Dark Waters, Deadly Gators

Zumbo goes on his wildest hunting adventure yet. The mission? Gators in the Florida swamps, at night...with a spear!

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The alligator loomed ominously in the faint beam of the headlamp. As our boat glided slowly in the darkness toward the menacing apparition, I tightened my grip on the harpoon in my sweaty hands. We closed in, and the dim light showed more of the enormous beast. I can honestly say that in none of my previous adventures had my heart ever pounded as hard. All of the elements were here-the danger, the unknown and the feeling of total inadequacy.

But mostly the danger.

In a few moments I'd try to thrust the harpoon into the creature, which now looked longer than our 16-foot boat. When the harpoon struck, a quarter ton of enraged gator would surge to life-a frenzy of popping jaws, slashing tail and unbridled power. Our boat, which now seemed inept, offered little protection. The premeditated nature of the strategy made it worse. I'd been chased by grizzly bears and rhinoceroses and experienced several other close calls, but those harrowing moments hadn't allowed time to think. Hunting this alligator, I had all the time in the world to worry.

The giant gator was now five feet away. I held tightly onto the pole, leaned over the rail and summoned every cell in my body to provide the strength I'd need to drive the harpoon. I remember saying to myself, "What, in God's name, am I doing here?"

** Genesis of a Hunt**
I'd been invited a few months earlier by Linda Powell at Remington Arms to come and hunt gators at Bienville Plantation in Florida (800-655-6661). After arriving at the lodge, Dewitt Cason, our guide, showed us a gator's skull and explained the vulnerable spots. Unless the harpoon point hit the right area, he told Linda and me, it would skid harmlessly away. Joining us in the boat was Sid Soule, who manned the outboard and electric motor.

We weren't in the boat 10 minutes when Dewitt shone a powerful flashlight beam far out over the water and spotted two gators. He turned the flashlight off, and I watched in amazement as he and Sid guided the boat toward one of the gators, using only the light of the stars. Since Linda insisted that I go first, I stood at the bow with Dewitt, trying in vain to see the alligator.

"Can you see the gator?" I whispered to Dewitt.

"Yes sir," he responded. "Comin' up on the left, about a hundred yards out." I looked and saw nothing but the surface of a very dark lake.

Dewitt turned on his headlamp, which cast a light so dim it hardly seemed worth it. I saw nothing but flat, black water. Suddenly, an object materialized in the darkness. I couldn't tell what it was at first, but slowly the form took shape, and I saw it clearly. An alligator was floating 10 yards off the bow and we were closing in.

Moment of Truth
The question of what I was doing here still burned in my mind. I grasped the harpoon tightly, positioned it about 20 inches over the water and drove it down when the alligator was within range. The animal lunged, sending water flying over the boat, but the harpoon had missed its mark.

"Too far back," Dewitt said. "You just tickled him." Now I was rattled. This was more than I had bargained for.

For the next half-hour Dewitt and Sid displayed their incredible night vision. Time after time we stalked animals that, as far as I was concerned, were nonexistent. Suddenly Dewitt located a gator that interested him.

"Big gator," he said simply. "He's a good 'un."

Dewitt turned off his lamp, and once again he and Sid guided the boat to the reptile, using hand signals in the dark.

Propelled by the small electric motor, the boat eased forward. I was ready this time, but when an enormous alligator appeared in the diffused low light, I was suddenly intimidated. It was far bigger than the one I'd missed.

Once again I gripped the harpoon tightly and waited until the last moment. The animal was facingway from me at an angle, and I swiftly thrust the harpoon downward.

The reptile virtually exploded, slamming the boat with its huge tail and disappearing into the depths amid a colossal plume of water that sprayed high into the night air. As instructed by Dewitt, I let go of the harpoon as soon as I rammed it home, and let the rest of the gear do its work. The harpoon disengaged from the pole as it hit. An empty propane tank, acting as a giant float, was attached by a rope to the harpoon. It suddenly tore over the side of the boat and skidded swiftly across the water's surface.

"Gotta get another harpoon in that big boy," Dewitt said. He and Sid rigged up a second point attached to another buoy, and I got set to do it all over again. With brute strength, Dewitt and Sid slowly hauled the big gator in, retrieving the rope hand over hand. It was a colossal struggle, the men pulling with all their might. Finally the gator heaved to in the beam, and I stood at the rail with the harpoon. I couldn't believe the size of this animal. With jaws that seemed to be two feet long, it twisted and lunged beside the boat, banging its powerful tail in a frenzied struggle that sent water flying everywhere.

"Damn big gator," Dewitt said. "Probably twelve feet."

I held the pole ready, but the giant reptile sounded in another slashing explosion that churned the water to a froth. I watched in amazement as the buoy sliced across the lake with astonishing speed.

After another horrific struggle, the gator was once again alongside, thrashing, twisting and slapping the boat with its impossibly long tail. I saw a quick opportunity and jammed the harpoon home. At that instant the alligator made a lightning roll and I didn't let go of the pole quickly enough. I saw stars and felt pain in my upper shoulder and knew I'd wrenched a muscle.

But the reptile was struck solidly, with a pair of harpoons and huge floats slowing it down and tiring it out. Next we had to pull the gator alongside the boat and kill it with a "bang stick," or stun gun, which amounted to a .357 cartridge attached to a six-foot pole.

"Be real careful," Dewitt said. "That thing will fire if anything touches it. Keep it pointed up in the air, and tap it hard behind the gator's eyes so the bullet goes into its brain."

Now the gator was back up to the boat, with two harpoons just under its hard shell. I very carefully aimed the lethal and primitive weapon behind his eyes and thrust down hard. The cartridge fired and the gator gave a huge shudder and then lay still.

"Give him one more," Dewitt said. "We can't take no chances." Sid attached another cartridge and I administered a final shot. The gator, we hoped, was finished.

Before hauling the reptile into the boat, Dewitt severed the spinal cord behind the head with a knife, and he and Sid somehow slid the enormous gator on board. Now it was Linda Powell's turn. Once more we searched the darkness. Dewitt quickly spotted a gator, and we moved in. As before, the two men skillfully maneuvered the boat toward the reptile in absolute silence.

In the starlight I could see Linda's fingers flexing on the pole, and I knew she no doubt felt some of the emotions I had felt-apprehension, intimidation, foreboding, inadequacy and suspense.

The boat moved in, and I saw Linda lean over the rail. She jammed the harpoon down, the water boiled, but the point merely bounced off the gator's thick hide.

"We might see that gator again," Sid said. "He's so tough he don't know what hurt is. All that harpoon point did was graze his hide. He'll get over it in a minute."

Suddenly, Dewitt came to life. "Big gator," he exclaimed. "Over yonder, across the lake." There was excitement in his voice-the first I'd heard from the laid-back guide.

As usual, we turned off the light and cruised in the dark. We were nearing the gator when suddenly I felt something scrape my leg. My dead gator was moving! I didn't want to say anything to distract Linda and the two men from the stalk, and I resisted the urge to turn on my tiny flashlight.

Surely it couldn't be alive. I'd sent two .357 cartridges into its brain. But that thought offered no comfort as the gator's feet started moving slowly back and forth.

I remembered the harrowing adventure my friend Jim Carmichel had with a huge crocodile in Africa. Shot in the brain with a .338, the "dead" croc, which was lashed head to tail in a small boat, suddenly opened one eye. Moments later it came alive, roaring and twisting. The tail broke loose, and the boat almost capsized in the croc-infested lake as the big reptile thrashed wildly. Luckily, Carmichel's party made it to shore with no injuries.

So there I was, with a huge gator apparently coming to life alongside me. I fully expected the tail to whip around, knocking us all into a lake full of prowling alligators. That didn't happen, though the legs continued their bizarre and threatening motion and I wondered if my minutes on this earth were numbered.

Soon we were upon the huge gator that Linda was stalking. At that moment, the giant reptile turned and began to submerge. Linda's thrust would have been on target, but the angle was slightly off, and the harpoon missed.

"Didn't want to get you excited," Dewitt whispered, "but that gator was twelve feet easy."

As the night wore on and the air and water cooled, the reptiles became harder to locate. Finally, at 2 a.m., Linda scored an eight-footer. The harpoon struck true, the bang stick fired and the gator was hers.

"Are you ever going to try this again?" I asked Linda.

"Absolutely," she said. "There's a twelve-foot gator out there with my initials on it." I know I'll go back, too. I can't wait.k. We were nearing the gator when suddenly I felt something scrape my leg. My dead gator was moving! I didn't want to say anything to distract Linda and the two men from the stalk, and I resisted the urge to turn on my tiny flashlight.

Surely it couldn't be alive. I'd sent two .357 cartridges into its brain. But that thought offered no comfort as the gator's feet started moving slowly back and forth.

I remembered the harrowing adventure my friend Jim Carmichel had with a huge crocodile in Africa. Shot in the brain with a .338, the "dead" croc, which was lashed head to tail in a small boat, suddenly opened one eye. Moments later it came alive, roaring and twisting. The tail broke loose, and the boat almost capsized in the croc-infested lake as the big reptile thrashed wildly. Luckily, Carmichel's party made it to shore with no injuries.

So there I was, with a huge gator apparently coming to life alongside me. I fully expected the tail to whip around, knocking us all into a lake full of prowling alligators. That didn't happen, though the legs continued their bizarre and threatening motion and I wondered if my minutes on this earth were numbered.

Soon we were upon the huge gator that Linda was stalking. At that moment, the giant reptile turned and began to submerge. Linda's thrust would have been on target, but the angle was slightly off, and the harpoon missed.

"Didn't want to get you excited," Dewitt whispered, "but that gator was twelve feet easy."

As the night wore on and the air and water cooled, the reptiles became harder to locate. Finally, at 2 a.m., Linda scored an eight-footer. The harpoon struck true, the bang stick fired and the gator was hers.

"Are you ever going to try this again?" I asked Linda.

"Absolutely," she said. "There's a twelve-foot gator out there with my initials on it." I know I'll go back, too. I can't wait.