Given the chance though I definitely wanted to go on an alligator hunt. Why? When I went deer hunting, the deer didn't bite back! Can't get much more exciting than that.
I contacted Ron Russell of Gator Getters Consultants and asked to tag along on a hunt. Russell has been capturing gators for years going out on nuisance calls and educating the public on alligator safety. He set me up with Jeff Bannister, of Greenville, who received his hunter's permit through the computerized draw, and the three of us set out to find alligators on the Cooper River at dusk.
Little known fact to me at the time, alligator hunting is conducted at night. The best way to find one of these creatures is to shine a light and look for glowing red eyes. Kind of creepy, even more so when you realize how many of these guys live in the rivers we occupy every weekend.
After checking my life insurance policy, I slipped on the steel-toe boots and headed out. For some strange reason I threw my leatherman knife into my bag like is was going to offer some sort of protection against an alligator. I joked with friends that a miracle might take place on the river because if an alligator came after me there would be walking on water.
Soon after dusk, Russell stopped the boat and started making female alligator sounds. I can't make the sound myself but can download it from iTunes. No joke, its right there next to the new Metallica album.
What seemed like an empty river came alive after dark. Russell pointed out multiple gators in one spot just scanning the river banks with a spotlight.
Some were afraid or bothered by the light and would sink into the water. Others would let you pull right up next to them. At one point I could have reached out and touched a gator I was photographing. Russell explained that the alligators feel safe under the water and think you can't see them so they remain still.
As the night wore on, the expectation levels dropped on the size of the gator. What once was a hunt for a 13-foot alligator now had been lowered to anything bigger than six feet. It gets cold on that water at about 1 a.m. When it gets that cold steam rises off the water and coats everything including my camera gear.
I had one job, when the gator is speared, turn on all the lights on the boat. I was probably just as excited as the others at this point. And then as soon as it began, it was over. The gator gave little resistance and was killed within minutes of being speared. The mouth was taped, the legs tied, the hunting tag applied and it was finished.
All the anxiety, all the sleepless nights dreaming of wrestling the beast with my bare hands and any other visions my imagination could create leading up to this point; it was so simple. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't suggest taking alligator hunting lightly, it just seemed so easy with an experienced guide.
After the catch, Bannister said this was the first gator he had killed and was wanting to make a belt and watch band from the skin. He said the meat was good eating and was given tips on storing the processed gator once he got home. It was almost too obvious to ask, does it taste like chicken?
Bannister and Russell lit a cigar and we hunkered down for the cold ride back to the docks.
After a long night watching them, I came away with an admiration for the alligator. A very crafty creature that is really only threatened by other alligators and humans. Makes sense that they are so tough considering they have survived since the time of the dinosaur.