Pythons become an obsession: A night out with the hunters who caught that record-breaking 19-foot snake

Pythons become an obsession: A night out with the hunters who caught that record-breaking 19-foot snake

Editor’s note: Bill Kearney of the South Florida Sun Sentinel recently headed out to the Everglades, where the state’s annual Python Challenge is underway. 

I pull up at dusk to a half-dozen kids loitering at a remote, darkened gas station. These kids aren’t looking for trouble, though. They’re looking for pythons.

Specifically I’m here to meet record-holders Jake Waleri and Steve Gauta, two college-aged cousins who gained fame last month when Waleri yanked a 19-foot Burmese python from the swamp — the longest ever captured in Florida.

On a Monday night, the duo hits the swamps in an attempt to win Florida’s 10th annual Python Challenge. The 10-day contest, which is coming to a close Sunday, doles out $10,000 to whoever catches the most pythons.

A few of their friends will be helping out. “The more eyeballs the better,” says Gauta as he hands me a spotlight.

We all hop into the back of two pickup trucks and head out on the dark roads that cut through Big Cypress Preserve, 30 miles east of Naples. The swamps here connect to Everglades National Park and flow into the mangrove labyrinth of the 10,000 Islands. Gauta and I drive north on Highway 29 and he gives me python-spotting lessons.

The technique is simple: Drive slowly along swamp roads at night and use spotlights to pick out glistening python skin among the roadside underbrush. What’s not so simple is actually spotting one. There are nights the guys catch three snakes, there are nights they find none. “Sometimes the skin has a bluish tint,” says Gauta from the driver’s seat.

Burmese pythons are a beautiful but deadly invasive species that is decimating native Florida wildlife. They were brought here from Southeast Asia via the exotic pet trade in the 1970s, and first showed up in the Everglades in the 1980s. Since then they’ve thrived, killing off upward of 90% of the mammal population in some areas, and expanding their range north.

The snakes are so hard to find, live in such hard-to-reach areas and so successful that scientists are loath to estimate how many now exist in Florida.

What is clear, however, is that the snakes are relentlessly expanding their range north. The “invasion front” where scientists believe they are reproducing freely, now reaches the shores of Lake Okeechobee, and the suburbs of Fort Myers.

Steve Gauta, in the driver’s seat, and Jake Waleri, in the truck’s bed, slowly cruise backroads in their pickup truck and spotlights to search for pythons in Big Cypress National Preserve on Monday. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel) 

Encounters in the darkness

Atop the truck bed, the still night air becomes a beautiful breeze. To the east, the tall black night of the Everglades. To the west, cypress trees against last light. A lilac-bellied storm band moves off, leaving the forest wet. “They loooove that humidity,” Gauta says. “It’s 82 degrees. Perfect.” The night is full of promise.

Even so, we meet into a shirtless hunter in floral shorts and cowboy boots with an ominous warning. “We’ve been out for three nights and we haven’t seen s***,” he says.

We drive on.

Gauta, 21, and Waleri, 22, both of Naples, have been doing this for three years now, and it’s grown into an obsession. They spend their winters up north in college, and devote their summers to the snakes.

At first they caught nothing. “We were going down roads at the wrong time of day, the wrong temperatures, all that. Jake crashed his car doing it. We put all sorts of money, blood, sweat and tears into it with no success.”

Turning point came during the 2021 python challenge when a knowledgeable hunter named Edward Bays needed a truck. Gauta volunteered his, went out with him and caught his first python.

Now, when they’re home from college for the summer, they take clients out at night. Business has skyrocketed since they caught the 19-footer last month. They typically head out at sunset and return to Naples at 4 a.m. Gauta also bartends during the day. “That’s where energy drinks come in,” says Gauta, waving the can he’s currently sipping.

Even huge snakes can be invisible. Gauta was hunting with a professional contractor last year when the contractor’s foot wobbled off something that felt rounded and muscular. “Reach into the muck!” he yelled. They got hold of a 17.5-foot serpent that was so entwined in the underbrush it took five men to pry it loose. Gauta found the head and got credit for the catch.

“The adrenaline is like nothing else. Imagine going down 50 roller coasters at the same time, and that’s the butterflies you feel in your stomach,” he says. “It’s definitely a mix of emotions — being scared, excited, nervous, everything at the same time. But when you get one, it’s the greatest feeling of accomplishment.”

We turn onto a dirt road west into Big Cypress and happen upon an SUV and two fit guys in camo gear. Gauta welcomes them as if he’s hosting a dinner party. No snakes yet for any of us. Turns out the guys are military veterans who drove down from North Carolina. This is their first time python hunting.

“I’ve always wanted to come to the Glades,” says Josh Bryant, standing in dirt road next to the truck. “I didn’t know these snakes were decimating the ecosystem here — that’s really what attracted me to this. We had some time to take a little vacation and help out.”

Gauta offers advice on spotting the sheen and wishes them luck. We give them about a mile of berth before we start looking again.

Steve Gauta picks up a cottonmouth snake during his search for pythons in Big Cypress National Preserve on Monday. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel) 

Another half-hour into the swamp and we happen upon a car so beat up it looks like it might be abandoned. Friendly voices ring out from the dark.

“Got any tonight?” they ask.

“Nothing yet.”

“We had a baby but it bit me and he got away. What’s the biggest you’ve caught?”

“Me and my cousin got that 19-footer. The world record,” says Gauta.

“Whaaaaaat. No way. Damn, bro. That’s sick.”

“Where you from?”

“Maryland. We just got in the car and said ***k it, let’s take a road trip for some pythons!”

“Love it. Good luck,” says Gauta.

Last year, almost 1,000 hunters entered the Python Challenge, snagging a total of 231 snakes. This year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which runs the contest, says there’s close to 1,000 hunters.

The FWC says that all told, between the Challenge, and efforts by professional hunters, some 17,000 snakes have been removed from Florida since 2000.

We drive on. A chorus of spring peepers crescendos in a roadside pond.

“Usually everyone out here is pretty darn friendly,” Gauta says. “There are a couple bad apples, but it’s like that with anything. We have a ton of friends we’ve just met out here stopping on the side of the road.”

He peers ahead. “What’s that?” A weird shape emerges in the road ahead. As we idle closer we see a barred owl hunched over a kill — maybe a frog, maybe a rat. We stop, and it carries the meal off to a nearby cypress tree.

We turn to rendezvous with Waleri, who’s in the second truck with friends, and Gauta spots a snake in the road.

We hustle out, but it’s only a water moccasin. Gauta uses a snake stick to pick it up and gently place it in the undergrowth, safe from cars.

Steve Gauta uses a snake stick to handle a cottonmouth snake during his search for pythons in Big Cypress National Preserve on Monday. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel) 

“Snakes used to be my biggest fear. That’s kinda why I did this. Now I like ’em. That fear turned into fascination. But they’re not something I would want to keep as a pet.”

Phase two: on the hunt with Jake and friends

We swap trucks. Jake Waleri’s friend Isabella Dorobanti takes the wheel and Jake and I ride in back with Kylie Cook, each of us scanning the roadside with our lights.

Waleri’s frustrated by the lack of snakes. Some hunters think the volume of traffic during the Python Challenge scares the pythons off.

“Two years ago we were just the kids who didn’t know what we were doing. It felt really good last year when I got that 17-foot, 10-inch python with Steve. It felt like we were up with the big boys. We proved ourselves,” he says.

Jake Waleri searches for pythons for the Python Challenge in Big Cypress National Preserve on Monday. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel) 

The real proof came on July 10 when Waleri spotted what he thought was a 10-foot snake on the road. It turned out to be much bigger, 19 feet, the longest snake ever recorded in Florida, and maybe even larger than anything in Southeast Asia.

In a video of Waleri’s catch, the snake, clearly massive, is fleeing off the road. Waleri drags it by the midsection back onto the pavement. As he does, the snake turns on him, mouth agape, and strikes.

Waleri dodges, snapping his hands back just out of reach.

The snake is now free, but its aggression has left it fully extended, unable to strike. In that split second of vulnerability, Waleri plunges his hands down around the snake’s neck, grips hard and struggles to keep the snake from biting him.

They roll together in the spotlight beams. Waleri’s friends scream, “Oh my god!” “Let’s goooooo!!” Then step in, pulling the thick coils of the 19-foot snake away from Waleri’s neck and shoulders.

“Most big snakes are chill,” he says. “That snake went ballistic.”

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Ian Bartoszek, a biologist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, did a necropsy on the big snake, and says it’s possible the animal was more than 15 years old. If true, she would have survived the 2010 cold snap, which killed a chunk of the python population. Those that survive are the ones passing on their genetics.

Bartoszek and his team are professional python trackers.

They have a roster of 40 radio-tagged males that lead them to big females during breeding season. Over the past decade they’ve pulled 1,000 snakes totaling 31,000 pounds out of the western Everglades alone.

This year they caught close to 100 pythons, a dozen of which weighed more than 130 pounds. One of the most disturbing observations is that the bulk of the 100-plus-pound pythons have white-tailed deer remains inside. Deer are a main prey species for the endangered Florida panther. “That snake did not get that big by eating rabbits,” says Bartoszek.

Could there be bigger ones out there? “I’m sure we’ll find an animal that tops 20 feet,” he says.

Bartoszek worries that what hunters see along the roads is a miniscule percentage of the total python population. A male python has a range of a few square miles, meaning they don’t just live near roads, they’re everywhere back within the swamp. In a square acre off the road, there could be 10 snakes or more.

Ian Bartoszek, right, and Ian Easterling of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida carry a 14-foot, 95-pound, female Burmese python out of an upland habitat in Naples. A male python fitted with a radio transmitter implant led them to the female a couple yards from an upscale housing development. Robert F. Bukaty/AP

It’s midnight at this point. I peer into the blur of passing grass and leaves, pining for that python sheen.

My heart leaps when I spot shiny objects — a beer can here, a potato chip bag there, a plastic bottle filled with fetid brown water looks very pythony. Other objects play with my imagination: snake-like sticks, a long strip of tire, serpentine palm stems.

We ask every passing truck, “Any luck? Any luck?”

Only Amy Siwew, the “Python Huntress,” has reported catching anything, a little hatchling. She was the woman who pulled the 19-footer off Waleri’s torso.

It’s 2 a.m. and we’ve come up empty. The night is coming to a close. Waleri’s friend Kylie Cook is driving now, with Isabella Dorobanit, Waleri and I in the truck’s bed scanning for snakes. My eyes see only the blur of passing grass.

“Stop! Snake!” screams Dorobanti and Cook slams on the brakes.

We all skid across the bed of the truck, then hop out. Dorobanti and Waleri sprint to a chair-sized hunk of limestone, spotlights scanning. “I saw something behind the rock,” says Dorobanti.

She and Waleri peer underneath, around all sides, into the brush nearby. Nothing. “Maybe it was a shadow,” says Waleri. “Maybe.”

We wearily climb back into the truck. I flash my spotlight up from the road and out into the wilderness.

The field holds a low mist, white swamp lilies hover above it like wayward angels, and beyond that, cypress swamp for miles. It’s always a little startling to see what a spotlight in the dark reveals, a world of things so close without you even knowing it.

How many pythons are coiled out there, just beyond the arc of the light? The answer won’t come tonight.