Wondering about water snakes

Jeff MulhollemThe northern water snake and I have had a long, love-hate relationship.

I gained a healthy dose of respect for the reptiles one summer day when I was 8 or 9 years old, accompanying a friend of my father's in shallow Juniata River riffles, seining minnows, crawfish and hellgrammites for  smallmouth bass fishing trip. It was the beginning of my river rat phase, which lasted decades.

We encountered a water snake, perhaps 3 feet long, and my mentor couldn’t resist antagonizing it for my benefit, poking it gently it with the rake he was using to disturb the stones to dislodge bass bait. The snake didn't back down, snapping repeatedly at the tool, its teeth making a dull clanking sound when they made contact with the steel garden rake tines.

That left an impression on me. Unlike all other wildlife I had encountered in Pennsylvania – water snakes don't retreat. I admired their chutzpah, but in truth, feared it a little, too.

A few years later, I faced down my trepidation about water snakes. I was wading in sneakers and shorts around the mouth of a small mountain streamwhere it entered a water supply reservoir near my hometown, just before dusk. I noticed several water snakes slip into the water from the edge of a small island not far away. There must have been a snake den there.

I shuddered but quelled my inclination to run because a number of big (for me, then) wild brook trout were rising steadily and I knew they would take my Adams.

And a number of them did, too. But the prospect of water snakes swimming around my bare legs ruined the experience, I recall. I made myself stay and catch a few of the brookies – didn't want to be what my dad called a "sissie" (he had a way of saying that word that gouged my soul … "Jeffrey, don't be a sissy, they're not poisonous. They are more afraid of you than you are of them!")

Right.

Since then, over more than 40 years of fishing I have watched quite a few water snakes eat small fish and frogs and several even become meals themselves, captured by red-tailed hawks and a great blue heron. The northern water snake is one of the animals that epitomizes wildness to me – fearless, fierce and usually found in clean water.

The literature tells us northern water snakes are our most common snakes, some attaining a length in excess of 4 feet. Their color and markings often vary, from grayish to brownish to black, dark with lighter bands. While not venomous, they will bite and defend themselves viciously against animals and people that try to pick them up.

Adept swimmers, they mainly eat small fish, frogs, worms, leeches, crayfish, salamanders, small birds and even small mammals. At night, they concentrate on minnows and other small fish sleeping in shallow water.

All this was brought to mind a few days ago while I sat and admired a new view of a pretty little mountain stream we recently created by cutting a path along the creek at the back of our place.

Not sure how long I had been watching the flowing water, sort of mesmerized, when, to my surprise, a reptilian head emerged near the middle, and then a big, gray snake with faint tan bands abruptly writhed out of the current and coiled in the sun atop a big, flat rock.

It made for an imposing sight. This one was more than 3 feet long, I estimate, maybe 2.5 inches thick at its middle.

I chuckled. A few days before my sister's two comic dachshunds had fearlessly swam and retrieved sticks in the pool just upstream and boldly explored the stream bed nearby.

Wouldn't they have just crapped if they had come nose to nose with this creature? I doubt if the snake would have hurt them much, but the poor little pooches might have been mentally scarred for life.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

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