In the late Eighties, he began leading sightseeing charter tours through the Glades on swamp buggies, four-wheel vehicles with raised bodies for maneuvering marshy areas. "He knows the Everglades like the back of his hand," says his sturdy, good-natured, chain-smoking wife Rita. "And he's real ethical about hunting."
During a tour one day in 1989, his buggy broke down 20 miles from any road. There was no cell phone reception on the ground, so he climbed a tree and called for help. He and his crew were rescued by helicopter before nightfall, he says.
Soon he started Everglades Adventures, a business in which he guides hunts for alligators, hogs, and doves on private land. He leased about 24,000 acres of McDaniel Ranch, on County Road 833, just north of Big Cypress.
In July 1992, while living in Naples, he was charged with illegal disposal of solid waste — a third-degree felony — after he admitted to using heavy machinery to bury a mobile home as part of a cleanup effort. If convicted, he would have had to surrender his firearms permit and retire as a guide. After some publicity, clients stopped showing up. He earned less than $2,000 one year. "Overnight, my business was history," he says.
The case was dropped at the request of the prosecutor, who determined that wildlife officials with a personal vendetta had lied about Clemons. (Several years and many court hearings later, he won a $280,000 judgment in federal court.) "There was a concerted effort to target me," he told the Naples Daily News. "I don't think there's any question about that."
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.