Charles LeBuff nearly lost his left eye Thursday while hunting Burmese pythons with friends off Loop Road in Big National Cypress Preserve.
"I'll have a shiner from it, that's for sure," said LeBuff, 76, after smashing his face into a broken-off tree limb while crawling on all fours over limestone rocks and under dense tree canopy. "Man, that one nearly got me."
LeBuff and his crew (all ripened to 65 years or beyond) spent nearly the entire day looking for pythons in heavily forested areas that appeared to be ripe for a giant, slithering ambush predator. The day's tally: zilch.
It may sound as though LeBuff has lost touch with reality, that he's the crazy nut roaming the Everglades -- the salty old man we all fear. But LeBuff is a wildlife expert who worked at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel for 32 years and is one of more than 1,200 people registered for the 2013 Python Challenge, an experimental 30-day bounty hunt on the giant invasive reptiles.
The hunt started Jan. 12, and 27 pythons had been captured as of Monday. That isn't much of a dent in the overall population or the snake's ability to expand to north Florida and perhaps as far north as the Carolinas. No one really knows how many Burmese pythons are loose in Florida. Some experts estimate tens of thousands while others say hundreds of thousands, maybe a million.
Burmese pythons were first documented in south Florida in the 1980s. They've since established breeding populations throughout most counties south of Lake Okeechobee.
Government agencies have poured millions of dollars into python eradication at places such as Everglades National Park with unknown results. People catch snakes, occasionally, but even taking a dozen or a hundred of the exotics out of the wild would do virtually nothing to stunt their expansion in Florida.
The popularity of python hunting, however, has skyrocketed in recent weeks with people from more than 30 states and Canada participating.
"The first day we were out we met five other hunters in two groups on Turner Road," LeBuff said while standing outside his maroon Honda Odyssey van.
The outcome of this unprecedented project is unknown. FWC officials will review the results of the hunt and public education campaign to evaluate whether the hunt could be replicated or even applied to other invasive species, like the Argentine black and white tegu -- a South American species that wildlife experts and biologists fear will have much more impact on Florida native species than the Burmese python.
Finding a python in lush landscape is terribly difficult, even in grass only a few inches tall. Their camouflage blends into Florida lands so well that a hunter could easily step over a resting 8-footer and never know it was there.
It may seem that experience would be of high priority for hunters, but most people who registered for the hunt have never handled a wild Burmese python, and they certainly haven't pulled one out of the wilds of South Florida, destroyed its brain, cut its head off, tossed it into a bag, packed it out of the wilderness and turned it into the closest field station by 5 p.m. that day.
LeBuff and his friends say they hunt for the adventure, for conservation reasons and just to get out together and have fun, maybe tell a few tall tales.
"Well, you've got to have a sense of humor to do it," said LeBuff running mate, Richard Beatty of Golden Gate. Beatty was holding a 3-foot-long snake stick that LeBuff made for him more than a half-century ago and on which he painted, to scale, the pattern of a coral snake.
"And it hasn't been painted since," Beatty said proudly while showing off his shiny snake hook. "I've probably got lead poisoning from holding it all these years, but I don't care."
LeBuff and his crew have more than a century of catching snakes under their collective belts. They've nabbed dozens of pythons in the past and were participating in the state's eradication program well before the idea of the 2013 Python Challenge floated out of Gov. Rick Scott's office.
The men started hunting around 8:30 a.m. Thursday, driving along Loop Road and looking out the windows at the nearby forest for signs of snakes. During winter months, reptiles can often be found sunning themselves in the late morning and afternoon.
LeBuff and his team were armed with snake hooks, a machete, an old paint roller stick (it's long and has a hook, kind of), a .22 caliber rifle and a small pistol.
Most of the hunting took place in Monroe County, near a Seminole reservation about half-way between Naples and Miami.
Only LeBuff donned the Python Challenge T-shirt (which can be purchased in a long sleeve version from FWC for $20). The rest wore jeans, old shirts, baseball caps and suspenders.
Walking the tram road to the hunting grounds, LeBuff and friends stooped for long stretches, dodged branches, crawled on the forest floor and stumbled, nearly tumbled, for most of the two-plus-hour hike.
No pythons Thursday. They did, however, wrestle a 31/2-foot Eastern diamondback rattlesnake along Loop Road. They later saw a cotton mouth that had been run over by a car but no South American critters.
"Well, we didn't get any pythons today, but that Eastern diamondback was enough for me," LeBuff said after the hunt. "And those are actually a lot more rare than pythons here. Who knows? They may be on the extinction list one day."
The hunt ends at 11:59 p.m. Feb. 9. An awards ceremony will be held on Feb. 16 at Zoo Miami.
Chad Gillis, News Press