©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.
Ten years ago today I was terrified out of my wits in a Florida swamp for the, now defunct, UK edition of Maxim Magazine… The things we do for cash…
Sitting in the passenger seat of a pick up truck only inches away from the jaws of an agitated and lethal reptile is alarming to say the least. The fact that the only thing between him and me is a thin layer of metal casing made by Ford Motors is little comfort. Only minutes before this same ten foot alligator attempted to consume a horse, nearly pulled three strong men into a lake and then thrashed like a banshee on speed as it was bundled into the back of the vehicle. I have the feeling he could open the passenger compartment as easily as a tin of sardines, if he could only get free of the flimsy electrical tape binding his jaws.
If you are contemplating a holiday in the warm sunshine of Florida, be aware of one thing. Although the average Floridian homo-sapien is a friendly beast, there are things lurking out there which are far more menacing. The whole state of Florida is teeming with these scary visitors. They get on golf courses and into municipal ponds. They lurk in the shady lakes of old people’s retirement homes and slither in ditches parallel to the main highways. As their natural habitat in the watery wilderness of the Everglades is diminished by the encroachment of man made civilization, so the alligators – a relic from the age of dinosaurs – encroach on the suburban habitats of the only predator they have to fear. That means you.
For those unlucky enough to find a giant reptile making a home in their back garden or swimming pool there is only one course of action. It is time to call Ricky and Lee Kramer. They are the father and son team that usually spell a dramatic end to the territorial ambitions of Florida’s most toothy and unpredictable residents. As an alligator catcher licensed by the State of Florida’s Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, Lee Kramer has been hauling giant, thrashing alligators by their tails from puddles and ditches for thirty years. Over five thousand of them to be exact. If there is an alligator that is deemed to be a threat to humans or animals then Lee and Ricky are licensed to hunt it down and shoot it dead. They earn their money by selling the skin and flesh. Alligator is priced by the foot.
A self-confessed redneck Lee’s leathery features break into a sly grin.
“The ladies love the alligator man, and truth be told, the alligator man loves the alligator. Its just a pity we got to shoot them in the head ‘stead of lettin’ em free. I truly do respect the alligator”.
Pulling up at the curbside of a suburban home in a wealthy residential district a hysterical and dangerously overweight resident approaches the pick up at speed.
“He’s bigger ‘an a car and he just slipped back into the river. Bastard killed my dog”.
Ricky and Lee look at each other with just the faintest hint of a smirk. As Fido’s remains are hauled back from the murky deep and into a waiting bin liner, Ricky and Lee scan the water for signs of the beast that did the deed. They silence the hysterical householder with the important snippet of information that alligators have better hearing than bats and, if she carries on squawking, the alligator would soon be miles away, sporting ear plugs and contemplating nurofen.
But this time Lee and Ricky seem to be in luck. A hundreds yard out in the lake a pair of malevolent eyes and a scaly back break the placid surface of the water.
Lee and Ricky go into action.
They wait patiently for the gator to come into range. Then a skillful game of expert marksmanship comes into play. Lee casts a line from his rod into the lake and over the alligator’s back. Winding in the line the hook catches on the scaly skin of the reptile. Realizing it’s plight the gator dives into the depths of the lake to escape.
Now is when the real artistry comes into play. In order to bring him in, Ricky must cast a second line into the water and put another hook into the fugitive. This is all done by guessing the position of the alligator under the water. They listen, wait and try to gauge the position of the alligator from the pulls on the single line that is already in place. After the eighth or ninth attempt at dragging a hook through the water and into the flesh of the animal, Ricky feels tension and then a pull. He has hooked him.
Now the technique is to let the panicked gator twist, turn, dive and move in an attempt to throw off his captors. The gator men will let him do this, giving him enough slack so that he won’t break the lines. After half an hour or so the Gator will have warn himself out and be short of air. Then it is time to reel him in.
Slowly, slowly they wind the reels. Even though he is tired the gator exerts an incredible amount of pressure and both lines are bending the rods like a long bow. Slowly, slowly he is dragged into the shallows. Lee makes ready to jump in and drag him on to the bank by his tail. Too late. This is one lucky gator. The second line has snapped. The pressure on the first line is now doubled. With the choice of hanging on or letting go the slack to start the whole casting process again, Lee decides to take a risk and hang on. As Ricky casts again at short range, he is up against the clock. He misses and the gator takes his chance. Finding reserves of strength, he thrashes and pulls. The remaining hook is worked loose and the giant gator plunges to safety.
Lee and Ricky are tired, but resigned.
“Is he gonna come back?” asks the fat lady.
“Yep”, replies Lee. “I been chasin’ that Gator for five years. This is the second time I’ve hooked him. Never been closer than this. The bank over there is all swamp. He can come and go, as he wants. You better watch out for the puppies if you are lookin’ to get yourself a new dog. You got my number. You give us a call now if he shows his head around here again.”
Leaving her pop eyed with spent adrenaline we get back into the pick up and are only ten seconds out of her driveway before Lee and Ricky are lost in fits of uncontrollable, hysterical laughter. They have to stop the car until they recover.
“Bastard ate her dog!” howls Ricky.
“Jeez! I love the gator!” answers Lee.
The next call is even more bizarre than the first. A rogue gator has found its way into a channel at the end of a paddock in the grounds of a high society polo club. The gator has been behaving badly (you know the kind of thing…. snubbing the chairman’s wife….. drooling on the canapé’s and taking a pop at a tethered horse). Greeting us at the clubhouse is a man kitted out in jodhpurs and a cravat.
“We are in the realms of the Sosumi tribe here. If this reptile so much as scratches one of my members I am finished.”
His tones are so plummy and British, that he could only be an American.
“Yep… Its’ a small bit of water. I reckon that gator just took himself down a dead end. I think your members are gonna be fine”, drawls Lee.
We approach the pond on tiptoes in order not to frighten away the culprit. It is there, static on the other side of the pond. Lee gently kneels at the banks. He cups his hands over his mouth and makes a strange croaking sound. It is the mating call of the alligator. The interested other half glides towards him and as he does so Ricky casts and gets a line on him. The gator dives, but like lightening Lee is up with a rod casting into the water. This is a shallow pond and with two attempts the gator has two lines on him and it starts to thrash and squirm.
Soon he begins to slow down and Lee and Ricky start to reel him in. As he is pulled unerringly to the bank, Lee passes his rod to one of the farm boys and wades into the water only feet from the thrashing gator. With the water around his ankles, boiling like a bowl of feeding Piranha fish, he puts a noose on a stick around the gator’s open jaws drawing them closed. He then grabs it by its thrashing tail and hauls it backwards out of the water yelling, “Got ya peckerhead!”
By this time Ricky has jumped on its back whilst avoiding its flailing tail. Lee tapes up its jaws with gaffer tape. With one quick movement the gator is lifted into the van, its tail thrashing but making contact with nothing but air.
By now there is a small audience of Floridian high society watching events from a safe distance. As the van pulls away a round of polite applause sends us on our way. The man in the jodhpurs looks relieved.
Half an hour down the road the gator has regained some of its strength and that’s when it starts thrashing against the sides of the pick up. Weighing up the possibilities of the gator’s escape I ask if the best thing to do is to heed oft-repeated advice and run in a zigzag pattern?
“Nope, that’s horse shit”, replies Lee. “Most folks just zig when they should be zaggin’ and run back, right into the jaws of the gator. Best thing to do if you are bein’ chased by a gator is to run like hell.”
Our last port of call is to fish a gator out of a swimming pool. This is done with blasé efficiency in a matter of minutes. Whilst the family dog yaps at the reptile from behind the safety of the French windows, Ricky grabs it by the tail. This is a nippy customer and the gator turns around on its own axis and tries to remove Ricky’s left kneecap. Howling with laughter Ricky starts kicking his legs like a demented can-can dancer as the gator goes for each one in turn. He then deftly puts the noose on its jaws and the fun is over.
As the sun goes down on another day’s work Lee and Ricky take off the days catch to certain execution. I, for one, have seen enough to make sure that I give a wide birth to anything in Florida that resembles water. It’s like a jungle out there.