During the past quarter century of sorties afield, I have been fortunate when it comes to close encounters of a venomous kind.
A few cold -- or lonely -- cottonmouths have attempted to cozy up in a boat with me, and there have been brief (very!) ownership disputes with rattlesnakes concerning dove and quail I had just shot.
I have shared the agony and helplessness of dogs (and their owners) that have been struck by a rattlesnake, but there have been no real personal close calls. This lack of personal fanged folly has not stopped my wondering what I would do if a poisonous snake bit me or someone nearby.
Along the way, snakes will be looking for food or returning to their den. Hunters should be especially alert to filling their ground feeders, and should always stop, look and listen prior to reaching into the tall grass or sunflowers to retrieve a dove or quail.
When autumn arrives, the pit vipers -the bad guys of the snake populace- are residents of nearly every terrestrial habitat within their range, occurring in a variety of rural environments. This is especially true where cover and small-mammal prey are available. Rattlesnakes go where the food is. The rattlesnake is naturally camouflaged, has no odor, and contrary to popular belief the skin is soft and dry. Hibernating in dens, the rattlers sometimes number several hundred. While they may not be able to see beyond 12 feet, and are deaf, they do play a major role in eliminating rodents.
Rattlers feed mostly on mammals, from mice to the largest adult cottontails and young jackrabbits. Ground-foraging birds are also on their menu. They only roam from their dens for up to a mile, but can travel up to three miles per hour for short periods of time. Adults average three to four feet in length, but there have been huge eastern diamondbacks reported and western diamondbacks from the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas have been measured at nearly 7-1/2 feet. Since many diamondbacks have spent long lives -- the record is nearly 26 years -- in confinement without reaching remarkable size, extremely large specimens are true genetic giants rather than simply very old snakes.
Just thinking about crossing paths with a rattlesnake rattles some folks. No other animal is the subject of as many myths and half-truths as the rattler. They have been the source of fear, folklore and sometimes worship, since their first encounter with mankind. Everything from size and dangerous venom to feats of cunning and nasty temperament have been exaggerated through centuries of legends.
One might question their sanity, but the folks in San Antonio, Florida and Sweetwater, Texas, and other places staged annual "rattlesnake roundups." More than one person has been or will be bitten in the process, but a number of good things come out of the events. One of them is venom research.
Wherever outdoor people gather, snake tales are told. Like fish stories, they grow more grandiose with the telling, and somewhere underneath the ornamentation of the tale there may be an actual observation.
Rattlesnakes are aggressive predators and highly venomous, but they are not the malicious, cunning creatures as some would have you believe. With humans and large animals, the rattler's position is defensive. It will seek only to protect itself and will seldom pursue a perceived danger. It will lie silent when approached in an effort to remain unseen. Only when there is imminent danger will it vibrate its rattles and assume a striking position. However, it does not always rattle a warning, nor does it need to be coiled to strike.
Most bites, in the outdoors, occur when a person steps on a naturally camouflaged rattler. Due in part to antivenin, rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal. Though very painful, less than one out of a thousand result in death. Many are dry bites, meaning that the snake injected no venom -- it might have been depleted on a recent kill. Rattlers can control venom flow, and may conserve when biting for self-protection. But never count on it.
Hunters, hikers and backpackers are more likely to come upon a rattlesnake than any other outdoor adventurer. My first advice to the hunter is to invest in a good pair of snake chaps if you are going to be hunting, hiking or backpacking in what you know is "snake country". What should you do if you encounter a rattlesnake? Give the rascal the right-of-way. Observe it from a distance and give a wide berth. Never try to handle one, even if it's dead. Fangs still contain dangerous poison even after death.
Effectively, rattlesnake envenomation is characterized by immediate severe pain, accompanied by swelling, weakness, sweating and chills, faintness or dizziness, elevation or depression of pulse rate, nausea and vomiting, and swelling of the regional lymph nodes. Yet, few people die from rattlesnake bites.
Dr. Thomas Glass, Jr. of San Antonio, Texas, has seen and treated more than 600 poisonous snake bites during the past 40 years and has been consulted on about 600 others he did not personally treat. Because he practices medicine in the ecological range of the western diamondback rattlesnake, one of the most dangerous of U.S. pit vipers, many of the bites he has treated have been very serious.
"Forget the Western-movie 'cutting the wound then sucking out the venom," says Glass, "for half the time people will cut tendons." The first thing a person should do is remove all jewelry, as swelling is rapid and significant. Then it's time to get to the doctor.
Glass warns against any first aid and treatment that may do more damage than the snakebite itself, so speed in getting medical help is the primary concern. Snakebite damage begins the minute the venom is injected and may continue for hours.
While being snakebit is always paramount in the mind of most outdoor's enthusiasts, far more snakes are encountered uneventfully than otherwise. When outdoors, remember that snakes perform an important function keeping down rats, mice and other vermin. Snakes should be avoided and not killed unless you have no choice.
If you live in an area known to be frequented by snakes, you can minimize their presence around your home by eliminating the things that attract them. Wood piles should be moved away from the house in the spring. Tall weeds should be mowed and access to cool, secluded areas, like under buildings, should be sealed up. Finally, eliminate food sources that might draw them into your yard.
To protect your legs, check out our selection of Snake Boots
Your complete source for more Cabela's News, and updated hunting and fishing articles.