07/27/12 — Marsh: When out in the field, watch out for snakes

View Archive

Marsh: When out in the field, watch out for snakes

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on July 27, 2012 1:48 PM

Whenever I check out the field I planted with millet in hope for a September mourning dove hunt, I do so with caution.

Wading through knee-deep brown-top shod to the knees with snake boots, I was remembering the time my previous Labrador retriever, Santana, was bitten by a snake in the same field.

The culprit was probably a cottonmouth that struck in defense while Santana was crossing a ditch in the act of retrieving a dove. The ditch drains into a nearby duck pond where I occasionally see cottonmouths cross the dam. Snakebite doesn't affect dogs as severely as humans. Santana recovered within a few days after a steroid injection from the veterinarian.

Rattlesnakes, on five occasions, had been seen crossing the public road beside the field. Back in the day, hunters shot them and drivers intentionally ran over them. But such practices were banned a few years ago when the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) was listed as threatened and the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) was listed as a species of a special concern in North Carolina.

Where once the only good rattlesnake was a dead rattlesnake, these protective designations prohibit killing rattlesnakes, as well as coral snakes, unless they present immediate danger.

I haven't seen a diamondback rattlesnake since 1978, when a big one crawled across the logging road I was watching from a 20-foot tall stand during a bowhunt for deer. I thought about arrowing the snake, but decided against it since it would have cost me an arrow and perhaps a chance at a deer.

Many years prior to their protection, I arrowed a timber rattlesnake that made a nice hatband and killed some others for their rattles and skins. Now, I don't kill any snake, even cottonmouths or copperheads.

On some steppingstones I placed across a tributary to one of my duck ponds, I found an extraordinarily large cottonmouth sunning while I was on my way to one of my deer stands four years ago. I thought of arrowing the snake with my recurve bow before he took up threatening residence along the well-used path.

But he still would have blocked my way unless struck in the head and I would have lost the arrow, so I lifted him out of the way with a bow tip. He never made an aggressive move and rested calmly where I set him down. I returned from the stand well before dark to make sure I could see my feet, no matter that I was wearing snake boots. I never saw that five-foot cottonmouth again.

A closer call with a cottonmouth occurred when I was hauling myself up onto an ancient saw log floating in a swamp. I grabbed a sapling for balance and saw a fast movement in the ferns covering the log, which had been floating up and down between some big cypresses for who knows how long. A cottonmouth struck at my bicep, barely missing my arm and leaving two droplets that appeared to be venom on my naked skin just over the interior artery.

I chased the snake off with a sapling then noticed its twin coiled on the same log a couple of feet away. I was wearing snake boots, but what good would they have done for a man standing in water over his knees? Had the snake struck at my chest or face, rather than at my arm, which I withdrew so fast the snake's fangs missed, I would have been another statistic in the state with more venomous snakebites than any other in the United States.

As I drove away, remembering some other close encounters of the reptilian kind, I passed a snake. I almost didn't stop, but something about its appearance made me turn the pickup around.

A timber rattler about 30 inches long had flattened itself against the pavement to gather its final warmth in the shadows cast by imminent sunset. At first, it appeared the victim of an automobile tire. But it grudgingly moved when nudged by a long pole.

After switching on the Ford's emergency flashers to warn away several passing pickups, I photographed the beautiful native reptile before prodding it away from the pavement. This timber rattler would survive human conflict for at least one more day.