When Tom Rahill, veteran snake wrangler and captain of the Swamp Apes, heads out for the 2016 Python Challenge starting Saturday, he'll be up against some maybe not so serious competition from Team Blood, Sweat and Beers, Team HISS (Hapless Idiots Seeking Snakes) and Team Are You Happy To See Me Or Is That A Python In Your Pants.
Invasive Burmese pythons, no doubt, remain a destructive force in South Florida, blamed for upsetting the Everglades ecosystem by gobbling up whole populations of small mammals.
But during the monthlong Challenge, serious hand-wringing can take a break. The hunt, which includes a lot of amateurs, provides the sort of offbeat adventure entertainment that lures national news crews and the Discovery Channel, which has contacted at least two teams to document the action.
State organizers who in 2013 fended off criticism that the Challenge did little to dent the snake population, have taken greater care to train hunters and focus efforts on educating the public.
So far, more than 500 competitors have signed up, about a third of the number who participated in the inaugural Challenge in 2013 that drew global attention but disappointed hunters with a haul of just 68 snakes.
To improve odds, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson said this time around state officials focused on training hunters. Classes by offering classes around the state and creating online videos. Participants must also successfully complete an online test that includes questions about how best to locate and capture snakes.
"One thing we learned from 2013 is that the people who were more experienced and more trained were more effective, which is kind of a no-brainer," Segelson said.
The 2016 Challenge will also include more territory in the hunt. While most pythons have been spotted in the Everglades National Park, that could be a factor of the number of researchers tracking them there.
"The park has this robust program," Rahill said. "On any given night, you have at least some if not several instutions doing python surveys and captures."
So Rahill, who is licensed to collect pythons year-round in the park, plans on taking his "5-foot-8 frame and my collection of doughnut fat I have on me," and head off road in conservation areas where snakes may be congregating around tree islands and levees.
Rahill estimates he has caught 300 snakes as part of his Swamp Apes program, which takes war vets on snake-finding missions in the park. For this Challenge, he'll lead a team of three vets and a first-responder and be tailed by the Discovery Channel shooting video.
He advises potential hunters, who can sign up throughout the monthlong Challenge which runs through Feb. 14, to pay attention to the weather and look for high ground. The snakes are now entering their basking/mating season, which means they'll be looking to warm up on dry, elevated land in the morning or soak up the day's heat on roads in the late afternoon.