Snakes in the grass – and elsewhere

Coral snakes are one of the poisonous snakes found in the Carolinas.
Coral snakes are one of the poisonous snakes found in the Carolinas. MCT

Most humans have a fear, often an excessive one, of snakes. In truth, many snakes are beneficial.

When I was a boy, farmers welcomed having a black snake around their corn crib because it kept the mouse and rat populations in control. It was just important to keep black snakes, corn snakes, king snakes, and, indeed, serpents in general away from chickens. Once they develop a taste for eggs they can be frightful pests.

I was taught to leave “good” snakes alone, and we didn’t for a moment subscribe to the idea that “the only good snake is a dead snake.”

On the other hand, copperheads were not welcome and died when encountered.

It makes good sense to take drastic measures with copperheads around the house, in the garden area or the like. There’s simply too great a likelihood of being bitten.

Any sportsman who spends much time in the woods is going to encounter a poisonous snake. Portions of the Carolinas are home to copperheads, rattlesna

kes, cottonmouths and coral snakes. Around here, one might occasionally encounter a rattlesnake, but copperheads are the primary pit viper in our area. (Coral snakes are not pit vipers but are poisonous.)

These poisonous snakes are plentiful around old barns, brush and stacks of trash and are often found near homes.

The first, obvious step when moving through snake country is to take sensible precautions. Watch where you step, particularly when climbing over downed logs, moving along rock outcrops or walking in thick cover.

High-top boots are also worth considering. I’ve worn them when turkey hunting in Texas because there simply were too many rattlesnakes for my comfort level.

In the case of cottonmouths, you should also be especially cautious around or on streams where old “no shoulders” lives.

There aren’t cottonmouths in this immediate area, but they are plentiful not too far away – the fall line as you head seawards is generally considered the upper boundary of South Carolina cottonmouths. The species loves to sun on low limbs overhanging blackwater streams or atop flotsam or debris left along river banks in times of high water.

Sound woodsmanship dictates the ability to identify poisonous snakes. In the case of rattlesnakes and, to a slightly lesser degree, cottonmouths, identification isn’t really much of a problem. However, both copperheads and the reclusive coral snake are often confused with harmless reptiles.

When it comes to the likelihood of an up-close encounter with poisonous snakes, copperheads head the list by a wide margin.

I’ve found them caught in netting protecting strawberries in my garden twice over the years, stuck my hand within inches of one when weeding, found one against the foundation of my home, twice spotted them while mowing the lawn, and on three occasions had encounters while moving brush. Mind you, I live in a developed area, although there are plenty of woods mixed in with houses and lawns.

Copperheads are not overly aggressive, but by the same token, they are not a creature to be trifled with.

Cottonmouths are another story. They will sometimes almost charge a boat, and don’t expect one to yield an inch if encountered on a trail or a log being used to cross a creek.

Rattlesnakes give a warning sound (thus the name) when alarmed or agitated, while humans seldom encounter coral snakes.

If you are bitten by a snake, or with someone who is, there are several steps to take. First and foremost, remember that bites from these species are almost never fatal. Of roughly 8,000 people bitten annually in the United States, only five on average die.

Keep the person who has been bitten calm, minimize their activity – panic will make matters worse – and do not take the once-common approach of cutting the bite area and trying to suck out venom.

Clean the bite area and get to a hospital or medical treatment facility as soon as possible. Be sure to identify the snake – if there is any doubt, kill it – so the right antivenin can be used. It is a good idea to call on the way so medical personnel can call the nearest poison control center and find the right antivenin .

Healthy respect and a due degree of caution, rather than morbid fear, are certainly in order when it comes to poisonous snakes.

There is always the possibility of encountering one in warm weather months, but bites where venom is injected and damage done are extremely rare. In reality, threats posed by biting and stinging insects – spiders, bees, ticks, fire ants – are much greater.