Bowfishing and gator hunting the Redneck Riviera!
As summer of 2004 began to approach, my bowfishing buddies and I decided this was the year to do some traveling to bowfish in some new destinations. Our first thought was Louisiana, the bowfishermenís ultimate paradise. We had never been and heard all the exciting stories about all the different fish available in Louisianaís brackish water. Alligator gar, redfish, black drum, and the list goes on. This sounded very appealing and so the wheels were in motion. After our date was decided on, we discovered that this was the same weekend of the Cajun Classic Tournament in Lafitte. This was our proposed destination so now we werenít sure what to do. We love tournament competition but really just wanted a relaxing bowfishing trip for fun. So we moved on to plan number two, the Gulf of Mexico, specifically Panama City Florida for some salt-water action. Mark Land of Muzzy Products had given me some good information on salt-water bowfishing so we made our reservations.
As June rolled around, we got close to our departure date. I got a call from Mark Land and he said he might be able to line us up on a guided alligator hunt while we were there. This sounded great to me and I conferred with my buddies and it was on. We would bowfish in my boat Friday night and hunt alligators Saturday night, we were very excited. We left out Friday about lunchtime and after a few stops and delays, the trip took a little longer than expected. It ended up being after 11:00 PM when we arrived at the hotel, and our accommodations were less than stellar to say the least. We just wanted a place to lay our heads down, and trust me thatís what we got. Thatís what you get when you book the cheapest place in town I guess. We dropped our stuff off and it was on to the bay just off the ocean.
My 17 ft. War Eagle flat-bottom boat was in for waters unlike anything it had ever seen. As we put the boat in, there was a chop on the water and a breeze but nothing terrible. This was our first time in the ocean to bowfish and the first time in a small boat out there; it was quite intimidating. We took off and headed out towards the islands, it was a pretty rough ride and nobody said a word. I think everyoneís rear was a little ďdrawed up.Ē After about a 15-minute ride, we approached the islands and I slowed down. The boat motor began to knock and an extreme concern came over my face. When the lights came on, we realized we were in about a foot of water and running through the sand. So we shut the motor off and figured it was time to finally fish. I cranked the fan up and it didnít take long. We spotted nice southern sting ray about four feet down and my good friend Lucas Cagle put a Muzzy carp tipped fiberglass arrow right dead in the middle. The ray immediately headed for deeper water and peeled out all his line on his Shakespeare Synergy reel, man these things had some power. The tip held true and we horsed the big ray up from the bottom and put another arrow in to ensure that it didnít escape. We pulled the ray to the side of the boat and it was thrashing wildly with a large stinger out of control. The shears came out and the stinger was promptly removed. This was about a 25 lb. ray, not huge, but definitely an awesome fight. After that, Cagleís brother Ryan and myself also connected on some nice rays. We saw lots of neat fish and got some good rays for the rest of the night, or at least until the fan decided to quit around 4:00 AM. So it was back to the hotel to rest for the big alligator the following night.
After a lengthy nightís sleep, we ate some lunch at Angeloís Steak House and got our stuff ready to go. We met up with our guide Tate Morrell of Panama City, FL. Tate has been a nuisance trapper for the State of Florida northern counties for several years. Recently he hast teamed up with us at Backwater Bowfishing. They get emergency calls on problem gators and have a certain amount of tags each year for certain areas. The great thing about this system is, you donít have to wait until the regular alligator season to open; you can hunt any time of year with these tags.
The first stop of the evening was on a problem gator at a local kidís camp on the bay. The gator had been in the swimming area and they wanted it removed. After an hour or so of unsuccessful attempts to move in on the gator, we decided to move on to another area and they would handle this one the following morning. We moved on and dropped the boat into a canal system north of the bay. We all loaded into the 16 ft. Jon boat and headed down the river. A spotlight was used to locate the alligatorís eyes shining above the water, and the guideís were able to tell the size of the gator by his eyes, both width and color. We soon spotted our first gator. Tate said that was a small one, but he had something he wanted to show us. He began to make this call with his mouth unlike anything I had ever heard, sort of a gulping sound. He said this was a young alligator distress call. We were about 80 yards from the alligator and it was headed to the boat. It got to within 10 feet before it swam off, pretty amazing. This was only about a 4 footer so we passed. So we kept cruising. We saw several small alligators and eventually a couple hours later we came across one the guides thought would be a shooter. Lucas was first up to the plate. The guides put him on the front of the boat with them and Ryan and myself stayed in the back and watched. The big motor was shut off about 120 yards out and the big spotlight shut off. A small trolling motor on the slowest speed and a small raccoon hunting light are used for the final approach. Itís absolutely essential to remain completely quiet; the alligators are extremely skittish. They slowly trolled into range, Tate would tap you once on the back for you to draw back and again when he was ready for you to shoot. The distance closed and Luke drew back and then shot. The gator disappeared and the line came out of the slotted retriever, but no gator on the end. We had not put enough gator cord in the slotted retriever and the shot pulled all the line and float out.
For the gator hunting, we used our older Oneida Osprey bows set at 45 lbs, Muzzy 600 lb. Gator cord, a slotted retriever, one of the large game stabilizer floats, and the Muzzy gator arrows with the gator tips. The gator tip is a unique arrow tip. It is designed to be directly tied to the line and just slides over the end of the arrow shaft. The line is tied to the tip and the other end of the arrow and secured with a rubber band. The alligators will roll when hit with the arrow, and this arrow rig will allow the arrow to shake loose, but the tip is still in the alligator, preventing damage to your arrow and still keeping the tip intact.
Letís get back to the hunt. Luke has now missed and then the alligator reappears up the river a little ways. All his line is out and wrapped around everything. We get everything unwound and just lay the line and float next to him and reattach the tip to the arrow. We make another approach but the gator is swimming away. Tate begins to call and the gator turns and comes toward the boat. Luke then makes a fine shot and the fight is on. They say theyíve never seen one come back like this. After a few minutes the alligator is brought up and the real fun begins. They donít use airboats and bang sticks; this is the real deal. They give you the option of killing your alligator for the meat/mount or they can keep it alive to take to an alligator farm. We chose to let them keep them alive since they had been so hospitable to us. So now we have to drag the alligator ALIVE into the boat. A large noose was used to put around the alligatorís head. Then the guides pulled his head out of the water, and duct taped his mouth closed. We then drag this eight-foot gator into the boat and hog-tie it. This was an awesome adrenaline rush.
So now itís time to regroup and itís my turn. We get the equipment back in order and move on. It doesnít take long and we spot two good gators. We cruise up and one is a little small and one is a good one. I place the shot right behind the shoulder and the gator lays over. I thought I had placed a kill shot, but I was very wrong. We got him to the side of the boat and he came alive with some fury. He flopped and thrashed uncontrollably and until we finally subdued and secured him, another nice nine foot gator, alive and in the boat with us.
The night got later and we continued on to try to get Ryanís tag filled. We saw some small gators and Tate would call to them, which seem to really agitate the ones we already had in the boat. Luke and myself had to sit on them to keep them from going crazy every time he called. So we finally roll up on a shooter, and this is a sure enough stud. You could see a good four feet of itís back sticking out of the water. We make a stealthy approach and we all soon realize what we are dealing with. This is a huge gator. Ryan draws the bow back and has to hold it for a minute or so as we approach. You can hear the arrow rattling on the arrow rest with anticipation as we draw nearer. Ryan turns the arrow loose and it connects. Immediately the gator pulls all the line out and the float is headed down the river. We kick the trolling motor into high gear just to try to keep up with it. After pursuing the float for ten minutes or so we catch up with it. Tate puts on his heavy-duty neoprene gloves and tries to hold on the float and line, but the gator is too strong and takes off again. We catch back up with it and he grabs on to the line and float. I grab onto the back of his pants to keep the gator from pulling him. The gator is now pulling the boat and all from one side of the river to the other and around in circles. This goes on for several minutes till the gator finally begins to tire. We start to pull him up and the tension and anticipation was high in the boat. We pull him up and get the first close glimpse and man what a monster! This alligator is absolutely huge, way bigger than the two we already had. We begin to cautiously try to get his head out of the water and get the noose secured. The gator begins to make the deepest most intimidating growl youíve ever heard; I canít even describe it. The gator is biting at the boat (and at us) fiercely and the float manages to get in his way. The gator absolutely mangles the large buoy, virtually destroys it. Tate scrambles to get him secured and eventually get his mouth duct taped. Now itís time to drag this beast into the boat. We all get a hold of some part of the gator and try to bring him in. We nearly flip the boat but manage to get him in. We try to hog tie him with the 600 lb. Gator cord, but he breaks it with no problem, some amazing strength. We eventually get him tied up with some stronger rope and two of sit on him for the ride back to keep him secured. So now weíve got five people and three large alligators for the ride back to the truck. We get back to the truck and itís very late in the night (or early in the morning depending on how you look at it). The largest gator measured more than 11 feet and over 450 lbs, a real trophy gator. We take lots of pictures and thank the guides for an awesome hunt. The gators are transported the next day to an alligator farm nearby for people to enjoy in the future. This was a great conclusion to a once in a lifetime trip.
For an awesome gator hunting experience in northern Florida, go www.backwaterbowfishing.com and click on the alligator hunting page, you won't be disappointed.