Near state record-sized gator caught

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River Banks and his dad Ricky both say if the enormous bull gator they caught in the Apalachicola River a month ago had had all 21 of its scutes, instead of half that many on its bitten-off tail, it would have been a state record.

The Thomasville, Georgia man who carried the permit for that near record-setting hunt knows it was close, but he’ll settle for no cigar, content with displaying the massive creature to the general public once it gets fully stuffed and mounted in Eastpoint.

“We weren’t able to certify the weight,” said Monty Lewis, referring to the fact the scale they tried using Sunday morning, Sept. 19 after hauling him home broke down at 838 pounds, making any determination that it would near or best the state record of 1,043 pounds impossible.

At 13 feet 2 inches. “we knew we were close to the state record length-wise, and we thought he may be close to the weight,” said River Banks. “We don’t know what to think about that. We couldn’t have a biologist come out. He was so big we couldn’t get him into a walk-in cooler to prevent him from spoiling.”

Lacking these measurements, “it’s not even in the realm of possibility to ever put an asterisk back there,” said Lewis. “In my mind, Apalachicola should have had that distinction.”

A propane distributor who has hunted fish, fowl and big game worldwide, Lewis was introduced to fishing here by Capt. Junior Holland, who guided him for a couple years.

He then hooked up with the Banks’ Betternuttin’ Charters (“We’re not the best but we’re better then nuttin’”) and started applying for out-of-state gator hunt permits, and was one of a half-dozen or so to get picked for a Florida license.

The permit entitles the bearer to a less busy “pre-season week” in August, before the general hunt is open to all permitholders in September through the end of October. But Lewis was unable to make that first week, Aug. 15 to 22, because he was fishing in Alaska.

But on Sept. 17 at 5 p.m., the Betternuttin’ was out, Lewis on it, on the nighttime hunt that runs through 10 a.m. the next morning.

“They want you to safely be able to get one, without stumbling around in the dark,” Lewis said.

There’s nothing stumblebum about the Banks’ hunting skills. “We probably killed 15 or 16 so far,” said Banks. “We catch so many and release them alive. We try only to kill bull gators, we release the egg-laying gators, they’ll reproduce for years to come.”

Not long after they left from 10-Foot Hole, they had a 10-foot 6-inch catch, and that’s good-sized, and passed on others. “We didn’t stay hunting him, 9 feet is below our average,” Banks  said.

Their grounds are north of the city, in the swamp to the west side of the river. That’s where they scouted Friday and that was where they lost one Saturday, after snagging him with a treble hook.

“He swam upstream and got the hook caught in a log and swam away,” Banks observed. “They can tell the way you act in the boat, he knows you’re after him and he’ll try to evade capture.”

In the pitch dark, out of cellphone range, where it doesn’t take much to get lost, and lots of savvy to get back home, they shone their lights on the red glowing eyeballs of the gators.

Banks knew there were big ones in the vicinity, and in the early morning  Sunday, after a rainy night, they spotted their target and served up the bait.

“You can use beef lungs, that’s a great bait, or road-killed raccoons and possums,” said Lewis. “There’s a little wooden peg that you secure a line through a tough part of the body of roadkill.

“The gator has a real strong diaphragm,” he said. “If you don’t harvest and he happens to escape, the wooden peg will dissolve. They don’t want wanton waste of gators that don’t get put to good use.”

The hunters waited a good half-hour and then reeled back to the tethered alligator, “and get straight above him and can tell where he is at the bottom of the river,” Banks said. “Once I know where he’s at, I throw a hook and drag slowly. Once I feel him I’ll set that hook in his skin and pull him up with it.

“It’s hard to tell his size at nighttime,” he said. “I can tell immediately it’s a much bigger alligator, I thought maybe 10 or 11 feet.

“When I hooked him he ran up the river really fast. The rope was burning my hand, pulled a callous off and my hands were bleeding,” Banks said. “When he finally stopped he stopped at the bottom.”

Banks had caught a 13-footer three years ago, so he knew what to expect next.

“This gator was twice as heavy,” he said. “It was ridiculous how much heavier it was trying to pull him up from the bottom.”

Once on the surface, Banks harpooned the alligator. “Normally after we got a harpoon in him, we relax,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about him getting away once on the harpoon dart.

“He was so heavy my dad couldn’t pull him up by himself,” Banks said.

A second harpoon, then a snare around the gator’s tail and rope around the top jaw, were next. A .45 long Colt shell followed, and a bangstick.

“I thought he was dead,” said Banks. “He slammed his jaw shut when I went to tape him, and we bangsticked him five more times.”

At 10 Foot Hole, Banks shot him twice with a .44 magnum, ending the entirety of life inside what was now a trophy-sized carcass.

“This one was a tremendous specimen,” said Lewis. “Out of respect, I’m having a full body mount done of him so future generations can so see how big these predators can get.”

Eastpoint’s Chatham Marshall has the honors, and he’ll have the skull and jaw and most all of the hide to work with.

“They have a remarkable way to make taxidermy look like it’s alive,” said Lewis. “Doing a big gator is quite a task for a taxidermist, the sheer size of it. They have to use a form big enough to replicate how big that gator was, and look exactly as it was in the wild.

“We really had once-in-a-lifetime luck this year,” he said. “Those two fellas can take you out and take you back. They told me I hunted them to death.”

Lewis knows some people find hunting Florida’s iconic animal averse to their liking, and made clear he eats what he takes, and puts every other inch to good use.

“I feel I’m taking part in good science,” he said. “You take out the biggest, the baddest, the no-longer-afraid of anything including people. I feel like I’m partnering with game and fish.”

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