Predator's with venom
When most hunters hear the terms “predator hunting” or “dangerous game” thoughts immediately turn to coyotes, bear, or mountain lion. Rarely does the rattlesnake leap to mind as a species to search for rather than avoid.
But in some western states, a rattlesnake season exists during summer months. This provides the hunter to get out in the field a bit before traditional hunting seasons begin- basically an excuse to scout during warmer weather and still come home with a full a game bag.
First it must be drilled home to the hunter that rattlesnakes are every bit as dangerous, if not moreso, than bears, cougars, and other fanged game. Although rare, rattlesnake bites can be fatal. They are always painful and one of the most traumatic experiences you may ever have the misfortune of going through. One look at the horrific scarring caused by the surgical procedures used to save a bitten limb will attest to the life altering effects of even a mild bite from a rattlesnake.
Most importantly, rattlesnakes do not have to be alive to pose the same grave danger they do when they are alive. Roll a charging Grizzly and the danger is passed. But a rattler stone dead can still ruin your life.
Several kits and emergent care packages are sold in case of a snake bite, but I am not medically qualified to evaluate their effectiveness and will instead concentrate on not getting bit to begin with. Obviously you must prepare for the worst and be equipped with some form of ‘snakebite kit’, but my focus here is to consider avoiding the fang altogether. If you are bit, you need far better advice and care than I can offer.
The number one thing you can do to increase safety is take a partner. As with any hunting, having a buddy there is always good insurance. Considering that rattlesnake hunting is usually done in remote areas far from help, having a buddy with you can literally make the difference between life and death. Very quickly after being bitten by a rattler the victim will be in no condition to get himself to a hospital. Having a partner along is the best way to increase your chances of survival if you are unlucky enough to get bitten.
Essential gear therefore begins with snake bite protection. The choices here come in two forms, the snake boot and the snake gaiter or chaps. Both provide a last line of defense when you are too close and the snake strikes. Boots provide full foot protection and are usually of a tall design to protect the shin and calf. The drawbacks of snake boots are that they are often hot and stiff and not as comfortable to walk in all day. They also only protect up to a point below the knees.
The gaiter or chaps offer protection much higher up the legs including the thigh and knee area. The downside to chaps is that they do not protect the foot, and can also hinder movement. They also have a small area in the back that is unprotected where they lace together.
The best protection is in combining these two protective measures, but also results in the most restrictive movement. However, when dealing with venom, safety is paramount and shouldn’t be skimped on. The risks of shortcutting on safety far outweigh the drawbacks of snake proof gear.
Your next best safety device is a stout walking stick. A broom handle cut to size makes for a cheap and sturdy stick. Since rattlesnakes are often found under rocks or logs you will need something to push the rock or log over to expose the snake. You sure don’t want to be bending over, putting your hands under that rock to lift it if there is a rattler under there.
A stout walking stick will allow you to overturn even large rocks and logs from a safe distance. Home depot sell the rubber bottoms to crutches that will reduce slippage off rocks and the like. It’s a cheap, easy way to keep distance between you and an angry viper.
The final piece of safety gear when hunting for rattlers is simple water. Never head into the field without water, but since snake hunting is done during the summer months, and usually done in desert environments, it becomes especially critical.
The usual method for taking rattlers is to look for the kind of features that attract rodents, the snake’s main food staple. Livestock wells and gathered brush are favorite hang outs. Take the walking stick and over turn rocks and timber large enough to hide a snake. If the weather is cooler or it’s early morning, snakes are often found laying out in the open soaking up the sun’s warmth. Even with full protection, always watch your step. A snake’s first defense is camouflage and it will sit silently and unseen until you are already within range of it’s fangs.
The hunting partner sets up and shoots the snake if one happens to be one under the rock or log. It’s that easy. The firearm of choice here is usually a shotgun, because rattlesnakes rarely sit still enough at this point to use a single projectile. Due to the extreme close range shooting, maybe 5 feet or less, you need neither a large shotgun nor a super magnum shell. The same 2 ¾ inch shell loaded with number 4 or 6 shot used for rabbit will all but remove the head of a rattler at point blank range.
My personal favorite gun for rattler is a Rossi side by side ‘Stagecoach’ 20 gauge with minimum length barrels. It’s light, a gas to shoot, and fit’s the ‘old west’ style of hunting here in Colorado. Finishing shots, or if you spot a rattler out in the open, can be accomplished with a .22LR and I usually carry a single action revolver for this purpose, again the old west feel.
After the shot, back up! Once shot a rattler will be anything but still. Even if you blew half it’s head off the immediate reaction of any snake is to start flailing about. This is that same dangerous time right after you shoot a bear where’s it’s as likely to charge you as run away.
If the snake is obviously dead, such as missing most of it’s noggin, then it will eventually slow down moving. At this point we come to the other critical piece of safety gear- the executioner’s axe. This can be anything long, reasonably sharp, and did I mention long? Those long machetes sold in surplus stores are decent, but I like the good old Army entrenching tool. The E-tool is light, folds compactly, and has a carrying case made for attaching to a backpack. It’s not long, but it affords critical reach to keep your hand away from that head. Mostly, the shovel head on it will survive being slammed into the rocky ground as you take the snakes head off.
Now for some people the head is part of the trophy. I’ve seen them on the tops of cowboy boots. But it’s likely that was a farm raised snake that was killed by cooling it to be lethargic then suffocated to death in a CO2 chamber- not shot in the head on some rancher’s back forty. The head of a rattlesnake is always dangerous and for my money, an unacceptable risk. So completely remove the head, and if possible toss it away from where you are working with the snake. Again, the e-tool makes it easy to pick up the head and toss it without ever getting your hand within a foot of those fangs.
Once beheaded the carcass will continue to move on it’s own accord for awhile, this is why you’re much better off with a with ratty old pillowcase than a nice upland bird vest with built in game bag. A couple still writhing snakes on your back makes for a ‘distracting’ sensation. Plus snakes bleed a lot and better an old pillowcase looks like bloody murder than your nice gear.
Snake skins can make for just as gorgeous and interesting wall mount as any antelope head, and much like coyote pelts, they can be sold for a modest price. Rattlesnake meat is lean and tasty. As much as I’d like to tell you it holds a totally unique and amazing flavor- it really does taste a lot like chicken.
That’s all there is to it. There are no calls, no need for camouflage or special gear beyond the protective gear to keep your hands away from those fangs. I often combine a morning hunt for coyote with an afternoon turning over rocks looking for rattlesnakes. If you find yourself spending some summer day watching hunting on television just to get a fix, get out there and give rattler’s a go.
Just remember that while it might not be the largest predator you will hunt, Rattlesnakes are every bit as dangerous as a bear. Be careful and avoid contact with the head at all costs. A tanned rattlesnake hide on the wall is a trophy that will spark conversation and reverence for an often maligned beauty of the desert.