Crossbow Gator Hunt on the St. John’s River

There are a variety of methods for hunting alligators, but one of the most interesting is with a crossbow. Check … Continued

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Glen Grizzaffe tops off the airboat tank with fuel while discussing the day’s plan with Mark Beck, lead design engineer for Barnett Crossbows. Notice Beck is wearing steel-toed boots―a lesson he learned from a previous hunt when he went nose-to-toes with an unruly gator.
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Grizzaffe’s first mate, Bill George, ices down drinks in preparation for a day under the blistering Central Florida sun. Lesson 1 for a Florida gator hunt: hydrate.
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A trio of 10′ wooden handled harpoons lay on the boat deck, one of several methods for controlling alligators during the intense heat of battle. Grizzaffe, receives some 240 harvest permits annually. Needless to say―these ‘poons have seen some fast-and-furious action as evidenced by the blood stained handle.
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We arrive at Camp Holly at o’dark-thirty. Located in Melbourne, Florida, off of US-192, Camp Holly was built on the shore of the St. John’s river in 1923. One of the oldest fish camps in Florida, visitors are welcome to take airboat rides which usher folks back in time as they explore the untouched Florida swamplands.
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As this bilingual sign demonstrates, the folks at Camp Holly are fluent in several languages. For those raised in the South, don’t worry, they speak southern redneck. We were headed for the St. John’s River, which is the longest river in the state stretching some 310-miles long. The river meanders along at a mere 1/3 mile-per-hour (0.2km/h). The St. John’s is one of only two rivers in the world that flows north, forming numerous lakes, countless sloughs and switchgrass swamps along its path.
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Grizzaffe, George and Beck get the airboat ready for the long trip into the Florida swamp. Notice the airboat is sitting on the dry ground. Airboats (nicknamed “blow boats” by those in the know), with their shallow-drafting hulls and power plants mounted above the water line, are capable of running on dry ground. Our airboat was powered by an air-cooled, aircraft Lycoming 6-cylinder, spinning a three-bladed carbon-fiber prop.
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As Grizzaffe and George explained, chasing trophy-class alligators, is much the same as hunting a trophy-class whitetail. Large males are solitary, territorial animals―opting for seclusion. If you put too much pressure on them, they will move. With that in mind, we slipped in under the cloak of darkness and started glassing switchgrass swamps and sloughs as the sun peeped over the horizon.
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Finger canals off the main river channel are great gator habitat. Alligators are timid creatures by nature, fleeing when approached by humans. Here a large male is spotted in the early mist.
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As we approached the large male he decided to pack it in. Gators will submerge and either lay on the bottom or swim underwater to safety. These tell-tale bubbles indicate our gator is laying motionless on the bottom below.
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After several unsuccessful stalks, and a 10 a.m. time limit on hunting, we fired up the blow boat and headed back to camp. Here the boat’s prop wash pushes air through the rudders and out the back of the boat. Rudders are stick-steered from an elevated platform; one that provides a great view of the surroundings. Airboats are capable of reaching top speeds in excess of 50 mph.
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Day Two
Back on the water, Grizzaffe navigates the airboat while looking for a shooter. Beck and George keep their eyes peeled too.
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After spotting what looks like a possible shooter, George hooks up. Standard operating procedure calls for a stout rod and reel combo, snag hook tied to heavy braided line. A rod and reel set-up is one of several ways to control an alligator until a shot can be made from the crossbow. Beck offers encouragement as George struggles with his scaly query. Upon closer inspection of this lucky gator, he was deemed too small.
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After grappling the gator into submission, Grizzaffe holds him steady as George removes the hook from the gator’s belly. Needless to say, this is one of those operations that should be left to the trained professionals. So kids―don’t try this at home.
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The working end of the rod and reel set-up. A weighted treble hook secured to braided line provides a formidable combo when attempting to snare one of these toothy critters.
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With the previous gator released, Grizzaffe glasses a canal for big ones as the mist burns off. Coaxing one of these prehistoric animals into the boat is a team effort requiring patience. Grizzaffe relates what he is seeing to Beck. And it’s a shooter from what he can tell.
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After waiting for about thirty-minutes, Grizzaffe maneuvers the boat closer to the gator.
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With the gator on the rod and George controlling him, Beck puts a crossbow fishing arrow into the gator. Now the gator is on both the rod and the float line from the crossbow.
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Grizzaffe controls the gator with the float line as Beck prepares to use the bang-stick. To be successful, Beck must make a precise shot, delivering the charge and lead to the back of the gator’s head.
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A close-up of the wrong end of the bang-stick to be on.
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With a well-placed round into the skull, the gator is eased up by Grizzaffe and he severs his spinal cord using his pocket knife. Not something to be left to the faint of heart or the squeamish. Once the spinal cord has been severed and the gator is dead, the muscles will continue to contract for more than an hour. This involuntary movement leads some rookies to believe the gator is still alive.
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Our gator A-Team arrives back at Camp Holly after a successful morning.
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This Camp Holly sign reminds us what we came for.
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The alligator theme is rampant in Florida. A Camp Holly sight-seeing airboat. Notice the rudder decal.
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Glenn Babst of Marco Island, Florida spent the day chasing big lizards too. Here is his trophy he hauled from the fertile waters of the St. John’s river. Babst hunted from a traditional Florida skiff. It can be seen in the background.
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First mate George admires the chompers on Babst’s gator from afar. The majority of the muscles in an alligator’s jaw have evolved over millenniums to bite and grip their prey. The jaw muscles responsible for closing the jaw are exceptionally powerful, but the muscles for opening their jaws are very weak. They are in fact so weak, an adult can hold an alligator’s jaws shut barehanded.
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This is one paw you’d hate to feel tapping you on the back in a dark alley.
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Back at civilization, Beck poses with a real trophy. His gator taped in at nearly 10-feet.
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There are a variety of methods for hunting alligators, but one of the most interesting is with a crossbow. Check out the photos and story from this amazing hunt.