Gators among us

The great comeback of the American alligator becomes big business for Florida families.

Words by Patrick Riley

The Hunt

The hum of Jim Rinckey's 15-foot Carolina skiff cut through the silence on Lake Trafford. His two handheld spotlights sliced through the darkness.

Rinckey grew impatient. He and his hunting partner, Mark “Doc” Markisen, 63, had been gliding across the murky, rippling waters in the boat for nearly two hours.

“Target-rich environment and we can’t kill,” Rinckey grumbled to no one in particular. “We’re sorry gator hunters.”

As midnight neared on that breezy September night, Rinckey, a 37-year-old professional hunter and fisher, kept his crossbow cocked.

“I’m telling you it always happens after midnight,” he said, his gaze fixed on the beam of light on the water, scanning the surface for glowing reptile eyes.

They flickered in the darkness, sometimes changing colors like a traffic light, going from red to orange to green. Other times those eyes glared back at the boat in a cold blue gaze.

Although Rinckey and Markisen had the 1,500-acre lake to themselves that night, they were not alone in their pursuit of the ancient reptile. As Friday turned into Saturday, the quiet lake was teeming with alligators.

Rinckey and Markisen are part of a small army that wades into lakes, canals and swamps for two months every fall in Florida to hunt the state’s most iconic creature.

This year, more than 6,000 hunters received the coveted permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which oversees the annual public hunt. More than twice as many people applied through the agency’s lottery system. Each permit, which costs residents $272 and out-of-state applicants $1,022, allows a hunter two alligator kills per season.

Last year’s harvest of more than 6,700 alligators is less than 1 percent of the estimated 1.3 million alligators roaming the state. The reptile has been hailed as a conservation success story.

Alligator hunting was outlawed in the early 1960s after the alligator population had taken a steep dip. The creature was classified as an endangered species later that decade.

By 1987, alligators had rebounded so successfully that they sometimes have become a dangerous presence, tragically illustrated this year when a gator killed a 2-year-old boy at Disney World. The state decided to help manage the growing numbers by implementing a statewide harvest program in 1988.

The public hunt — which runs from Aug. 15 through Nov.1 — has become a boon for the state, generating about $1.5 million in annual revenue.

The state uses that money to support a variety of research, law enforcement, conservation, and fish and wildlife management efforts, including the alligator management program itself, FWC spokeswoman Tammy Sapp said.

The private sector, too, has profited from the reptile’s remarkable recovery.

Since the advent of public hunts in the late 1980s, small family businesses and international conglomerates alike have broken into the growing market for alligator meat, skins, leather, hunting and tourism.

After growing up in Traverse City, Michigan, and spending much of his spare time in the outdoors with his dad, Rinckey made his hobby his profession at age 24. He leads groups on hunting and fishing trips, anywhere from Alaska to Florida, as a guide for A&B Charters in Naples.

But for him, hunting alligators, which he started doing about five years ago, is still strictly recreational.

“It’s one of the most enjoyable hunts that you can actually go on,” Rinckey said. “It’s not like sitting in a tree stand where you might see a deer, one deer, in six hours.”

On the waters of Lake Trafford in the middle of the night, Rinckey and his partner got their fill of excitement. They came close to catching an alligator.

Twice, the arrow, which is tied to a small buoy, wiggled loose at the last moment. Once, the white buoy disappeared into the dark night too quickly to track it down.

Had the arrow stuck in the reptile’s skin, the hunters would have slowly reeled in the alligator and burrowed a spear — which is attached to a rope — into the animal's flesh. Then, they would have pulled it closer and used a bang stick, a pole that fires a bullet upon contact, to kill the alligator.

And so nearly five hours and a number of misses later, the two hunters were ready to call it night. They would go on to catch a 7½-foot and a 9-foot alligator the following evening. But this time, the duo left the lake empty-handed.

“That’s hunting,” Rinckey said. “Let’s go home.”


Family Business 

It was 6:30 a.m. and Brian Wood was wide awake. He had alligator meat on his mind. It was packed in a freezer more than 100 miles away and had Wood sick to his stomach.

He needed to make sure his livelihood wasn’t rotting away.

“I got up and I was like 'I got to get over there and check it, ” said Wood, 59. “I got to stick a thermometer in.”

For Wood the 2½ month public alligator hunting season is a constant race against time. His family-run All American Gator company buys the alligators from hunters, processes the meat, prepares the skins and then sells it all.

But gator meat is funny. It must be packed and placed in a deep freeze. Wait too long, and it goes bad.

And so — knot in his stomach and all — Wood jumped in his pickup and drove the two hours from his Hollywood home across the state to his slaughterhouse at the end of a winding Hendry County dirt road in rural LaBelle.

The first thing he did was walk into the freezer to smell the meat.

“Open a bag, you know, make sure it hasn’t rotted,” Wood said. “I mean, it’s a nightmare. Absolute nightmare.”

Sleep is fleeting during the busiest time of the year for the little family empire, run by Wood and his sons Jake, 25, and Chris, 26. Stress is a constant. Work is never-ending.

Hunters need to be met at the various ramps, scattered around the Everglades, and paid for their alligators. Meat has to be stripped from the reptiles, tenderized, chilled, packaged and frozen. Hides have to be pressure washed, salted and cooled.

Rinse, repeat until the next load of dead alligators arrives in the bed of his son’s pickup.

“It’s one big crisis management,” Wood said, carrying bags of ice into the white-tiled slaughterhouse to keep his meat fresh. “All the time.”

He would know. Wood got in on the ground floor of the alligator industry when the state commissioned the first public hunt in the late 1980s.

Back then, Wood, a Massachusetts native who came to Florida to get into the diving business, saw an opportunity. He caught his first 15 alligators (the maximum allowed per hunter back then), sold the meat to restaurants in the Florida Keys and made belts from the hides.

Since then, the industry has grown steadily, he said. But that hasn't necessarily been good for Wood.

Television shows like “Gator Boys” and “Swamp People” have helped popularize Wood’s products. And international fashion conglomerates, like Hermes Paris, have long entered into the market, buying up alligator farms and tanneries in the hopes of cutting out the middleman.

“What this does is it puts a lot of the entrepreneurs and people kind of down, because they can hold things down, because they control it,” he said. “The hides just took another dip now. And it’s just like waiting just to fall off a cliff and that’s what’s going to happen.

“I could lose a lot of money just like that.”

After 27 years in the industry, Wood can recite meat and hide prices from memory. He knows most everybody on a first-name basis.

But Wood is making plans for the day he’ll be too old and tired to drive across to LaBelle or jet to trade and fashion shows in New York and Las Vegas.

Wood’s plan is to settle down in his Hollywood showroom, where his company’s purses, wallets and other finished products are made.

His sons will eventually take over the family business. They grew up on alligators. Literally.

Chris Wood recalls family pictures of him and his siblings sitting on a dead alligator at Christmas, all three wearing Santa Claus hats. He was 8 when he caught his first alligator, an 8-foot-long one.

The alligator business is all he's ever known. Despite the grind of hunting season, Chris and Jake Wood wouldn’t miss it for anything.

“As quick as it’s over, we want it to be there again,” said Chris. “We don’t know what to do with ourselves.”


Education and thrills

As a boy, Carl Nicholson joined the rest of his family, crammed into a Mercury station wagon one summer day in 1997 for the move to Southwest Florida.

His dad never said why, but Nicholson figured it was just who he was.

“If you ever knew my dad, if you ever met him, you’d know he didn’t stay put for very long,” Nicholson, 35, remembered as he sat in his little office at Wooten's Everglades Airboat Tours, about 6 miles outside of Everglades City.

Within a year of arriving in the Everglades, Nicholson's father -- Michael Sturgill, a carpenter from West Virginia --  found a job at Wooten’s, where visitors go for boat rides and alligator shows. Curtis Smith was manager then.

"Dad applied here as basically a handyman.'Well,' Curtis said, ‘We don’t need a handyman. We need an alligator handler,’" Nicholson recalled. "And dad being dad said, ‘Yeah, I’ve handled alligators my whole life.’ He’s from West Virginia.”

Sturgill soon became “Gatorman Mike.”

“Dad kind of started the gator shows here,” Nicholson said. “Handling the alligators, talking to people and just teaching.”

Nicholson soon followed his dad’s lead, taking on a summer job at Wooten’s, doing everything from cleaning bathrooms and animal cages to fixing airboats and leading tours.

And, of course, taking part in alligator shows.

“My show was a little different than dad’s,” Nicholson remembered. “Dad did a very, very educational show, you know. But he didn’t quite go to the extent that I did as far as like holding the gator’s mouth open with my chin.”

Nicholson still occasionally does shows, mostly filling in when some of the regular alligator handlers are off. As the manager, he now makes sure the 10 airboats work, the 50 alligators eat (they devour about 1,000 lbs of meat each week), and the hundreds of visitors that come through every day learn about the Everglades and catch a glimpse of its most famous resident.

“When people from different countries come to Florida, they want to see an alligator,” Nicholson said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

And if visitors don’t get to see a wild alligator during the 30-minute tour, they can hold a small one during the alligator show or watch some of the bigger ones amble around the fenced-off pond behind the gift shop. Here, Nicholson plans to build a mechanism that would hang meat from a zip line across the murky, olive-green water.

“We’re going to try to get these gators to lunge up and grab chicken off of a rope,” he said.

Much of the little zoo at Wooten’s, which includes exhibits for lions, tigers, raccoons, cougars, American crocodiles and sea otters, has Nicholson’s fingerprints on it. He built many of the pens, enclosures and cages. And some, like the original wrestling pit where the first shows were held, have his dad’s imprints on them, too.

“This is where it started,” Nicholson said, standing in front of the pit, a hint of nostalgia seeping through his thick West Virginia accent.

The pit is still there. His dad isn’t.

Sturgill died on June 7, after a half-year bout with esophageal cancer. Three days before he was diagnosed he was still doing shows at Wooten’s. He was 62.

“It’s tough,” Nicholson said, tears running across his sunburnt face and into his orange beard. “There’s a lot of Dad here.”

Despite the daily reminders of his loss, Nicholson said he wants to carry on his dad’s mission and continue to educate visitors about the Everglades and alligators.

“Just teaching people that you can cohabitate with alligators is probably my biggest thing,” Nicholson said. “And then passing that on.”

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