With Florida already on track to break its previous python hunt record, now may be the perfect time to deploy your stuffed coyote as snake bait.
Forecasts call for perfect snake hunting conditions Saturday, as predawn temps dip into the uppers 40s in the Glades followed by a bright, sunny morning. Cool temperatures are also expected during the hunt's final two weeks. So if they don't stumble across a snake coiled around a coyote -- insert dubious viral photo here -- hunters participating in the state's 2016 Python Challenge should do just fine without doctoring nature.
"Cold, sunny days are ideal," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson.
As of Friday, at least 66 Burmese pythons had been bagged, just two shy of the 2013 total. At that pace, hunters could double the tally. Just 37 snakes had been caught by the halfway point three years ago, Segelson said.
Most snakes have been caught along the Tamiami Trail in marshes to the north and along the L-67 canal, said University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti.
Necropsies have so far revealed nothing unexpected: plenty of mammal hair and in one snake scutes from an alligator. One hunter turned in a massive 15-foot snake Friday, he said.
The state organized the first wildly popular hunt to combat the infestation of pythons, which have been blamed for wiping out whole populations of small mammals in the Everglades and upsetting the ecosystem. As expected, few snakes were caught. Attention was huge: participants came from around the nation as headlines circled the globe.
In the years since, South Florida's fascination with snake encounters -- whether real or imagined -- has deepened. Earlier this week, a photo showing a boa constrictor wrapped around a coyote allegedly snapped off Alligator Alley made a run on the Internet. Wildlife officials and skeptics quickly dismissed it as a taxidermied hoax.
While fewer hunters signed up for this year's challenge, which started Jan. 16, they may have been better prepared by online video training and numerous classes held around the state. Officials also expanded the hunt to 11 different state parks and wildlife management areas covering much of South Florida. A handful of authorized trappers were also allowed into Everglades National Park.
So far, the hunt has been hampered by wet weather. But that should change as the Challenge continues through Feb. 14, when temperatures are expected to drop.
"It could feel quite a bit cooler than what we've been seeing because it has been quite a bit warmer," said David Ross, a meteorologist in the Miami office of the National Weather Service. "I'm sure they'll enjoy it."