Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

January 31st, 2005

Serpentine Encounters

Perhaps its some ancestral, primitive thing that resides somewhere in the brain stem, where the "lower" functions of our nervous system operate, but I hate snakes.

Personally, I think I have good reason. Some of them will kill you, for starters. That's a good reason to hate snakes. I don't think that I'm very bothered by the whole Adam and Eve and the snake story, or the Chitimacha tradition that Bayou Teche was created by a giant snake that took many warriors to kill. No, like Indiana Jones, I think I just hate snakes because they give me the heebie-jeebies.

I don't kill animals indiscriminately. When I was ten years old I got my first real pellet gun, a pump Benjamin that was my grandfather's. I still have that air rifle, and it's the straightest shooting weapon I have ever fired, bar none. Upon receiving it, I promptly went into the back yard and killed a bright red cardinal. Stupid, stupid, stupid but it had to be done to realize the waves of grief and shame that overcame me. I stood there with my dad, who stayed silent but grim, and decided right then that I would never shoot another thing. For this reason, I have never been a hunter.

So much as I hate snakes, I don't kill them just on general principle. I remember killing three snakes in my life. Two were water moccasins, and all were behaving badly. The water moccasin is a viper that has a terribly aggressive disposition. They do not need to be provoked, they go looking for trouble. They're the snake world's Leroy Brown. When I was a lad, my father and I got run out of Cotton Canal (so named because of the abundance of cottonmouth snakes) after several water moccasins decided they wanted the fish we had in the boat. Dad killed two with his paddle, but they started coming at the boat from all directions. We fled under power, the outboard tapping and at times bashing logs as we went. Dad never ran the outboard in Cotton Canal, but a hasty retreat was in order. Over the years, I have killed water moccasins who tried similar raids on my creel, and once shot a copperhead that killed my beloved springer spaniel Shadow.

Last Saturday morning, early, the weather was exceptionally nice, but I knew that by mid-afternoon temperatures would be dropping and winds kicking. Sunday would be low-forties, with a hard freeze predicted that night. Early Saturday morning, then, I grabbed a rod and went to a pond for what I figured would be my only chance to fish since weeks ago, and probably for weeks to come.

A spat of temperatures in the seventies for three days had warmed the air and water a bit, and I managed two small bass and one midget bream. I was walking the edge of the pond, casting a small Clouser, and looked down just in time to freeze into stone before I set my foot down on a coiled water moccasin.

I looked at him. He looked at me, tongue flicking. I eased back from the serpent, which even coiled created an impressive mound of leathery black skin. The rod was in my right hand, my tackle bag in my left, and I stood there as still as I could. Coiled as it was, the snake was ready to strike.

Every water moccasin I had ever seen flashed through my mind in a split second. The ones that ran me and my father out of Cotton Canal; those who had tried to take my own fish years later; a day when I was paddling the boat up to an ancient Chitimacha shell mound on the shore of Lake Fausse Pointe and when the bow touched the white clamshell, the mass of what I thought were tangled tree roots instantly came alive. Fangs seemingly the length of daggers gleamed everywhere, and the ground suddenly writhed with dozens of water moccasins picking their heads up at my intrusion. The whole mass of them moved, a seething horror, right at the boat. I paddled furiously, and they pursued into the water, and like my dad that day in Cotton Canal, I started the outboard to flee, nearly knocking the bottom out of the bateau on a submerged stump.

There at the edge of the pond last weekend, the snake coiled eighteen inches from my feet, the revulsion and terror set in again. I thought crazily about hitting it with the butt of my rod, but figured wisely that a) I'd probably just tick it off, and b) I might break my Granger reel seat. I'd rather get snakebit.

I stood there, unmoving, barely breathing, for minutes. The snake never took its eyes from me. Finally I could bear it no more. Since he refused to relent, I did the only thing brave, noble and heroic possible: I slowly bent my knees, so slowly it was barely perceptible, and leaped sideways, a remarkable four feet, landing in a run and hauling tail like a banshee, tackle pack bouncing off my knees and Granger held over my head like a cavalry officer's saber.

About half a mile away - okay, it only seemed that far - I stopped and looked back, panting. I half expected the water moccasin to have chased me and would be there to sink its fangs into my thigh. But there on the pond, I saw it just slithering into the water, head up, and swim into a patch of willows nearby.

When I read fly fishing stories from other parts of the nation, there are often encounters with bears involved. I certainly do not think I would ever want to run into a bear while fishing, but let me tell you, a water moccasin snake eighteen inches from your leg ain't worth pecan for a relaxing day on the water.

After catching my breath, I figured it was time to head for the shack. I suddenly realized I was standing in a field of tall grass, and the image of rattlesnakes and copperheads came to mind. My trek back to the truck was made with much care and not a little whimpering. When I got home, I found myself watching the driveway as I walked, and peeking into the front door after I unlocked it. There were snakes hiding in every corner of the house, under the sofa cushions, in the kitchen cabinets, one jumped out at me from the fridge, but no, that was only a yard of Cajun sausage for the gumbo I would be cooking later that day in advance of the cold weather. I was hallucinating badly, and when the network cable of my laptop made me jump out of my shoes, I sat down for an hour to recompose myself.

Snakes have their place in the natural world, and I maintain my vow of "live and let live." I just question now and then if the agreement is reciprocal. ~ Roger


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