1,600 hunters net 68 pythons in month-long hunt

Bolstered by a harrowing tale of wrestling with a 14-footer, three Fort Myers buddies have won the top general categories in the heavily publicized Python Challenge.

Dubbing their team “Is That a Snake In Your Pants?,” Paul Shannon, Jake Carner and Brian Barrows spent six days on the challenge, going to Conservation Area 3A west of Weston — a four-hour round drive from their Fort Myers homes.

On Saturday, at a news conference at Zoo Miami announcing the results of the challenge, Shannon, Carner and Barrows told about their greatest catch:

They were walking along the shore line of a tree island about 2 o’clock one afternoon. Shannon looked back to see that a foot of mud had fallen off a long python that was slithering through the slime.

Shannon drew a Judge pistol that uses .410 shotgun shells and shot, apparently grazing it. As he stopped to reload, Carner grabbed the python to pull it out of the mud. The snake’s head swung around and lunged at him. Carner fell back into the bushes.

The python coiled again, getting ready to strike. “This was seriously intense,” said Shannon. “Its girth must have been at last two feet.”

Shannon then shot it twice in the head.

The team won $1,000 for their 14-foot, 3-inch python and Barrows was awarded $1,500 for catching the most pythons — 6 — in the general category.

They were among the 1,600 registered competitors from 38 states and Canada to take part in the hunt. Organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the competition was intended to raise awareness about the dangers of outside species invading the state, and it certainly did that. More than 10 news video cameras were on hand to record the winners of this first-of-its-kind event that has drawn national attention. Even Sen. Bill Nelson took time out for some python hunting.

It wasn’t an easy task. The final count was 68 pythons caught during the month-long contest — meaning that more than 95 percent of contestants trekked through the Everglades without bagging anything.

Ruben Ramirez of Miami, a veteran hunter, won the python permit holders competition by “harvesting” — the phrase used by the organizers — 18 pythons. Ramirez was also announced as the winner in the longest python category, but a contest judge announced Sunday he had made a mistake. Blake Russ, 24, and Devin Belliston, 26, from Miami, have since been recognized as having caught the longest python, measuring 11 feet, 1 inch. Ramirez had the second-longest python.

Ramirez, 40, said he worked with a team, Florida Python Hunters, which has its own website. They hunted for 27 of the 31 days of the competition, logging more than 500 miles and spending $2,500 on fuel and food, in order to nab their 18 pythons, he said.

His team won $1,500 for the permit holders’ most catches and another $1,000 for the longest — the same amounts won by the Fort Myers group in the general categories.

Ramirez’ colleague, George Brana, said they found the best hunting was early or late on cool days, when the pythons come out to sun themselves. “We have years of experience,” Brana said. “We know where to look.”

Coming in second in the most snakes competition were Bill Booth, who caught five in the general category, and Blake Russ, who caught five in the permit holders group. Each received $750.

Second place for longest caught went to Rigoberto Figueroa, who caught a 14-foot, 2.3-incher in the general category, and Ramirez, who harvested a 10-foot, 3.6-incher in the permit category. Each received $750.

The Zoo Miami event included tents set up by more than a dozen organizations to publicize the dangers of invasive species and the values of nature in Florida.

The exhibit area, open for six hours Saturday for zoo and other visitors, discussed dangers such as the lionfish, which preys on native fish by Florida reefs.

A University of Florida exhibit had a live Argentine black and white tegu, a large lizard-like creature that, like many exotics, is purchased as a pet and then released in the wild, where it threatens wading birds and crocodile eggs.

Python Challenge T-shirts sold for $15, caps for $10 and $20.

The Fort Myers team had plenty of fun with its victories. Shannon gave a mock Oscar-style acceptance speech, attributing his success to being a “retired junior naturalist” from Sanibel Elementary.

His father teased him that he better enjoy his 15 minutes of fame, but by that time, he’d already been talking to journalists for 30 minutes.

Asked if he was going party with the winnings, Shannon, a home health aide, said, “Hey we party every night. We live in Florida. Life is a party.”