Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A deadly order to evict Burmese pythons

I'm always up for an adventure. To quote the late Frank Zappa, "Anything, anytime, anyplace, for no reason at all."

So when my editor suggested I register for the 2013 Python Challenge, I couldn't say no. The monthlong event, open to the public, targets the Burmese python, an invasive species that poses a threat to the state's native wildlife.

The hunt begins at 1 p.m. Saturday and runs through Feb. 10. The state will pay $1,000 to the hunter who bags the longest python; $1,500 to the hunter who kills the most pythons.

It costs $25 to enter and snake hunters must take a 45-minute online class before they are granted the special python permit. The instruction is fairly basic: primarily how to distinguish a Burmese python from native species, and what to do with the carcass. The instruction on how to kill the snake is thorough. Hunters are told to dispatch the python "humanely" with a firearm, machete or "captive bolt pistol," a device commonly used to euthanize cattle.

But advice on how to subdue the snake is minimal. These nonvenomous predators have sharp teeth and they typically bite their prey with viselike jaws before encircling it with their long, muscled bodies. I wondered what to do if the human hunter suddenly becomes the hunted.

The special license is valid on any of four designated state wildlife management areas — Everglades and Francis S. Taylor, Holey Land, Rotenberger and Big Cypress — all of which are located in South Florida, where these snakes have established a foothold.

I must admit that I had mixed emotions when I first heard about this program. Generally speaking, I like snakes, as they play a vital role in the ecosystem and people often kill them without thinking of the environmental consequences.

Burmese pythons, however, are not an indigenous species. Many were accidentally released into the wild decades ago. Others were let loose intentionally by owners.

There are thousands of these snakes — some more than 17 feet long — living on the state's public lands. As a result, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues special permits to licensed hunters who help remove the snakes on a year-round basis. But this ongoing removal program has not done enough to protect native wildlife from these snakes. These pythons prey on native species of mammals, birds and other reptiles, as well as other nonnative species. That's why the FWC is enticing more hunters to help turn the tide.

I had other misgivings about joining this hunt. I've always lived by the rule that an ethical hunter only kills what he can eat. Pythons are not considered particularly good table fare, at least here in Florida. Most of the snakes in question are found in the Everglades, and tests have proved that their meat contains unsafe levels of mercury. So you really can't eat them. But then again, you can't let them continue to reproduce and throw off nature's balance.

To tell you the truth, I'm also a little scared. I once saw a big snake in the Amazon and made a mental note to stay as far away as possible from those creatures. And to "capture" and "dispatch" a Burmese python, you can't help but get up close and personal.

These constrictor snakes, native to India, China and the Malay Peninsula, can grow to be 26 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds. But while the Burmese python may be one of the biggest snakes in the world, most specimens in Florida average 6 to 9 feet.

Pythons like the water, but they are also excellent climbers. Residents of South Florida often see the large snakes crossing roads, especially after the sun has gone down. While Burmese pythons have been popular as pets, they are currently listed as a "conditional species" in Florida and can no longer be bought or sold. They are also listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an Injurious Species under the Lacey Act, which means they cannot be imported into the United States or transported across state lines.

During cooler months, Burmese pythons can be found on levees that run along many of the canals. After a cold night, the snakes often lay on the land, soaking up the morning sun.

Spotting one may be easy. But catching and killing one … now that's a different story.

To learn more, go to pythonchal lenge.org.


Captainís Corner: Tips on targeting American Red Snapper

American Red Snapper (ARS) season opened a few days ago and some types of bottom are holding bigger schools of ARS then other bottom types. The hard bottom areas that most fishermen prefer are holding large schools of ARS, but the fish have yet to m...
Published: 06/18/18

Captainís Corner: Trout bite at its best

The trout bite has been the best Iíve seen all year. Fish up to 26 inches have been common recently. Fish are sitting on the flatsí deeper edges, where the water is deeper and cooler, and moves a little more swiftly. Live sardines and hard plastic ba...
Published: 06/16/18
Updated: 06/17/18

Captainís Corner: Fishing this month is all about diversity

This is the month of diverse opportunity. The choice of species is unlimited, as long as you have the bait. You can target snook and tarpon in the morning, then fish for Spanish mackerel, bluefish, snapper, sharks and cobia in the afternoon. The tarp...
Published: 06/15/18

Captainís Corner: When itís tarpon time, itís also shark time

Tarpon get most of the attention when talking about exciting fly action for large fish in our area. Baitfish are more prolific, and large tarpon follow their forage and populate most of our local waters. Following them are fish that consider tarpon t...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/14/18

Captainís Corner: This is your best time for tarpon fishing

Now is the best time to target tarpon. Silver kings are cruising the beaches on their yearly migration up and down the stateís west coast. This weekís strong new moon tides and the strong full moon tides in two weeks provide some of the best action f...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/13/18

Captainís Corner: Turn attention to gag grouper and red snapper

Attention has turned to gag grouper and red snapper for many offshore fishermen. Red snapper can be best targeted in waters 105 feet and deeper, with some available in water as shallow as 60 feet. Although the snapper will be found on high profile st...
Published: 06/11/18
Updated: 06/12/18

Captainís Corner: Pompano popping up at passes, along beach

Over the past few weeks, pompano have started to appear around the passes and along the beach. These tasty members of the jack family are one of the most difficult fish to find and keep track of. Just when you think youíve figured out a reliable time...
Published: 06/10/18
Updated: 06/11/18

Captainís Corner: Many fish now in their deep summer areas

Many fish have moved into their deep summer areas. This has been the pattern the past week. Snook are in their spawning areas waiting for the tide and moon to align. Iíve been leaving them alone and opting for the more steady action trout have been p...
Published: 06/08/18
Updated: 06/10/18

Captainís Corner: Pompano in the spotlight

Pompano are arriving at the locations where they will be found for the next six months. The most underutilized species in Tampa Bay, pompano are not only among the best to have for dinner, they fight great. Targeting pompano is pretty easy. You have ...
Published: 06/05/18
Updated: 06/07/18

Captainís Corner: Donít give up on tarpon just because of wind

Onshore winds have made it difficult to do much, if any, beach tarpon fishing, let alone any other fishing outside of the pass. But tarpon are still a possibility on the west winds, especially as we get further away from last weekís full moon; you ju...
Published: 06/05/18
Updated: 06/06/18