Folks who had been on an alligator hunt said it would be intense, unlike anything we had ever experienced. This time, folks were right.
Releasing an arrow at a gator 10 feet from the jonboat at 1 a.m. was an adrenaline rush, to say the least. But that was only the beginning of an adventure that wouldn’t allow us sleep until the next afternoon. We experienced mayhem, utter disappointment, shock, confusion, exhilaration, luck both good and bad, desire for a bigger boat, and too many times to count we wished for someone to appear who knew what the heck to do next.
Hunting an alligator wasn’t even on the radar when Georgia first opened its very limited quota hunts two years ago. We apply for pretty much everything, however, and this year I got a gator ticket for Zone 8, which covers the Savannah River basin from Augusta to the coast. I carried my permit into fellow GON editor Brad Gill’s office, and we decided what the heck, the two of us would give it a go on our own. No guide, public water. Destination, the Savannah River near Tuckahoe WMA. Two men in a boat, without a clue.
The oxbows of Tuckahoe weren’t even open for gator hunting because of a quirk in the regs that doesn’t allow alligator hunting on a WMA unless it’s open for small-game hunting. We picked Tuckahoe not so such much for it being a great place to hunt gators, but for the opportunity to camp at the WMA and because we both loved slip-hunting the river swamp. Gator hunt by night, and try to stick a deer or hog by day, that was the idea.
We arrived Wednesday afternoon, September 14. Tuckahoe area manager Howard Pope gave us some good tips on areas of the river to try. We set up our tents and camp, and at 7 p.m. we were backing the boat into the river.
“Man, I love the smell of this swamp,” Brad said.
It is the scent of a place still wild and of wild things, a rare smell in a state where development and people are spreading too quickly.
We saw our first gator, a good one, while putting the boat in the water. We saw four before we cranked the engine. In the hour and a half before dark, we decided to ride up and down the river and make note of where we saw alligators. In the main run of the river, the gators we spotted were usually on the inside bends, on the flatter banks, and they were very skittish. The best spot we found was a backwater area where we saw about a half-dozen, including at least two fairly large gators.
We were back at that spot as it was just getting good and dark. Brad cut the outboard, and we began to get our equipment organized. I had two bows in the boat, my regular Matthews hunting bow and a stripped down old compound.
I had waited too late to order a Muzzy Gator Getter Kit, which includes special arrows with detachable tips, heavy-duty line, and a container for the line that attaches to your stabilizer port. Mark Land, Muzzy’s technical support specialist and bowfishing promotions director, told me that the Muzzy gear is souped-up bowfishing equipment. Instead, we had very basic bowfishing gear — a hodgepodge of old bowfishing arrows, and several different types of lines and cords. I decided my first shot would be with my hunting bow, and on that rig I tied the strongest Spiderwire fishing line they make to a bowfishing arrow and attached the other end to an old antifreeze jug. I’d practiced with this rig, and the arrow flew much truer with the smaller line than an arrow rigged with heavy cord. The plan — flawed as it was, as we would later find out — was to get an arrow in a gator with the smaller line, and follow the jug and wait until the gator surfaced for air. Then get another arrow in the animal attached to some heavy cord, which we would use to pull it up for a finishing shot with my .38 revolver.
The only sounds other than the gentle hum of the trolling motor was the buzzing of mosquitoes and a chorus of owls that sounded off from seemingly all directions. Right away we were in gators. A quick check with the Q-beam lit up several neon-looking gator eyes. Our carefree evening of enjoying a river tour quickly turned into a much more charged atmosphere. We were gator hunting now.
“I guess I’m going to shoot an alligator with an arrow,” I said, and we shared some nervous laughter at the reality of what we were about to do.
I was at the front of the 14-foot jonboat, which had a casting deck and a foot-controlled trolling motor. Brad killed the Q-beam and turned on a small video-camera light that softly illuminated the area right around the boat. It wasn’t a bright light, but still it cast enough light to show that neon reflection of gator eyes when we got within 100 yards of one. I steered the trolling motor toward the closest set of eyes, but when we got within about 30 yards the eyes slipped under the surface and disappeared. The next gator we got right up on, it was a five- or six-footer, a small guy we named Fred that just swam next to the boat as we eased parallel 10 feet away. We didn’t want to shoot a small one, but it was nice to know that already we could have taken a shot at a gator longer than the four-foot minimum. The next set of eyes turned out to be way back in the willows. It was impossible to move close enough to even see the alligator, much less get a shot.
We headed toward the next twin set of orange neon shining back at our light. This gator was right on the bank. We eased closer and closer, 30 yards, then 20, now just 10 yards and almost in range. My hand tightened on the bow.
“How big is he?” I asked, not confident at all in my ability to judge the size, and not wanting to make a mistake and end our hunt with a small alligator after only 45 minutes. The head was now visible, the gator facing the bank away from us.
“I don’t know, six feet maybe,” Brad said.
The head looked fairly wide to me, but I wasn’t sure. I never even drew the bow as the boat drifted to within five feet. Then with amazing speed the gator swung it’s tail and the water exploded. It was a BIG gator.
About 30 minutes later we got up on another gator, and this time my bow was drawn, the site right where I wanted it. But again I was indecisive, not sure of the size — again until too late, when another very large gator thrust its tail and disappeared under the surface just five feet away.
We’d passed up close shots at four legal gators. Two of them I should have shot. We’d only been at it about an hour.
The night then took an interesting turn. The gators wouldn’t let us get close, I mean remotely close. There were two exceptions. Fred, the five-footer, and another gator we named Fred Sr. that hung tight in a blowdown. We had taken two good looks at Fred Sr., but it didn’t appear to be as large a gator as the two we’d mistakenly passed.
With all of the gators in that backwater area apparently spooked and now extremely wary, we spent a few hours drifting down the Savannah River main run. Talk about wary gators — we couldn’t get within 80 yards of those main-river reptiles.
It was past midnight when we got back to our honeyhole. We made a quick swing through the area. We checked Fred and Fred Sr., both still there. But all of the other gators were spooked. We couldn’t get close. I was starting to think our night was over. It was 1 a.m. The slack-water spot was the best concentration of alligators we had found, and now we had apparently boogered up almost every gator in the area.
“Let’s check Fred Sr. one more time,” I said to Brad.
Brad used the soft light, and we could see from the faint neon glow about 60 yards away that Fred Sr. was still in the same spot, back in the thin branches of a little blowdown, close to the bank.
As I eased closer with the trolling motor, I wondered if I was about to settle for a lesser gator than the two we’d already passed up. I knew Brad didn’t want to settle, but I was thinking, what if we get in there, don’t shoot, and then spook this one, too? We had the next night to hunt, but these gators might not settle down. I was thinking that Fred Sr. was about a seven- or eight-foot alligator, not bad really for a do-it-yourself adventure.
I cut the trolling motor and the boat drifted in. Brad held the light, standing next to me on the casting deck. I drew the bow as we inched closer. The gator’s head was now visible below the water line, just the tips of its eyes above the surface. My pin settled in behind the head at an unseen body, my finger on the release.
“What do you think?” I asked again, wanting some validation that this was an alligator we wanted.
“Oh man, I think it’s a pretty good…”
Brad didn’t get the last words out. In an instant the arrow slammed home, and in an instant there was an explosion of water and mud. Two thoughts came to mind quickly — I never thought an alligator could move that fast, and that the amount and size of the area of churned up water that this wasn’t a seven-foot alligator.
“You got him!” Brad yelled, and then I saw him kneel quickly at the front of the boat, his hands working furiously — but too late. The line had wrapped around the bow light, and just that quickly the excitement turned to the lowest sinking feeling I’ve ever had on a hunt. Ever.
The line broke. There was now an alligator swimming around with an arrow in its back, and what should have been the beginning of the end of this hunt was back to the beginning. We would stay after this gator all night, the next day, the next night, however long it took to get another arrow in it, an arrow with a strong line and a float.
I’m not sure how much time went by, but I think it was only a couple of minutes when Brad said excitedly, “There’s a gator. That’s your gator! I can see the arrow sticking up!”
No stealth required now, I hit the trolling motor on high. The gator went down, and we drifted into the area, Brad with the light and me holding the other bow that was already rigged and ready with another bowfishing arrow and stronger cord attached to a plastic 16-oz. Pepsi bottle.
The gator came up again, this time only about 25 yards away. I drew the bow and stepped on the trolling motor, quickly closing the distance, and just as quickly the gator’s head began to slowly sink below the surface. I waited another second or two, the gator now submerged, the arrow still sticking up but going down slowly. I aimed — though the bow had no sights — for the water below where the arrow was sinking, and I hit the trigger on the release.
The 15-yard flight of the arrow was like slow motion — and I don’t mean because time stood still or some silly metaphor like that — but because the heavy bowfishing arrow dragging the heavy cord flew in slow motion. It wobbled and arched, and by some miracle it entered the water at the perfect spot, exactly where my eyes were watching the other arrow sink down.
There was a quick swirl of water, then nothing.
“Did you get him?” Brad asked excitedly.
“I don’t know.”
Then the Pepsi bottle bounced over the side of the boat.
“I guess I did, there goes the bottle. I can’t believe it, but we’ve got a line on that alligator.”
The bottle cut a wake across the water, trailing behind the unseen gator, and we followed. The bottle stopped, and we stopped. The bottle moved, and we followed. In the meantime, we both lamented the slow flight of the arrow and wondered how well the arrow would hold, and we both agreed that we didn’t trust it enough to try pulling the gator up to the boat. We rigged up another arrow.
“We’ve got nothing but time,” Brad said. “He has got to come up for air eventually.”
Ever watch a plastic Pepsi bottle by the dim light of a cloud-shrouded full moon, no sounds but those of the Savannah River swamp, knowing there’s an alligator down there somewhere that sooner or later will be close quarters to your jonboat?
After a full hour, I asked, “How long can an alligator stay down?”
“Maybe he’s dead. I think he might be dead,” Brad said.
We eased over to the bottle, and I reached down and picked up the line. I brought the slack in and neatly coiled it on my bow case so it wouldn’t be caught on anything if the gator made a run. I got to the end of the slack and pulled gently, afraid to put pressure on the arrow. I felt weight, a lot of weight. I gave the line to Brad, and I picked up the bow.
“Do you feel him?”
“Yeah, and he’s not dead,” Brad said, “but he’s coming up.”
Ever so slowly, patiently, Brad brought the line in. I stood ready, well aware that there was no way to conveniently bring the gator in so it would come up 10 feet from the boat. The only way was straight up.
“OK, there’s the arrow!”
Brad had to use both hands to pull the line, so he held the light between his legs. I drew the bow and leaned out, seeing the arrow. Then I saw the alligator. I was looking around the bow sight instead of through it, and when I saw the size of this animal I froze for a second or two. It came up right next to the boat, and it wasn’t much shorter than the boat. By the time I got over my shock and started to line up the shot, the gator swiped its tail and shot below the water.
We followed the bottle again. The movie Jaws came to mind. When the bottle stopped moving, Brad went to work again on the line, and this time when the gator came up, I got another arrow in it. Now two bottles were skimming and bouncing across the surface. When they stopped moving, we eased closer until Brad grabbed the heavier line and began to pull.
“There’s no weight. Nothing,” he said with a sickened look on his face. Then he pulled up an arrow, then another arrow, but one of the arrows had the white cord wrapped around it, and that line was still attached to the alligator. Later we figured out that at one time we didn’t have an arrow with a line attached to it in the alligator anymore. The line was only wrapped around the alligator’s body. We were able to pull the alligator up and put yet another arrow in it.
We didn’t wait long this time to start the process all over again. Only this time the bow was on the floor of the boat, and I had my .38 revolver out of the holster. The gator came up with its head facing me, not the angle recommended in the WRD packet sent with my gator tag, but I couldn’t see asking this alligator to kindly turn around. I aimed between its eyes, and squeezed the trigger.
“You got him!” Brad said as a deafening shot echoed across the water.
Yeah, I got him, but the alligator wasn’t dead. Two more times we repeated the long process of Brad pulling, the gator pulling back, slowly bringing it up. Two more shots. After that third shot the gator turned on its side and sank. Finally.
Putting the alligator in the boat wasn’t ever discussed. We pulled it up alongside the boat and used the trolling motor to slowly make our way to the boat ramp. We both climbed out the front of the boat at the ramp, and together we began to pull the gator up to the concrete. That’s when our dead alligator put its feet down and started pushing back toward deeper water.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “How many times do I have to shoot this thing?”
“Apparently at least once more,” Brad said, “and here’s the really bad news, you can’t shoot him over the concrete. We’re going to have to get back in the boat and pull him out to deeper water.”
That’s what we did, the possibility very real that the gator could make a run. Five hours after the first arrow, and we could still lose this alligator.
The gator didn’t make a run, and we didn’t lose it, although our adventure wasn’t over. The alligator was way too big for us to even budge it, so we backed the boat trailer down the ramp, tied the ropes to it, and dragged the beast up the ramp to flat ground. Once there, we both found it necessary to straighten out the equipment in the boat for about 30 minutes, neither of us completely confident that this unkillable alligator was actually dead. Finally, we mustered the courage to get to work. Daylight was breaking in the eastern sky. We finished skinning out the gator and cutting out all the meat at 2 p.m., 11 hours after the first arrow, and 19 hours after putting the boat in the river.
Fred Sr., the alligator we twice passed up that night, turned out to be exactly 10-feet and 1/4-inch long, way more alligator than we ever could have imagined tangling with. Our alligator hunt turned out to be way more of an adventure than we ever could have imagined. My best hunt ever.
Next month, GON will have full coverage of Georgia’s alligator season, including many more hunt stories and photos. If you have one to add, call (800) 438-4663.