Gator season is in full swing across Dixie, with Southern waters giving up some mighty impressive prizes--none more amazing than the three monsters topping 13 feet caught within a six-day span in Georgia and South Carolina.
Creating the greatest stir is a 1,025-pound behemoth landed September 15 by Maryellen Mara-Christian in South Carolina’s Santee Cooper lakes region. Mara-Christian, who stands 5-feet-5 and weighs 115 pounds, has made the national talk-show rounds in Washington and Boston since slaying the giant. “She’s a little blonde and he’s an enormous gator,” says her husband, Mark Christian. “That’s getting a lot of attention.”
This wasn’t the first gator hunt for Mara-Christian, a Fitchfield, Mass., resident and avid hunter who has killed deer, turkeys and bobcats and harvested the first black bear taken in Worcester County after Massachusetts reopened the season following a long hiatus. But this was the first gator tagged by either she or her husband, a bear guide with Bradford Camps in Maine.
The half-ton gator measured 79 inches in girth and 13 feet, 6 inches from nose to tail. The gator carried so much fat that only 40 pounds of meat–from the tail and jaws–was edible.
Mara-Christian tied into the giant only minutes into the second day of a gator hunt out of Black’s Camp near Cross, South Carolina. “We left the boat ramp, turned into the canal and the gator was right there,” she says. “We couldn’t have been in the boat five minutes.”
She and her husband and guide Kevin Davis scramble to ready big spinning rods spooled with braided line and treble snatch hooks. The gator was hiding on the edge of a cypress stand, and Mara-Christian made a difficult cast over his back and managed to snag him. Thus began an epic two-hour battle royale in which the gator repeatedly shredded lines and snapped harpoons. Each time she thought the fight was over, the gator resurfaced, giving her another chance. “It was like she was fated to get this gator,” says Mark Christian.
“I was never scared, but the adrenaline was definitely flowing,” says Mara-Christian. “I was shaking something awful, for sure. After he snapped off a line I was trying to thread it back through the rod guides and I was shaking so hard I couldn’t do it. That’s just natural when you are dealing with an animal that strong. He was pulling our boat all over the place.”
Mara-Christian isn’t letting the criticism she’s received on the Internet erode the pride she feels in having tagged a trophy gator. She will proudly display the tanned hide and cleaned skull in her home, and she expects her neighbors–always supportive of her hunting adventures–will be eager for a look. “I’m happy to tell my story,” she says. “Hunting is controversial, especially up here in Massachusetts, so I certainly was prepared for some negative feedback. But I’m not a blogger, and I don’t even have a Facebook page. I don’t want to read it and I don’t need to read it.”
Four days after Mara-Christian’s catch, Randy Hand landed this 13-foot, 9-inch whopper on the Lake Seminole, south of his hometown of Bainbridge, Ga.
The gator snared the Georgia state record for Hand (here with his son, Austin), topping the previous best harvested by Shane Wilson in 2008 on Lake Blackshear.
It was Hand’s first gator hunt. He began applying four years ago with his brother, Melvin (center, with Hand and brother J.R.). “He always said he wanted a big ol’ gator,” Hand says. After Melvin died from brain cancer on July 6, Randy decided to dedicate his hunt to achieving Melvin’s goal. “I decided I was going to get his big ol’ gator for him.”
Hand passed up several gators over 10 feet, even getting an 11-footer to the boat his second night out with J.R. “We debated back and forth and finally I took a picture and e-mailed it to my buddy Mack Young.” Young (left), of Marianna, Fla., hunts gators in his home state and once boated a 13-foot, 10-inch giant. “He told me we could do better, so we cut it loose. I was in it for my brother, so I set my standards kind of high.”
Hand went on to lose a couple of 12-footers before spotting this 13-footer while hunting with Young on Sunday, Sept. 19, more than a week into the season.
The two men had put in at Horseshoe Bend on the Flint River and headed downstream two hours before dark. They were searching for a 12-footer that Hand, hunting with his brother J.R. (left), had managed to snag the night before. The big gator had broken his line, and Hand was eager for a second shot.
They never found the 12-footer and decided to head further downriver. They spotted a huge gator coming up the channel toward them. “We geared up, got the harpoon sticks ready, cocked the crossbow,” Hand says, “because it looked like it was going to happen.”
Before they could get in range, Hand recalls, “Here came a boat. We tried to flag him off but he just kept coming, and the gator dived under the water.”
“We sat and waited, but after 40 minutes he hadn’t popped back up. By now it was dark, and 100 yards downriver we spotted a set of eyes. We decided we’d go check it out, because it just might be him.”
“He was 10 feet or so,” he says, “not what we were looking for.” But when Hand turned to look at the spot they’d just left, there floated the huge gator they’d been waiting out. “I turned to Mack and said, ‘Look, there he is.’ He’d come up right where we were sitting.”
The men used the trolling motor to close the distance between them and the gator, and at 12 yards Hand used his Barnett crossbow loaded with Muzzy Gator Getters to put in the first line, a 1/8-inch rope with a jug buoy attached. At one point the gator chomped down on the boat, breaking out two teeth and chipping a third.
As the gator lay on the bottom in 8 feet of water, Hand used a treble hook on a stronger line to snag the animal and start working him off the bottom. After snagging him again another treble hook on a second line, they hung on as the gator towed the boat awhile. “We only had a 13 foot, 4 inch boat,” Hand laughs, “so he had five inches on us.”
As the gator tired, Hand managed to work it close enough to the surface that Young could spear it with one of the homemade harpoons they carried. The gator thrashed, the harpoon handle hit Young in the head, and he tumbled out of the boat– “right on top of the gator,” Hand says. “I dropped all the ropes and grabbed his arm, but that didn’t do much. Before he hit the water he’d done a 180 and was headed back in the boat,” he says, laughing. “He only got wet from the waist up.”
After finally getting the gator to the surface, Hand finished it with a 44-mag boom stick–“a clean, quick, humane kill,” he says.
The Georgia DNR certified Hand’s state record on September 20 …
… and word quickly spread around Bainbridge. Hand says 200 to 300 people stopped by the Buck Barn, where he had the 692-pound gator in cold storage. “Everybody was in awe, especially the kids,” Hand says. “It’s like a big dinosaur to them.” Their mothers, on the other hand, were a little less enthusiastic in this town where water skiing and boating are big summer pastimes. “A few of them would tell me where they usually go on the river and ask, ‘You didn’t get it there, did you?’ I told them no, but gators like this are found all up and down the river.”
He estimates that in seven days of hunting he saw 400 gators 8 feet or smaller and 300 9 feet or bigger. “I’ve got a better respect for the river now, and for the alligator itself,” he says.
“I wasn’t out to get a state record,” says Hand, with J.R. and their father, Willie (left). “I’m an outdoorsman. You set a high goal to achieve and put in a ton of hours, hunting from dark to daylight. The way I look at it, I was able to let my brother live through me to accomplish something that he had wanted to do. It’s an amazing feeling.”
The day Hand’s catch was certified in Bainbridge as the new Georgia record, Zane Riley (right) and his father, Eddie, of nearby Blakely, Ga., took a 13-foot, 6-inch gator that tipped the scales at 1,020 pounds.
The Rileys were hunting on the Chattahoochee River (left), which, like the Flint River (right), flows into Lake Seminole. Zane bagged his gator along a stretch of the Chattahoochee that runs along the border of Georgia and Alabama, between the Alabama cities of Gordon and Columbia.
Zane Riley first spotted the gator on a scouting trip Sunday. On Monday, the gator was in the same spot when he and Eddie approached. After it dove twice, the men pulled their boat to within 5 yards of where the gator was surfacing and waited. “Next time I went to turn on my light it wouldn’t work,” Zane recalls. “When I finally got it turned on, that son-of-a-gun was right under the boat.”
Zane used a harpoon to put the first line in the gator, then fought him for 45 minutes before he could get a second line in with his compound bow. “He drug us around in the boat for an hour and 45 minutes,” Zane says.
“We had him under control as long as he was alive, but it got a little shaky after he was dead and we had all that dead weight hanging off the boat with only two cords to hold him,” Zane says. “After I shot it, my daddy looked at me and said, ‘Now what?’ It was so big it kept tipping the boat and wanting to fill it with water.”
Zane and his father struggled for an hour to load the gator on top of their 18-foot bass boat, finally flagging down two passing fishermen to help.
Though Zane Riley’s gator was 3 inches shorter than Randy Hand’s, it outweighed the state-record gator by more than 300 pounds. “That’s the Chattahoochee,” Riley says. “Six-foot gators on that river weigh more than 10-footers in other places. They are well-fed.” Coincidentally, Randy Hand and Eddie Riley work together at Georgia Pacific.
This was the Riley’s third season hunting gators. Five years ago they tied into one even bigger than this year’s giant. “He was a real big one. He’s the one who taught us we weren’t near ’bout prepared enough. He blew my mind.”
Georgia DNR officials estimated the gator to be over 70 years old. Zane is 26, his dad 56. “He’s been alive a lot longer than both of us,” Riley says. “Think about the things he’s seen.”
Southern waters yielded three 13-foot alligators in a six-day span. The hunters bagged each with different equipment, methods and motivations and all experienced different outcomes. Steve Hill investigated for the full story.