"Snow Snakes" Can Be Fact, Not Fiction

Monday, December 22, 2003 - by Richard Simms
There are a couple of species of extremely common water snakes throughout Southeast Tennessee. All are non-poisonous, but frequently confused with water moccasins since they are almost always spotted in the water.
There are a couple of species of extremely common water snakes throughout Southeast Tennessee. All are non-poisonous, but frequently confused with water moccasins since they are almost always spotted in the water.

The story you are about to read is true. The names have NOT been changed to protect the innocent.

You may have heard the term, "snow snake," and laughed about the myth as a nothing more than a cute alliteration.

For two area duck hunters, one lucky Labrador Retriever, and me, it is not really a myth -- and certainly not so cute. It was about one year ago, December 19, 2002 when we crossed paths with a pair of water moccasins in Jackson County, Alabama near Stevenson.

"Good gosh, look at that," exclaimed Alan Jones, with a slight waver in his voice. "Hold Sam back," he pleaded. Sam is Ross Malone's Labrador retriever.

It was in the afternoon with a heavy overcast and a serious storm looming on the horizon. The temperature was about 55 degrees. Jones and company had just set out decoys on the Raccoon Creek Wildlife Management Area, hidden the boat and were walking the shoreline back to their hunting spot.

Sam spotted the pair of snakes at the same time Jones saw them. Malone's commands to leave them alone went unheeded by the curious dog. "I knew we were in trouble when I saw that cottonmouth cornered against the tree," said Malone. "She has never seen a snake that I know of and these were definitely not the introductory type. This was one time I could not get my gun loaded fast enough."

Water moccasins, also known as cottonmouths, are the most aggressive of all the poisonous snakes. Rattlesnakes and copperheads will typically flee when they hear trouble coming. A cottonmouth will stand its ground. Sam was quickly headed for trouble.

The largest snake, just over 3-feet long, sat in an S-shape coil. As Sam rushed in to investigate, the cottonmouth lunged. Fortunately the cool temperature slowed the snake and the strike came with less-than-lightning-like speed. Sam's reflexes were faster and the fangs fell short of her nose.

I do not advocate killing snakes. They keep the world from being overrun with rats, mice and other vermin. I am not ashamed however, to tell you that these two residents of our duck hunting hole were dispatched. Examined quite closely, fangs and all, the identity was indisputable.

"Did you take any pictures of them," asked Phil Neil, the head of the Hunter Education program for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and an avid herpetologist. The answer was "no," but Neil wasn't overly surprised to hear about the sighting. They're rare, but most range maps indicate water moccasins are found in North Alabama. Neil says you won't find one in East Tennessee however.

There's an old adage when it comes to snake stories -- "The first liar never has a chance." In other words, tell your favorite snake story and your buddy can always top it.

That means that nearly all of us have heard stories of so-called "water moccasins" on area lakes and streams in Southeast Tennessee. Neil insists there has never been a documented case of a cottonmouth in our part of the state. He says, "draw a line north and south through Nashville and I've never heard of a water moccasin being found east of that line. If somebody finds one I'd like to see it."

There are a couple of species of extremely common water snakes throughout Southeast Tennessee. All are non-poisonous, but frequently confused with water moccasins since they are almost always spotted in the water.

Jim Miller, TWRA Assistant Area Supervisor from Cleveland, said, "we have people tell us all the time about seeing water moccasins. But we tell them it probably was a common banded water snake. I guess there's always the possibility that there's (a water moccasin) out there, but nobody has ever confirmed it."

Neil adds that it is unusual to see snakes out in December, "However the underground temperature usually stays around 50 or 52 degrees," he said. "So whenever the air temperature gets higher than that they're liable to crawl out and try to soak up a little extra warmth."

So how do you know the difference between a common water snake and a cottonmouth?

There are lots of tiny details experts look for. You've heard most of them…. oval heads versus triangular heads. Round pupils versus vertical slit pupils. All of those details are very obvious to experts. They are not at all obvious to novices, especially "in the heat of battle."

I'm no expert but I'll tell you that when you see a poisonous snake, you'll know it. They simply have a different "look" about them. In human terms, poisonous snakes look like WWF wrestlers compared to marathon runners. In the case of a cottonmouth, they will typically open their mouth in an aggressive posture, and the "cotton" mouth will be obvious.

If you're not sure, just leave it alone. The overwhelming majority of snakebites in the world come when someone is trying to catch or "play" with a snake.

Neil says no one is sure why the Tennessee/Alabama line appears to be a barrier for water moccasins. "Some people say it's a factor of elevation. Nobody really knows why but they simply are never found in the upper Tennessee River."

According to a map the cottonmouths we encountered were exactly 15 miles river miles south of the Tennessee/Alabama line. And some would say that's too close for comfort.

This is a cottonmouth, also known as a water maccasin.
This is a cottonmouth, also known as a water maccasin.

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