Sunday, January 31, 2016

Python Challenge Update Collier County

This weekend my Florida Sportsman teammates Eric and Chris were working, so I decided to work a littler closer to home. I did a little research on Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Collier County. 

On the northern end of the Ten Thousand Islands, the Reserve is one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America. Encompassing 110,000 acres, it includes pristine mangrove forest, uplands and protected waters. Wildlife, including 150 species of birds and many threatened and endangered animals, thrive in the Reserve.

Only participants can enter this area - Photo by Doug Stamm

In early 2010, the first burmese pythons were found in the Reserve. Since then, more than thirty large snakes have been captured within the Reserve and these snakes are believed to have come from the original point source near Everglades National Park.

I have never visited the Reserve so the Python Challenge was just the excuse to check it out. My friend, Photographer Doug Stamm came along hoping for some pictures. It was a cool morning and the sun was expected to shine, warming up the trails we’d be walking. Heavy rains had made the area very wet and the night before a large python was photographed just outside of the Reserve escaping the waterlogged area for the higher ground of a nearby housing area.

The running total from Rookery Bay

Soon after we entered it was clear just how wet the area was. At several points the trail disappeared into water ranging from ankle deep to over knee deep. We walked the trails and the power line road for miles in the morning sun searching path edges and looking deeper into wooded areas. There were many birds and I even glimpsed a large wild boar crossing the trail ahead of us. On our way out, empty handed, we came across other hunters just entering the Reserve. They had hunted the area several times and had not seen pythons. In fact, only one snake had been taken from the Reserve during the hunt so far.

Very wet trails - photo by Doug Stamm

Checking the underbrush - photo by Doug Stamm

Back at the entrance, we checked out of the Reserve with FWC and met another hunter. His name was Ken Flute and he hails from Ontario Canada. Ken is the hunter who caught the only python in the Reserve, an 8.5 footer, and was headed back in to look for number 2. While talking to Ken his motivation for participating in the Challenge was apparent. He obviously loves the outdoors and his youthful exuberance speaks of a childhood spent in the wilds of Ontario chasing snakes and learning about nature.

Python close-up

Ken's capture

 Team Florida Sportsman still has yet to catch a python, but everyday I go out I learn a little more about the invasive burmese python and a little more about the real intent of the challenge. Maybe its really about visiting places you have never been, spending time with friends and family in the great outdoors and meeting new and interesting people who share a love of the outdoors. Next week the team has a plan that will give us our best chance yet at a python, but I’m just looking forward to another weekend in the Everglades. Maybe that is the real intent.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Everglades Update

The first full week of the Python Challenge is over and Team Florida Sportsman has yet to bag a python. Its not for lack of trying, however. This past weekend Chris Patricella, Ethan Patricella, Eric Bramblet and I logged many trail walking miles and many more miles driving on asphalt, dirt and sometimes no roads.
You can walk miles and see nothing
Several pythons have been caught by competitors all over the Everglades. We were encouraged by reports of catches in Big Cypress so Chris, Ethan and I began the weekend working our way across the State early, stopping by a few remote rock piles and canal banks on the Collier side. Soon we were in Big Cypress and Eric met us from the East Coast side after taking the long way around. We spent the mid to late morning walking levees and trails and finding many snakes trying to warm themselves in the sun along the edges, including several everglades racers. 

Everyone talking about snakes

On the way back to the vehicles we ran into a team from St Pete. Joe Rufin, Ron White and Matt Shapiro were carrying out their second python of the Challenge. They caught the 10+ footer on the side of a levee where it was stretched out along the bank warming up. Joe told me the three have no previous experience catching pythons but have bagged two in the two times they have been out. He credits their success to “putting in the miles”, referring to the hours of walking back to the remote areas where the pythons were found. These guys are serious anglers as well and are competing mainly because their love of the outdoors.

After lunch we split up and covered more ground. Eric and I walked more trails until I nearly gave out. Exhausted, we made our way to camp. We drove a few asphalt roads that evening hoping to catch a few snakes trying to get the last bit of warmth in the chilly air with no luck. Cold and tired, we hit the tents to the sounds of distant owls calling.

Joe showing us how it's done

The next morning brought more cold. After a hot breakfast and copious amounts of coffee, we broke camp and headed out again. Chris and Ethan drove east to check out the levee tops while Eric and I walked more miles. We finally gave up for the weekend and headed back. During the drive I reflected on why we were doing this. I recalled the previous evening laying in the tent and listening to the owls and looking across our camp bathed in the light of a full moon. I thought about what Joe told me about the love of the outdoors and smiled. That sounds like a good enough reason for me.

Two teams making plans