A snake hunter who holds the Florida record for the largest Burmese python ever captured got another trophy over the weekend when he snagged a 17-footer.
Jason Leon, a hunter participating in the South Florida Water Management District’s ongoing hunt, said he spotted the 132-pound female in South Miami-Dade in submerged water about 2:45 a.m., grabbed the snake and quickly shot her in the head. A smaller male python was nearby, he said, but was not captured.
“We’re going to find a 20-footer tonight,” Leon joked in a video posted Monday after bringing the snake to the district’s Homestead field office.
At 17 feet, one inch, district officials said, the snake breaks the hunt’s previous record length by two inches. Leon’s still unbroken 2013 state record stretched a slithery 18 feet, eight inches, officials said.
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The district hunt began in 2017 with a budget of $125,000 on state land in Miami-Dade County. It proved so successful that district officials extended it to Broward and Collier counties. So far, 738 snakes have been captured, with Leon among the most prolific hunters. In August, he helped bag the 500th snake in the ongoing hunt.
The invasive snakes started appearing in marshes in the 1980s and have adapted so well to the Everglades that scientists now consider them the top predator, outranking alligators. They have been blamed for driving down the population of small mammals, including marsh rabbits and raccoons, and may be affecting wading bird populations.
State and federal officials have wrestled with ways to control them, including using so-called Judas snakes to track them, snake-sniffing dogs and trained hunters from India. Hunters have removed more than 2,000 from Everglades National Park so far, but scientists believe that number represents just a fraction of the wild snakes. Hunts are not expected to dent the massive population, but are aimed at helping draw attention to the problem. The popular district hunt has attracted a parade of celebrities and politicians, including celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who featured a python dish on his cooking show.
The district pays hunters $8.10 an hour, plus a bounty for each snake, and plans to continue the hunt until its $125,000 budget runs out.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich