In the Wild
The area now known as the Everglades Agricultural
Area was once part of the Everglades. Lake Okeechobee overflowed its
southern shore directly into the River of Grass. Though the Everglades
was once considered an impenetrable wasteland, farmers eventually
discovered that the fertile muck soils of the marshlands were perfect
for growing a variety of crops. The water was drained into ditches and
canals so that the fields could be farmed. Some of the canal banks were
piled with the limestone spoils dug from the canals. Others banks were
carpeted in lush grass or brushy vegetation. Rodents and rabbits
abounded in the symmetrical maze of waterways and fields and fed
directly on the sugar cane which had become the main crop of the region.
Unknowingly, man had created a paradise for snakes.
Racers, indigo snakes, garter snakes, ribbon
snakes, and waters snakes all thrived on the canal banks. Dense
populations of rat snakes inhabited the rows of Australian pine trees
planted along the canals. However, it was the Florida king snake that truly
became the dominant serpent of the region. King snakes thrived on the
bounty of the canals, feeding on the abundant food sources including
rodents, frogs, turtle eggs, and other serpents.
A road side canal
in the sugar cane fields
A growing legion of snake enthusiasts in the mid
20th century soon learned to take advantage of the artificial "snake
farm" that had been created in the cane fields near the lake. A spring
morning's walk down a canal bank could produce double digit numbers of
Florida king snakes, which basked in the early sunlight, as well as numerous other serpents. Fallen signs,
old truck tire inner tubes, and tin from the roofs of barns and pump
houses could be flipped for hiding snakes.
Snake hunters discovered that
they could make decent money collecting snakes in the cane fields. The
most clever collectors selectively placed their own cover objects,
especially carpets, which, if placed correctly, became reliable sources
for king snakes. The art of bank walking for king snakes and hunting
structures for rat snakes was shared among the snake hunters. A culture
of "commercial collection" had been created.
A classic snake hunter's set in the cane fields. This is an old truck
tire inner tube folded over and placed on a rock pile at the
end of a canal.
Though today's "field herping" culture generally
looks down on the practice of "commercial collection," the reality is
that, at least in the case of king snakes in the cane fields, the
practice was sustainable for many years. Collectors generally focused
their efforts near roads and towns, simply because there was no need to
go very far into the fields to find snakes. The fields were so extensive
and so much of the land was inaccessible that it simply was not possible
to collect all of the snakes. The snakes were an artificially abundant
cash crop that were only there in such numbers because of man's
modification of the habitat. No matter how many animals were collected,
there always seemed to be plenty left to breed to sustain the
Times have changed in the cane fields. Most the
the fields are owned by large corporations that aggressively discourage
trespassing on their land.
Law enforcement officials patrol all the roads running through the
fields and keep a sharp eye out for trespassers. Canal banks are
maintained by a regiment of herbicide and dredging, which makes
them much less hospitable for wildlife. The banks sprayed with
herbicide become barren and inevitably collapse from erosion, after
which they are dredged with backhoes to keep the canals from filling
Below: A Florida
king snake found under a board in a trash pile
Though still common, the king snakes are not
nearly so easy to find as they once were. Illegally dumped trash is
quickly removed in most areas. The banks are maintained in such a way
that at many stages, very little life persists along the canals. The
harvest has become less bountiful.
As captive breeding has became more popular and
the demand for wild caught snakes in the pet trade has decreased, the
snakes have been collected less and less frequently.
A new breed of "field herper" now hunts with a camera. Many of the old time
collectors' tricks are being lost to time as shear numbers of snakes are
not considered as important as diversity of species, each one a simple
check on a list that need not be repeated.
A new call for restoration of the Everglades will
undoubtedly change the area once again. A large chunk of the Everglades
Agricultural Area is slated to be turned back into marshland.
"Restoration" is accomplished by dynamiting and
bulldozing of the canals, the banks, and the fields themselves. A
"restored" area more or less resembles a parking lot before being reflooded. At a time in the not-too-distant future, snake hunting in the
cane fields may become just a memory.
Daniel Parker shows off the bounty of a short hunt in the
cane fields: five Florida king snakes and two scarlet king