The following is reprinted from December 2015.
I arrived at a coastal county location following a request to my agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, from that county’s Department of Transportation which was concerned about a secondary road about to be flooded by rising water from a small stream that flowed through a pipe under the road. Something downstream was blocking the flow of the water, and they suspected a beaver dam.
They were right. As I pulled over and parked on the shoulder of the road and saw all that water, I immediately knew that there were only two things that could be the cause: a bulldozer or beavers. I knew that a beaver dam was somewhere downstream. The question was how big and how far downstream it was located.
As you get closer to the ocean, the stronger is the local dialect and accent of the residents. Also, the thicker and more brutal are the thickets and swamps. And there’s one more thing: cottonmouth moccasins, three times the size of the ones in our area, much feared by the local people. Venomous pit vipers as big as a man’s arm and longer than a man is tall. However, I discovered quite a while back that they are not as mean tempered as most people think. Almost every time that I entered a coastal swamp, I saw cottonmouths, lying on the banks, coiled on tree limbs, swimming on the surface of the water, many times swimming toward me. One of their favorite places to hide is on a bed of Spanish moss on a tree limb overhanging the water. I have known of a few instances when a cottonmouth dropped from an overhanging tree limb and landed in a boat passing under it. In one such time, two fishermen abandoned their boat and jumped into the water.
After hearing about instances of cottonmouths attacking trappers and fishermen, and after killing several that came at me, I began to wonder if they were really attacking or if it was something else. One thing that aroused my suspicion was seeing that cottonmouths react in two different ways. If you surprise one by getting too close, especially if it’s coiled, it will probably strike at you and maybe bite you. It won’t back off and will maybe even advance toward you. In such a case, you may have no choice but to kill it. The other way is when the cottonmouth is a good distance away and hears or sees you approaching, most of the time long before you see it, and it swims toward you.
In such cases, I noticed that they didn’t act aggressive or irritated. So I decided to find out. Soon after, as I was wading through a swamp on an old rice plantation, I spotted a cottonmouth about a hundred feet away and swimming straight toward me. I stood perfectly still as the snake got closer and closer. I kept both hands on my rake in case it tried to attack me, but somehow I didn’t think it would. Soon it was 3 or 4 feet away, and I could see its eyes fixed on my hip boots. It swam right up to me, and its tongue kept touching my boots. It never did look up, and after checking me out for a minute or two, it swam off out of sight.
As I was putting on my hip waders and preparing to go downstream in search of the beaver dam, a young man driving an old Jeep pulled in behind my government truck and began to talk to me. He had a coastal twang, but it was not as hard as you hear down in the beach communities. He told me where he lived and pointed to a house close by. He said that he had a rowboat, and I was welcome to use it to go down to the beaver dam. I politely declined, saying that I could use only government issued equipment. Then he warned me that there were right many moccasins in that water and said that just yesterday he was in his boat, and one at least 5 or 6 feet long got in his boat and started crawling toward him. He said, “It’s a good thing I had my rifle with me, and I shot him.”
I thought to myself, “Just who does this guy thinks he’s fooling?” I said to him, “If you shot the snake in your boat with your rifle, didn’t you blow a hole in the bottom of your boat?” He answered, “When he got close to me, he began to rise up, and when his head got above the side of my boat, I put a bullet through it and threw him into the water.”
I believe he sensed my skepticism, which was probably obvious, because a hurt look came over his face, and after a few more words, he climbed into his Jeep and drove away. I picked up my big rake and started wading downstream. I came to the beaver dam 30 minutes and 200 yards later. It was a big one. I decided to bust a hole in the middle of it with the rake instead of using explosives.
I began to tear away the mud and sticks, and after an hour, I had a good torrent of water gushing through. I knew that upstream where my truck was parked, the water level was dropping fast. I saw a small log that was about two feet under water and wedged so tightly that my rake could not budge it. I laid the rake aside, reached into the rushing water over my elbows, and took hold of one end of that log. Before I could pull on it, a big cottonmouth moccasin came floating on the rushing water and hung in the bend of my right elbow. It happened so fast that I couldn’t pull my arm out of the water. The big snake didn’t move and just lay draped in the bend of my arm. I’ll have to admit that I was startled and confused.
After a few seconds that seemed like an hour, I ever so gently raised my arm out of the water with the snake still hanging on. Amazingly, I saw that the snake was dead. I looked closer and saw a bullet hole in its head. It was about 5 1/2 feet long. I felt guilty and told myself that if I were to look at that boy’s boat, it would not have a bullet hole in it.