Waist-deep in a long pool, I danced to and fro dodging a water snake intent on climbing my waders. My daughter laughed at my Fred Astaire imitation in murky water. Though I recognized the snake as nonvenomous, I still had no desire to have a creature slithering southbound in my waders to parts unknown. More about this in a minute.
First, let me say that my relationship with snakes is long and bedraggled. Perhaps I’m guilty of carousing the places they inhabit. Yet it feels like something more akin to their choosing to inhabit the places I carouse. I’ll let you be the judge.
The first time I noticed this relationship was on a solo trip in the foothills of Virginia. The June sun baked the railroad tracks I walked in on, heading to an evening of fly-fishing on a remote section of the river. A fox trotted on the tracks behind me as if he had foreknowledge of the events to unfold and wanted to watch.
Upon reaching the section I planned to fish, I then turned off into a weed patch navigated by following deer trails. The weeds grew head high, a mixture of blackberries, pokeberries, and poison oak that thinned as I reached the trees that bordered the river. As the weeds thinned, I paused to choose my next path. That was when the rattling began.
Few sounds in nature so fully grab your attention as rattling at your feet. It’s the sort of sound that makes bladder control an art form. The alternative is to wade wet with your waders on.
Glancing without moving more than my eyes, I finally found the culprit. He lay about two feet to my left, coiled and threatening to strike. He looked a thick three-footer and blended in with his surroundings well. That he was a rat snake wagging his tail in dry leaves calmed me just a bit. I stepped directly away from him and headed to the river. The woods grew quiet behind me. Somewhere, a fox chuckled.
Reaching the river, it had the look of water anticipating summer. A few small mayflies hovered over the current, now a gurgling riffle sporting less water than just a month earlier. I stood atop the bank and looked for a good spot to descend the four-foot drop. As I looked for an easy point to sit and slide, another snake shot from the bank like a noodle blown through a straw, flying well into the current before splashing and swimming to the far bank. A shiver went up my neck even as sweat trickled down from the long walk in. I found a low spot and scooted ungracefully into shallow water at the bottom of the riffle.
Here a series of round boulders sat in the stream, littered with twigs from higher water in the spring, resembling a bunch of hairy hippos fording the river. I leaned against the closest to steady myself as I waded, unconcerned about there being a snake on top simply because the odds of seeing three snakes in such a short period of time would be akin to a lightning strike.
Then a tongue flicked below two beady eyes and I looked to the sky for lightning. I eased toward another boulder and noticed two Canada geese sitting on the opposite bank. I quickly learned that the twigs on this boulder happened to be their nest and they didn’t appreciate my approach. The way I learned was from their immediate launch and flight directly at my head.
I flailed the air between us with my fly rod, comforted after the fact with the realization that fifteen years remained on the warranty. Backtracking to the snake’s boulder, I edged around it and waded upstream to the water the second snake had chosen to leap into.
I can’t remember if I caught any fish, though I did save some money by skipping my heart exam that year. I figured if three snakes and a pair of mad geese couldn’t trigger an attack, I was good to go.
Snakes are not a creature I despise or fear, that position in my psyche being occupied by yellow jackets. Still, it’s the surprise of finding them close before I see them that gives me pause. There’s a split second between my brain screaming “SNAKE!” and following it up with a whisper saying “Oh, not a venomous one” when I inhale just a bit and start looking for an escape.
The most snakes I’ve ever seen on a trip happened to be a brood that crisscrossed over a bluegill bed in such numbers I lost count. My countable maximum was seven in a pool in the North Carolina mountains. They scurried along the water’s edge and climbed into low branches. One was so long it could use the floatation of its body for support and reach with its front half up into an overhanging tree. As it climbed out, it seemed its back half would never stop coming from the river.
On another afternoon, I took a breather from scrambling over rocks chasing wild mountain trout and sat on a dead log in the shade. The beauty of the creek made me pause to look around as I nibbled on a cracker. The rhododendrons closed in like walls and hid the birds that sang inside. I looked to my right and noticed a snake curled up beside me as calm as if I had awakened him and he was still groggy.
We continued to sit side by side until it was time for me to fish again. Later in the afternoon, I found myself in a long pool quietly casting across to the shadow of a fish beneath an overhanging bank. The water moved slowly and the surface was slick as a mirror. I tried not to cause a ripple.
So when I saw a ripple I looked down to see what I had done and observed a snake swimming lazily away. Its path indicated it had come between my legs without my noticing, a good feat since I was wading wet and should have felt it.
Back to the snake in the pool trying to climb in my waders, he had me in a bit of a pickle since I was on the high spot of a deep pool and only a few inches from taking on water. Furthermore, the high water carried enough silt to obscure the bottom, so any knowledge of a misstep would arrive too late.
As I zigged, he zagged. We danced on like this momentarily until I finally sashayed to his upstream side. The current caught him and swept him on downriver. I breathed a sigh of relief with a background of my daughter’s snickers, likely only funny to her since it was me and not her doing the waltz with a water snake.
Over the years, I’ve come to expect snakes to swim where I fish. Perhaps I attract them or maybe I am just attracted to their environs. We both like cool streams on a hot summer day, chilling ourselves in the current and drying in the warm sun.
So whether I attract these creatures is something I can’t answer. But what I do know is that these snakes all have one thing in common. Like the outlaws in an old western movie, they all like to see me dance.
Jim Mize is a poor dancer who improves in the presence of snakes. His award-winning books of humor are available on Amazon or you can order autographed copies at www.acreektricklesthroughit.com. You may also purchase Jim’s works by clicking here on the RIVERS AND FEATHERS “BOOKS” page.
Mike must have my share of snake encounters. Through decades on the stream, I’ve seen very few snakes. The most memorable was one in a Smoky Mountains stream. It was swimming along with a rainbow trout crossways in its mouth. The fish was big enough that I wouldn’t have minded having caught it before the snake did.
I think I saw a grass snake once as I walked through a field to a salmon pool on the Miramichi. Different latitudes ; different fauna