With his hand on the tiller, our guide Hunter Hall keeps the skiff’s bow close to the shoreline as my friend Bob Carnes points to several Jurassic-sized alligators along its edge. Hunter, whose family owns Florida Hunting Adventures conducts year-round bass fishing charters and alligator hunts in Okeechobee, Florida, where Bob is attempting to complete both in a single day.
Located more than an hour’s drive southeast of Orlando, Headwaters Lake public boat ramp is just a few miles west of Yeehaw Junction. At first light, Bob and I met Hunter to fish the morning before heading south to his family’s ranch for the alligator hunt that afternoon. After a short boat ride along the Lake’s main navigation channel, we veered left through an opening of hyacinths and into a small cattail-lined cove. After only a few casts, Bob set the hook into a monster-sized largemouth that was too heavy to jump completely out of the water yet managed to spit the hook after sloshing under the matted hydrilla. “Did you see the size of that fish?” He said excitedly while reeling in his line. “I told you there are some big ones in this lake,” laughed Hunter. Although we never connected with another lunker of that size, as late summer isn’t the prime season for any Florida lake, Bob and I did manage to both land at least a dozen or so thick Florida largemouth, with several nearing five pounds before the midday heat signaled the end to our charter.
After opening to the public less than two years ago, the popularity of this artificial 10,000-acre impoundment in Florida’s Indian River County has exploded. Celebrity anglers like Roland and Scott Martin have filmed dozens of giant stringers they’ve caught here, and various media outlets have reported local anglers boating ten-pound fish on every outing during spring, which has fueled the frenzy, as evident by the dozens of boat trailers parked at its ramp each day of the week. Like most of the famous big bass lakes that Florida is known for, Headwaters, or Fellsmere Reservoir as it’s officially titled, is located in the state’s southern region within the golden triangle of largemouth heaven. Sharing a border with the famed Stick Marsh, the lake sits 50 miles to the southeast of West Lake Toho and 50 miles to the northeast of Lake Okeechobee, including Lake Kenansville and the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.
The St. John’s River Water Management District and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manage the Headwater’s fishery. It was first constructed by excavating an impoundment with pre-existing deep pockets, then using heavy equipment placed underwater structures and beneficial vegetation in strategic areas before flooding it. The result became thousands of acres of prime largemouth habitat. With an average depth of around six feet, the lake follows the successful blueprint of its predecessors: Stick Marsh and Farm 13. Both are modeled with the same shallow topography, flood control infrastructure, and catch and release only regulation.
After a short drive south from Headwaters, Bob and I arrived at the ranch to prepare for the alligator hunt. The FWC issues seasonal alligator hunting tags statewide but now also offers tags to land owners like the Hall family to allow guests to hunt alligators year-round on private property. With close to 1000 acres of piney flatwoods and wet prairie bordering the vast 50,000-acre Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, the wet terrain of the Hall ranch creates the ideal habitat for finding a giant gator lurking in the marsh. Earlier this year, a monster gator that was only one foot shy of the state record, measuring over 13 feet and weighing over 900 pounds, was shot just a few miles down the road from the property near the city of Okeechobee.
After a late lunch, Bob and I strategized with Hunter on where to find the biggest gator on the property. “We have a lot of gators out here, especially near the ponds,” Hunter explained, “But I know where at least two big ones have been hanging out.” Armed with an offshore tuna rod and reel spooled with 200-pound braided line attached to a weighted treble hook and a scoped rifle, Bob and Hunter set off on foot through a field of high grass on the north end of the ranch near several ponds teeming with alligators. “Not big enough,” whispered Hunter as he and Bob crept towards the edge of the marsh to look at a lone eight-footer that was sunning.
Scanning the water from safely behind them, I spotted about a dozen more swimming around. “Let’s keep moving,” whispered Hunter. After creeping a few more yards through the high grass, he pointed to the wide head of a giant alligator that quickly descended. Hunter hurriedly cast the treble hook across the residual bubbles emanating at the water’s surface and hooked it into the big reptile before handing the reel to Bob. After half an hour of cranking and pulling on the rod, which required all three of us to take turns with, the huge gator’s enormous head eventually emerged near the water’s surface, allowing Bob a shot with the rifle that finally ended the battle.
After Hunter’s father, Ian, arrived with a tractor, the four of us loaded the massive reptile into the excavator bucket. “Ten feet six inches,” said Ian, after measuring it from head to tail. After photos and a few refreshments, we hauled the gator south to Okeechobee to be processed, and in a few weeks, Bob will have a few hundred pounds of sealed gator meat along with a ten-foot tanned skin to commemorate the experience.
Dustin spent his childhood exploring the bass-rich ponds that once blanketed the Central Florida landscape. At age 16 he headed east to hone his skills on redfish and sea trout in the famous Mosquito Lagoon. After high school He graduated with a B.S. Degree in Environmental Science began his career as a Senior Environmental Engineer while also traveling the U.S. as a freelance outdoor writer in search of fishing and hunting adventures. Over the past decade hundreds of Dustin’s works have been published in numerous well known travel, fishing, hunting and outdoor publications throughout the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.