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Search for the Big Gator...Gator hunting ain't what it used to be!

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

by Captain Phil Walters of The South's Most Experienced Professional Gator Guide

I really wanted to place higher than the second place finish our 12 ft 9-inch gator had in the 2007 Central Florida Trophy Hunts "Big Gator Shootout," but finding competitive creatures is tough for a statewide event, let alone knowing that a very large 14 ft. gator had already been entered. Darn, I thought as I looked at the gator in front of the boat. He was over 11 ft. but did not appear to be a real monster, or at least what I thought would place in the Shootout. "What the hay," I said to Mark the cameraman filming my solo gator hunt. Mark attentively focused his camera on the line, anticipating the action about to happen. "Mark," I said, "Since you're here to film a gator hunt and that's a nice gator ahead of us, I guess I'll go for it even though it's not what I want."

Finding large trophy-class gators is getting harder. I hunted all over Florida this season and my clients only harvested a few lizards over 10 ft., let alone the fewer we saw that were mature trophy-class bull gators. When I started sport hunting gators in the early 1990s, trophy class gators were everywhere. In fact, for those who remember, we would not harvest anything under 10 ft. and usually that was not a problem. Many hunters commonly had averages well over 10 ft. for the season and this was during the times when a permit contained a pile of tags to fill. My, how times change and these slow growing and ever-weary bull gators are becoming more creatures of an old story rather than a recent sighting.

For the second year, Grayson Padrick of CFTH and his lovely wife Mindy, hosted their annual "Big Gator Shootout." Being the competitive guy I am, I entered and encouraged as many of my fellow guides and clients to enter as well. For too long, we killed trophy gators for the value of their meat and hides, rather than for the stories of a lifetime these hunts create for the folks participating. I was ecstatic Grayson started the Shootout as I believe this type of event brings greater conservation value to the alligator and offers the public a chance to share in the excitement. Additionally, it offers recognition to a number of the trophy gators harvested during the season and another event for ethical sportsmen to gather in celebration of a sustainable harvest.

After hunting from one end of Florida to the other, my clients failed to harvest any gators worthy of entering into the Shootout. I was disappointed at this outcome as I fully expected to have a number of clients in the running. It was getting late in the season and I still had my personal permit to fill since I withheld those tags for just such a situation as this. donated a gator hunt to the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, a national group dedicated to preserving our outdoor heritage, for them to auction at their annual fundraiser in Columbus, Ohio. Larry Wills snagged the hunt at the fundraiser and came down with Don Smith of the Alliance to hunt the tag in mid-October.

The tag was for a very hot area of the St. Johns river system where many large lizards have been harvested. Unfortunately, this area possessed many problems. Record flooding closed all the boat landings, high winds and cold weather added to the dilemma. The only access to our preferred area was via the marina in Sanford, then across four miles of open water on Lake Monroe, then into the river. This proved to be a problem as the winds were blowing at 20-30 mph, I informed my eager hunters from the "great white North" the water conditions were unsafe and we would not depart until the winds subsided. Disappointed, they took it rather well and understood we were to hunt the gator, not swim with them via a sunk airboat. While intently watching the weather all night, our chance to hunt did not come till after 5 a.m., when the winds finally ebbed enough to where I felt comfortable to depart and not turn my airboat into a channel obstruction.

Loaded, we departed just prior to daybreak. This did not allow us much hunting time but the hunt area is one of those where a little sunlight helps immensely. The plan was to sight a suitable trophy gator and jump him quickly. This plan has worked for me numerous times in this area but today was not going to be one of them. After a short ride to our area, we rode the lake and marsh till legal hunting time was up. We didn't see squat! Luckily, Larry and Don, being experienced hunters and accepting that hunting is not a sure thing, were still having a great time enjoying a bumpy airboat ride and the wonderful wildlife on display for us.

"Larry, I have another area to take you to tonight that should yield good results. The tag we'll be hunting is also entered into the "Big Gator Shootout" so I can assure you we'll be looking for a good one for you to take home," I said. Larry replied in the affirmative, so we agreed on the time and place to meet for the hunt.

Greg Bruce was the permit holder for the night in Lake County. Greg had hunted this lake with me years ago, where we harvested many 12 ft.-plus gators. On one of these nights hunting this lake, Greg recalled us attempting to load a 12 ft-plus gator into my already loaded truck. With the gator on the gate, the switch was hit to raise the liftgate, but it did not appear to rise.

Perplexed, we quickly investigated the malfunction and determined the problem. The liftgate did travel, however, it was the rear of the truck that traveled to the lowered liftgate, elevating the front wheels off the ground! "We should really think about harvesting smaller gators," I said to Greg. Those were the days.........

Our hopes ran high as we loaded up on my 13 ft. Rivermaster and put fire to the 0540 Lycoming. We jumped a few fair gators in the 7-9 ft. range. Larry gave many of them his best shot with the harpoon, but he quickly realized he was not as prepared as he thought he was to accurately throw the Ratworks Gatorstick for the desired effect. After "educating" half a dozen gators that we were a perceived threat, with no results, we retired for a nap.

Just before sunrise, Larry, Greg and I headed back out. Don decided that dreamland suited him better than a cold bumpy boat ride, so he stayed on shore. "Larry, now is your time to make this happen. Pretend the gator is an ex-wife when you go to stick it and you should be fine" I explained. "Got it, Captain" Larry replied. "I'll hurt one permanently this time."

After missing a few shots, we arrived in a cove with a set of glowing red eyeballs up in the brush, announcing a victim had been found. Legal time was closing as the sun was beginning to rise. We headed towards the red glow at slow speed. I told Larry to throw as we were about 6 feet away and he heaved the pole in a mighty arc, with the RatWorks GatorStick crashing through the brush and making a "whack" upon impact. The boat hit the brush and rocked, the water exploded and the line sang from the bucket. It's a solid hit! Great shot Larry! With a gator harpooned, we tired him, taped up and sent him to gator heaven with a stroke of Larry's knife. Larry fulfilled his hunt but the only problem was this 8 ft. gator, would not quite be the size needed for the Big Gator Shootout. Darn!

Round Two

It's now November, cool weather and almost post-gator season except that the Florida Wildlife Commission extended the gator season in four areas due to the aforementioned flooding. With tags for the open areas, my good ole gator huntin' buddy Glen Grizzaffe volunteers to go on the quest. Glen is a gator-killing machine. As the owner of G & S Melons in Plant City, he works his tail off keeping the melons moving fresh but always finds time to head out for a lizard. Glen hunts in a similar style to mine, which is the "run and gun," but Glen puts a whole new spin on it. I call it the "Run, run over and Gun" as he'll go wherever the gator is, even if it's in the thick stuff. Glen is utterly fearless with his supercharged Lycoming 0470, so it was an "interesting" ride for me to sit in the back seat and enjoy the show.

We headed out on a cool evening in early November. The waters of the St. Johns had now receded enough to launch the boat where we needed to, as Seminole County had finally re-opened its boat landings. With lower water, Glen believes the gators will be holed up in the maiden cane, so that's where we go. As we worked the marsh, Glen worked his airboat throughout the brush. While I had a birdseye view from the tourist seat, I never saw a gator. I guess at 30 mph they may be a glimmer, then gone.

After a few hours of running, Glen decides to take a break. "Did you see all the gators out here?" Glen asks. " No, I did not see one gator but I did see a multitude of ripe cattails explode into "cotton bursts" when you hit them!" I replied. "Well, I've seen about 30 gators between 7 and 10 feet but not what we're looking for. I think we need to work the outside edges and check the open waters," he said. "Lets roll," was my reply.

After a few more hours, we still could not find what we were looking for. It was getting close to 2 a.m. and Glen had pumpkins to tend to in the morning, so we decided to call it a night. Back at the landing, I had to admire Glen's boat. "Looks like you're ready to go duck hunting," I said to Glen. What once was a very clean boat now had a layer of grass covering it up to a foot thick in places, with the cage covered in grass, "cotton puffs" of cattails completely covering the oil cooler and entire colonies of spiders spinning their webs from one end of the boat to the other. "There is not a better camo job available on the market," I thought to myself.

Round three

After a week of cold weather, warmth returns for a spell. We had a new moon and calm seas so I thought it's now or never to get a gator for the Shootout or it's not going to happen this year. I guess if I'm to have places in the winner's circle, it will be up to my associate guide Mike Gifford to at least place a gator or two using the RatWorks gator hunting equipment I manufacture. But it's not over till it's over so I readied myself for the final round. Being whipped from traveling not only Florida, but the Southeast U.S., with the hull of my airboat gaining one big crack down the middle from a stump encounter in either Georgia or South Carolina (thank God for polymer!) I was ready for the season to end. Ah, the things I do to kill a gator.......

I received a call from Mark Diorio, a photo journalist who is composing a story on the culture of gator hunting. Mark inquired about whether I could hook him up to film a gator hunt. "Sure," I told him. "Meet me Saturday and you and I will go get a very large gator" I told him. From the sound of his voice, he sounded skeptical. "I've been out on a number of hunts this season and haven't seen any large ones harvested yet," he said, then he asks "It's just you and I going out for a big one? Is that safe?" "Mark, I've filmed many gator hunts and always pull a lucky hat trick for a big gator. Come on out, I feel lucky and, oh, yeah, I'll keep you safe" was my reply.

As the meeting time approached, I had neglected to prep my boat the previous day as it had not been out for almost two weeks. There is a slow discharge of the battery somewhere and it sure did a fine job of killing the juice. After 15 minutes of fiddling with connections, Mark arrives and inquires into the ailment. "Mark, can you pull your car alongside and jump me?" I asked. "Sure," he replied. The old 0540 roared to life, I added a spare battery and we were ready to depart.

It was twilight with the first rays of the sun starting to brighten the horizon. There was just enough darkness left for my hatlight to illuminate a few eyeballs along the edges of the maiden cane. We immediately came upon three gators in the 8 ft.-10 ft. class that easily could have been in the boat. Mark was impressed that we saw so many nice gators so quickly and asked why I did not take them as he filmed their departure. "I'm looking for a monster or nothing," I informed him. "They sure looked like monsters to me. We don't have any like that in upstate New York," he said. "I feel good about today. We still have over an hour of legal time and they appear active, so cross your fingers," I replied.

As the boat slid around a point in the cane, I noticed a nice head out in the open water. It was silhouetted against the morning sky and I judge it to be a decent gator. I eased up to his location and tossed my locator line. It didn't take long to find my target. The rod bowed, the drag started to scream like a scalded cat and the boat lurched forward being propelled by a nice gator. After a modest struggle, the gator arose five feet off the starboard gunnel. I got a good look at him and judged him in the 11 ft. range. "Holy Cow! Did you see the size of that thing?" Mark screamed as he filmed away. "I think he's about 11 feet and still not what I'm looking for," I calmly said to Mark.

As I held the rod firm and pondered the moment, the gator slipped under the murky water and the line began to slacken. I can look for a larger one and possibly get zilch or I can harvest a fair one so Mark will have footage of a trophy gator being harvested. Decisions, decisions, but practicality took command. "Mark, I'll harvest this one. I wish it was bigger, but that's the way it goes," I said.

I held the locating line firm as I rigged my RatWorks BoneCrusher harpoon pole. I wanted a sure dart buried in the gator on the first shot because a miss will mean the gator swims away. While I have worked rods and harpooned gators solo before, it's never an easy act to give both hands different chores simultaneously. I worked the gator up to the surface by reeling the line up to the swivel and dropping the rod tip into the water. With all I had, I leaned back with the rod and heaved, the gator broke the reflection of the lake and was immediately greeted by the heavy BoneCrusher harpoon and its chisel point dart.

"Hello Mr. Gator," I said as the dart went deep into its back. "Your days of eating poodles are over," I said. Mark chuckled but kept filming the action. After a short struggle, I got the gator subdued, taped, tagged and loaded into the boat for the five-mile ride back to the landing. "Wow, that was really cool," Mark said has he filmed me huffing and puffing from the workout of loading the gator.

With the boat on the trailer and the gator on the deck, we started taking pictures of the morning's catch. As luck would have it, a number of folks driving by turned around, stopped to ogle the lizard and take pictures. To their surprise, these folks were quickly recruited to help load the gator into the truck. Up to this time, I believed the gator was about 11 ft., 6 in. Once in the truck, we put a tape to him and he went near 12 ft., 5 in.! Nice stroke of luck, I thought. The next day the processor conducted the official measurement at 12 ft., 41/2 in. with a 50 in. girth, which landed him into fifth place of the 2008 CFTH "Big Gator Shootout!"


About the Author: Captain Phil Walters is owner of and produces RatWorks Gator Hunt Equipment. He has hunted gators professionally under fair chase principals across the South for two decades, has harvested thousands of gators while safely guiding hundreds of clients to their trophies. At one time, his clients possessed 7 of the top 10 alligators in the Safari Club International (SCI) record book. For 2008, Team RatWorks placed 2nd, 4th and 5th in the Central Florida Trophy Hunts “Big Gator Shootout” and harvested the Georgia state record of 13-7. In 2007, was presented the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance “Defender of the Heritage” award for hunting heritage education. Recently, Governor Charlie Crist appoint him to Florida’s Boating Advisory Council. In 2009, he guided for the largest gator harvested in Georgia at 13-51/2”. XXX

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