A first-ever gator seemed like the hard part of this swamp hunt. That is, until the author tried her luck on Florida’s hogs.
As I passed a TV on that July evening in 2012, chilling words caught my attention: “If I could break my arm off, I had a chance. If I couldn’t break my arm off, I was dead.” Seventeen-year-old Kaleb Langdale had just made national news when an alligator bit off his arm in Florida’s Caloosahatchee River. As the gator performed the infamous “death roll,” spinning rapidly as it dragged Kaleb underwater, the boy made a life-saving decision: He jerked his arm out of the gator’s mouth to sever it at the elbow and swim to safety. “Authorities caught the alligator about four hours later,” the report continued, “then killed it and retrieved Langdale’s arm, but doctors were unable to reattach the limb.”
The attack occurred just west of Lake Okeechobee, where I was headed the next month for my first alligator hunt. I wondered what I’d do in Kaleb Langdale’s place, considering adult males average 500-plus pounds and sport 80 primitive teeth designed to do two things: grip tight as their jaws clamp prey and crush bones. I was glad to know I’d be packing an AR-15.
Come August I arrived in the Orlando airport searching for friends Kim Cahalan, Mark Sidelinger, Mike Schoby, Mike Strandlund, Eric Poole and Martin Topper to test Advanced Technology International’s prototype VEPR and modified Rock River rifles on a management gator/hog hunt. With 5 million gators in the Southeast—1.5 million of which live in Florida—we were on the right track. Hogs would hold up their end, too, with Florida numbers exceeding 500,000.
While awaiting the guys from Molot, distributor of the VEPR rifles in Russia, and ATI, a few of us joined Hoppy Kempfer of Osceola Outfitters on gator patrol.
As we stood on a bridge overlooking swampland, Hoppy spotted a gator on the bank at 50 yards. Then just above the water’s surface appeared two pairs of gator eyes—mirrors of their creepy souls. “That one’s 11 feet,” Hoppy said, pointing to the larger one as it lurked in the shallows. I wasn’t overly disappointed when he said Florida game laws only permit using rifles during the day (bang sticks are used at night). Though their eyes glow red when spotlights hit them and give away their location, I wondered how many pairs of eyes I wasn’t seeing.
Hoppy’s management gators average 6 to 8 feet in length, we learned. As for how to gauge size when all you see above the surface are eyes and nostrils, he explained: “Estimate the distance in inches between the eyes and snout and add a foot for every inch. If it’s 8 inches, it’s an 8-foot alligator.” We committed this trick to memory as gator hunts are charged by the foot. Hoppy had “trophy” gators aplenty, but pulling the trigger on a 10- to 12-footer meant a hefty price tag.
We also learned that gators aren’t easy targets just because of their size.
“Alligators have a kill spot no bigger than a quarter—a tiny brain in the back of their heads 2 to 3 inches behind the eyes,” Hoppy said. “Shoot ’em there, kill ’em instantly.” Translation: Wound one and you’ve got trouble. Not much to aim at above the water’s surface. “Dead ones can sink fast so we pack grappling hooks for dragging across the swamp bottom.