Catching Gators

If you’re going to get ‘et,’ be brave and get ‘et.’

Tom Poland

By Tom Poland

Like a lot of eastern Georgians I grew up with no contact with gators. I heard a rumor that someone had seen one crossing Poland Road from my granddad’s pond. Never verified that. Never saw a gator growing up. My writing career, however, would put me around gators far more than I would have imagined as a boy in rural Georgia.

Earlier this summer I drove over to Woods Bay State Park near Olanta. Woods Bay State Park is a protected Carolina bay, one of Earth’s more mysterious landforms, one known for its pond cypress swamps, rare species, and gators. I parked and immediately noticed no one but me was there. No rangers. No visitors. As I stepped out of my car I heard what sounded like a television dropping into water. “That’s got to be a gator,” I thought.

With camera and tripod over my shoulder I headed for the boardwalk that crossed the bay’s watery interior. I walked slowly, looking for snakes. On to the boardwalk about forty yards out I set my tripod onto the decking. That’s when it happened. A gator burst right out from beneath my feet and exploded across the water. I scared him and he scared me. Call it even.

That’s the closest I’ve been to a gator in the wilds and it’s as close as I care to come. A few days later it occurred to me that had the gator made it onto the boardwalk it could have cut me off from escape. That thought gave me a good case of goosebumps. 

That gator, that most ancient reptile, is a crocodilian in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae. If you’re a scientist you might refer to it as Alligator mississippiensis. If you see a number of gators together you’re looking at a cohort of gators. Consider these baleful creatures, emissaries from the distant past. The species can claim to have lived on this watery planet for more than 150 million years old, and it’s done something dinosaurs could not: avoid extinction 65 million years ago.

Phil Wilkinson with an eastern brown pelican he carved.

Back in August I spent some time with a man who has captured, studied, and tagged gators, and more than once pried a gator jaw from around a fellow’s hand. Phil Wilkinson, described as maybe the most famous person you’ve never heard of, has studied gators for almost forty years. He and I worked together back in my wildlife days at what is today’s South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Department. One reporter referred to him as the “Gator Guy.” To study gators you have to catch them. Gator Guy has caught and studied hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Wilkinson caught Big Bertha, at nine feet seven and three-quarter inches, the largest female gator ever caught on record anywhere, Florida or South Carolina. Females, Wilkinson points out, don’t grow as large as males. That record was broken in Florida ten years later by one inch by not one but two gators caught the same day in Lake Apopka. Wilkinson caught both while working with a research team. “We named one Hillary and the other Tipper, not that we were being political but you might as well name the biggest gator after the first lady of the land.”

To catch a gator Wilkinson said you lock its jaws. It only takes two seconds to do it—if you are a well-oiled machine. The top snout is weak. Once you bind it to the lower snout, the gator can’t open its jaws. You can clip the legs too to hobble it. “The mouth is the first thing you get under control because that’s where they can do the damage.” The tail’s trouble too. A gator can slam you against a tree with its powerful tail.

Wilkinson caught one gator he nicknamed “Truck Biter.” Over the years, Wilkinson had caught the gator several times and each time it was bigger. The last time he caught it, in 2005, the gator was 12-foot one. Two biologists from Argentina, Andre and Pablo, were with Wilkinson to see how he captured gators because they had a similar routine with caimans.

“When we turned him loose, he was pretty mad,” said Wilkinson. The truck, driven by a fellow named Steve, was parked near to where they turned the gator loose. Wilkinson sat on the tailgate on a cooler of ice water facing the direction he thought the truck was going. “I said, ‘Steve, let’s just go around the back instead of backing by that gator. It’s kind of mad.’ ”

Steve said to hell with that and started backing around the gator. When the gator bit the fender and ripped it off the truck, Steve slammed on the brakes and started going the other way. Wilkinson lost his balance and fell toward the gator. Pablo, sitting on the side of the truck, reached over and grabbed his belt and pulled him back into the truck.

“Pablo, you saved my life,” said Wilkinson. Later in South America, Wilkinson got a chance to get Pablo out of trouble. “Now we’re even,” Wilkinson told him.

So, what’s it like to catch a big gator, one that can rip off a fender? What’s it like to lock those big jaws down? You’d think it’s a scary enterprise. Wilkinson said everything goes on too fast to get frightened. “Frightened doesn’t get you anywhere. You got to be thinking about something besides being frightened. If you’re going to get ‘et,’ be brave and get ‘et.’ Don’t be frightened about it.”

Wilkinson said it’s not a macho thing. “You go about it in a tried and true way. You have a crew that works with you; each person has something to do. It’s like doing a surgical operation. When you get through, everything worked like it did last time. If there’s a dangerous aspect we try to eliminate it.”

Close to forty years of experience have honed Wilkinson’s approach to capturing gators. The only problem now, said Wilkinson, is “I’m getting slower. So I push younger boys in front of me. ‘You go do it.’ ”

Most are okay doing that but every now and then he’s had a young fellow climb a tree. And he’s had other people get caught by a gator. “Back in ’93 the crew I was working with had a girl, Sudy, with it. She had graduated from Carolina in Art and was going to work with us that summer because it sounded like something fun to do.”

He had two fellows working with him as well, Mark and Andrew. “We had caught a lot of gators one morning and Mark, who was getting tired, warned the crew to be careful. He told them that catching gators was kind of like riding a motorcycle. Just when you think you know how, you wind up with handlebars up your behind. The very next gator, after giving that spiel, Mark got both hands caught in a gator’s mouth.”

Wilkinson who was getting tools from the truck heard Mark cry out. He knew exactly what had happened and reached for a long narrow chisel. “Sudy immediately jumped on the alligator to keep it from rolling. Had the gator been able to roll, turn, or jerk its head around it could have done a lot of damage.”

Wilkinson ran the chisel into the gator’s mouth and pried down on the gum. “I popped it a few times and said, ‘Mark, when she loosens up you get the hell out of there.’ She did. Mark pulled his hands free and we clamped her down and finished doing what we had to do while Mark sat over there and bled.”

They freed the gator and Wilkinson told Andrew to take Mark to the hospital and get him some shots. Though it looked like he had caught his hand in a sewing machine, Mark was at work the next day.

So that is a glimpse of how you catch a gator. A warning is in order. Don’t try it. Want your hand or arm in gator jaws? Do not try to catch a gator of any size. Leave that to the pros who study gators and remove nuisance gators. Leave it to the Gator Guy and other pros who know what they’re doing.

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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”

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