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Florida Teaches Swamp Safety : Hunters Learning How to Catch Gators Without Risking Hides

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United Press International

Woodsmen in Florida are readying themselves for the state’s first legal alligator hunt in 25 years, a September series of nighttime forays into the soggy marshlands and the Everglades canals.

The eager hunters are stocking up on powerful chemical weapons to shield themselves from the vicious creatures that lurk in the darkened swamps, waiting to bite into their flesh and gorge on their blood. But those are just the mosquitoes.

To get ready for the alligators, they are heading for the classroom.

The Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission is holding a series of six-hour alligator safety courses around the state.

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The commission awarded hunt licenses to 238 applicants in a statewide lottery, and each is allowed to hire one “agent” to assist him. All must graduate from gator school before they can pursue their quarry.

Most are experienced woodsmen and hunters. But alligator hunting has been illegal in Florida since 1962, so the majority have no experience with the species, explained Dennis David, a gator biologist with the commission.

Not That Dangerous

“We’re not trying to tell you folks it isn’t dangerous. It is,” Capt. Eddie Wheeler told gator scholars at a Saturday class in West Palm Beach.

Lt. Jim Huffstodt said, “What we’re telling you is that if you do this the correct way, it isn’t necessarily that you’re courting death.”

David calmed the class by observing that alligators are no more dangerous than sharks, then biologist Tom Stice went over the rules:

Each hunter will have five or six nights in September to take up to 15 alligators, and each must be at least 4 feet long. Hunt days will vary according to which of 28 conservation zones the hunter is assigned to. Hunt hours are from a half-hour before sunset to a half-hour before sunrise.

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Alligators are nocturnal, but finding them in the dark is easy. Shine a flashlight along the banks, and the alligator’s eyes will reflect a red glare. When you see two glowing red spots, you can assume that the rest of the gator is right behind them. But you may not shoot the alligators with firearms.

“I knew there had to be a catch,” said gator student Mark Grove of Davie, a duck hunter.

No Guns

Guns are never permitted in the conservation zones. And if you did shoot an alligator, it would sink to the bottom of the lake or swim away and die somewhere from which you could not retrieve the carcass, defeating the whole point of the hunt, Stice said.

“This is probably the weapon of choice,” said veteran trapper Ross Hooks, displaying a 6-foot steel-and-fiberglass harpoon with a 1 1/2-inch point of case-hardened steel and a long, sturdy line attached.

Hooks has been one of the state’s licensed “nuisance hunters” for 10 years. His job is to capture alligators that wander into human habitats. He has removed about 1,500 of them from canals, parking lots, back yards and Jacuzzis.

The commission has recruited Hooks to share his techniques and has supplied a frozen 8-foot, 250-pound alligator as a visual aid.

“Aim in the jaw area. You’re going to go in from behind,” Hooks explained, jabbing the freezer specimen behind the jaw.

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You can also use a bow and arrow with a line attached to the arrow, or a snatch hook--a fiberglass pole with a rope through it and a large four-pronged hook on the end. With the latter, you want to hook the gator in the soft skin behind the front legs or in front of the hind legs.

Play Gator Out

When you hook it, the alligator will start thrashing around, Hooks said. Keep the line taut and play the gator out as though it were a large fish, he advised. In two or three hours, the gator will be tired enough so that you can slip a snare around its mouth to hold it shut.

“What you’re trying to do is wear him out. It’s quite a thrill to get a big gator on a snatch line and work him,” Hooks said.

You may want to tie the end of the line to the boat, but it’s not a good idea to tie it to yourself, Hooks told the class.

“If the gator jerks, you go in after him. It’s better to be a live person than to be out there trying to ski behind that gator,” he said.

Once the snare is in place, you can hold the alligator’s head underwater and shoot it with a bang stick.

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A bang stick is a weapon used by shark hunters to fire bullets at point-blank range. It should be used only under water.

Experimental Hunts

The commission has held a series of experimental alligator hunts, wherein about 350 woodsmen logged more than 3,000 trap nights over the past seven years. The lone injury occurred when a hunter imprudently fired a .357-caliber bang stick at an alligator whose head was peeping up above the water.

A flying chunk of gator skull hit the hunter in the face and cut his forehead open.

“The problem wasn’t the gator, it was stupidity,” David said.

But you may prefer to bring the alligator back alive. Some meat processors only accept live alligators in order to ensure that the meat is fresh.

Either way, once the snare is in place, you should take a roll of duct tape or electric tape and wrap it around the gator’s mouth, Hooks said.

“Even if you’re just dead damn certain that gator is deader than a doornail and he’s got a big hole in his head, you tape his mouth, and don’t be shy with the tape. Wrap it around 15 times,” Hooks advised.

‘It’s Not Being Not Macho’

“Don’t ever bring the gator into the boat if it’s not taped. It’s not being stupid, it’s not being not macho. They have a way of coming back to life.”

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Next, roll the gator into your boat, cross its legs over its body and tie them together with a nylon rope. That keeps the gator from getting enough leverage to whap you with its tail, Hooks explained.

Several of Florida’s licensed alligator meat processors have arranged for refrigerated trucks to pick up the catch at the checkpoints where game agents will be examining licenses and tail tags.

But for those who want to do their own skinning and butchering, the commission has prepared a 12-minute how-to video. Banjo music plays merrily in the background while the butcher scrubs down an alligator with disinfectant, slices it open and peels the skin.

Alligator meat sells for up to $6 a pound, and the hides are worth up to $42 a foot. The average gator will bring in about $400, David said. The prime cuts are the tail, jowls and loin.

Value Drops

But the value drops quickly if the hide is nicked or the stringent meat-processing and labeling rules are not followed. Belly buttons can also reduce the value 25%. These are the bony growths inside the scales on the necks and bellies of older alligators, usually those over 8 or 9 feet. They make the leather too stiff to be made into shoes.

Even during the skinning phase, the hunter must be wary of the alligator teeth. The alligator mouth is a veritable petri dish full of unpleasant organisms, such as aeromonas hydrophila, which can cause fatal infections.

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“If you should be even slightly bitten, go to the doctor immediately. If you stick your harpoon in the gator then stick it in yourself, go to the hospital. I can’t stress that enough,” said Hooks, who endured the unpleasant treatment for aeromonas infection in November after an alligator he thought was dead grazed his arm with its teeth.

The commission believes the hunt will strengthen the market for alligator hides and meat. That would give the hunters a vested interest in making sure the species survives and encourage preservation of the wetlands where they live, David said.

Alligators were hunted to near extinction in the early 1960s. Two decades of tough laws have allowed the population to rebound, and there are now an estimated 1.1 million in Florida.

Maintaining Population

If the hunt rules are followed, no more than 15% will be killed. At that level, normal breeding patterns would maintain the population without allowing them to become too plentiful.

The hunt is considered “a wildlife management technique” and is not a response to the recent well-publicized death of a child killed by an alligator in a suburban pond, Huffstodt said.

“It has nothing to do with revenge. The gators that pose the problem are in the Miami canals, the Boca Raton parking lots. These alligators out in the Everglades are not the ones causing trouble,” he said.

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The gator students are honored to be part of the first hunt.

“It’s exciting. It’s part of Florida history,” said Michael Maitland, 27, of Deerfield Beach.

Thrills, Excitement

“I’m hoping for a little thrill and excitement as well as some money,” Grove said.

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