PALM BEACH — The snake’s head was as big as a garden spade, lunging at hunter Mike Kimmel once, twice, before sinking its recurved teeth into his arm causing blood to spurt in rhythm with his racing heart.
Alone on a spoil island deep in the Florida Everglades Kimmel had come looking for the invasive python. He knew the mounds of high, dry ground would be fertile hunting with late May rains causing waters to rise. He estimated the coil of muscle in the crunchy underbrush at about 17 feet.
But the licensed python hunter underestimated its reach and took a risk by grabbing its tail instead of its head. Teeth, engineered to impale and hold struggling prey, sliced a vein below his elbow.
“At that point, my main concern is not blacking out,” said 32-year-old Kimmel, whose video of the June 8 encounter shows a breathless battle with a honed predator as big around as a small ship’s mast. “Bleeding out crossed my mind, but I was really worried about losing consciousness.”
While Florida’s unique Burmese python hunts have taken on a Disneyesque air with the hype of this year’s showy Python Bowl, and the likes of rocker Ozzy Osbourne and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey taking made-for-TV field trips to hunt for snakes, Kimmel’s brief but bloody battle shows how deadly serious the eradication of the invasive reptile can be.
It’s no tame ride on the Jungle Cruise.
“Anytime you catch something bigger than 14 feet, it’s not a snake anymore, it’s a monster,” said Donna Kalil, 57, a licensed python hunter for the South Florida Water Management District. “I like to say I do a dangerous thing in a very careful way.”
Kalil estimates she’s caught 300 pythons, mostly as part of the water management district’s 3-year-old program that pays hunters minimum wage up to 40 hours per week to hunt pythons, plus bonuses based on length.
A python measuring up to 4-feet-long brings in an extra $50, with an additional $25 per foot after that. An additional $200 can be earned for each python caught guarding a nest with eggs.
The longest python Kalil has caught was 15.5 feet.
She’s been bitten several times, but never had a wound that drew the kind of blood that Kimmel gushed, soaking his pants and shirt, and spilling onto the coiled snake and grass around him.
One of her scariest moments was during a nighttime hunt. She was on a levy and sighted an estimated 18-footer in water below. She crept down the bank where it turned on her in the dark.
“I shot it right in the head with a .44 magnum,” said Kalil, who was using snake shot bullets that didn’t even penetrate the skin. “I did feel like my life was in danger. Just seeing a snake that big and meeting him face-to-face was a bit spooky.”
The snake fled into overhead sawgrass and got away. Another time, she grabbed a 13-foot python by the head, but it was so strong it yanked her off the levy she was on “like a rag doll.” She fell 5 feet to the bottom, landing on her chin, but didn’t let go of the snake.
Kalil prefers to bring others with her on hunts, giving her extra eyes to find the pythons and help with larger snakes.
Kimmel, also a district-contracted python hunter, goes into the swamp solo.
On the Monday morning before the bite, he had steered his 14-foot Jon boat through the still waters of the Everglades, stopping at multiple islands before stumbling upon the 17-footer.
Adrenaline racing, he set up his cameras to record the capture for water management district records and his social media fans. Instead of reaching for the head, he went for the tail. While the head was a little obscured in brush, Kimmel admits he also wanted to test his mettle.
“It definitely showed me its power right away. I dug my heels into the limestone to stop it, and there was a tug of war,” Kimmel said. “From there, it did what I wanted it to do, come back and strike at me because it gives me the opportunity to get its head.”
He dodged a couple of strikes, then he didn’t.
“She got me son, I got her though,” Kimmel said in a Facebook post as he used a cloth snake bag to tie up his bleeding arm without ever letting go of the python.
Kimmel, who goes by the social media moniker Python Cowboy, won this year’s Florida Python Bowl after catching eight snakes during the tournament. He is also known for his work trapping and killing invasive green iguana, Egyptian geese and feral hogs.
But it’s the python that has made him a social media star with videos and photos showing him catching three pythons at once, and coming upon a python nest full of eggs — one of the most significant moments in Kimmel’s python hunting career, he said.
He’s not the only district python hunter who has found some amount of fame through the program or parlayed it into a profession. Since March 2017, about 3,000 snakes have been taken out of the Everglades.
Jason Leon, 31, of Miami, was briefly a district hunter but found the state’s record-longest python – 18 feet, 8 inches – years before the program started. He now runs guided python hunts on airboats and ATVs. As much as Leon says nabbing a python is a feat anyone can master, he acknowledges the dangers.
“If that snake had bitten (Kimmel) in a main artery, he could have easily bled out,” Leon said. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve been wrapped several times and if your arm or leg goes dead, and you lose circulation, you lose control.”
Dusty “Wildman” Crum, who is known for his barefoot serpent wrangling, is a district hunter and earned a Discovery Channel show called “Guardians of the Glades.”
Crum, 40, said the show is on hold because of the new coronavirus but one episode during season one captured a frightening fight he had with a more than 16-foot snake he thought was “going to take my head off like a Barbie doll.”
Kimmel, who was hunting with Crum that night, had to step in after the snake wrapped itself around his neck.
“I was kind of upset I wasn’t there to help him,” Crum said. “We probably shouldn’t go hunting by ourselves, but we do because we’re stubborn men.”
Crum’s longest snake was 16 feet, 11 inches.
Kimmel doesn’t know exactly how long his recent catch is or how much it weighs because the water management district’s check-in station is closed from the coronavirus. Hunters are being asked to freeze their snakes until it can reopen.
But a rough measurement – with kinks – was at least 17 feet.
The district record is 17 feet, 5 inches.
Kimmel said he weighs between 130 and 140 pounds and believes the snake may be a similar weight.
He was able to muscle it back to his Jon boat even with a wounded arm and light head, and get it into a secured crate.
“I love snakes, and they need to be respected, not feared,” Kimmel said. “They need to be taken for what they are, a wild animal that can hurt you.”
Follow Kimberly Miller on Twitter: @Kmillerweather