Bergeron led U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., into the Everglades to hunt pythons Thursday afternoon. They splashed from their airboat through knee-deep water into several islands that rise in small bumps above the sawgrass, but they always emerged empty-handed.
They didn't flush out any of the mammals Bergeron thought he'd see, either. The only thing they did find: signs of feral hogs, another problematic invasive species.
"Rabbits were like rats. Growing up, you saw them everywhere," said Jim Howard, a Miami native and a python permit holder participating in the contest. "I haven't seen a rabbit in 20 years. I don't see foxes. I hardly see anything."
He has caught a python in the Everglades in each of the last two years, though. Each was more than 12 feet long and contained more than 50 eggs.
He returned to those locations Wednesday, poking under ferns and discarded wooden boards with a hook at the end of a 3-foot-long stick. All he found were the sheddings of some large snake — each transparent scale was the size of a fingertip.
After spending hours steering his boat along 14 miles of canals to levees and embankments where pythons might lurk, Howard extended the hook toward the dense, impenetrable grass that stretched all the way to the horizon, with no landmarks or vantage points.
Millions of acres in any direction in the Everglades are exactly the same. From that perspective, the hunt for well-hidden pythons seems futile.
"We're looking at inches," Howard said.
Officials say the number of pythons caught during the contest isn't as important as the data they provide.
"I'm going to be ecstatic if we see 100," said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor of wildlife ecology who is helping the commission with the contest.