If luck was in any way involved in Ryan Pridgen’s success at bagging an alligator in North Carolina’s first gator harvest season, it was only in being chosen for a tag. Him killing the lizard was anything but luck; the Raleigh sportsman spent enough hours, time, and energy to locate and kill the gator that he’d qualify for overtime if the whole thing was a job.
Pridgen’s gator, which had a visibly chopped-off tail, measured 7 1/2 feet in length, and he wouldn’t be happier if he’d killed a 14 footer in another state.
“I grew up in North Carolina, and I put in so much time, energy, and effort into killing this gator in my home state during its first season that I couldn’t be more proud. It was truly an awesome experience and even though it was tough, I’m really happy I stuck it out and killed one,” said Pridgen, who was one of only 20 hunters to be awarded a tag by the NCWRC for the 2018 gator season, which lasted a month.
Pridgen’s gator permit was for the Swan Quarter hunt zone, so he was limited to where he could hunt. And it didn’t take him long to realize that gators aren’t nearly as populous in Swan Quarter as they are in other areas.
“I did a lot of politicking and talking to everyone I could think of to find out about where to get a gator in Swan Quarter. I talked to homeowners, the game warden, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, and they all said the gators were plentiful in Juniper Bay,” he said.
The problem though, is that Juniper Bay was outside the Swan Quarter hunt zone. Just outside it. The two zones actually touch, and after hunting in Swan Quarter a few times, Pridgen put his hunting gear away and took his boat into Juniper Bay just to get a feel for how gators would react to his presence.
In the middle of the season, Hurricane Florence came through North Carolina, and even though it spared the Swan Quarter area of the worst, it flooded and brought enough bad weather to keep hunters off the water for several days.
Once Pridgen returned, the season was almost over. On Sept. 30, the last full hunting day, Pridgen had narrowed things down to the Swan Quarter Dike System, where he had seen a few gators during his first few hunts.
“I had to get permission from a landowner to access the Swan Quarter dike system, but I couldn’t get my big boat in there. So I had a smaller johnboat in the dike system, and used my big boat in the public waters,” Pridgen said.
With time running out on the season, Pridgen and his hunting partner Bert Brown moved back and forth between his big boat and the johnboat, pulling out all the stops on finding a gator. This was about his tenth time hunting during the gator season, and he had yet to see a gator over 6 feet in length within the Swan Quarter hunt zone. But that changed when he saw the 7 1/2 footer where he didn’t expect to see it.
After hunting all night and making five trips between public waters and the dike system, Pridgen dropped off a journalist who’d been on the boat hoping to capture some footage. From there, Pridgen drove to the dike system and saw a gator beside the boat ramp.
The gator quickly went under and popped up out of casting range, so Pridgen and Brown waited. When it resurfaced, Brown made a cast with a weighted treble hook on a big rod and reel. He hooked the creature, which swam away and pulled drag from the reel, eventually rendering the reel useless. Brown tried handlining the gator while Pridgen ran back to his truck for a 100-pound test nylon rope, which he attached to another weighted treble hook.
“I tossed that line out and slowly pulled it in until I felt it stop, then I yanked on it to set the hook. The gator started thrashing then, but we had better control of it with the rope, and after a fight, we finally got the gator’s head up and close enough to shoot it in the back of the head,” said Pridgen.
It was 11 a.m. when they finally put the gator away, and the two had been awake for over 36 hours straight.
According to the NCWRC, Pridgen’s gator is the only one that was killed during the season.
“It was a very challenging season for so many different reasons. I’m just thrilled that I stuck it out and hung in there when giving up would have been so much easier. I’m having a head mount made and getting the hide tanned, and would like to make a pair of boots with them. That will be a great way to preserve the memory,” he said.