For the average person, chances of a potentially dangerous snake encounter are small. But those of us who hunt, fish, hike and work in the outdoors, are at greater risk because many of the areas we frequent are prime snake habitat. Serpents are shy by nature and do their best to avoid humans, but an unnerving close call with a snake can happen when you least expect it, no matter how experienced you are in the outdoors or how often you are out there. Whether you’re bow hunting, shed hunting, stalking big game, or turkey hunting in a southern swamp or the Texas brush country, you might stumble across a venomous snake, so be prepared. According to herpetologists, there are four groups of venomous snakes in the United States: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths/water moccasins and coral snakes.
About 30 species of rattlesnakes inhabit a variety of environments across the U.S. In the eastern half of the country, the timber rattler thrives on rocky ridges and mountain sides from 1,000 to 3,000 feet in elevation. Further south, the timber snake, along with its close relative the eastern diamondback, are at home in swamps and thick, mixed forests. Five different species of western rattlers live in diverse habitats from sea level to 9,000 feet–from the desert to rocky hillsides and canyons, on grassy coastal plains and in conifer forests.
Copperheads are the most numerous and most frequently encountered venomous snake, and have bitten more people in the United States than any other pit viper. Copperheads range from southern New England, south to the southeastern U.S. and west through the Ozarks and into Texas. Their young are hatched between August and mid-September, which is prime time for humans to trek into their their territory.
Cottonmouths are also pit vipers and range roughly from the Carolinas west to Oklahoma and south to Florida and Texas.
Smallest but deadliest of North America’s venomous snakes are two species of coral snake, which belong to the same family as cobras, sea snakes and mambas. Coral snakes are often confused with non-venomous king snakes due to their similar colored band patterns. You can easily distinguish the two if you remember the phrase: “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, friend to Jack.” There really is some truth to that rhyme.
KNOW WHERE SNAKES LIVE
Wherever you roam, know where rattlesnakes live and especially remember the word “rocks.” Prominent rocky ridges marked with crevices, ledges, and shady dens are all great hiding spots for snakes. Keep an eye peeled as you traverse rocky habitat. If you’re turkey hunting, always check the ground near your setup tree and inside your ground blind before sitting down to call a gobbler. Check the brush at the base of a tree with a stick. Probe the brush with your pole or shooting stick before reaching too close. Many times hunters don’t follow the beaten path that hikers take. When off-trail, avoid thick brush in the woods where a snake might be hiding. The rattlesnake is an ambush predator that hides and coils beside logs and rocks. When you walk up to a fallen tree or large stone, step up on it rather than over it, as there could be a snake lurking on the other side. After ankles and legs, most snake bites occur on hands and arms, so never put your hands in spots where you can’t see what might be hiding there. If you come upon a steep stretch of trail that requires scrambling up and over rocks, check each ledge or crevice.
If you ever hear a rattle or see a snake, back slowly away with no sudden movements. Hold your trekking pole or stick between you and the snake, if you have one. If it lunges, it will go for the pole rather than you. Keep in mind sometimes they rattle, sometimes not, you never know. Beware of silent slitherers! When you are safely away, calm down, catch your breath, make a big detour around the snake and mosey on to enjoy your hike or hunt.
WHAT TO DO IF BITTEN BY A SNAKE
If you are bitten, the Mayo Clinic advises:
- Call 911 immediately or get yourself to a hospital as quickly as possible.
- While waiting for medical help, stay calm and position the body so that the bite is at or below heart level.
- Remove jewelry or tight clothing before swelling starts.
- DO NOT apply ice or a tourniquet on or near the bite.
- DO NOT cut the wound or attempt to suck out the venom.
- DO NOT drink caffeine or alcohol, which could speed the body's absorption of venom.
PREVENT SNAKE BITE
Just like you learn in the Scouts, preparation and prevention are key. Always wear long pants and snake chaps or snake gaiters with thick footwear that fangs cannot penetrate. Knee-high snake proof boots are a good alternative to wearing gaiters if you prefer. We have all heard the basic hunter safety lessons thousands of times and unfortunately, over time we can become complacent. When this happens, the chances of an accident can drastically increase. Safety should always come first, so take time to review not only firearm safety, but basic first aid and these tips on snake bite prevention as well. And please pass your knowledge down to new hunters.