Hopping from island to island in the middle of the Glades, not a python was to be found. Only one reptile, an eight-foot alligator, was spotted. They found a deer skull and a tortise shell and the tracks of packs of hogs, which devour pythons and threaten the snakes as much as the snakes threaten them.
A few egrets, heron and anhingas circled around, taking flight at the approach of the python-hunting party and Bergeron’s airboat, equipped with 800-horsepower Corvette engines and emblazoned with images of him brandishing a lasso as he rides a gator.
Bergeron, navigating on instinct and memory, chatted with Nelson about Florida’s history and ecology, pointing out what he said were 10,000-year-old ancient Native American habitations, including Willie Jim’s Island, the namesake of an Indian who lived there when the 68-year-old Bergeron was a kid.
Under Bergeron and his fellow board members, the Florida Wildlife Commission began "The Python Challenge” contest that runs from Saturday until mid-February. Those who capture the most snakes can win $1,500. The hunter with the biggest snake wins $1,000.
To enter, contestants have to pay $25 and take an online training course. They’re supposed to kill the snake humanely, by cutting its head off or shooting it in the head.
By the third day, only 11 snakes had been caught in the contest. New snake-catching figures will be posted by the state Friday.
Asked if the program won’t do much, Nelson said “we have to try, because otherwise we have an Everglades that is an unnatural Everglades.”
Catching thousands of snakes in millions of acres isn’t the only challenge.
So is Congress. For the past three years, Nelson has tried to pass a bill cracking down on the sale and importation of exotic invasive reptiles such as Burmese pythons. Reptile distributors fought the legislation to a standstill.
Finally, Nelson persuaded the Obama Administration to use its executive authority to ban the importation and sale. The state, too, has piggy backed on those regulations. Nelson wants widespread python hunting to be allowed in Everglades National Park instead of just the water conservation areas where the party hunted Thursday.
One reporter asked Nelson if, in Congress, he was used to being up to his waders in vipers. Nelson chuckled.
“That’s a good description,” Nelson said. He then recounted how he tried to bring a live python into a Senate committee, but Capitol Police told him he couldn’t.
That’s not something Florida’s junior Senator, Marco Rubio, would likely do.
In some ways Rubio is Nelson’s opposite. Rubio’s a Republican, a darling of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages and is fashioning himself as a policy wonk. Nelson, a fifth generation Floridian and former astronaut, has made himself more of a populist who isn’t shy about using props to get his point across.
“I got permission to bring in the skin of a 17-footer,” he said. “And we unrolled that skin right over the witness table tat I was speaking to the committee. You should gave seen the eyes of those senators. They got as big as saucers.”
Nelson doesn’t deny it.
“People are so busy these days that you have to get their attention,” he said.
Environmentalists are thankful Nelson is willing to lug snakes and their skins in front of politicians and the press.
“Bill Nelson grabs on to big ideas and won’t let go,” said Eric Draper, an Audubon lobbyist. “He has a sense of the heroic. And what calls for a hero more than slaying monsters in a swamp? The Everglades needs champions because there are a lot of villains.”