We are a fraternity, or sorority-fraternity,
so a pleasant brotherliness and sisterliness
flavors most of FAOL's content. However, this
goodwill is not impervious, and it can fall
prey to the same subjects that undermine a
well-prepared dinner -- politics, religion,
and snakes. Nevertheless, we at FAOL pride
ourselves on being part of a system for sharing
relevant knowledge. Snakes, especially the
poisonous and aquatic cottonmouth, ought to
be allowed as a scientific subject, given that
we fly anglers are a semi-aquatic species. Of
course anyone is free to reject the knowledge
that I think I might have.
Roger Stouff wrote a delightful tale of encounters
with cottonmouths. Those of us who write know
about exaggeration for effect. Literary exaggeration
has a long and honorable and delightful history,
with Mark Twain one of its masters. A problem can
arise, however, if the reader does not recognize
this exaggeration. (In fact, if enough people in
a nation fail to separate exaggeration from truth,
there can be great political consequences, but that
is another matter.)
Some members have gently and generously interpreted
Roger's article as a fisherman's tall tale, but
others insist on a literal interpretation: Roger
said it happened to him, the literalists say, so
it indeed happened to him. This is quintessentially
postmodern: One man's reality is as valid as the
reality of any other, including the reality of the
old herpetologist who has spent 10,000 hours out
there with the snakes and lizards and frogs, not
even counting all the summers he probably spent
with the animals when he was a kid.
If I were to write about catching a 37-pound
largemouth bass, I hope those same members who
came so quickly to Roger's defense would come
to mine, and that they would contend that I said
it happened, so it happened. To be honest, though,
there is a difference between the bass story and
the snake story. You bring in a bass, and weigh it,
it is either 37 pounds or it isn't. The snake stories
involve a detailed description of the complex behavior
of snakes and the interpretation of that behavior's
significance. (The intricacy of animal behavior is,
by the way, a central issue for us anglers: Why do
fish bite certain of our flies that are presented
in certain ways, but not others. Some swear that
life-like imitations of local minnows are bass
killers, while others say bass merely decide if
the fly looks good to eat.)
Animal behavior, primarily that of the vertebrates,
was my area of expertise for quite a while. We
learned early on that it is one thing to describe
what an animal does, and it is another to figure
out why it does it, if in fact it is even knowable.
On a lazy afternoon I was once kneeling by an
Arkansas creek bank near the Mississippi, changing
lures, and some large thing came up out of the water
with a huge splash and bounced off my leg. Talk about
the warm liquid not being a leak in the waders. I
saw that is was a bowfin, grabbed it as it flopped
around, and measured it before releasing it. 26
Why did it jump up on the bank? How the hell
should I know? A misjudged lunge at a minnow? An
uncontrollable joy of life? A low IQ? A brain tumor?
One thing I am quite sure of is that, in spite of
its ferocious set of teeth, the bowfin did not lunge
out of the water with intent to do me bodily harm.
I can, however, imagine my mother looking at it
that way if she had been there.
Interpretation is influenced by our worldview.
Some research from the 50s, I think it was,
involved a short strip of film being shown to
subjects who were later asked to describe it.
The film shows a crowded bus, and suddenly a
white man pulls a knife on a black man just as
the film ends. A majority of the subjects (all
white) reported seeing the black man pull a
knife on the white man. They saw not what
happened, but what they expected to happen.
This sort of thing is a fact of life among our
species. An attempted escape by a snake might
even be interpreted as an attack by that snake.
At the approach of danger, the first thing an
aquatic snake tends to do is head for the water.
But if a boat unexpectedly bumps into a bank
full of sunning snakes ("Fangs seemingly the
length of daggers gleamed everywhere."), those
snakes' lives have suddenly become more complicated.
One option is to remain motionless and hope for
the best. Another is to try to escape by heading
away from the boat (and away from the water), but
this is a potentially dangerous choice. Another
is for the snakes to say to hell with the boat
and hightail straight past it for the water and
perfect safety. To an occupant of the boat, this
could look like a mass attack.
In addition to our worldview of snakes, our
psychological state affects our interpretations.
One reason Roger's story was so pleasant to read
was the effectiveness with which he presented
himself as panic-stricken. He even says he was
"hallucinating badly." This state of mind might
make for an unscientific interpretation of snake
As proof of cottonmouth aggressiveness, members
have pointed out the species' habit of coiling
and showing the white lining of its mouth that
gives it its name. To an animal behaviorist,
coiling and showing the "cotton" are the opposite
of aggressive, they are transparently defensive.
It's the big bluff about being the meanest mother
in the valley. In truth, if these snakes were
capable of wearing waders, theirs would be as
full of warm liquid as the typical fly fisher's.
All the snakes want is for you to leave.
As I mentioned in a post, I caught some 25
rattlesnakes in the Californian desert for
some minor research, and I found that the most
important skill for catching them was stealth.
If you aren't quiet, the rattlers are history.
However, if you manage to come between them and
the only bit a scrub within a few yards, they get
awfully nervous out there surrounded only by sand.
They coil up and rattle, their version of the
meanest-mother-in-the-valley act. All they want
is for you to leave. If you just stand there long
enough, they will usually try to slip away to the
nearest vegetation. They never made a run for me.
The bluff seems to be effective for many FAOL
members and the people they wrote about. Uncles
jumping out of boats, men fleeing on foot for a
half a mile, a fisherman nearly putting a hole
in his boat as he got away. We even got the story
of a 15-year-old girl unable to stop screaming
at the little garter snake in her room, and the
snake wasn't even in a bluffing mode.
When a stick is tossed toward a coiled cottonmouth,
it may not flee, because if it uncoils and is also
facing away from you, it is vulnerable, especially
given its slowness. Evolutionarily speaking, these
snakes will be more successful if they bluff at the
right time and flee at the right time. They are also
surely more successful (leave more offspring) when
they don't go around indiscriminately chasing humans.
What do they have to gain?
At times snakes of course do bite, but people often
have to work really hard to get bitten. About half
the poisonous snakebites in the US result from young
men poking at a snake or trying to catch or kill it.
Consequently, they get bitten on their hands or
arms. (The other half of snakebites occur when the
snake is accidentally stepped on or is approached
The research involving the knife in the bus shows
that we often see what we expect to see. I expect
cottonmouths and rattlesnakes and copperheads to
do their best to get away from me, and as I wrote
in a post, my teenage buddies and I swam in a huge
cottonmouth "infested" swamp and never got chased.
We poled along and the cottonmouths (and the water
snakes) simply slipped into the water and swam
off as we approached. I can't think of any possible
good it would have done the snakes for them to
approach us while we were cavorting in the water.
I guess the snakes couldn't think of any reason
to approach us, either.
In those same snaky waters we kids swam in, we
would sneak up under wasp nests as big as a small
dinner plate and splash hell out of them, swim
away under water, and repeat this several times.
Then we just swam up under the nests and broke
off the piece of bush they were connected to.
As scores of wasps circled overhead, we swam
away with nests full of enough larvae and pupae
to fish for bream the rest of the day. It was
less work than digging worms, and more fun,
and we never got stung.
Nowadays when a wasp enters one of my classrooms,
the screaming is as loud as on a major roller
coaster. I simply continue my lecture and wait
for the wasp to land, usually on a window. I
walk over and get it to walk up on my finger,
never breaking the stride of my lecture. I
take the wasp to an open window and flick it
off. I do this a few times and the students
get bored and ignore the wasps for the rest
of the semester. (I do not pick the wasp up,
nor do I become panicky and swat wildly at
the wasp, which is almost a request to get
stung. Panic is also our enemy when we
encounter poisonous snakes.)
It is helpful to know that snakes, like deer,
basically don't see you if you remain motionless.
Sit quietly on a bank, and a cottonmouth may well
swim toward you. This leads to many stories of
people freezing in their tracks for 30 minutes
as a snake "looks them over." The snake probably
didn't even see them, it was just hanging out.
Granted, we all have our own realities, and who
is to say that mine is more valid than the reality
of others. My reality is this: First, the
cottonmouth tries to get to the safety of the
water. If it feels this attempt would be dangerous,
it freezes. If further threatened, it tries the
big bluff of coiling and opening its mouth. Finally,
as in the research I reported earlier, it may bite,
but barely over a third of the time even if it is
picked up. This model of cottonmouth behavior holds
together well for most people who know snakes. It
fits the research, and it explains why most years
in the US, no one dies of a cottonmouth bite.
Which leads to a question: If cottonmouths are
so damned vicious and aggressive, so single-mindedly
intent on doing us in, and at the same time are so
incredibly lethal, why are they so ineffective at
sending us to the cemetery?
This subject of aggressiveness leads to a final
question. When a young man is poking at a snake
or trying to catch or kill it and gets bitten
(which is the situation in about half of all
poisonous snakebites in the US), which one is
best described as aggressive, the snake or the
When you encounter a poisonous snake, stay cool.
Take out your camera, preferably with a tele lens,
and get a few shots. Step back, pick out a fly,
and tie it on. Sharpen your hooks. Figure out
where the fish are. In the unlikelihood that the
snake is still there, yell at it and kick some
gravel in its direction. Or just give up and start
fishing. Just don't forget where it is and
accidentally step on it. ~ Busbee