From left, Austin Fisher, Cole Flanders and Hayden Murphy pose with the nearly 13-foot alligator Flanders caught and killed early Tuesday.
Santa Rosa County, Florida -- Pace hunter Cole Flanders nabbed the largest alligator ever caught in a public hunt in Santa Rosa County on Tuesday - and it's just 16 inches shorter than the longest caught in the state.
Flanders, 19, tracked down and killed a 12-foot, 9-inch gator on the Yellow River Tuesday morning. He and two friends - Austin Fisher and Hayden Murphy, both 19 - used a 13-foot fiberglass boat, some heavy-duty fishing gear and a .44-caliber "bang stick" to subdue the beast.
Photo Gallery: Pictures of the gator catch
"I had caught a few alligators a week before that had some feet missing, like something had chomped them off," Flanders said. "We figured there was a big one in the area."
It was big - recording-breaking, in fact, according to Stan Steigler, an alligator biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee. Until now, the record was 11 feet, 3 inches in Santa Rosa - set by an animal killed in 2004. The record will be confirmed at the end of the alligator hunting season, Nov. 1, after Flanders' report and others from around the state are compiled.
The record for the state is 14 feet, 5/8 of an inch.
"That is a very large alligator anywhere in the state," Steigler said of Tuesday's catch. "Large alligators can be found in North Florida. The largest alligators we tend to see in the Panhandle area come from the Apalachicola drainage. "
Flanders' gator was at least 25 years old, Steigler estimated.
Looking for the 'big one'
Flanders graduated from Pace High School in 2009. There, he was on the school's weightlifting and football teams. Currently, he is a student at Pensacola State College and works at the Milton Cemetery as a groundskeeper.
He has a state license that allows him to kill - or "tag" - two alligators this year. He killed his first one on Labor Day. That one measured 9 feet, 4 inches.
He had spent the time since "scouting and hunting" for a larger specimen.
"I was trying to find a big one. I didn't want to waste my tag on a smaller one," he said. "I finally found a big one. I didn't know he was going to be that big."
His earlier discovery of the maimed gators led him to the Yellow River early Tuesday.
"We baited up the area, and were looking for a big one," he said. "I saw him swimming and was able to sneak up on him."
Flanders used a surf rod with line equipped to handle at least 50 pounds and a three-prong hook. He cast that over the alligator's back and hooked the tail. He hooked a second line underneath his front leg.
"They're so big, I used the fish line just to kind of follow him around until I got the hand-line hooked into him," he said. "Once I got that on him, I could kind of control him and pull him up to the boat. ... My buddy was holding the light, and I was fighting the gator."
Gator wouldn't die
Flanders used a "bang stick" - a long stick with a firing mechanism in the end that can fire a .44-caliber round - against the animal. At one point, the animal nearly got away.
"It was a struggle. After I shot him, he broke off," Flanders said. "Luckily, we spotted him up in the shallows and were able to get another line on him and get up in there and hit him again."
That was the second shot. It ultimately took three shots to the kill the gator.
"He came back to life," Flanders said. "I told my buddy to tape his mouth, just to be safe. He was taping his mouth, and all of a sudden, one of the alligator's eyes opened, and the alligator went crazy. We were able to hold on to him and get another shot into him. That finished him off."
It took the three men in the boat and two more to get the gator onto the bed of a truck. Flanders guessed the animal weighed about 1,000 pounds.
Flanders has dressed the meat, with the intention of eating it. He also plans to tan the hide himself.
There are a limited number of alligator hunting licenses available every year. Only 17 were available this year in Santa Rosa County. First, they were offered to hunters through a lottery. Flanders' name didn't get drawn in the lottery, but he was able to purchase one for which the winner didn't pay the fee. He paid $271 for the license.
This year was Flanders' first try at alligator hunting.
"I've hunted all my life. Deer hunting is my main thing, and dove hunting - any kind of hunting around here," Flanders said. "I thought this would be something cool to do."
Louis Cooper, Pensacola News Journal