Daniel Terrill (of Guns.com fame), his brother David and I drove north on I-26 out of Charleston, South Carolina around four o’clock in the PM, took some hard turns through hard looking towns littered with trees and trailers, then onto roads that didn’t readily offer up their names, sliding deeper in the lawless swamp the infamous Francis Marion once called sanctuary.
It was mid September, but to my constitution, it might as well have been July. As the trees got thicker, the sun lower and the sprawling flats of water closer to the road, the excitement in the cab of David’s Volkswagen became tenable. Stick your tongue out and you could damn near taste it, like some primordial, sixth sense only truly appreciated by dedicated veterans and first timers.
In my tenure as caretaker of Guns.com, this was hands down the moment I had looked forward to the most. The stuff of legends, a Hemingway devotees wet dream, a once and future chestnut—because tonight we were, in no small way, gonna try to slay some dragons.
Seated riverside and flanked by a steadily used bridge (at least by backwoods standards) and a string of motel rooms to its face, the half general store half bait shop on the edge Pikesville looked to be a cozy little base of operation for would be gator hunters. With boats humming off somewhere unseen in the distance and egrets sunning in the last rays of daylight, arrogantly relieving themselves on the bait shops’ faded boathouses, the little cottage seemed like the last garrison before the world sank off into the sea.
This is where we were to meet our local fixers, professional guides with an outfitting service called Tail and Scale, and, like tenderfoots on the first day of school, the three of us shuffled into the store with abated paces and humbled glances.
To a sportsman of any flavor, the bait shop would have seemed a warm and familiar place. The small enterprise offered up your standard fare from tackle to hats, from sandwiches to bullets. Fishermen clustered in the wings of a makeshift café, sipping styrofoam cups of watery coffee, stories caught in their throats. I got the distinct feeling these dudes were trying to ignore us and make sense of us simultaneously.
At the rear of the shop sat a group of men enjoying a supper of burgers and potato chips. Instinctively I just knew these had to be our contacts, confirmed when a lineman of a man got up and extended me his paw, asking us if we were the reporters. Handshakes were traded all around. For my part, I marked them all for earners the minute I met them.
Out in the parking lot of the bait shop, the Tail and Scale crew busied themselves with the last minute preparations for the night’s festivities.
Trey, a local boy in his mid twenties with a rakish smile and the remnant stubs of dreadlocks peeking out from beneath the brim of his visor, grinned at me from the captain’s chair of the 16-foot aluminum craft he’d be piloting through the devil’s petting zoo in an hour or so. Noticing the direction of my gaze, he picked up the small .22 rimfire revolver, resting, barrel down, in a cup holder and handed it to me.
“Man just gave this to us one day. Said he didn’t want it. Works great on alligators,” Trey told me.
“You use this on alligators?” I remembered seeing something about using small calibers to preserve the pelt on the ubiquitous *Swamp People, but the thought of holding this dinky little thing up to the back of a living, breathing, potentially pissed as hell dinosaur’s skull seemed ludicrous bordering on suicidal.
“Yeah, it’s the perfect thing to finish them off .”
“Oh.” I was still confused but less so. “What do you use to take them then?”
I did a quick scan of the boat. Laying casually on the bow were a handful of cartridges, all marked around the rim with some fruity, hot pink paint. I twirled a round in my hand but couldn’t make sense of it.
“What’s the deal with the pink?”
“It’s nail polish. It helps the bullet to fire underwater. ‘Waterproofs’ it,” Jordan said from behind me.
Jordan was the captain of this vessel, captain of Tail and Scale outfitters really, and the tone of his voice was all you needed to know this. Trey was his employee and both, in their own unique way, exuded an aura of confidence, the breed of which you want running through your hunting party like a runaway freight train, especially when your prey ain’t quite prey.
“Huh?” I waxed inquisitively. “What do you shoot them out of?”
Jordan broke a smile. “A bangstick”
“Get out of town!” I yelped.
I had come across this term while researching the gig, and I was anxious to a) see if this was in fact what we’d be using and b) eyeball such a specialized (put this word in your pocket) firearm in the flesh. Jordan fished it out of the boat and gave yours truly the run down.
Sometimes referred to as a powerhead, this instrument of close quarters execution puts a lot of pressure on the term gun in so much as it really constitutes an article in and of itself. Little more than a long pole (about 5 feet long) with a tube on the end (chambered in the appropriate caliber of course) the device uses a fixed firing pin (and sometimes a latch that acts as a safety) to employ the round loaded in the tube. To fire it, you’ve got to press the tube “meaningfully” i.e. put some mustard on it, against a hard object to engage the firing pin to the round—there’s no trigger to speak of, no manual safety, no bells nor whistles, just a long pole with a bullet at the end of it.
As a defense weapon it’s about as useful as a solar powered flashlight, but for reaching over a boat and showing beasts submerged in a substance denser than air who in fact the dominant species is, accept no substitutes.
I attempted to stay out of the way of the bustle by milling around the parking lot snapping pictures. I was glad to see Daniel breaking the ice with the two clients we would be hunting with and I slipped over towards the motels to drop an ear in on what they were yammering about.
They were getting to know each other in the traditional way: showing off each others’ guns. Pieced together by an outfit out of Tennessee, Steve was showing off his custom 1911. He extolled the virtues of his breaks like glass trigger pull as Daniel aimed the unloaded piece at imaginary silhouettes.
Steve and Bruce were both from Tennessee and this hunt, given South Carolina’s gator tag lottery system (which you can get a full rundown on here), was three years in the making. Both were first timers like us and, when pressed, each had their own ambitions for the hunt: Steve told us he would put the bead on the first shooter, while Bruce would only settle for something truly special—a trophy gator—and something given the state’s unique history with Alligator mississippiensis, this isn’t that far out of the question.
As twilight dwindled, coolers stocked with water and sodas made their way into the boats, ropes and buoys were checked for security and proper deployment, and finally the trailers were hitched. The energy seemed frenetic but purposeful as I climbed into Jeremy’s pickup, the captain of the boat I would be riding in, and, as I would soon find out, a world class guide to the finer points of South Carolina’s swamplands.
A brief education in gator hunting
South Carolina’s gator season runs 30 days from the 10th of September. Today was opening day, and as with any season opener, Jeremy warned me there would be more hunters on the water.
We followed the lead vehicle of Jordan, Trey, Bruce and Steve, while Daniel and his brother David trailed behind us. This was to be the dynamic for the rest of the trip—as the three of us were unlicensed, we could only legally observe the hunt and not assist in any direct way.
In the backseat of the truck was Jeremy’s son, Jackson, who turned out to be one of the best mannered kids I have ever been around in my entire life. This would also be his first alligator hunt.
Crossing number unknown in a series of bridges, Jeremy pointed out my window and across the water to a fair sized log, protruding above the mud green surface
“There’s a good sized one,” he said
Squinting into the fading sunlight, it wasn’t until I discerned the object was moving perpendicular to the sluggish current that I made it out as an alligator. Even at over 100 yards away and to the uneducated, the creature looked massive.
Jeremy was a large, strong looking man of about 30, with a freely given grin, a friendly demeanor and a loose jaw. During our drive, he primed me on what to expect once we got out on the water. Quiet was the major theme: any bump, any errant vibration would likely prompt toothy to sink down into the mud and it was unlikely he could be coaxed into making another appearance, so it was put up and shut up when we were on the stalk.
Light was also a featured player; in the hushed, pitch black atmosphere of the Carolina bayou, our spotlights would often act as the sole apparatus of communication between boat number one and boat number two, in addition to their more notable role of furnishing the enchanting magic that would keep our gator quelled enough to effectively approach him.
Like an extreme example of deer spotlighting (which isn’t a very good analogy but the mechanics are virtually the same), when it came to this method of stalk hunting at night, keeping the alligator tharn i.e. paralyzed by the light, was the bit of voodoo essential to the success of the operation.
I also learned more about the men I’d be hunting with. Like me Jeremy had gone to college and also like me he was the son of a railroader. But Jordan, he said, also ran a large family chicken farm in addition to his year round outfitting enterprise. It was clear these guys wore many hats, gator hunters only one of them.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.
“We’ve been hunting alligator and guiding since the season started four years ago. Tail and Scale guides all sorts of hunts and lots of bowfishing. I just help out for gator because it’s busy. I’ve got a day job selling industrial machine parts anyway, so I can’t take off too long.”
“Booked to the teeth. We’ve got clients coming in for every day of this season and standbys ready to snatch up any cancelations.”
“Hard work. But yeah, lucrative if you want it to be”
Some of the tips Jeremy cued me into I had thankfully read about prior to the hunt. Clad in a dark green shirt, dark jeans and sneakers, I was dressed in the right color spectrum or at least not in the incorrect color spectrum for the occasion.
Alligators actually have very good eyesight (if you think about the position of their eyes on tops of their head, this makes a lot sense now doesn’t it?) and bright colors or any little hint of phosphorescence, say like the kind found on most sneakers, doesn’t jive with their understanding of the natural landscape. At my side, along with my camera and camcorder was a dandy little high power spotlight, which Jeremy thoroughly admired.
“I’ve got ask, Jeremy,” I said sheepishly, “What do you think of these people coming from out of state to hunt Carolina gators?”
“Some people don’t like it. Most do. I’m one of them,” was all he said.
We pulled off the paved roads, snaking through groves of dower looking cypress, towards the water’s edge.
On the water
At the boat launch, Trey and Jeremy exchanged words with a pontoon, clearly known to the Tail and Scale crew, coming off the swamp:
“Did you see anything?” Jordan asked.
“Plenty. They just wouldn’t let us get close to them,” the man said as he spilled off onto the 20-foot dock, cornering little more than a half sunk concrete slide,” a man said as he spilled off onto the dock.
I caught Jordon chuckle a little and this report seemed to put him in a good humor as he climbed back into his pick-up and eased his boat, fit with a top of the line trolling motor, into the drink. Bats the size of grapefruits fought the air in frustrated patterns as the moon officially took over, backlighting lines of swamp cypress.
From the dock, the swath of wetlands looked surreal—an environment composed exclusively of water and trees. It seemed a habitat so ill suited to sustain human life. I boarded Jeremy’s craft along with Daniel, David and Jackson and with a nod of the head, we speed off into the dark.
In my experience, it seems to me there is a near universally adhered to code amongst hunters of all quarry—whether it’s deer, bass or gators, there’s an all-consuming sense of seriousness until the first one is in the cooler. Once that happens things lighten up considerably, but until the team pops its collective cherry, it’s work.
I was glad to see this axiom breathing steadily, even despite the strangling humidity, down south and as we cut through black water capped in moonlight, the tenor of the hunt went from excitement and anticipation to excitement and concentration. Conversations gave way to the sound of the motor while gestures became more deliberate and communicative. In the dark, my senses flexed in an effort to reconnoiter this strange environ. Speeding along, nothing seemed certain.
Thu-dunk. The boat suddenly tilted 45 degrees on its horizontal axis, sending Daniel, perched in the bow, crashing back on me. I caught his weight with outstretched hands and pushed him forward as David and Jackson fought to regain their positions, also thrown by the abruptly uneven ground.
“Stump,” Jeremy explained curtly, still seated solidly in the stern of the boat having lifted a leg with veteran intuition and avoiding the scramble. “Get used to it because that’s the next eight hours.”
And he wasn’t lying. The remainder of our hunt would be periodically punctuated with bumps, scrapes and the occasional sensation of “Mother of all that’s holy, I’m going to fall into a pool full of alligators.”
The lead boat cut their motor and we promptly followed suit, idling a respectable distance of about 25 feet behind our partners. We had traveled, cross current, for approximately 10 minutes. Jeremy whispered that spotlighting time was upon us, and I produced the flashlight from my backpack as beams cut through the air from the hunting boat ahead of us.
Running the lamp along the water, your scope of vision reduced to a theatrical pinpoint, I couldn’t shake the notion there was something vaguely epic going on in this swamp tonight. As if the whole scene was ripped from the pages of some early collection of woodsmen’s bedtime stories, a fairy tale, with all the classic components accounted for: fearless warriors, foreboding gothic landscapes, medieval implements of destruction and of course remorseless monsters.
We were looking for eyes, red eyes as it were, simmering out in open water. I was informed that white was likely deer trying to sneak a drink of water unnoticed on the banks while blue was indicative of raccoons (two animals that feature prominently in the diet of the American alligator, though by the time they reach adulthood, anything that comes within striking distance of their kingdom’s shores is potentially on the menu). Jeremy and company could get a rough idea of the gators’ size simply by look of the eyes.
I was dragging the light then, boom—there he was, about 30 feet to my right, a mid-sized alligator about 8 to 9 feet long swimming causally towards parts unknown. Then I heard David say he found one. Puzzled, I spun around in the boat to see a second pair of eyes and the shady lines of a nose about 25 feet from the boat, coming towards the boat. Then we saw another, about another 25 feet behind him.
And it was at this moment that the possibility of egregious personal injury became very real for your intrepid narrator. Despite our tools and our talents, we were not the apex predators here. Nothing about man, some weak, naked, stinking ape, was designed to thrive in this swamp. We didn’t even have the numbers as we caught sight of seeminlgy innumerable gators of varying sizes over the course of the next five minutes, seemingly circling the boat, seemingly sizing us up. Moments earlier I had been dangling my fingers in the water—putting my digits in a cauldron of evil. Now I sat guarded, flashlight ready to cold-cock anything that tried to investigate the boat.
We sat for about another 10 minutes, watching the lead boat comb the waters. Unlike their neighbors down Gulf way, baiting is, by decree of law, out the question in South Carolina. You aren’t allowed to use a rifle to take the animal, not even allowed to have one in the boat to discourage folks from taking pot-shots at tasty gators on open water.
Hunters instead must secure the beast with ropes or some other gizmo of capture, wrangle the half ton of hate up to the side of the boat, get it to chill out as best they can, usually with a well placed light to the eyes and a little luck, then dispatch the gator with a beautifully executed pop to its walnut sized brain stem. Do all this properly and you’ve got a battle you can win. Do it improperly and hold on to your effin hat.
Even though they were floating about 20 yards to the north of our position, I noticed a palpable change in mood from the crew on the hunting boat and a quick flash of light across our bow originating from their craft confirmed this. We cut our spotlights, tightening up in our seats and readying ourselves for directions. I watched as a ghostly moonlit Jordan moved purposefully down the hull, swapping places with Steve while Trey steadily aimed his 50-watt lantern light in the water, about three feet out from the boat. They were on to one, there was no doubt in my mind about that.
South Carolina gator hunters use a number of ways to snag them—harpoons, lassos, bows and arrows—and Tail and Scale will help clients try their luck at any of these within reason, but the crews capture weapon of choice is a crossbow.
Fitted with specialized bolts, these projectiles aren’t designed so much for deep penetration (though with scales as thick as bone, so a butter knife won’t exactly cut it either) but rather for retention of the animal once it’s tagged, trapped and ticked off.
After a hit is scored and the gator gets to getting, the head of the projectile, secured to a buoy via a generous length of heavy duty nylon cord, detaches from the bolt sending the hollow shaft flopping around the line like a bead on an abacus. When the line’s pulled far enough, the buoy pulls off the side of the craft, giving any surface dwellers a visual as to where the gator runs or attempts to hide.
Anxiously, I fingered the shutter button of the camera in my pocket. Daniel readied the camcorder. Jeremy stood up in the boat keeping his weight low while gingerly sliding a length of pole, fastened to the hull, free and dipping it into the soupy water with a muted gurgle. Silently, he pushed our skiff closer to the action, regatta-style, until we were about 15 feet away.
Jordan handed Steve the crossbow, cocked and loaded with the specialized bolt, and he slowly raised the stock to his shoulder, peering at the spot three feet out in the water emulsified with light. Jordan whispered inaudible instructions in his ear, as he readied to shot.
“Once he fires,” Jeremy explained in a soft murmur, “All bets are off.”
Earlier in that evening while driving to the boat launch, I had questioned Jeremy a little about gator psychology.
“Does he know your coming for him? Do they care?”
“O yeah, they’re pretty cautious. If they think something’s up they’ll hide.”
Slaying the dragon
After what seemed like an eternity waiting, the unmistakable twang of the bow hit my nerves in all the right places. There was blink and then a Thwack.
A flurry of water, the whip of a thorny tail towards the stars and the metallic ding of a buoy flying off the side of the boat; all solid indications something had been done right.
Commotion reigned on the hunting boat and their engine roared to life as positions were hastily assumed and searchlights danced over the waves in hot pursuit of the buoy. Our boat followed in kind, Jeremy reading the vessel, the rest of peered longingly at the chase.
Within seconds lights skipped over the marker, pushing briskly in pulses through the moon drenched water.
As I was informed after, the next few hours of the hunt have the high potential to consist of chasing this buoy in circles around the swamp. This game is not so much played until the gator gets physically tired, but, rather, until he gets tired of being chased, so it’s really on his terms as to when the confrontation begins.
Luckily, this would not be the case tonight. After about 20 minutes of threading the boats back and forth across one anothers’ wakes, sneaking quietly towards the red and white ball as it rocked in place on the gentle waves, Trey got his hands on the buoy.
We were bolder now and as Trey tugged at the nylon, I had the distinct sense the end was near. Trey passed the rope over to Jordan who steadily took in the line, draped in aquatic plants, as he attended to preparing the bangstick.
Emboldened, our boat closed in to less then 15 feet, just as the gator gave us his first indication he wasn’t coming quietly, lashing his tail violently in the night air. The smell was something entirely unexpected for me—it was a cross between rotting fish and something wholly unholy, like that gamey gland smell off of trapper’s bait, possibly the animal, possibly just him kicking up whatever creepy stuff lay dormant in the mud.
“I can smell him now,” commented Jeremy.
He jerked again, Jordan wrestling against his weight as Trey expertly shown the light a few inches above the gator’s eyes. The head breached literally inches from the boat, mouth agape, teeth ready to clamp down with the hardest bite in the animal kingdom to ever be recorded by science. It’s not beyond the realm of the feasible for a cornered gator to make a lunge at this point. On average the plots we hunted were anywhere from about four feet deep at their deepest to about a foot on the shallow end and the bottom here was not more than a foot and half deep.
Jordan backed away from the edge, holding the rope high over his head. The gator swayed from side to side, jerked unexpectedly, but you could tell the combination of the light and Jordan’s wrangling had “subdued” the dragon as well it could be. Steve took up the bangstick.
As the three of them worked in concert, communicating with each other, accommodating each other, catharsis bubbled up in me and I started suddenly thinking about why I’d come here, why I’d come to South Carolina really, and that was to garner some understanding of what guns meant to these people, and what the area contributed to the gun industry and culture. As mentioned before, these were people that wore many hats: fathers, salesmen, farmers, hunters. The linchpin to their survival, as it has been for all humanity, has been adaptation and these men were continuing that tradition, taking up a pursuit brand new to the state and figuring out a way to make it profitable. But there was so much more going on here than just business.
Guns were tools to them, but all guns are tools, so that isn’t saying much nor does it capture the reality of their relationship with firearms. The guns they used weren’t just specialized, they were hyper-specialized. The little .22 would later be used to finish the gator off while it’s in the boat, (the force from the bangstick has been known to only stun them) the perfect caliber, the perfect tool for the job, a testament to man’s ingenuity.
These specialized instruments seemed somehow ideal symbolic counterparts to the gators they made their living hunting. These animals, so specially designed to live in a swamp, standing virtually unchanged for 200 million years, monsters that indiscriminately take anything warm to be a potential meal, bested by a couple of naked, stinking apes who have no business surviving in a swamp. Yet somehow, they do. They thrive in hostile lands with a pole, a bullet, a rope, a boat and a brain.
Guns, to the Carolina swamper, are just simply essential, so essential in fact, they cease to resemble guns at all and it’s their adaptations, their specializations, that underline just how intertwined firearms and their “harnesseable” power, are to the success of these men on the hunt and in life.
After a few dry runs, a well-timed pop took Steve’s 10-foot plus gator, the mouth open in a final hostile gesture, ready to set down at any moment in a post-mortem middle finger. Once they got a rope around his mouth, Trey carefully easing his hands around the jowls and shutting the jaws, Jeremy relaxed and said offhandedly something to effect of “alright, mouths shut. It’s over.” We had been out on the swamp less than an hour.
Lashing the boats together with an outstretch hand, laughs fought back the dark with a music all their own and the gators, with one of their own lying on the deck of the 16-foot hunting boat, all sank off somewhere unseen. Assuredly, they had witnessed the scene and fled in terror, if a dragon can ever truly know fear. The hunting crew traded satisfied looks—the tell-tale sign of a successful hunt, well planned, well fought and well executed.
The whole gang of South Carolinians eyed Bruce’s prehistoric prize hungrily, trading agreements that a gator of this size was a premium eater. That’s precisely what Bruce planned to do with it (and maybe make a pair of boots out it, too) so, with an abiding sense of good juju, we hoofed it back to the boathouse to get the creature on ice and away from the sticky Carolina swampland, the sworn enemy of deceased flesh.
I’m not in the habit of writing commercials, but I am in the habit of praising excellence and hunting with Tail and Scale. For me at least, this is a resounding endorsement for hunting with professional, local outfitters. Had three well intentioned dudes gone out in a boat hunting dinosaurs, no amount of reading or prep-work in the world could have prepared us as to how to successfully take these animals.
These were serious hunters, clearly dedicated to getting their clients on the animal of their choosing, no matter the effort, evidenced by the fact that we hunted numerous different tracks of swamp from dusk until almost four o’clock in the morning (I was falling asleep in the boat and, really, the most dangerous part of the hunting trip was the sleep deprived journey back to Charleston). On our boat, there was an abiding sense of trust in these fellows. For only guiding gator hunts for four seasons they might as well have been guiding for forty.
I left that hunt feeling incredibly optimistic for the rest of the trip. I got to see some things few people rarely witness in the flesh, found a thread to tug at that I was sure would lead me towards the heart of what Guns mean to Charleston and, above all, got to meet some incredible hunters and human beings.