I was getting a little bored. Spring gobbler was over, my week vacation in Rhode Island had ended and I’d been fishing and fishing and fishing.
Something different was called for, an adventure out of the ordinary.
Almost on cue, I received an email from my friend, Matt Wilson. Matt has been deeply involved in the study, maintenance and protection of rattlesnakes. Working with several state and other government agencies Matt and his wife Paula have tagged, counted and registered snakes and their dens for years.
They have also monitored many construction, drilling, power and pipeline sites in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It takes a unique combination of rock structure, sun exposure and isolation from humanity for rattlers to exist and a bulldozer can carelessly destroy such habitat in minutes.
I immediately emailed Matt back and asked if I might accompany him on his next snake hunting expedition. He answered asking how the next week sounded. Man, I was excited.
We met at 7 a.m. in Port Allegany and began the drive south to Emporium and then the Wykoff Run area of Cameron County. During the drive Matt mentioned we’d be accompanied by another snake hunter.
Oh, why, great, the more the merrier. What was his name?
Well, turns out it wasn’t a he, but a she. I turned and looked at Matt with a very surprised expression (surely dating myself and my attitude). A girl, interested in rattlesnakes?
Matt, who had anticipated my surprise, gave me a big grin and said that Terra was quite a character, very interesting and a snake enthusiast.
To Emporium, down Sinnemahoning Creek and finally up a long, twisting trout stream to the ridge tops. We pulled over beside a white Subaru SUV. It was Terra.
The door opened and she jumped out of the car, all smiles. Tall, blue-eyed and athletic with long blonde hair pulled into a pony tail and wearing a ball cap, she greeted me enthusiastically. Matt said some flattering things about me and when I looked over at him he was grinning uncontrollably with an “I told you so!” look in his eye.
I was deeply intrigued as to why Terra had taken an interest in rattlesnakes of all things. Most people and — in my mind — especially girls are adverse to coming within close proximity of large, poisonous snakes in the wild.
Terra is a goal setter and the type of person who challenges herself. She began hunting since she loved the outdoors and set a goal of shooting a turkey, buck and bear in the same year. She did it, the Triple Trophy. Most impressive. Next on her list of goals was to overcome one of her fears. Needless to say, snakes were certainly high on that list and, as long as you’re working on snakes, why not make them rattlesnakes?
She did some research, bought the equipment, licenses, and headed out. On one of her first excursions she ran into Matt. Now, hunters and fishermen can be very jealous of their favorite spots, but snake hunters are among the most secretive of them all. Terra was trying to hide her snake hook, both were talking riddles and, finally, Matt came out and said, “Quit the bull!”
Soon, impressed by Terra’s obvious sincerity and interest, he gave her his card. She called soon after and Matt became her mentor, introducing her to the beauty and wonder of these secretive creatures.
After bouncing down some horrific roads we parked and took a short hike to a wide, open area covered with a mixture of native ferns, sparse grass and a thick carpet of blueberry bushes. Here and there refrigerator sized rocks stuck up out of the ground cover. It’s the rocks that draw the snakes, as they offer both heat and cover.
It wasn’t long until Terra called out, “Here’s one!”
Matt and I hustled over and Matt spied a second on the opposite of the rock — that snake immediately hid beneath it. When I reached Terra’s side she pointed out a nice black-phase rattler about 3 feet long, coiled and watching us intently. After a few seconds it turned to crawl beneath the boulder, but Terra expertly lifted it with her hook and Matt then grabbed the snake with his tongs.
Terra’s backpack included a snake tube. Snake tubes are about 3 inches in diameter, 3 feet long and clear. Once a snake’s forward body and head is safely inside they present no danger.
Terra was very proficient in her abilities and I quickly took her picture holding the rattler. Terra turned the snake over and counted 20 caudal scales behind the snake’s vent. A female, males have 21 or more. After a few more minutes Terra released the snake, which quickly coiled, assessed the situation and, deciding we were no threat, crawled rapidly for her rocky den, right over Matt’s boot, without a single aggressive motion.
“See?” Terra said. “Even though we caught her, tubed her and handled her she was never aggressive toward us, only wanting to get away and hide.”
We found 14 more snakes that morning and Terra’s competence and knowledge convinced me all girls are not afraid of snakes, not by a longshot.
If you somehow find a rattlesnake, do what Terra would do. Step back and enjoy a rare and unique sight. They only wish to be left alone.
(Wade Robertson is an award-winning outdoor writer whose articles have been published in Pennsylvania Outdoor News, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur, Fish & Game and other publications. His email is email@example.com.)