For the avid outdoorsman, South Carolina offers an incredible variety of hunting options. One that attracts visitors from all over the country, however, is the relatively recent season of alligator hunting. In the 20th century, alligators were hunted nearly to extinction because of their precious hides, or because of perceived threats, and were one of the first animals listed on the endangered species list. The year 1987 saw them downgraded to “threatened,” and anyone residing in the state today can attest that there is no longer any lack of gators to be had. The public alligator season first opened in 2008 and is still highly regulated, mostly because of the American alligator’s similarity to the American crocodile, which resides in Southern Florida and is still an endangered species.
Today, South Carolina boasts a population of more than 100,000 alligators, attracting the notice of hunters from more than 40 states to apply for tags each year. “Popular TV shows, such as Swamp People, have greatly increased the interest in alligator hunting,” says SCDNR Wildlife Biologist and Alligator Program Coordinator Jay Butfiloski. “Hunters are getting something new, and it is generating money for a great program. The revenue has allowed us to do alligator research not possible before as every dollar is earmarked for the management of alligators.” He explains that while in Louisiana, it is basically baited fishing and a commercial activity, here in South Carolina alligator hunting is an active, recreational pursuit.
The amount of hunters registering for tags nearly doubled the year that Swamp People first aired. Today, approximately 4,500 hunters apply for 1,000 tags, which are distributed through a lottery system. The online application process begins in May, and the month-long season is open from the second Saturday in September to the second Saturday in October each year.
These funds have also allowed extensive alligator research by Clemson PhD student Abby Lawson, who is currently studying their population ecology and is recording alligator movement data from GPS transmitters, the first study of its kind. “Alligators are often simultaneously viewed as a keystone species of ecological importance, a controversial public safety nuisance and a valuable economic resource,” she writes.
But for the average hunter, alligator hunting offers a rare opportunity in this region to pursue a predator as prey … to chase something that could bite back. Brad Taylor of Taylor Outdoors not only enjoys gator hunting on a personal level, but he is also a seasonal alligator technician at the SCDNR and offers professional hunting trips through his business. “Alligators have always been a big passion of mine, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with them. I really enjoy that even more than the hunting,” he says. “My favorite part of hunting is taking folks out during the public season who have never had any experience with the animals but were turned on to it by a friend or an outdoors show. I love educating them on these animals and teaching them about this resource that we have.”
Brad explains that for the most part, humans are not threatened by alligators, despite the bad rap that a few problem gators will garner for the whole species. Jay shares that the public alligator season has also rid the state of many of the problem gators; because they were the ones unafraid of humans, they were some of the first to go, especially around Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. However, the primary goal with the public alligator season is a sustained public harvest, not elimination of alligators from the state.
The basic rule in harvesting an alligator is that it must be secured by a line before being dispatched. That can be done in a number of ways. “In the day time, most people use the fishing gear tactic,” Brad explains. “After a gator is located, you try to get close enough to it to cast a line with a very large snatch hook attached across the alligator’s body and snag it. Then you are in for the fight of your life on that fishing rod, basically reeling, reeling, reeling and hoping for the best!”
Brad continues that at this point, most will use a second rod to try and cast another hook into the alligator to gain better control. Since the alligator is underwater for most of the fight, this can prove rather tricky. “It takes blind casting where you try to cast just a little farther than where you see your line in the water,” he says. “It can take a good 20 minutes to get another hook secured. Once you have control, you can use archery equipment to pull it in closer to have even better control before dispatching. Fishing rods are minimal at best as far as control is concerned.”
Brad recommends having the best control possible before ending the fight so that the animal is not lost. In South Carolina, it is illegal to use a long-barreled firearm, so hunters must use a handgun or a bang stick. This method of alligator hunting can sometimes lead to hunts that last 16 to 18 hours.
University of South Carolina graduate Forrest Edwards has been hunting gators for several years and was introduced to the sport by a friend who had a nuisance tag for a 9-foot gator in his pond. “We were in a tiny paddle boat and saw literally hundreds of gators that night,” he says. On his own property in the Lowcountry, which he manages for duck hunting, he has an alligator over-population problem and applies for nuisance tags each year to help control the issue. Nuisance alligators are defined as gators that are overpopulated or come in close contact with humans and their animals — either pets or livestock. If the land owner feels that an alligator is threatening or too big for the property, he can remove it as long as he has DNR issued nuisance tags.
“I try to remove the big gators from some ponds that I hunt before the season since we use dogs to retrieve the ducks,” he explains. “I knew that the population needed to be controlled when I was duck hunting one year and was walking through the pond and stepped on an 8-footer. I would not let friends hunt with dogs before we started controlling the alligators.”
Despite there being such a problem on his property, Forrest shares that he respects the animal too much to let it be wasted. He harvests the meat for eating and the hide for leather goods.
“I’ve yet to be on a hunt that didn’t get my heart racing,” Forrest says. “I love the adrenaline rush and heart pumping action of gator hunting. It really is man versus beast. It is a mix of hunting and fishing, the two things I love to do. I also know that when I kill a gator, I am making the property safer for others to enjoy hunting and fishing.”
Historically, the Midlands is on the upper end of the range of alligator habitat as gators usually populate the fall line and below — roughly I-20 across South Carolina. The main place alligators are found in the Midlands is in the Congaree River system. The Congaree has traditionally held some of the largest that are harvested every year, as well as the bulk of the population.
Brad mainly guides night hunts when pursuing gators, which only increases the suspense and excitement of the experience. “The animals are much more active at night,” he says. “We use lights to find them. Their eyes glow a reddish-orange that can be seen from extremely long distances. We then use an electric trolling motor to stalk close enough so you can get a shot with a crossbow. Harpoons have much larger ropes, so when it is brought in close enough we will also secure it with a harpoon with two lines so that we have better control before dispatching it.”
He explains that the most dangerous element in alligator hunting is actually getting caught in one of the lines while fighting an alligator. “My number one concern is that the ropes are free and clear. These are strong, fast animals, and it would be horrible if someone were caught in the rope as the gator was taking out line.”
Forrest shares that, surprisingly, the smaller gators are often more dangerous than the larger ones. “One thing I have learned over the years is to never underestimate their power and speed,” he says. “They are very unpredictable. Everyone thinks that the big, giant gators are the most dangerous and scary, but it’s the little ones that are lightning fast and can turn to strike before you even realize it. As weird as it sounds I always seem to be a little more careful and nervous when dealing with a smaller alligator rather than a large one.”
Brad’s largest harvested gator was taken on a guided hunt one night in 2012 and measured 13 1/2 feet. After pursuing it with a crossbow, the hunter shot and missed. Brad says they then had another opportunity to snag it with a fishing rod, and that took. “My wife was in the boat that night as well as a second client, and when that gator was hooked it led to a 4-hour battle with everyone trading the rod around, taking turns reeling and wrestling with this animal before we could get it secured with the cross bow. It was quite a test of endurance. I knew it was a large gator, but I had no idea how long it would be.”
Brad says that there are several processors in the state who work on alligators. He directs his clients to one of them following a successful hunt so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labors. Hunters are allowed to sell the hide and any other parts of the alligator, except the meat. Often the head is kept and mounted as a trophy, but the processing and tanning process for the hide is quite labor intensive and thus expensive. For that reason, many hunters will sell the hide to the processor who then sells it for a profit, after executing the tanning, to be made into purses, wallets and boots. Tagging is especially important at this stage in the hunting process because it helps regulate the legality, marking that it is a legally harvested American alligator, not an illegal American crocodile, as their hides could be confused down the line. Processors will also ready the meat for such delicacies as fried alligator tail to be enjoyed at the next family barbecue.
As the Cajuns in Louisiana swamps would say, bon appétit!