Phil Walters, gator guide extraordinaire.

Many years ago I had a close encounter of the creepy kind with a lake full of crocodiles.  I swore I would not repeat the experience. And for over 25 years the crocs wallowed in their brine while I wallowed in my own habitat far, far away. This delightful state of being lasted until my editor saw a story I wrote about crocodiles. He decided that the experience somehow qualified me to do a story on gator hunting. Which is how I found myself in Central Florida for a simulated gator hunt with Captain Phil Walters of http://www.GatorGuides.com

The hunt was simulated because the season had not yet opened-something which didn’t upset me at all! As a full-fledged adult I no longer believe that the ugly reptilian behemoths could swallow the boat and all her occupants, or so Captain Phil assured me.  I planned to find out and if the scribbles in my journal never make it into print will the gator hunter who finds my bones bury them far from the old bayou!

So, how did my gator hunt go? Well, besides gators, Disney, NASA, and endless beaches, Florida is known for bad weather. Between tropical storm Bonnie and hurricane Charlie hitting with a one-two punch in the two days set aside for our boat trip the hunt was off.

Two weeks prior my response would have been one of relief.  But several hours talking with Captain Phil about the lakes and creatures in them as well as hearing Phil’s passion for this way of life had me hooked (so to speak) and I felt a profound sense of loss. I had found myself caught up in the chase, and looking forward to the trip into a watery world. Phil invited me back.




Devon Funk, assistant to the Captain.



Final pre-trip inspection.

A year later I planned a trip to Florida.  A quick e-mail to Captain Phil and the hunt was back on. From Orlando, I headed 1½ hours west into another world. Exiting the toll road onto a lonely silent road I felt more than a little lost.  Following the odometer closely I pulled off the road onto a tiny sandy strip along a murky green river.  Nothing was there but a swamp full of fallen trees, a large white bird and hungry hordes of mosquitoes. Assuming I had found the meeting place, I was early.  In spite of imagining myself as a fearless adventurer a frisson of fear gripped my stomach.  A ripple and two yellow eyes under the nearby bridge was an eerie reminder of the past.  I wondered what on earth possessed me to take on this assignment. About the time a full-blown panic attack began to make itself felt, two saviors in the guise of Phil Walters and his nephew, Devon Funk towing their amazing airboat pulled up. Breathing deeply I pasted on a calm smile and said hello.

In short order the airboat was unloaded and I was hauled aboard, trussed in a lifejacket, seated on a high perch, given earmuffs and safety instructions and we were off.  The river was still and lonely in the twilight. The airboat rose up gently then rocketed forward and hurtled down the river. The foliage closed us in and we disappeared from civilization.




Jrrassic river to the past.

Central Florida’s population notwithstanding, we were completely alone.  I began to relax in the solitude if not the silence! A few minutes later the river emptied into a wide lake. As the horizon opened up flocks of birds flew over us, and gathered in their night perches. When the boat neared, each group would rise in a wave then settle back down. It was a special symphony of sight as the different colors and sizes of birds all played their part against a backdrop of sunset golds and reds.  My camera was futile in the half-light so my brain tried to capture it all.




“There’s one”, Captain Phil pointed.

Reluctantly my eyes left the birds and found a new delight. Bubbles and brown water marked the path of the gator. It’s a big one and incredibly fast.  These babies look bulky and slow in all the pictures I’ve seen.  But though at rest they look like tree trunks with legs; in a race for dinner you would be the main course. The lake is shallow, which makes for easy gator spotting. Even my rookie eyes soon got the hang of it.  Languid streams of bubbles point the way until the airboat nears. Then the gators and the bubbles accelerate to warp speed. We twist and turn on a dime but the gators are even faster. We give chase for a while then break off down the lake to explore.

This is an unofficial hunt for two reasons.  The first is that the 2005 gator season doesn’t start until September 1 and lasts until October 8.  But the larger reason is that I am a big sissy. No way am I going to be in a boat with one of these giant, mouthy critters.  The way to catch a gator is first to find him, then keep up with him, and finally catch him with a long stick-on-a-rope. (To be precise, the sticks are harpoons, baited wooden pegs, snares, gigs, snatch hooks, spear guns, cross-bows, and bows with restraining lines, but hey, I’m not a hunter and I’m a girl!)

So after you stick him you have to bring him up to the boatand usually they are not dead at this point.  The harpoon is attached to a long rope with a buoy to keep it afloat.  Captain Phil sets his equipment up very carefully.  The gators will try to get deep into the swamp and under or around trees.  The goal is not to lose a wounded gator with a harpoon in it.  When you have followed the animal until it wearies and the animal is reeled up to the boat a bang stick is used on its brain.  A bang stick is a device that uses a firearm cartridge to kill the alligator.  You get up close and personal with this thing since in order for the cartridge to discharge, contact must be made with the skull of the gator.  Then the animal is dragged to the edge of the boat and trussed securely.

Question? If it is dead why the trussing?  Well, in the event that dead isn’t really dead, you want to make sure the animal is completely immobilized.  Since gator hunters, like other hunters, seek to take the big kahuna, trussing the animals properly is essential.  A large gator will fill the boat-and you don’t want to wrestle with a gator in such a small space.  The tables could be turned and the gator would be hunting you!  So . . . never assume it is dead! Balancing the weight is another issue.  Airboats have a very shallow draft, so the captain must be mindful of the total weight distribution of the occupants-both human and otherwise.




Master of his swamp.

We turn the boat off to watch the last rays of the sun over the horizon.  It is dead quiet. I find it hard to believe that millions of people live nearby.  I breathe deeply as my brain calms.  I channel a time when I lived deep in the wilderness and peace wraps me like a blanket.

Hurricanes take away and give back. This lake was completely choked with marsh plants until hurricane Charlie swept through and uprooted them. Now only occasional clumps are scattered here and there.  The water table, so long a concern for Florida is now full giving fresh nourishment to countless species along with mankind.  People too often wrapped up in their own little worlds come together during times of danger such as a hurricane and great heroics are seen as well as incredible acts of kindness.  The storms remind us that man and beast share this planet and are interconnected.

It’s fully dark now and with it comes a new way of looking for gators. A large torch lights up gator eyes reflecting a characteristic red. Dark logs move. The space between the eye bump and the shoulders that poke out of the water give an indication of the size of the gator. Looking around I see we are surrounded. These creatures belong here and I don’t.  This lake is not used widely for recreation so wildlife thrives.  Phil sees something and shines his light on a raccoon.  The creature blinks and disappears.  Earlier in the day I was shopping in Orlando.  Now I am in a primeval forest a million years away in experience. Spanish moss drips from the gnarled trees.  Cypress knees tangle with one another making passage difficult. I came on a gator hunt and rediscovered a part of me usually buried in the rat race. This is no longer a story — it is soul food. 




The one that (eventually) got away.

The boat starts up again and we spot more gators.  The wind blows away the mosquitoes helped by plenty of bug spray.  We see eyes that blink and then they are gone.  At slow speeds the boat swishes over vegetation and noses in among the cypresses. Small alligators like these snarled places where they are well hidden.  Phil tells his nephew, Devon, to catch one.  Devon lunges and misses — several times.  I can’t decide if this is deliberate or not!  In a few minutes another “little” gator slides by and the Captain makes a grab at it.  Obviously a pro he lifts it into the boat.  Holding the jaws closed renders it harmless though not helpless.  Phil's muscles bulge as the gator struggles.  He holds it up for a picture or two.  From a safe distance I try to focus my lens. “Would you like to have a picture with him?” the captain asks.  He is serious. I have managed to keep all my body parts to a ripe middle age. Now is no time to change the status quo.  I graciously decline.  Phil lets the youngster loose overboard where it disappears and goes home to mama, no doubt with tales of monsters, bright lights, and a daring escape. 

A light caught our eye in the distance.  The other boat is the only one to share the lake this night.  We wave as they go by. A lot of people are missing out tonight as they sit in their comfortable chairs in front of their televisions, but I am glad for the solitude.

Phil Walters took a long way around to become a gator hunter.  He used to be a Sommelier.  That blows my mind as I have always pictured (my apologies for stereotyping), a sommelier as a very elegant, somewhat sissified, city person who would never get muck on his expensive shoes or gator parts on his hands. While I am certain Phil was good at the wine business, he really fits this life.  He is at ease here and passionate about his work. He became an activist along the way.  Hunting over the years has gotten a bad name partly because our society has grown so urban and technological and partly because the few bad eggs give fodder to the folks who disagree with hunting as a way of life.  Those who value this life and what it offers them and society have begun to be voices crying in the wilderness.

Gator hunting is a very sustainable resource.  It is also a sport that gives back a lot. Permits fees for hunting go back into conservation. There are records of alligator hunting as far back as the late 1800s.  Over time, unregulated practices endangered the gators.  In 1967 the gators were put on an endangered species list. However, not until 1970, when an amendment to the Lacy Act was passed, did the poaching of alligators began to diminish.  The Act gave officials the tools to reduce poaching and the gators began to make a comeback. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission created an Alligator Management Program in 1980.  Its major objectives are to implement alligator harvest programs under the concept of sustained annual harvests while optimizing the economic, aesthetic, and ecological values of alligators as a renewable natural resource.  By this the Commission hopes to provide incentives for conservation of not only the alligator, but also the wetland ecosystems they inhabit. (2005 Statewide Alligator Harvest Training and Orientation Manual.)  Each year locations are selected for sportsmen (both resident and non-resident) to take up to two gators per permit.  You must be 18 years or older to apply for a permit and must not have any convictions relating to crocodilians for 5-10 years prior depending on the violations.  A Florida hunting license is not necessary, however, all appropriate tags and licenses must be obtained.

The desire for hunting is joined by a yearning to be in places where hunting is done. But remote, wild bastions of nature are dwindling.  Today’s world is increasingly busy and loud and the ambient scents are diesel and fast food. Those of us who cherish being surrounded by wilderness, her smells of nature and wildlife, and her night sounds and frequent animal sightings, feel a great loss.  Humanity becomes less human when we stray too far from nature. Hunters are often on the frontlines of sustaining and renewing nature because many of us who do not have that tradition are too busy to be involved.  So many of our wild places are bulldozed over to make new subdivisions and ballparks.  These are not of themselves bad things, but we must not forget or destroy our wilderness heritage.

There is a code that keeps honorable hunters tracking animals for miles so as not to leave an animal wounded and wasted.  It is the difference between full use of a sustainable resource such as wildlife hunting and poaching.  I grew up in a part of Africa where hunting was legal and self-sustaining.  Money from hunting paid for a well-trained Game Warden corps, which kept poaching to a minimum and allowed wildlife to flourish.  As a result, my early years were lived in sight of huge herds of zebra, graceful giraffe, plenty of lion and leopard, elephants, and hosts of other animals.  Then, well-meaning but misguided, people managed to ban hunting and in short order as a direct result there was mass slaughter of animals.  This devastated the livelihoods of many and ruined the miracle of the animals for generations perhaps forever.  Poaching is indiscriminate in its destruction of wildlife and habitat and often the humanity that surrounds it. Real hunters enjoy pitting themselves against the wiles of nature and honor the creature by killing it as cleanly as possible then using the resources wisely. They also are selective in their choice of animals and respect the limits set by law.  When this is done, wildlife becomes a sustainable resource that allows hunters and non-hunters alike the opportunity to enjoy animals in a natural setting.  It provides for many supporting industries such as taxidermy, restaurant and housing, forestry and game personnel, travel writing; the list goes on.

In Florida, gators had nearly been eradicated before strong conservation laws were passed.  Now, the return of the gators has been well accomplished.  But as the population of Florida grows, the combination of thriving gators and man’s encroachment into the gators habitat is causing increased attacks by gators.  Part of the mission of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, (http://www.MyFWC.com/) is to protect these two predators from one another.  The hunting of gators is part of the means of control as is the relocation of gators that have become too aggressive.  The Florida wildlife Commission tries to inform the public about gators.  They especially caution not to leave children or pets near water alone.  Gators have been found in backyard ponds, streams, ditches, canals, pools and golf courses.  They are active at night but can be found swimming in daylight.

In order to keep track of the numbers of gators taken very strict rules exist.  These include tagging the gator immediately after killing it, reporting the kill and the details prior to processing and returning unused tags to the licensing body.  It even requires one to report the intended use.  Frankly, should I ever bag a gator, “personal consumption” will not be on MY form!  I know the nebulous “they” say gators are good eating, but watching a friend skin a croc way back when put me off that delicacy.  Alligator meat taken from the Holey Land, the Everglades and Francis Taylor Wildlife Management Areas may not be sold.  Also, meat for sale from other places must be in tamper proof packages and correct documentation kept.  Manufactured goods may be sold, but again proper records must be kept.  This is so you can’t kill that old neighborhood pet gator and sell it without getting caught. The final straw is that no person may sell stuffed itty-bitty critters less than three feet long.  I mean, really, what else am I gonna hang over the mantel with Christmas coming on.  And think what you could do with it for Halloween.  Those little kids coming up the dark path and just as they ring the doorbell you pull the gator, attached to a string, towards them.  The possibilities are endless.  Seriously, protecting young animals is a critical part of maintaining our natural heritage.  There is a reason for the rule of not taking the very young gator.  A friend told me he had purchased one on a childhood trip to Florida and enjoyed it for many years.  The sale of novelty baby gators was only one of many things that led to over use of these natural resources and eventually a need for laws that protect the alligator population.

The Florida Airboat Association, which Phil chairs, is a group of manufacturers, service, charter and ride organizations, and family clubs.  The Association was founded in 1994 and is dedicated to conservation of natural resources, preservation of sportsmen’s rights and the promotion of boating safety.  This is an active group that went beyond their mission and was involved in hurricane rescue after Katrina. The airboat association mobilized over 100 airboaters from Florida and other states, and in New Orleans alone assisted in evacuation of patients and medical staff from three major hospitals. Additional groups rescued people from rooftops and attics and countless communities.  The number is estimated to be in the thousands according to Captain Phil in an article on the website http://www.flairboat.com/  These are the kind of people you want around you in an emergency. Far more than sportsmen, they are people who are fully involved in the game of life.

Other involvement airboaters have in public service includes lake cleanups, crab trap removal, search, rescue and recovery, and various charitable events.  A code of ethics has been written and circulated.  In addition, the Florida Airboat Association has a committee working on safer air boating activities and have endorsed the use of automotive type mufflers on board.  This group is doing its part to maintain the sport’s integrity and longevity.




Another Gator Guides day in the swamp.

The night grew late and peace and quiet notwithstanding, every hunt has an end.  Cruising back up the river I realized that I was not the same person that had started the night.  I had reconnected with an important part of me and realized just how special the wild parts of the world are.  I determined to do what I could to preserve this way of life and join the airboaters in their quest to inform others.  The boat pulled back up on the sand and let me off before Captain Phil drove it up onto the trailer.  As I expressed my thanks and we said our goodbyes the river flowed quietly past as it has done for millennia.  It had already erased any sign of my presence.  Yet the treasures I found here will last longer than I.

By Bobbi Buchanan, Jetsetters Magazine Arkansas Correspondent.