When a spring turkey hunt in Florida ends a bit early, the stage is set for a unique swampland adventure.
You’ve chased hair and fur through forests and mountains, feathers across the wide prairies and deep covers, and scales within pristine trout streams and salty oceans. What’s left to round out this tour of natural textures? How about the bony plates and exotic hide of an alligator?
I had an opportunity to chase an alligator this spring in South Central Florida. I was down in Florida on a few hunt-focused adventures, and if at all possible, another goal was to squeeze in an exciting gator hunt along the way.The morning of the hunt, I travelled from my recent successful Osceola turkey hunt in Lake Okeechobee to Lightsey’s Family Ranch, a hunting outfitter in Venus, Florida. I had a relatively small window to devote to my gator quest, but Lightsey’s team was as up for the challenge as I was. Game on! Due to my rather flawed sense of direction, I must confess I rely quite extensively on maps. While Google maps got me to the ranch, HuntStand gave me a much-appreciated sneak peek into the areas I would be hunting. I was able to view the landscape and bodies of water in great detail the day before, thanks to the many-featured app. Thanks to HuntStand, I also knew the local weather was trending nicely for good hunt.
I had discovered the outfitter and location on a direct referral from a good friend who had successfully bagged a fine gator there a few months earlier. After a couple of phone conversations with both my friend and the outfitter, I knew this was the best fit for the goals I was looking to reach. I have found word of mouth to be the most-powerful tool when it comes to locating a solid hunting experience. Here a few of the gator-hunt criterion I was looking for:
I knew I wanted spot and stalk my gator, with an open water or shore-based shot opportunity. Also, I wanted to have control over which animal filled my tag. With a baited-and-dispatched scenario, that isn’t always possible.
I knew I wanted to use a rifle, and had selected my Griffin & Howe Highlander in 6.5 Creedmoor. I was shooting a Hornady 143-grain ELDX at approximately 2,650 feet per second. It was outfitted with a Swarovski 3.5-18×50 scope. While I absolutely love the scope, it was almost too much optic for sub-50-yard shots. The parallax adjustment got a good workout over the course of practice and execution.I wanted a place I could stay overnight, eat and relax. I came prepared in my typical deep south hunting attire: snake boots, lightweight merino wool top and Athleta pants.
I had never hunted alligators before and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I knew a few things:
I elected to use my rifle, but I knew you can also hunt gators with a bow. My rifle was compact, lightweight, resistant to conditions and very accurate, and I was incredibly comfortable with it.
I had to be able to hit a quarter-sized kill zone at 50 yards.Aside from that, I didn’t have a ton to go on. I had been practicing for several weeks with my Highlander on quarters, pennies and dimes out to 100 yards. I figured if 50 yards was the distance perimeter, then feeling solid at 100 yards on the same-sized targets would be a bonus.
Once in the field, I realized managing scent is critical to getting close to big gators. If they smell you, they go under. Once under water, they can remain submerged for up to an hour before resurfacing. Additionally, they’re rarely where you saw them last when they do eventually come up for air. Based on this, it’s easier to manage scent if the wind is minimal. Another condition to monitor is ambient temperature. Too hot or too cold, and activity patterns shift. An 80- to 90-degree day with minimal wind is ideal weather to snipe a gator!Once you spot a gator you want to get a closer look at, there are a few things to remember. How do you tell how big a critter is that is nearly completely submerged? The nose. A general rule of thumb with gators is to visually assess the distance between the eye sockets and the nostrils. That measurement, in inches, is generally a good indicator of the gator’s overall length in feet. Think of spurs on a turkey, an ear-to-antler assessment in whitetails, or an ear-to-head proportion in bears.
Some environments are more target rich than others. There are contained or unfenced options for hunting alligators, just like with many other big game animals. Gators are unique in that they require water sources in which they can submerge, in contrast to cervids and other types of game. In order to have a huntable population, there must be ready access to larger bodies of water.Another unique thing about gators is shot placement. Instead of seeking a “vitals” shot of heart or lungs, a gator is harvested with a head shot. I had practiced primarily one shot opportunity—the gator facing away from me, with the point of aim centered at the base of the skull, where the plates/brain are most vulnerable.
The shot presentation I ended up with was actually a moving (swimming) profile. There are two vulnerable points on an alligator, and this was the other. I held at the back, top corner of the oval behind the eye, and he expired instantly. This was a good lesson in practicing all shot opportunities equally, instead of focusing solely on one.My guide told me that if the shot created an injury instead of a fatality, the gator would go under and we would see bubbles. If the shot was fatal, we would see a white belly and a back foot.
Now, the next question was, if you shoot a gator in open water and you’re on shore with no boat, how do you get him back to shore? The answer is a stout fishing pole rigged with a treble hook. Immediately after my shot, a white belly appeared, a foot waved and my guide took off running toward shore. A moment later, he had hooked my beautiful 9-foot 6-inch alligator and was dragging him toward shore. Sweet success!After tagging him and taking photos, we loaded the outsized reptile into the back of Blake’s truck. A slippery, 350-pound, 9 ½-foot gator was a handful for two people, but we got him loaded and on his way to the skinner/processor.When I booked my gator hunt, I had a few end products in mind, which I communicated to both the processor and taxidermist. First, I wanted all the meat I could get, because it is absolutely delicious! Imagine a cross between chicken and scallops…
Second, I wanted the hide tanned so I could make a pair of boots, a jacket and belt. I also wanted to extract all the teeth to make a necklace and hat band. Visualize Crocodile Dundee…For now, my freezer is full, my hide is getting tanned, and the teeth are getting cleaned before meeting their final artistic destination. The coolest part? I now have a Gator Harvest icon to add to my HuntStand hunt area map in Venus, Florida, at Lightsey’s Family Ranch. By the way, if you haven’t already guessed, this off-season, bucket-list hunting adventure comes highly recommended.