published Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Big snakes and lizards


by Dan Cook
  • photo
    Contributed photo by Anne Whitaker Creatures like this iguana on Lake Okeechobee rampant in south Florida.

Pythons are showing up throughout the southern part of Florida, according to that state's Fish and Wildlife Commission. Estimates range from 30,000 to 80,000.

Chattanooga native Steve Daniel, a former touring bass pro who guides clients on massive Lake Okeechobee, hasn't seen a python but has heard many reports of sightings. It's another non-native reptile's abundance and size that are surprising him.

"There's one iguana that's about six feet long," he said recently from his Clewiston, Fla., home. "We've got one that hangs around the marina here that is probably three to four feet long."

Daniel and his wife, Debbie -- also from Chattanooga -- host a popular Saturday morning radio talk show about fishing. Some of the conversation is about new fish and other exotics in their area.

Pythons and iguanas in southern Florida seem to be virtually unchecked. Their existence in the region came either from people who bought them as pets, then released them in the wild when they got too large to keep at home, or from pet shops and zoos blasted by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, freeing the penned-up creatures.

Monkeys that escaped confinement also are showing up in unexpected places.

Pythons in particular have no natural predators there, and they multiply rapidly. They are capable of laying up to 100 eggs at a time, according to biologists.

Florida officials became especially concerned about the big snakes after one strangled a child in bed, an Associated Press story related. After that incident, Gov. Charlie Crist asked for permits enabling expert hunters to go after pythons.

A 14-foot, 107-pound Burmese python reportedly was captured recently by trappers in Bradenton, Fla., just south of Tampa. The snake was living in a storm drain. According to the reports, it took five men to wrangle her, and the deputies who helped the father-son trappers said she was very aggressive.

Daniel dropped out of the BASS Elite Tour this year because of the slumping economy and a resulting lack of sponsorships. He admitted that he misses the travel and camaraderie of the tour, but he stays busy guiding clients. Lake Okeechobee is faring well now, he said.

"I guarantee you this winter I could have guided seven days a week," he said. "We've got armored catfish two and three feet long. And people are coming down here from everywhere to fish for miad sicklets. You can go down in the canals of the Everglades and catch 100 of them in a day. Miads are better to eat than bream. They get up to a pound and a half.

"We used to not have any tilapia down here, but we do now. They're not hurting the fishing. But we wondered about those armored catfish."

The lake's condition caused concern last year, Daniel said.

"We had had one of the worst winters, and the fish started dropping back down," he noted. "But now it's incredible how many fish that are here. I think Okeechobee is going to again become the bass capital of the world."

South Florida water management resources have helped, he said.

"The main thing now is conservation," Daniel explained. "On the north side (of Okeechobee) they actually diverted the Kissimmee River back through its natural course, which was like a snake, from its (altered) straight line. That way, we actually have a filtering system for water coming into the lake.

"When it was straight, we got all of the runoff from the dairy farms," Daniel said. "They've cleaned up a lot of dairy farms. They now have to hold their runoff water."

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