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Posted by W von Papinešu on April 29, 2003 at 21:45:09:
DAILY ARDMOREITE (Ardmore, Oklahoma) 20 April 03 Visitors from across the globe think Waurika's annual rattlesnake hunt is Fangtastic (Leah J. Simmons)
Waurika: Forty-some-odd years ago, Waurika Jaycees declared war on the area's rattlesnake population. Only they didn't go to battle with bullets or poison. Their weapons of choice were -- and still are -- long metal rods with grabbers on one end, and a canvas bag or lidded bucket.
What started as an attempt to weed out some pesky rattlers who wreaked havoc on the local landscape has become a wildly popular tradition that draws visitors worldwide, all for the purpose to get up-close and personal with some fanged friends.
Last weekend, visitors from far and wide flocked to Waurika to take in the sights, tastes and trepidations of the 42nd Annual "Fang-Tastic" Rattlesnake Hunt. Events ranged from bagging the slithery critters to butchering them, watching brave snake handlers perform feats of awe and insanity, and taking a bite of some deep-fried snake meat.
This annual fund-raiser for the Waurika Volunteer Fire Department started as a clever way to solve a pesky problem years ago.
"Because snakes were so plentiful, it was damaging the livestock. Snakes were biting the horses and cattle. And they found out there was a market for rattlesnake meat, people wanting to try it," said fireman Johnny Berry, who has been part of the popular tourist attraction for 25 years. "I started out as a Jaycee and it folded and all the Jaycees became firemen and just took it over. We're just trying to thin out the population, but we're never going to be able to do that."
All the way from U.S. Highway 70, Main Street Waurika was lined with booths and vendors selling their wares, and colorful carnival rides and games of skill attracted plenty of attention in the center of town, where brave individuals signed up for what some consider a crazy venture -- hunting snakes in their natural habitat.
About six miles west of town, a gravel road was lined on one side with Dodges, Chevys, Toyotas, Fords and Jeeps. Hilly, rocky landscape was dotted with hunters looking into nooks and crannies for their scaly prey. In one pasture, four young men were looking over a rather fat rattler marked with hot pink paint -- the prize catch which earned his finder, Mike Parton of Geronimo, a $25 prize.
With him was his college roommate, Matt Quintanilla, his twin brother, Mark, and snake-hunt first-timer Keith Favis, carrying a bag with two snakes, one he caught and one snagged by Mark.
"I've been coming since '94," Mark Quintanilla said. "We came all the way from Green Bay, Wisc., to hunt."
"It's a 13-year venture for me," Matt said. "(Mike) was my college roommate at Tulsa and he lives in Geronimo, so we just come here every year with him to hunt."
The secret to snake hunting isn't just knowing where to look, but how to roust the snakes and how to keep from getting fanged in the process.
"It takes a lot of muscle power. You have to flip the biggest rocks you can find," Matt said. "It's kind of tricky, too, because you grab one and another one will come out after you. You're trying to get one in the bag and you're dodging the other."
Near the road, snakeless Tulsa-area residents Michael and Janet Cook were contemplating their next strategy as they outlined what they hope will be a profitable and fun venture for them next year.
"We go to all of them," Michael said of snake-hunt festivals. "We wish we could come and camp right where we hunt. It makes it easier. There's some places you go out on the ranch and you have the whole ranch."
Michael admitted that, where reptiles were concerned, "I always thought the best one was a dead one," until he met a friend who had a fascination with the species. Now he's hooked, and his wife is along for the wild ride.
"It's more the adventure, the love of the land, to be doing this," he said. "Where else could you go where you don't know anybody and just get out and roam? She gets all the sun that she wants. This is what I have to offer her."
The couple plan to add another adventure to their future. Instead of just hunting snakes and critters, they'll be feeding them to other festival-goers.
"We're going to have a concession stand. We sell varmint and critter jerky. It's very gourmet stuff," he said. "We're just going to both quit our jobs and do that. Our kids are grown and it's not bad. You get to do all these little events and see the country. It'll be the whole change of life from the bustle of Tulsa."
Back in town, visitors were filing into one of the downtown buildings to visit two other rather gruesome and gory attractions -- the snake-handling show by James White Outlaw Handlers, and the butcher shop.
The 55-year-old White, who calls himself the "grandfather" of the snake-handling business, has been at his craft for 46 years, stemming from a childhood fascination with snakes.
"My mother hated wash day. She didn't want to stick her hands into any of my pockets," he said.
Now, he performs daring feats, like the Kiss of Death, where he gives the head of a snake a kiss. He holds the world record of having 10 snakes in his face at one time.
In his venture, he has traveled all across the United States and has exhibited his feats on television, including a National Geographic special last month, and several documentaries.
He said the appeal of the snake-handling shows -- where he and his cohorts demonstrate the striking ability of snakes and how to safely remove oneself from a sleeping bag filled with rattlers -- is one of morbid curiosity.
"I'd say 75 percent come to see somebody get snake bit. The others are just interested in snakes," he said. "I went 44 years without a bite. I have a healthy respect for them."
Next door in the butcher shop, 18-year-old Miranda Brown of Waurika was dressed in jeans, a sleeveless white shirt and black rubber boots. Blood and who knows what else was spattered all over her clothes and littered the floor as she strung up a headless snake and began gutting and skinning it in front of horrified onlookers. As she expertly went about her gory work, she explained her technique.
"I've been butchering for about three years," she said. "Once you cut the head off, you just string it up by the tail and cut up the belly to skin it and gut it. You separate the skin from the muscle and clean the skins and people buy the meat and the hides."
Outside, snake-hunt visitors -- some novices and other old hands -- were partaking of some deep-fried rattlesnake meat, one of the main attractions of the festival.
Sulphur resident Jim Denney said it's an annual trek for him.
"I've been coming probably about 10 years. I just come to see all the sights and get my annual snake meat," he said.
His tasty fare is the handiwork of master chef "Big Dave" Morris, who shared his simple recipe.
"We just use flour, pepper, and that's basically all we put in it. You just deep fry it up and it tastes delicious. That's probably the best way to do it. It fries up good," he said.
Once they've braved the idea of eating rattlesnake and have their own piece in their hands, some people still are at a loss of what to do next.
"They look at it and look all over it and a lot of people ask how to eat it," Morris said.
And, as for the taste, well, that's still up for debate.
"A lot of people say it tastes like chicken," Morris said. "I think it tastes kind of like between frog legs and fish. Anyway, it's good. That's what counts."