I remember the time I got snake-bit, over 60 years ago, as clearly as if it were yesterday.
My cousin Jerry and I were wading in the spillway below his family’s farm pond when we saw a snake slither underneath a rock. Being normal five-year-old boys, we naturally felt compelled to catch it.
We devised a simple plan: Jerry would lift the rock and I would grab the snake.
Jerry lifted and I grabbed.
The snake, about two feet long, twisted around and clamped down on my finger. I let out a yelp and slung it away.
I don’t remember if the bite hurt or not – probably not. It was a harmless water snake, aggressive but non-venomous. I doubt that its rows of tiny teeth even broke the skin.
All I knew was that I’d gotten snake-bit, and it scared the daylights out of me. I had watched enough Westerns on TV to know what a snake-bite meant: a one-way trip to Boot Hill.
I sat down on a log and waited for the end while Jerry went off and picked me some huckleberries to comfort my passing.
An hour later I wasn’t dead. My finger didn’t even hurt. I had somehow dodged the Grim Reaper. Relieved, Jerry and I got our cane poles and went bluegill fishing.
I was lucky. If the snake had been one of the three venomous species in Tennessee (cottonmouth, copperhead and rattlesnake) I would have been in trouble. Years after my experience a teenaged buddy was bitten on his finger by a copperhead and today – a half-century later – the finger is still stiff and unusable.
Springtime means snake time in Tennessee, and outdoorsmen need to be on the lookout. Experts claim that most snake-bites occur when someone is messing with the reptile, trying to catch or kill it – as I can attest from my personal experience.
In Tennessee it’s illegal to kill any snake, whether it’s one of the state’s 30 non-venomous species or one of the three venomous ones. (Wildlife officials make an exception if a venomous snake presents a clear and present danger.)
There is an interesting story about snakes in the spring issue of Tennessee Wildlife Magazine, written by Brian Flock. I disagree with Brian one point, however: he states that “cottonmouths are found west of Nashville and primarily west of the Tennessee River.”
I grew up a hundred miles to the east, on the Cumberland Plateau, and cottonmouths were occasionally encountered around area waters . My uncle killed a monster while fishing on Daddy’s Creek one summer, and I discovered one coiled under an over-tuned boat on a the shore of a swampy lake. It threw open its mouth, white as a cotton ball, before I dropped the boat and retreated.
As Brian points out in his story, identifying the state’s venomous species is simple. They have vertical “cat’s-eye” pupils, while non-venomous species’ pupils are round. Venomous species have pits below their nostrils (hence the term “pit vipers”) and a distinguishing arrowhead-shaped head created by venom pouches in the jaws.
If bitten by a snake that you can’t identify (in the dark, for example, or in tall grass) you’ll know immediately if it is venomous. There will be two fang-puncture wounds – occasionally only one — and the pain will start instantly and become more intense by the minute.
Medical attention should be sought immediately. Don’t waste time trying to kill the snake for identification; it’s not required for treatment, and another bite might result. Also don’t attempt any home treatments such as cutting incisions over the bites, sucking out the venom or applying tourniquets. Such practices waste valuable time and can do more harm than good.
The best solution, of course, is to leave snakes alone and watch your step.
Larry Woody is The Democrat’s outdoors writer. Email him at [email protected]