Seven hunting parties had to pass through a phalanx of law enforcement officers — as well as animal rights protesters, news media and pro-hunting groups — to participate in the first-ever public alligator hunt late Friday at the vast Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Palm Beach County.
It likely was the most-watched hunt of hundreds taking place around Florida on opening day of the annual statewide harvest. After two years of wrangling, public meetings and environmental studies, only 11 hunters won permits out of more than 1,200 who applied for the remote 144,000 acres of marsh and forest.
Regulations were stricter than the rest of the state. Hunting was limited to 30,000 acres, hours were shorter and baited hooks were prohibited. Hunters were allowed to use snares, harpoons, gigs, snatch hooks, spears and crossbows to harvest two gators, then dispatch them with bang sticks — explosive charges fired at point-blank range.
Among the lucky hunters who arrived at the refuge Friday were Andy Gonzalez and wife Cathy of West Palm Beach, with friends Lyle Sisson and wife Andrea, who brought their aluminum jon boat.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Andy Gonzalez said of drawing a permit to hunt Loxahatchee.
Added Lyle Sisson: “This has never been hunted before. There’s a state record in here somewhere.”
The hunters said they hoped to bag a gator larger than 14 feet, four inches.
Driving on the bumpy dirt road to the refuge boat ramp, the party was stopped by officers from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who checked their paperwork and waved them through. The other six parties who showed up Friday underwent similar scrutiny.
The Gonzalezes and Sissons hunted the canals and shallows of the refuge for more than six hours, shining bright lights to reveal the glowing red eyes of lurking gators. They spotted lots of five-footers but passed them by — not wanting to waste their two tags on small reptiles.
Finally, well after midnight, they spotted one that appeared larger than the others and decided to take it. Gonzalez caught it in the tail with a snatch hook on a fishing rod and Sisson harpooned it to make sure it didn’t break loose. They administered the bang stick to the top of its head to dispatch it, then decided to call it a night.
At the boat ramp, Sisson said they were swarmed by law enforcement officers re-checking Gonzalez’s hunting permit, making sure the gator — an eight-footer — had the requisite tag in its tail and going over the boat to check for compliance with safety equipment.
And that’s when U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officer William Calvert discovered a discrepancy in the permit: it was for STA-1 west — a nearby stormwater treatment marsh owned by the South Florida Water Management District — not the Loxahatchee.
Gonzalez insisted he had applied only for the refuge — not STA-1 — and received written confirmation from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Officers checked their records and didn’t find Gonzalez’s name on the refuge list.
“A mistake on both our parts,” Gonzalez said, noting the pre-hunt check of his permit. Calvert agreed.
“He should have read his permit,” Calvert said. “There were mistakes on both sides, but probably not something I’d like to take to court.”
Ultimately, Calvert decided to let him keep his gator while the mix-up is sorted out.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez said he plans to eat the tail meat and have a head mount made, then travel to STA-1 to harvest his final gator — hopefully, a larger one.
He added that he was surprised at how many small reptiles they saw in the refuge amid hype that it was loaded with monsters.
“Their head was like an adult alligator, and the body wasn’t comparable to the head at all,” Gonzalez said. “They seemed to have malnutrition.”
Only two other gators were harvested there Friday night — another eight-footer and a six-footer.
At the start, hunters were greeted by about a dozen protesters from the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.
The animal rights group held up signs reading “Ban Gator Hunt,” “No Hunting in a Refuge” and “Stop Killing Our Wildlife,” among others. State and law enforcement authorities kept the hunters and protesters apart, and there were no confrontations.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued 5,886 permits statewide for the 2014 public gator hunt, which opened Friday and runs through Nov. 1.