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Florida alligator hunters stalk reptiles with spears, harpoons, more during harvest window

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 10/16/2019 By Patrick Connolly, Orlando Sentinel

On a recent, gusty evening on Lake Okeechobee, pairs of eyes gazed out of the water, hunting for dinner. Slitted, yellow-green, reptilian eyes.

What those eyes may not have noticed is that the alligators, virtually at the top of the natural food chain, were also being sized up for meat and hide by human hunters.

Capt. Bob Stafford is an example of such a hunter, someone with more than 20 years of experience gator hunting and who now leads charter fishing and hunting trips through his business, Okeechobee Charters.

He’s one of potentially thousands of sportsmen and women who receive permits for the statewide annual alligator harvest, which runs Aug. 15-Nov. 1, from Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A history of the hunt

Alligators are abundant in Florida. News reports regularly surface with alligators crossing Florida roads, climbing fences or even breaking into kitchens.

Estimates of the gator population in Florida currently number 1.3 million, which might sound hard to believe when considering they were on the brink of extinction decades ago.

“In the mid- to late-1800s, and then extending all the way until the 1950s, there was unregulated hunting of alligators in the U.S., mostly in Florida and Louisiana, but in other states as well,” said Adam Rosenblatt, a Ph.D. ecologist and assistant professor at University of North Florida.

In the 1950s and ’60s, with alligator populations dwindling, a concerned public began lobbying state governments to put restrictions on hunting.

A bigger turning point came when alligators were added to the federal Endangered Species Act in 1967 and the Lacey Act the same year, which outlawed trading skins over state lines. Meanwhile, alligator farming became popular and drove down the price of hides. The reptiles rebounded in huge numbers in the decades to follow.

“They’re probably the greatest conservation success story in the history of the United States,” Rosenblatt said. “They’re one of the few species that we successfully brought back from the brink of extinction.”

In 1988, the Florida FWC offered hunters the opportunity to harvest alligators legally for the first time due to public demand for such a program. Plus, the hunt helps the FWC manage gator populations in conjunction with their Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program.

After all, fully-grown alligators have few, if any, predators in the wild.

That’s where people like Stafford come in.

It’s no easy task

In the charter business, it’s important to first figure out what the customer wants. With Stafford’s charters starting at $1,500, customer satisfaction is a big part of his job.

Some trophy hunters want to nab a big 12-footer or more. Some just want to snag any gator longer than five or six feet, perhaps more interested in the experience of the hunt.

Such was the case with Parker Westphal and Tanner Bellinger, two Michiganders who joined Stafford, along with his wife, Norma, and son Robert, one evening on Lake Okeechobee.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the start time of the legal hunting window, we set out onto the water, conscious of how much daylight was left. Legal hunting time ends at 10 a.m. the following morning, but searching for alligators in the dark can be challenging.

Stafford and the hunters from Michigan, binoculars in hand, gazed about in hopes of spotting a lingering reptile. It was a windy evening, which caused gators to stay out of the open waters and closer to shore in calmer spots.

Not even 15 minutes later, Stafford stopped the boat, hoping to snag an alligator early. He dropped a whole, raw chicken into the water on a line and drove the boat far enough away to persuade the animal this dinner had no strings attached.

But as another boat passed by, the hunters decided that gator wasn’t worth the time. After a rough crossing over the Kissimmee River, a few more reptiles were spotted and the bait was dropped again.

Then, as with any hunt, it turned into a waiting game. Within 20 minutes, a gator had taken the bait, but that was just the start of a bigger endeavor. Using a trolling motor, Stafford moved the boat closer to his target.

Almost half an hour after the initial snag, Stafford handed the rod — gator attached — to Westphal, who pulled with all his might, keeping the animal close to the boat. Stafford worked to hook another line into the reptile, then Bellinger tried to jab its neck with a harpoon.

After a few misses, he thrust the harpoon tip into the alligator as it thrashed around. After a warning to “watch our eyes,” Stafford rammed the bang stick into the area behind the gator’s skull and dispatched the animal.

It took several hands to bring the gator onto the boat, at which point the harpoon line was removed from its mouth before taping it shut. The next steps involved measuring the reptile, 7 1/2 feet, and tagging its tail.

“I never thought I’d hunt a gator in my life until Tanner called me and asked me to come to Florida,” Westphal said, as Bellinger added: “It was way more than I expected. We were just looking for the experience. The meat and the hide came after.”

“I like to take people and let them enjoy this experience,” Stafford said. “It’s one of the coolest hunts on the North American continent. That’s very unique.”

It can be a helpful hunt

There are plenty of alligator hunting proponents in Florida and beyond who see the benefits of the program.

“I’m in favor of the alligator hunting, I think it’s a great program,” Rosenblatt said. “It removes a certain number of individuals from the population, but it’s such a small number that it doesn’t have a big impact in the general reproduction or sustainability of the population.”

Each year, the FWC sets sustainable harvest quotas and, in some cases, receives more than twice as many applications as there are permits. This year, there were 15,000 applications for 7,679 permits, each of which allows a hunter to kill two gators. During the 2018 statewide alligator hunt, 8,404 alligators were harvested, and a similar yield is expected this year.

Each permit costs $272 for Florida residents, $1,022 for non-residents or $22 for those with a Resident Persons with Disabilities Hunting and Fishing License from the FWC. Typical firearms are not allowed in the hunt, but legal methods of “take” include bows and crossbows, harpoons, spears and the commonly used bang sticks, which are fired when in direct contact with the target.

Abby Lawson, a postdoctoral researcher with expertise in alligator population ecology at Auburn University, said the Florida program has become a model for other states.

“Florida’s alligator harvest program has been going on for over 20 years now," Lawson said. “So it’s seen as the model for other states as far as the expertise and knowledge.”

Not everyone is in favor

Not everyone shares Stafford or Rosenblatt’s opinion of the hunt. Carla Wilson, a Winter Springs resident and Central Florida coordinator for activist group Animal Rights Florida, is one Floridian opposed to the state’s annual alligator hunt.

Along with several dozen activists, she protested the hunt at a Sanford boat dock in August.

“I’m a native Floridian, so I’m appalled that Florida continues to encourage such an unnecessary, cruel blood sport of alligator hunting,” Wilson said. “There’s nothing humane about the hunt or what the animal has to go through fighting to escape. Their death is not quick or painless. They deserve better than being turned into dinner or skin for a pair of shoes or a belt.”

Her opposition to Florida’s treatment of alligators started when she was about five years old.

“Behind what is now Dr. Phillips Center, there was an alligator,” Wilson said. “[Trappers] had wrestled him and they had his mouth taped, and his feet taped. That stayed with me, it was very disturbing to see them tied up like that.”

Wilson said the Apopka Wildlife Drive offers a better way of experiencing alligators and other wildlife in their natural habitat.

While many reasons for opposing the hunt are based in morals, Lawson said there are still a number of unknowns from a scientific perspective.

“There’s a fear that if you are over harvesting, you may not realize it until years later, simply because they’re difficult to count,” Lawson said. “There’s also a fear that the largest individuals could be removed at a higher rate than they could be replaced. If you’re removing all the big guys, then obviously, the average length alligator would go down.”

Whether Floridians see alligators as a valuable renewable resource that can be hunted sustainably or a species to be protected, most can agree that they hold enormous cultural value around the Sunshine State.

“They’re really important culturally — they help define what Florida is,” Rosenblatt said. “If you weren’t from Florida and you said, ‘What are the first three things you think of?’ I can almost guarantee that alligators are going to be on that list.”

Do you have suggestions for my next destination or just want to get in touch? You can find me on Twitter (@PConnPie), Instagram (@pconnpie) or send me an email:


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