How to bag a gator

Department of Natural Resources alligator control agent Ron Russell points out that this alligator's unrestricted tail is still dangerous. In addition to taping its mouth shut, Russell tied this 8-foot, 140-pound alligator's feet together to help immobili

MONCKS CORNER -- Experts have pinpointed one safe and reliable method to kill an alligator -- a creature whose powerful thrashings can overturn a small boat, a creature that can hunt as well as be hunted.

The trick is to use a bangstick.

The long pole fires an explosive charge, most always fatal, into the soft, circulatory tissue behind the skull.

It's best to push the head underwater first to avoid sending blood, bone fragments and other unpleasant debris flying into the air. And be careful not to hit the thick skull itself, which will only send the charge richoceting in another direction.

If that happens, "it won't kill him," explained S. C. Department of Natural Resources alligator control agent Ron Russell. "All you're going to do is make him mad."

Russell and other officials held a seminar Saturday to offer local hunters some practical knowledge about alligators before the state's third public hunting season starts Sept. 11. Roughly one-third of this year's 3,774 alligator hunting tag applicants got permission to capture and kill one through a lottery system.

The session drew several dozen veteran hunters who brought their natural instincts -- refined from their pursuit of deer, hogs or feathered game -- and a curiosity about how to hunt an alligator.

The buzz over the newly legalized recreation hasn't faded, even though the sport can be dangerous, especially at night when sets of glowing red alligator eyes peer out of swampland like highway reflectors.

Organizers gave out basic tips but repeatedly warned hunters against overextending themselves.

"You can say you want to go after a 12-foot gator, and that's fine, but they're a lot of work," Russell said.

The average alligator successfully hunted in South Carolina measures slightly longer than 9 feet, but 11- and 12-footers aren't uncommon. Alligators of those size can require a backhoe to be lifted from the water. Hunters must be sure the alligator measures at least four feet.

Attendance at the seminar was voluntary, except for one very crabby alligator.

Russell brought an eight-foot-long beast for demonstration, scientifically poking at its scaly skin flecked with white pebble markings. (Homeowners associations pay him $170 per gator to remove the unsightly creatures from their manicured lawns and golf courses.)

The unnamed alligator had been captured the day before in a West Ashley neighborhood after it failed Russell's test: The reptile didn't so much as flinch as Russell approached --an indication it could endanger children and pets.

On a grassy patch, the still alligator seemed harmless with its blindfolded eyes and its limbs tied up with rope. But every third or fourth poke, the agitated animal swiftly jerked its razor-blade tail.

"If that tail gets enough momentum, it will break your leg," said Russell, who has twice removed his index finger from an alligator's mouth so doctors could reattach it.

While the average South Carolina hunter likely lacks much exposure to alligators -- hunting them was legalized only recently-- Russell has trapped them for years. He seemed eager to share his time-tested techniques.

Whatever a hunter uses to nab the animal -- an oversized fishing hook, a crossbow's arrow -- has to be attached with line. (Dead gators don't float.)

And he advised hunters to make sure those lines aren't attached to a boat or carelessly wrapped around anybody's limbs.

Jay Butfiloski, alligator program coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, agreed. "That gator may decide he wants to go somewhere else, and it's advisable not to be in the water at the same time," he said.

Winning tagholders are given a defined hunting area. Alligators lounging even on the opposite bank of a dividing river are off limits.

The audience was low key until the talk turned to the boundary rules. They spent several minutes going back and forth with presenters over possible scenarios: What happens if an alligator drags a boat into protected waters? Onto private property? Or onto the other side of a dividing river? Officials said those gray area situations would be handled with an enforcement officer's discretion, which left some attendees uneasy.

Once the gator is worn down and secured to the boat, a hunter can finish the job, which instructors politely referred to as "dispatching."

Instead of a rifle or shotgun, hunters should use either a bangstick or harpoon to deal the fatal blow.

Agency officials pleaded with the audience to double check -- no, triple check -- that the reptile is actually dead. And, for goodness sake, tape its snout shut as a precaution.

"I know it's neat to take pictures with a beer can in its mouth, but you never know when an alligator may come back to life," Butfiloski said.

Attendees even got instruction on how to butcher the gators into edible portions, though Butfiloski stopped short of suggesting seasonings. (Russsell recommended marinating for 24 hours before deep frying).

Hunters can't sell the meat, but they can sell the hide and other body parts.

The crowd grew uneasy as Russell showed a video on how to determine a dead alligator's sex, a process that involves inserting a finger into an inconspicuous hole in its belly. But the technique was important to share so hunters accurately report back the details of their catch to state officials.

All this instruction for the sake of hunting down one alligator -- a privilege that only 1,200 tagholders get.

Russell said he supports the public hunting seasons, which only make a small annual dent in the state's roughly 100,000 alligator population.

Law enforcement officials said legalizing hunting gives them more power to prosecute people who harm alligators out of season.

And perhaps future generations of alligators will learn to fear humans again, he explained, unlike the bound alligator that writhed at Russell's feet.

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or kstech@postandcourier.com.