A snake tale: Close brush with rattler offers chance to disprove myths

April 28, 2017
Mike Leggett
Bobby Parker holds the big rattlesnake he killed during a recent turkey hunt on his ranch near Bandera. Spring turkey season is the best time to encounter rattlers in the Hill Country, which means hunters and hikers should pay close attention while in the field. MIKE LEGGETT PHOTO

Bobby Parker is no fan of rattlesnakes — make no mistake about that. He’d rather crawl into bed with a rabid raccoon than take on a rattler on his Camp Verde Ranch.

And since turkey season is the time for seeing rattlesnakes in Texas and Camp Verde Ranch is one place the snakes seem to like, Parker is always on the lookout for rattlers.

I spend a few days almost every spring hunting at Parker’s ranch between Kerrville and Bandera, and it’s not unusual to see one or more of our state’s signature reptiles crossing a road or hiding in the brush.

On our most recent trip, we hadn’t seen any rattlers for the first couple of days, but a warm and dry Thursday afternoon that was perfect for snakes turned the trip around.

I had been on a scouting trip up through the ranch, looking for gobblers strutting and showing off for hens. I was headed back to the middle part of the ranch and had just reached the main north-south road when I heard a shotgun blast to my left, back toward the house and horse barn.

That part of the ranch is called the horse pasture, and Parker had told me earlier in the day he planned to take up a position beneath some giant oaks that stand close to the north fence line of the 15-acre area. I knew it was he, but I thought it was a little early for the turkeys to have come back to that area for the night.

Driving slowly down the road, I spotted Parker standing out in the field, dressed in full camo and holding his shotgun at rest. He immediately began waving at me to come down, even though he hadn’t taken his eyes off the ground in front of him.

I knew then this was no turkey killing but another rattler biting the dust.

I drove my truck off the road and down through the pasture, green and lush with spring rains. Even close up, I couldn’t see what Parker was focused on. But his eyes hadn’t left the ground, and there was no turkey lying there. It had to be a snake.

And what a snake! Parker was adrenaline-jabbering before I was out of the truck. “I was just walking along here, minding my own business when I almost stepped on this guy … was just lying out here getting some sun … when I backed off, he turned and coiled and started rattling … scary,” he was saying.

Out of the truck now, I could see what he was talking about. A more than 5-foot-long western diamondback, dead from a shotgun blast, lay out on the tall grass and nettles.

I’m no hero, but I don’t really mind rattlesnakes and tend to leave them alone once I’ve gotten a picture or two. Bobby’s belief is that the only good snake is a dead snake, and we’ve had some arguments over the years about whether to catch and release them or to do away with them. He acted without consulting me on this one.

I was amazed at the snake’s body mass, which was comparable in thickness to a man’s fist, and his head, which was about the same size. Bobby was still shaken by the encounter. “I was just going to sit right over there,” he said, pointing to tall grass around an oak just 30 feet away. “He was headed right to that spot.”

Unable to resist gigging him a little, I asked, “Why didn’t you give him a chance to move on instead of killing him here?” I also pointed to a giant gouge in the soft earth where the shotgun blast had ripped through and torn a hole in the snake’s body.

“There’s no way I could do that this close to the house,” Parker said quickly and looked at his house about 350 yards to the south. The snake was headed in the opposite direction, though, which means he’d probably been in the yard not too long before.

Rattlesnakes are a part of life here in the Hill Country and are most active in the spring — during turkey season — when they are dispersing from dens where they spend the winter. Most of the time, hunters will walk right by them without seeing or hearing them. The snakes hide and let humans, who they know are not prey, pass by without incident.

“I guess this one didn’t look around for any hogs before he started rattling,” Parker said. That’s a joking reference to a ridiculous claim by some people on the internet that rattlesnakes have stopped rattling as an evolutionary response to the growth in feral hog populations in Texas.

A hog will kill a rattlesnake for sure, but the snake rattles when he senses danger. There’s no hog conspiracy going out there that makes them more dangerous. They might be somnolent from a recent meal, or kind of cold, or just plain not threatened by some getting close to them, but they aren’t watching for hogs before they strike.

But Parker got rid of his snake and sat for a while under his tree. I carried the rascal up the hill and coiled him in the road so that we could go back to collect his rattles. There were 10 rattles and a button, but the skin was ruined.