CORNWELL — Roger McCulloch skipped a grizzly bear hunt in Alaska to drive 18 hours from his Ohio home to Central Florida with one mission in mind: shoot an alligator with bow and arrow. It was his fourth visit in four years to hunt the reptiles with Okeechobee guide captain Bobby Stafford.
"I love gator hunting," said McCulloch, who owns a construction business. "It's just the rush of it. I've hunted everything — caribou, bear, elk. Gators are tough critters."
Every summer since 1988, Florida has opened many of its lakes, rivers and swamps to a limited-time public alligator hunt. This year's hunt began Sunday and continues through Sept. 12.
Once listed as an endangered species and protected from harvest, the American alligator has bounced back to sustainable levels that can withstand hunting, said Steve Stiegler, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's alligator management program.
"Overall, the statewide alligator population is very healthy," Stiegler said, estimating gator numbers at about 1.3 million. "It's a natural resource we can make use of that's renewable."
Each year, the FWC surveys the gator population and determines the number of permits it will issue. For 2010, 6,260 permits were made available by lottery at $270 each, allowing each hunter to take two gators from one of about 130 assigned hunting zones around the state, including four at Lake Okeechobee.
Though gators as small as 18 inches can be legally bagged, few hunters would consider it worth the effort. Most aim for something closer to the Florida record of 14 feet, 5/8 inches, taken in 1997 at Lake Monroe in Seminole County.
By opening date, nearly 6,000 permits had been sold, leaving space for hunters who want to apply before the season closes Sept. 12. Last year, the state issued 6,296 permits, with hunters harvesting 7,844 animals.
Bagging a gator isn't as easy as it might seem. Hunters are not allowed to use guns to kill them. Instead, they may use pole spears, bow-and-arrow, or rod-and-reel to catch the animal, then use a bang-stick — a pole with an explosive charge on the end — to dispatch it at point-blank range before bringing it into a boat.
The bounty is theirs to keep or sell. Meat and hides often go to processors, becoming gator nuggets at roadside restaurants and shoes, belts and handbags in specialty stores.
But that's not likely to be a big moneymaker this year, said Jill Wood, who owns All American Gator Products in Hallandale Beach with her husband, Brian. Because of a surplus, prices for hides have dropped significantly, bringing $8-$15 per foot, depending on size, vs. $35-$40 per foot some previous years.
And though gator meat prices have remained stable at $5-$8 per pound, the meat is mostly in the tail — meaning the total market value of hide and meat together for a 10-foot gator could be as low as $150.
From those numbers, it's clear that gator hunting is a sport, not a moneymaking occupation. Unless, that is, you're a professional guide like Bobby Stafford.
Stafford charges $1,500 and up per hunt, supplying boat, gear, permits and crew. And though he doesn't promise success, he's known as a trophy hunter. A few years ago he guided McCulloch to a 12-foot, 1-inch monster that McCulloch — a part-time taxidermist — made into a full-size mount in his living room.
Because McCulloch's trophy room already is chock-full of stuffed game animals, he decided to aim for the barbecue grill during Sunday night's hunt: a gator in the 7- to 9-foot range.
Target in view
Shortly before sunset, on the Kissimmee River, his target came into view — an estimated 8-footer standing out in the open on a sandbar.
McCulloch stood up on the bow of Stafford's 21-foot bass boat, brought up his compound bow and nocked a heavy fiberglass arrow with a stainless-steel chisel point. The arrow was attached to 50 yards of 250-pound-test braided line on a push-button Zebco reel mounted on a broomstick with a float held by Stafford. The setup allows the hunters to retrieve the arrow, hit or miss.
About 15 yards from the gator, McCulloch shot it broadside, but the arrow bounced harmlessly off the bony, armor-like scutes on its back and landed in the bushes.
Surprisingly, the animal didn't budge.
Stafford quickly reeled in the line as McCulloch brought out an arrow. When both were ready, McCulloch pulled back and fired, but the arrow again bounced off the gator. This time, the animal wisely decided to duck into the water and disappear.
"An armor-plated gator," Stafford said.
The hunt continued long into the night, with Stafford's friend Dave Manna idling the boat upriver while Stafford and McCulloch scouted for gators with a head lamp. They followed one gator for nearly a mile before McCulloch got a shot — and missed.
Thrash and roll
About 1 a.m., McCulloch managed to hit a 6-footer. With the arrow lodged firmly below its chin, the gator thrashed and rolled next to the boat as Stafford held onto the line.
"Get a harpoon in him!" Stafford yelled to Manna.
Manna stuck it, but the point came out. He tried again, and this time it stayed in.
Stafford produced a bang-stick with a .44 Magnum charge, but before he could press the trigger, the gator's jaws closed around it. The guide managed to pull it free and dispatch the animal in the head. When it went limp, the three men hauled it aboard the bass boat, taped its jaws shut, and Stafford severed its spinal cord. Then they affixed the plastic FWC tag to its tail.
"You feel better now you hit one?" Stafford asked McCulloch.
McCulloch nodded. "I was starting to get upset."
Not 20 minutes later, the hunters bagged their second gator of the night — this one nearly 9 feet. With the animal safely dispatched and tagged and their limit reached, they were done.