Editor's note: This article describes improper alligator hunting techniques, according to 1st Sgt. Angus MacBride of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Alligators that measure under 4 feet must be immediately released, any other alligator brought to the boat has been considered as "rendered into possession" and must be harvested, according to MacBride.
Until last Sunday, I had never been on an alligator hunt. Deer, turkeys, pigs, ducks, quail, doves — all of the above. But a 12-foot alligator? No, thank you.
Gator hunting has always struck me as a dog-chasing-truck proposition. What, exactly, happens if you manage to catch one?
So when Mikey Clark of Hanahan invited me along on his quest to tag out on his first gator, curiosity got the better of me.
I learned my first lesson immediately, when Mikey asked me to meet him, his soon-to-be father in law Craig Pagels and good friend Matt Weatherford at Bushy Park Landing about 9 a.m.
I thought gator hunting was always done at night, but they assured me this wasn't the case.
So we met, talked a bit about their past gator-hunting experiences (including when Matt bagged a monster 13-footer last year), and then piled in Mikey's 17-foot High Tide flats boat. Craig followed along in his own john boat, which we used as another vantage point for photos.
Mikey and Matt, both friendly, family-oriented young men, freely admitted to being badly bitten by the gator bug.
For hours they shared stories and tactics as we searched high and low for the right gator (photo 1, with Mikey driving and Matt glassing the shore). We spotted and approached a few 6-footers, but never could zero in on the big boys they had been scouting in the days leading up to the hunt.
As the afternoon waned, Mikey decided that any gator over 8 foot would do.
Rounding a bend in the salt marsh, we spotted a likely target (2). It's tough to estimate an alligator's size with so little of its head above the water, but this one looked as though it might exceed Mikey's self-imposed 8-foot minimum.
As we motored close to the gator, it calmly submerged. We cut the engine, kept quiet and — just as Matt and Mikey predicted — the gator resurfaced a few minutes later in nearly the same spot. Using stout spinning-rod setups strung with 100-pound-test braided line, Matt and Mikey cast giant, weighted treble hooks over the gator's back. It sank again but didn't swim away, and in short order, we were hooked up (3).
The gator dove to the bottom as Mikey fought to maintain heavy pressure on the line. Mikey and Matt had explained earlier that because a gator's hide is so heavily armored, treble hooks often don't penetrate. Sometime they're simply snagged under one of the reptile's tough scales, and will shake loose if the line goes slack.
To help prevent losing the gator, Matt tried to snag it with a second hook. After about 15 minutes, he succeeded. With two lines snagged on the gator, they were able to wrench it off the bottom and fight it to the boat, where Craig waited with a harpoon (4).
The law requires hunters to secure an alligator to the boat or bring it to shore, restrained, before dispatching it with a handgun or bangstick. This prevents hunters from taking pot-shots at alligator in the water, which would lead to dangerous ricochets and wasteful killing.
A side effect to this measure is that some targeted gators get a second chance on life.
Such was the case with Mikey's catch.
Once the angry gator gave us a good look beside the boat (5), Mikey made the call to turn him loose. It was only about 7 feet long.
Sure enough, one of the treble hooks had snagged the animal's claw but hadn't penetrated its hide. It popped off easily using the tip of the harpoon. The other hook had sunk into the hide, and Craig had to wrestle with the gator's tail while Mikey pulled that one out (6).
The gator, it should be noted, was not pleased with any of this.
But in the end, it swam away with little more damage than most fish suffer after being caught and released.
And Mikey, with his alligator tag still burning a hole in his pocket, was already planning his next hunt.
Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or firstname.lastname@example.org.