On Rattlers and Reflexes
Youíre standing on an Idaho trout stream flipping flies to rising rainbows. Suddenly, a ticking buzz sounds off in nearby weeds. RATTLER! Should you:
by Lew Watson
A) Examine the ground at your feet and move calmly away;
B) Beat local weeds into chaff with your new Fenwick, then walk noisily on water to the far shore?
The correct way to handle Idahoís mild-tempered Western rattlers may be A, but most outdoors people I know prefer the more colorful B route. Nature clearly wants us to yell and jump when confronting hidden snakes, not reason it out according to the situation.
Take the time my boyhood pal "Weakeyes Wilkins" and I were hunting rabbits along the Salt River in central Arizona. We were kicking big brushpiles to scare out hidden cottontails, then snap-shooting at them as they dashed away. I was using a .22 and not hitting much, while my nearsighted pal was cleaning up with his double-barrel 16-gauge. It was my turn to do the kicking, but instead of a rabbit scooting away, a hidden diamondback started its thing three feet from my sneakers! Like a young Neanderthal, I leapt straight up -- and just in time too.
The snake probably wouldnít have got me, but the blast from my palís smoothbore fanned my pant leg all too close. Reflex, not reason, saved my bacon that time -- though Iíll grant choosing a safer hunting partner would have helped too.
A friend and I recently had to clean out a local snake den north of Emmett. It was mid-April, and dozens of rattlers were just emerging from winter hibernation. I didnít want to be in that creepy hole in the first place, but the den was a big one and much too close to our rural homes. Using long-handled shovels, we had decapitated about 15 rattlers when I heard a threatening buzz somewhere I knew not where. So I did what any healthy primitive would do -- leap noisily into space from my high perch in hopes I would come down where the snake wasnít.
Even in those snake-filled rocks, I lucked out. So did the rattler, which slithered back into its safe den. I figure it was a fair standoff, but my shovel-wielding buddy still falls down laughing every time he describes my arm-flapping descent. At the time, flying seemed like a real good idea.
Speaking of funny snake stories, did you ever see the TV documentary of a baboon who turns over a rock and discovers a snake coiled there? The terrified primate literally faints -- after letting out a scream and leaping six feet high. He awakens shortly, turns over the rock again and repeats the behavior. Itís a hilarious scene, maybe because it so closely resembles our own reaction to seeing snakes close by.
I was hunting chukars in the Salmon River breaks below Riggins one year, and had paused on a high rock outcropping to eat lunch. The river hundreds of feet below was a lovely silver thread, the September sky clean and hazy-blue, and with several redlegs in my gamebag, all was right with the world.
Then, a small rattler came slithering out of the rocks behind me, and sandwich, banana, and philosophic composure went into low orbit. Ethical decision: to dispatch that blankety-blank reptile in those high, lonely rocks where heíd likely cause nobody further grief. Or, to let him go as the relatively harmless little guy he was. As Hamlet proved long ago, thinking too long on moral issues gets you nowhere -- so the snake escaped back into the rockpile.
Reacting to snakes with reason or reflex is no problem for animals -- reflex wins out every time. We recently spotted a big bullsnake in a sunflower patch and decided to test our Brittanyís snake-sense. We "sicked" the little dog on the snake, which he at first thought was a rarely-allowed mouse or maybe a hidden quail. Then he heard, saw, or smelled the critter at close range and went absolutely airborne. Iím sorry; we laughed.
"Sage" came down spraddle-legged and barking ten feet away. Even when my wife picked up the harmless bullsnake, no amount of "rational" persuasion would get our bristling Brit any closer. Which is really the way it should be.
Probably weíd best just accept our tendency to jump around snakes. In my college days I heard of a young man who regretted he didnít. On our Arizona campus was a major center for poisonous snake study, where numerous big diamondbacks were kept penned in wire cages. One day when the professor was out of the room, the grad student started teasing a caged rattler. He was looking directly into the cage, showing friends he wouldnít flinch even when the agitated snake struck at his face.
Unfortunately, the strike impact released acidic venom which splashed through the wire and into the studentís eyes. He was rushed to the hospital in severe pain and very nearly lost his vision. So much for not jumping around striking snakes!
From time to time Iíve tried to overcome pure reflex around snakes, but I suspect itís a losing cause. Even city-types whoíve never seen a rattler react in the same deep-seated yell-and-jump manner when confronted with critters soft and slithery.
Many years ago I tried to show a female co-worker a handful of plastic fishing worms, new on the market at the time. As I lifted the squirming mass before her face, the poor woman thought she was being attacked by a colony of snakes! She screamed, fell off her stool, and hit her head solidly against a building pillar.
Fortunately, my own snake reflexes were still pretty good. I managed to dodge the womanís hurled staple gun by at least a foot!