Rattlesnakes

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Don SorchychI didn’t think there were rattlesnakes in Illinois until I went to Allerton Park, a 1,500-acre estate granted to the University of Illinois by Robert Allerton.

A neighbor was granted permission to trap rabbits on the estate to gain information for his PhD thesis. He invited me to go along to see how he trapped and what he was seeking.

Among other things researched in Allerton Park were the results from planting crops since parts of the estate were virgin soils. We entered a grove of planted pines, he bent over and with his gloved hand picked up a dwarf rattlesnake. This was my first encounter with a rattlesnake so I asked him why he took the risk. He pried open the snake’s mouth to show me its tiny fangs and said there was no risk of it biting through his gloves. He gently let it go.

This may have given rise to rumors about the park. Allerton was an art lover and populated the park with art, mostly statues. Claims were made he imported rattlesnakes to protect against theft of the various pieces of art. My friend agreed there were no other species of rattlesnakes and he had wandered over the 1,500 acres seeking rabbits to trap.

My built in fear of rattlers was poo-pooed by locals when I went to work in Florida. I saw a few that had been killed by cars and was impressed by their size but never met a live one.

At the time I lived in Melbourne Beach, which had abundant empty land. I noticed a regular stream of mourning doves used a lone house as a beacon when they headed to roost. They crossed maybe ten acres of empty land.

My insurance man Wayne Eden and I drove down there and got our limit of doves in a late afternoon shoot. Later in the week we returned and he brought his teenage son and his father who had built the insurance agency.

We parked three cars near the lone house and spread out to hunt. I shot one dove the wind blew into a heavy palmetto patch. The next one also dropped into dense palmettos.

I decided I would have to find those birds, hopped onto a dead tree and spied an opening. I dropped down and looked for a way to proceed but suddenly spied the glint of a rattler under palmetto leaves. I fired my shotgun through the vegetation and jumped up on the downed tree trunk.

No sound from the place where I shot. Was my snake fear causing me to imagine things? I broke off a dead tree branch and pulled the palmettos aside. There was a conical hole with snake rattles at the bottom. Further investigation revealed a headless snake blown in two with missing rattles. It had been about 6 feet long and coiled. I was standing only a step away wearing only tennis shoes.

I bought knee high snake boots the next day.

But that didn’t end the day. We kept shooting and at dusk we heard a police whistle and yells to stop shooting. We could see white papers stuck to our windshields. Wayne told his son to say he had been target shooting. His son said, “No, that is a lie.” Wayne negotiated and promised he could shoot the next time they went out. We walked up to the policeman who was furious because the man in the lone house and his wife were hiding behind a couch, scared silly because of all the shooting. It turned out Wayne’s dad had rattled birdshot on their house. To add insult the home owner had just joined the company I worked for as General Manager!

The officer was a nice guy. He would not press charges if we promised not to shoot in town limits again.

That early warning saved my life. Before I joined the Melbourne Hunting Club I hunted frequently along the St. Johns River. It was hard to know if you were poaching and so I canoed up river hunting turkeys.

I hid my canoe and was walking along a strip of land that divided bodies of water. The bushes were full of spider webs which I kept dodging. I suddenly realized I had stepped on a huge rattler and I leaped into the air as I felt a strike on the heel of my snake boots. It felt like a baseball bat hit my heel and I was thinking, oh, oh I’m going to land on that snake. I didn’t but it was coiled and when I shot from the hip I luckily blew its head off. It was only when I started breathing again I realized how beautiful its skin was. As I tried to skin it, the snake would squirm as snakes do and I would nearly jump into the water. Eventually I got it skinned, put the skin in my hunting coat and got up to leave. I hadn’t taken 20 steps when a rattler rattled in bushes ahead.

About this time I heard shots as two boys who were jump shooting ducks came around a bend. I hailed them and asked them if they could get me off the strand of land I was on and motor me to my canoe. They said no but when I offered them the $20 I had in my wallet they took me near my canoe. That was Thanksgiving Day in 1965 and when I got home my kids wanted to know where the turkey was. I stretched the hide on a board and kept it until the Arizona heat finished it. I had first measured it with my knife but when I got home I realized it was 7 feet long.

The future held many more experiences, 15 years at the hunt club in Florida and many more snake experiences in Arizona.

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