Tips for Hunting in Snake Country

Knowing how to avoid and treat a venomous snake bite is a crucial skill for any hunter.

The black bear was feeding on chokecherry bushes two hundred yards across a canyon when I took the shot. We were hunting in Idaho’s Hells Canyon, an area with a healthy population of black bears. And, unfortunately, a fair number of rattlesnakes.

I had been careful to avoid encountering a snake up to that point, keeping my hands away from rocks and tall grass and always paying close attention to where I sat and stepped, but after the shot the bear had rushed for a stand of timber and I was hurrying along a hillside to work into a position for a follow-up shot. I was so focused on getting a second shot into the bear that I almost missed the buzzing sound from a pile of rocks as I charged past.

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Thankfully, the rattler didn’t take the opportunity to lash out and me, and it easily could have since my calf was only a couple feet from the rocks where the now furious snake was lazing away the late afternoon hours, but I learned a valuable lesson that day—one errant step in snake country can turn a wilderness hunt into a life-threatening emergency.

North America is home to dozens of venomous snakes, everything from the small, elusive coral snakes in the southern portion of the country to timber and diamondback rattlesnakes. And while snake bites are (thankfully) relatively rare, a bite from a venomous species can cause extensive damage and, in some cases, even death.

But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid hunting in snake country altogether. In fact, some of the best hunting in the country takes place in areas where poisonous snakes are not just present but common. Avoiding snakes is your best option, but knowing what to do if you are bitten is critical.

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Here are five keys to staying safe around venomous reptiles:

A deadly African puff adder warms itself on a game trail
A deadly African puff adder warms itself on a game trail

1. Learn to Avoid Snakes

This is the critical first step toward staying safe in areas where poisonous snakes are found. Most snake bites occur on the hands and feet, usually when someone inadvertently gets too close to an unseen snake. A basic understanding of snake ecology is essential. As exothermic animals, snakes must regulate their own body temperature. If it’s cool they will likely seek out a place where the sun’s rays will warm their bodies—roads, rocks, stone paths, and so forth. If the weather warms snakes will find areas that are cooler, such as under a fallen log or in a pile of rocks.

Avoid common snake hideouts like deadfalls, tall grass and brush, and rock slides. When you are in the woods be sure to step on and then over fallen logs and large rocks, and never reach in areas that don’t offer enough visibility to see a snake. The key is to train yourself to recognize potential snake hazards and to avoid them.

2. Don’t Antagonize Them

This should be elementary, but a number of snake bites each year occur because people intentionally put themselves in position to be bitten. Snakes are fascinating creatures, but they deserve a wide berth. And don’t assume that a rattlesnake will always offer up a warning before striking, and some species—the Mojave rattlesnake of the desert southwest, for example, become easily agitated and may act aggressively if you approach too closely.

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3. Snake Bites Can Happen Year-Round

It’s true that snakes are most active during the summer months, but long stretches of warm weather at any point during the year and bring these reptiles out of hiding. Cold weather often makes snakes more lethargic, but when they begin to emerge from hibernation they will seek out warm areas where they can regulate body temperature. This could be a foot path or stones around a hunting lodge.

When you’re in snake country there’s almost always a possibility of encountering one of these reptiles, even during the cooler months. The odds are lower, but you must remain aware.

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4. Have the Right Equipment

The most obvious piece of gear you’ll need for hunting in snake country is a pair of snake-proof gaiters or snake boots.

Over the past several years companies have developed boots that are more comfortable and lighter, and LaCrosse’s new AeroHead Sport and Chippewa’s Yarrow are both solid options. But these aren’t the only essential items in areas with lots of venomous snakes.

In rocky terrain it’s a good idea to have some type of walking stick (or, in the case of hunters, shooting sticks) to help you navigate through rough terrain.

Sticks accomplish two things. First, they help keep you from falling down into a rock slide or brush pile that may contain a snake, and second, they allow you to stabilize yourself without exposing your hands or legs.

Lastly, I always carry a good flashlight in snake country. As I write this I’m on an aoudad hunt in south Texas and walking along the stone paths at night from the cook house to the cabins in complete darkness is asking for trouble. With a good light I always know what’s ahead. Communication is key, so if you don’t have a cell phone that works you will need a radio or satellite phone—something that allows you to call for help if you are bitten.

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5. Know What to Do If You’re Bitten

Avoiding snake bites is the best option, but if you are bitten you need to know how to react. The first step is to get away from the snake, making sure that you and others are out of harm’s way. If you can identify the species that may help, but don’t put yourself at additional risk to try and see or catch the snake.

According to Ross Francis of Dark Angel Medical every snake bite should be treated as an envenomation (as opposed to a dry bite when the snake strikes but does not inject venom). There are several myths about sucking venom from the wound, but, according to Ross, prompt medical care is the only reliable option. Increased blood flow spreads venom more quickly, so the first step is to remain calm.

If your hunting companion is bitten help them walk back to the vehicle, exerting as little effort as possible to minimize heart rate and the spread of toxins within the body. Try to keep the bite site below the heart if possible and control breathing. The faster you can reach medical aid the better your odds of a full recovery.

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