EVERGLADES - Dave Markett has seen his share of dangerous reptiles: rattlers, moccasins, even the shy coral snake. But out here in the middle of the swamp, he was hard-pressed to find a python.
"I know they are out here," the veteran gator hunter said. "But they are masters of camouflage. We could probably step right next to one and never see it."
Four hours into our Burmese python hunt, we had burned more than 40 gallons of aviation fuel, covered countless miles of sawgrass and inspected nearly 100 "tree islands."
And found nothing.
"That is the crazy part," said Markett, a Tampa native who has been hunting and fishing Florida's wild lands for more than 50 years. "We haven't even seen a banded water snake.
"Where are all the critters?"
The Burmese python, a top-tier predator that can grow to 20 feet, has been blamed for wiping out more than 90 percent of the mammals in the Everglades.
The national park, which lies south of U.S. 41, was off-limits to the nearly 1,500 hunters participating in the "Python Challenge" put on by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in hopes of stopping the advance of these exotic marauders.
The hunt began Jan. 12 and ends at 11:59 p.m. Feb. 10. The state will pay $1,000 to the hunter who bags the longest python and $1,500 to the hunter who kills the most.
It costs $25 to enter, and all I had to do was take a half-hour class online and read the rules and regulations before being granted a permit.
However, less than 50 snakes were caught, despite the high number of permits issued.
So on a recent cool morning, I found myself at a boat ramp in the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area at the east end of I-75 with a few other hunters.
But as soon as we hit the water through the rest of the day, we found ourselves alone in the River of Grass.
Our plan was simple: head south toward Everglades National Park and stop at every piece of dry land in between no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
"These snakes will look for any piece of dry land to sun themselves when it is cold," Markett said. "If they are here, that is where they will be."
For some reason, I thought python hunting would be easy. My only previous experience with reptiles was with alligators. They are pretty skittish, especially during hunting season.
Markett, a hunting and fishing guide, knows his business. If anybody was going to find a Burmese python in this watery wilderness, it was this white-haired airboat aficionado.
"Years ago, I came across one sunning itself on a levee," he said. "It probably ran about 8 feet. But I think you will find (ones) bigger than that."
State wildlife officials said there are thousands of these snakes - some more than 17 feet but most between 6 and 9 feet - living in South Florida. An invasive species, some were released accidentally into the wild. Others were simply let go by irresponsible pet owners who didn't want to care for the animals once they got too big.
Native to India, China and the Malay Peninsula, pythons can grow to 26 feet and weigh more than 200 pounds, making them the undisputed heavyweight champion of the food chain. A famous picture of an alligator and python locked in a battle-to-the-death circulated several years ago.
About six hours into our hunt - still snakeless - we changed tactics and began patrolling the sunny shoreline of a roadside canal. We got surprised by several large alligators trying to absorb what little warmth they could from the afternoon sun.
Then Markett, the swamp rat, made an insightful observation: "All we're seeing is big gators. Where are all the little ones?"
Maybe these snakes are eating more than raccoons and bobcats.