You know, alligators and wild hogs are so ugly, I really think I COULD bring myself to shoot one of those nasty critters”, said my wife one evening — apropos of nothing.
Coming from a woman who was an anti-hunter when we had first met 22 years earlier, Karen’s words were unexpected music to my ears. Granted, with the help of Dr. James Swan and his marvelous book, In Defense of Hunting, I had succeeded in convincing my wife during the first few years of our marriage that all legal hunting does play a crucial role in wildlife management and conservation.
However, it was actually the “ugliness” of a turkey (in Karen’s eyes) which eventually allowed her to “cross the Rubicon” and join the growing ranks of women hunters. I believe it was at the 1994 convention of the Foundation for N. A. Wild Sheep that my wife asked if she could bid on an Alabama turkey hunt which was being offered for auction (“They’re just so ugly I know I could kill one without it bothering me much!”). Well, her paddle never went down until the five-day hunt was ours and that fall she used a shotgun to bushwhack her first gobbler — and first wild game of any kind. Hunting with my recurve bow, I missed cleanly on my only shot opportunity and returned home empty-handed, though ecstatic about Karen’s successful initiation into hunting.
Further positive experiences in the field followed for her, in the form of downed doves and pheasants, but I had become convinced she was destined to remain a bird hunter until her sudden, off-the-wall remark about hogs and alligators. We were attending, at the time, one of the 2011 Reno winter hunting conventions, so I immediately “commissioned” my wife to spend the next two days interviewing all the Louisiana and Florida outfitters with booths at the show, who were offering combo hunts for the gruesome twosome.
She finally reported back to me and said to go visit a Lee Lightsey, of OutwestFarms Outfitters (also doing business as Trophy Florida Gators, Inc.). Lee’s home is near Lake Okeechobee, Florida and he assured me that the local population of both gators and hogs was so healthy we wouldn’t need more than two days to fill all our tags. Since I had never taken a gator or a wild pig with my bow (or any weapon), I was quite excited to see what sort of luck my 59-lb. recurve could “piggy-back” on top of!
For Karen, however, this was to be a rifle hunt, so I borrowed one from my son, Reagan and made sure she had a couple of chances to practice with it at our local gun range. Early December found us winging our way to Orlando and renting a car to drive north to our chosen hunting grounds. After getting ourselves royally lost out in the country after dark, we discovered that not every rented GPS system is reliable. We did finally find our motel, however and a place for supper. That was when disaster struck!
While eating her salad, Karen was describing to me the large handbag and pair of boots she intended having made from the hide of her still-living alligator. In mid-sentence, she fell silent and it became readily apparent she was not feeling at all well. By midnight, the symptoms were clearly those of the flu and come morning she was sicker than a dog. After playing full-time nurse on the first day of our “hunt,” on the second day I succumbed to Karen’s entreaties that I go hunting without her. She no longer had the strength to twist my arm, but then that was hardly necessary! My anticipation of the adventure before me had already warmed up to around 211 degrees, and my luck in the field was about to turn red-hot!
Lee picked me up at 8:30 a.m. and we headed out to his farm, consisting of a patchwork quilt of meadows, marshes and pockets of green timber — both evergreen and deciduous. There were numerous, low wire fences here and there, but none that wild hogs couldn’t go through or under with great ease.
My outfitter/guide explained that the gators and pigs could be found most anywhere in that landscape, as long as both water and cover were close by. Our means of travel was what Lee called his “swamp buggy.” Possessing four, huge rubber tires at least four-feet tall, it was overhung by a large sun-canopy and consisted of a gun-metal, steel superstructure for riding along that allowed you a moving vantage point from about ten feet off the ground. If there was anything stirring within 50 yards, you were likely to catch a glimpse of it.
The first three groups of hogs we spotted that morning were all sows and piglets. Lee knew I was hoping for a crack at a good-sized boar and around 11am we saw one in the distance that was hot on the trail of a sow in heat.
Lee piped up, “Dennis! That brushy fence-line they’re following takes a sharp bend to the left up ahead; hang on for the ride and we’ll have a good chance of getting ahead of them and cutting them off.”
Sure enough, after 250 yards of jouncing and bouncing over numerous “speed bumps” encountered by our swamp-buggy, I heard Lee shouting at me to jump down and run toward the fence-line as fast as I could.
“You won’t have long, so be ready to shoot”, were the last words I heard coming from behind me.
He was right. I barely had time to slap an arrow on my bowstring before I saw the sow pop out into the open, passing from left to right, at a fast trot about 30 yards in front of me — just on my side of the fence. I could hear the loud grunting, huffing and puffing of the big boar not far behind her. A brilliant sun had just emerged from behind a dark cloud over my shoulder and the surreal scene unfolding before me had a sort of Hollywood feel to it. The colors were intense, the action fast, my adrenaline rushing and, when the large, shockingly-black form of the running boar suddenly materialized in front of me, my instincts took charge and I did what I had to do to kill him.
In a fraction of a second, my bow-arm was up, moving sideways with the motion of my quarry and I recall seeing an arrow come out of nowhere to nail him through both lungs. I really don’t recall the draw or the release, but I do remember hearing Lee shout out, “What a great shot, Dennis!” Fifteen yards from where my arrow struck him, the boar piled up, rolling on my cedar shaft, snapping it in two. Within twenty seconds of that, he was moving and breathing no more. Fewer than 30 seconds had transpired since the release of the arrow.
It had all happened so swiftly, I could hardly believe what I was looking at. Indeed, death had come so fast, it struck me that my broadhead must have caught the top of the heart, as well as both lungs. Never had I made a luckier shot in my entire hunting lifetime. It is actually very seldom that I have ever allowed myself to take a shot at an animal in motion. Two months earlier, in northern B. C., I had come to full draw on an old bison bull that was walking slowly across in front of me — fully broadside at about the same distance (30 yards). I wanted him in the worst way, but I never released the arrow, because my elk “mew” did not succeed in getting him to stop, thereby offering me a stationary target.
The two situations were very different. Even though the bison was a huge animal compared to the hog, darkness was falling, I was hunting in heavily-forested, very mountainous country and I didn’t dare take a chance on just wounding him. Bison have very small lungs for their body size, which are entirely located below the mid-line of the chest. I knew that a marginal hit on the bull would render him unrecoverable in that wild country. By way of contrast, I knew that I would almost certainly recover a marginally-hit hog, because Lee Lightsey owned several well-trained hounds, for the sole purpose of tracking wounded quarry.
So far from home and with still another week of vacation planned following the hunt, I knew there was no way we could get 100 pounds of fresh pork back to the Evergreen State. Consequently, I told Lee to donate it all to the local food bank. With that done by early afternoon, it was time to focus on hunting gators.
Lee suggested I take a mid-afternoon siesta back at the motel, saying he’d pick me up after supper for some nighttime hunting on a nearby lake. “How cool is that?” I thought to myself: hunting alligators at night, with a bow and arrow, under what I knew would be a nearly-three-quarter moon. Karen’s condition, meanwhile, had gone from bad to worse. She assured me she would not be going out on the lake with us, but nonetheless urged me to go. The die were cast and I guess it was meant to be that way. I felt badly for my wife, as this had been her idea from the beginning!
The outstretched wings of Lady Bird Dusk were rapidly closing around us as Lee and his assistant slipped our boat quietly into the calm, glassy waters. It was so quiet I swear you could have heard a bat plucking a bug out of the air at the other end of the lake, some 400 yards away. By contrast, the sudden “swoosh” of a gator’s tail along some part of the far shore was almost jarring to my eardrums and produced my first adrenaline rush of the night.
The aluminum boat was long, broad and flat-bottomed. On one corner of the bow there was a tiny electric motor turning a pygmy prop that moved us forward at the speed of an inch-worm or — on occasion — perhaps as fast as the Energizer Bunny (but no faster). Almost inaudible to my ears, it was perfect for sneaking up on an alligator basking on the surface or one dazzled by the bright glare of the headlamps attached to the helmets of my two guides.
My bowhunting gear, which I hoped would deliver success that night, consisted of the same recurve bow with which I had nailed the big hog earlier in the day and a heavy, solid, fiberglass fish-arrow which was attached to my bowfishing reel by 25 yards of 400-pound Dacron line. One end of the line connected to a detachable steel arrowhead, possessing a very sharp tip and two very blunt barbs. Once embedded beneath the tough hide of a big gator, those barbs would not allow the head to pull out. The other end of the line was tied to a red buoy, which could be quickly tossed overboard if the gator’s first run threatened to haul you into the water, as well.
Lee had told me that the gators in this lake ran all sizes — that we would likely see some as small as five feet and possibly — if we were lucky — some as long as 12 or 13 feet. Anything ten feet or bigger, he assured me, was considered a true trophy specimen. I told him I’d go home happy if I could bow-kill any size critter, but I agreed a ten-footer-or-better would be a worthy goal to strive for.
Once Lee had maneuvered us out near the middle of the lake, we started scouring the surface of the murky water in all directions with our headlamps, looking for those tell-tale, bright orange, twin-periscope eyes that belied the presence of a prehistoric reptile lurking just beneath and behind them. The many pairs of eyes were truly mesmerizing. To me, they looked exactly like the orange reflector discs state highway departments place at the top of those tall, white, roadside-marking-stakes in wintertime snow country. There were several occasions during our hunt that night when we could count a dozen-or-more pair of eyes staring back at us from just a single direction. It was downright eerie at times!
The night’s adventure proved full of excitement, but I did not cover myself with glory in the marksmanship category. This wasn’t my first time bowfishing, but it was the first time in several decades. Since the fish-arrow I was using weighed over twice as much as my normal hunting arrows, my first three or four shots struck the lake’s surface well short of the target. Also, shots across open water always appear closer than they really are and on that night — under the bright Florida moon — the combination took its toll on my archer’s pride. The shots were not long — no more, it seemed, than 10 -15 yards. Fortunately for me, however, opportunity was everywhere!
I believe it was my fifth shot of the night when I finally hit pay-dirt. At first, I actually thought I’d missed him, until I noticed my white line and arrow shaft moving off with him. Lee and his sidekick immediately grabbed the stout cord and hung on for dear life, as the behemoth began to tow our craft around the lake.
“You got yourself a dandy, Dennis,” Lee shouted. “He’s likely to go well over ten feet.” I don’t think I replied, but I’m sure I was grinning from ear to ear. The battle was now engaged. After maybe five or six minutes, our quarry began to tire and eventually settled to the lake’s bottom, to see what we would do next.
“How deep is it there?” I asked.
“Only 10 or 12 feet,” came the reply.
Soon we had our boat right on top of him and then my guide tossed a large, grappling treble hook out beyond our quarry, proceeding to drag it back along the bottom with the strong rope he had attached. Once Lee felt solid resistance, he gave a hard yank and suddenly we were fast to both ends of the surly beast! The fireworks weren’t long in coming. As soon as the big gator was hauled up to the surface, the thrashing and splashing grew wild for a few seconds, but then stopped all at once. Perhaps the old codger was deciding to play it cagey again and see what our next move might be. Pretending to be dead is an old alligator trick, I had read somewhere. “Sucker your enemy into doing something stupid,” I think is how it goes.
With the gator’s long body lying temporarily quiescent alongside our boat, Lee invited me to take one of my sharp broadheads and try to sink it right into his walnut-sized brain. Obligingly, I released an arrow at the spot he had told me to aim for, but I couldn’t really tell from the brute’s reaction if I had completed the mission or not. He hardly moved at all in response.
“Put another broadhead into his spinal cord, just behind the head,” came the next suggestion. I complied, but with a very similar result. At this point, Lee’s assistant carefully slipped a noose around the front end of the long jaws and cinched them shut. I opined that the battle seemed over, but Lee replied, “Not necessarily! Notice that he’s still got at least one eye open. You’d better fire a couple more insurance arrows right next to the first two.”
Well, so I did and the battle, indeed, finally seemed terminated. The one big challenge remaining, though, was — somehow — to get the monster into the bottom of the boat. It soon became clear that my guides had done this many a time before. Using me as ballast on the opposite side of the boat, they hauled the head and front-legs-section over the gunwale and — I guess you’d say — more or less into the boat. Then— using the wet, slippery hide of the belly to their advantage — they managed to complete the job with a few more heave-ho’s.
I was impressed, to put it mildly! Yet, more to the point, I was in awe! This huge inert form, lying on its back and taking up most of the inside of the boat, was absolutely awesome! A quick measurement the next morning showed my American Alligator to be a tad over eleven feet, from nose to tail. I found myself wondering out loud, “How could I have been so lucky?” Two quality bow-harvests in the space of ten hours? And two different species, to boot? It certainly had been one hot day of hunting under the Florida sun and moon! And I had Lee Lightsey to thank for a most professional job, well done. The next trip to Florida will be for Karen, because she refused to accept my alligator hide for her handbag and boots!
Author’s Bio Note: Dennis Dunn and his wife Karen of 28 years make their home in Kirkland, WA. He is an outdoor writer whose articles have been published in half-a-dozen different magazines and his book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29 has garnered six national awards. It is also available as a 7-volume digital series of eBooks.