LAKE OKEECHOBEE — Standing knee-deep in muck, I struggled to shove our airboat back into the water.
"You can't push it," Dave Markett said. "You've got to rock it."
The veteran alligator guide wasn't happy. We had just missed a chance to snag a 10-footer, but my bumbling cost us not only a trophy gator, but it also left us aground on a floating tussock island with a violent thunderstorm closing in from the east.
"We don't have much time," Markett said. "We do not want to be out here when that thing hits."
As daylight faded and the first raindrops fell, I stopped thinking about gators and started worrying about lightning.
"Let's go …" Markett said, his patience running short.
Then, inch by inch, the airboat began to slide toward the water. Markett hit the throttle, and we raced back to the boat ramp as the clouds opened up.
"Am I fired?" I asked as we sought shelter in his truck.
Markett didn't answer. He just bit his lip and stared into the darkness.
Florida's oldest sport
More than 1 million alligators live in Florida's rivers and lakes. Every summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission awards roughly 6,000 permits through a lottery system to hunters who want to bag the state's signature reptile.
But killing a gator isn't as easy as the popular television series Swamp People makes it out to be.
"We can't use firearms or bait hooks in Florida," said Markett, who has been hunting alligator mississippiensis for more than a decade. "Alligator hunting is a different ball game down here."
Most gator hunters either "snatch" their prey with a fishing rod and oversized treble hook or shoot them with a crossbow or traditional bow and arrow.
Some use a pole spear or harpoon, which is how Florida's original inhabitants hunted alligators.
In the mid 1900s, the number of alligators in Florida began to plummet as years of unregulated hunting took its toll. The state shut the season down in 1962, and five years later, the federal government put alligators on the endangered species list.
But sound management helped the population rebound, and in 1988 the state reopened the public hunting season. Last year, state officials issued 6,296 permits (each one good for two gators), which translated into 7,729 legally harvested reptiles.
The $271.50 permits are issued for particular harvest areas. Some lakes are better than others, but Florida's largest lake is always a big producer.
Snatch or spear?
When we hit the lake about 20 minutes before sunset, Markett spotted a big gator cruising across a patch of open water. He tried to snag the beast but missed.
I followed up with a second cast, but all I managed to catch were some cattails, which led to our grounding and my banishment to the pickup truck.
"I'd really feel more comfortable with a harpoon," I told Markett after the storm had passed and we set out again.
As a youngster, while other boys were playing baseball, I was using my mother's steak knives to make spears to hunt saber- toothed tigers I was convinced still prowled the woods behind my suburban New Jersey home.
"When you see a gator, I want you to throw that thing as hard as you can," Markett instructed. "They have pretty tough skin."
Cruising along the shoreline, we scoured the darkness with headlamps, looking for the red reflection off alligator eyes. We passed several 4- or 5-footers, but I wanted a big one, at least 8 feet in length.
Standing on the bow of the airboat, we came upon a 6-foot gator.
"Throw, throw ..." Markett yelled.
"Too small," I said. "I want something a little bigger."
About 30 minutes later, we spotted an 8-foot alligator as it slid off the bank about 25 feet away. I didn't think. My primordial alter ego took control, and I heaved the spear and hit the living dinosaur in a soft spot between the head and shoulder.
"Now what do I do?" I asked.
The chances of making a throw like that again were one in a million. The gator, unhappy with its predicament, tried to swim away, but the spearhead (attached to a rope) was imbedded beneath its thick hide, and foot by foot, I fought it back to the boat.
"Watch out. … It'll bite you," Markett said as the gator chomped down on the side of the boat. "Don't let it bite through the rope!"
The gator rolled several times, snapping at air, but eventually I got it close enough for Markett to pop it in the head with a bang stick (a pole with a .44-caliber Magnum cartridge embedded in the tip).
Then the guide quickly wrapped the gator's jaws with electrical tape, and together we hauled it into the boat.
"Nice shot with the spear," Markett said. Like a newbie dart player who scores a bull's-eye on the first throw, I dared not tell him that I could never repeat the feat.
"Let's get it on ice as quickly as we can," Markett said. "We don't want the meat to spoil.
"We will use every bit of this animal … meat, skin, teeth. Nothing will go to waste. That is the right thing to do."