When the clock struck noon, months of anticipation and preparation finally came to fruition — gear checked, licenses securedand hearts pounding in anticipation of the alligator season. Boats were lined up awaiting the nod from the local representative of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, signaling the start of alligator season.
This trip was three years in the making for me, having finally been drawn for one of the coveted and limited alligator tags allotted by the SCDNR. Tag in hand, I had waited a long time for opening day.
When alligator season opened in South Carolina in 2008 it went by largely unnoticed, but that has certainly changed over the past several years. Applications are up considerably from its original launch; in 2011 and 2012, SCDNR received approximately 6,400 applications for the 1,200 tags available. According to Jay Butfiloski, alligator project director for SCDNR, “This is due to many factors; information leaked, magazines published pictures of huge gators and the television show Swamp People have all contributed to the increase of applications.”
Hunters from across the country began in late July to search their mailboxes for the coveted tags, which are computer drawn after an application process that began in May with online registration. It’s true that some sportsmen seem to draw a tag annually, while others have to build preference points to get a tag, but Butfiloski assures sportsmen that the computer drawing is random, and those with preference points have a higher percentage of being drawn for a tag.
Once a tag is drawn, it is specified for one of four zones: the Pee Dee, Midlands, Middle Coastal and Southern Coastal. Hunting begins at noon the second Saturday of September and ends at noon the second Saturday of October.
The ability to hunt alligators day and night allows for a greater success rate. Alligators seem to be more active and easier to find when the sun sets, but this alone doesn’t make it easier. Boat maneuverability, finding alligators and stealth are all factors to consider when hunting at night. The difference may just lie in changing tactics as the sun sets. What works during the day will not necessarily work at night.
“Getting a gator at night is different, but (it) can be easier,” said R.J. Molinere Jr. of Swamp People. “When hunting them at night, the biggest mistake people make is turning off their boat engines and trying to get too close.”
Molinere related it to other wildlife that is observed while in a truck. “Notice when you see a deer from your truck,” he said. “If you keep the truck running ,you can sit there and watch them all day. Turn it off, and they run. Same thing with alligators — keep the engine running, and you can slowly get close enough to touch them.”
While you may not get close enough to touch, following this tactic, he insists, will get you closer to your alligator.
“Alligators are alligators anywhere; I’ve hunted them in many states, and what works where I am will work where you are,” he said. “When you shine a light on a big gator, never hit him directly with the light; he will go down every time. Keep the light out of his eyes, and you can get a lot closer.”
Many hunters prefer to use a red filter over their light, believing alligator cannot see the light as easily. While this reduces the distance you can see, it does seem to highlight their eyes somewhat and tends to allow you to get a lot closer to them to investigate.
While many methods are allowed to hunt alligators in South Carolina — from harpoons to crossbows and compound bows using fishing arrows — snatch hooks attached to a stout rod and reel is the preferred method.
“Almost everyone has fishing equipment, and getting snatch hooks and heavy line is a minimum investment compared to purchasing a compound bow or crossbow and the necessary accessories for an alligator hunt,” Butfiloski said. “The weighted 12/0 treble hook is the most common.”
Also, using archery equipment or harpoons requires hunters to get a lot closer to an animal that is reclusive and shy by nature. Snatch hooks allow hunters to reach out greater distances, and they also allow for casting to alligators that have recently submerged.
Watch where the alligator is resting, and even if he submerges, there is still a chance to hook up with a well-placed cast and a snatch hook, but hooking or shooting an alligator with a bow is just the beginning of a fight that can last for several hours.
Kevin Davis, who guides for gators out of Blacks Camp on Lake Moultrie, said, “Once you hook him, there is no guarantee that you will get that gator to the boat.” Big alligators will fight hard and fight for a long time. Molinere agrees ,saying that “When you get a line in a gator, don’t try and force him to the boat. Take your time.”
Multiple lines are often required to get an alligator to the boat, and by state law, the alligator cannot be dispatched until it is “subdued and restrained along the side of the boat.” Most hunters will fight the alligator its head before dispatching it with a handgun or a bangstick, a blast to the base of the neck that severs the spinal column and causes immediate death.
“More than anything else, the alligator season has brought value to a largely misunderstood animal is South Carolina” Butfiloski said. “The season is not being used as a population- control tool; we are harvesting a minimal amount of animals for our population, but what it has done is brought significant value to this animal.”
As its popularity has grown, a cottage industry has developed around alligator hunting.
“Now we have guides, meat and hide processors, equipment manufacturers, marinas, restaurants (and) hotels all earning significant income from this alligator season,” Butfiloski said.
And for years, SCDNR issued permits to take care of nuisance alligators — the occasional rogue alligator that ends up in a subdivision or farm pond — but there’s no longer a need.
“What we have (now) more than anything else,”he said, “are alligators acting more like alligators.”
Butfiloski said that as the average size of alligators is reduced — the overall size of harvested alligators has gone down each year there’s been a season — he expects the applications for permits to go down. It’s legal to harvest an alligator that is four feet or greater, however most want an alligator that is in excess of 10 feet, with a 13-foot alligator being the ultimate prize.
“What most don’t understand is that a 13-foot alligator may be in excess of 50 years old,” Butfiloski said. “It takes a long time to replenish that population. We are looking at basically a generation, to replenish a depleted population of excessively large alligators.
“While we are only harvesting a few hundred alligators of the estimated population of 100,000 annually, it’s still a significant impact on the population. It’s true that every year, alligators in excess of 13 feet are harvested; however, the average size is declining, not by much, but it is declining. In 2011, the average size alligator harvested was just over nine feet. While in 2010, it was almost 10 feet.
“It’s virtually impossible to guess the population of large alligators out there, but with the time it takes to grow large alligators, it’s safe to say that the number is declining due to the harvest.”
Of the four zones, the data shows that Southern Coastal and Middle Coastal zones are the best places to harvest a gator. In the 2011 and 2012 seasons, hunters took 265 gators from the Southern Coastal, 260 from the Middle Coastal, 235 from the Pee Dee and 167 from the Midlands.
It’s important to point out that the majority of the alligators harvested from the Midlands and Middle Coastal zones are coming from the Santee Cooper systems. While the two coastal zones have the highest harvest, the largest average size is coming from the Pee Dee, with tagged alligators averaging better than nine feet over the past two seasons.
“The Pee Dee zone holds a lot of alligators,” said guide Marshall French of Duck Bottom Plantation near Sumter, who pointed out that the Pee Dee Zone is home to several large rivers that hold plenty of gators: the Great Pee Dee and Little Pee Dee, the Waccamaw, Santee and South Santee. Couple this with Winyah Bay, and there is a huge expanse of opportunity to harvest gators in excess of nine feet.
French said the best places to look for alligators are in the sloughs and backwaters off of the main river channels, away from most of the boat traffic.
“Alligators can’t handle a lot of pressure; they don’t like being harassed. Finding those that are alone is your best bet,” he said.
R.J. Molinere agrees. “Big gators will usually be alone and will keep out other subordinate gators. Find the food and you will find the alligator,” he said, adding that big gators like to feed on mullet and shad. “If you can find schools of these fish a big gator won’t be too far.”
As you move closer to the coast, alligators become less plentiful. While some are found in Winyah Bay and other saltwater bays and sloughs, alligators cannot tolerate saltwater for long. Butfiloski said you can find alligators in saltwater, and brackish water, but “concentrate at or above the salinity line for the best results.”
Floating along the rivers looking for gators sunning along the bank or swimming along the surface is the best method. Once a gator is spotted, the hunter must decide if it’s one he wants to target.
Our hunt focused on the Santee and South Santee rivers and all of the old rice fields between them. The old canals and creeks between these rivers form a maze that can be a challege to negotiate at night, even with a GPS unit. As the tide rises, the rice fields flood and gators move into the reeds. Try and concentrate your hunt on the falling tide, when receding water pushes gators out of the cover.
We were somewhat surprised at the number of small alligators; at sunset, we could see dozens of eyes reflecting in our spotlight. After a few hours, we chose which ones we wanted to investigate.
“If you can see a distinct gap between his eyes, he’s worth looking at closer.” French said. “The bigger the gap, the bigger the gator.”
We were on the water 18 hours on opening day, and while we saw some nice gators, we were hoping for something better. We saw some true monsters, but they eluded us and kept us coming back looking for them. In the ninth hour of our third day, I finally hooked up. As we neared a bend in the creek, an alligator rose to the surface a mere 30 feet from the bow of the boat, and an accurate cast with my surf rod allowed for a hookup. The fight was far more than I expected. If you have caught large fish, you know what a good fight is, but hooking into a 9-foot alligator is a different thing altogether. It took a solid 90 minutes to get this alligator alongside of the boat, where one shot from a .38 ended the battle.
Three years of applications and nearly 40 hours of hunting brought it all to a great climax. Alligator season will continue to draw people, and the pursuit is an experience to be relieved for years to come. Hooking into a 500- to 600-pound alligator is the fight of your life; getting him to the boat is an accomplishment in itself. Bagging one is quite an achievement. As the season continues, if you haven’t tagged your gator, try the rivers of your area; you will find more gators that have experienced less hunting pressure than in other areas.