Who: Scott Qurollo
Title: Creative director and partner
Company: Pearl, a Cape Coral-based brand communications firm
Out of the office: Alligator hunting
How he got started: Qurollo's in-laws bought a home on Lake Istokpoga in Highlands County near Sebring about 10 years ago. There, Qurollo met local residents who taught him to drive an airboat and hunt alligators at night. “I've always loved the outdoors,” he says. Qurollo, 43, has been a hunter since his youth, hunting deer, turkey and boar. “I got hooked,” he says. “It's not like any other kind of hunting. It's much more primal.” Plus, it's a great diversion from work. “It's a total escape,” he says.
Biggest catch: Any alligator more than 12 feet long is considered a “trophy.” In 2010, Qurollo caught one 12 feet, 7 inches, on Lake Istokpoga. The monster's skull sits perched on a shelf in his office. The Florida state record is 14 feet, 3 ½ inches, caught in Lake Washington in Brevard County in 2008.
On the dangers: “Lots of things could go wrong,” says Qurollo, who notes that every outing has its story. “Running at night is dangerous in itself,” he says. Driving an airboat in the dark of night with only a searchlight is probably the riskiest part of the adventure. “We've had guys thrown out of the boat,” including his church pastor, who fortunately didn't get hurt but got quite a scare when he was tossed into the Kissimmee River. Loading a 12-foot alligator into a 13-foot airboat can be dangerous too, especially if the alligator isn't fully dead. “I've gotten whacked on the side of the head” by an alligator's tail, Qurollo says. Tying a 600-pound alligator's powerful jaw shut with electrical tape while it's alongside the boat is probably the scariest part of the hunt, he says.
How he finds the big ones: The distance between the eyes usually tells you how big the alligator is. When you shine the spotlight, big white eyes usually means a bigger alligator and small red eyes indicates a juvenile. “A lot of times it's how the gator behaves,” Qurollo says. The little ones don't move when you approach; the bigger ones know better and scurry off. Because alligators are territorial animals, Qurollo will spot a big one during the off-season and come back in the fall to the same area to hunt it.
Equipment: Qurollo bought a used airboat for $5,000, which consumes as much as 60 gallons of regular gasoline in one night of hunting. One reputable airboat dealer is Lonny Tucker at Outback Adventures in Lorida, he says. Generally, two people hunt from an airboat. The driver sits in the front and the passenger rides in the back wielding a harpoon. Harpoons might cost as much as $400, but Qurollo assembles his own for about $60. The harpoon consists of an eight-foot rod with a dart attached on one end. The dart connects to a rope with a Styrofoam ball. Once the harpooner successfully lodges the dart in the alligator's body, the hunters reel in the animal with the rope and gaff it to the side of the boat. Once the alligator is alongside, one of the hunters shoots it in the head with a “bang stick,” a rod with a power head that fires a .357 Magnum bullet on contact. You have to be accurate with the shot, because bullets can ricochet off the hardest part of the alligator's head. Bang sticks can cost as much as $150, Qurollo says.
How to get good: “It's a team effort between the driver and the harpooner,” Qurollo explains. “It can get old if your harpooner is missing gators.” The harpooner has to nail a fleeing alligator Ahab-style while the airboat travels at 25 miles per hour using only a spotlight in the dark of night. “I would describe it like pole vaulting,” he says. “It's so hard to hit them while they're moving.” The harpooner has to be accurate and hit the neck or side of the alligator, because the dart won't penetrate the thick armor on an alligator's back. Because airboats skim along the water, their wakes can swamp them if they make a sudden stop or turn too sharply. Submerged logs and fence posts are always big dangers. “We carry cell phones in dry boxes,” says Qurollo, who became good at driving after a few months. “I have never sunk my boat,” he says with a grin.
Follow the rules: The state has permitted alligator hunting in Florida since 1988 to manage the healthy population. The nighttime alligator-hunting season runs from Aug. 15 to Oct. 31, and a permit costs $272 for Florida residents, which includes tags for two alligators. A lottery system determines where and when you can hunt, but the state's computer system often gets overwhelmed with Web traffic from hunters aiming for the best spots on the first day. No permit is necessary to drive an airboat. There are several ways to hunt alligators, but baiting hooks and leaving the area is not permitted, Qurollo says. Despite the popularity of alligator-hunting television show “Swamp People,” Qurollo says it's rare to run across other alligator hunters.
How he finances his passion: Qurollo enjoys taking friends alligator hunting and he hunts about a dozen times per season. Besides the camaraderie, it also helps pay for the sport. Friends buy their own permits and pay for gas. “I've got all these people who want to go,” says Qurollo, who manages a waiting list of hunting buddies. You can fill a freezer with alligator meat from one tail, which is best fried or slow-cooked in dishes such as jambalaya. In good years, a processor might pay you $300 for a large alligator. But because of the economic downturn, butchers who process the animals today keep the meat and give you the hide and head in a non-cash trade.
How to find a reputable guide: Hiring a guide is a good way to get an introduction to the sport. “You'll want to look for one who will let you harpoon,” says Qurollo. State wildlife agents hold information sessions before the season starts and many guides show up to tout their services. Qurollo says one reputable guide he knows is Capt. Phil Walters of Tampa (www.gatorguides.com).