National Geographic : 1976 Aug
SIT SNUGLY BEHIND "GATOR BILL" as we bull our way through moonlit saw grass at the edge of Florida's Big Cypress Swamp. We are riding on Bill's "froggin' machine," a well-aged airboat with two lookout seats mount ed on a frame of peeling pipes (left). In one hand Bill holds a long spear tipped with a four-prong gig. On his head he wears a miner's lamp to spotlight the black water and reflect the buttonlike eyes of any big southern bullfrog that is out feeding. He spots two close-set white specks. "Frog, I'm gonna take you home with me," he says. He revs his engine, cocks his arm, and thrusts his gig. In a moment he brandishes a fat frog overhead. Some three hundred times that night Bill jabs his gig into watery black holes. All but twice he pulls out a green, flippered morsel to be delivered next day to a roadside restaurant and served up as crisp-fried frog legs. "Frogs are pretty primitive," Bill tells me. "All they live for is to eat and reproduce and be eaten." Frogs are definitely second-class critters to Gator Bill Schoelerman, but they are just about the only way a man from Big Cypress country can make a living off the land anymore, at least since strict federal laws shut down the black market trade in alligator hides. Bill is 35 now, a lanky, handsome man with a broncobuster's build and bearing. He is a natural-born woodsman, and in today's drained and disappearing Big Cypress Swamp that makes him as endangered a species as the alli gator. Perhaps more so. For without the poach ing pressures, alligators have been making a comeback. Bill, meanwhile, mutters about tak ing off for the Amazon, where he imagines he can still find some wild country. About 1 a.m. we make a sudden halt. "See those red dots? That's a gator's eyes," he says, veering the airboat suddenly. "I still al ways want to go look at 'em." The gator, a four-footer, is unruffled by our intrusion. Bill pokes at it a bit with his gig, but the gator simply maneuvers out of the way. Its red eyes gleam confidently up at us, as if it would like to stare us down. Bill roars away. "Maybe it's my imagination," he says after a while, "but since I stopped huntin' 'em, seems like every gator I see smirks at me." A Big Cypress alligator would have good rea son to grin these days. For a large chunk of this magnificent but beleaguered south Florida Twilight Hope for Big Cypress By RICK GORE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC STAFF Photographs by PATRICIA CAULFIELD One of a rare breed, "Gator Bill" Schoelerman spears the first of his nightly catch of 300 frogs in Florida's Big Cypress Swamp. He sells the legs to a restaurant in nearby Coopertown. Strict alligator protection laws pushed the gator hunter into frog gigging, a defiant last stab at living off the land. Encroaching development and drainage threaten both the swamp and its rugged, self-reliant residents. Joint federal-state purchase of 900 square miles for a Big Cypress National Preserve, now getting under way, may rescue the south Florida wetland.