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TX Press: In rattler territory, using eyes and ears is cruc

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Posted by W von Papinešu on April 02, 2003 at 13:35:46:

DALLAS MORNING NEWS (Texas) 02 April 03 In rattler territory, using eyes and ears is crucial (Ray Sasser)
Dallas: Tommy Curtis was hunting quail on the King Ranch in December, hustling after two hunting companions in hot pursuit of a covey. Curtis' partners were walking in ranch road ruts. Curtis was a few steps behind, walking on the grassy area between the bare ruts.
"We were focused on our dogs because they had just about reached the spot where we'd seen that covey of quail," Curtis said. "I felt something hit my leg just below the knee, then it hit again above my knee."
Curtis glanced down to see the yellow belly of a rattlesnake falling away from him between his feet. He remembers jumping sideways but he doesn't remember shooting the snake, a 4-footer.
Curtis was hunting with Bobby Parker on Parker Drilling Company's King Ranch hunting lease. Curtis was wearing "snakeproof" leggings made of Cordura nylon but Parker made his friend drop his pants, anyway.
Sure enough, there was a drop of blood on Curtis' leg and the hunter remembered a prickly sensation, as if a cactus spine had penetrated the tough leggings. Within 30 minutes, Curtis was in the hospital at Kingsville. He was there for 2 1/2 hours while doctors watched him for any indication he had received a dose of rattlesnake venom.
Curtis is one of the lucky ones. A percentage of poisonous snakebites are "dry bites," meaning there's no venom injected. The snake that bit Curtis certainly intended to inject venom. It left venom on Curtis' leggings and the pants he was wearing under the leggings. He has squares of that material, stained by snake venom, framed as a grim reminder of how close he came to a serious injury.
Parker, renowned as a joker, said the snake didn't inject venom in Curtis because of professional courtesy. Curtis, you see, is a lawyer.
Parker's lease covers 12,000 acres near Kingsville. During hunting season, there were 101 western diamondback rattlers killed on that lease. The quail hunters killed seven snakes on the three-day December hunt when Curtis had his encounter.
"Two of those snakes rattled, five did not," said Parker. "It was old No. 99 that got Tommy."
Rattlesnakes are an unpredictable force of nature in many regions of the nation. A rattler gets its name from specialized scales at the end of its tail. When the tail is vibrated, the rattle creates a dry buzz instantly recognizable to anyone who's heard the sound.
The rattlesnake's rattle is a warning device.
Turkey hunters, because they walk long distances in pursuit of birds, are apt to encounter rattlers. As Parker noted, you can't assume a snake will warn you before it strikes.
Chip Ruthven thinks rattlers use the warning buzz as a last resort, only when they believe that a perceived threat has seen them and may attack them. Ruthven is assistant manager of Texas Parks and Wildlife's Chaparral Wildlife Management near Cotulla, Texas, in the heart of rattlesnake country.
Since 1996, researchers have caught 691 rattlesnakes on the 15,000-acre WMA. Each snake is equipped with an electronic "pit" tag. The implant can be read with a scanning device to identify the snake if it's recaptured. There have been only 59 recaptures, including a few snakes that have been caught as many as three or four times.
"We've got a lot of rattlesnakes," said Ruthven. "We don't have enough information to say how many."
Forty of the Chaparral WMA snakes have been caught in March. March is not the traditionally busiest month for snake encounters.
According to Ruthven, April, May and June are the months when rattlesnake movements peak. That's the breeding season and mature males are actively looking for mates. The average snake caught at the Chaparral measures between 4 and 5 feet.
Several of those snakes are equipped with telemetry transmitters that allow researchers to follow their movements. Ruthven said the good news is that snakes don't want to bite people. Otherwise, anyone who has walked through the brush of southern or western Texas would have been bitten.
"When snakes are above ground, most of their time is spent coiled under herbaceous vegetation," said Ruthven. "I call this their camouflage mode. If a snake thinks it's hidden, it will stay hidden.
"There have been times when the toe of my boot was within two inches of a rattler before I saw the snake. I actually stepped on a snake one day, and it made no attempt to bite nor did it attempt to rattle. It just retreated at a moderate pace."
When Ruthven tries to catch the hidden snakes, most of them try to get away. Some rattlers will defend themselves aggressively, rattling to warn the threat to stay away and striking if the warning system fails.
Luckily for outdoorsmen, rattlesnakes are not particularly aggressive. They are, however, unpredictable. It's impossible to say which snake will bite and which will hide.

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