“There’s another one,” guide Jay Iadonisi announced, illuminating the alligator’s red eye 50 yards starboard.
The hunters on the shooting platform of Iadonisi’s boat looked in the direction of the beam of light. The shining eye eased away with an air of indifference, rather than fear. Using the trolling motor, Iadonisi positioned the boat alongside the gator, swimming in the beam of light.
“He’s a 10-footer,” Iadonisi said, “not the biggest we have, but still a trophy. Take him if you want him.”
The hunter raised his crossbow and stopped the red beam of the laser sights just behind the big gator’s head. The bolt left the gun with a metallic twang, trailing heavy line in its wake. All hell broke loose as the arrow found its mark, and the big gator bucked like a bee-stung Brahma bull, erupting in a geyser of water as it bolted. A split-second later, the attached line reached its length, jerking the float from its mount on the crossbow and snapping the shooter backward. The chase was on!
Alligator hunting in South Carolina enters its third season on Sept 11. The duty of managing the season for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources is entrusted to biologist Jay Butfiloski, coordinator of the alligator and furbearer program.
“There’s a rumor that our alligator season came to be because of a rare alligator attack that occurred in Berkeley County during the latter part of 2007,” Butfiloski said. “The attack brought the subject a lot of public attention. In truth, there was already pending legislation that had passed the state senate and was waiting in the house to be heard. Our chief of wildlife statewide projects, Derrell Shipes, was instrumental in getting our season started. It’s largely modeled after the Georgia program, which opened about five years before ours. It was passed by the house shortly after, and we opened our first draw-hunt season in September 2008.”
The inaugural season made available 1,000 alligator tags, which represented a possible harvest of one percent of South Carolina’s estimated population of more than 100,000 alligators. According to Butfiloski, the anticipated harvest is even less than that.
“Based on our data from 2008 and 2009, we expect to see about 80 to 85 percent of the applicants who are drawn for tags actually complete the transaction by purchasing the tag, which costs $100 for state residents,” he said. “The success rates over the last two years for those who did purchase tags was 45 percent in 2008 and 53 percent in 2009, (which) amounted to less than 500 alligators each year. For the 2010 season, we are offering 1,200 permits, so the prediction is that we might reach 500 harvested animals this year.”
With plenty of gators roaming the lower half of the state and a month-long open season — Sept. 11 to Oct. 9 — a small cottage industry of guides, retailers and game processors has emerged. Iadonisi, from St. Matthews, has offered guided trips for hunters since the season opened three years ago, advertising that if you get a tag, he’ll take care of the rest.
Once the season opens, gator hunting is legal either day or night. Iadonisi prefers to hunt at night because gators feed and are more active after dark. It’s also when bigger gators become most active; although there is a 4-foot minimum for harvested gators, most hunters are after larger specimens.
“Probably 90 percent of hunters can’t judge the size of an alligator,” Iadonisi said. “At night, you judge size by the distance between the nose and the eyes; each inch is roughly one foot of body length. Most people want to kill a big gator; in the industry, anything over nine feet is considered a trophy. There are bigger ones out there, but you’ve got to bear in mind that a 12-foot gator can weigh over 700 pounds. That’s a lot of animal to drag over the side of a boat or tow back to the ramp, and a ton of work to process.”
Capture methods for alligators run the gamut from bowfishing with archery tackle to snagging with heavy-duty fishing tackle. Iadonisi prefers to use a crossbow, complete with big-game, breakaway arrowheads attached to a 25-yard length of 600-pound bowfish line tied to a 2-quart float. The crossbow comes complete with laser sights.
“When hunting at night, we spotlight for gators. Their eyes light up in the beam, allowing us to ease up on them with a trolling motor. I run the bowfishing lights, and we can usually get within 10 yards of the gator — close enough to determine its size and position the hunter for a shot,” Iadonisi said.
While they make alligator hunting sound easy, both Iadonisi and Butfiloski agree that gators have received an education over the past two seasons and are starting to wise up, despite both harvest numbers and sizes increasing since the new era of hunting began. The days of a big gator standing his ground because he’s used to being king of the swamp are fleeting.
“The smaller gators often pop under as soon as you hit them with the spotlight,” said Iadonisi. “A big gator who hasn’t seen a lot of pressure may swim off slow, or he may just lay on the bottom ’til you pass by. In clear water, you might still see him laying on the bottom. That’s when I swap over from the crossbow to the harpoon. It works like a tag gun; you have to stick him hard like you were trying to pin him to the bottom, but in truth, you’ll never pin a gator with the harpoon. Stick him and pull back; that attaches the break-away head under his hide, and then you can start wearing him down.”
Iadonisi believes in using a big float to help keep pressure on the gator. A mistake that many hunters make when fighting an alligator with rod or line is that when he sinks to the bottom, they let him rest. Gators don’t have a lot of stamina, but they are extremely strong, and letting them rest will only extend the fight and lessen your chances of getting him in the boat.
“Keep pressure on him from the time you get a line on him until he’s wrapped up,” Iadonisi said, “but don’t tie him to the boat! An alligator will roll when he’s pinned, and he may roll himself right into the boat with you. You also don’t want to pull so hard you pull the broadhead or hook loose. I like to get at least two lines in him in case one pops loose or he tangles up on a stump. As soon as you can, get a loop around his neck; I like to use a big grapple hook with half-inch nylon line to get control of him. Only after I have him under control do I move in for the kill.”
The recommended kill tactic is with a large-caliber handgun or bang stick. Hunters who open fire on a gator while it is still being played are wasting ammo and increasing the chances of an accident. Try to get the gator’s head clear of the water for a clean shot and place it at the base of the skull to sever the spinal cord. Alligators have several nerve centers along the spinal column, so expect the animal to still move its legs and potentially pack a punch with its tail — the only fate worse is being bitten. Iadonisi recommends using a large-bladed knife to make doubly-sure the spine is cut before putting a gator in the boat.
“The final steps are to gaff him through the lower jaw and pull him up to the side of the boat so you can tape those jaws shut with some good duct tape,” he said. “Then, depending on the size, hoist him across the back of the boat and tie his legs and tail down; if you can’t get him in the boat, start towing him back to the landing.”