Monday, July 23, 2012


How to tell a good snake. Little white spots are from shotload pellets.

 Serpents and I have started out with a very rocky relationship. Eventually, however, I got a gun and didn't need those rocks anymore. I must admit that snakes and I do get along much better these days. Gone are the days of "Shoot first, identify later", although this still is the motto of the BATF I'm told. At any rate, I tend to now first identify a snake before I kill it.

Ha, ha. Just a little joke designed to bring forth cries of outrage from city-dwelling liberals who've (a) never even seen a rattlesnake and (b) have a painfully great deal of trouble with the whole satire/sarcasm thing.

In Fort Knox, KY, when me and the boys I ran with were young and dumb and full of come, and also got the shakes if our BAC reached legal limits, there were two particularly annoying snakes to deal with. The copperhead was bad enough, but the water moccasin was even worse. Water moccasins will actually chase your ass when you run away from them. We encountered these beasties training in the field and, more frequently, while fishing.

We fished by wading a stream in tennis shoes and cut-offs, and in such fashion, avoiding the roads, you could get right past any MPs and right into the Restricted Impact Areas. Sure, in an Impact Areas you ran the risk of small arms, tank, artillery, or attack helicopter projectiles of various sorts occasionally flying about. Such is a small price to for really good fishing.

Venomous snakes worried me more than the occasional chunk of steel-encased high explosive flyng around at high velocity, so we started carrying .22 pistols with shot loads after an encounter with a water moccasin. Our policy if we saw a snake in the water with us was to empty our guns into it and then go see what kind it was. It was very bad to be a common water-snake in that place and time.

Eventually, I moved on and sobered up. Now, when gophers eat my garden faster than I can shoot them, I would welcome a nice fat bullsnake. He'd probably look like a sock full of billiard balls in about ten minutes of gopher hunting here. Garter snakes also go unmolested, and that pretty much rounds out the list of what we have around our place now.

While this does not necessarily apply to places like mangrove swamps way down south, generally speaking you can tell the "good" snakes from the bad. A non-venomous critter like a bullsnake, which has the same diamond skin pattern as a ratter at first glance, had a more oval egg-shaped head and perfectly round and perfectly black eyes (like doll's eyes, as Captain Quint would say.) The various rattlesnakes are pit vipers, and such a venomous serpent has a wedge-shaped triangular head, eyes like a cat's eyes, and a ridge over those eyes. Studying a picture of James Carville will give you a pretty good idea of what to look for.

At any rate, I took a float trip with an old pal of mine this past weekend. The canyon we were floating being known for rattlers, I took my trusty 4-inch 629 loaded with with CCI snake shot in the first three chambers in the cylinder. 

We beached the canoe to fish a stretch of rocky shoreline and my buddy went happily bee-bopping off down the shingle. I fished the water right there on the point, making a cast or two and then moving on down a few yards. I was fortunate enough to look down before placing my feet. After my last cast, I looked down to see a rattlesnake about three feet away. He was motionless, and his camouflage pattern blended perfectly into the rocks. The worst part was that although the little bastard was all coiled up with his head back in the ready position to strike, he never rattled. No buzz, no shake, no nothing; he held his tail perfectly still, giving no warning whatsoever. If he had wanted to retreat and disappear back into the grass, he had already had many, many opportunities to un-ass as the AO. 

So when the government tells you silly things like, "Rattlesnakes are shy, retiring creatures. If left alone, they won't bother people." it is yet another reason not to trust them.

I slowly switched my fishing rod to my left hand, slowly drew the S&W, eared back the hammer and hit the varmint center mass on the head. Obviously, .44 Magnum shotloads are a helluva lot more impressive than the .22s we used in days of old. It was like a giant invisible hand just flattened that snake and he never moved afterwards, something I personally have never seen with a dead snake. Being all coiled up ready to strike, some of the pellets penetrated his body multiple times. CCI shotloads come with, in lieu of a conventional bullet, a little plastic canister containing one hundred seventy little #9 birdshot pellets. In effect, they turn your pistol into a short-ranged shotgun.

When my buddy wandered back, he was a little shook that he had walked within a few feet of the snake without noticing it and he vowed to be more careful. 

At the end of the float, we got out at a Montana FWP boat ramp/fishing access/campground. These two city slicker parents with their three little kids, who looked to be about from ages 3-7, were hanging out there, playing in the water and such. So I went over to the pit toilet to make a deposit, figuring enough of the other floaters had left their own floaters in the river. 

On my way back, here was an even bigger diamond back all stretched out across the gravel road right in the middle of the little campground loop. Once more, the SOB coiled up in the ready-to-strike position and once more he held his rattle completely still and silent. That's the part of the whole day that bugged me; the whole no warning thing. Even a nominally attentive person would never know it was there until it struck. In fact, my inattentive buddy almost stepped right on this one too, despite three of us hollering for him to look out.

Anyway, this, says I, is not something the kids should be playing with. Not wanting to fire a shot in the campground area, figuring that would scare the urbanites more than the snake, I went over and told the parents about the rattler.

They were quite interested, the woman saying she had never actually seen a snake before. She was braver than the guy when it came to looking the rattler over; I think at one point he was actually hiding behind his wife. I, of course, offered to turn it into a good snake, more than once. I even offered to use a canoe paddle and an E-Tool to be quiet about it. They declined, saying they would tell the kids to be careful. Eventually, the snake crawled off into a clump of bushes right in the middle of the campground. This satisfied them that all danger was now passed. My buddy later saw it crawl further into the campground to another clump of juniper, and told the urbanites again.

Well, it was their (or their kids') funeral. On the way out of the campground with the canoe on top of the truck, there was yet another freshly-killed rattler on the gravel road.

I'll count that last one too, to make a total of three rattlers in one day (that we saw), none of which gave any warning. So, a hogleg on your hip full of snake shot is always a good companion to have along on your summer fishing trips in Montana. Especially if there's a fire ban in effect due to dry conditions and you can't clear the path ahead of you with your flamethrower.

 Hey Mr. Snake, say hello to my lil' friend.


Jim Fryar said...

"Rattlesnakes are shy, retiring creatures. If left alone, they won't bother people."

Governments must all consult the same experts, ours tells us the same thing about red bellied blacks, king browns, taipans, copper heads, ...

Ben said...

What happens if you've got snake loads in your .44 and you get charged by a grizzly? Guess that's why you've got your Bowie knife.

Bawb said...

Jeez, Ben. You think I carry just ONE gun?

I thought of you and your Aussie reptiles when I was writing this one, Jim. Never knew they also had an Aussie copperhead. You guys have snakes that can kill a man at 30 feet and ones that follow you home and break down your door, don't you?

Now with all this talk, I have to go watch Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" on youtube.

Jim Fryar said...

30 feet is a bit of an exaggeration Bawb, hardly any can strike over 20 and as long as the door is 3 inch thick solid timber the buggers can't get at you.

They did though, inspire A B Patterson to write the following:

Down along the Mooki River, where the overlanders camp, 

And the serpents are in millions, all of a deadly stamp; 

Where the station-cook in terror, nearly every time he bakes, 

Mixes up among the doughboys half a dozen deadly snakes: 

Where the wily free selector walks in armour-plated pants, 

And defies the stings of scorpions, and the bites of bulldog ants: 

Where the adder and the viper tear each other by the throat, 

There it was that William Johnson sought his snakebite antidote. …

Many years ago my grandfather had a close call when a death adder bit his shovel handle, but we figured the handle was the softest thing it could find.

Bawb said...

You guys got any hoop snakes down there?

"Now the Pennsylvania hoop snake is something to be reckoned with. It is long, and its colors vary with the type of whisky you've been drinking. But everyone agrees that you can tell a hoop snake from a regular snake by the way it moves. When a hoop snake travels around, it grabs its tail (with the poison stinger at the end) in its mouth and rolls along until it sees something it wants to sting. Then it whips the stinger out of its mouth quick enough and lashes out with its tail.

One feller I knew, he was hoeing in his field when a hoop snake came rolling towards him. He ducked behind his hoe, figuring he was a goner, but the snake's tail hit the hoe instead of him, and there it stuck. Well, he just high-tailed it out of there right quick and headed for home. He knew he had to to wait until dusk to get his hoe. Hoop snakes what get into fights never die before sundown. Sure enough, he went back after sundown, and that hoop snake was as dead as your average doornail. The handle of the hoe was so swollen up with poison that the farmer had it cut up and shingled his barn with it. 'Course, I happen to know that they all fell off after the first big storm because the rain washed the poison right out of them. But you can't blame a feller for trying."