt slip by. Over the course of several hunts and by the grace of good fortune, he was right where we needed him. But it was not over yet - a gator that size wouldn’t require much more than a solid breath or two and the fight in him would return. I was not confident how much further our luck would stretch.
My first shot was a touch off-center. The gator quickly dove and thrashed. I reloaded. Again, Harris pulled him onto a plane, and I quickly tapped another .44 in his skull. The struggle slacked. The trick now was to get him onshore without losing him. There was no way to get him in the boat on open water.
Harris held the harpoon lines and trolled the short distance back to the ramp. The huge gator was all but expired as we rolled onto the mud. I carefully crawled out of the boat, trying to avoid his tail - if he was to thrash, he’d snap my legs - and put another shot in the sweet spot. It was then we knew it was all over and the celebration began.
The alligator was a real monster. I’m not sure how we rolled him in the boat, but the gravity of what we had done finally hit us. We knew he was big but not like this. The gator taped 10 feet 8 inches. More impressive than the length was the girth. He was a massive bull with the fattest jowls I have seen on an alligator. His claws resembled those of a grizzly, and his hide was scarred from years of fighting the nature of Central Florida. I loathe making such assertions without the proper instruments, but I’m guessing he weighed somewhere in the 600-700 pound range.
As I said, taking a trophy animal is something special. It requires effort and luck and unforeseeable circumstances to help bring one to bag. On an animal like this, you feel the accomplishment from the congratulations of friends to the soreness in your back and arms, and the adrenaline that lingers through the rest of the week. And I’d be severely remiss if I did not give Harris his due; he guided the trip and hooked the gator. It’s as much his prize as mine, if not more so. I just happened to pull the tag and fire a few shots.
Though I am still a novice in the gator hunting ranks, it is safe to say, trophy-wise, years will pass before this Old Boy is matched. And if Time offers up no adequate comparisons, that will be fine, too.
This experience could never be topped.