(5.1) FLORA and FAUNA: My True Adventures with Florida Alligators
My True Adventures with Florida Alligators
Bits, Bytes, and Tales
By Ocklawahaman Paul Nosca
Originally Written: 13 April 2005
Created: 18 October 2013
Last Revised: 30 May 2015
Sometimes while fishing, hunting, or exploring the wilds of Florida's interior, I happen-up quite closely on wildlife worthy of cautious respect. A list of these creatures would include: fire ants, hornets, wasps, scorpions, certain spiders, coral snakes, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, alligator snapping turtles, common snapping turtles, softshell turtles, owls, hawks, ospreys, eagles, herons, raccoons, skunks, otters, beavers, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, rhesus monkeys, deer, wild hogs, bears, and once even a Florida panther! Also, some Florida freshwater fish are "handle with care": bowfin, catfish, gar, and pickerel. But one species not mentioned yet--ALLIGATORS--are undoubtedly the critters that are most often responsible for putting a stir in my blood and requiring me to proceed with caution!
Note: The following-mentioned gator lengths are approximate by my best reckoning, based on comparison to objects of known size that are with me in the field (15-foot long canoe and 5-foot long paddles). I do not tape measure live alligators, to me that would result in my dead reckoning!
Since 1962, when I first started to explore Florida's outdoors, I have seen thousands of gators: ranging in size from less than 1 foot in length to as long as possibly 16 feet! All of the 14-foot and over behemoths were sighted in or near the Ocala National Forest: in the Ocklawaha or St. Johns River systems. Although the Ochlockonee River basin (including Lake Talquin and Little River) is home to a "gazillion" gators, I believe that 13 feet was the maximum length that I ever witnessed in that Tallahassee area drainage. My explorations of other Florida rivers have included segments of all of these: Blackwater, Chipola, Apalachicola, Wakulla, St. Marks, Wacissa, Aucilla, St. Marys, Suwannee, Withlacoochee (both north and south), Santa Fe, Ichetucknee, Wekiva, and Econlockhatchee. The last 2 named are St. Johns River tributaries, but are not contiguous to the Ocala National Forest (which comprises almost all of the Ocala Wildlife Management Area [Ocala WMA]). Also, I have been on many different landlocked Florida lakes or ponds. Amazingly, I do not recall ever seeing a real "magnum-sized" gator on any of these other rivers or lakes! Nevertheless, I would not advise a moonlight swim in any Florida water--except maybe a swimming pool!
Besides seeing lots of gators, I have heard plenty of them, too, from the grunts of the hatchlings to the bellowing of the bulls (at long distances sounds to me like someone repeatedly attempting to pull-start an old outboard motor).
Most of my outings into wild Florida are by canoe, but also include swamp-stomps or upland hiking. Paddling on just about any Florida water during almost any warm day practically guarantees several encounters of the gator-kind. I canoe solo often, but not always.
SOME OF MY MORE MEMORABLE FLORIDA ALLIGATOR ENCOUNTERS
Summer 1962, Citrus County: Feeding "Bossman"
In the summer of 1962, Dad moved our family to a motel in Inverness where he was doing some work. Dad had befriended its owner in 1961. The motel was on US-41, a main north/south route then (before I-75 was built), and included a Florida souvenirs shop. The store sold South American caimans as "baby gators" and had a live 8 to 9-foot Florida alligator in a concrete enclosure. The motel's owner and his son fed chickens or mullet to "Bossman" (the gator), usually when crowds of tourists were around. The son and I soon became friends, so sometimes I would assist in feeding Bossman. Helping with this "dirty job" would occasionally earn me dimes or quarters. Spectators would gawk as Bossman bit down and they could hear the loud crunching of the chicken or mullet bones. That earsplitting crunch burned into my young brain a healthy respect for the front end of an alligator!
Ocklawahaman on the job in Citrus County, Florida 1962.
Summer 1965, Pinellas County: My First Alligator Rescue
While bass fishing in a St. Petersburg man-made pond I inadvertently hooked a 2-foot long gator with a plastic worm. I reeled-in the gator to the bank and snared a rope fishing stringer around his mouth (to keep it shut). It was a real struggle to control that "gator-ling" and its tail. People were stopping their cars on the roadside to watch the free "alligator wrestling show!" I finally pulled the hook out with pliers and then removed my improvised muzzle from around its jaws, all without getting bit. After that I guided the little critter back towards the water; in a flash that gator was gone!
Fall 1975, Lake County: My First Taste of Gator Meat
I lived in extreme southern Lake County, a Clermont rural route address, near the Green Swamp WMA. This was an agricultural area of groves, farms, and ranches. Quite often, my first wife Mary and I would be invited to private BBQ’s on Friday or Saturday nights. She would call me at work (33 miles away in Leesburg) to tell me where to meet her for that evening’s cookout. The usual meats served at these barbecues were: sides of beef, hogs, turkeys, chickens, and sometimes armadillo or rattlesnake. One time, I met her at a rancher’s spread for a night of country music, beer, and good victuals. I sampled whatever those good-old-boys had cooked, no questions asked! In short order some of that "other light meat" was on my plate. That was the first time that I ever tasted gator tail. I now was a sure-enough, born-again, Florida cracker! Since that feast, however, all my alligator meat had been restaurant eats up until 2013 when I got to dine on parts of a legally taken (by someone else) 11-foot gator--it was delicious. I have never killed an alligator myself. Yes, I have thought about taking one for eating, but it's never been legal so far to do it my way--so I never have.
1978-1985, Ocklawaha River, Ocala WMA, Marion and Putnam Counties: The 16-Foot "Dino-Gator"
Although Palatka was my mailing address, my hunting and fishing home was the lower Ocklawaha River below Rodman Dam. I owned 2 different canoes back then: a 12-footer "one-man" and a 15-footer that could transport more than one. The most gigantic gators that I have ever observed were residents of the lower Ocklawaha River basin. The "dinosaur" of them all was the one that I saw maybe 25 times on Bear Creek, about a mile downstream from the FL-19 bridge, usually during hunting season. Bear Creek (a side-creek of the Ocklawaha) is about 50-foot wide at this point and "Dino-Gator" would sunbathe atop a huge cypress blow-down, which luckily was near the north side of the creek (leaving room to safely get past along the south side). Dino-Gator had to be 15 feet long (maybe 16), with a 3-foot long head! This beast completely dwarfed my 12-foot canoe and I swear that it seemed to be longer than my 15-foot canoe. I actually feared seeing Dino-Gator outside of hunting season, when I did not have my 12-gauge double barrel with me--as I always felt safer passing this awesome creature in Bear Creek with twin shotgun tubes pointing at him (and the safety off). It was 1985 when I last saw Dino-Gator, but rarely have I been on the lower Ocklawaha since then. If still alive, Dino-Gator may rival the all-time record alligator: 19 feet, 2 inches (1890, Louisiana). I wonder if the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (or the old Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission) ever received any reports about this colossal Ocklawaha gator. I can guide an expedition!
August 1983, Ocala WMA; Marion, Lake, Volusia and Putnam Counties: A 5-Day, 4-Night Canoe Trip
I embarked on a 5-day (4-night) canoe trip from Juniper Springs Creek (FL-19 bridge) to Browns Landing (St. Johns River just south of Palatka) with my buddy in his 16-foot canoe. After camping the first night along Juniper Springs Creek, we started downstream on the crystal clear water and soon we floated right over the top of a monster-sized alligator lying on the bottom sugar sand (only 3-4 feet below us). It appeared to be almost as long as our canoe and wider--very scary! After reaching the mouth of Juniper Springs Creek, we needed to paddle the west side of big Lake George (Florida's 2nd biggest lake: 6 miles wide by 10 miles long) headed north. Soon we ran into extremely gusty east winds on Lake George. This forced us with a canoe full of gear to tightly hug the west shoreline with high waves crashing against us. Paddling did not work very well, so we used the paddles as push poles. As we were push-poling along, a paddle evidently pushed a huge gator that had been resting on the bottom (maybe 3 feet below us). That gator was no pushover, however; for a giant "tidal wave" then up-surged, crested, and thoroughly tested our mettle! Miraculously, although "tempest-tossed", we stayed afloat during that gator's turbulent wake. The 40-mile voyage yielded no further alligator thrills!
1984-1985, Hopkins Prairie, Ocala WMA, Marion County: "Gator Pond" and Catfish Bandits!
I went on many camping and daytrips, usually with my buddy, to Hopkins Prairie for bass fishing and running catfish trotlines. One bass-filled pond cut-off from Hopkins Prairie, even at high water, was named Cutoff Pond on an old Ocala Trail hiking map. At times we were able to portage a canoe into it and sometimes we wade fished it. It was "Gator Pond" to us because almost every time you had a bass on, a "friendly" 4-foot alligator tried to get your bass (before you could). Don't know how many times we paddle-slapped the water near that gator (if we were lucky enough to be in the canoe) or ran thru the water to high ground (if wading) to get away from that gator with those "hungry eyes." Also memorable, on Hopkins Prairie itself, were the many gator assaults on our trotlines. Hooks with only the catfish heads still remaining--or the entire trotline was dragged off into the prairie (bleach bottle floats seen 100 yards from where anchored the night before).
1990, Paynes Prairie State Preserve, Alachua County: Alachua Sink's Many Gators
I hand-delivered a completed application for a Park Ranger vacancy there and did some hiking. A serious drought had left the prairie dry. The sight of hundreds of alligators lying side-by-side on the muddy banks of Alachua Sink (which still had some water in it) was really awesome!
March 1991, Crescent Lake, Flagler County: Salt Canal's "Olympic Divers"
I did a lot of bass and "speck" (black crappie) fishing trips on Crescent Lake. On one day it was extremely windy there, so my buddy and I decided to explore the Salt Canal (that runs into Crescent Lake) to test the fishing possibilities. Salt Canal, only 25 to 30 feet wide, has sections with high steep banks (like 2 to 6-foot high cliffs). We had to proceed with great caution because many dozens of gators in the 3 to 8-foot range were "high-diving" and "belly-flopping" (off of the muddy bluffs) into the deep canal, just in front of our approaching canoe--an alligator "Olympian Diver" show!
01 January 1994, Lake Talquin and Ochlockonee River, Talquin WMA, Leon County: "Make My Day"
I was duck hunting. The day began overcast then deteriorated into miserable rain. Never one to quit easily, I kept hunting and tried to jump-shoot wood ducks in the flooded boondocks during the showers. By late afternoon, however, it was apparent that the "woodies" had all the advantages needed to elude my shotgun's long-distance "reach out and touch." I was way back in a swamp with trees between the Ochlockonee River and myself when rainy daylight was starting to give out. I had to ply the Ochlockonee main channel to get back to the landing. So I decided to squeeze my canoe (even had to turn the hull on its side without drowning my equipment) between cypress knees and trunks, to make a shortcut trail out. With that mission accomplished, all that stood between the river channel and my canoe was a stagnant pool choked with water lettuce and hyacinths. I began to force my craft across the matted weeds using my 12-foot telescoping push-pole. Until the muddy bottom pushed back! I had pushed on a 9 to 10-foot long gator sleeping on the bottom. His head quickly surfaced, eyes gazing at me, off my right gunnel maybe 15 feet away. Moving as little as possible, I set the push-pole down. I grabbed my trusty "side by side" 12-gauge (just in case) and pointed it (from the hip while seated) in his general direction. Now I am sorry if you think that I was overly alarmed about my situation--but there I sat in a fiberglass "gunboat" (that was not exactly "Old Ironsides") only about 1-foot above 50-degree water. Surprisingly, the gator's head then went under twice and each time it re-surfaced about 3 feet closer! Now this "dragon" stared at me, "eyeball to eyeball" (in the rain), from maybe 9 feet away! My restraint and respect for the law had reached its limit. "That's it", I said to myself, "any closer, no choice, both barrels!" My safety was off as the gator dived under. I braced myself in the canoe for a twin 12-gauge blast. Over the side is not a good way to shoot from a canoe and I worried that the reflex of this beast (being shot point blank) would capsize me. I held my breath! With 2 fingers on 2 triggers and heart pounding, I scanned the surface (ready to aim and fire). This brinkmanship (2 toothy jaws challenging 2 shotgun barrels) ended within 2 minutes! Outwit and outlast? That unpredictable gator next surfaced about 25 feet off starboard and was swimming away! We were both out of danger. In an hour this "survivor" was back at the landing, loading my truck in the rainy darkness. Saturday 1/1/1994 and Happy New Year! It was the closest time that this old soldier has ever been to being forced to shoot a gator in self-defense! That alligator "made my day" unforgettable!
11 August 1996, Lake Iamonia, Leon County: One Determined Gator
I was bass fishing at Lake Iamonia, close to the Florida-Georgia line. Some alligators were chasing my buzz-bait lures as I “buzzed” over “bass-a-plenty” gator-holes surrounded by thick lily pads. A maybe 30-inch long gator chased my buzz-bait back to the canoe while I was moored up against a large tussock (floating island). At canoe-side it did not stop but climbed from the floating island into the bow of the canoe (crawling around and hissing) looking for the buzz-bait hanging at the end of my rod tip! I quickly moved the rod and reel with its attached buzz-bait away from the gator to behind me in the stern. Then I held my wooden paddle blade out towards him in the bow as a scare and to encourage this alligator to exit my canoe at once. Well, he was not scared! This crazy gator bit it and held on to it, even when I lifted him out of the canoe (still latched on to the blade's end) and attempted to drop the reptile back into the lake. Finally after 30 seconds or so of hanging, the gator let go of the wood and was safely back in the water (diving underneath). Then I went back to my bass fishing (casting and reeling-in a buzz-bait) routine again, thinking that I had seen the last of this aggressive little alligator. Not so however, for "believe it or not" we played-out this same complete tomfoolery procedure two more times--three times in total--until this gator finally was afraid enough to quit chasing my buzz-bait, stay out of my canoe, swim away and get lost somewhere in Lake Iamonia. Evidently, "fear was finally a factor" for this small but tenacious alligator!
17 August 1997, Little River, Gadsden County: One Very Lucky Deer
I was bass fishing on Little River. While slowly proceeding upriver, I stopped my canoe (on a sandbar edge of an inside river bend) to re-tie my lure. The stream was about 35 feet wide here with 3-foot high, steep banks (along straight sections and outside bends) and a mixed-hardwood forest border. I noticed an adult doe deer emerge out of the woods on the east bank about 75 feet upriver from me. It jumped off of the high bank into the river and started swimming towards the west bank. I do not think she ever knew this, but a 9 to 10-foot long gator started to swim close behind chasing after her! The doe made it to the west bank and struggled to climb over the top. Nipping at her rear hooves (as she climbed to safety) was a very disappointed alligator. I am quite sure that this deer never was aware of how very lucky she was that day! Had she come ashore on a sloping sandbar, the gator would not have given up his pursuit. It was a frightening sight, watching that gator pursue a 100-pound plus deer. The gator went under and disappeared from view. I stayed put for half an hour with "eyes-peeled" before I continued upstream. This hungry, large alligator would probably have attacked a human in/near the water!
03 May 1998, Lake Talquin, Joe Budd WMA, Gadsden County: More "Olympic Divers"
I was bass fishing on Lake Talquin. The lake had been drawn-down (6 feet lower than normal) and its Little River arm was flowing again with good current. One long, straight section (about 40 feet wide) had 3 to 5-foot high, steep banks on both sides. I paddled very slowly here. More than 50 gators (some 10-foot plus in length) were "high-diving" and "belly-flopping" off of their mud "roosts" into Little River (3 to 5 feet below) and waited conveniently to do this just until they were maybe 25 feet in front of my approaching canoe bow! This really reminded me of those Salt Canal "Olympians." Luckily, Little River was wider, because these gators were even bigger! An intimidating display of splashing reptile flesh!
17-18 March 2000, Lake Talquin, Leon County: More Catfish Bandits!
I was on an overnight trip catching catfish using baited bush-hooks in the "Iron Curtain" area of Lake Talquin. The lake had warmed enough so that the gators were becoming active again and starting to raid my lines. On one line only a fish head remained. A 16-inch catfish (that I did retrieve) had deep bite marks on it. Several rigs had straightened-out hooks on them. My most productive overnight catfish harvesting is during the winter when the water temperature is in the 50’s to lower 60’s. Alligators usually are not bush-hook catfish "bandits" during wintertime.
27 April 2005, Ocklawaha River, Ocala WMA, Marion County: "Leaping Lizards"
I was bass fishing/canoeing the eastern most side-creek of the middle Ocklawaha River near Parch Landing and was paddling along a stretch of steep bluffs that contained a small waterfall (from a flowing spring). All was serene as I approached the gurgling flow, until I was the near-miss victim of a surprise attack by a "high-diving" and "belly-flopping" 6-foot long alligator. This "sky-diver", who must have spied me long before I saw his "airborne dragon" body, decided to "crash-dive" off of his camouflaged 6-foot high perch into the waters of the side-creek. He hit the water about 15 feet in front of my canoe bow. His "flying leap" splashed me just about completely soaked and pretty near sunk! Darn those "Olympian Leaping Lizards!"
Are there more exciting adventures with Florida alligators in my future? I reckon so, for where the cypress grows and the river flows--I go! Whereas, let it be known that: "Whether I'm hunting in swamps or fishing for bass, my canoe never runs out of gas!"
REFERENCE AS: Nosca, P. 2015. "My true adventures with Florida alligators" webpage report. "Paul Nosca's bass fishing photos" website. Paul Nosca, Eureka, FL.