Dwayne Powell at Kissimee River Hunt & Fish took this 8′ 1″ alligator on his private ranch in Okeechobee Florida just this past Saturday. He used this Ambush Firearms AR-15 platform hunting rifle in 6.8 SPC and a Vortex Viper PST scope. This is the average size alligator of the over 8,100 taken in Florida in 2011.
This picture was taken as the sun was setting on our first outing this year to hunt alligators on the Kissimee River using public lottery tags purchased from the state. On public tags you cannot shoot the alligators with a firearm at distance. You must first skewer the giant lizard with an bowfishing rig or harpoon. Here you see ThermaCell pro-staff member Carlos Lopez with is bowifishing rig, surveying the river we would not leave until 3:30 a.m. when all but the baby gators seemed to retire for the night.
The only way you are legally allowed to kill the gator is with one of these “bang sticks.” This one holds a .357 Magnum cartridge in the tip and you pop it against the alligator’s head, underwater. This is no easy task.
The fishing arrow or harpoon tip is attached to a line and a floating jug. After having the jug bitten and sunk before, Dwayne learned to fill his jugs with spray foam you get at Home Depot.
After battling with a 10 foot gator over the ownership of his bow one night, Dwayne also devised a special way to rig the bow reel. You fold the line and feed the fold into the clutch, then wind the folded line back into the receptacle. when the line releases, the fold will come out, freeing the line from the bow, and the jug will be pulled out of the boat.
Dwayne instantly fell in love with the LaserGenetics ND3 for spotlighting gators at distances up to 200 yards away. The green light didn’t seem to scare them at all like his big headlamp.
If you click to enlarge this picture, you will see the splash of the bowfishing arrow as it passes over the head of what was probably a six foot gator as he instinctively submerged as Carlos released the bowstring.
After a few misses with the bow and some very skittish gators, Dwayne never got to throw his new harpoon design on the last pass of the river at 3:30 a.m.
These little guys were all over the place but their mommies and daddys apparently retire early, because they get to eat first.
The gators on the ranch are’t like the ones in the river. They haven’t been been hunted, so have much less fear of man. They are maneaters and kill and maim several people a year in Florida. Dwayne is able to voice call most gators under ten feet right near the shore, where you are allowed to shoot them with a rifle. Even a .22 Magnum in the eye socket will kill a gator, but you are better to use a heavier caliber that will kill with any head shot. Gators tend to sink and stay sunk when you kill them, so the closer to the shore the better.
Dwayne is casting a grapple hook here to fish out what he thought was a wounded gator on an earlier hunt, but the shooter had missed, at ten yards with a rifle. Missing is the biggest impediment to taking a gator on the ranch, or for that matter, a hog or a deer or a coyote, so remember, always use a steady rest when you can.
Even this average sized gator is quite a trophy. Generally people mount the head and the rest of the animal is sent to a processing plant to be used for tourist gator jerky. The skins are mostly sold overseas, and the tag travels with the skin. When you mount the head you are given a certificate with your tag number.
Kissimee River Hunt & Fish
FWC Info Page: http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/alligator/harvest/
While most of the nation is beginning to dream about hunting whitetails in the fall, in sunny Florida where the leaves don’t turn and whitetail season already started, everyone is talking about GATORS! Dwayne Powell, our resident guide at Kissimee River Hunt & Fish, took us out for a learning expedition this week for the season opener, and even took this eight foot monster on a private tag to show us how it’s done. Alligator hunting in Florida is a lot of fun, but the devil is in the details, and even if you manage to pull a tag in the public lottery, the chances of actually bringing home a gator are slim, unless you know how to prepare. On private land the rules are different, and easier, but you will need to pay a guide to burn a private tag for you. If you have never bagged a gator, one way or the other, there is no game animal that compares to these mighty giant lizards. Get yourself a tag and get out gator hunting!
The first thing a few of you are probably saying is “oh come on, an eight foot gator isn’t a monster.” True, actually, but what you may not know is that gators only grow about a foot a year. Giant gators, twelve feet and up, have lived a long time and have been through not only a dozen or more hunting seasons, but also a lifetime of predators, including their own cannibalistic kind. Dwayne will be paid for several 12-15 foot gators this year by private clients, and even this 8 footer is an $1,800 price tag. It was kind of him to burn a tag for us on his private cattle ranch is Okeechobee, Florida. Over 8,100 alligators were taken in Florida in the 2011 season, and the average size was exactly the length of this gator, eight foot one inch, so this is representative of what most people should expect when they take a gator.
Gator hunts cost a lot because of the way the hunting regulations are structured. Gator tags are split into two worlds, public land and private land. The public tags go on sale on a certain date several months before the season, and from what we could tell they are like concert tickets. At 10 a.m. the website opens up for orders, and when they are gone they are gone. We had several people on our crew online that morning and six of us got tags, at $272, paid to the state. The tag is good for two gators, and when you receive your tag package in the mail, you get two plastic tags and all of your paperwork. The price is higher for non-residents, $1,022, ouch, so if you pull a non-resident tag, get a guide for sure. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), has a guide search on the their website, and if you search for Lake Okeechobee, Kissimee River Hunt & Fish is one of only a handful who are guiding for gators.
The minimum size for gators is only 18 inches. We corrected this from some misinformation that the minimum size is five feet. This is important because young gators are stupid and they will swim right up to you in the boat. After a night full of misses and near misses, it is tempting to just fill a tag on a relatively small specimen. Filling a tag on a small gator is actually not a bad idea when you have two tags if you plan to try gator meat. Gators over six feet or so have heavily marbled meat in the part of the tail you normally eat, and the more fat, the more gamy the meat. So if you plan to try gator meat, you may want to just take a smaller gator. We have confirmed this with an FWC officer since the confusion over the size limit and 18 inches is the actual measurement.
If you have been on tourist visits to the Everglades where gators are just lying around, hunting gators isn’t like that. Those gators are intentionally fed to make them docile and trusting of humans. Wild gators that have had little contact with humans (who weren’t trying to kill them) are extremely skittish, and that is where the worst of the Florida alligator hunting regulations get you. Firearms are not allowed for hunting gators on public lands. If you pull a public tag, there is only one way that is approved to kill the gator. It is with a “bang stick.” This is a specialized piece of equipment, also called a “powerhead,” that is not legally a firearm when attached to a shaft. Just like the shark videos, you load it with one round and pop it on your target to fire the round, which doesn’t travel through a barrel. It simply exits the enclosed shell casing, transferring directly into the target. Dwayne has tried several calibers and the .357 Magnum seems to work the best for gators.
On an alligator, you have to pop them on the head, and gators of legal size don’t just swim up to the boat to let you pop them to fill your tag. This is why a large percentage of tags go unfilled. Hunting hours on public tags are between 5 p.m. and 10 a.m. so mostly you are hunting in the dark. The best way to get the gator in a position to hit him with the bang stick is to first skewer him with an arrow or harpoon, then tire him out, just like bass fishing on light test. Dwayne has developed the system you see here in the pictures of filling a jug with foam and using that to track him as he tires out. You don’t want to tie the line that is connected to your arrow directly to your bow if you are using a bowfishing rig. A ten foot gator will pull that bow right out of your hand. Look closely at the pictures and you will see how Dwayne devised a system to double the line in and out of the receptacle on the bowhunting rig so that it pulls out and drags the float. This works really well… when you actually hit the gator with the arrow.
This is why, if you pull a public tag, you really have to prepare yourself for gator season. Bang sticks aren’t expensive, $100 – $200, but you will also need either a bowfishing rig, or a harpoon of some kind, and the skill to hit a gator at up to ten yards away. In the pitch black, using only spotlights, a foot long gator head isn’t so easy to hit, and on our first outing on opening night of gator season our experienced bow fisherman Carlos Lopez didn’t connect on several shots, including several where the skittish gator had already begun to submerge. These guys were used to humans shooting at them, and they clearly didn’t care for it. At 3:30 a.m., when all the gators of size seemed to have retired for the evening, we gave up in defeat.
Gator tags are by region, and we could see a big boy on the other side of the bridge where our tag region ended who watched us all night. He seemed to understand that he was safe there, and he was. You don’t want to break the FWC regs in Florida. Our FWC officers don’t make the laws, many of which are completely absurd and need to be re-addressed at some point, but they are very experienced at enforcing them. If you get caught breaking the game laws, they ‘ll take your gear, your boat, and even your vehicle in many cases. Know the laws and stick to them.
Your most important tool, besides a way to kill the gator, is a good light. A Q-Beam sized light, connected to your 12volt in the boat, is the most common type of light you see in the gator hunting world. Dwayne has a custom made helmet version that works really well. Gator eyes glow in the light, so you can identify them from a distance away, then get the boat over to them, close enough to shoot with an arrow or harpoon, if they don’t get the hint and submerge. This can be an exercise in frustration, because the big ones are really smart and retreat into their dens at the first sign of trouble. To kill a big gator on a public tag, everything has to go right and the gator has to make a mistake. Catching them during mating, or just being able to sneak up, is going to be the best play, but if you can only get out when you can get out, well, that’s why they call it hunting and not killing.
If there is a secret weapon for gator hunting, we found it this year. It is the LaserGenetics ND3 from Gamo. This is a large green laser flashlight that is called a “target designator.” We have been using these nifty toys for some time night hunting coyotes, but we haven’t gotten enough material for a full article on them yet. The ND3 shoots a narrow beam up to hundreds of yards away that illuminates your target in green light so that you can use your standard optics to sight your target. It is meant to replace night vision, which is expensive and doesn’t work so well unless you spend thousands. Dwayne thought to take this out with us for gator spotting, and it works better than any light he has used in the past. The green light, like we have found with coyotes, hogs and even deer, doesn’t spook the alligator. They don’t seem to mind it at all. With one 123A (SureFire type) battery, you can spotlight gators all night, even 200 yards away. It’s a great tool for gator hunting.
You are not allowed to use electronic gator calls in Florida on public land. This is important to know because the Primos Alpha Dog caller comes with gator calls pre-installed, and you may have seen this if you have used the caller for coyotes (great piece of gear). You also can’t use artificial bait, like a wounded animal decoy. Real bait is legal, but it can’t have a hook in it. You must put a wooden peg through the bait and tie it to a rope. When the gator swallows the bait, you can then bring him in with rope. This would theoretically eliminate the need for a long bow or harpoon shot, but we didn’t use this method on our first night out. Local gator hunters will watch individual gators prior to the season, then bait them on the first night before others can get to them. Our goal was to demonstrate what a novice who just pulled a tag would do, when distance and time would prevent on-site preparations. If it is any indications of how tough this hunting is, we failed to take a gator, with an experienced guide who has fished and hunted that part of the Kissimee River his entire life. Hunting videos tend to sugar coat failure and not show you how hard some of this stuff is, but our goal is to portray the reality of hunts. In the real world people miss, and gators sometimes go in for the night.
On private land everything is the polar opposite. The gators are considered nuisance animals and none of the hunting rules apply. You can use firearms to hunt, and there is not even a time or a season. This is why on private land generally gator hunts are successful, but there is a catch. To begin with, you have to get a private landowner to allow you to hunt on his or her land and give you a permission slip. This is generally going to be a hunting lease, unless you can find a really dumb landowner who has lived in a cave since 1988 when gator hunts began in Florida. Then you have to pay a state biologist $150 an hour to scout the land with you to count how many gators are on it. He will then file his report and FWC will issue you a certain amount of tags, based on your gator population. The tags are good until you use them, and no seasons apply. Each tag is good for one gator, and like the public tags, you must attach the tag to the tail as soon as you take the gator.
Hunting alligators on private land in the daytime is much easier than the “designed to fail” system you are forced into with the public tags. Many of the gators on Dwayne’s private ranch have never been shot at and are not hyper-aware of humans. We drive by gators in the cattle ponds on the ranch all year and Dwayne can voice call all but the ten foot plus monsters right to the shore on most days. You don’t want to shoot a gator in deep water unless you have baited him and he swallowed the line. Once hit, a gator rolls and goes under water, then when he dies, he opens his mouth a little, and fills up with water, transforming him into a giant green boat anchor. In a deep pond with decades of decaying blowdown on the bottom, casting a grapple to fish him out can take hours. Remember, no shot is too easy when you are hunting! Make sure your rifle is zeroed, aim carefully and use a rest, even close. Gators don’t die easily and they can take a lot of damage and keep ticking. Dwayne hit this gator in the brow with an Ambush Firearms 6.8 SPC and he still did his share of thrashing, and had to be grapple hooked out.
Navigating the gator hunting regulations in Florida for alligators isn’t easy or inexpensive, but the greatest of the giant lizards is a unique hunting experience you will never forget. Only the United States and China have gators, and ours here in Florida are Made in USA, and are lead paint free. We will be back out next week to fill our public tags, and no, we won’t remind you about buying tags in the spring, so put it on your calendar now if you plan to try for them next year. One final note is that if you are going with someone on a public tag, even just to watch, you must buy an alligator trapping agent license for $52 that is available everywhere Florida hunting licenses are sold. The full information on Florida Statewide Alligator Harvest Program is at http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/alligator/harvest/. We’ll see you on the river!