Since 1948, there have been more than 275 unprovoked alligator attacks on humans in Florida, of which at least 17 resulted in death. There were only nine fatal attacks in the U.S. throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, but alligators killed 12 people between 2001 and 2007. In May 2006, alligators killed three Floridians in less than a week.
Those statistics were the furthest from my mind as I sat cross-legged with my elbows resting on my knees in the bow of a slowly moving jon boat. Trying to paint the gator’s eye with the EOTech MRDS as he floated motionless 20 yards away, I slapped the trigger on the .223 Molot Vepr sending a mini-geyser of coffee-colored water into the air. The gator thrashed, spun, rolled and jetted toward the bank all in one blurred motion. Obviously hit, we followed the gator’s bubble trail and started trying to pull him to the surface with a snag pole.
This was the second gator I had tried to kill in the past 30 minutes with the Russian-made AK-style Vepr, and I was certain that the folks featured on the hit cable show Swamp People made it look so much easier. I had even gone to the effort to visit with gator hunting royalty to get their opinions on gator guns and any other advice they were willing to share.
Swamp People is a documentary television series airing on History, which follows the lives of Cajuns living in the swamps of Louisiana. The series made history on History with its first-season premiere, garnering a record-breaking 4.2 million viewers on August 22, 2010, ranking the series #1 in the 10 to 11PM time slot on Sunday nights. The outrageously popular second and third seasons not only focused national attention on the Cajun lifestyle, it raised the popularity of gator hunting itself.
All this new gator hunting curiosity begs the questions about the best guns and loads to reliably take these oversized swamp lizards. Alligator regulations and methods of harvest vary from state to state. In Louisiana, baited setlines are the norm, with occasional gators taken with well-placed shots when the opportunity arises. Rimfires seem to be the norm for killing a gator on a line, while larger centerfires come into play for long-range sniping on wary old bull gators.
As last season’s Swamp People wound to a close, it was left up to the audience to decide who was King of the Swamp—gator gurus Troy Landry or R.J. Molinere. I caught up with Landry and his son Clint at the NRA convention in St. Louis last spring.
“All my life I’ve been gator hunting,” Troy Landry said when asked how long he’s pursued these leathery beasts. When asked what it takes to kill a gator, he added, “You’ve got to hit him in the right spot. All we use is a .22 magnum. When I went by myself, I used a .22 Long Rifle. If you try to shoot them in the hard spot on their head, the bullet will just bounce off. If you shoot them right behind the hard spot you can kill the biggest gator on earth.
“People ask me ‘why do you use such small guns.’ When you shoot guns 60 to 70 times a day and you’ve got people near you, shooting a big gun just makes a lot of noise. I already can’t hear. Junior (another popular cast member of Swamp People) believes in shooting them in the hard spot, but you can get bullets and bone fragments flying off. If you’ve seen some of the shows, you can see that some of the pieces have flown off and hit his son Willy.”
Querying Landry about good gator guns and their use, the 30-plus year gator-hunting veteran had some solid advice. “Some of my friends keep a gun in a gun case and wipe it with a rag before they put it back each time,” Landry said. “I put my gun in my boat. My gun is a tool. One time last season, we had 15 inches of rain in three days. I use ’em and don’t baby sit ’em. My favorite gun is a .22 magnum. The gun with the lever-action, the Ruger, is a really good gun. I really like it.”
With all the rough treatment any equipment in a gator boat endures, it’s no surprise that several cast members have trouble with misfires and jammed rifles. “It’s the environment,” Landry added. “A lot of times it’s not cleaned. Some of us fish in brackish water and that will make it rust. If you clean them every night they will stay in good working order. Some days, I don’t finish until 10 or 11 o’clock at night and it’s hard to clean ’em then. Some get dropped in the bayou. Most of the time I use just one gun during the season—I’ve never actually had a gun break during season, they just get dirty. We’ve had to dive in and pull ’em out. We just clean ’em out and oil ’em down and keep on going.”
Recalling the Landrys use several different guns throughout the season, I asked about their choices. “I’ve killed more gators than I can count with a single-shot Remington bolt-action. I just wait until I get a perfect shot,” Landry said. “The Ruger 10-22 .22 LR—Clint likes to use that one. My youngest boy, Chase, shot a couple of them on the bank with .270 Brownings and Savage bolt-actions.”
“The [best] ammo I use is CCI,” Landry concluded. “That’s one of the hottest bullets they’ve got. Most of the time we use what I can get. Most of the time, we use the Mini Mag 40 grain.” Their choices of guns and ammo appear to be quite adequate, since they killed more than 400 gators during their 2011 campaign.
The rest of the cast uses a mix of rifles. “Trapper Joe” LaFont and his step-son “Trigger Tommy” Chauvin typically use a rusty Browning Auto .22 without a front sight, or a Savage bolt-action .22 Mag. The sightless Browning seems to come in handy when a gator chomps down on the barrel and it has to be pulled free to be redeployed.
Tagging more than 500 gators during the 2011 Louisiana season put a father-and-son team at the pinnacle of animals harvested. When I caught up with R.J. Molinere and his son Jay Paul at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville during the Wildlife Expo, I got a chance to ask them about gator guns.
“I use a totally different gun from everyone else,” Jay Paul Molinere said. “I use a .17 HMR Savage. The rest use a .22 Magnum or a .22 LR, or sometimes, they use a big gun like a .30-06, and that’s way too much gun. A gun that big does too much damage.”
“The .22 Magnum did the job for a long time,” J.R. Molinere recalled. “When we shot gators with a .22 Magnum, they would keep moving in the boat. I even shot a 10-footer once with a .22 Magnum and put it in the boat, when Jay Paul was eight years old, and it did more than just keep moving.” “I told him that it was still alive,” the younger Molinere added. “I was sitting on its back and it just stood up on all fours.” Obviously, the big bull alligator needed further encouragement to stay put for good.
“I’ve learned that you want to listen to your kid,” R.J. said. “Jay Paul told me ‘why don’t we use the .17,’ and I said ‘no.’” R.J. finally conceded to his son, so they gave the .17 HMR a try. “A .22 Magnum only gets about an inch of penetration when you shoot a gator behind the head,” Jay Paul said. “The .17 HMR gives about 1.5 inches of penetration. If I’ve got to shoot a gator at 100 yards in open water, it will reach out and roll them. Out of three seasons, I can remember only one time when I had to shoot a gator twice with the .17. I put a bad shot on a gator two years ago. The gator was doing a death roll and it hit on the hard spot and it penetrated through the skull. If I was using a .22 Magnum full-metal jacket I would have had to shoot him again.”
Shot placement is very critical when shooting an alligator. “We shoot for the brain stem right behind the skull,” R.J. said. If the gator is open water, R.J. and Jay Paul agreed, saying it is best to “shoot them behind the ear because they will float.”
Bullet performance is a big reason that the men like the .17 HMR. “With the .17, it gives a small entry hole, but with other rifles the bullet can bounce off the gator’s head and injure somebody,” Jay Paul said. The two men recalled instances where another gator hunter was trying to dispatch the animal with a .22 LR and had bullet fragments ricochet in all directions. They even recalled when a hunter used a .357 Magnum pistol to dispatch a gator and a bullet fragmented and struck Jay Paul in his face from more than 20 feet away. They don’t experience bullet fragmentation and ricochets when using the .17 HMR.
GATOR WITH VEPR
While on a hog hunt with William “Hoppy” Kempfer’s Osceola Outfitters in St. Cloud, Florida, last August, I had a chance to shoot three Molot Vepr rifles chambered in .308 Winchester, .223 Remington and 7.62x53R. All three were quite effective on the local wild hogs, but I chose the .223 model of the Vepr for gator hunting. The Vepr was decked out with an ATI accessory stock and handguard, as well as an EOTech red-dot sight.
Earlier, during my late-afternoon gator hunt, I had an opportunity to shoot a gator that was submerged except for the very slim top of his head. The shot was about 30 yards, and I held at the back of his eye and tried to put a bullet diagonally through his brain for an instant kill. The 55-grain Hornady load was printing about a 3/5-inch group at 25 yards, so when the bullet just barely struck the water, I wasn’t too surprised. I was taken aback when the gator didn’t die instantly. The bullet’s contact with the water caused it to fragment and just made the 9.5-foot gator seek refuge elsewhere.
I got another chance a little while later. I learned quickly that it was a challenge to precisely place the shot from a moving platform to keep it from striking the water and blowing up. When another gator surfaced 15 yards to our left and raised his head out of the water, it almost appeared that he was issuing a toothy challenge. I held just behind his eye as the boat bobbed up and down. I stroked the trigger through its long travel and the sear just happened to break at the opportune moment when the aiming dot crossed his brain. The bullet struck home and the 7-foot, 4-inch gator was mine.
Hoppy twisted the throttle on the boat’s trolling motor and we were alongside the gator in seconds. Adrenalin pumping, I reached into the water and grabbed the gator’s back leg as he floated just beneath the surface. The gator didn’t move again, but I was still sure to use one hand to tightly clamp the jaws shut while I used the other to grab a front leg and help drag it into the boat.
Although far from being an expert, my experience taught me that I want more magnification the next time I shoot at a gator’s “kill spot.” I’ll probably follow R.J and Jay Paul Molinere’s lead and employ a .17 HMR with a scope that’s mounted as close to the axis of the bore as possible. Spending time shooting at ranges from 10 to 70 yards to know exactly where the bullet will strike in relation to the crosshairs is advisable, too.
After killing my first alligator, it’s no mystery to me why people hunt these modern-day dinosaurs. If you get a chance to hunt these leviathans, take it. Gator tail is mighty fine eating.