LEESBURG, Fla. Florida's alligator population is expected to shrink a bit during the next couple of months as more than 5,100 hunters fan out across lakes, rivers, canals and swamps for the annual statewide public harvest, which opened Aug. 15.
Each hunter is allowed to take two gators per permit. With an estimated 1.25 million gators living in Florida waterways, some 10,000 fewer reptiles will be left swimming around when the season ends Nov. 1.
Two eight-footers were turned into gourmet entrees, handbags and briefcases after a Labor Day weekend hunt on Lake Griffin near Leesburg.
Bradenton, Fla., dentist Tom Bevelock wanted to treat two turkey-hunting buddies from Virginia, Bob Kolich Jr. and son Bob, to a night of catching dangerous reptiles aboard captain Phil Walters' airboat.
Armed only with snatch hook rigs and primitive harpoons, the party set out at sunset to scout the lake's cattail-lined perimeter and adjoining Ocklawaha River.
Walters, who runs Gatorguides.com in Tampa, Fla., said they chose Lake Griffin because one of his clients killed a near-13-footer there last year a major comeback from a mysterious die-off that killed more than 450 large gators between 1997 and 2005.
Eventually, wildlife biologists figured out that the gators had been eating mostly gizzard shad a fish containing an enzyme that inhibits the absorption of vitamin B-1, causing deadly brain lesions in reptiles that consume it. A commercial fisherman was hired to harvest more than a million pounds of shad from the lake in 2002, forcing the gators to vary their diet. During the next few years, the population increased, and with it, the number of trophy animals.
Two weeks ago on Lake Griffin, Walters and his clients located few potential targets while the sun was out. But once it got dark, they shone headlamps on numerous widely spaced pairs of red lights which is what illuminated gator eyes look like.
After a few misses with a pole spear, Walters came upon his quarry in the river, lurking in a stand of cattails. Roaring up in the airboat, the guide cast a heavy spinning rod loaded with 80-pound braided line tied to a 14/0 treble hook weighted with an ounce of lead. When he felt the hook bite and saw the stiff rod bend, he handed it to the elder Kolich Jr.
"Don't give him any slack!" Walters said while Kolich fought the reptile as if it were a diving billfish.
To ensure the catch, Walters struck it with a harpoon holding a nearly two-inch-long stainless-steel dart. The double-hooked gator rolled up to the surface, hissing and biting the airboat's gunwales as Kolich's son shot video.
"You wonder why my boat is so ugly," Walters joked.
After a few minutes, the animal stopped thrashing long enough for Walters to clamp its jaws shut. That enabled the senior Kolich and Bevelock to wrap several feet of electrical tape around the toothy maw and heave it halfway onto the airboat's bow.
At this point, it would have been legal to dispatch it with a bang stick, or explosive charge pressed point-blank against the top of the head. But Walters doesn't believe in bang sticks after one of his clients almost blew his thumb off a few years back. So Kolich had to use a sharp knife through the skull to sever the spinal cord. Only after Walters had pronounced it dead was it brought on board.
With the tip of its tail missing, it was about eight feet long.
Walters explained that the truncated appendage probably was inflicted by another gator.
"They fight over territory," he said.
The hunters resumed the search to fill their second permitthis time with the younger Kolich in the angler seat.
For about two hours, Walters and his clients combed the lake without success. But after they returned to the river, they found the pair of ruby running lights they were looking for.
Walters pointed the airboat straight at the red eyes, and Bevelock and the younger Kolich nailed the animal with harpoons at 20 mph.
After untangling it from the ropy tendrils of lily pads, the men safely harvested their second eight-footer of the night.
"Versace or Louis Vuitton?" Walters said, jokingly.
Then it was time to head back to the boat ramp.
The hunters said they planned to skin the animals themselves for fashion accessories and share the tail meat with friends.
In case of encountering skepticism at their tale of two swamp monsters, they had video to prove it.
Said the elder Kolich, a construction supervisor: "I'm going to show it to my subcontractors."