Chris Haywood, left, and Brett Matthews pose with one of their trophy gators, which is longer than the airboat they used to hunt him down. The gators were unusually large for gators caught on public lands.
Some people are a little bit crazy. It’s just a fact.
There are those of us who look at massive, toothy, scaly, flesh-chomping creatures and say, “I hope I never have to get too close to that.”
And then there are people like Brett Matthews and Chris Haywood.
These two took off for the Florida swamps and paid good money to actually seek out trophy alligators.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Matthews said. “My wife, everybody said we were absolutely nuts for doing it. You would not believe the release forms we had to sign to go do this.
“But it was so much fun.”
The guys hooked up with Cocoa-based Central Florida Trophy Hunts on Oct. 14 and set off on a pair of airboats, skipping along the everglades in search of gators no less than 9 feet in length.
How did they prepare for the hunt? Well, how does one prepare to sniff out and snuff 600 pounds of nasty?
“I don’t know if there’s anything you could do to get prepared for it. I reckon you’ve got to be a little crazy,” Haywood said.
So without knowing exactly what to expect, they helped the guides spot heads on the water. When they found a gator they wanted to go for, they would approach.
With only bubbles and mud trails for clues as the gator went underwater, the hunters would blind cast beyond it and try to hook it on 200-pound test with sturdy trebles.
And if you hook one, you’ll know.
“Those gators will take those airboats and pull them like Tonka toys,” Haywood said. “Wherever they decide to go, that boat’s gonna go with ’em.”
After a couple of hooks are set, gator hunters move on to the meaner weapons. Matthews popped his monster with a crossbow attached to a line and a buoy to slow it down and show its whereabouts. They followed him about 400 yards before he tried to go underneath a bank. The sportsman slung a harpoon in him after that, a move the gator didn’t take too kindly.
The 11.5-footer began to thrash at the shorter boat, biting anything he could get his teeth on, and snapped the wooden harpoon stake – as thick as an adult wrist – with his jaws.
“You’re not strapped in or anything, you’re just standing on this platform holding on to this rope, and I had to watch out because as he was rolling, that half of the harpoon that was in him kept coming by my head,” Matthews said.
The gator, which guides estimated to be around 50 years old, rolled itself up in the lines and finally was held tight enough for the hunter to end it. Matthews was handed the bang stick and hit the back of the reptile’s head with a .45-caliber bullet.
“It’s almost like fishing and hunting combined,” Matthews said. “You’re starting with a fishing pole and finishing with a bow and a harpoon, it’s a little bit of everything.”
Open for hunting
Public hunts have been happening in Florida since 1988, after gators were declared recovered from endangered status.
The season is only open for a few months, and a limited number of permits are issued by the state.
Biologists estimate the state’s gator population to be a healthy 1.3 million. Last year, 7,844 of the animals were harvested. The state wildlife commission offered 6,260 permits for 2010 through a lottery system at $270 apiece, permitting each hunter to take two gators from assigned hunting zones.
Nearly 6,000 permits were sold by the Aug. 15 opening day.
Matthews, of Fayetteville, and Haywood, of Eastover, bought the last two permits owned by their guide, who starts trip prices at $1,500. It took three months for Matthews to get everything in order for the trip. The hardest part was finding someone willing to join in.
“He couldn’t find anybody else crazy enough to go with him,” Haywood said. “But I jumped right on board. Let’s do it! Let’s go!”
And if Haywood thought a few episodes of Swamp Things were akin to what they’d find, he was wrong. “Hunting gators is nothing like what you see on TV,” he said.
“In Florida, you can’t use bush hooks to catch them off food. You can’t have a gun in the boat and shoot them from 20 or 30 feet. You have to get that gator within 2 or 3 feet of you to kill it,” Haywood said.
By the time he took down his 600-pounder, he’d had the experience of Matthews’ hunt, and the two of them were together on an airboat.
They were more confident, although fear didn’t play much of a role in the first harvest: “You don’t have time to be scared,” Matthews said.
The second gator dove after they’d hooked him, so they got a hand line in him. After a fight, they started moving him to the boat. Since Matthews’ 7-foot rod was broken in the battle, he was the one to fire the crossbow. Then Haywood handed off his rod and got the bang stick.
“The only other thing that’s ever gotten me pumped up as much as this is bear hunting with dogs – having a 500-pound bear 5 feet in front of you. And I’ve got Brett wanting to do that now,” Haywood said.
The stories, the laughs and the memories of their gator hunt have had an odd effect on friends who hear them.
“People that thought we were crazy before we went, now they want to go do it,” Haywood said.
“They’ve heard the stories, they’ve heard about how me and Brett carried on back and forth while we fought the gators, having so much fun, and now they want to jump on the bandwagon.”
They have an unforgettable story to tell. And they’ll soon have the full-body mounts to prove it. And maybe there’s no better bonding than taking down a monstrous relic who could easily snap your femur in half.
Could be great – but I still think they’re crazy.
Staff writer Monica Holland can be reached at email@example.com.