It took Tony and Holly Sartori, a husband-and-wife gator-hunting team, four years to claim a near-record 12-foot 2-inch bull alligator they've been stalking annually on the St. Johns River west of Melbourne.
"Our luck finally changed this time," Tony said of the Aug. 27 hunt. "We've had him hooked each of the last three seasons but every time he was just too strong."
The Merritt Island couple were hunting under a special state-issued permit for the Aug. 22 to 29 alligator hunt period in the Lake Hell'n Blazes section of the St. Johns south of U.S. 192.
"We knew where he was, with a group of females. He's been there every year," said Tony, owner of the Xzachle Construction Co. and a big-game hunter along with his wife of 30 years.
Since 1988, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has held annual renewable resource alligator seasons. They are strictly regulated under a permitting and quota system in specified management units. The Sartoris were assigned to a unit from U.S. 192 to Bulldozer Canal.
"The permits for that area are harder and harder to get because hunters know there are some giants in that part of the St. Johns, and we were afraid we wouldn't get our chance at him this year. But we got a permit," Tony explained.
In late October 2010, the Florida alligator length record of 14 feet, 31/2 inches was taken at Lake Washington west of Melbourne in the unit north of U.S. 192. Since then, permit applications for those sections of the St. Johns have risen significantly.
After light on the morning of the hunt, the Sartoris, along with friends Lyle Griess and Jeff Conrath visiting from Pennsylvania, air boated to the site. They put in at Camp Holly knowing they could hunt until 10 a.m.
"We cruised around a little before spotting him. And there was no mistaking him. In the years before we figured he was every bit of 13 feet," Tony said.
The harvesting rules set by the FWC restricts the methods, among them snares, snatch hooks, baited wooden pegs, bows, crossbows and harpoons. A bang stick, with a rifle or shotgun load, can be used to immediately dispatch the animal. Firearms, other than bang sticks, are prohibited.
The Sartoris use snatch hooks and harpoons that first allow the body hooking of the gator on big-game rod-and-reel tackle. Once brought to a point near the boat with the fishing gear, the gator then can be struck with a tethered harpoon and buoy in an effort to track the location of the animal and also to pull it closer to the boat for the final blow of the bang stick.
Realizing it was being hunted, the gator sank below the surface but after several minutes of casting, Tony was successful in snatching the gator. That was followed by Griess and Conrath snatching it with a second rod and reel, which allowed them to fight the gator toward the airboat. When it got close enough, Holly was to throw the harpoon.
"Of course, the gator was going crazy and I had to get the harpoon in a soft spot behind its head so it would hold," Holly explained. "Doing that wasn't easy in the heat of the fight, but I got it in the right spot."
A short period later, Tony followed up with the bang stick and the gator was dead.
"It took all four of us to roll him into the boat and a couple times we took water over the side," Holly said. "It was a team effort to do this whole hunt deal."
The 12 feet, 2 inches was the total length. The head measured 28 inches from the tip of the nose to the skull bone and it was 19 inches at its widest point.
Based on eight years of gator hunting experience, the Sartoris realized they had taken an old animal with a head that was disproportionally large for its body size.
"It had the head of a 13- or 14-footer, but the body was thin," Tony said. "All its rear teeth were worn down. This old boy hadn't eaten well in a long time and the body showed it. We agreed this gator probably was even bigger in its heyday."
Its weight wasn't determined because the scales the Sartoris planned to use were broken.
It's one of the biggest taken in the state this season and it will add credence to the fact that some of the biggest gators in Florida occur along the upper St. Johns River.
"We don't have room in our house for a full-body mount," Holly said, "but there will be a lot of conversations about the impressive head mount. You can be sure of that."e contest remaining. In January, he won at Lake Alligator and had a 10-pounder.
All bass are released following the weigh-in.