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Going after gators in South Carolina

Setting out on the gator hunt.
Setting out on the gator hunt.

Forty years ago alligators were something of a rarity in South Carolina. But now it's estimated that about 100,000 alligators make their homes in the state's waterways. That resurgence got some lawmakers thinking that a ban on alligator hunting no longer made sense, especially when the state was fielding 500 calls a year for nuisance gators. Last year, permitted hunters went after alligators for the first time in South Carolina since 1964. They bagged 362 of them. The hunt is catching on. This year 3,700 people applied for 1,000 permits, more than twice as many as last year. WFAE's Lisa Miller went along on a gator hunt on Lake Marion. Bryan Metzker has been hunting deer for years and up until last year had no interest whatsoever in going after gators. But his wife did. Last year, she drew one of the state's 1,000 permits to go gator hunting and persuaded her husband to come along. "I wasn't really into it, but once we hooked the first one it was definitely - you got to do it, you got to do it," laughs Metzker. That first gator was 12'4" and weighed 700 pounds. "We're novices so we didn't actually know if it would cost a lot of money to get it tanned. So I just salted it and kind of got the meat off the backside of it and we stretched it out on some ply wood and nailed it to the side of the barn," says Metzker. And now Metzker is a convert. He's decked out in camouflage with a beard down to his chest. He's traveled from the Hendersonville, North Carolina area to Lake Marion southeast of Columbia to meet up with a group going alligator hunting. "Hey, how're you doing? What you say Brad? Must be Jack?" says Metzker. "I'm Jack. How're you doing?" "I'm Bryan Metzker, a pleasure to meet you." Jack Woods has come from Augusta, Georgia to try and snag his second gator. His friend Brad Taylor is one of a handful of gator guides in South Carolina. As they launch the airboat into the water and load it with binoculars, a crossbow, and cookies in the shape of alligators, a few teenagers stop to talk. "What you all going for?" "Gator," says Metzker. "Is there a certain size you got to kill?" asks the teen. "Four foot's the minimum. Four foot or better." "Have you killed some big ones out here?" "I've never been here. I've been going out to Low Falls. Went out two weeks ago with my wife and she got a 11'6" out there." "What do you all shoot them with?" "Get a line on them with a crossbow and then once you get them up to the boat, shoot them with a pistol in the head. It's pretty fun." "Well, good luck." About 6 o'clock we take off for an all night hunt on Lake Marion, a reservoir that's part of the Congaree River. Taylor knows where the gators are. Usually he's a fishing guide, but this is the fifteenth time he's led a gator hunt in the month-long season. "The biggest thing in these woods is deeper water," explains Taylor. "If you get away from the deeper holes, six or seven feet shallower, mostly all you get is small gators. Get a little deeper water, larger gators just feel a little more comfortable." Lifting the alligator hunting ban was controversial. People worried that it was dangerous to have so many rookie hunters handling guns on the water where bullets can ricochet. The state only allows hunters to shoot alligators at point blank range once they've been lassoed to the boat. One hunting trip on this same lake made news last year, when it took one group seventeen shots to kill an alligator. Taylor is not worried about that happening. On this trip he's handling the 40 caliber handgun. "We're trying to get where we're going and then we'll get really sneaky when we get up there," says Taylor. We're in the flooded forest part of Lake Marion. There's a bunch of cypress trees with Spanish moss hanging on them. We're keeping still. We just turned the motor off, looking for an alligator snout, but right now it's just real flat. Woods is standing at the front of the boat taking a few practice shots with his bow. He owns an archery store and shies away from hunting with guns. Since Woods is the only one with the permit, it's up to him to bring the gator in. "We can shoot this 17, 20 yards. But we like 'em as close as possible though," explains Woods. "I like to hit him right behind his front leg or side or his jowls. Everything else is pretty tough." As the sun sets, Taylor gets out his spotlight and slowly skims the light along the water's surface to pick up the red glow of gator eyes. "You see it? Fire red," points out Woods. It sits on the water like a red reflector and then disappears as the alligator floats to the bottom to wait us out. Alligators can stay under for three hours at a time. We stick around for awhile and then move on. This same scenario happens repeatedly over the next six hours. "You can't really rush them. It just takes patience," says Woods. "How come you like hunting alligators?" "I guess because it's kind of new. The excitement when you get him to the boat, knowing he can bite your arm off. Yeah. That's a real adrenaline rush," explains Woods. The boat gets close enough to a few alligators, but they're too small. Woods doesn't want to settle for anything under ten feet. So, on this trip they come back without a gator. And for Woods, he says that's all right. "That's why it's really called hunting. If it was all about killing it would be called killing instead of hunting." Woods has success a few days later. He snags a 10.5 foot alligator.