For the past 30 years, land use consultant and outdoors columnist Don Moyer has become familiar enough with the habits of the venomous reptiles that he counts the challenge of rattlesnake wrangling among his hunting and fishing specialties.
Landowners will call him when they have a snake problem, and local ranchers know Moyer well enough that they welcome him onto their land for regular rattlesnake hunts.
While a trip into Lone Tree Canyon on Friday, June 29, yielded no snakes, Moyer described the places where rattlers are most likely to be found as he looked through wood piles, rusted vehicles and equipment, and around windmills, wells and cattle troughs.
“Around those pepper trees and the corral and anywhere around here we’re likely to find one,” he said, adding that the Western rattlesnake that inhabits the nearby hills blends in well with its surroundings, and a ranch worker won’t even know a snake is nearby except for the distinctive sound of the rattle.
“They’re like chameleons. I didn’t realize that,” Moyer said. “You find them on a stack of wood like that and they’ll be dark or almost black.”
He also checks rock piles, some surrounded by holes suitable to accommodate squirrels, the mainstay of the snake’s diet, or rabbits, which larger snakes will eat. By mid-day the snakes had apparently retreated to cooler and more remote hiding spots.
Moyer said he had already been up in Lone Tree Canyon a few times this year, each time taking out two or three snakes. Most snakes he finds are about 2 ½ feet long.
“Sometimes you find a great big one,” he said. “The biggest one I ever caught was about 50 inches and as big around as my arm.”
Moyer doesn’t get paid for catching snakes, but one of his recent trips was with a man who had won a charity auction for a chance to wrangle rattlesnakes.
The experienced trapper offers his services for charitable auction with groups such as Ducks Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and California Houndsmen for Conservation.
“A rattlesnake-catching trip is a one-of-kind thing,” he said. “Four or five guys will starting bidding on a rattlesnake trip and will bid it up to $200, $300, $400.”
On the trip, Moyer said the two men caught “three nice rattlesnakes and he wanted to eat one.” He said the snake went on the grill while the other two were sent to the taxidermist.
Even though the snakes were scarce last Friday, they are common enough in the nearby hills that rancher Frank Arburua, who raises sheep at the opening of Hospital Canyon, has been finding at least one a day for more than a month.
“Sometimes two to three times a day,” he said. “Most of them are here in the creek bottom. Any of these little piles of wood on the slope, up where the dog pen is, we’ve killed two or three there. They go across the driveway a lot, and generally in the evenings about 7 p.m. they’re right on Bird Road.”
Joe Ramos, superintendent of Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area, said the snakes are common at the motorcycle park, and usually turn up when park staff has to do maintenance projects in the hills.
“It’s a pretty good habitat for them with the grasslands and the rocky areas,” Ramos said. “In a month we’ll have four or five contacts.”
“It’s not unexpected. We have trained our staff to be on the lookout for them.”
Ramos added that the snakes tend to catch people by surprise when they show up around campgrounds and restrooms.
“If our staff sees them in a campground or a heavily used picnic area we’ll catch the rattlesnake and relocate it to a less-used part of the park,” he said, adding that rangers and most of the maintenance staff are trained to deal with snakes on a catch-and-release basis. He added that no rangers, campers or off-road vehicle users have been bitten recently at Carnegie, though the occasional dog does get bit.
“Other state parks where the rangers have tried to catch them the rangers have been struck and bitten.”
The California Department of Fish and Game notes that snakes try to avoid people and that they typically won’t strike unless provoked. More than 800 bites are reported statewide each year, and only one or two turn out to be fatal, the department reported.
Moyer avoids being bitten by using a 4-foot pole equipped with a metal claw at one end and a handle on the other to operate the claw, and he won’t go in places where it looks like a snake could catch him by surprise.
He noted that bite victims tend to be men who don’t respect the lethality of the snake. He recalls one man who nearly lost his hand to a snake bite, and another who tried to handle a small snake and received a fatal bite in the face as a result.
“It’s really, really serious. They can get horrible muscle damage and tissue loss,” he said. “The tissues start turning black and dying. It’s awful.”
Bill Aaron, an emergency room nurse at San Joaquin General Hospital, said the hospital gets one or two snakebite victims in a year. The danger to the victim varies. Depending on the circumstances of the bite a victim could require many doses of antivenin and surgery to remove dead or dying flesh, or it could be a “dry bite” where a snake punctures the skin but injects little or no venom.
“The main thing is to keep the bitten part immobilized and bring the victim to the emergency room,” he said. “The treatment really depends on the amount of venom delivered.”
He noted that most rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic, meaning it destroys blood cells and muscle tissue. Further west in the U.S. snakes with neurotoxic venom, which causes paralysis, including shutting down the heart and diaphragm muscles, are more common.
Moyer makes particular note of the Mojave rattlesnake, also known as the Mojave green, which lives in Southern California, Arizona and Mexico, and is considered one of the deadliest snakes in the world because its potent venom is both hemotoxic and neurotoxic.
“They’re only 2 ½ to 3 feet long. If you get bit by a Mojave Green you’re in serious trouble,” he said. “It can cause almost instant death.”