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Tampa’s Pratico: ‘You never go alligator hunting alone’

Senior Editor News in Photos
Tampa’s Pratico: ‘You never go alligator hunting alone’

Tampa attorney Steve Pratico lives for the thrill of matching wits and strategy with a skilled courtroom opponent.

“I grew up an athlete,” says the 46-year-old Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney shareholder. “I enjoyed the competitive nature of athletics, and similarly, I enjoy the competitive nature of litigating, I always have.”

When he’s not in court, Pratico keeps the adrenaline pumping by hunting 13-foot, 600-pound reptiles that can bite an oar in half.

“When you’re hunting a deer or an elk, there’s a few minutes when you’re interacting with that animal, and then it’s over. When you hook a big alligator, it’s a two-hour fight with a prehistoric beast.”

Katie Pratico

Katie Pratico

Pratico grew up hunting and fishing with his father in Northeast Pennsylvania in a small town called Archbold, near Scranton. But Pratico knows hunting is not for everyone, and some people feel strongly about hunting animals for sport.

Pratico sees his hobby as a public service. Hunters help maintain game populations at a level that biologists determine are optimal to avoid harmful interactions with humans, Pratico said.

“I understand people have views,” he said. “But I also understand those same folks don’t want a dramatic increase in the number of alligators that are present in residential areas, and the number of alligators that are around children and pets.”

Pratico stresses that every alligator he takes is processed for its meat and hide, and none of the resource is wasted.

“I don’t deny that I enjoy it, it’s an enjoyable hobby, it’s an enjoyable experience,” he said. “As an alligator hunter, I sleep well at night.”

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, nobody knows exactly how many alligators exist in Florida, but the agency estimates there is a healthy population of about 1.3 million. Alligators thrive in all of Florida’s 67 counties.

Alligators are federally managed as “similarity of appearance to a threatened taxon” — only because they resemble the American crocodile. As such, the federal government allows state-approved management and control programs. From 1948 to 2019, there have been 413 “unprovoked bite incidents” in Florida, and 25 of them have been fatal, according to the FWC.

The first lawyer in his family, Pratico began his alligator hunting journey after earning his J.D. from the University of Notre Dame and moving to Florida in 2001.

“I guess it was around 2005, or 2006, I was having a conversation with a friend in Florida who is an outdoorsman, and he said, ‘You know, we hunt alligators here in Florida.’”

After his first alligator hunt with the friend — “you never go alligator hunting alone” — Pratico was hooked.

He has applied to participate in the annual Statewide Alligator Hunt ever since. Luck plays a big role in the limited entry management program that can draw 15,000 applicants for 7,000 permits.

Steve Pratico

Steve Pratico

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, each successful applicant receives an alligator trapping license, an area-specific harvest permit, and two CITES tags authorizing the holder to harvest two alligators. (CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.)

Harvest areas and hunt dates are specific for each permit and the permit specifies the boundaries or limitations of the harvest area. The statewide alligator hunting season begins August 15 and ends on the morning of November 1.

Pratico said he wins the lottery about half the time he enters, but that doesn’t prevent him from enjoying the hunt with another tag holder, usually a family member or hunting buddy.

“My brother-in-law, he puts in for tags, and I’ve got one or two other buddies, and they put in for tags,” he said. “Most years, one of us gets tags, so we get to go out there.”

Non-tag holders can legally assist in the hunt as long as the tag holder is always present, Pratico said.

Pratico estimates that he has harvested “probably 15 alligators” over the years. The number could have been much higher, he says.

“A lot of times we go out and don’t get an alligator,” he says. “We could have gotten any number of smaller alligators, but we’re really looking for bigger alligators, 11 feet or bigger.”

Pratico caught his biggest alligator, a 13-footer that weighed around 650 pounds, on Lake Kissimmee.

According to FWC, the longest alligator ever recorded in Florida measured 14-feet, 3.5 inches and was captured on Lake Washington in Brevard County. The largest alligator, measuring 13-feet, 10.5 inches, and weighing 1,043 pounds, was captured in Orange Lake in Alachua County.

Alligator hunting is done at night from a small boat, with the hunter using a searchlight to scan the surface of the water for the telltale red “eye shine” of the prey. Hunters use a variety of techniques and implements.

Pratico uses a fishing rod with 90lb to 100lb test and a treble hook — no bait is allowed. The goal is to cast directly over the top of the alligator and snag its side or underbelly so the hunter can pull the boat closer to the animal.

“With a fish, you’re just going to muscle him in, and the boat is stationary,” Pratico said. “It just doesn’t work that way with an alligator. It’s just too much animal.”

When the alligator is close enough, Pratico harpoons it to gain greater control. When the alligator is next to the boat, Pratico dispatches it with a “bang stick,” a baton with a. 45 caliber shell in one end that is triggered when rammed against the back of the alligator’s head.

Pratico says alligator hunting is not as dangerous as most people think, but he acknowledges that there are risks.

“My brother-in-law went into the water once, while we had an alligator hooked, but fortunately, we got him back in the boat without issue,” Pratico said. “I have seen someone have their hand sliced open by alligator teeth while trying to get an alligator close to the boat.”

Breakdowns are inevitable, Pratico says.

“You need to have some rudimentary knowledge of small engine repair,” he said. “More than once, we’ve poled in. It’s rare, but it’s happened.”

For Pratico, alligator hunting is a family affair. His sister, Katie, landed an 11.5-foot alligator two years ago. These days, Pratico brings his 10-year-old son, Marco.

“He loves, loves, loves to go hunting and fishing,” Pratico said. “He doesn’t go just to watch, he goes to be involved as much as possible.”

Steve and Marco

Steve Pratico and Marco Pratico

Pratico says his affinity for alligator hunting has proven valuable professionally. He represents a few businesses that process alligator products, although that’s a tiny percentage of his client base.

“Those relationships have developed independently from my alligator hunting, but they know that I understand the issues that they deal with as alligator farmers,” he said.

The firm’s out-of-state lawyers always make a detour to Pratico’s office to marvel at his gator taxidermy.

“There’s an 11-foot alligator up there, greeting you and snarling,” he laughs. “It’s become a bit of a lore.”

At home, Pratico displays a 13-footer in a corner in his living room.

“I kid you not,” he says.

Pratico says there is a definite “correlation” between his profession and his hobby.

“You never know what’s going to happen at the beginning of a big case,” he says. “And you never know what’s going to happen when you sink that treble hook into a big alligator.”

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