By Brian Lisankie
The battered skiff had obviously seen hard use. The hull bore the scars of bouncing off a fair share of submerged stumps, and the well-worn outboard had a steel plate welded to the skeg to protect the prop. It was outfitted with several wood-handled harpoons, coils of rope in five-gallon plastic buckets, a compound bow with a spool of heavy fishing line, plus two heavy saltwater fishing poles rigged with weighted treble hooks roughly the size of a child’s fist. I also noticed a tourniquet hanging from a switch on the console. This was not going to be a walk in the park.
It was night in Florida—the only time you can legally hunt alligators on public water. The woods around the boat ramp were a loud cacophony of summer insects and God knows what else. It was hard to hear what Kyle was saying as he stowed the last of the gear in the trailered boat. Since this was my first gator hunt, I was all ears. His brief instructions consisted of: “If you fall out of the boat for any reason, get your ass back in quickly—this water is full of stuff that can kill you. Don’t look me directly in the face while you’re wearing that headlamp, and don’t let any of the catch lines get tangled around your ankles or wrapped around your arms or you will sure as hell will wish you hadn’t”. “That’s it?” I said. “Yeah, that’s it. Oh, and watch out for cottonmouths hanging from the trees; they will drop into the boat and they’re meaner than a mother-in-law this time of year. Now climb in so I can launch”.
Night hunting alligators on Florida’s waterways is like living out a bad dream orchestrated by Dante himself. It was hot and humid—even at 10:00 p.m. The water looked like a foul dark stew which allowed exactly zero visibility below the surface. We passed lots of small gators on the slow cruise away from the boat ramp, along with the occasional prehistoric gar surfacing for a quick gulp of air with a pneumatic pop. Insects of all description swarmed around my headlamp and into my face. There was absolutely no breeze. The headlamp was a heavy and uncomfortable piece of equipment cabled to an external battery pack. It looked like something stolen from a Pennsylvania coal mine, but it cast a bright beam farther across the water than I could see.
The tactic to be employed within this eerie setting was to scan the shallows of the lake from the boat using the beam of light strapped to my head. Alligator eyes reflect light like bright red beacons even at a considerable distance, and there were already a shitload of red beacons shining back at me everywhere I looked. As the spotter in the bow of the boat, my job was to locate a likely target so Kyle could drive us in for the kill. This process also involved communicating back to him via hand signals the best direction through the endless mass of stumps, branches, and snags hidden in the darkness along the shoreline to avoid collision on the way to meet our quarry.
Big gators don’t get big by being stupid—or slow for that matter. As soon as they see a boat coming their way, they quickly submerge into the thick dark water, so you only have a few seconds to figure out if it’s a decent sized animal and prepare to strike before they turn into submarines and disappear. I managed to guide us into some thick spots holding less than trophy sized animals. After each failed assault run, Kyle had to extricate the boat from the thick mass of stumps and vegetation we had just charged into. I could sense that his patience was beginning to evaporate into the heavy air.
After more than a few such failed attempts, we finally got lucky. Two red beacons spaced so far apart they looked like they were attached to two different animals gazed back unblinking from a pool covered by a thicket along the shore. We managed to roll up without hitting any obstructions. As he cut the motor, I heard Kyle say “that’s a big damn gator!” As the monster started to submerge, Kyle stood up and grabbed the bow. I heard the arrow whistle past as it stripped the SpiderWire from the reel. Then all hell broke loose.
There are few things that equal the violence created by a very large alligator that has just been pierced with a barbed arrow in relatively shallow water. Shit was flying everywhere. Florida regulations require hunters to set two separate lines into an alligator before attempting to drag it alongside the boat and finishing it with a bang stick tipped with a handgun cartridge. The arrowhead and first line were set firmly in the animal, but we were too close to use the fishing pole and treble hook to set the second line. Kyle was shouting “Harpoon! Jam the harpoon down where you see the bubbles!” My first thrust was a miss. The second connected into the thick hide of the submerged gator and the metal tip attached to a line and plastic float was immediately separated from the shaft. The thrashing stopped and it felt like there was a Volkswagen attached to the line. The boat started moving along the surface as the gator dragged us toward the safety of deeper water.
After a long period of hauling and cursing, a large alligator surfaced alongside the boat. The lines and the reptile were completely tangled in a thick green mass of aquatic vegetation. Kyle loaded a .357 Magnum cartridge into the bang stick and drove a muffled shot into the beast’s head. That slowed things down a bit, so he reloaded and drove another shot home for good measure. A snare of wire secured the jaws long enough to get half a roll of duct tape wrapped around its snout. Kyle then pulled the Russell #1 Knife from my belt sheath, and (as Colonel Sanders told Bobby Boucher in The Waterboy) drove the knife into that gator’s medulla oblongata.
We dragged the dead gator onto the boat. It was ten feet long and took up most of the space on deck. The gator was dead as a doornail, but its tail still twitched when Kyle stabbed the Russell through to create a hole to attach the bright yellow plastic CITES tag.
We were exhausted and soaked when we returned to the ramp around 3:00 a.m. By the time we got the Alligator sorted out, the gear stowed, and the boat trailered, it was nearly dawn. Kyle reached into a cooler in the back of his truck and pulled out a couple cans of ice-cold lager. As I watched the sun rise over that lake full of monsters, I remember thinking that a beer had never tasted that good before.