How to ID and Avoid Venomous Snakes
As bowhunters, we like to think we’re the most dangerous predators in the woods. Maybe so, but other species can harm or kill us.
Consider snakes, for example. Many folks irrationally fear all snakes, venomous or not. Little grass snakes frighten those with ophidiophobia, but they won’t hurt you. If you’re careless, however, venomous rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, copperheads and coral snakes can inflict great harm.
Venomous snakes are usually considered desert dwellers, but they’re more widespread than many people realize. Arizona and Texas are hotbeds for these reptiles. Arizona, in fact, has 13 species of rattlesnakes. But every state except Alaska is home to at least one species of venomous snake. Further, the Western Hemisphere has over 30 rattlesnake species, many of which live in the United States.
Rattlers are known for their namesake tails, which rattle when a snake feels threatened. Although their size and color varies, they’re thick-bodied snakes with spade-shaped heads. Most species have dark bands, diamonds or rhombuses on light tan or gray backgrounds. Length varies from 18 inches to over8 feet.
Rattlers live throughout the Southwest, but some species range all the way to southern Canada. The greatest variety of rattlers lives in the South, with generally fewer species to the north and east. Some of the most common, and potentially harmful, species include the timber, prairie, western diamondback and eastern diamondback rattlers.
Rattlesnakes often – but not always – coil and make their namesake rattling sound when feeling threatened. If you hear this unmistakable sound, freeze and try to locate the snake before taking another step. Once you spot it, you can usually retreat safely. Snakes generally avoid confrontation if given space.
Cottonmouths, or water moccasins, live in swamps and other wet areas in the Southeast. Cottonmouths have thick bodies and large, triangular-shaped heads. Their markings vary. They might have dark crossbands on brown or yellow backgrounds, or less visible or even absent crossbands on black or dark brown backgrounds. Juveniles are usually lighter in color, with more distinctive markings. Adults can be 2 to 4 feet long. Cottonmouths are aggressive, but often hiss and open their mouths with fangs bared, revealing the cotton-white mouths for which they’re named. If you hear their warning, stop, assess and retreat.
Copperheads have copper-colored heads and hourglass-shaped chestnut markings on a light-tan background. They average 2 to 3 feet in length. Copperheads generally aren’t aggressive, and often freeze when threatened. Their coloration creates excellent camouflage, so they’re hard to see when stationary. Their venom is relatively mild, and they often don’t deliver it on the first strike. Copperheads are found in Eastern states, but absent from the northern Midwest to the Northeast, as well as southern Georgia and Florida.
Coral snakes are strikingly colored, with red, yellow and black bands. The adage “red next to yellow can kill a fellow; red next to black is a friend of Jack” can distinguish this species from the nonvenomous scarlet king snake. Coral snakes are reclusive and generally retreat from humans, so they rarely bite. When they do strike, they must chew their victim to fully inject their venom.
Bites from coral snakes cause little pain or swelling at the site, and symptoms often don’t appear for hours. However, they can be deadly. Only the black mamba has more potent venom. Neurotoxins in the venom cause slurred speech, double vision and muscular paralysis if bites aren’t treated.
Venomous snakes often dwell along logs, on rocks or in tall grass. Most hikers can avoid such sites, but hunters often leave trails and walk through snake cover. Look around before sitting down in snake country, and keep your ears tuned for rattling or hissing. Use a walking stick, and probe heavy cover before moving through it.
It’s also a good idea to don snakeproof boots or chaps in snake country, and carry a venom-extractor kit. These kits are lightweight and inexpensive. You’ll likely never need it, but you’ll be glad you packed one if you do.
Stay aware to prevent snake encounters. It’s important to know how to deal with attacks when they occur. If you get bit, try to remain calm. Identify the species if possible, but don’t put yourself in harm’s way for a better look. Keep still and call for help. You must try to slow the flow of venom through your bloodstream. If you must rescue yourself, then do so. Keep the wound below your heart to slow the venom’s spread. Tightly wrap a bandage a couple of inches above the wound to further reduce venom flow, but don’t make it a tourniquet.
Wash the bite with soap and water if possible. Remove rings and watches because swelling will likely occur. Use your venom-extraction kit to remove some of the poison. Get to a hospital as soon as possible for an anti-venin to counteract the venom.
Deaths by snakebites are rare, but it pays to be cautious whenever bowhunting in snake country. Stay vigilant and remain calm if you spot a snake. That approach is good for hunters and snakes alike.