Normally, I'm not the kind of person who jumps at the chance to kill something. Not even if that something tastes really good. Not even if that something would just as likely kill me first, if given half a chance.
But when I heard about Central Florida's annual gator hunt, which takes place every fall to thin the state's population of carnivorous reptiles, I found the idea perversely exciting.
'Sign me up,â? I told Capt. Peter Deeks of Native Sons Fishing, who invited me to observe a hunt. Somehow, the notion of hunting a gator ' an animal that's big and prehistoric-looking and has the potential to inflict serious harm if you stumble across it ' didn't seem all that onerous or frightening to me. Someone else would actually be doing the killing ' I'd just be documenting it.
Plus, I figured, the state's annual gator hunt is a necessary evil. Gators aren't exactly at risk of becoming extinct any time soon ' in fact, just the opposite. In 1967, the alligator was considered an endangered species, but these days the population is robust: about 1.25 million of them lurk in nearly all the fresh and brackish waters of Florida. They're considered an "endangered taxon" — which doesn't mean they're endangered at all — it means the population is regulated to keep it from becoming endangered.
It wasn't until after I said I'd go out with Native Sons on a hunt that I looked up the rules of hunting gators in Florida. Unlike the crusty Louisianan gator hunters featured in the History Channel's TV show Swamp People, I discovered that Florida hunters are prohibited from using guns. Instead, hunters must snag live alligators using snares, snatch hooks, harpoons or fishing rods. Only once the animal is reeled in and restrained can you dispatch it with something called a 'bang stick', an underwater firearm that discharges when it comes in close contact with its target. So basically: You catch a thrashing gator on a fishing hook, reel the pissed-off animal nice and close to your boat and shoot it in the head, point blank.
'Is that even safe?' I ask Deeks when we pull up to the boat ramp at Camp Holly in Melbourne on a muggy August evening, just before sunset. 'Don't people get hurt doing this?'
I watch as a trio of shirtless men in a small motorboat whoop when they realize they've hooked a gator with a fishing pole and struggle to reel it in. Their little boat lists to one side as they drag the struggling reptile closer. When they finally pull it up to within bang-stick distance ' that is, when the gator is practically in their faces ' it leaps halfway out of the water and snaps its snaggle-toothed jaws in the air before they manage to subdue it and finish it off. They then drag the animal onboard and motor off with their limp trophy.
I flash back to something I read in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's rules and regulations on alligator hunting that said a shot from a bang stick will sometimes 'only render the alligator temporarily unconscious.' After they wake up, they're scared and disoriented and likely to panic, so it's always best to sever the gator's spinal cord before bringing it into the boat.
'Remember, the jaws should always remain taped shut when handling or transporting an 'apparently' dead alligator,' the rules warn. 'Never assume an alligator is dead and does not need to be secured properly.'
Were we really going to do this?
'We'll be fine,' Deeks assures me, as he revs up the motor in his three-man airboat and we head out into the dusk to look for our own gators.
American alligators are plentiful in the waters we're scouting, but they're pretty shy and they tend to duck beneath the surface when they feel the rumble of an airboat's engines. So when we spot one (and we do spot several), we stop, cut the engines â?¦ and wait. Eventually, says Deeks, the gators come up for air. When that happens, you cast a line with a nasty-looking three-pronged hook into the water and hope you land it so it catches the gator under its armpit or belly when you start reeling it in. The excitement happens when you know you've got one on the line and it can't break free. It tries to dive, you try to draw it to the surface; the gator writhes, you try to keep your feet underneath you so you don't fall into the water with your angry quarry.
But until you actually do snag one, gator hunting is actually a pretty tame way to while away the evening. Mundane even. First, you're waiting until it gets dark enough to hunt (you're only allowed to hunt gators from one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise); then you're waiting for a good-sized gator (nobody really wants the small ones and Deeks says he usually gets half a dozen that are 10 feet or longer) to appear above water so you can pull up near where they're hanging out; then you've got to park your boat and wait some more until the gator thinks the coast is clear and comes up for air. Then you cast your line. If you miss and your target dives beneath the surface, you wait some more for that gator (or another) to poke its head up again. Then you start over.
On this night, it seems, the alligators are onto us. For close to three hours we sit in the dark and wait. Every once in a while Deeks or one of his fellow guides catches sight of one breaking the surface and shines a spotlight to help the hunter aim his cast ' and each time, the spooked gator dives deep below the surface and evades the hook.
We drift in the water and occasionally change locations in hopes of better hunting; but it's no use. We don't catch a thing.
Maybe there aren't really many out there, I speculate 'maybe they've all found some hidden spot where they won't be disturbed by the rumble of airboats and the hunters casting their heavy hooks. Deeks, who's been guiding gator hunts for years, sets me straight.
He takes his spotlight and aims it into the brush on the edge of the waterway. Reflected back at us are pinpoints of reddish light ' dozens of them, probably even hundreds if we stopped to count all the glaring eyeballs up and down the river. They're lurking in the shallows in front of us, hiding in the weeds behind us, poking their heads up from the water, just out of reach, downriver from us. They're staring us down, reminding us that we may be safe in our boats, but the environment belongs to them. They're waiting for us to move along and leave them be.
And at that moment, I suddenly feel less like a hunter and more like a huntee. Maybe my initial instinct about hunting was spot on: Killing things isn't really my firstname.lastname@example.org