— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 15 March 2010, was last revised on 18 April 2016. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 11:03(16).
March 12, 2010:
At about 10:15 A.M., the Nolan County Coliseum loudspeaker announced that the rattlesnake roundup guided hunt was about to begin. All the registered hunters gathered at the back of the coliseum to await further instructions.
The guide for this hunt was Eddie Gomez, an experienced rattlesnake hunter of considerable repute.
Several Roosters had already informed me that, if Eddie was in charge, the hunt would likely be successful. He knew his stuff around rattlesnakes: where to look for them, how to find them, and how to entice them to willingly come out of the deep cracks in the west Texas rocks they lived and “hibernated” in. Of course, snakes don’t really hibernate in the technical sense, but merely reduce their energy usage and “chill out” during the winter months. They do this in hibernacula, or cryptic voids in rocks, underground caverns, and other out of the way places where temperatures remain relatively constant during the winter.
Eddie told the assembled group to meet up at the Wal-Mart on Interstate 20. There we’d buy food for our lunch on the trail, a small hand-held mirror if we didn’t yet have one, and individual snake containers–one per hunter–that we’d need for collecting our catch. It was recommended that we buy, at minimum, a 5 gallon plastic pail with a lid. Some of the more optimistic among us bought large, 35-50 gallon trash barrels. I chose a six gallon plastic pail that I’d brought with me from Round Rock–it wasn’t too large to pack into the underbrush all day long, nor too small to enable an irritated, thick-as-your-arm rattler to jump out the moment the lid came off.
Once those chores were done, and the hunter’s roll was called, the trek to the site of the hunt–a large ranch outside of Sweetwater–commenced. Like a dark funeral procession (we drove with our headlights off), we herded our personal vehicles in a long line with Eddie in the lead.
A few miles outside of town the stream of vehicles veered off the paved thoroughfare onto a red dirt road that meandered into the flat west Texas countryside. Mesquite trees, tallgrass prairie, and huge stands of prickly pears, choked with anemic, pencil-thin stalks of tasajillo mixed with thicker stalks of cholla, were all that could be seen for miles around.
Eventually we pulled up while Eddie opened a gate into the ranch. Then the line of cars and pickups proceeded a mile or so down a gently winding trail, finally coming to a stop at the edge of a steep canyon. “Perfect,” I thought. “Country only a rattlesnake could love.”
That thought would be revisited, with a slightly different feeling, when the hunt was done.
Eddie surveyed the motley group arrayed before him with a practiced eye and pronounced everybody present. Mike, Eddie’s assistant, took half of the group and ambled down the road we’d come in on, to begin searching that portion of the canyon for rattlesnakes. Eddie took the other half that I was in, and marched directly into the cactus, to the edge of the canyon where a small trail dropped steeply downward. The trail was about as wide as a mountain goat would find likeable, with prickly pear and tasajillo lining each side. Not exactly the kind of stuff for a hand hold, in case of a fall.
The main canyon ranged from 30-40 feet deep, though the couloir we first descended into was only about 20 feet below the level of the ranchland. The trail from the rim to the canyon floor was narrow and slippery, being composed of decayed sand and limestone mixed together. For the uninitiated, it looked daunting. One of the ladies up front stepped to the side to watch the rest of us descend. “That looks too steep for me,” she whispered. “I’m not sure I can make it.”
The others, no more nimble of foot than she, urged her onward, and–so to speak–she finally took the plunge, slipping here and there a little, but making it to the bottom with the rest of us, none the worse for wear. The drama I’d witnessed on the trail from the Keyhole to the top of Longs Peak, in 1999, briefly came to mind. There, on the day previous, a climber had fallen to his death from the spot where a young woman had frozen in fear; impatient to continue on, he’d tried to step around her, but lost his footing. Here, though, the risk of falling wasn’t nearly as severe. Then again, the Longs Peak trail wasn’t flanked with cactus, or known for having many rattlesnakes…
At the bottom, walking the dry river bed, the steep sides of the canyon stretched upward, above us. On either side the walls were of soft, decayed limestone mixed with iron-rich, sandy clay and thin layers of calcite. The further we walked, the deeper, and wider, the canyon became.
Before long we rounded a turn in the dry river bed, and came upon Eddie Gomez, on his belly up against the side of the canyon wall, peering into a rock crevice. Such crevices — ranging from half an inch to two inches wide — were fairly common here, and stretched deep into the rock. To see what might be occupying a particular section of crevice, Eddie used his hand mirror to reflect a bright ribbon of sunlight inward.
Of all the tools a rattlesnake hunter must have, a small hand mirror — one about the size of a moderately large compact— is at the top of the list. Sunlight reflected off the mirror’s face lights up the crevice to its deepest depths, a feat not even the brightest flashlight can accomplish. Of course, a mirror is only suitable if the crevice you are working has reflectable sunlight nearby, so on an overcast day, or on the side of a cliff that is out of the sunlight, it becomes worthless and a strong LED flashlight might become quite handy. The new LED lamps, with high-lumen-output and low battery consumption, have the potential to light up a crevice somewhat, but they are still no match for good, mirror-reflected sunlight. I compared the light from my 6-watt LED lamp and that from a mirror, in Eddie’s crevice, and my LED lamp was no match; the mirror won the contest, hands down.
Eddie pointed out that the crevice he was studying had a collection of fecal pellets, shaped like those that a rat would be expected to deposit, at its base. “Always look for these,” he instructed. “Rattlesnakes feed on mice and rats, among other small animals, and if you see these pellets a the mouth of a crevice, you can almost be certain that there’s at least one snake inside.”
“Got a nice little corn snake up here,” he mumbled, pointing to the crevice just above his head. “Corn snakes feed on rodents, too, so this crevice may just be full of non-venomous rat snakes... ” He continued surveying the crack. “But over here,” motioning into the crevice on his left, “I’m seeing something that looks like a rattlesnake. Could be — probably is — more than one.”
He stood up and gave us room to inspect the crevice, one by one, with our hand mirrors.
The corn snake (Elaphe guttata guttata), a harmless ratsnake with randomly placed golden flecks mixed with darker chunks of coloration in its belly scales, was lodged in the crevice directly above my head as I peered upward. Turning the mirror, I flashed sunlight into the 3/4th-inch-wide crack to the left.
The crack was at least seven or eight feet deep. At its deepest recesses the coil of another snake was showing, its lateral surfaces bearing the checkered pattern of a western diamond-back rattler. Below it, the tip of a rattle stuck out into the crevice. It was impossible to tell if the rattle was associated with the snake coiled above it, or with another snake whose body was hidden from view.
In the photo to the left, it is possible to make out the bodies of at least two rattlesnakes, including — in one case — the rattle at the tip of the tail. The image is of poor quality, as I had to place the camera lens in the crevice, shine sunlight into the depths of the crack with a hand mirror, and press the camera’s button without being able to preview the scene being photographed.
The autofocus function worked better than expected, however, and — particularly if you allow your imagination some latitude — some of the features of the snakes can be seen.
The visual effect, to the naked eye, was much clearer than the photograph shows. It was clear to my eye that the rattle was attached to a live snake, and that the markings on the skin of the snake being observed were consistent with that of a western diamond-backed rattler.
After taking the photograph I moved closeer so my eye could scan the crevice depths. From time to time the snake’s rattle would vibrate gently, without making a sound. The rattler attached to it knew we were there, and appeared to be getting slightly agitated. But for the moment it was deep in the rock, far from harm’s way, seemingly as far from being captured by this little band of amateur rattlesnake hunters as if it were safely ensconced in a deep crack the next county away.
About that time, Eddie called Mike on his phone, asking for an injector. Soon Mike arrived, holding a 2-gallon nylon pump-up spray tank attached via flexible hose to a coil of 1/4th inch aluminum tubing. Mike pumped up the spray tank.
Slowly Eddie pushed the tubing into the crevice. From time to time he stopped and checked with a mirror to make sure the tip extended beyond the snakes that could be seen in the crack.”Gotta get the nozzle past the snakes,” he said. “Or all this’ll do is push them deeper into the crack.”
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