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Want to bag a gator? The first chance to apply for a permit is underway

An American alligator shows off its teeth as it basks in the sun in a South Florida wetlands area. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has opened its first application period for permits for the annual alligator harvest. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
An American alligator shows off its teeth as it basks in the sun in a South Florida wetlands area. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has opened its first application period for permits for the annual alligator harvest. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 16, 2017

It's almost gator hunting season in Florida.

But before you board a johnboat, arm yourself with your weapon of choice and scan the swamp for scaly quarry, you need a state license and permit. And the first opportunity apply for a permit is now.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission opened the first phase of its application period on Friday. The deadline is May 22. The other application phases begin on May 26, June 9 and June 22.

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"These special night hunts provide a thrilling, hands-on hunting adventure," the fish and wildlife commission's 2017 alligator hunting guide proclaims. "Also, alligator meat is a delicious and healthy choice and the hide can be tanned and made into leather products."

The goal of the annual harvest, which began in 1988, is to keep the state's alligator population at a sustainable level. There are now more than 1.3 million gators in the state, a number that has remained stable for several years.

An application enters a would-be hunter into a random drawing for one of about 5,000 permits to be issued this year for the harvest season that begins Aug. 15 and ends Nov. 1. FWC holds the drawing within three days of the close of each application period.

About 10,000 people are expected to apply, according to the FWC.

Each permit authorizes the holder to take two alligators. The harvest areas and hunt dates are specific for each permit, and permits specify the boundaries or limitations of the harvest area. There are no harvest areas in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco or Hernando counties, but there are several in Polk County.

In 2016, hunters took 7,145 alligators — a 6.7 percent increase from 2015. The average length of alligator taken last year was 8 feet, 2.7 inches.

Those lucky enough to land a permit could be rewarded with some good hunting this year.

Drought conditions have lowered water levels throughout the state, shrinking the areas where gators can hide, said Mark Clemons, owner of Everglades Adventures in Clewiston.

"The flip side is that concentrates your hunters," into those same spots, said Clemons, who is now in his 32nd year as a hunting guide.

First-time hunters who don't know their spears from their bang sticks should hire a guide, Clemons said. His business includes a processing center so hunters can turn over their catch.

While the lakes and rivers are lower, the market for gator hide is flooded.

Last year, tanneries paid as much as $40 per foot. This year, sellers will be lucky to get half that.

"You're going to have to kill a couple of eight footers at least just to break even," Clemons said, noting that a license and permit cost about $300 for a Florida resident. "Some of the guys that have hunted a lot, they'll probably be okay, but it's probably going to be hard for a new guy to make any money."

Still, monetary considerations are secondary to the adrenaline rush from landing a massive gator, especially in a social media age. Who cares about money if your vanquished reptile goes viral?

Clemons said about 80 percent of his customers are trophy hunters looking to bag a gator of at least nine feet.

But the big gators, he said, are getting smarter every year.

"In 1988, they hadn't been hunted in years," Clemons said. "The trophy alligator has gotten through all those seasons of not being harvested, so he's pretty much got it figured out. There's a lot more bigger guys out there, but they're also a lot more wary."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes