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South Florida’s 2016 Python Challenge: Snakes Alive, but Hopefully Not For Long
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer
Catching a python in the wild is no easy feat: sort of like trying to solve a large, difficult jigsaw puzzle and then having the puzzle board itself fight back –hard.
That’s what the more than 300 participants who’ve signed up for the 2016 Python Challenge Jan. 16 through Feb. 14 are about to find out for themselves.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Wildlife Foundation of Florida will repeat the South Florida event first held in 2013 when nearly 1,600 participants took out only 68 snakes. But the low harvest came as no surprise to the wildlife agency and other snake experts. That’s because Burmese pythons– despite reaching sizes of more than 18 feet and numbering in the thousands in the South Florida woods–don’t just jump out at you like an alligator might.
“The detection rate is very low,” said environmental scientist Joe Wasilewski of Homestead, who’s been tracking pythons and other reptiles in South Florida since the 1980s. “They’re going to walk past them more than not. They could be right next to you and they just blend right in.”
Wasilewski has some tips and advice for new and inexperienced python hunters hoping for a shot at winning $5,000 for top team or $3,500 for top individual in the 2016 Challenge:
o Pay careful attention during mandatory online and optional in-person training sessions being conducted by the FWC.
Wasilewski says it’s especially important to learn to distinguish exotics like Burmese, rock and reticulated pythons from indigenous snakes.
“Don’t be jumping on everything you see,” he said. “Be careful and make sure you are grabbing the right snake.”
Even experts, he said, sometimes have difficulty discerning a large rat snake (a harmless native species) from a small Burmese python. So study lots of pictures before your hunt so you can make a positive ID.
o Plan your hunt for areas bordering Everglades National Park.
The national park will be off-limits to all but a handful of state- and federally-permitted hunters. So try to hunt in the Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area located between Homestead and the Keys, or in the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area adjacent to Tamiami Trail, Wasilewski suggested. The Rotenberger and Holey Land Wildlife Management Areas straddling western Broward and Palm Beach counties also should be productive, he said.
o Best hunting will be walking canal levees on sunny mornings following cool nights.
That’s where the cold-blooded reptiles are likely to be out in the open, warming themselves, Wasilewski said. But if you don’t spot them, poke the bushes with your snake hook; look for “sheds” ( the snake’s sloughed skin); and check around rock piles and human debris such as old carpet or aluminum siding.
o If you are wrestling with a python and it bites your hand, do NOT try to pull away.
The python’s teeth curve inward, causing severe injury if you try to yank your hand out of its jaws, Wasilewki said. The solution: rubbing alcohol.
“Pour it into their mouth and they let go,” he said, citing personal experience.
The scientist doesn’t expect a huge bounty of snakes to be taken in the Challenge, but says it’s still a worthwhile endeavor because it raises awareness of a major environmental problem.
“They’re literally eating their way through the Everglades,” Wasilewski said. “They eat rats, mice, rabbits, raccoons, bobcats, birds and even full-grown gators. Definitely not a good thing to have in the Everglades.”
For more information on the 2016 Python Challenge, go to pythonchallenge.org.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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