(Eric Bramblet checking out a python caught in Big Cypress)

*(via MyFWC) – The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has launched new programs to encourage the public to help remove nonnative Burmese pythons from the Everglades ecosystem and surrounding area.

Two new programs and a new FWC Executive Order provides incentives and expanded opportunities to remove the invasive constrictors.

The “Python Pickup Program” is a new program designed to encourage the public to remove and report wild Burmese pythons by rewarding participants with valuable prizes. Starting this year, anyone can participate in this new program. People who remove pythons simply must submit photographic evidence of the snake, as well as the location from which it was removed.

Anyone who submits this information will receive a free Python Pickup t-shirt for submitting their first entry.

For every submission received, participants will be entered into a monthly prize drawing, as well as a grand prize drawing to be held next year.

Monthly prizes include snake hooks, custom engraved Yeti tumblers, Plano sportsman’s trunks, GoPro cameras and Badlands backpacks. The grand prize is a Florida Lifetime Sportsman’s License. The first drawing was scheduled for May 2017.

As part of the Python Pickup, people can submit pythons removed from any property in Florida where they have authorization to do so from the property owner or land manager.

A recent Executive Order allows people to remove pythons year-round from 22 public lands with no hunting license or wildlife management area permit required.

“We know many Florida residents and visitors want to help tackle this tough conservation challenge by going after pythons in the wild and removing any they can find,” said FWC Executive Director, Nick Wiley.  “We want to continue to encourage and support this important citizen conservation effort. This Executive Order clarifies regulatory questions and makes it easier than ever for people to remove Burmese pythons from the wild.”

Earlier this year, the FWC also launched a Python Contractor Program which pays participants for efforts to remove Burmese pythons from the wild.

The FWC selected 22 contractors already experienced with capturing wild Burmese pythons. Contractors are paid an hourly wage for their efforts to remove Burmese pythons. The FWC will also pay contractors for each snake removed. The program is similar to one recently implemented by the South Florida Water Management District.

People interested in training on how to identify and safely remove pythons can take part in a Python Patrol Training. For more information, go to MyFWC.com/Python and click on “Python Patrol.”

The FWC will continue to work with the public and partners to explore other projects aimed at removing pythons and other nonnative species.

People can also help with efforts to manage Burmese pythons and other nonnative species by reporting sightings to the FWC’s Exotic Species Reporting Hotline at 888-Ive-Got1 (888-483-4681), online at IveGot1.org, or by downloading the free “IveGot1” smartphone app.

For more information on Burmese pythons in Florida and the various management programs, visit MyFWC.com/Python.

(Joe Rufin from St Petersburg with a python he caught on the edge of the Miccosukee reservation.)

‘My Python Hunt Challenge’

By Bob Bramblet

As late as the 1980’s, the southern reaches of Florida were an almost untouched wilderness, a seemingly endless area of swamp and sawgrass. The warm climate was inviting not just to the people who moved here among the na-tive plants and animals, but to species from other parts of the world that live in similar climates as well. Sometimes nonnative species are brought here intentionally, and sometimes they hitchhike, catching a ride with travelers.

Most nonnative species that are introduced do not survive, but those that do have the potential to become invasive. While invasive wildlife species are found in many parts of Florida, they are especially prevalent in subtropical South Florida.  Arguably none have had more impact on the fragile Everglades ecosystem than the Burmese python. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has documented breeding populations of Burmese pythons in Miami-Dade, Monroe and Collier counties, mainly within the Florida Everglades, and there have been reports of these snakes in other Florida counties. The impact has been far reaching with native small animal popula-tions decreasing up to 88% for some species. In the case of the everglades marsh rabbits, introduced populations were completely wiped out by Burmese pythons.

In the 27 years I have lived in Southwest Florida I have frequented the Glades, and I have never seen a Burmese python. I know they are there, I guess we just don’t visit the same places. Last winter, I decided to change that.  The excuse was the FWC Python Challenge, a month long Burmese python removal competition that ran from January 16 through February 14.   The commission decided against holding a similar event for 2017, but but say that ongoing training and special licensing for the python removal program will continue. The intent of the program is to allow properly trained and permitted people to remove all invasive exotic reptiles that are encountered during collection trips and anyone is eligible.

On our first weekend, Chris, Eric and I hit the road early and arrived to our first spot just as the sun was rising. This area was not far off the beaten path but seemed to have everything that would attract snakes. We spent the morning walking along promising areas and fishing a little. Both proved fruitless as the day wore on. We came across a few snakes, but no pythons.

By early evening we set up camp. We opted for a National Park System campground instead of winging it and ended up at Mitchell’s Landing on Loop Rd. At around midnight, a front bringing lightning, wind and a lot of rain came through, which made for a fairly exciting night. By morning we were stormless and after some camp coffee, back on the road.

As the sun rose, we found ourselves driving atop the US41 levee looking for pythons trying to find warmth. We were advised by a native that we missed one by minutes and after thoroughly searching nearby came up empty. Alt-hough we were unsuccessful at finding pythons, any day is a great day spent outside and taking in the natural beauty of the Florida Everglades. From the levee the ‘glades stretched out before us as far as we could see. The greens and browns of the sawgrass were broken only by colorful herons, egrets and flocks of rosate spoonbills searching the vast wetlands for snails and fish.

Several pythons have been caught by competitors all over the Everglades. We were encouraged by reports of catches in Big Cypress National Preserve so Chris and I began the following weekend working our way across the State early, stopping by a few remote rock piles and canal banks on the Collier side. Soon we were in Big Cypress and Eric met us from the East Coast side after taking the long way around. We spent the mid to late morning walking levees and trails and finding many snakes trying to warm themselves in the sun along the edges, including several everglades racers.

On the way back to the vehicles we ran into a team from St Pete. Joe Rufin, Ron White and Matt Shapiro were car-rying out their second python of the Challenge. They caught the 10+ footer on the side of a levee where it was stretched out along the bank warming up. Joe told me the three have no previous experience catching pythons but have bagged two in the two times they have been out. He credited their success to “putting in the miles”, referring to the hours of walking back to the remote areas where the pythons were found. Joe also said he was there not just for the challenge, but because he loved spending time outdoors.

That evening we drove a few asphalt roads that evening hoping to catch a few snakes trying to get the last bit of warmth in the chilly air with no luck. Cold and tired, we hit the tents to the sounds of distant owls calling.

The next morning brought more cold. After a hot breakfast and copious amounts of coffee, we broke camp and headed out again. Chris drove east to check out the levee tops while Eric and I walked more miles. We finally gave up for the weekend and headed back. During the drive I reflected on why we were doing this. I recalled the previous evening laying in the tent and listening to the owls and looking across our camp bathed in the light of a full moon. I thought about what Joe told me about the love of the outdoors and smiled. That sounds like a good enough reason for me.

The last weekend my Florida Sportsman teammates Eric and Chris were working, so I decided to work a little closer to home. I did a little research on Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Collier County.

The FWC works with several agencies and organizations to manage Burmese pythons that are established in and around the Everglades. They coordinate their management activities and objectives with other field offices and agencies, Native American tribes, universities and other researchers, and non-governmental organizations so that efforts and projects don’t conflict.

In early 2010, the first Burmese pythons were found in the Reserve. Since then, more than thirty large snakes have been captured within the Reserve and these snakes are believed to have come from the original point source near Everglades National Park.

I have never visited the Reserve so the Python Challenge was just the excuse to check it out. My friend, Photographer Doug Stamm came along hoping for some pictures. It was a cool morning and the sun was expected to shine, warming up the trails we’d be walking. Heavy rains had made the area very wet and the night before a large python was photographed just outside of the Reserve escaping the waterlogged area for the higher ground of a nearby housing area.

Soon after we entered it was clear just how wet the area was. At several points the trail disappeared into water ranging from ankle deep to over knee deep. We walked the trails and the power line road for miles in the morning sun searching path edges and looking deeper into wooded areas. There were many birds and I even glimpsed a large wild boar crossing the trail ahead of us. On our way out, empty handed, we came across other hunters just entering the Reserve. They had hunted the area several times and had not seen pythons. In fact, only one snake had been taken from the Reserve during the hunt so far.

Back at the entrance, we checked out of the Reserve with FWC and met another hunter. His name was Ken Flute and he hails from Ontario Canada. Ken is the hunter who caught the only python in the Reserve, an 8.5 footer, and was headed back in to look for number two. While talking to Ken his motivation for participating in the Challenge was apparent. He obviously loves the outdoors and his youthful exuberance speaks of a childhood spent in the wilds of Ontario chasing snakes and learning about nature.

Team Florida Sportsman ended the event with no python caught, but every day I participated I learned a little more about the invasive Burmese python and a little more about the real intent of the challenge. Although it may be impossible to eradicate Burmese pythons from South Florida, much has been learned about their habits, and FWC officials are optimistic that they will be able to contain this population and reduce its impacts on our native wildlife.

At the very least, opening up the Everglades to thousands of python hunters should result in many more people enjoying the outdoors and maybe learning a little about conservation, ultimately achieving success. Maybe, instead of attempting to eradicate the python which seems here to stay, it’s really about visiting places you have never been, spending time with friends and family in the great outdoors and meeting new and interesting people who share a love of the outdoors.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is hosting a Women’s Saltwater Fishing Clinic on St. George Island June 10.

The free, day-long clinic is from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. at the St. George Island State Park, 1900 E. Gulf Beach Drive.

Advance registration is required. To register or get more information, email Heather Sneed at Heather.Sneed@MyFWC.com, or call 850-487-0554.

Participants will take home a lifelong hobby and leave with a new appreciation for the marine environment. They will learn the basics of conservation stewardship, fishing ethics, angling skills, safety and the vulnerability of Florida’s marine ecosystems in a fun, laid-back atmosphere.

Lessons include knot tying, cast netting, rod and reel rigging, how to be a responsible marine resource steward, marine fish and habitat identification, catch-and-release techniques and more.

If conditions allow, women will have the opportunity to practice their newly learned skills by fishing from shore. This event is a catch-and-release activity. All participants must have a valid recreational saltwater fishing license unless exempt. Saltwater fishing licenses can be purchased at your local tackle shop or online. Learn more by visiting MyFWC.com/License.

Fishing equipment and bait are provided during the clinic, but participants are encouraged to bring their own gear.

FWC uncovers major alligator violations in long-term covert investigation!

On Wednesday, May 24, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officers arrested nine suspects for violations of Florida’s laws pertaining to possession of American alligator, alligator egg harvesting, interstate transport of alligator eggs and hatchlings, falsifying official records, dealing in stolen property, conspiracy to commit racketeering, racketeering and other wildlife violations. These serious charges include first-, second- and third-degree felonies.

These charges are the result of a multiyear undercover operation initiated in 2015 by the FWC Division of Law Enforcement’s Investigations Section. FWC undercover officers managed to become part of the alligator farming community to gain information and evidence about poachers who were breaking the law in regard to the FWC’s public and private lands alligator egg harvesting program and alligator farming.

During the course of the investigation, FWC undercover officers documented numerous criminal violations, resulting in the arrest of nine individuals for 44 felony violations.

Investigators documented over 10,000 illegally harvested eggs during the course of the undercover operation.

“Many of these suspects were part of a criminal conspiracy,” said Maj. Grant Burton, head of the FWC’s Investigations Section. “Their crimes pose serious environmental and economic consequences. These suspects not only damage Florida’s valuable natural resources, they also harm law-abiding business owners by operating black markets that undermine the legal process.”

Wildlife conservation laws are in place to protect and manage Florida’s precious natural resources for legitimate use by the public. When people break those laws, they jeopardize the ability of the state to manage those resources for the future. If left unchecked, this valuable natural resource could have been severely damaged.

There are aspects of this investigation that are still ongoing, and the FWC expects more arrests to be forthcoming.

The public can help by reporting suspected violations to the FWC. To make a report, call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@MyFWC.com.

The suspects and their charges are as follows:

Robert Kelly Albritton (DOB 01/21/1981) of Arcadia

  • One felony count of Racketeering.
  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering.
  • One felony count of Scheme to Defraud.
  • Fourteen felony counts of Unlawful Possession of Alligator Eggs/Alligators.

Robert Thomas Beasley (DOB 02/05/1979) of Arcadia

  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering.
  • Six felony counts of Unlawful Possession of Alligator Eggs/Alligators.

David Wentworth Nellis (DOB 10/10/1943) of Punta Gorda

  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering.
  • One felony count of Uttering a Forged Instrument.
  • One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligator Eggs.

Carl Wayne Pickle Jr. (DOB 12/22/1969) of Arcadia

  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering.
  • Four felony counts of Unlawful Possession of Alligator Eggs/Alligators.

Wayne Andrew Nichols (DOB 07/15/1975) of Arcadia

  • Three felony counts of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.
  • One felony count of Unlawful Killing of White Ibis.
  • One first-degree misdemeanor count of Attempting to Take White Ibis.

Christopher Lee Briscall (DOB 01/28/1995) of Fort Denaud

  • One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.
  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Dealing in Stolen Property.

Matthew Edward Evors (DOB 10/20/1992) of Cape Coral

  • One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.
  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Dealing in Stolen Property.

Isaiah Joseph Romano (DOB 12/17/1994) of Fort Denaud

  • One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.
  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Dealing in Stolen Property.

Jacob Oliver Bustin-Pitts (DOB 11/11/1993) of Fort Denaud

  • One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.
  • One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Dealing in Stolen Property.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Seminole County are teaming up to provide bear-resistant trash cans to county residents at discounted rates. The FWC awarded Seminole County a $200,000 BearWise grant to help reduce prices for residents living within the Urban Bear Management Area (west of Interstate 4).

“Eliminating food sources, such as garbage, is the single most important thing people can do to reduce conflicts with bears as Florida’s bear population continues to grow,” said Mike Orlando, assistant coordinator of the FWC’s Black Bear Management Program. “If all residents in a neighborhood secure their trash using cans like these, there should be a dramatic decrease in the amount of bears present in the neighborhood, which is best for both bears and people.”

Seminole County will begin accepting applications to purchase 64-gallon bear-resistant garbage containers at discounted prices beginning today. Applicants who may not be able to afford bear-resistant garbage cans may be eligible to receive a bear-resistant can at no cost.

When the grant funding is exhausted, the discounts will be discontinued. Applications and guidelines may be downloaded at BearAwareSeminole.com.

The FWC’s BearWise funding program provides funding to communities and counties to help ensure Floridians have the resources necessary to properly secure their garbage. The FWC is distributing $825,000 to 11 counties to become more “BearWise” by providing bear-resistant equipment and other methods to reduce conflicts.

In addition to securing trash, there are other steps you can take to keep bears away from your home and neighborhood:

  • Protect gardens, beehives, compost and livestock with electric fencing.
  • Feed pets indoors or bring in dishes after feeding.
  • Clean grills and store them in a secure place.
  • Remove wildlife feeders or make them bear-resistant.
  • Pick ripe fruit from trees and remove fallen fruit from the ground.

It is illegal in Florida to intentionally feed bears or leave out food or garbage that will attract bears and cause human-bear conflicts.

More information is available at MyFWC.com/Bear, where you can access the “Guide to Living in Bear Country” brochure.

For more information on the program providing discounted bear-resistant trash cans to Seminole County residents, visit BearAwareSeminole.com.

Help the FWC help bears and other wildlife by purchasing the “Conserve Wildlife” license plate at BuyaPlate.com.

Locals and visitors have been reporting fantastic panfish catches!

Exotic panfish, such as oscar and Mayan cichlid, are biting almost as fast as you can cast or bait your hook. Low water levels in the marsh are concentrating fish in the L-67A and other canals of the Everglades Wildlife Management Area, and anglers are frequently reporting catches of multiple fish per hour. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) promotes the consumptive use of exotic fish as a management tool, and anglers are encouraged to take as many oscars and Mayan cichlids as they would like. There are no size or bag limits on these species.

“As is frequently the case, low water conditions near the end of a dry season have fish stacked up in the canals along the vegetated edges. Anglers are enjoying exceptional catch rates,” said Barron Moody, FWC regional freshwater fisheries administrator.

Even if portions of EWMA are closed due to environmental conditions, the boat ramps and canals remain open for fishing. So grab your fishing license and get out there while the fishing is hot.

For more information, view the FWC’s Everglades fishing brochure and recent site forecast at MyFWC.com/Fishing. There are consumption advisories for some species. Visit FloridaHealth.gov and search “Seafood Consumption” in the search bar for more information.

Caching In; Meeting an FWC Challenge

By Peter Kleinhenz – Courtesy of MyFWC

For most people, life is a series of goals. Some want to make a lot of money, others want to see the world and still others strive for a happy and healthy family. These are arguably the most common goals for most of us. Some people need to challenge themselves even more. Case in point: Craig Hablewitz.

Craig, a 55-year-old software specialist for Florida Southwestern State College, described himself in a recent phone conversation as “fairly active.” I’d be curious to learn who he considers “very active” because fairly active for Craig means a few half marathons here, a few full marathons there and a love of exploring matched by very few people I know. Take his approach to geocaching, for instance.

It’s fair to describe the geocaching community as an active bunch. Scroll through the reports on geocaching.com, and you’ll find log entries from people who have searched for hidden caches in Finland, South Africa, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia to name just a few of the listed countries. Craig, as you will see, takes geocaching to a whole new level.

This year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) placed 49 geocaches on the wildlife management areas it oversees in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Florida’s wildlife management area system. Each geocache has a code under the lid that must be entered for the find to count. Beginning on March 6, anyone who finds all of the geocaches wins a prize pack. Craig, a man who had previously found each geocache hidden on Florida’s state parks, was intrigued.

“I like a challenge,” Craig understated. “I found the first one, which was Lake Wales Ridge [Wildlife and Environmental Area]. I checked for caches to look for on my way back from Orlando to Fort Myers, and saw that nobody had found a couple of them yet, one of them being Lake Wales Ridge. So I went out there and found it, was the first one to find it. Came back and, when I was logging it into the website, noticed that it was actually part of a series. I knew when I found this first one that it was a challenge and, of course the prize at the end, I knew that I would end up doing it eventually.”

And so began Craig’s quest to find every WMA geocache in Florida. These WMAs exist from near Pensacola to the Florida Keys and many of them aren’t exactly right off the interstate. Yet by May 22, Craig had found every one and became the first person to complete the challenge. So, how did he do it?

“I had a plan,” Craig divulged. “I travel around the state a lot. What I did was download a map of where all the WMA caches were and then, each time I’d go to a race or something, I’d look at the route I’d take. And, on the way or on the way back, I’d kind of clear a swath of all the geocaches.”

Some, it turned out, were easier to find than others. Craig told me one particularly harrowing story about his experience trying to find the cache at the Hickory Mound Unit of Big Bend WMA.

“Hickory Mound was hidden in a little shelter area and the bridge going over to the shelter area had been pretty much taken apart, pretty much destroyed [by Hurricane Hermine], so it was a balance beam act across the water. And that one I actually did at night. That…was interesting. I rode my mountain bike, a possum jumped out in front of me, there was water on both sides, lots of noises…and then doing that balance beam across the water. Yeah, it gets your blood going.”

On the contrary, other WMAs Craig visited seemed to slow his pulse. I asked him about his favorite WMA experience and he described something that I think every visitor to a Florida WMA can identify with.

Craig explains, “[My favorite] is actually the Osprey Unit of Hilochee WMA. It’s the one right near Orlando. I travel up to Orlando a lot and cut up to I-4 and it’s right off of there. I’ve been through that area quite a bit, never knowing that there was a WMA right there. So when I went to it, it was just really pristine-looking, there’s a nice lake. It was a nice walk around it. You could still hear, off in the distance, the traffic on I-4 but, other than that, you’d think you were in an idyllic little setting out there in the woods.”

Most of us who challenge ourselves with outdoor goals, whether it’s catching every type of saltwater sport fish or hiking the Appalachian Trail, partially pursue these to experience moments like the one Craig mentioned above. It’s the little things, the stops along the way that surprise you and cause you to slow down for a second, that make it all worth it.

I find Craig’s accomplishment inspiring, and I hope that you do too. WMAs are scattered all over Florida and truly include Florida’s wildest parcels. This was not an easy feat to pull off, but he developed a new perspective as a result.

“I really didn’t know a whole lot about [WMAs] before I started this series,” Craig expressed. “It’s amazing to see how much of Florida is put aside for people to use and they don’t even know it’s there.”

“It’s just, it’s great being out there,” Craig adds. “You don’t realize when you’re trying to fight through traffic on I-4 or something just how close wild Florida is.”

In other words, if your personal goals involve nature, you don’t have to travel statewide and complete the geocaching challenge. The only challenge you truly face is figuring out where to begin.

Would you like to try the geocaching challenge for yourself? It’s easy to get started (remember your bug spray) and it’s easy to find a WMA near you. If geocaching across the state is a little too intense, get involved with our 75th Anniversary photo contest. It’s a great way to experience our WMAs and, best of all, you can still win prizes! Whichever option you choose, you’ll likely see amazing wildlife, so be sure to log your finds onto our Florida Nature Trackers program. This program uses iNaturalist to log observations of Florida’s species and helps us better understand their distribution.

All photographs in this issue are by Craig Hablewitz.

Media contact: Amanda Nalley, 850-410-4943 or Amanda.Nalley@MyFWC.com

FWC Commission to discuss changes to Gulf red snapper season during special meeting Friday June 9

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will have a special meeting at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, June 9, to discuss the Gulf red snapper season for private recreational anglers in state and federal waters. Recent discussion between the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Gulf states indicate that there may be a way to add a substantial number of additional red snapper fishing days in federal waters this summer of 2017, but Florida would have to give days to get days.

Discussions are focused on aligning a possible expanded federal water season on weekends and holidays through the summer with existing seasons for state waters across all five Gulf states, including Florida. Staff will be requesting Commission direction and guidance regarding this season alignment, which would require giving up some state waters fishing days (during the week) through the summer and possibly in the fall. These changes would apply only to private recreational anglers. No changes to the commercial or recreational for-hire seasons are being considered.

This special meeting is being held by electronic media technology, such as online and via phone, and the Commissioners will be participating remotely via conference call. There will be opportunities for the public to comment during the meeting. Information about how to participate remotely is being finalized and, when posted, will be found at MyFWC.com/About by clicking on “The Commission” and “Commission Meetings.”

“Red snapper is a popular and economically-important species in Florida, and the FWC is committed to providing as much sustainable recreational fishing opportunity as possible,” said Nick Wiley, FWC executive director. “This meeting will give our Commissioners the opportunity to discuss expanding recreational red snapper fishing opportunities in federal waters, to hear from the public and stakeholders, and provide direction to staff.”

The 2017 red snapper season for private recreational anglers in Florida federal waters was June 1-3. In state waters, the 2017 season is currently 78-days total. The season opened for Saturdays and Sundays starting May 6, and has been open daily since May 27. The season is scheduled to continue being open each day through July 9, then reopen Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in September and October, including Labor Day.

Comments on red snapper seasons can also be sent to FWC staff today through noon Thursday, June 8, at MyFWC.com/SaltwaterComments or at Marine@MyFWC.com.

Learn more about red snapper at MyFWC.com/Fishing by clicking on “Saltwater Fishing,” “Recreational Regulations” and “Snappers.”


Gag season starts June 1 in Gulf federal and most state waters!

Gag grouper will open for recreational harvest in most state and all federal Gulf of Mexico waters June 1, and will remain open through Dec. 31.

Monroe County is excluded from this season because it follows the Atlantic state season. Franklin, Wakulla, Taylor and Jefferson counties are also excluded from this opening because they have their own season from April 1-June 30. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will be discussing extending this shorter four-county season at the July Commission meeting in Orlando. Learn more or comment on these changes at MyFWC.com/SaltwaterComments.

Gulf state waters are from shore to 9 nautical miles. Federal waters begin where state waters end and extend to 200 nautical miles.

The minimum size limit for gag grouper in Gulf waters is 24 inches total length, and the daily bag limit is two fish per person within the four-grouper-per-person aggregate limit.

If you plan to fish for gag grouper in Gulf state or federal waters from a private recreational vessel, you must sign up as a Gulf Reef Fish Angler (annual renewal is required). To learn more, visit MyFWC.com/Fishing and click on “Saltwater Fishing,” “Recreational Regulations” and “Gulf Reef Fish Survey” under “Reef Fish.” Sign up today at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com.

Learn more about grouper at MyFWC.com/Fishing by clicking on “Saltwater Fishing,” “Recreational Regulations” and “Groupers.”

“Wild horses”

May 11, 2017

by Randy Reagor

Wild horses—and alligators—couldn’t keep me from cycling the Gainesville to Hawthorne Rail-to-Trail.

I’m sure you’ve seen the viral video of the horse stomping the alligator, right? Well, about two miles from that social media sensation my friend, Mike, and I began our journey near Payne’s Prairie State Park in Gainesville which would take us on a 16-mile, scenic bike trip to Hawthorne.

I’ve been biking for many years, so but I’d been looking forward to doing the trail since I did the first five miles from the Hawthorne end about 11 years ago. I wasn’t disappointed, especially since I had my reliable friend accompanying me. In fact, last summer I bought an extra mountain bike just for these occasions, since my outdoor companions either: 1) have lame bikes (that would be Mike). 2) live out of town. 3) or just cycle to humor me, so they shouldn’t have to spend several hundred dollars on one.

Borrowed bike, new bike, no bike, just go there, even in the middle of summer, because 90-95% of it is shaded, even at mid-day, although you might want to take it easy (if you’re well into middle-age like me) the first few miles because there are some serious hills and 90-degree turns from around Mile 2 to Mile 4. Since there are some intense cyclists on the trail going up to 30 mph make sure you stay to the right… always.

The trail passes through several swamps, grassy plains, pine forests, and over three wooden bridges, and you only have to cross one major highway. There’s also a couple small towns along the way that reminded us both of “Old Florida”, and if you don’t know what I mean, just picture The Yearling. Since we were taking our time it took us about two hours to reach the Hawthorne trailhead, located at the north end of the Lochloosa Wildlife Conservation Area.

On the way back I reminded Mike there were a couple stops we needed to make, a side trail that leads to a view of Alachua Lake and the La Chua Trail, where the horse/alligator battle occurred (there are also several non-paved trails that I plan to investigate next time). The paved trail to Alachua Lake, which is only about a mile, is well worth taking because the viewing platform offers an elevated view of most of Payne’s Prairie.

About two miles west we parked our bikes at the beginning of the La Chua Trail, and I was surprised with how many visitors there were—several were international judging by their accents. I assume the viral video spawned many new visitors for this area. When I visited this area 5 ½ years ago there was only about 30 people there, mostly bird watchers, and there was no raised platform around the Alachua Sink. On my previous visit I also ran down the trail by the sink and almost stepped on a water moccasin I didn’t see because of the high grass. However, now the area is sandy and you can see where you’re walking. There are also several signs warning about the wildlife there, which I’ve seen more frequently since the fatal alligator attack of a toddler at Disney last year.

The platform continues for about a ¼ mile, and when it ends you can continue walking on a sandy road with the creek feeding the sink on your left and the prairie on the right. In the water and on the banks I saw at least 40 alligators, with more likely hiding in the hundreds of lily pads. The largest alligator was about 10 feet long, about the same size as the one that got stomped on in the video, which made me wonder if it was the same reptile. Then, I found the area where the attack occurred. It was a part of the trail far from the water and where I doubt the wild horses see any alligators. Why the gator was on the trail at all is a mystery—since the creek embankment is about five-feet high. Alligators are notoriously lazy, so it had to go to a lot of trouble to get near the horses, and there was also no water on the other side of the road.

We walked for about another 10 minutes when we encountered three wild horses blocking the road, and since several tourists were on the other side of them we stopped so we wouldn’t scare them.

Being the pragmatist that he is, Mike said “We might as well head back.”

“Wild horses couldn’t drag me any farther,” I replied.

For more information about visiting the Gainesville area go to: www.visitgainesville.com or call ( 352) 374-5260.

Nature Coast Fishing for Youth program hosted this summer in Cedar Key

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is offering a free Nature Coast Fishing for Youth program in Cedar Key for youth between the ages of 5 and 15. Programs will be held every Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., beginning June 6 and extending through July 27 (except for July 4), at the Senator George G. Kirkpatrick Marine Laboratory, 11350 SW 153rd Court. Advance registration is required; no walk-ins will be accepted.

All participants of the free program will learn fishing basics, the importance of habitats to fish species, proper fish handling and release techniques, and fish identification. Participants will spend time fishing on-site. An adult chaperone is required to attend the entire program with children age 8 and under. Youth and chaperones should bring their own lunch, sunscreen, hat and any personal fishing gear desired, although fishing gear will be provided for those who need it. Upon completing the program, participants will receive a rod and reel donated by Fish Florida.

For details and to pre-register, contact Hannah Healey at 352-543-1079 or Hannah.Healey@MyFWC.com.