White Oak Mountain Ranger: The 'Choot" Em Boys

Sunday, February 21, 2021

 generally don’t think about snakes this time of year. For that matter, thinking about snakes usually happens shortly after I’ve almost stepped on one, or I’ve stuck my hand under a hen while feeling something that doesn’t feel like an egg.

During this recent cold snap, where millions of Americans found themselves without electricity and water, I gave up on the long list of barn chores and turned to other forms of relaxation. Sitting by the fire with a mug of aiming fluid, I resorted to flipping through the channels on the entertainment machine and landed on a semi-reality show about Florida’s other pandemic.

The show producers introduced me to a plague of epic proportions; an explosion of Burmese Pythons that when left unchecked, had the potential to devour all of Miami.

Having lived in South Florida for a few years, I was immediately intrigued to see how the show producers were going to spin this particular apocalypse.

The producers presented logic that went something like this; The “Choot Em” boys from the swamps down in Cajun land have apparently grown weary of covering their boats with slime and brain splattered alligators and; these swampers have decided to migrate to South Florida to assist the good ole boys in the Florida swamps with the Python apocalypse. And maybe; the “Choot Em” boys can learn a new skill set when, eventually, Cajun’s run out of reptiles to “Choot” in the brains.

So in the time it takes to suffer through 10 commercials, I was hooked.

Having spent a few winters chasing deer, hogs and some of the meanest dogs to ever walk the through the Big Cypress and Everglades swamps, I felt somewhat capable of assessing just how much reality the producers of this semi-reality show were actually trying to sell.

I sat in rapt fascination as these gator “Chooters” captured their first ever Python. I was stunned when they accomplished such a thing bare handed. Watching that gave me a bad case of the willies.

Maybe it was the aiming fluid, but I immediately jumped out of the rocking chair and screamed at the TV; “Hey moron! Did you forget your guns? Did you drive all the way to south Florida without a loaded gun? What in the name of common sense were you thinking?”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! I knew the “Choot Em” boys owned functional rifles and pistols. I’d seen them splatter gator brains all over one another countless times.

Now, inexplicably, they had somehow decided that catching something longer than my canoe, an animal strong enough to squeeze the air out of an adult deer, grabbing it bare handed and stuffing it in a potato sack made perfectly good sense. This is a snake that can weigh as much as a small cameraman. This just did not line up with good common sense by any stretch of imagination.

Then it slowly dawned on me; the producers were probably worried about backlash from some alleged non-profit like, Pythons Unlimited, or Burmese Pythons Forever, or The American Python Protector Institute.

I figured the producers had previously experienced so much push back from their show about blowing out the brains of big lizards that some lizard loving non-profit had caused them to soft pedal splattering snake brains all over the Sunshine State.

Maybe this sort of slaughter had negative ratings impact, or was considered in some circles to be in bad taste.

Blowing the brains of a huge snake is not the same as blowing the brains out of a gator that is trying to eat his way through an aluminum boat, or trying to cram even a small gator in a potato sack. Putting hot lead into a boat eating lizard’s brain makes pretty good sense to me, but apparently killing a hundred pound snake on TV is a different ethical issue.

In my most humble opinion, a 12-gauge pump, loaded to the max with number six high brass, and choked to improved cylinder makes pretty sound logic for any python requiring euthanasia. For that matter, if I run across darn near any reptile the spits poison, this would be my answer of choice.

So what goes with this show?

Then it hit me. There’s just not enough drama in “Chooting” heads off of Pythons! They don’t eat boats, they’re not able to inject deadly poisons and they don’t even eat each other that much.

So the producers decided that if you catch big Pythons barehanded and you don’t show how they are disposed of; then you get max drama. Max drama equals max ratings.

We get drama; “Dats da biggest snake I ever seen!” and, “Don't let him bit you, you'll get infected!” and “Lookout! Lookout!”

MY favorite — “Hold the bag open! He's squeezing my arm and I'm about to faint!”

Drama, drama, drama, cut to another commercial.

My favorite Cajun is the one that can’t seem to afford a shirt. The one with a massive food blister covered by cut-off Liberty overalls that he can’t seem to keep strapped up. This good ole boy brings new levels of drama to almost astronomical heights with every Python he encounters.

Forget that he may be filmed bagging the same snake over and over with only subtle location changes from time to time. His value to the show is high drama. Apparently good drama is about all the counts to the show producers.

I also noticed that this “Choot Em” boy never gets bug bit. Maybe it’s all the hot sauce they eat down in Cajun country that keeps the Florida bugs at bay.

After about 15 minutes of all this drama, I started remembering my first trips deep in these swamps.

We parked my jeep truck after driving about a half mile off of Alligator Alley which bisects South Florida’s swamps east to west. The floor boards were almost dry as we loaded our hunting gear into a Jon boat for half mile hike through knee deep swamp to an island deer camp. The dogs had to swim.

My first impression of the hooch we were camping in was that it had been there since WWI and it was slowly being attacked by Spanish moss and palmettos and orchids. But it was good to see dry ground.

Our host, who had hunted out of this camp for years, immediately walked over to a pile of short cypress stumps that had been cut to walking stick length. He casually instructed us to select our weapon of choice and to start the search for any reptiles that may have decided to spend the winter in and around the hooch.

“Look anywhere you think any snake would be comfortable and pay special attention to the area around your bunks. When we fire up the wood stove we don’t want any surprises.”

I looked at my buddy from South Georgia and said, “What?”

He said, “Let’s just kill em all and let the Lord sort it out.”

Then he produced a flask of aiming fluid and we commenced to snake hunting with our cypress clubs.

That night around the stove we heard tales of past hunts, big bears, panthers and epic dog/hog fights in thickets so dense that multiple dog burials were necessary. There were also stories of big rattlers, aggressive cotton mouths and an occasional coral snake found atop a warm sleeping bag.

All this was pre-hurricane Andrew, there were not Pythons in the swamp in those days. Plenty of bugs and mosquitoes when it was warm enough, plenty of mean snakes, but no Pythons.

Apparently some sharp pencil in Miami got the bright idea that he could breed Pythons for fun and profit. They breed fast, they grow fast, they’re cheap to feed and who wouldn’t want to keep a snake as a pet that grows big enough to eat your neighbors yip yap dog?

What this genius didn’t figure out was how to build a hurricane proof brood barn, and hurricane Andrew came along and spewed his snake stock and half of Miami all over the Everglades. The rest is apocalypse history.

If you get time, Google up Florida Burmese Python hunting. That in itself is pretty entertaining, but a couple of things impressed me as I sorted through the media hysteria. Everyone involved in Florida wildlife management seems to agree that Pythons need to be exterminated. There are even multiple handy suggestions for bashing the brains of big snakes in the name of ethical extermination. These helpful hints are supposedly sanctioned and recommended by an Association of American Veterinarians.

Who knew there was so much empathy for ways to end an apocalypse.

One particular technique caught my eye and it is referred to as pithing a Python. This little how-to guide is fairly novel but it lead me to wonder what happens if you mess it up? If you don’t pith a Python correctly does it result in a Python that is pithed off?

Why not just use the shotgun?

Pithing Pythons got me to thinking about the quarter box of 357 snake rounds I found in the ammo cache the other week. This is a left-over box from time spent hunting in Arizona. Traipsing around in the desert always included a wheel-gun strapped to the hip. This 357 snake shot round was simply devastating on tarantulas, sidewinders. As a first shot at a big diamond back it was fairly effective at snake blindness before a follow-up with hollow points.

“Chooting” a Python with 357 snake round seems to me about like trying to drop a Georgia piney woods rooter with a Daisy Red Rider BB gun.

I seem to stumble into a few snakes turkey hunting, fishing, or around the barn. Different ethical techniques for dealing with this sort of thing have been handed down for generations on the Ranger side of the family. Using her favorite garden hoe, my grandmother could ethically lop the head off of a West Virginia timber rattler faster than any veterinarian could think about how to double pith a Python.

I never waste a good snake.

There’s a new neighbor close by from Chicago with a Polish last name. They have apparently adopted me as an interpreter for things that they refer to as, “The confusing Southern culture.” rom what I have discerned, these folks rarely ever stepped off of asphalt for decades at a time.

They show up now and again asking questions like, “Why do your chickens start crowing at 4:30 every morning?” or, “Is that a crow or is it a turkey?” or, “What’s wrong with UT football?” (I must admit that the last question stumps me every year!)

I’ve taken it upon myself to help these folks in true southern fashion. Bless their hearts. It is a safety thing.

I deliver my ethically dead snakes down to their place after dark and strategically place the bodies where the pilgrims from Chicago can easily find them when the sun comes up.

Inevitably, I receive a frantic call, do the neighborly thing, saddle up the horse and make the long ride to the scene of this ongoing educational moment. I like to think of it as a teaching moment for pilgrims new to the wonders of the South.

The entire family unit is normally found all huddled tightly together, nervously shouting from about 25 yards away from the battle site, “There it is! There it is! That's the biggest one we've ever seen!”

Normally the dead snakes used for these teaching moments are harmless banded water snakes that try to ravage my minnow brood pond. I normally find the neighbor Mrs. menacingly holding a large shovel in her shaking hands when I ride up.

And they say, ”Is it dangerous?”

And I say, “ Well folks, it’s a little difficult to tell the way you mashed it up like you did. But, my best guess is, it looks like a small Burmese Python out of Florida. Yep, that’d be my read on this one.”

And they say, “What?”

And I say, “Burmese Pythons. Haven’t you folks been watching this show on TV where Cajun gator hunters are sacking up giant pythons for relocation up north? They are trying to help out Floridians with a populations explosion of Pythons and it looks like the big ones around here are hatching out babies and you folks just got lucky, I guess.”

And they say, “Why would snakes be leaving Flordia?”

And I say, “Well it’s a Southern thing folks; you see recently, a football coach from Auburn was fired, and Trump was fired, and they both moved to Florida, and the snakes are leaving in droves.” 

Then I get back in the saddle and tip my hat to the lady with the shovel and say, “If you folks need anything else don’t hesitate to call because that’s what neighbors are for down here in the South.”

As the old horse and I are headed to the barn, I swear he turned his head to me and smiled.

That, my friends, is another Southern thing.


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