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Snakes and the Florida outdoors: learn to share the woods and waters safely with some hunters of a different stripe.

Perhaps the most frequent questions posed to outdoorsmen in Florida concern the dangers and likelihood of encountering snakes. Our state's reputation for being a locale "crawling" with snakes is deep rooted even though it is not particularly accurate. A week or ten days in the mountains of Colorado in August or September usually turns up more sightings of poisonous snakes than I'm likely to equal in an entire year in the Florida wilds.

The vast majority of Florida's snakes are not poisonous. The four poisonous snakes found throughout most of the peninsula are diamondback rattlesnakes, pigmy rattlesnakes, water moccasins and coral snakes. Canebrake rattlers and copperheads may be sighted in the northern reaches of the state. The most common snakes encountered in the central part of the state are black racers, ribbon snakes, yellow rat snakes, banded water snakes, red rat snakes, pigmy rattlers, and an occasional indigo. Less frequently we find diamondback rattlesnakes, crawfish snakes, garter snakes, grass snakes, water moccasins, coral snakes, hognose snakes and mud snakes. Sighting a coachwhip or king snake is a rare and special treat.

Water moccasins have an exceptionally nasty and wholly unearned reputation for aggressiveness. In truth, they are docile and demonstrate a reluctance to strike people. The very act that has fostered them their common name, cottonmouths, opening their mouths widely and thereby displaying the startlingly white interiors, is merely a way to make them more visible as their coloration blends easily with many backgrounds. It is basically a flag of warning. With scores of years spent in their habitats, I've never witnessed a single aggressive moccasin. My experiences are corroborated by William Faulkner and others who have written descriptions of high grounds during floods being shared closely by both people and moccasins with no untoward incidents. Both populations coexisted peaceably even though at times they were in physical contact.

Almost all Floridians bitten by snakes are actually handling them at the time. I witnessed one such incident near Inverness when a friend had caught a small rattler and was showing it to several bystanders. Somehow the little snake twisted its head enough to stab a fang into my friend's finger. His reaction was immediate, flinging his captive violently away. Things could have gotten bad then as the snake landed directly on a female onlooker. By good fortune it simply dropped to the ground and made for cover. Happily too, my friend must have received only a tiny bit of venom for his symptoms were not severe; his finger and wrist swelled almost instantly and within two hours his forearm was swollen as well. By evening the lymph nodes in his armpit became enlarged and tender, but all symptoms started to ebb by the following morning.

In Gainesville about 1982, a man was holding a large diamondback that managed to get a wrap or two around his arm and used the purchase it afforded to try to pull his head from the man's grasp. The grasp must have been quite strong for the snake actually pulled so hard that it tore its own skin from its neck and slipped free to bite the man in the face. It is hard to fathom the strength of these creatures once they have a secure position from which to pull. Just recently, I heard of another diamondback biting its handler's face, but I'm unsure of the details of this case. The best way to avoid snake bite is to avoid handling snakes.

That acknowledged, there are still some snake bites from accidents in the wild. This past season in central Florida, a hunter jumped down from his stand directly onto a large diamondback that responded with a tremendous strike, hitting the man's leg near the ankle. The hunter was airlifted to the hospital and survived. The first two days were critical and it was seven days before he could be released from the hospital. Regaining the use of his leg took months.

Once, in St. Marks, I climbed a tree in the predawn inkiness. Upon descending later, I discovered a small diamondback coiled at the base of my chosen tree. My assumption is that it had been present the entire time and had I inadvertently placed my foot on it a bite may have followed. However, it should be noted that certainly my foot had been within twelve inches of its coiled body when I first got down and may have been earlier as I rigged my stand. My close proximity failed to provoke the reptile. Incidentally, I probably walked no more than two hundred yards from the stand when I found a second diamondback. This may seem at odds with my earlier denial of Florida being a land full of poisonous snakes, but this was in a national wildlife refuge. In the Sixties on Merritt Island, my buddy and I thought of ourselves as snake hunters and we commonly found several rattlers in a day, but since then, other than the account just described, I can think of no other day I came across more than one diamondback in a day.

Another time, looking down from a stand I had climbed before light, I spied a lethargic yellow rat snake. Both of these incidences occurred during cool snaps and I suspect the snakes were too torpid to retreat as they normally would from the vibrations heralding my approach.

Overall, I find diamondbacks to be mellow and very reluctant to strike. The color patterns of Florida's pit vipers are helpful in keeping them from discovery by potential prey or by predators, but render them susceptible to being accidentally trod on by larger creatures. As vivid and pretty as the diamondback pattern is, it blends in remarkably well and quite often I have failed to discern one from near at hand. Just as moccasins utilize the stark whiteness of their mouths to become more noticeable, rattlers use their rattles and the resulting buzz definitely catches one's attention! Again, it serves to help the snake avoid resorting to its fangs. Most diamondbacks will endure a great deal of provocation without striking. I have moved many to better lighting for photography with nothing more than an arrow shaft without once eliciting a strike or mock strike.

In addition to the attention-grabbing buzz of their rattles, diamondbacks are capable of an amazingly vociferous hiss. I was once walking in knee-high ferns in the swamp bottom and in mid-pace heard a tremendously loud and forceful hiss directly below my elevated foot. I somehow managed to twist enough for my foot to come down behind me and to the right without totally losing my balance. From the explosiveness of the expelled air, I expected something huge in the ferns like a big 'gator or at least a giant snapping turtle, but discovered only a diamondback. Although thick and mature, he was barely five feet long. He never rattled, but his hiss saved me from a likely accident. It was almost as if he realized his buzz wouldn't stop me in time.

On the matter of size, diamondbacks may approach eight feet in length. Famous Florida snake expert Ross Allen had a sizeable reward for many, many years for one over eight feet that was never collected so it is unlikely they actually exceed that measurement. They do get big. Most snakes I have seen or caught, I failed to measure, but I have measured one 6 feet, 11 inches and one 7 feet, 2 inches. Each of these snakes looked almost unbelievably huge.

In the early Seventies, my younger brother ran over a big diamondback with his bicycle on a sandy trail. He saw it too late to avoid it, but it did not strike. His friends and he dispatched the snake and brought it to me for skinning. There was a puzzling bulge in its belly. It was large and seemed almost like two connected lumps. You can imagine our astonishment when we discovered the rattler had eaten a small dog.

While this is the only case I know of a dog being eaten, dogs are not infrequently struck. It seems their tendency to sniff and nose stationary reptiles often proves too much of a provocation. Our lab, Jody, had two close calls on two successive days. She accompanied me around a marshy pond in quest of snipe. One sprang up, issuing its little "mreenk!" as it winged quickly and erratically away, but dropped to the .410's blast. At the "Fetch!" command, Jody leapt excitedly into action, but stopped about half way to where I had marked the bird to drop. The needlegrass was too tall to see much of her, only sketchy outlines of her back and tail, but some sense warned me and, commanding Jody to "Leave it," I ran forward to discover a very large moccasin coiled and showing its cottonmouth. How closely Jody had investigated it, I can't say. My inspection of Jody revealed no bite or wound on her. Regardless, I was shaky and thankful for the docility of the big snake.

Little did I realize I would be five times as shaky and thankful the next day. Again we were snipe hunting and Jody was heeling. Noting a diamondback moving toward us just barely in front of me, I halted and said, "Careful, Jody!" She stopped as well, but then stepped in front of me turning around to look up into my face in a questioning way. To my absolute horror, I saw her paws land on the snake in two places and push its body down into the mud. The snake's head was within a few inches of her belly, but it did not strike. I bent, reached under her chest and abdomen, and hoisted Jody up and carried her back a safe distance. After a moment or two to realize she was alright (and to let my nerves calm), I went to the truck, retrieved a camera, and photographed an incredibly tolerant diamondback. It was not over four feet, probably a bit less and it was not a very thick or heavy snake. I cannot help harboring a very warm feeling for it, remembering the head and neck so close to Jody's belly and the image of the snake's body being pushed down into the muddy earth.

Rattlesnakes are good swimmers. Several times, I've seen them in the Banana River and I recall that one was found nearly ten miles offshore in the Atlantic.

While diamondbacks are typically reluctant to strike if not severely provoked, their relatives, pigmy rattlers, share no such inhibitions. Despite their diminutive size, they are quick to anger. In addition, their tiny rattles make less noise and thereby provide very little audible warning. While most do flee when approached or remain coiled, a few aggressively attack when someone treads too near. In the past half century, I have witnessed this at least seven times. Sometimes they have rushed toward me when I was still more than twelve feet away. These instances were when the pigmies were discovered on dirt roads with a complete absence of cover and it may be the snakes felt exposed and vulnerable. Once I had a video camera pointed at one as I walked toward it. The little viper was stationary until I was five or six feet from it when it launched a fast and determined charge. I bent and aimed the camera near ground level and the rushing snake immediately and repeatedly struck the lens. Rivulets of venom were running down the lens. The belligerent snake struck fifteen to twenty times in not much more than that many seconds. I was elated with the presumed incredible video footage until I realized I had somehow either never activated the record button or else had bumped it off. Regardless, I activated it then and the snake obliged me with at least another twelve direct strikes at the lens that left venom visibly flying and running before it realized I was behind the camera. At this point it started lunging and striking around the small camera attempting to reach the hand and arm operating the recorder and coming close enough I could no longer keep the camera near it. The resulting footage is remarkable and it is hard to watch the replay and not flinch. Even more amazing is the speed of the striking head. It is truly too fast to see. One instant the head is back and the next the lens is struck! (To contrast the two rattlers' differing temperaments, I have held the same video camera within five inches of the head of a very large diamondback while it was coiled and buzzing vehemently without the snake making any attempt to strike.)

Two harmless snakes mimic vipers. The first is the banded water snake which, when large, can flatten its head into a very convincing triangular shape. Unfortunately, this mimicry has caused many of these snakes to be killed by people mistaking them for moccasins. These are the snakes that often go after a bass fisherman's plastic worm. The other harmless imitator is the hognose snake, one of the most interesting snakes in our area. When interfered with it typically hisses and spreads a hood to make it appear dangerous. If the interference persists, the hognose snake rolls over and plays dead usually with its mouth open and tongue hanging out. My daughter and I watched this sequence once and after a few minutes the snake re-lifted its head only to see we were still nearby and promptly laid it back down and resumed its play of "possum."

Coral snakes are reclusive so while not uncommon, are seldom seen. Their bright colors ("red-touch-yellow") act as a warning not unlike the diamondback's buzz and the moccasin's stark mouth. A friend of mine set his tree stand in a cabbage palm in Bull Creek. While he sat waiting and hoping for the appearance of game, he heard a small noise in the fronds above and, with a plop, a brilliant red, black and yellow snake that had fallen from above landed on his lap! He lost no time knocking it to the ground where he then saw it was only the similarly colored, but harmless scarlet king snake. Regardless, his heart rate was up for another minute or so! No tale of anyone not handling a coral snake being bitten has ever come to my attention.

Florida environments are home to some snakes, but rather than posing extreme danger or impeding participation in outdoor pursuits, they offer an additional enticement to sportsmen to witness these interesting and beautiful creatures.
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Author:Lewis, Tim
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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