NAPLES, Fla. — Three men said how they're pumped for the annual Python Challenge invasive snake hunting event, after catching a nearly 18-foot python Wednesday night in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
According to the trio, the female Burmese python weighed 104 pounds and was just shy of 18 feet. One of the hunters said that it was an easy find, but a hard fight.
“You know when you grab their heads, they try and pull you towards the middle of their bodies so they can wrap you up," said Stephen Gauta, one of the hunters who caught the snake. "I had to fight that pull towards the middle of her body while Jake controlled the rest of her body to keep it from wrapping around.”
Gauta said it was a struggle that lasted more than five minutes.
“Pure adrenaline, honestly. I can’t even remember the first 10 seconds of it. We all jumped out of the car screaming," said Joshua Laquis, who was with the cousins when they caught the snake.
"These big snakes are called 'South Florida speed bumps' for a reason and I know why now,” driver Jake Waleri said.
Waleri said that "speed bump" ended up blocking the road as his group hunted for pythons in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
“We hear him screaming and we look over in the middle of the road and there was this snake and we didn’t know how big it was at the time,” Gauta said.
“I was screaming out of excitement. I couldn’t believe I saw something that big,” Waleri said. "We heard of a hunter who was in the area just three nights before and told us about a monster snake that he saw crossing the road. We caught it in the exact same area that he reported. We thought about this snake for the last couple of days and we were able to come across it last night. It was just a crazy experience."
The nearly 18-foot python was the 31st snake the two cousins have captured. Waleri said he estimates that the snake is between 15 or 20 years old.
"This snake has been alive for a long time. It's seen a lot of drastic weather changes like the deep freeze we had over a decade ago," Waleri said. "It's seen hurricanes, it survived humans, it's been able to survive. It's insane that one mistake jumping out in front of us, finally ends its life."
That big discovery, the hunters said, came after three years of no hunting luck. They started hunting out of their love of nature.
“We know that these pythons are an invasive species that are tearing up the Everglades,“ Gauta said.
This comes as a reminder two days before the annual Python Challenge, in which professionals and amateurs alike are encouraged to capture these invasive animals.
Last year, Florida Fish and Wildlife said 600 hunters removed a total of 223 Everglades pythons that are responsible for killing wildlife, including endangered and threatened species.
Even though the nearly 18-foot snake can't be entered in this year's contest, the hunters say they are just happy to experience something so memorable.
“Getting closer to the big leagues," Waleri laughed. "We are happy...as an amateur to catch this snake is just insane. It would have been great if we would have caught it two days from now during the hunt but there are other big ones out in the glades.”
Waleri added that he and his cousin Gauta offer a guided hunt service that is committed to preserving the South Florida ecosystem. During the summer months, they offer nighttime tours to locate, capture and remove invasive Burmese pythons.
This article was written by Briana Brownlee for WFTX.