Python Challenge 2013: Tampa Bay area residents join 'Great Florida Python Hunt'

4:23 PM, Jan 11, 2013   |    comments
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A Burmese python. Photo courtesy Kevin Enge/FWC
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Clearwater, FL -- Hundreds of people have signed up for the Python Challenge 2013, and dozens of them are from the Tampa Bay area.

But even professional trappers say there's little chance of finding the snakes.

You could be standing a couple of feet away from one and not even know it. And the Everglades, they warn, can be some pretty tough terrain.

At 70 years old, Tom Kelly of Clearwater is not exactly your typical snake charmer, but that's not stopping him and his 18-year-old granddaughter from heading into the Everglades this month to participate.

"I'm looking for my inner Indiana Jones," jokes Kelly, "These pythons have no natural enemies and there they go through the Everglades, eating anything that moves!"

The contest, which starts this weekend and goes through mid-February, is being run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It's another attempt to slow the python's population boom, which by some estimates is now about 150,000.

Last month, a single python measuring more than 17 feet in length was captured in an Everglades picnic area.

There's $1,500 for the person who catches the most Burmese pythons, and a $1,000 prize for the longest.

"We want everyone's eyes out there to help us get information," said Karen Parker with the FWC.

Critics say amateur snake hunters -- who need no special  license but must pass only an online course -- are more likely to see alligators and mosquitoes.

In the past, about 200 trained professionals have captured only a handful.

"So the chances of someone going down there and getting themselves a new pair of python boots this weekend is probably not very high," said Capt. Phil Walters with Gator Guides.

Walters questions whether the pythons are even a real problem. He's glad, however, to see people take an interest in Florida's wildlife.

Walters would prefer the state tackle other non-native species like Caimans, Monitor Lizards, even trees like Melelucas and Brazilian Pepper.

"They're much more pressing problems than the snakes right now," he said.

Python hunters also need to watch out for poisonous snakes like rattlers and water moccasins.

"You need a pair of Wellingtons, long pants, and some Deet to keep the mosquitoes away," said Kelly.

But frankly, Kelly admits he's not expecting to run into any snakes. It's more about sharing the experience with his granddaughter, he says. The thrill of the hunt.

"It's creating a memory. After I'm gone she can say 'Hey - I went python hunting with my grandfather!'"

If they catch a snake, hunters will have to deliver them within 24 hours to an official drop-off location.

Those locations will be posted on the FWC's website.

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