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Schooling Gators Near Lake Okeechobee
[Okeechobee, FL.–] In all his years of hunting alligators in and around Lake Okeechobee, captain Bobby Stafford had never seen anything like it: more than two dozen of the reptiles– several of them more than ten feet long–congregated in a slough about half the size of a football field.
“This is what you see when you go to Lion Country Safari or a gator farm,” he marveled.
It was a welcome sight on the afternoon of Aug. 15– opening day of Florida’s annual statewide public gator hunt which runs to Nov. 1. The hunt, which began in 1988 after the creatures came off the federal Endangered Species List, is conducted on more than 60 lakes, rivers, swamps and canals in 65 counties. More than 13,000 residents and visitors applied this year, with more than 6.000 awarded permits that entitle them to take two gators. Florida’s gator population is estimated at about 1.3 million and has been stable for years, with harvest quotas set to ensure sustainability.
Stafford– a veteran hunting and fishing guide with okeechobeecharters.com–was escorting four clients on their first gator hunt– the Nickerson family from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Albert Nickerson said he has hunted all over the world, and wanted to bring wife Kristin and sons Dutch, 16, and Michael, 14, on a family outing. The goal was to bag one gator each for Dutch and Michael while Kristin and Albert shot video of the adventure.
The teens rode with Stafford on his airboat while the parents rode with Warren Sexton, Stafford’s assistant. The party bumped along a narrow trail through a swamp adjacent to the Kissimmee River, dodging willows and almost getting stuck on a sandy bank, arriving at the target-rich slough after a half-hour ride. As if her first airboat trip weren’t exciting enough, Kristin counted 26 gators. Now it was time for the hunters to select their targets.
Stafford employs a seemingly unorthodox method for hunting gators that’s also very effective: casting a heavy conventional fishing rod baited with a whole, raw chicken into the water, then idling away from the floating bait and waiting for a take. That’s what he did this time, and within a couple minutes, a small gator went for it. With many larger quarry available, Stafford reeled the bait out of Junior’s reach and re-cast in the direction of the big ones.
It didn’t take long for Senior to ease up and swallow the chicken, which by law can not contain a hook– only a wooden dowel. Michael took the rod which bent in a steep arc, and the fight was on.
Stafford idled the airboat close to the gator, now rolling and thrashing wildly near the surface. Dutch stuck it with a harpoon to ensure it couldn’t break off. After a few more minutes, the brothers brought it close enough to be bang-sticked– shot point-blank in the head with an explosive charge. The gator’s jaws were taped shut and it was dragged over to Sexton’s airboat for safekeeping.
“Awesome, intense,” was all Michael could manage as he shook his head in wonder.
The second target of the night went much quicker: snagged in the hide by a snatch hook cast from shore. Stafford picked up the teens in the airboat for closer hand combat to finish the fight. The gator was harpooned, terminated with the bang stick, taped and loaded aboard for the trip back to the airboat launch. Stafford said it was one of his shortest gator hunts ever– completed well before dark.
The Nickersons wanted to eat the tail meat and have the hides processed into boots, belts and briefcases. The gators certainly were big enough to satisfy their wishes. One measured ten feet exactly; the other, 10 feet, five inches.
“A friend of a friend said, ‘you ought to try this,’ and it sounded exciting,” Albert said. “I want my boys to have this memory for the rest of their lives.”
But the outdoor adventures weren’t over. With a few more days left of summer vacation, the Nickersons booked Stafford for a bass fishing trip on Lake Okeechobee.
They caught about 20 up to four pounds.