What It Feels Like to Catch a 19-Foot Foot Burmese Python…with Your Bare Hands
Jake Waleri was traveling through the Big Cypress National Preserve on the night of July 12 when he bagged the snake of a lifetime. He tells the story
THE NIGHT STARTED LIKE SO MANY OTHERS. I was cruising down U.S. 41 in my pickup truck, looking for snakes. I stood in the bed, shining a spotlight on the pavement, while my buddy Joe Sewell drove the truck. Along for the ride were a few of my classmates who were visiting my home town of Naples while we were on summer break from our classes at Ohio State. They’re all new to python hunting, and I was showing them the ropes.
We were in the heart of south Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, where invasive Burmese pythons are devastating the ecosystem by wiping out native species like whitetail deer and swamp rabbits. I’ve been hunting them hard there for the better part of two years—with pretty good results, too. Last year, I made national news after I killed an 18-footer.
Anyway, on this night I’d just aimed the light a couple hundred yards up the road when I spotted a snake’s head inching onto the pavement. At first, I figured it was maybe 10-feet long—12 tops. But it kept slithering onto the road until it was no longer concealed by the tall grass, and that’s when I realized it was the biggest python I’d ever seen—probably a record-setter.
I needed to get this snake.
I dropped the tailgate, jumped out of the truck bed, and approached carefully from behind. Usually I can walk right up on these snakes. As long as I keep the spotlight shining in their eyes, they’re not going to move. This python was different. As I moved toward the snake, it started to slither away, trying to find an escape route. The thing was moving so erratically that I couldn’t go in for the head like I usually do—unless I wanted to get bitten. Which, of course, I didn’t. Because if a python that big puts a bite on you and, God forbid, wraps you up, chances are good it’ll suffocate you.
Pretty soon, the scene was pure chaos. The whole crew was screaming over the sight of this giant snake that was also freaking out and bolting for the other side of the road, trying to dip into the canal so it could get away.
That’s when I decided to grab the tail. I gripped with both hands and held on tight as I could while it dragged me all over the road.
“Hissing Like Crazy”
It’s hard to comprehend how powerful and dangerous a python of that size really is until you’re gripping it by the tail. I was trying to manhandle it as best I could while dodging strikes from its teeth at the same time. My goal was to keep the snake out of the canal since pythons can move a lot faster in the water. A lot of the bigger snakes like to travel up and down the canals in the Everglades, using them as a kind of transport system. I knew that if it got into the canal, then the biggest python I’d ever seen would be gone for good.
As I was wrestling with the python by its tail, trying my best not to get bit, Joe was in charge of distracting it and keeping it on the road. To do that, he had to stand directly in front of the snake. I told him to pin its head down with a long net I had in the truck, but it was too strong for that trick. It dodged the net over and over again and kept darting toward the canal. By now, the snake was hissing like crazy. It’s an intimidating sound—the kind of noise you’d expect a snake like that to make, but louder and more high pitched. Joe tried to move in closer with the net, and that’s when it struck at his leg. It missed him by an inch, and he backed up screaming.
“Those Teeth Rip Right Through Your Skin”
I’ve been at this enough to know that when pythons do bite, you have to resist the urge to pull away. Like most constrictor snakes, Burmese pythons have backward-facing teeth. If you pull away after a bite, those teeth rip right through your skin—and it hurts like hell. I once had my thumb sliced wide open by a 6-footer as I was pulling away to try to avoid the strike. Now I know: If you’re about to get bit by a python, just let it happen. Easier said than done.
After about three and a half minutes wrestling the snake by its tail, I grabbed its midsection with both hands. It mustered one last strike that came dangerously close to getting my arm. But the strike left its head exposed. I shot my arms down and wrapped my hands around its neck. I was so tired from the battle that I collapsed on top of the snake. I tried to control it, but it still had a lot of strength, and it began coiling its body around my shoulder.
“The Snake Was Finally Subdued…”
It was about that time that my friend Amy Siewe drove up. She’s a well-known python hunter with a ton of experience chasing snakes through the Everglades. It was a total coincidence, but we were lucky to have her on the scene. She got out of her truck and took control of the situation.
Amy noticed right away that the python was starting to wrap me up. She ran over and yanked it off my left shoulder.
Then she used a roll of electrical tape to seal its jaws shut. With the jaws locked up, it no longer posed much of a threat, and it was running low on energy reserves at this point. The snake was finally subdued, and we were ecstatic. I thanked Amy—and we all started celebrating.
Amy offered to let us use her bolt gun to kill the snake, but we never needed it. As we were hoisting it up by the head for our last photo, its neck gave out. Pythons are durable animals, but the big ones aren’t built to withstand their own body weight. It was an accidental dispatch, but it was lucky because now I can preserve the snake’s head for a skull mount.
Later that night, after measuring the snake at 19-feet long and weighing it in at 125 pounds, I knew it would set an all-time length record, but I couldn’t find anybody at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that was willing to record it. Luckily, my contact at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida was interested after listening to my story over the phone. I took it over there the next morning, and they took down the official measurements and confirmed what I already knew: It was the longest Burmese python ever captured in the Florida Everglades.
Looking back, I can’t believe how lucky we were to spot that snake as it poked its head out onto the road that night—and I’m thankful that I got to share the experience with such a great group of friends. I doubt I’ll ever top it, but I know there are bigger snakes out there. And I’m not going to stop hunting them anytime soon.