Swamp Creature

Angling for Alligators. Jay Coyle's Telltales from our August 2011 issue.

August Telltales
Steve Haefele

"I won the lottery. … I got Lake Istokpoga,” announced my son Casey after weeding a state notice from the mail. It was not Powerball, but a permit to hunt Alligator Mississippiensis (the American Alligator), and Lake Istokpoga is home to some of the largest. Our fishing pal and gator hunting veteran Captain Kitchell would head the expedition aboard the Squeal Bitch, his 18-foot aluminum hog-hunting vessel — ergo the name. Because I had wisely declined the position of second mate, our pal Jon jumped at the chance to prove he was a genuine Floridian and a true Florida Gator — the University of Florida being his alma mater.

While it is not mentioned in the tourist guides, gator hunting is something of an institution in Florida, since the Sunshine State is overrun with both meat-eating reptiles and slow-moving golfers. Gators are not picky eaters and wouldn’t think twice before dining on the links. While this may seem like nature’s way of providing balance, the state sides with the duffers and developers, and much of Florida’s marshland has been filled in and pocked with golf holes. Each year the state issues gator permits in lottery fashion, and a lucky few hunters wander into the swamp for “adventure.”

Jon arrived at our door just after dusk dressed for a day of fly-fishing on the flats. I suggested that mosquito netting, snake boots and camo were the preferred attire for the evening. Casey’s gator hunting outfit had smelled so bad after last year’s hunt that he had thrown it out. “No worries,” insisted Jon, who, as a yacht sales veteran, is a master at seeing the bright side of things. Still, later that evening I sensed things had headed downhill when he called me on his cell phone from the “bait shop.”

Lorenzo’s Meat Products is a small butcher shop that serves Florida’s animal theme parks and specializes in downer-cow. For you city folks, these are cows that keel over before their time. Like traditional turkey on the holidays, Lorenzo’s stocks the gator’s favorite cut each season — putrefied cow lung.

“It’s like a horror movie; the guy is dressed in a bloody smock and carrying a machete,” Jon explained. I will spare further details of the conversation. Suffice it to say that the trailer where these lungs were stored was not refrigerated and, while the smell might excite a hungry gator, it was causing Jon great distress. In fact, it was the last I heard from him that evening and to this day he refuses to discuss the details of the gator’s apprehension. Thanks to interviews with Casey and Captain Kitchell, however, I was able to piece the story together.

The buoyant beef lung was secured to a Clorox bottle with a length of 400-pound monofilament and something called mule tape. At about 10 p.m. the Clorox bottle moved, indicating a gator had taken the bait. Captain Kitchell deployed a grapple and snagged the beast, lifting it easily since it was consumed with enjoying its meal. When it surfaced, the crew and the gator stared at one another in disbelief. “We need a bigger boat!” shouted Jon as the gator became agitated. Casey and Captain Kitchell fought the thrashing beast astern while Jon kept his distance, or as he insists, “manned the helm.”

“Shoot it again. … It’s still moving,” Jon ordered, as they prepared to drag the lifeless beast up the boat ramp with Captain Kitchell’s pickup truck.

With an LOA of 13 feet 7 inches and a displacement of more than 800 pounds, it was the largest gator caught that season. While most of it became wallets, pocketbooks, boots and greasy deep-fried “gator bits” (a tourist favorite), a commemorative mount with jaws agape and jowls bellowing is now the centerpiece of our living room. This past Christmas “Gary” (the gator) looked almost cute in his Santa hat. Jon the Gator, meanwhile, is shopping for a new fly-fishing outfit!