The Great Gator Hunt

As the dog days of summer wear on, southerners have started taking to the swamp in search of giant alligators. Alligator hunters are members of a hunting and fishing subculture. They're a combination of trapper, angler, big game hunter and bowfisherman all melded into one. Most of their hunting takes place at night at point blank range. Their quarry can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
Despite the inherent danger, gator hunting is a growing sport and currently, eight southern states offer alligator hunts. Most public alligator seasons start in mid-August and run through September.
You can trap them on lines similar to catfish limblines. Then once a gator is hooked in the trap, you shoot it with a rifle or bow.
Most gator hunters like to shine for the big lizards at night from a boat. Once they spot a nice gator, they try to sneak close enough to shoot it with bowfishing gear like a bow, crossbow or harpoon gun. Then, the battle is on.
In a method that's more like fishing, some hunters snag gators with snatch hooks and bait tossed from a fishing pole.
In big game hunting fashion, other hunters stalk gators and shoot them with a rifle during daylight.
In 1967 the American Alligator was put on the Endangered Species List.
But alligators (and their ancestors) have been around for more than 150 million years and they're survival experts. Once they gained federal protection, their numbers bounced back quickly.
But other states with smaller gator populations also participate in the late summer hunt. In Alabama last year, 78 gators were taken with a hunter success rate of about 60 percent.
Alligators are aquatic killing machines. They mainly eat fish, turtles, snakes and small mammals, but they also go after bigger prey. The gator pictured here is swimming off with a deer.
In a testament to the gators' comeback ability, some record breaking gators have been taken by hunters in the last few years. Glenn Capdepon killed this 12.5-foot gator in Louisiana in 2006. It was the biggest "farm retrap" alligator in state history. Farm retrap means that the alligator was grown in a gator farm and then released into the wild. The Louisiana Department of Fisheries and Wildlife releases about 40,000 juvenile alligators into the wild each year.
Last year Matt Thornton topped the Alabama state record after hauling in this 701-pound monster. Amazingly, Thornton initially hooked the gator with his bass rod before his fishing buddies were able to snag him with heavier tackle.
It's the heaviest alligator to be killed by a public hunter in the South Carolina since The Palmetto State reopened its gator season in 2008.
This year South Carolina will issue 1,200 gator permits to public hunters.
The longest alligator ever killed in Florida measured 14 feet 5/8 inches and was taken from Lake Monroe in Seminole County. Unfortunately the Florida Fish and Wildlife doesn't have a photo of the monster gator.
Trophy size alligators are incredibly elusive, even the biggest gators can disappear in just a few feet of water.
If you're interested in gator hunting Outwest Farms with outfitter Lee Lightsey, who provided many of the photos for this gallery, got to http://www.floridahuntingoutfitter.com. Lightsey runs guided gator hunts on private land all year round.
Haven't had enough gator photos? Click here to check out the story of a 1,000-pound alligator killed in Florida last year.