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Night of the hunter

There are 220,000 alligators in Georgia. Make that 219,999.

 

When Phillip Scott first noticed the alligator in his backyard pond four years ago, the animal couldn’t have been more than three feet long—meaning it was about as many years old. A toddler, really.

Scott’s pond is one of a handful dribbled across Palmetto Lakes, a rural subdivision of mini-mansions spaced by broad lawns and patches of timber just outside of Dublin, the seat of Laurens County, southeast of Macon. Though secluded, Scott’s house is less than ten miles from the Dublin city center; I-16 hums from barely a mile away. So how did an alligator get here? Impossible to say for sure. It may have made its way to Middle Georgia by way of Turkey Creek, a quarter mile east. The creek is a branch of the Oconee River, which flows into the Altamaha, which itself feeds the swamps along the Atlantic Coast where the reptiles are plentiful. An alligator might travel anywhere from thirty to 200 miles a year by creek and canal in search of food, logging thousands of miles over a lifespan that can stretch to half a century.

Phillip Scott’s house is 140 miles from the ocean, but given the gator’s youth, it’s more likely that the reptile hatched in a damp corner of these lowlands and hopped between creek beds and lakes until settling into this fishing pond, little bigger than a football field, just a squib kick from Scott’s back door.

Before moving to Georgia, Scott spent eight years in Florida, where ten-footers are commonplace, so to him this animal was no more than an oversized lizard among the turtles and bass. Besides, Scott would see the gator only once or twice a year, and it always kept to the far banks and inlets. But as time passed, the gator grew in size and courage. Last summer Scott was hosting a cookout when someone spied the reptile’s head, which itself was now about a foot long, surfacing to breathe in the middle of the pond. His guests rushed down to the water’s edge to get a closer look—but then the animal began swimming toward them. The incident was enough for Scott’s wife to enact strict rules prohibiting their own six- and eleven-year-olds from going near the pond or playing in the backyard alone.

Photographs by Audra Melton

One Saturday last September, Scott’s neighbor was walking near the pond with his fifteen-pound dog, Josie, when he looked up to see a ten-foot monster creeping slowly up the bank just a few feet away, reptilian eyes locked on Josie. The neighbor rushed his dog inside. The next day, he made a phone call.

The gator was here first. Maybe not this one, but what we now know as the American alligator has been roaming the swamps and rivers of this part of the world for at least 180 million years. Over those millennia, evolution has favored its original model; the alligator you see today looks very much like the one that crawled the earth while pterodactyls soared above. It is, quite literally, a dinosaur.

In the 1800s, alligators became fashionable sources of leather—first as an indulgence for expensive shoes, belts, and handbags, then as a necessity to help clothe and supply both armies during the Civil War. The beasts were hunted wholesale, without any government regulation. The twentieth century brought increased human settlement and development of the coasts and wetlands in the Southeast, paving over their natural habitat. By 1970 the species was officially endangered—researchers estimate that there were little more than a million alligators left in the entire U.S.

Through decades of federal and state restrictions on alligator hunting, the population has more than recovered. In 1982 there were an estimated 101,000 alligators in Georgia. Today there are about 220,000. That fact, along with man’s continued population growth and attendant sprawl, makes it easy to see why complaints to state wildlife officials of “nuisance gators” have tripled from three decades ago.

In recent years, gators have been spotted as far north as Atlanta and Lake Lanier. On a Jekyll Island golf course in 1994, a golfer was bitten trying to retrieve a ball. That same year, a biologist lecturing Boy Scouts on gators knelt beside an Ossabaw Island pond, and a ten-footer sprang from the water and chomped down on his arm. The man grabbed the beast’s tongue and gouged at its eyes with his other arm until he was released. In October 2007, an eighty-three-year-old woman was found in the lagoon of a gated community on Skidaway Island, east of Savannah. Her right hand and foot, as well as her left arm, were missing, found later in the stomach of an eight-foot alligator.

Such incidents make the headlines, but in truth, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has recorded just nine alligator attacks since 1980, and of those, the elderly woman was the lone fatality. According to the DNR, six of the nine attacks were instigated by people making contact (often unwittingly) with a submerged alligator, and the other three were instances of humans being mistaken for prey.

Despite the occasional sighting around the metro area, there’s no evidence that alligators reproduce north of the fall line—a boundary that extends roughly from Columbus to Macon to Augusta, where the piedmont of North Georgia drops to the lower coastal plain of the south. Alligator eggs are laid in shoreline nests in June and July and require constant incubation temperatures in the mid to upper 70s. State wildlife authorities say that any gator spotted north of the fall line was most likely put there by a human who had unlawfully kept it as a young pet until it outgrew its welcome.

In the lowlands, however, gators do fine on their own. Unlike their larger cousin the crocodile, alligators can tolerate temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. With their front legs and their broad U-shaped snouts, they dig gator holes and dens where they wait out dry spells and mild South Georgia winters. And in the spring and summer, there are plenty of turtles and fish and waterfowl (and rocks and golf balls—an alligator will eat anything, including its own young) to keep a gator fat.

In 2003 the population had rebounded so well that state wildlife officials issued permits for the first Georgia alligator hunting season. But mindful of the animal’s precarious history, the state issues only a limited number of tags (one per hunter), which are assigned through an annual lottery. In 2009 there were nearly 6,000 applicants for just 700 tags statewide. After the 2010 premiere of the History Channel reality show Swamp People, which follows professional gator hunters in Louisiana, interest jumped. In 2012, 11,000 people applied for 850 alligator tags.

Gator hunting is not like shooting deer from a quiet tree stand on an autumn day. Alligators must truly be hunted. First off, it’s usually done from a boat. And the prey can easily weigh more than a quarter ton, while its long jaw can snap with as much as 2,000 pounds of force, clamping down while the animal uses its powerful tail to initiate a death roll—spinning wildly in the water until bite-sized pieces of its kill are torn off. In other words, this sport is for hunters who feed on the fear of stalking quarry that can fight back.

It’s just after nightfall when the silver Chevy pickup pulls off the paved Palmetto Lakes road in front of Phillip Scott’s house, a sprawling two-story whose large windows are awash with light, spilling out onto the wraparound porch and the four-car garage. The burly hunter with the red beard steps out of the truck, his muddy boot pressed into the perfect lawn. Philip Wilheit Jr. grabs his compound bow out of the truck bed and looks around the tony neighborhood before flipping on the cave light mounted to the bill of his ball cap. He follows the lamp’s beam across the darkened yard toward the back. The moon is lost behind the clouds and the patchy gray of the shore is barely distinguishable from the solid black pond. Wilheit scans the water like he’s manning a prison watchtower. Then he stops. Fifty yards out, two tiny orange orbs float just above the surface. They shine in the light like the eyes of a jack-o’-lantern, fixed on the hunter, who stands frozen. Jeffrey Shepard, Wilheit’s guide, approaches from behind, peers over the hunter’s shoulder, and says, “Let’s get the boat.”

Wilheit grew up stalking deer in the woods around Gainesville. Now thirty-seven, he spends his vacations from his family’s packaging company bagging pheasants in South Dakota, ducks and geese in Toronto, and elk in the Rocky Mountains. But there are no stuffed heads or antlers on his walls. What he savors most is the chase: Studying his quarry, getting into their heads, and anticipating their movements. “I’ll hunt anything,” says Wilheit. When he learned of gator hunting in his home state, he applied for a permit and started looking for alligator recipes.

That was four years ago. Even Wilheit’s 2009 appointment to the DNR Board of Directors couldn’t help his chances of winning the gator tag lottery. Finally, in 2013, his number was drawn from 11,222 others.

But winning the lottery is no guarantee of gator meat in his freezer. This isn’t Swamp People, where hunters set out bait on treble hooks overnight and show up the next day to pile gators into their boats. That’s fishing. In Georgia, baiting gators is prohibited. Hunters typically go out on the water at night when the beasts feed, look for tracks or mudslides on the banks, use spotlights to scan the water for gator eyes. The season lasts just one month, always early fall, after the summer hatchlings are grown and adult females are no longer trapped in defense of the nest. The state’s annual hunting success rate, the number of tags that end up in dead gator tails, is a mere 32 percent (compared with better than 50 percent statewide for deer). In Zone 5 of 9, a cluster of central Georgia counties where gators are less plentiful and to which Wilheit has been assigned, that number is only 18 percent.

To combat those odds, inexperienced gator hunters hire local guides who know the area waters. The best of those are often licensed trappers who are on call year-round to take care of nuisance gators. In Laurens County, that’s Jeffrey Shepard, who’s been a trapper here for twenty-two years. These days, he responds to up to fifty complaints a year, and ends up relocating or killing between thirty and forty gators (trappers can kill as many as needed). This morning he got the call from Scott’s neighbor, whose dog was almost lunch.

With Shepard’s johnboat now in the water, Wilheit stands at the nose, his headlamp wavering while he finds his footing. As the boat approaches the gator, Shepard gets a look at its head. He estimates about seven inches from nostrils to eyes, which typically translates to seven feet in total length—a good-sized gator. Certainly bigger than the cantaloupes Wilheit practiced on back at Lake Lanier.

Within twenty feet of the target, Shepard’s assistant, Oggy, kills the motor. Wilheit lifts his bow and nocks his arrow.

A bullet can bounce off an alligator’s dorsal plates. The only chink is a soft area the size of a quarter just behind the eyes and above the brain—the kill spot. And the only way to get close enough to ensure hitting that spot is to bring the gator alongside the boat. Wilheit’s arrow is specially designed with a head that will pierce the gator’s softer, more leathery side and hold the beast to a sixty-foot rope, about as thick as a clothesline, that’s threaded through the arrowhead. The arrow’s nock is a red light. When a shot lands, Wilheit can pull in the line, follow the red light as it rises from the depths, and ready the .22-caliber pistol holstered at his side.

But first he has to land the shot.

The gator is motionless, still twenty feet from the boat. Wilheit pulls back the bow’s drawstring, aims, takes a breath, and lets go.

Snap.

The red light streaks through the night, the sound of slicing air punctuated with a slap of fiberglass glancing off of water and armor as the shot skips harmlessly across the animal’s back.

Wilheit quickly pulls in the errant arrow while scanning the water with his headlamp. But the alligator has submerged. Usually in the heat of summer, a gator will have to come up for air every twenty minutes or so. But when the weather is cool, as it is tonight, the animal’s metabolism slows, allowing it to stay under for hours.

Ten minutes pass. Then, on the far side of the pond, the glowing eyes materialize.

Wilheit renocks. This time, Oggy approaches from the side. When he’s finally back within about twenty feet, Wilheit steadies and strains, taking a few extra seconds to aim before loosing the arrow, which sounds a thump. The animal writhes and splashes to the bottom.

Georgians like Philip Wilheit Jr. hunt gators at night from boats, with special bows and tethered arrows to reel in the catch close enough for it to be killed with a point-blank shot from a rifle or pistol.

“Got him!” says Shepard. “That’s the shot of the week!”

A taut line confirms the hit. Softened by the murk of about ten feet of black water, the red light glows as it circles below the boat. “If that ain’t ominous, I don’t know what is,” says Shepard.

The trapper tugs on the line and considers the weight of what’s on the other end. Wilheit worries that he’s caught the gator on the arm—not the best shot. Sure enough, after a few minutes of fighting with Shepard, the line slackens. The red light stops moving. The men scatter their spotlights across the pond. But the gator is gone.

On the shore, with the boat back on its trailer, Shepard sits on a toolbox in the bed of the truck, dejected. He runs his spotlight over the pond one last time, catching only the reflection of mist rising off the cooling water.

It’s past 11 p.m. The men grab a late dinner of Subway to go. In the truck, Shepard says a quick grace over chips and meatball subs. Plenty of hunters go days without seeing a gator. The odds of seeing two in one night? Slim.

It’s just the second night of the season, and Shepard would make more money if Wilheit had to come out another night or two to fill his tag. But Shepard blames himself for letting the last one get away—he was holding the line. He feels like he let both Wilheit and Phillip Scott down. A big kill tonight could at least square Shepard with the hunter. Scott’s gator will have to wait for another day.

Shepard directs Oggy down a maze of gravel roads to a secluded lake just off the Oconee River, about twenty miles from Scott’s house. Three years ago, Shepard was called out here on reports of a “massive gator.” After an hour of spotlighting, he never actually saw it. But rumors have persisted.

The ten-acre lake is walled off by trees. The only clearing is just wide enough to launch the boat. On the water, all is dark, moon and stars blocked by a broad canopy of cloud. There is no wind. Wilheit’s headlamp scans the surface, back and forth. Nothing but shadows. It’s just after midnight.

Suddenly, a pair of eyes appears in the middle of the lake, just fifty feet away. Oggy steers the boat around, but before he can get within thirty feet, the animal starts swimming off. Shepard makes a high-pitched croak from the back of his throat—simulating the call of a female. The gator pauses. Wilheit aims and shoots. This time there is a solid thud as the reptile thrashes his powerful tail for an instant before disappearing beneath a wake that rocks the boat.

“Nice shot!” says Shepard. “You got something on that one!”

The spotlights go dark as the men search for the red light. It takes less than a minute to find it—heading directly toward the boat.

“Is that crazy?” says Shepard.

The light disappears just over the port side. The craft teeters with the scrape of bony scales across the underbelly of the flat-bottomed boat. A warning. Shepard grabs his fishing reel and tries to snag the gator by its mouth with a treble hook to ensure this one doesn’t get away. The hook catches, and the wooden rod bows; Shepard braces against the gator’s weight. Then the boat starts forward. “Are you driving?” Shepard says. “Or is he pulling?”

The trapper yanks the reel and slowly coaxes the line and the red light back to the boat.

“Are you ready?” he says to Wilheit.

“Oh yeah,” says the hunter, .22 pistol in his trembling hand.

Shepard grunts as he lifts the line. From the depths materializes the flat, dark head of a prehistoric monster, bubbles spewing from flared nostrils, which are almost a foot down-snout of yellow reptilian eyes that bear into Wilheit. The beast snarls as he drops his trap jaw, bearing rows of inch-long teeth that he tries to bury in the side of the boat. Wilheit hesitates, trying to find the kill spot, while the gator lunges toward him and then disappears again beneath the boat. Shepard tries again to raise him. His rod snaps. But the line is still intact.

The monster is now hooked twice, but the red light refuses to come up.

Georgia gators can be more than thirteen feet long and weigh more than 650 pounds.


More than
an hour later, the gator still has not resurfaced. From the bottom of the lake, the beast has led the boat all over these ten acres and has now pulled them into a weed-riddled corner. Shepard worries that if the animal burrows back into its hole or den, there might be no getting it out.

But after the hunters clear out the floating vegetation, Shepard is finally able to wrangle the tiring red light out into open water. Again, the trapper lifts while Wilheit tries to steady the gun. The head emerges with a hiss.

Pop!

The pistol shot echoes across the countryside. The gator writhes violently as he returns to the depths. The shot from close range has only made it angry.

Shepard brings the animal up again.

Pop!

For a moment, the gator floats, motionless. But there’s no blood.

“I think you knocked him out,” says Shepard.

Suddenly, the beast growls.

Shepard: “Nope.”

Pop-pop-pop!

The gator starts to roll in the water. Shepard works to still the animal.

Pop!

The gator stops rolling. Bright red gushes from between its eyes, which slowly glaze over and close.

The smell of spent gunpowder is thick on the cool air, and as the smoke lifts, the men can now exhale and survey their catch. The gator is just over eleven feet, a good two feet wide in the trunk. Its clawed feet are as big as Wilheit’s hands. Even if the animal could fit in the tiny boat, the men quickly rule out lifting it while on the water. Shepard estimates the reptile weighs well over 500 pounds. Instead, the men drag the gator to shore, where, in the tall grass, Wilheit poses for a quick phone photo to send to his wife. It’s almost 2 a.m.

Just as Wilheit leans in, the gator’s hind leg moves. Its eyes open, startling Wilheit. Shepard explains that the animal’s nervous system will twitch for up to eight hours. Still, the trapper binds the massive snout shut with a few layers of black tape. To be safe.

The plan is to load the boat onto the trailer and then load the gator onto the boat. It takes every man to hoist the beast, and once aboard, the gator’s weight flattens the trailer’s two small tires. So the men coil the giant body to fit in the cramped truck bed, tailgate down, and the hunters drive off tired and victorious.

Epilogue

It’s late October, and in the backyard of Wilheit’s Brookhaven home, a twenty-pound alligator skull, two feet from snout to stern, sits drying in the sun, the side of each jawbone as thick as the barrel of a baseball bat. Wilheit has a plastic bag full of the teeth, some as long as four inches, that will be reset when he has the trophy nickel-plated for a place of prominence inside.

The final measurements on the gator: 11 feet 4 inches long, 550 pounds. (The longest ever caught in Georgia was 13 feet 10 3/4 inches. The heaviest, 680 pounds.) After Shepard skinned Wilheit’s alligator back in Dublin, the hide proved big enough for two pairs of boots, for Wilheit and his wife, with enough belly to cover a chaise lounge for the living room. And of course, there is forty pounds of meat in the freezer, waiting to be battered and deep-fried for the Georgia– Florida game.

Meanwhile, in Palmetto Lakes, outside of Dublin, Phillip Scott has not seen his gator since it wriggled off Wilheit’s line. Often a run-in with a trapper or hunter is enough to drive an alligator away in search of more hospitable waters. But the pond is dark and deep, with plenty of room for even a seven-foot monster to hide in the fall and winter cool. And even if Scott’s gator has left, the well-stocked pond is prime habitat for the next reptile that comes along. It’s only a matter of time.

This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue.