Florida is world renowned for its white sand beaches, incredible fishing, and tropical weather, all of which draw millions of tourists to the sunshine state every year. However, miles from the coastline and hidden in the swamps of Central Florida, the Alligator offers thrill seekers an exciting opportunity to chase this ancient lizard.
About the American Alligator
Florida is home to the American Alligator, a species of alligator that typically maxes out at around 15 feet, weigh nearly 1000 pounds, and be up to 50 years old. These huge lizards typically live in or around swamps, lakes, or slow moving rivers. Being cold blooded reptiles, they need these water sources to regulate their body temperature and utilize the water to cool off and the banks of such areas to warm themselves in the sun. They also rely on this water for hunting, as alligators are ambush predators that hunt near the water’s edge.
Due to their ability to hold their breath for long periods of time, they will sit below the surface and wait for an unsuspecting animal to get too close to the water before lunging upwards and capturing their prey. Gators have been around for 65 million years, with fossils and findings dating them to the Cretaceous Period. Though not technically dinosaurs, alligators lived alongside many of the dinosaurs that are known today.
Florida Alligator Hunting
Florida Alligator hunting is up close and personal. Here, alligators can only be hunted with a rifle on private land. While there are a number of ranches and farms that raise alligators that can be shot with a gun, the majority of gators are taken on public waterways that do not allow guns. Here, the only firearm allowed is called a “bangstick”. The bangstick comprises of a powerhead, the firing mechanism, attached to a long metal pole. When a gator is within reach, the hunter will push the powerhead into the soft spot in its head and the round will be fired. However, getting the gator that close is the difficult, but highly exciting part.
Gators are typically taken using two different techniques, the first of which utilizes bait. Typical baits include things like chicken and beef lung, and are smelly pieces of meat that will draw in gators from a distance. However, it is illegal to use a hook in conjunction with bait in Florida. Because of this, hunters will secure a wooden peg that is attached to their line in the bait. Alligators have something called a palatal valve in their throats that is designed to keep water out of their stomach and lungs while under water. Once a gator has fully swallowed the bait, this palatal valve will trap the wooden peg and keep the gator attached to the line. After the hunter believes the gator has swallowed the bait, they will slowly ease up to it and attempt to get another line on the gator, using a variety of weighted treble hooks attached to fishing rods or hand lines, as well as harpoons and crossbows. Once the gator is secured with several lines and is tired out, hunters will bring him to the surface and use the deadly bang stick to dispatch him.
The second technique simply removes the beginning baiting process and goes directly to snagging. Here, hunters will try to get close to a gator, often using its bubble trail to dial in on its location, and snag it with a fishing rod and treble hook. This technique is much more engaging than baiting, but can be more difficult. Finally, because gators are not considered game animals in Florida, it is legal to use recorded calls when hunting them. This being so, hunters will sometimes use speakers playing a variety of mating calls and alligator distress calls to help lure them to your bait.
Florida Alligator Hunting Regulations
Alligators are a highly-regulated species in Florida, and there are two ways to get tags. First, the easiest way to get a tag is through an outfitter. Outfitters will purchase a certain number of tags each season, so booking a hunt with a guide guarantees you a tag. The other way to get a tag is through an application and draw process. Hunters must apply for tags in mid May, and must specify the top units they would like to draw for. If you are lucky enough to draw, you will receive two tags and a trapping license. It costs $272 for residents, and $1,022 for non-residents, but you only have to pay if you draw, as you will be refunded the full cost if you are unsuccessful. There are four different application phases, so if you are not successful, you can continue to apply several more times.
In addition, there are 4 harvest periods with consecutive start dates. There is a great deal of strategy on what unit and for what phase you apply for to increase your odds. For example, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission releases how many tags are available for each unit. The units with more available tags may give you better odds of drawing, but if they are popular units more people will be applying for those specifically. In addition, tags for phase 1 hunts are likely more sought after than those for phase 2, as the phase 1 hunts give you the first shot of the season.
Harvesting Your Gator
Unlike most game, alligator meat is not the most valuable portion of the animal. Both the leathery hide and skull from an alligator are very valuable, and, because of this, many processing operations are willing to process your gator in exchange for some portion of the animal. For example, if you only wish to keep the meat from your gator, the processing outfit can clean and package the meat for you in return for the skull and hide. Other people simply use the gator as a source of income and sell the whole animal for a healthy profit. However, if you want to keep everything, beautiful full body mounts, skull mounts, and preserved hides can be made from your gator. Lastly, the meat from a gator is delicious and a local favorite throughout much of the southeast.