Locked And Loaded. Photograph By Michael Patrick McCarty
Very few sounds heard in the wildlands of North America can completely capture your full and unmitigated attention like that unmistakable vibration of a rattlesnake in waiting. I located that sound recently while on a scouting trip for Pronghorn in Northwestern Colorado, emanating steadily from a clump of low hanging sage not very far from my feet. And to be honest, I can still hear it today, bouncing between my ears among the technicolor memories of my mind.
In this case the source of that infamous buzz was about two feet of Crotalus viridis, commonly known as the Prairie Rattlesnake. Yet no matter the name, or the size, of one thing there was no doubt. This snake meant business from the business end, and I wanted no part of that transaction. My guess is that it would have really preferred to skip the encounter too, though perfectly willing to do as it must. He is but a snake, after all.
Prairie Rattlesnakes are the most common Rattlesnake in Colorado, and they seem to be particularly prevalent in the areas that I frequent. This was the second live close encounter (others being found dead in the road) that I have had in as many years; the first I would have surely stepped on had it not been good enough to slither off of the trail when it sensed me coming. Before these interactions you could say that I had never worried too much about snakebite.
I do now!
The available literature seems to indicate that maximum length for a Prairie Rattlesnake in Colorado is about 3 1/2 feet, although there are mentions of much bigger snakes in the historical record. I did listen to a first hand account of a five foot or better snake killed in my hunting area just this summer, and I have no reason to doubt the source. Nobody really knows their population parameters and distributions. Fact is, there are a lot of rattlesnakes about the land, and apparently they can be…big.
Antelope hunters, and bowhunters in particular, should be well enough aware of that stark reality. Blinds on waterholes are often the preferred method of hunting with short range weapons. These locations are also preferred by the wildlife of the area, both large, and small. And snakes…
Temperatures, particularly at night, are warm; the little creatures, and the rattlesnakes that prey upon them, are active. Put it all together and it can easily spell some trouble of the bad kind for the bowhunter hurrying to the ambush point in the low light of early morning.
Still, snakebites are uncommon, and fatalities are rarer. “Out of the millions of people who live in Colorado and the millions more who visit the state for outdoor activities, only 79 were bitten by snakes last year (2017), said Shireen Banerji, a Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center clinical manager. The number of bites has been increasing slightly. There were 77 in 2016, 76 in 2015 and 65 in 2014. Only one person is known to have died of a snakebite since 2014”.
So, in summary, a quick tap of fangs may not kill you and dry bites are possible, but you can be fairly certain of one thing. It will be a more than unpleasant experience, and most likely a medically significant and tissue altering event. Antivenom and emergency treatment can be very expensive, resulting in what may be a financially devastating hospital bill at the end of the day, or week.
Best to avoid that possibility as much as you can. Be aware, snake aware, and ready.
You might also want to invest in a good pair of snake boots, or snake chaps, and a much brighter headlamp. Or perhaps even better, always let someone else go first, like your long time hunting partner.
*Update September 28, 2019
It happened again, another rattlesnake close encounter, that is, and I can breathlessly report that it was no less attention grabbing than the first. For some reason which entirely escapes me, I am this year a first class rattlesnake attractor of the third kind. It is a badge of honor that I would much rather do without.
Early afternoon found me trudging down an abandoned two-track river road under an all-seeing, withering sun, en route to a promising looking catfish hole down in a deep, wild canyon.
Intent on my catfishing mission, a small whisper in the back of my mind alerted me to danger ahead as I approached a particularly tall patch of thick weeds covering the road. Call it a sixth sense, or perhaps my last encounter was still too fresh upon my mind, but everything about the place cried “snake!”.
I remember thinking that I was simply overreacting, for the chance of finding a rattlesnake camped out in this one small patch of forlorn vegetation in the middle of a vast, desolate landscape had to be very, very slim. It also suddenly hit me that in my haste to find a fish I had left a perfectly fine pair of snake chaps (for fang protection when it’s already too late) in the back of my truck, along with my camera (to document chance wildlife encounters so someone may believe me), and oh yes, my mostly unreliable but somewhat comforting cell phone in case I was ever bitten by a venomous creature in a land far, far from help (so you can throw it at the thing that bit you after it does not work).
A Black Widow Spider On the Move. As if Rattlesnakes Are Not Enough To Worry About! Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
So, as you might guess, I was particularly watchful of where I placed my feet along the trail, as I occasionally slapped the undergrowth ahead with the tip of my fishing rod.
And of course, you have probably surmised by now what was about to happen next. Staring down across the tops of my boots not very far from the end of my nose, I soon saw the plump, round body of a rather large snake stretched out at the base of the weed stalks, and then, at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, those infamous and unmistakable Prairie rattles.
Backing away slowly, quietly, I completed my retreat as he disappeared like a slithering apparition, and we will never know who was more happy about that. Human-Snake interactions can end rather badly for the snake too, after all. Where he went next only a rattler knows; where I was headed suddenly looked more distant and treacherous than I had pictured. But go I did, albeit ever more mindfully.
Most importantly, I had catfish to catch.
And thank God for guardian angels, and that I had enough sense, snake sense, to listen, and to follow just a little bit of my own advice. I shutter to think what would have happened, had I taken, just one more step.
Be Careful Out There!
The Indescribable Beauty Of Adventure, And Danger. Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
Hunting Season Dates For The Prairie Rattlesnake in Colorado is June 15 thru August 15 annually; a small game license is required. The daily bag limit is 3 snakes, with a possession limit of 6.
It is my understanding that it is legal to kill rattlesnakes when necessary to protect life or property (if they pose a real threat).
Translation: You can’t kill them just because you don’t like them – or something to that effect.
*Statute 33-6-107(9) and Wildlife Commission Regulations (WCR) 312(C), WCR 323, WCR 1000(A)(6), WCR 17122(C),
WCR 17123(A) & WCR 17141(A)
**This statute does appear to apply to personal property.