For one reason or another, it seems that a surprisingly large number of Floridians thought owning a pet snake was a good idea – right up until the moment they threw it into the canal at the end of their street.
Now, the state says that there could be as many as 150,000 invasive species of python living in our sun-drenched backyard, killing and eating things that rightfully should be killed and eaten by card-carrying American snakes. The situation is so dire, in fact, that sightings of raccoons, rabbits and other animals are down as much as 99 percent in places where pythons are known to reside.
And so, in its infinite wisdom, said state has created the 2016 Python Challenge to encourage overmatched but adventurous people like yours truly to go out with guns and knives to “humanely dispatch” pythons for cash and prizes. Pythons, incidentally, can grow to more than 20 feet and have been known to nosh deer and alligators whole.
All it takes is $25 and a dream. And seeing how I failed to hit Powerball, I figured what the heck.
Once the paperwork – in the form of a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission-sanctioned online training module and a passing grade of 100 on a 15-question multiple-choice test – was handled from the comfort of my kitchen table, it was time to gear up for my quest.
A baseball bat and some brass knuckles appealed to my New York sensibilities, but I ended up choosing a machete and a 7-iron – both capable of wicked slices.
Incidentally, for those thinking The Island Store is a one-stop shop for all things machete, think again.
It turns out that tools of killing are in stock neither there nor Periwinkle Place on Sanibel, so I had to go ahead and borrow a machete from my neighbor (Mental note: Don’t fool with the neighbor) before I packed a lunch, charged the iPhone and ventured out to make our fair region safe for the opossum.
My plan was to find roads not taken and trails not followed that would yield pits of the slithering insurgents. But when I lost cell service about 500 feet past the causeway, I thought “This is madness.”
Still, seeing as how I’d packed the lunch and the 7-iron, I pressed on.
The question quickly became, though, to where? Drive too far and I’d risk a washout during high tide at Point Ybel. Not far enough and the night-side bartender at the Crow’s Nest wouldn’t take me seriously.
Ultimately, given that it’s only a functional 15 miles from the accessible tip of Captiva to the base of the lighthouse on Sanibel, I chose what rookie typists once labeled the “hunt and peck” approach.
Wherever I saw overgrown grass and a lack of curious onlookers, I unsheathed my shiny Taylor Made, assumed an interlocking grip – right pinky between the left index and middle fingers – and channeled my inner Bear Grylls while visions of three- and four-figure payouts danced in my head.
The top solo hunter stands to rake in a cool $3,500 for volume, while the longest snake gets $1,000. The prizes drop to $750 for second place in both categories. Though, at last check, that’s still plenty for a massage, facial and pedicure at The Spa followed by a cool post-sunset nightcap at the Oasis Pool Bar.
The vision grew clearer as I prowled the paths adjacent to the Sanibel Fishing Pier, and it drew me into chest-high weeds and brush, a tool of death at the ready, slowly creeping my way toward greenery that looked moderately similar to the official FWC guide. And there it was, between five- and seven-feet long and about two inches thick. A beauty. Problem was, as I pulled back the lower branches with my beautifully crafted club, it suddenly occurred to me I’d forgotten to bring a bag to put it in. It was just going to have to lie on the front seat of the Kia.
And that’s precisely where it would have gone had it not turned out to be a palm frond that had seen better days. Twenty yards away, an ibis chuckled.
I trudged with slumped shoulders back toward a clearing until, steps from surrender, I decided to at least leave the mud-probing crustacean eater with a face-saving gesture. But as I turned to flip the salute I’d learned as a malevolent northern youngster, the recoil of a nearby branch landed first and not only sent me sprawling – but left me with a deep purple eye welt that’s still tender as I write this.
I checked the guidebook for advice and found none. Well played, Florida. Well played.