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Since then, business has picked up. And there have been plenty of dangerous run-ins with nature. One of them came about three years ago, on a trophy hunt for alligators with a German beer brewer. When the men found a nine-foot gator in a 100-foot-wide canal, they shot at it, grabbed it, and fastened its mouth shut with black electrical tape. As it lay motionless, Clemons checked for a wound.
It didn't exist. "Right then, boop," Clemons says, "his eyes opened up." The gator tumbled into a death roll and flipped the guide over in the water. The reptile got free, but Clemons swam after it and the brewer shot it. They tossed the animal in the back of their truck and took it home.
In November 2006, while turkey hunting, Clemons was surrounded by four menacing Florida panthers in what the Southwest Florida News-Press called the year's "most alarming of all incidents documented by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission." He threw a rock to scare them away. There are only about 100 of the big cats left in the world. "If I'd have shot 'em," Clemons says, "every law enforcement agency in the state would have been there."
Around the same time, developers bought part of McDaniel Ranch and kicked him out. He considered shutting down the business, but then found nearby land to lease south of Lake Okeechobee. Problem was, the prices had swollen from about $2 (in the late Eighties) to about $28 per acre per year. He has been able to afford it by finding well-heeled clients who are willing to pay up to $5,000 for a couple of days in the wild. Pig hunting, he explains, "is becoming a rich guys' game. Every year, it gets more complicated."
Stiff bobcats with bulging eyes, rock-hard turkeys in flight, and alligator heads glazed like doughnuts welcome visitors to the living room of the Clemonses' cozy beige mobile home a few miles outside Clewiston. Here, Fox News perpetually flickers and iced tea is consumed from big blue plastic cups.
It's just after 10 a.m. on a breezy recent December day, and Clemons grabs the huge dark-green head of a dismembered nine-foot alligator from a table. He turns to his latest client, Steve Merlin — a loud, beer-bellied doctor with a grayish ponytail/bald-spot combo — standing in the kitchen with his hands in his pockets.
Merlin has hunted hippos, zebras, and bears. He has come from South Carolina for one reason: to find, kill, and mount the largest possible alligator on his wall.
Pointing to a spot just below the gator's skull, Clemons explains how to sever the head from the spinal cord in a single shot. "You're gonna see that dot," he says, gesturing toward a silver-dollar-size indentation above the reptile's neck. "Shoot two inches behind that. You can't just blow him in the chest. When he slides in the water, there ain't a blood trail."
Half paying attention, Merlin turns to his camo-clad girlfriend, Palmyra, a svelte brunette with farmer-girl good looks, whom he has persuaded to come along and videotape the massacre. "Hey, baby, let's go kill an alligator!" he says. She nods with a tired expression. Clemons loads a brown .30-06-caliber, 20-inch rifle into his dusty green Chevy pickup truck and drives for a half-hour along a winding dirt road to a man-made lake.
About 120 yards in the distance, a 12-foot alligator is sunning itself. "There's our boy," Clemons says. "See him?" Through binoculars, the gator looks like a giant lizard with prehistoric claws and ivory triangular teeth. It's asleep on a bed of matted grass.
"That's a big son of a bitch," Merlin announces in his Southern drawl. "Shit, man."
"You didn't think we were going after a little gecko?" Clemons says. "Did ya?"
Then the gator feels the vibrations from the truck and his eyes shoot open. He slides into the lake in one fluid motion. "Damn," Merlin says. "There he goes."
They drive around for 45 more minutes, until the gator emerges again in the same spot. The men creep to the top of a small, shrub-covered hill. Merlin holds the rifle as Clemons leads the way. Palmyra dutifully stays behind with the bulky video camera. In a whisper, Clemons directs Merlin to step lightly. Gators can feel a vibration from two miles away, he warns.
The two duck behind a bush at the top of a small hill about 60 yards from the gator's sunning spot. They would have a clear shot, but the gator is facing them. The silver-dollar-size indentation on the side of its head is shielded, and without hitting that spot — and paralyzing the creature — it will be lost.
Two hours pass in silence as they wait under an enormous sky. The gator doesn't move.
In the distance, soft coos and clucks of wild turkey sound; a vague whiff of chicken manure wafts from a nearby farm. Clouds threaten, and Clemons wonders how much longer the reptile will stay put. Just then, the gator slides back in the water, and the men return empty-handed to the car. Merlin looks like a kid who dropped his candy on the ground. Behind the video camera, Palmyra has fallen asleep.