From the Gator's jaw
for the Big Gator............Gator hunting ain't what it used to be!
by Captain Phil Walters of
The South's Most Experienced Professional Gator Guide
I really wanted to place higher than
the second place finish our 12 ft 9-inch gator had in the 2007 Central
Florida Trophy Hunts "Big Gator Shootout," but finding competitive
creatures is tough for a statewide event, let alone knowing that a very
large 14 ft. gator had already been entered. Darn, I thought as I looked
at the gator in front of the boat. He was over 11 ft. but did not appear
to be a real monster, or at least what I thought would place in the
Shootout. "What the hay," I said to Mark the cameraman filming my solo
gator hunt. Mark attentively focused his camera on the line,
anticipating the action about to happen. "Mark," I said, "Since you're
here to film a gator hunt and that's a nice gator ahead of us, I guess
I'll go for it even though it's not what I want."
Finding large trophy-class gators is
getting harder. I hunted all over Florida this season and my clients
only harvested a few lizards over 10 ft., let alone the fewer we saw
that were mature trophy-class bull gators. When I started sport hunting
gators in the early 1990s, trophy class gators were everywhere. In fact,
for those who remember, we would not harvest anything under 10 ft. and
usually that was not a problem. Many hunters commonly had averages well
over 10 ft. for the season and this was during the times when a permit
contained a pile of tags to fill. My, how times change and these slow
growing and ever-weary bull gators are becoming more creatures of an old
story rather than a recent sighting.
For the second year, Grayson Padrick
of CFTH and his lovely wife Mindy, hosted their annual "Big Gator
Shootout." Being the competitive guy I am, I entered and encouraged as
many of my fellow guides and clients to enter as well. For too long, we
killed trophy gators for the value of their meat and hides, rather than
for the stories of a lifetime these hunts create for the folks
participating. I was ecstatic Grayson started the Shootout as I believe
this type of event brings greater conservation value to the alligator
and offers the public a chance to share in the excitement. Additionally,
it offers recognition to a number of the trophy gators harvested during
the season and another event for ethical sportsmen to gather in
celebration of a sustainable harvest.
After hunting from one end of Florida
to the other, my clients failed to harvest any gators worthy of entering
into the Shootout. I was disappointed at this outcome as I fully
expected to have a number of clients in the running. It was getting late
in the season and I still had my personal permit to fill since I
withheld those tags for just such a situation as this.
GatorGuides.com donated a gator hunt to the U.S. Sportsmen's
Alliance, a national group dedicated to preserving our outdoor heritage,
for them to auction at their annual fundraiser in Columbus, Ohio. Larry
Wills snagged the hunt at the fundraiser and came down with Don Smith of
the Alliance to hunt the tag in mid-October.
The tag was for a very hot area of the
St. Johns river system where many large lizards have been harvested.
Unfortunately, this area possessed many problems. Record flooding closed
all the boat landings, high winds and cold weather added to the dilemma.
The only access to our preferred area was via the marina in Sanford,
then across four miles of open water on Lake Monroe, then into the
river. This proved to be a problem as the winds were blowing at 20-30
mph, I informed my eager hunters from the "great white North" the water
conditions were unsafe and we would not depart until the winds subsided.
Disappointed, they took it rather well and understood we were to hunt
the gator, not swim with them via a sunk airboat. While intently
watching the weather all night, our chance to hunt did not come till
after 5 a.m., when the winds finally ebbed enough to where I felt
comfortable to depart and not turn my airboat into a channel
Loaded, we departed just prior to
daybreak. This did not allow us much hunting time but the hunt area is
one of those where a little sunlight helps immensely. The plan was to
sight a suitable trophy gator and jump him quickly. This plan has worked
for me numerous times in this area but today was not going to be one of
them. After a short ride to our area, we rode the lake and marsh till
legal hunting time was up. We didn't see squat! Luckily, Larry and Don,
being experienced hunters and accepting that hunting is not a sure
thing, were still having a great time enjoying a bumpy airboat ride and
the wonderful wildlife on display for us.
"Larry, I have another area to take
you to tonight that should yield good results. The tag we'll be hunting
is also entered into the "Big Gator Shootout" so I can assure you we'll
be looking for a good one for you to take home," I said. Larry replied
in the affirmative, so we agreed on the time and place to meet for the
Greg Bruce was the permit holder for
the night in Lake County. Greg had hunted this lake with me years ago,
where we harvested many 12 ft.-plus gators. On one of these nights
hunting this lake, Greg recalled us attempting to load a 12 ft-plus
gator into my already loaded truck. With the gator on the gate, the
switch was hit to raise the liftgate, but it did not appear to rise.
Perplexed, we quickly investigated the
malfunction and determined the problem. The liftgate did travel,
however, it was the rear of the truck that traveled to the lowered
liftgate, elevating the front wheels off the ground! "We should really
think about harvesting smaller gators," I said to Greg. Those were the
Our hopes ran high as we loaded up on
my 13 ft. Rivermaster and put fire to the 0540 Lycoming. We jumped a few
fair gators in the 7-9 ft. range. Larry gave many of them his best shot
with the harpoon, but he quickly realized he was not as prepared as he
thought he was to accurately throw the Ratworks Gatorstick for the
desired effect. After "educating" half a dozen gators that we were a
perceived threat, with no results, we retired for a nap.
Just before sunrise, Larry, Greg and I
headed back out. Don decided that dreamland suited him better than a
cold bumpy boat ride, so he stayed on shore. "Larry, now is your time to
make this happen. Pretend the gator is an ex-wife when you go to stick
it and you should be fine" I explained. "Got it, Captain" Larry replied.
"I'll hurt one permanently this time."
After missing a few shots, we arrived
in a cove with a set of glowing red eyeballs up in the brush, announcing
a victim had been found. Legal time was closing as the sun was beginning
to rise. We headed towards the red glow at slow speed. I told Larry to
throw as we were about 6 feet away and he heaved the pole in a mighty
arc, with the RatWorks GatorStick crashing through the brush and making
a "whack" upon impact. The boat hit the brush and rocked, the water
exploded and the line sang from the bucket. It's a solid hit! Great shot
Larry! With a gator harpooned, we tired him, taped up and sent him to
gator heaven with a stroke of Larry's knife. Larry fulfilled his hunt
but the only problem was this 8 ft. gator, would not quite be the size
needed for the Big Gator Shootout. Darn!
It's now November, cool weather and
almost post-gator season except that the Florida Wildlife Commission
extended the gator season in four areas due to the aforementioned
flooding. With tags for the open areas, my good ole gator huntin' buddy
Glen Grizzaffe volunteers to go on the quest. Glen is a gator-killing
machine. As the owner of G & S Melons in Plant City, he works his tail
off keeping the melons moving fresh but always finds time to head out
for a lizard. Glen hunts in a similar style to mine, which is the "run
and gun," but Glen puts a whole new spin on it. I call it the "Run, run
over and Gun" as he'll go wherever the gator is, even if it's in the
thick stuff. Glen is utterly fearless with his supercharged Lycoming
0470, so it was an "interesting" ride for me to sit in the back seat and
enjoy the show.
We headed out on a cool evening in
early November. The waters of the St. Johns had now receded enough to
launch the boat where we needed to, as Seminole County had finally
re-opened its boat landings. With lower water, Glen believes the gators
will be holed up in the maiden cane, so that's where we go. As we worked
the marsh, Glen worked his airboat throughout the brush. While I had a
birdseye view from the tourist seat, I never saw a gator. I guess at 30
mph they may be a glimmer, then gone.
After a few hours of running, Glen
decides to take a break. "Did you see all the gators out here?" Glen
asks. " No, I did not see one gator but I did see a multitude of ripe
cattails explode into "cotton bursts" when you hit them!" I replied.
"Well, I've seen about 30 gators between 7 and 10 feet but not what
we're looking for. I think we need to work the outside edges and check
the open waters," he said. "Lets roll," was my reply.
After a few more hours, we still could
not find what we were looking for. It was getting close to 2 a.m. and
Glen had pumpkins to tend to in the morning, so we decided to call it a
night. Back at the landing, I had to admire Glen's boat. "Looks like
you're ready to go duck hunting," I said to Glen. What once was a very
clean boat now had a layer of grass covering it up to a foot thick in
places, with the cage covered in grass, "cotton puffs" of cattails
completely covering the oil cooler and entire colonies of spiders
spinning their webs from one end of the boat to the other. "There is not
a better camo job available on the market," I thought to myself.
After a week of cold weather, warmth
returns for a spell. We had a new moon and calm seas so I thought it's
now or never to get a gator for the Shootout or it's not going to happen
this year. I guess if I'm to have places in the winner's circle, it will
be up to my associate guide Mike Gifford to at least place a gator or
two using the RatWorks gator hunting equipment I manufacture. But it's
not over till it's over so I readied myself for the final round. Being
whipped from traveling not only Florida, but the Southeast U.S., with
the hull of my airboat gaining one big crack down the middle from a
stump encounter in either Georgia or South Carolina (thank God for
polymer!) I was ready for the season to end. Ah, the things I do to kill
I received a call from Mark Diorio, a
photo journalist who is composing a story on the culture of gator
hunting. Mark inquired about whether I could hook him up to film a gator
hunt. "Sure," I told him. "Meet me Saturday and you and I will go get a
very large gator" I told him. From the sound of his voice, he sounded
skeptical. "I've been out on a number of hunts this season and haven't
seen any large ones harvested yet," he said, then he asks "It's just you
and I going out for a big one? Is that safe?" "Mark, I've filmed many
gator hunts and always pull a lucky hat trick for a big gator. Come on
out, I feel lucky and, oh, yeah, I'll keep you safe" was my reply.
As the meeting time approached, I had
neglected to prep my boat the previous day as it had not been out for
almost two weeks. There is a slow discharge of the battery somewhere and
it sure did a fine job of killing the juice. After 15 minutes of
fiddling with connections, Mark arrives and inquires into the ailment.
"Mark, can you pull your car alongside and jump me?" I asked. "Sure," he
replied. The old 0540 roared to life, I added a spare battery and we
were ready to depart.
It was twilight with the first rays of
the sun starting to brighten the horizon. There was just enough darkness
left for my hatlight to illuminate a few eyeballs along the edges of the
maiden cane. We immediately came upon three gators in the 8 ft.-10 ft.
class that easily could have been in the boat. Mark was impressed that
we saw so many nice gators so quickly and asked why I did not take them
as he filmed their departure. "I'm looking for a monster or nothing," I
informed him. "They sure looked like monsters to me. We don't have any
like that in upstate New York," he said. "I feel good about today. We
still have over an hour of legal time and they appear active, so cross
your fingers," I replied.
As the boat slid around a point in the
cane, I noticed a nice head out in the open water. It was silhouetted
against the morning sky and I judge it to be a decent gator. I eased up
to his location and tossed my locator line. It didn't take long to find
my target. The rod bowed, the drag started to scream like a scalded cat
and the boat lurched forward being propelled by a nice gator. After a
modest struggle, the gator arose five feet off the starboard gunnel. I
got a good look at him and judged him in the 11 ft. range. "Holy Cow!
Did you see the size of that thing?" Mark screamed as he filmed away. "I
think he's about 11 feet and still not what I'm looking for," I calmly
said to Mark.
As I held the rod firm and pondered
the moment, the gator slipped under the murky water and the line began
to slacken. I can look for a larger one and possibly get zilch or I can
harvest a fair one so Mark will have footage of a trophy gator being
harvested. Decisions, decisions, but practicality took command. "Mark,
I'll harvest this one. I wish it was bigger, but that's the way it
goes," I said.
I held the locating line firm as I
rigged my RatWorks BoneCrusher harpoon pole. I wanted a sure dart buried
in the gator on the first shot because a miss will mean the gator swims
away. While I have worked rods and harpooned gators solo before, it's
never an easy act to give both hands different chores simultaneously. I
worked the gator up to the surface by reeling the line up to the swivel
and dropping the rod tip into the water. With all I had, I leaned back
with the rod and heaved, the gator broke the reflection of the lake and
was immediately greeted by the heavy BoneCrusher harpoon and its chisel
"Hello Mr. Gator," I said as the dart
went deep into its back. "Your days of eating poodles are over," I said.
Mark chuckled but kept filming the action. After a short struggle, I got
the gator subdued, taped, tagged and loaded into the boat for the
five-mile ride back to the landing. "Wow, that was really cool," Mark
said has he filmed me huffing and puffing from the workout of loading
With the boat on the trailer and the
gator on the deck, we started taking pictures of the morning's catch. As
luck would have it, a number of folks driving by turned around, stopped
to ogle the lizard and take pictures. To their surprise, these folks
were quickly recruited to help load the gator into the truck. Up to this
time, I believed the gator was about 11 ft., 6 in. Once in the truck, we
put a tape to him and he went near 12 ft., 5 in.! Nice stroke of luck, I
thought. The next day the processor conducted the official measurement
at 12 ft., 41/2 in. with a 50 in. girth, which landed him into fifth
place of the 2008 CFTH "Big Gator Shootout!"
Phil Walters is owner of GatorGuides.com and produces
RatWorks Gator Hunt
Equipment. He has hunted gators professionally under fair chase principals
across the South for two decades, has harvested thousands of gators while safely
guiding hundreds of clients to their trophies. At one time, his clients
possessed 7 of the top 10 alligators in the Safari Club International (SCI)
record book. For 2008, Team RatWorks placed 2nd, 4th and 5th in the Central
Florida Trophy Hunts “Big Gator Shootout” and harvested the Georgia state record
of 13-7. In 2007, GatorGuides.com was presented the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance
“Defender of the Heritage” award for hunting heritage education. Recently,
Governor Charlie Crist appoint him to Florida’s Boating Advisory Council. In
2009, he guided for the largest gator harvested in Georgia at 13-51/2”.