The Proper Care and Feeding of Rattlesnakes
First, a disclaimer. I absolutely hate snakes of any kind. They give me a combined case of the heebie-jeebies and the holy molies. I think the guys on TV who catch them bare-handed are nuts. My heart does not go out to their plight as depicted by environmetalists. Although I have never personally been to the World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, TX, I support the effort in spirit. I have no desire to touch snakes or make them pets, put after going hunting a few times last year, I am hooked. Here is how it started.
I met an old one-armed man named Bill who mentioned that he hunted rattlesnakes. He did bull-dozer work for us at the ranches. He is a little crazy, but if you're curious he lost his arm in an accident- not to a snake. In his history of hunting snakes he has sold about 23,000 pounds to the Roundup in Sweetwater. 23,000 pounds! He catches them in the winter and sells them in the spring. In the meantime, he just tosses them into an old abondoned schoolhouse he owns out in the boonies. They are not caged. That is not a big problem during the winter, but in the spring as it becomes warm they get a little annoyed.
One day I mentioned to him that I would like to watch him catch snakes from a respectable distance because it blew my mind that someone would actually do such a thing. I still remember his response.
"Well, he**. Ya ain't much good a watchin'. If you're goin' your gonna carry the da** bucket and a stick! Da** city slicker..."
Well, that idea did not appeal to me, but then about a year ago my family had taken our neighbors with us to the ranch and Bill was there with his equipment. As it often does, the subject of snake hunting came up. He said he knew of a den where we could drive up pretty close in a 4x4 and the kids might even be able to watch from the safety of the truck. He reiterated, however, that I would not be so lucky. On a whim (and perhaps because my neighbor, Steve, was pretty keen to go) I agreed.
We drove over to a part of the ranch just below the summit of the Safe Place for those of you who have been. I got as close as I could with the truck and then we climbed the rest of the way up to a rocky ledge on the side of a steep drop off.
When it is winter time, the snake will gather in a den under ground and hibernate until spring. They are not aggressive in this state. Using mirrors, we reflect the sun's rays into holes and when you see diamonds reflecting back at you, you know you have found a den. When that is the case, we agitate the den and the snakes crawl out. It gets interesting when you are on a cliff or in a cactus patch, but when they come out you use a grabber to pick them up and put them in a can. The grabber I bought is about 2 1/2 feet long. The short ones are easier to use if you're in a tight spot.
At that first den, ten snakes came out. As they wake up and warm up in the sun they become a little more agitated, but catching them is best while they are still groggy. The next den we went to was harder to reach so the families did not go to that one. We caught 23 there. At the bottom of that mountain, Bill dumped them all out on the ground.
"Are you crazy?" I asked him, even though I knew that was a loaded question.
He explained that that many snakes in a can will suffocate and a dead snake is worthless to him. He wanted them to get some air. Well, by now the ones who could breathe were rather bothered by the events of their day and were rattling and coiling up. Bill said when they were doing that they were breathing fine and ready to go back in the can. Actually he said if they struck at us they were feeling better and could be loaded back up. So, because I was drunk on adrenaline at the time, we walked among them pestering them with sticks until they struck or tried to get away at which point we would put them back in the can. As I look back on that, I can't believe it was real.
By the end of the day we had caught a total of 40 snakes and I was hooked. I went a few more times last year and now that we have had a good cold snap it's time to go again this year. There's a hunt this weekend, but I will be out of town so perhaps next weekend. It really is fun and I have learned a lot. If you are around here during the winter and curious, perhaps you can go too. Bill is a crazy old mountain man built about 100 years too late, but he has never been bitten nor has anyone in his company.
Now all of that having been said, I need to offer one caveat. I do not want anyone to think that Highland members are now into snake handling as a sanctioned church activity. Although, if I get Mike to go, perhaps that will change. After all, one of Lynn Anderson's sons was bitten by one he caught several years ago.