I get to fish in some killer spots but lately I’ve been looking for more unique adventures. For several years my good buddy Derek Redwine (Redwine on the BD forums) has told me tales of hunting alligators around central Florida and shown me pictures.
While I always found it cool, I couldn’t get myself to make a trip across the country to land a gator. Finally, after a little prodding from Derek, I agreed to come out the next time he drew a tag with one major caveat — we would have to make it a combo trip and squeeze in some night fishing for the one species I’ve been obsessed with catching, my first swordfish.
Derek agreed to the terms and called me early this summer. “You need to start looking for a flight!” he said. Turns out he drew a tag the very next year and our trip was coming together.
Late August finally rolls around and I’m on my way. Derek’s place is in Merritt Island, Florida, just 40 minutes due east by car from the Orlando airport. His house is on a canal and you can fish for little tarpon, trout and redfish right in his backyard.
A few days before the trip, we put together our game plan. The Florida weather can be pretty unpredictable during the summer, so we decided to head offshore first since we had a weather window. We pulled Derek’s long time friend Capt. Scott Goodwin into the mix. Scott is a local expert guide and runs a killer 32-foot custom Mirage Sportfisher called Southern Charm. The boat’s owner, Capt. Chuck Rehm, built Southern Charm from the hull up — it’s a very unique, fish-killing machine.
We arrive at the marina to find Chuck and Scott on board with the engine running and the boat ready to go. We load up our gear and quickly get under way. Since we have to run 50 miles across some of central Florida’s best bottomfishing grounds, Scott insists we make a few drops for grouper and snapper. This was my first time bottom fishing in Florida and let me tell you it’s nothing like fishing for rockfish in California.
First drop and I get hammered! This fish has me pinned to the rail before coming unbuttoned a minute or two later. What a start!
We continue to make drifts on a few of the local wrecks and pick away at some nice grouper, red snapper (released) and Derek even hauled in a 65-pound amberjack.
After a couple of hours, Scott suggests we head offshore. We put out a variety of baits — from trolling lures to rigged ballyhoo — and point the boat east to head further offshore. (That’s right, east. Still doesn’t sound right to me!)
We hit the swordfish grounds just as the sun starts to set. As we begin to rig, the similarities between their swordfishing techniques and targeting white sea bass on the West Coast are undeniable. The drill is very similar with baits suspended from balloons and staggered at different depths from 80 to 300 feet.
When fishing in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida, you drift at an incredible 4-plus knots! This is great because you can cover a ton of ground with your baits on a 4- or 5-hour drift. The downside is that you have to pick up and run 20 miles in the middle of the night to get back on the right drift.
As the night passed, we kept ourselves entertained catching the various species of fish and fry that showed up in the transom lights. We caught baby dorado, sailfish and flying fish in the dip net all night long. It was very cool to see some of our favorite game fish and bait that tiny.
After one move and several hours of drifting, we finally get our shot. The line started pulling slow and steady off the shallow-running bonito belly strip bait. The crew warned me to be ready for a potentially soft bite. We jumped to our feet and I proceed to let the fish eat the bait just a few seconds longer. I began to slowly slide the drag lever forward until the 10/0 Mustad Demon Circle hook does its job and comes tight to the fish.
After a solid first run I quickly start to gain line. We thought it might be a shark. After about 10 minutes the fish was getting close and we saw a brilliant purple glow in the underwater lights. We had our swordy! He was a little guy but my first swordfish nonetheless. Scott said it was too small to take (approximately 60 pounds), but he would try to bill the fish so we could get some photos. Unfortunately, the fish popped off just before we could secure the bill and swam off.
Despite the slightly premature release, we were stoked! The opportunity to see the fish boat side was awesome. Not many swordfish are caught out of Port Canaveral and we managed to pull off our mission on our very first night out!
We put the baits back out for a few more hours but once the sun started coming up, Scott said we needed to head back so we could do some more bottom fishing on the way in. Who were we to argue?
We hit a couple more wrecks but came away with just a few more fish stories. These snappers and groupers really pull and you have to win the first 20 feet of line or it’s game over. Unfortunately, I lost more than I won.
With the first leg of our mission complete, we put a call in to Capt. Lee Myers to check on our gator hunt. Lee is a professional captain who also offers alligator hunts on the Saint Johns River. Lee has been hunting the Saint Johns for decades and knows where the big gators live.
Like swordfish, alligators are usually taken at night so we set out in the Florida backcountry after dark with spotlights. The plan called for a casting rod with a large weighted treble hook to snag the gator.
We met up with Lee at who had his 22-foot pontoon boat hitched up and ready, and headed into the woods. For a California guy, I couldn’t get over the scenery. We motored through a small canal lined with river homes on stilts over the water. This eventually gave way to a series of lakes that looked like a duck hunter’s paradise.
As we made our way to the actual river, Lee gave us the run down. “After the sun goes down, we will slowly cruise the river and use spotlights to locate the alligator’s eyes just barely sticking up out of the water,” he said. “Once we locate a gator, we will shut the outboard off and drop the trolling motor in the water and try to quietly sneak up on the gator. When we get within casting range, cast the snagging hooks over the gator and try to snag it.”
Sounds easy enough, right?
In reality, you’re stalking a very spooky animal that wants nothing to do with you, so stealth is key. The other challenge is making a good cast. Most times the gator is at least 60 yards away and moving. You need good aim and a proper lead if you want a shot at hooking one.
On our first night, we fished hard until 1 a.m. but after 30 or 40 legitimate casts, we were still unable to connect. We called it a night and headed back with our tail between our legs.
On the second night, we immediately noticed that we weren’t seeing as many gators and we were a little nervous about our chances. We continued to work the river and some small offshoot canals. We managed to spook a couple of very large 11-foot gators right under the bow. Watching an animal of that size rise up out of the water and take off is pretty incredible. They can really move.
The night was coming to a close when Lee insisted we try one more of his hot spots just around the corner. Finally, we found three or four alligators loafing. We quickly went to work and the first gator spooked and sunk out. I spotted another gator pop up in casting range and quickly fired out the snagging hook. After close to 100 casts I felt that familiar weight on the end of the line and the drag began to scream! Man can they pull!
The gator acted just like a nice fish. It took some powerful runs, tried to get under the boat and even clamped onto the bottom and dogged me out.
After about a 15-minute fight, the gator began to tire and came up to the surface. As I pulled it close, Derek stuck a dart in the back of its neck and handed me the dart line. The gator bolted again and I wired it just like a big fish. A little more tug of war ensued before I got the gator boat side. The alligator rose up and bit the side of the boat, breaking off a couple of teeth. Lee then took the dart line from me and handed me the bang stick.
A bang stick is a 6-foot rod with a .38 caliber special power tip on the business end. Lee told me where to hit the gator and to make sure he was underwater when I did.
I passed on a couple of awkward shots and finally got my window. Bang! Dead gator.
Lee quickly wrapped the gator’s mouth with tape and hauled it out. The nose hung over one side of the boat and the tail over the other — we knew we bagged a good one.
The gator was nearly 9 feet long!
This was one large lizard. They seem to have skipped a few million years of evolution and are a pretty amazing creature when you get to see one up close without worrying about losing a limb.
Dead tired and satisfied, we turned the boat toward the launch ramp and cracked a few cold ones to celebrate.
If you’re a West Coast angler looking to try something new or broaden your horizons, either of these trips would make a great option. Flights from Southern California are abundant and usually run in the low $300 range. The charter and the hunt are affordable by any standards, while offering a completely new perspective on the sport.
If you are looking for a different kind of trip in the near future give either Capt. Scott Goodwin or Capt. Lee Myers (321-536-4873) a call. They are both great guys that know how to put their anglers on trophies.