What’s the deal with alligator meat in Florida? Ask Gary.

CITRUS COUNTY — The word among Tampa Bay’s swamp hunters is if you want to understand alligator meat, you have to talk to Gary Mills.

Gary is a 72-year-old, semiretired gator trapper who roamed Citrus County for over three decades.

He knows that alligator meat is high in protein, low in cholesterol. That alligator blood will eat the paint off a car, and Florida meat must be harvested under the highest industry standards. While the young “Crocodile Dundee complex” hunters are getting eaten alive by mosquitoes during late-night hunts, Gary traps in broad daylight, sensing alligators deep underwater just by following a trail of bubbles.

And Gary knows that once you are a gator guy, it’s hard to leave the world behind.

More than just gator nuggets

For most Floridians, alligator meat is a frivolous kind of food. It’s not cheap or easy to prepare.

“If you overcook it, it gets tougher than the rubber on the tires for your car,” Gary said.

Perhaps you’ve ordered gator tail at a beach bar or a basket of gator nuggets at Gatorland in Central Florida. This is how the majority of diners enjoy it, hidden behind a wall of batter and deep-fried beyond recognition.

Not Gary.

“My wife makes alligator egg rolls that are to die for,” he said. “We’ve boiled it, baked it, fried it, stewed it. It’s all good.”

The tougher cuts become hamburgers and sausage. The more succulent bits, gator parmesan with spaghetti and garlic bread. When you’re catching and eating alligators every day, Gary said, variety helps.

There is a secrecy to this world, he said. It’s the type of thing you pass down, like he did — first to his son and daughter, then to his grandkids, and now, to his 9-year-old great-grandson, Sylar, who has “already taken a 10½-footer.”

“My great-grandson is what has me still doing it,” he said.

Gary realizes the niche industry is changing, and he’d rather teach than withhold. At his home, he is tutoring the next generation of gator trappers.

Dastardly deeds

On a humid August morning in a Hernando neighborhood, Gary stood underneath a gazebo with a homemade sign reading “Gator Shack,” looking a little bit like a backwoods Santa — rosy cheeks, white beard and suspenders. To the left sat the trailer where he lives with his wife. He raised an arm covered in sunspots and white scars toward the trailer on the right side of the property.

“This is where the dastardly deeds happen,” he said.

An outdoor walk-in freezer held whole gator bodies on ice, waiting to be butchered. Severed gator heads lined a shelf, limp skins slung over the edge of trash cans.

Two men heaved a roughly 10-foot gator carcass from the freezer, flopping it down on the hot sidewalk. Gary motioned two helpers to flip it belly up.

“That slit right here is called the vent. That’s his poop hole, his equipment hole,” Gary said. He whipped open his measuring tape and pointed. “You have to stick your finger in that hole. If you feel something in there, that’s a him.”

As one of the men hosed the swamp muck from the leathery black hide, Gary held up his right hand.

“The worst gator bite I ever had was from a dead alligator,” he said. “My hand swelled up. That’s why this part’s all purple. See how red it is? That’s where his tooth went in.”

Some casual hunters skip the cleaning part, but the Florida Department of Agriculture demands the step from anyone who sells gator meat. Since Gary knows firsthand how alligators “are loaded with bad bacteria,” the carcasses are scrubbed with a mixture of bleach and Dawn soap.

“Wait till you see the crap that comes off him,” Gary said.

At this point, it was time for the horror show to start. The men dragged the gator by its front arms into the trailer and hoisted it onto a table with a grunt.

Inside, there was a blast of cold, fishy air. Blood dripped from the table, flies buzzing at the trash cans outside. Gary was sharpening his knife with a menacing click-click-click.

His daughter, Wanda, stood on the other side of the room, slicing chunks of fat from a gator they chopped up the day before. Her daughter, Cheyenne, fed pieces through a cubing machine over and over. So future diners “don’t need to fight their meal a second time,” Gary explained.

Gary had already started showing Nicki Medlin, a waitress-turned-future trapper, how to stab her paring knives into the clammy body on the table. Rigor mortis had set in, tensing the flesh tightly around a harpoon tip from the hunt.

“You have got to learn the critter. I’ve got 35 to 40 years under my belt,” Gary said as he demonstrated.

He added: “I know trappers that are better than me.”

“Who?” scoffed Citrus County trapper Joe Maile, one of the men helping him. “This is the legendary Gary Mills.”

A gator guru is born

If you found an alligator lumbering through a Citrus County backyard or swimming pool or golf course from the late 1970s to the early 2010s, Gary and his boss were likely the ones sent to get it. Some years he made close to six figures with these retrieval missions, selling the hides to become Italian leather, turning gator heads into taxidermy mounts and offering the meat to local restaurants.

“I can tell you what time of the day or night you were gonna find it,” he said. “That was my job that made the cash register go ca-ching, and if I didn’t catch that alligator, I didn’t make no money.”

Gary grew up eating fried gator with hush puppies and grits, and his grandfather taught him how to catch the creatures. By the time he was nearing 30, Gary found work as a commercial fisherman. Until the day he went to reel in a softshell turtle and pulled out a 10-foot alligator.

“I called the game commission and I said … ’Y’all won’t let me kill him, so if you don’t get somebody down here to kill him, I’ll do it myself.’”

Gary soon began working for the trapper sent to meet him that day — first skinning alligators and then helping him trap. They eventually became partners.

“I was just a dumb redneck,” he said. “I was doing this mainly because I was lazy and didn’t want to work an 8-to-5 job every day.”

Trapping gators meant being on call all day, 365 days a year. Any alligator over 4 feet needed to be euthanized.

Gary sees the state’s nuisance alligator program as a public service — something that protects people from life-threatening attacks.

“To me, every alligator in the state of Florida is not worth the life of one child, like the boy that got killed at Disney,” he said, referring to the gator that attacked a 2-year-old at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa in 2016. “I loved taking a gator out when I knew it was a true nuisance.”

Then, about a decade ago, an alligator ripped Gary’s right hand in half. Two weeks later, he had a heart attack trapping another gator. Gary managed to defeat both of his marks with some help, but he decided it was time to retire from nuisance trapping.

But he couldn’t leave the gator world behind completely.

The alligator hustle

There is breast meat, rib meat, tail meat to carve. Kevin Corcoran, who was assigned to help with butchering, pointed out the cheek muscle — a dark blob as big as a dinner plate — and another prime cut on the inner tail, the jelly roll.

“I guess that’d be the filet mignon of the alligator. It all tastes the same to me,” he said. He tossed a piece into an ice water bath the color of Hawaiian Punch.

Gary limped over to assess the spattered table.

“Whoever did that missed some,” he said. At $10-$15 a pound, you don’t want to waste an ounce.

Gary held up a hand before anyone could slice off the meat near the gut. He carved off a sliver and sniffed. It smelled sour.

Gator meat, which is classified as seafood, doesn’t have a true flavor outside of how it’s prepared. It shouldn’t have a scent, either. But you have to be careful near the belly with a creature that feasts on rotten animals.

“I don’t want anybody to eat anything that I wouldn’t put in my mouth,” he said.

In the peak of his career, Gary could sell gator hide for $40 to $50 a foot. It became handbags, suitcases and shoes. His wife fashioned teeth and claws and the bumps along gator backs (bones called “scoots”) into souvenir necklaces. During the annual Florida alligator harvest, when sport hunters can each kill two gators from mid-August through October, Gary would take groups out as a guide. Business boomed statewide after the show “Swamp People” debuted in 2010. Everyone wanted to feel like a reality TV killer.

Gary made little from the nuisance trapping part of his job — maybe $30 per gator, which sometimes wasn’t even enough to cover the gas. Combined with his side hustles, his best years brought in between $60,000 and $90,000.

That was before farm-raised alligators and crocodiles started to become a more popular choice for leather makers, and the prices for wild-caught reptiles plummeted. The year he stopped trapping full time, he barely made $7,000.

Gary still gets calls from people who want to buy from him, though his licenses to sell meat lapsed years ago. These days, he peddles the service of processing other people’s kills. That means gators legally caught during the harvest hunt season, then wild game, like deer and hogs. He still does taxidermy to help pay the bills.

“I can give away trade secrets till the cow comes home and I make it sound easy,” he said. “And it’s not.”

Back to work

For years, Gary kept a roll of electrical tape in his front shirt pocket. He pulled one out during a break, as he sat under his Gator Shack gazebo chewing tobacco and sharing stories.

When Gary first started trapping professionally, Florida didn’t want the public to see any gore. He was instructed to capture but not kill his gators — at least not until he had removed them from the premises.

So he’d tackle the animals, straddle them and wrap their snouts six times with electrical tape — the only waterproof adhesive he could find. He tied their feet back like they were getting arrested.

“If they can see you, they’ll butt you with their head,” he said.

“Or tail,” added his wife, Carol, sitting next to him beside a rack of her gator necklaces.

“The FWC didn’t want anybody getting hurt. ‘Kill them on the spot,’ they said, so it was up to our discretion how we wanted to handle ‘em,” he said. He nodded at Carol. “Oh my lord, we took hundreds and hundreds of them alive.”

He thumbed through a photo book of his victims from over the years. The Gary in the pictures changed as he flipped, but all the kills looked about the same. There’s the gator who swallowed Gary’s iPhone whole. The one who bit an old man at Rainbow River and took three days to find. The ones who gave him his biggest battle scars.

“I can look at a picture and tell you where the gator was and how big he was and where we got it,” he said. “You just don’t forget it.”

By then, it was nearly lunchtime — he needed to get back to work.

Gary’s phone started to ring. Another person with a gator question.

“I’m trying to get out of it and retire,” he told the caller. Then he laughed and kept talking.