More folks are venturing into these woods this summer and the weather is very hot. This combination can spell double-fanged problems for the uninformed. As more sportsmen become urbanized, they seem to be less informed about venomous snakes and their habitats. It’s important to know what to do after you’re bitten, but it’s certainly more important to understand how to improve your chances of not being bitten in the first place.
One should first become acquainted with the varieties of venomous snakes in the area where you walk or fish off the beaten path. The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division has pamphlets about Peach State snakes, and most book stores or libraries are also good sources of information.
Here in Georgia, we have four species of venomous snakes. They are the rattlesnake, coral snake, cottonmouth water moccasin, and copperhead. Though not as abundant as they once were, it still pays, while in the woods, to never put hand, foot, or backside where you haven’t first looked or can’t see.
Don’t believe the stories you hear about snake habits. You might hear that rattlers den up when the temperature hits 50 degrees, but I’ve seen them coiled and buzzing at less than 40. It is also said that rattlers never lay in the open sun. That may be true during hot weather, but they sure do when it’s chilly. Some say that rattlers can’t swim. That too is a misrepresentation! In fact, they swim readily, even in saltwater. Also, cottonmouths can easily bite as well as eat underwater. They can also climb trees.
When in the southern part of Georgia, one should be aware of coral snakes. Though the bite of the small coral snake is very deadly, only the most careless or ignorant could possibly be bitten. The coral snake is a burrower, usually in damp places. It also lies under logs, rocks, trash, or even plant debris in gardens. It is partially nocturnal, but may appear by day. Its bright bands of red, yellow, and black, in that order (“red next to yellow kill a fellow”), make it easy to confuse with harmless varieties like certain king snakes which are also brightly banded, but in the order: red, black, yellow, black. Virtually all coral snake bites occur because someone digs into hiding places with their hands, or picks up the colorful snake. It is not an aggressive reptile.
Conversely, the cottonmouth is one of the most dangerous snakes because it is extremely aggressive. Usually it lives near water where hiding places are abundant, but movement is the only warning given by this vicious snake. A cottonmouth grows quite large and carries a heavy venom load. During periods of drought, cottonmouths may move, seeking water, and adapt to dry weed and brush cover if necessary. During these times, one should move very slowly near dry marshes and ponds. Under such conditions cottonmouths are usually desperate.
All venomous snakes are predominantly nocturnal, so never move around after dark in snake territory without a light. Also, when wading through swamps, stay out of dense floating or emergent vegetation.
The copperhead is a smaller, less water-oriented version of the cottonmouth. It is found all over our state. Though copperhead bites are seldom fatal and the snake itself is rarely aggressive, they should still be considered dangerous. Watch your hands and feet in rocky, hilly country, and along creeks and stream bottoms. Never reach up and grab a ledge without being certain of what’s on it or climb a steep slope where your face may be close to outcrops. The undersides of downed logs are also favorite hiding places. Copperheads are also great vine and tree climbers. They hunt mostly at night, but after warm-weather rains, may be out by day. Copperheads often lie still, despite the nearness of a human. Therefore, they become a worry around hunting camps. Avoiding copperheads means remaining wary and moving slowly. One must always be looking as the copperhead blends in well in the outdoors.
To keep from meeting with one of our venomous reptile friends during this hot weather, always walk in the sunny places. Avoid shadows, even of small, low bushes, which are tailor-made for snake cover. In chilly weather when the sun is warm, be wary of sunny places, especially around rock outcrops, on shale ridges, near animal burrows, or holes in rock or ground. Learn to recognize snake drags in sand. Never follow one into brush to see if you can catch or kill the snake. During cool weather never walk on pavement or dirt roads after dusk without a light. Snakes crawl out of brush to lie on warm roads.
Build your snake sense and trust it! You don’t have to be afraid of the fangs, but a little knowledge and some healthy respect for these creatures could afford you a safer and more enjoyable outdoor experience. Also, please don’t kill snakes unnecessarily. These reptiles are an important part of the total ecosystem, and should be left alone as much as possible.