The HUNT For ADVENTURE

The HUNT For ADVENTURE

PHOTOS AND STORY BY MARIA IANNUCCI

I’ll admit it; when I first moved to Polk County, activities like air boating and alligator hunting sounded like they could only be done in the swamps of Louisiana, was an activity only men do, and couldn’t possibly be of benefit to the wildlife. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and Kevin Chandley has proven that to me.

When my alligator hunting license and a pair of tags came in the mail earlier this summer, I started feeling anxious; as a first timer, I didn’t yet know just HOW to hunt for alligators in Florida. I’ve certainly seen my share of Swamp People episodes; but besides being a TV series, the laws and guidelines vary from state to state. Being drawn for the third of four phases, I’d be hitting the waters of Lake Kissimmee in late August when the rains are unpredictable and the humidity is still high.

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As a hunter in Florida for over 20 years, I participate primarily for the conservation of many native species and the enjoyment of spending time outdoors. Osceola turkey, whitetail deer and alligator populations are a few of the species I’ve encountered, overseen by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who manage them, in part, through structured hunting. Due to then dwindling populations, alligator hunting was deemed illegal in the 1960s and the species declared endangered in 1967. In the decades since, the population rebounded and hunting resumed in 1988. The FWC now estimates that there are well over a million alligators in Florida.

No matter what anyone says, hunting is not easy; and alligators are especially challenging. Every elusive species in open season has the advantage of knowing their environment better than any hunter, but those who have had experience stand a better chance of being successful amid thick weed beds and muddy waters. It made complete sense that I should procure some experienced assistance for this excursion. Kevin Chandley, who runs Chandley Guide Service LLC and is part owner of Grape Hammock Fish Camp in Lake Wales, grew up on Lake Kissimmee and is a third generation owner of the camp.

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Along with my significant other, the three of us met at the dock and headed out in Kevin’s Gator Trax boat outfitted with a motor designed to run easily through the lake’s collections of lily pads, hydrilla and mud. As we watched a spectacular sunset of billowy clouds and fiery colors, the proverbial curtain was raised for the incredible show of wildlife ahead.

Outfitted with a bright headlamp, Kevin provided the only source of light on our search for alligators. The water came alive with hundreds of bright reflective eyes of gators ranging from the size of my forearm to almost the size of the boat. These reptiles are quick to react and, much more often than not, managed to elude the boat by submerging before we could get close. It takes incredible skill on the boat driver’s part to run in almost complete darkness on a gator, arrive at the correct distance and position; and a little luck on the part of the hunter to harvest one.

After almost eight hours on the water, we returned to the dock “tagged out” with both a 7-foot and a 12-foot gator, the latter being one of the largest taken on the lake this year. The big one had some damage to his top jaw, likely an old injury from fighting with another alligator. A successful hunt for me was being able to enjoy time spent on the lake with good company and learn something new while enjoying a beautiful summer evening; and I wasn’t disappointed. Harvesting two alligators was a big challenge for me, but with good guidance, I was able to help the state’s conservation efforts in managing the size and population of alligators in Lake Kissimmee.

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While Kevin is busy guiding alligator hunts during late summer and early fall evenings, his year-round passion is his family’s business, Grape Hammock Fish Camp. Purchased by his grandfather, “Eddie” Chandley, in 1949, Grape Hammock was originally a steamship landing in the 19th century for goods coming into the area. Kevin’s father, “Curtis” Chandley, would take over operations in the late 70s. Kevin and his brother, Barrett, who were born and raised on the shore of Lake Kissimmee, became the third generation of Chandleys to run Grape Hammock in 2007.

Grape Hammock Fish Camp is located on the south end of the lake, and has a boat ramp and parking area. Lake Kissimmee is known for its lunker bass, plentiful pan fish and spectacular scenery. The bait shop sells gas, ice, snacks and drinks. Fishing licenses can also be purchased. The camp consists of a mobile home park, RV park, tent camping sites, boat slips, dry storage and cabin rentals.

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If you’ve never experienced an airboat tour, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the absolute best ways to see “Real Florida.” Countless testimonials on their website sing the praises of the thrill of riding through virgin marshlands that are inhabited by alligators, deer, hogs, and many species of birds. The captains were born on the lake, so they know where to find all the wildlife.

With so much work to do and a young family, Kevin finds good balance in working in his family’s business. “I’ve grown up on the lake and it’s just natural to be doing this,” Kevin says. “I just love it.”

And when you see his sons, Gage, 8, and Grayson, 4, riding with their dad to mend a fence or retrieve an alligator, you can see why.

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