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Insight: Snakes on the Plains

By Greg Doering, Kansas Farm Bureau
I recently saw my first copperhead of the year while out trying to catch some pre-spawn bass at a farm pond. Initially I thought it was a snapping turtle poking its head above the water before I caught a glimpse of the telltale oscillation of the more sinister reptile.

As is usually the case when I encounter a serpent in the wild, the old adage that it’s just as afraid of me as I am of it proved laughably false. If that held true, the two-foot reptile would have turned around when the first rock splashed near its head. Instead, it kept slithering closer to the bank where I stood.

Clearly my dislike for this creature wasn’t reciprocated. It paid me no mind as it settled onto a rock about 30 yards away where it began basking in the sun. I resumed casting a lure into the water while keeping an eye on the danger coiled up a short distance away.

Our interaction continued with me being vigilant on the snake’s whereabouts, while it regarded me with extreme indifference. It eventually warmed up enough to slither back into the water and across the pond. I took the opportunity to walk back to my tacklebox, keeping my eyes fixed on the ground for signs of another visitor. I safely fetched my gear and went on my way without seeing another serpent, but there were a few suspicious looking sticks that helped quicken my retreat.

All of this fear is, of course, illogical. There’s no shortage of statistics detailing the just how unlikely my demise will come at the fangs of a snake. Of the several thousand people bitten each year, only about a dozen deaths are recorded. The venom in the native snakes of Kansas — three varieties of rattlers and the aforementioned copperhead — also is relatively mild according to the people who judge these things.

By mild, I mean the venom will cause excruciating pain instead of killing you, which isn’t enough to overcome the strong desire for self-preservation. So, there’s an evolutionary case to be made for the illogical reactions being completely rational. I also learned a healthy amount of fear from family members.

My grandfather once mistook a coil of hose for a black snake when spraying cattle in the corral. He raced across the pen and up a fencepost before warning the rest of us about the alleged intruder. While the rest of us found the situation quite comical, we also knew it could have been any of us fleeing in panic. I’ve stumbled over myself more than once after hearing a rattle in tall grass only to see a cicada fly off.

Whether innate or learned, the fear is real. I spent a decent portion of my youth trying to imitate St. Patrick and eradicate snakes in my portion of the world. Blacksnakes, bull-snakes and other nonvenomous relatives were left alone to deal with vermin around the outbuildings, but even the sight of them would set my heart racing. The closest encounter I’ve ever had with any snake is when I was about 10 or so and stepped on a water snake while crossing a pond dam. I can still recall the squish under my boot in a way that gives me shivers.

Once again, I was more bothered by our encounter than the snake. At least I pretended to be scared, what with my gasping and lurching and stumbling backward away from mortal danger. The snake barely lifted its head to flick its tongue in my direction.

The one thing I haven’t managed over all these years is to develop a good sense of not going to the same places I regularly encounter snakes. I’m relying on a good pair of boots, long pants and the apparent apathy serpents have for my existence to keep me safe in the pastures, ponds and creeks over the Plains.

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