These four Rock Hill guys have fished together forever. They have hunted ducks and deer and anything else that skitters or slithers or runs.
But never before have Dennis Seay, Tim Fields, Don Honeycutt and Josh Martin fought, sweated, tugged, pulled, hooked and gaffed anything like Saturday night down in the Santee Swamp southeast of Columbia.
Not a fish. Not a deer. An alligator.
“12 foot, 680 pounds worth of gator,” Fields said.
It took the four guys — working in tandem teams of two rotating through arms worn slap out — three hours to boat the monster.
“It felt like three days, not three hours,” said Honeycutt, the ringleader.
“No way were we going to quit once we got him hooked,” said Seay, who owns the boat.
“Not a chance any of us would give up,” said Martin, who got the unlucky assignment to run a noose around the gator's huge jaws — while they were still chomping.
On the first day of the month-long alligator season in South Carolina, the guys hooked the beast around 6 p.m.
The triple hook barely lodged in the gator's thick underside, but it was enough to get the boat on top of the gator — which, by then, was on the bottom in mud under 8 feet of water. The gator came up for air, and the four guys realized this was no bass.
“What a mouth,” said Fields. “Teeth?”
“Huge,” said Seay. “Lot bigger than we had thought.”
“Massive,” said Martin.
“Head big enough to sure put a good part of you inside that mouth, if you weren't careful,” said Honeycutt.
Two harpoons thrown at the gator bent the harpoons because the hide was too thick and hard. They finally got more hooks in the gator, used nooses and snares and a crossbow through the tail when the gator would surface for air, and fought it up to the side.
Just after 9 p.m. — three hours after hooking the prehistoric-looking monster — Honeycutt ended it with a gunshot behind the gator's head.
“Then we had to get the gator in the boat,” said Honeycutt.
Rock Hill guys Bruce, Drew and Micah Winn, also hunting gators — they would land an almost 9-footer of their own — helped the guys get the gator into the boat.
The 12-foot gator was one of a dozen bagged in the state over the first weekend, said Jay Butfiloski, a wildlife biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Butfiloski, who coordinates DNR's alligator program, said last year's first public hunting season since the mid 1960s netted 362 gators.
None were caught locally last year, but there was one 3-foot gator in Lake Wylie this year that caused a bit of a sensation. Most gators are caught farther south and east, in swamps and rivers.
“The truth about alligators is they are indigenous and have been around this state long before there were people here,” Butfiloski said.
Gator hunting has caught on in just one year: More than 3,700 applicants tried for the 1,000 hunting tags given out in the state. Yet the 12-footer caught by Seay and company wasn't even the largest caught over the weekend. A 13-foot, 8-incher was caught downstate, Butfiloski said. Last year, 11 gators 13 feet or bigger were caught in the state.
But Butfiloski made it clear what the Rock Hill crew accomplished: “By anybody's measure, a 12-footer — that's a big gator.”
Seay, Fields, Honeycutt and Martin towed the gator back to Rock Hill and stopped at the trucking scale at Flying J Travel Plaza on S.C. 901.
“Truck, trailer and gator weighed 11,380 pounds,” Seay said.
Then they took the gator to Honeycutt's house, used a backhoe to lift the gator out of the boat, then re-weighed the truck, trailer and boat.
“10,700 pounds,” Seay said. “Subtract the truck, trailer and boat — the gator weighed 680.”
The gator is no more: The guys butchered him for the meat and will mount the head. The hide will be preserved. But before all the taxidermy is done, they have to do one more thing.
“This weekend, if I recover, we likely will head out again,” said Honeycutt. “We kind of set the bar high on the first try, though — 12 feet, 680 pounds.
“Why not? Let's shoot for 700 pounds.”