MIAMI — As they bounced into the Everglades in a beat-up truck, Ruben Ramirez and George Brana overflowed with confidence.
They were in the final days of Florida's Python Challenge and had already bagged 18 of the snakes, more than one-third of the 50 or so killed during the month-long hunt.
"You're looking at the winners right here," said Ramirez, 40, pointing to his chest. "We're kicking butt," said Brana, 44.
More than 1,500 people had signed up for the state-sponsored event, the first ever to allow anyone in the nation to hunt, regardless of whether they were licensed. And Brana and Ramirez were out to bag at least one more python, for a little insurance.
They sounded more cocky than worried. Most of their competitors were a bunch of novices — "yahoos," they called them — who waded into the swamp at the start of the event and quickly got out after experiencing the back-breaking work of hunting pythons for hours a day under a hot sun in the Florida muck.
When state wildlife officials hand out the prizes Saturday morning for the biggest and most pythons caught, Brana and Ramirez boasted, the smart money is on them, two Cuban-Americans who have caught pythons and other snakes by hand since they were kids.
Whether the state was a big winner is hard to say. Estimates put the Everglades's python population at 100,000 at the most, so 50 dead snakes seems like a paltry harvest.
But supporters said that is a lot of hungry mouths removed from the swamp, where mammals have disappeared by the hundreds since the python became established.
Researchers who counted Everglades National Park mammals found that 99 percent of raccoons had vanished, along with the same amount of opossums and 88 percent of bobcats, according to a study released last year. Marsh rabbits, cottontails and foxes couldn't be found.