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News Articles

24
Hunters get up close with toothy game
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
ATLANTA — Sarah Moore, 17, is a high school cheerleader. Frank Porto, 56, trains Delta Air Lines pilots. Lee Colquitt, 37, runs men's merchandising for sports apparel maker Russell Athletics.

Hunters bring gators to a processing facility in Mouton Cove, La.
The (Lafayette, La.) Advertiser via AP

Sometime this month, in different parts of this state, they will try to swallow their fear, climb into a fishing boat in the dead of night and go alligator hunting. Getting past the trepidation won't be easy: Under Georgia law, they have to snag the sharp-toothed predator, bring it alongside the boat and kill it with a handgun, a "bang stick" or a sharp implement.

Gator hunting is intense. And it is hugely popular. Georgia, which began its second annual hunt Saturday, is one of just four states where it's legal. It's also legal in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. More than 3,100 hunters from 32 states applied for 300 permits, up from last year's 180 licenses. Each winner will have 15 days to bag one alligator, which must be at least 4 feet long.

"They won't let you use a rifle," says Porto, who has been hunting for 40 years but never for alligator. "You have to use a handgun. That puts you that much closer to that thing. I don't want him to get in the boat with me."

For a generation of American hunters, alligators were off limits. After the reptiles were hunted to near-extinction in the Southeast in the 1960s, they were placed on the endangered species list. Thanks to state and federal conservation measures, alligator populations have rebounded into the millions.

Humans have encroached into much of the animal's historic range, prompting an increase in alligator nuisance complaints — gators in swimming pools, driveways and backyard lakes.

The exotic nature of alligator hunting, along with the challenge of a sport that puts the hunter dangerously close to the prey, enhances its allure. In Texas, where gators are found in 120 of 254 counties, about 1,000 hunters applied for 200 permits in one of four wildlife management areas, says Monique Slaughter, a natural resources specialist with Texas Parks and Wildlife.

No sure thing

Landing a gator is more than a notion. Last year, just 73 of the 180 hunters permitted to hunt alligators in Georgia got one. Hunters troll alligator-infested waterways and lakes, trying to sink a harpoon into a gator. If they do, they secure its head and bring it alongside the boat. They shoot it with a pistol or bang stick, which fires a round into the animal when the weapon is slammed against it. Or they sever its spinal cord with a knife or other implement.

Hunting for gators

State
Permit cost
No. of permits
Year hunts began
Kills allowed Gators killed in '03
2004 season
Ga. $50 300 2003 1 73 Sept. 11-26
Fla.
Resident: $271.50
Non-resident: $1,021.50 3,800 1988 2 2,829
Sept. 1-Oct. 8 {+1}
La.{+2}
Resident: $25
Non-resident: $150{+3} 2,000 1981 Varies 31,452 Sept. 1-30
Texas
Resident: $42
Non-resident: $360 1,250{+4} 1982 Varies 1,344 Sept. 10-30
1 — Because of Hurricane Frances, some alligator hunters have had their permits extended until October. 2 — Louisiana's alligator hunt is a commercial hunt, restricted to landowners and their designees. 3 — Non-residents must be accompanied by a resident hunter-guide. 4 — Average total.

Sources: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department





In Florida, where mandatory training programs were initially required, gator hunters have suffered "an occasional bite, a nip or small puncture wound, but nothing of any consequence," says Harry Dutton, alligator management program coordinator for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Louisiana manages its gator-hunting program as a commercial harvest in which hunters sell the hides and meat. "The majority of the hunters, the income they receive from their sales ends up being an important component of their income," says Noel Kinler, alligator program manager for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

In Georgia, which has about 200,000 gators, wildlife officials say the hunting program will expand again next year. This year, the number of applicants jumped 20%. Gator hunting, the officials say, will help reduce nuisance-gator complaints: Each year, about 450 nuisance gators are killed here.

Georgia's hunting rules are very specific. Hunters can use a handheld rope or a snare, a noose that jerks tight when a spring trigger is released; a harpoon; an arrow with a restraining line attached; or a gig, which is a fish spear or a fish line with hooks that jab into a fish's body. Lights for nighttime hunting can be no stronger than 12 volts. Most people hunt at night because that's when the normally nocturnal gators are most active.

'A little nervous'

The sport draws all kinds of people. Several women and married couples are among the hunters drawn for Georgia's 300 permits.

Sarah Moore, the cheerleader, hunts with her father, Charles Moore, an emergency room physician in Kennesaw. "Not many of my girlfriends like to do the same things I do," she says. "The guys think it's pretty cool."

She says she's excited about gator hunting but "a little nervous about the fact that you pull the gator in so close."

Her father also hunts separately with her younger sister, Rachel, 12. "It's a great experience because we spend a lot of quality time together in the woods," says Moore, 48. "We deer-hunt a lot. When they started allowing alligators to be hunted, I thought that's another exciting adventure."

Moore, who's been a hunter for 30 years, once dropped a 175-pound cougar from 10 yards with a bow. But he has never hunted alligator. "We're both a little nervous," he says.

The Moores are going gator hunting as a family — Charles, Sarah, Charles' brother, Mitchell, 42, plus a professional trapper. "We're planning on making a good pair of boots," Charles Moore says. "The head or skull we will mount. We'll probably have a big cookout with gator meat."

Porto, who instructs pilots on 757s and 767s, says he'll probably eat whatever he kills, too. "I've had some before," he says. "My wife is from Louisiana."

He plans to hunt with a friend from work on Lake Eufaula, along the border with Alabama.

Porto grew up hunting with his father in Boston, Ga. "I wandered all over the woods back then," he says. "I used to do some trapping as a kid. I never saw the first gator."

Gator hunting can be expensive. Colquitt is paying $600 for one day with a guide who's reportedly caught more than 2,500 of the reptiles. He purchased a "Gator Getter Kit," complete with an arrow attached to fishing line, and a reel that attaches to the bow, for $160. Getting an alligator's hide tanned and the meat processed can cost up to $3,000.

Colquitt, a bow hunter for more than 10 years, has never hunted alligator. "I'm excited," he says. "I've seen it on TV. It gets pretty hairy. I'll be nervous, there's no doubt about it. But I'm excited as hell."

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