Snakes Alive!

A look at Georgia’s six venomous snakes with SnakeMaster Steve Scruggs.

It’s June, which means snakes are on the prowl. As hunters, we seem to find more and more excuses to stay in the woods these days. From checking trail cameras, preparing dove fields or hunting coyotes, many of us find ourselves in a situation where we could encounter a venomous snake. To find out more information about the state’s six venomous snakes, we turned to Steve Scruggs, aka the SnakeMaster, who not only brings his snakes to GON’s Outdoor Blast, but reaches many kids each year with the message of hunting and conservation.

“I have been fascinated by snakes since I was 7 years old and give my grandfather for credit the interest I have today,” said Steve. “They don’t scare me, but I sure do have a lot of respect for them.

“I have had two close calls over the years and will share that with our audiences during this year’s Blast. I would tell anyone this: Once the snake feels threatened by you, you cannot imagine how fast they can do something, and I’m not just talking about striking. They are incredibly fast, especially the cottonmouth.

“I am looking forward to this year’s Blast and will bring a whole bunch of snakes with me, especially my big cottonmouth. He’s a monster for sure.”

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Crotalus Adamanteus

Seeing a full-grown eastern diamondback rattlesnake curled up and rattling in front of you should make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention.

“The Eastern diamondback is my favorite Georgia snake, just because they put you on guard from the minute you encounter one in the wild. They are a very smart snake, as far as snakes go,” said Steve.

Diamondbacks are quite large, with adults easily reaching lengths of 6 feet. Live-born diamondbacks are 7 to 14 inches long. These snakes have large heads and two white stripes separated by black markings on the sides of their heads. The diamonds on the back are large and tend to be black, with some snakes having brownish or tan diamonds.

“The two things all hunters should keep in mind with this species: Long fangs—adults have at least 1-inch long fangs—and quantity of venom,” said Steve.

A bite from an adult eastern diamondback requires immediate attention.

“The Eastern diamondback can strike you multiple times and carries more venom—850 mg—than any snake in North America,” said Steve. “It is a very dangerous animal and should not be messed with by anyone who does not know snakes.

“I had a female for 19 years that I raised. She was just over 6 feet and weighed in at 16 pounds. We did hundreds of shows together, and she was the only diamondback I ever had that would let me free hand her without trying to kill me. I don’t recommend anyone ever trying to free hand an Eastern diamondback.”

Eastern diamondbacks are found in south Georgia and are fond of gopher tortoise holes, and many spend the colder months burrowed in them. Expect to see Eastern diamondbacks in pine forests and palmetto areas, and they can be found on most of Georgia’s barrier islands.

Hunters should use caution when walking in areas of high grass, palmettos, ferns or any other highly vegetated areas.

These snakes also have an impressive appetite, feeding on rodents, rabbits and squirrels. Young diamondbacks are preyed on by king snakes and indigo snakes.

Timber/Canebrake Rattlesnake

Crotalus horridus (atricaudatus)

If you live anywhere in Georgia, you shouldn’t be surprised to see either a timber or canebrake rattlesnake.

“I count the timber and canebrake as two separate species,” said Steve. “The timber is Crotalus horridus, and the canebrake is Crotalus horridus atricaudatus. In Georgia, we say if it is Macon and south, it’s a canebrake, and if it is north of Macon, it’s a timber.”

For folks who may encounter a timber rattlesnake, coloration may be yellow with brownish crossbands, cream with crossbands or completely black (melanistic). The coloration of the canebrake is very similar to the timber, but most often the canebrake has a dark stripe that extends from the eye to the corner of the jaw. Timbers typically have a uniform color on the sides of the face.

The canebrake gets its name from its preferred habitat of lowland swamps. This snake hangs out in cane thickets and can be found on the edges of any rivers and swamps of the state.

Both timber and canebrakes will rarely reach 6 feet in length, and the average maximum length is around 5 feet. These snakes are very dangerous, and human fatalities have occurred from bite from these species.

“In my opinion, (timber/canebrake) is one of the most dangerous snakes we have in Georgia because of the toxicity of the venom,” said Steve. “Although the species, as an adult, only carries 320 mg of venom, it is extremely toxic to humans. This snake does not always rattle prior to striking.”

The young are born alive with a single button for a rattle, which is not audible until the snake has shed its skin at least a couple of times. These snakes add a rattle each time their skin is shed. In warmer climates, some rattlesnakes may shed three or four times a year, especially the younger snakes that are growing rapidly. At any given show, you can expect Steve to have a timber or canebrake that he uses.

“I always like to work with a snake prior to using it in one of my shows,” said Steve. “Several years ago Ranger Mike Barr (Cobb County) called me to tell me he pulled one (a timber) out from under a ladies house and wanted to know if I wanted it. I had the snake for two weeks and took it to Charleston, S.C. for a show. I have, for the last 20 years or so, made it a practice to always wear my Rocky snake boots during my presentations. This particular show when I got ready to show the timber rattler that Ranger Barr gave me, I did not have on my snake chaps, and I had not worked with the snake at all. God spoke to me on stage in Charleston, and you will never convince me otherwise. When I got ready to pull the snake out to show it, I hear this voice, ‘Put your chaps on.’ I thought it was my wife. I turned to Sharon and said: ‘What?’ She said, ‘I did not say anything.’

“I went ahead and put the chaps on, and when I took the rattler out of his box, he struck just below the edge of the top of the chap on my left leg, and venom ran all the way down to the boot. Thank you, Jesus! Very dangerous!”

These snakes feed on a variety of creatures, including rodents, birds and frogs.

Copperhead:

Agkistrodon contortrix

Anyone who spends enough time in the woods, especially during bow season or turkey season, has probably seen a copperhead. They are not only in every county in Georgia, but they are the most common venomous snake that we have in the state.

“More people are bitten by copperheads than any other venomous species,” said Steve.

Copperheads average between 20 and 36 inches in length, while larger individuals can be 4 feet long. They have a brownish appearance, a light beige or tan in the southern portions of the range, with more of a rust color in the upper Piedmont and mountainous areas. Copperheads have very distinct brown or rust-colored hour-glass shaped markings on the lighter brown color. The hour-glass markings are wide on each side and are considerably narrower at the center of the back. Young copperheads are pattered like adults, but they have a yellowish- or greenish-colored tail tip.

Copperheads are found in a wide variety of habitats. You can find them in the Georgia mountains in rocky outcrops, mountain valleys and on farm land. Down south, look for these snakes in wood piles and blowdowns and along the edges of swamps.

“In the world, there are 450 venomous species of snakes,” said Steve. “Ranked in order of toxic venom, the copperhead would be ranked at the bottom of the list. In other words, it has the least toxic venom of all the venomous species. I would still seek medical attention if I was bitten.”

The copperhead only carries an average of 70 mg of venom. Interestingly enough, that venom is being used to fight breast cancer in women. Even though more folks are bitten by copperheads, fatalities by this snake are very rare.

Steve adds, “My motto in the wild is ‘Never put your hands where you can’t see, and never step where you can’t see.’”

Cottonmouth

Agkistrodon piscivorous

This stocky-built snake averages 30 to 48 inches in length, but large species of this snake have been documented at 72 inches. When cottonmouths feel threatened, they will often throw their heads back and show off the inside of their white mouth, hence the name cottonmouth. These snakes have a reputation for being quite aggressive.

“I personally don’t care what anyone else says about this snake species, it is very aggressive in the wild, and once it feels threatened by you, it becomes very aggressive and will come after you,” said Steve. “I’m bringing a very large one (5-footer) to the Blast. I have had the snake for 13 years now and can handle it some but not much. It is quick as greased lightning.”

Cottonmouths frequent swampy areas and creek and river bottoms. They prefer to bask at the water’s edge or on logs or tussocks in the swamp. Non-venomous water snakes, often confused for cottonmouths, prefer to bask on snags or even high in the shrubs or trees overhanging the water.

Adult cottonmouths may be brown, olive, black and occasionally yellowish with dark crossbands.

Swimming cottonmouths are extremely buoyant and float high on the surface of the water. Non-venomous snakes tend to have just their heads on the surface, and their body remains under the water.

“Cottonmouths carry 320 mg of venom and a ton of bacteria in their mouths,” said Steve. “You don’t necessarily die from the snake bite, as much as you will from secondary infections. My late father use to say: ‘The cottonmouth is the only reason they invented the 12-gauge shotgun.’ Dad, I agree!”

Pigmy Rattlesnake

Sistrurus miliarius

The small rattlesnake is found in most of Georgia. The Carolina pigmy is found in the northern third of the state and only reaches 23 inches in length. These snakes are fond of wet areas, especially the edges of swamps, marshes and bogs.

The dusky pigmy rattlesnake can be found in the Coastal Plain area, but populations in the Piedmont are few and scattered. These pigmies inhabit water areas around creeks, marshes and swamps but can be found in upland areas, too.

“They do have rattles but break them off, often causing folks to think they don’t have any rattles. They do,” said Steve. “The population is diminishing because of loss of habitat. I quit keeping this little guy because it is hard to get them to eat in the winter months.”

Coral Snake

Micrurus filvius

The coral snake has brightly colored bands of red, yellow and black. They rarely reach 4 feet in length.

The coral snake is the only venomous snake in North America that has round pupils and a round head,” said Steve.

This colorful snake, located in the southern half of the state, often gets confused with the non-venomous scarlet king snake.

“Watch for the black nose,” said Steve. “The saying is ‘Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, friend of Jack.’ I always go by the black nose. The scarlett king has a red nose, always.”

The bite from a coral snake is very dangerous, and medical attention must be received quickly.

“This species has a neurotoxic venom that attacks our nervous system, and once bitten, your body may not show any symptoms for an hour or so, and then whammo, it hits you,” said Steve. “Seeing one of these guys in south Georgia is rare, but they are there. It has a long, skinny body, and it is a species that will try and trick you into thinking the tail is the head and the head is the tail. It does crawl backward.”

Whether you hate ’em or love ’em, Georgia’s six venomous snakes are certainly creatures to be respected. When you’re out this summer, keep a close look out for these guys. And as the SnakeMaster says, “Never put your hands where you can’t see, and never step where you can’t see.”

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