On the day the great Florida Python Challenge kicked off last month, a huge crowd of would-be snake slayers milled around, some of them trailed by the cameras from reality television shows.
Nobody paid much attention to the beefy man with a thick beard who was quietly wandering around observing everything. But they should have.
Most of the 1,500 hunters who signed up for the Python Challenge never saw a single snake. Meanwhile, Bobby Hill, 61 and a great-grandfather, has killed more pythons in the Everglades than anyone in the world. He didn't sign up for the Python Challenge because hunting snakes is his job.
Over the past nine years, he has killed some 300 pythons, mostly by blasting them with his 12-gauge Winchester 1400. He has collected another 400 that were run over.
"He's incredible," said Frank Mazzotti, the University of Florida biologist overseeing the science end of the Python Challenge. "You'll walk by a spot and not see anything, and he'll stop because he knows something is there."
The key to his success, according to Larry Perez, author of Snake in the Grass: An Everglades Invasion, is Hill's extensive knowledge of the Florida landscape.
Hill was born in the town he still calls "Miam-uh," and grew up hunting, trapping and fishing at a camp his father built in the 1950s in the Big Cypress Swamp. In 1973 he began working for the South Florida Water Management District, doing such work as mowing rights of way and spraying herbicide in the canals. One day in 2004, he got a maintenance call unlike any he'd ever gotten before.
"I found a snake," a supervisor told him over the radio.
"Okay," Hill said, not grasping why that was a problem.
"No," the supervisor cut in, trying to make Hill understand. "It's as big as a truck."
Hill went to the levee where the supervisor called from and found not one but two pythons. Soon he had a new job title — invasive species technician — and authorization to carry a weapon. Sometimes he finds pythons by spotting game trails in the underbrush. Sometimes he does it by knowing where they like to sun themselves on cold days or where they go when the water is high. Sometimes he just catches a whiff of their musky odor.
"Once you smell it, you don't forget it," he said.
So instead of dispatching more than 1,000 amateurs into the sawgrass, why not hire a bunch more Bobby Hills? "It's difficult for us to staff more than what we've got," said Hill's boss, Dan Thayer.
Hill says he's got one grandson who may follow in his footsteps in a few years. Until then he's the state's only professional python slayer. "You better not leave me," Thayer told him last week.