The Renegade is the only way to fly
Cole Poplin and William Ard, both of Cross, SC are known as Renegade Bowfishing, a well-oiled machine at bowfishing tournaments, filling alligator tags and airboats in general. Accomplished bowfishing champions, this duo has the trophies to prove it.
Their list of achievements include the 2021 SC State Big 21 Champions, 2022 SC State Big 22 Champions, 2022 Palmetto Bowfishing Association Champions and an 8th place finish in the 2022 World Championship.
But on the evening of Oct. 7, 2022, their goal was fulfilling a hunter’s bucket list and enjoying the high fives that followed.
At about 7 p.m., hunters Stephen Carroll and Lee Bass watched with eager anticipation as the Renegade backed down the ramp. The 4500-pound aluminum airboat can glide across the surface of Santee Cooper with ease, occasionally bumping an old stump and sliding up and over it with a simple touch of throttle.
“The Renegade is the only way to fly,” said Poplin as the vessel jumped over another stump on the way to the hunting grounds, an area between Russellville and Bonneau that is covered in vegetation and in alligators.
“We like to go back in the areas that other boats don’t have good access to. We can easily get around with the airboat and cover lots of ground,” said Ard.
And covering lots of ground is the name of the game when hunting alligators at Santee. That’s because they are plentiful here, and hunters need to measure up lots of the reptiles before picking out the right one to target.
“I am looking for a 7- to 9-foot gator that will provide great table fare as well as provide some really nice leather,” said Carroll.
The red glare
Larger gators are excellent trophies for some hunters. But Carroll’s goal was a specific size. The Renegade Bowfishing team understood the assignment.
Everyone was involved in the hunt by constantly scanning the horizon, aided by the Peak Beam Systems Maxa Beam Searchlight to help locate gators in the distance. It’s the perfect tool for scanning the vegetation, allowing them to get a better visual on gators at a distance. And this saves a good bit of gas — and more importantly, travel time.
“If you see a red glare in his eyes, you can bet he will be a good one,” said Poplin.
Years of experience hunting gators in this environment has helped train the eyes of the team to bypass smaller gators with a quick glance. Seeing the eyes too close together is a telltale sign that it will be a small creature.
Early on that evening, Poplin ran across an eye in the distance that had the glare of a big one. So they headed toward the target, and within minutes had a skinny 7 to 8 footer under the lights within range of the hunters. He offered the shot, but quickly told the hunters that it was early, and that this was not the gator they were looking for.
Trusting the guide’s experience, they passed on the gator and continued the hunt. Throughout the next hour of closing the distance on 10 or more small alligators, they questioned having passed on the previous one, and mentioned the risk of ending the season empty-handed. But Poplin assured the crew that he wouldn’t give up trying until they got the one they came for.
“It’s still early and the weather is perfect. I think it will happen for us,” he said.
The airboat slid over the aquatic vegetation like butter on a hot frying pan as the crew headed toward Bonneau, moving into the shallows to try out a new spot.
The first shine of the spotlight landed on the red glare of a nice gator in open water. As they closed the distance, the gator submerged. It was sandy bottom and clear for a hundred yards in all directions. The gator had given them the slip, sneaking away without stirring up the bottom.
The night was fading fast and the hunters were beginning to smell the slight essence of a skunk when Poplin pointed at the crossbow and said “Get ready. That’s the one over there near those cypress trees.”
He pointed the Renegade toward the glaring eye and prepared the deck for action, strategically moving Carroll to the left side of the bow in order to maneuver the boat into position for the shot.
“There he is. It’s the one we’re looking for. Take him whenever you’re ready,” Poplin said.
Carroll pulled the trigger, sending the crossbow’s arrow through 4 feet of crystal clear Santee Cooper swamp water. It hit its mark, and the tornado began. Head, tail, feet, belly, head, tail, belly again as the gator rolled and churned up the water, instantly turning the entire area into swamp coffee.
The gator went under the boat and came out on the other side. Poplin called for Carroll to put a second line in the beast. A harpoon with a spear point on the business end met its target and the second battle began.
The gator twisted, turned and rolled himself into a massive ball of rope and vegetation, which allowed Poplin to bring the critter alongside the boat for the dispatch. A well-placed .40 round finished the job, and the high fives began.
The trip back to the ramp was all cheers and an occasional bump from a stump. But nothing was going to wipe the smile off the faces of this crew. Team Renegade Bowfishing had successfully closed the clasp on another alligator tag and helped check off a bucket list item for some very happy customers.
They hauled the gator to 301 Deer Processing and Taxidermy in Florence where Steve “The Legend” Drummond will process the meat and complete a European mount of the skull, a trophy that will grace Carroll’s coffee table for years to come.
The hide of the gator will also be used for various crafts, including an alligator skin belt that Carroll will likely show off before the 2023 turkey hunting season.