Abundance of snakes rattles Texas hunters and ranchers

April 28, 1991|By Ray Sasser | Ray Sasser,Dallas Morning News

CAMP VERDE, Texas -- The big rattlesnake's wake resembled the trail of a sinuous motorboat cutting through the clear water of the Cypress Springs Ranch lake in Kerr County about 100 miles west of Austin, Texas.

Occasionally, the sinister reptile would lift its head a foot or so out of the water, apparently to take bearings on the distant bank, about 300 yards away. Why did the rattler cross the lake? That's a mystery. Why didn't the snake simply crawl around the adjacent dam? That's an even bigger mystery.

The 15-minute swim in the chilly waters so debilitated the cold-blooded rattler that it was unable to strike at the group of turkey hunters who had observed what, to a rattlesnake, must have seemed equal to a swim across the English Channel without the traditional coating of grease to conserve body heat.

Wet rattles don't sound too ominous, even when the rattler was able to wanly shake its tail. Laid on a rock in the sun, however, the snake began to recover. Watching the process was like observing a pot of cold water heated slowly to the boiling point.

In 15 minutes, the rattler had regained the energy that makes its kind the scourge of outdoors activities from turkey hunting to hiking in two-thirds of Texas. From Central Texas throughout the Trans-Pecos and the South Texas brush country, it's looking like a peak year for rattlesnakes.

"We usually see a rattlesnake about every two years on this ranch," said Bobby Parker of Tulsa, Okla. His father, Bob Parker Sr., owns Cypress Springs Ranch, where rattlesnake sightings are already ahead of the quota for 1991.

A caretaker on Parker's Glass Ranch hunting lease in Maverick County has reported killing more than 20 rattlesnakes in less than a month while routinely doing ranch chores.

In West Texas, where hunting guide David O'Keeffe was working with a camera crew to make a television show on turkey hunting, a six-foot diamondback crawled into the blind with the camera man, a fellow from the East Coast who didn't know a rattler from a harmless indigo snake.

The filmmaker showed exceptional cool, sitting still in the blind until the snake sensed he was there and set up a buzzing racket that could be heard in the next blind, 30 feet away.

"When the cameraman realized that this was, in fact, a rattlesnake, he set what I believe was a new world record for the standing broad jump," O'Keeffe said.

"I don't believe I've ever seen as many rattlesnakes as we're seeing now."

While fishing at Possum Kingdom Lake in March, fishing guide Paul Descoteaux spotted a rattler sunning on a rock ledge at lakeside. The ledge rock proved to be a classic snake den. On close inspection, one other rattler was soaking up the sun's warm rays just down the ledge and one loop of a smaller snake's coils was visible under the overhanging ledge.

The danger of rattlesnake bite is grossly exaggerated, even in Texas, where snakes continue to be relatively plentiful despite the attitude of most humans that the only good snake is a dead snake. If rattlesnakes made a conscious effort to bite every human they have a shot at, we would all wear the ugly scars of a snakebite.

The majority of bites probably occur at snake-handling programs associated with the various rattlesnake roundups or when people such as Kerrville wildlife biologist Steve Warner, who is fascinated with snakes, try to catch a rattler.

Warner had a close call last year when he spotted an exceptionally large rattler in a prickly pear patch, eased through a narrow corridor in the thorny pear, and pinned the snake's head with a stick.

Warner reached down and grabbed the snake in the classic behind-the-head grasp whereupon the rattler coiled the remainder of its thick body around Warner's leg and used that anchor point to try and twist its head loose from the biologist's grip.

"You can't believe how strong a big snake is," Warner said. "There were a few seconds there where I wasn't sure I'd be able to hold on. With the snake wrapped around my leg, there was no way I could turn loose without getting bit."

Warner eventually won the bizarre arm-wrestling contest and unwound the rattler from his leg. He'll be the first to admit that his close call was his own fault for tempting fate in the first place.

Most people prefer to give rattlers they can see a wide berth and protect themselves against snakes they can't see. Knee high, snake-proof boots are common garb among ranchers who live in snake country and work in the field every day.

Leggings made of heavy cordura nylon are a good alternative, and Thomaston Mills, the company that makes the popular Rattlers Brand snake-proof leggings, has a new model called Snake-proof Gaiters that conveniently wrap around the wearer's legs and secure with Velcro, making them easy to put on and take off.

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