Temperatures hovered near 90-degrees and the unbearable humidity sucked water from my pores. Bugs, thousands of them, swarmed above my head. Frogs croaked and lightning bugs wafted in the still air.
It was the dead of night in a south Florida swamp, and I, for the first time in my life, was on a gator hunt. The conditions, at least for this Western plains dweller, were miserable, but I was having the time of my life. Kind of an oxymoron, I know, but until you experience the beauty and misery of this part of the country my brief description will never do it justice.
The plain, simple and pure reason for my alligator quest: Conservation. It wasn’t solely for the adrenaline rush of pursing an apex predator with primitive equipment. (Note: Don’t gator hunt if you don’t want your heart pounding out of your chest. This hunt was unreal.) It wasn’t for skin and claws. It wasn’t for a mount and a trophy photo, which is what many anti-hunters would like to convince you we are all about.
Like all serious bowhunters, I love and respect the animals I pursue. I’m drawn to wild places and choose to hunt with my bow and arrow because, at least for me, there is no more primal connection to Mother Nature than to roam parts of this great country with a stick-and-string in hand. If there is a greater, purer connection to the wild, I’ve yet to find it.
This hunt started off as a deer and hog adventure — the chance to hopefully put some new-for-2016 Easton (www.eastonarchery.com) arrows to the test. (More on these innovative new shafts coming soon.) Luckily, I was able to harvest a gorgeous south Florida whitetail as well as a boar hog (stay tuned for information about those epic adventures as well) early in the hunt, and I had some time to kill. Hoppy Kempfer, owner of Osceola Outfitters (www.osceolaoutfitters.com) and a south Florida guiding/hunting legend, was hosting us on this particular venture and approached me with an amazing opportunity.
According to Hoppy — or the “Gator Master” as I now call him — a particularly large alligator had taken up residence in a sizable canal near the home of the ranch foreman. He had eaten a dog as well as a couple of newborn calves and was becoming a serious problem. In addition, this particular ranch, like many in south Florida, is chock full of gators. This booming population puts serious strain on the aquatic species that also call these Sunshine State waterways home. The gator needed to be eliminated, and I was honored to answer the call.
As hunters, that’s what we do. Answering the conservation call is the reason deer, elk, turkey and other game animal populations are so strong across the country. It’s why we as hunters are experiencing the “Golden Years” of hunting. Let’s not forget that. Let’s not disconnect from that. Hunters are the world’s greatest conservationists. Period.
After searching for the gator for several hours, and with our hopes dwindling, Hoppy’s Cyclops (www.gsmoutdoors.com/cyclops) spotlight picked up eyes — eyes that twinkled like jewels — 400 yards down the canal. Slowly, meticulously, Hoppy, our “gator crew” and I slipped through the vegetation that lined the canal bank. Hoppy called to the gator using his voice, and the wise old beast slipped ever closer, an inch at a time it seemed, until he paused and would come no more.
Again, we moved in. This game of cat and mouse went on for what seemed like hours before I was able to slip a perfect arrow into this giant 10-foot gator. I was thrilled.
Yes, for me personally it was a huge rush, a great bowhunting accomplishment, a dream come true. I will never apologize for the thrill bowhunting provides me. But on a greater scale, it was an act of conservation — an act that would greatly benefit this very special ranch. We pursued the gator legally. We harvested the gator cleanly. I will take home pounds of wonderful meat that will feed my family. And the ranch has one fewer problem gator.
It doesn’t get any better. It doesn’t get any simpler. It doesn’t get any purer. Bowhunting is conservation.