Unfortunately, it was a yellow rat snake, not the Burmese python Jim was seeking, so, he let it writhe in his hands for a little while before letting putting it back on the rock. Then he returned to the hunt for the giant constrictors that have infested the Everglades, since hobbyists released overgrown pets into the swamps several decades ago.
The 2016 Python Challenge was featured in The Sun Bay Paper several months ago when we also gave readers some background of the event. Well, it opened Saturday, as individuals and teams headed into the wilderness to try to thin south Florida's population of Burmese pythons and win prizes of up to $1,500 for catching the largest number of reptiles or taking the longest. As an unwelcome byproduct of the exotic pet trade, these rapidly breeding snakes from southern Asia have infested the Everglades since at least the 1990s. They eat the native fauna, sometimes decimating populations of wildlife and they also compete with the naturally occurring predators in the Everglades like alligators and panthers.
One of the teams competing in this years’ Challenge is the Dream Team with Sweeney, 56, his nephew Michael Paen, 23, and his friend Michael Mele, 46, all out of Plantation, Florida. Sweeney has been fascinated with snakes and has been catching them in South Florida since he was a child. In the past he has worked as a volunteer assisting biologists studying reptiles in the Everglades National Park, Sweeney is very experienced and knows where to look for Pythons that, in his words, “know how to hide really well.” As the teams and individual snake hunters commenced the Challenge Saturday, The Dream Team headed into the eastern section of Big Cypress National Preserve. Sweeney says this is a swampy area littered with boulders so it makes perfect sun spots for the warmth-loving snakes.
"We're participating in the 2016 Python Challenge to remove any Burmese pythons that are really causing a lot of damage to the native wildlife," said Sweeney, who works as a building contractor when he’s not chasing snakes. "So we hope to find a few and get rid of them and get in the hunt for the big money."
The hunters use an array of gear to take the Pythons alive. At the very least a snake hunters kit consists of a snake bag, catching hook for snaking the big constrictors, a machete for clearing brush and some safety and an obligatory a pair of rubber boots for wading on the swampy terrain. Watching the Dream Team scramble over boulders and wade through knee-deep water, watching for a flash of the python's distinctive body pattern, it was quickly apparent that is was indeed work. As the day grew hotter, they shifted their tactics to include shady areas under brush and other native flora. When they came upon a hunting camp, they overturned random pieces of wood and poked about the clearing pulling back leaves from palmetto bushes and small trees.
They soon had company. While they were walking down an access road next to a lake, a goateed man drove up in his green homemade swamp buggy. Made from tractor wheels mounted on the frame of a 1978 Chevrolet Blazer, the driver looked every inch like he belonged in the forlorn swamps. The driver was Michael Brady and he was out fishing when he came upon Sweeney and his team. Brady was a resident of Big Cypress Swamp and said he knew a lot about pythons. He claimed to have killed eight to ten of them using either a pistol or shotgun. One he says was “easily 14 feet long.”
"I'm a hunter, and they are killing everything off," he said. "'Coons, possums, rabbits — anything that's small. They're getting deer too."
But even though Brady had seen his share of pythons, Sweeney’s team were coming up empty handed. By midafternoon, they decided to give up in the areas they had been working and headed back to their truck with their snake bags empty.
"I'm surprised we didn't see any because we were in prime habitat," Sweeney added. "I'm a little disappointed we didn't see any."
But the Dream Team was not calling it quits, just shifting locations. The reporters might be leaving but Sweeney and the other members of his team were making plans to shift their hunt to some of the other roads through Big Cypress, where they still hoped to find Pythons sunning themselves.
This year there were far fewer Python hunters that in the previous challenge. In 2013, nearly 1,600 participants registered while as of this past Friday, only 628 people had registered for the Challenge.
Despite the publicity given to the event and the hopes that is will make a difference in reducing the number of invasive constrictors, it appears that the Python Challenge will have little effect. Even in 2013, when there were far more hunters, only 68 snakes were captured. And while there are no completely accurate statistics on how many Burmese Pythons currently live in the Everglades, estimates run into the tens of thousands, and no one who is studying the matter, including the biologists from the Federal Wildlife Management side, or the state and local wildlife officials believe the haul from the last challenge took much of a toll on the python population. It is doubtful that this year will even make a dent in the population.