Your most likely reptile companion on a fishing trip will not be a copperhead or cottonmouth, but a harmless watersnake.
By Whit Gibbons
If you’re fishing alongside a lake, reservoir, river, or stream, you could run across a snake. Your chances of catching a bass, striper, or trout are appreciably higher.
If you see a snake around water anywhere in the lower-48, odds are, and they are very good odds, it will be a harmless gartersnake or watersnake. Any snake might bite if picked up, and you’ll definitely want to wash off the awful musk they use in defense against predators.
But only as a long shot is an angler likely to encounter a venomous pit viper, and no matter what kind of snake, it wants to see no more of you than you do of it. What do you need to know so that you can focus on fishing, including boat launching, paddling, or just relaxing without being concerned about snakes?
Let’s start with the where part, land vs. water. A trail leading to the water is always a possibility to encounter snakes, so watch your step the way you would in any outdoor habitat. Once in waders in the water or in a boat, an angler has little or nothing to be concerned about as far as snakes go.
The only venomous snake anywhere in the country that even comes close to being truly aquatic is the cottonmouth, aka water moccasin. While fishing for trout, you need only focus on where your fly is headed. Trout don’t live in warm, slow waters, and cottonmouths don’t like cold, fast streams.
Furthermore, most trout streams in high elevation habitats have no cottonmouths at all. Across the country, chances are better than 100:1 that cottonmouths don’t even live in the same county where your favorite trout stream is. Check their natural geographic range in a field guide.
During other fishing ventures, such as in a southern oxbow lake, farm pond, or slow-moving stream or river, you might find a cottonmouth coiled on the bank or swimming lazily alongshore. But so what?
The myth that a cottonmouth will “chase a person” is absolute fantasy promoted by people with a pathological fear of snakes. If you see a cottonmouth, leave it alone. It will return the favor.
Anglers often see snakes in lakes, streams, and rivers. So, what are they? Without question, the most common snake in the Midwest or any stream east of the Mississippi is the northern watersnake or its look-alike cousin the southern banded watersnake.
These two non-venomous watersnakes commonly suffer from mistaken identity with venomous species. Many watersnakes have bright orange and brown cross-bands on the body, leading to their being confused with copperheads. Large female watersnakes of several species often have dark coloration not dissimilar to that of cottonmouths.
Lots of outdoor enthusiasts waste a lot of time each year worrying about and trying to eliminate harmless watersnakes, which are many times more abundant and far more likely to be encountered than any venomous species. All southern, northeastern, and most midwestern streams or lakes have one or more kinds of harmless watersnakes swimming around in them.
Gartersnakes and their close kin, ribbon snakes, are commonly associated with water, so either could possibly be seen swimming along the margins of freshwater habitats. Like watersnakes, consider them an opportunity to view native wildlife.
Gartersnakes are recognized by most people who spend much time outdoors. Bright yellow stripes down a dark body make them distinctive snakes that need never be confused with any venomous species.
When to expect snakes during a fishing trip does not take much of a wildlife background to figure out. Snakes become inactive during cool or cold weather and become dormant in winter, so encounters are off the table much of the year. Warm summer nights and cool sunny days of spring and fall are favorite times for watersnakes. If you see a big snake drop from a tree limb and dive under water in a hurry, don’t worry. It’s almost certainly a harmless watersnake.
Fishing is an enjoyable sport with few hazards, and a snakebite should be toward the end of the list. As already noted, once you are in the water, don’t give snakes a second thought beyond enjoying seeing one. The vast majority will be watersnakes, and they will be trying to get out of your way.
Snakebites inflicted on anglers are exceedingly rare, probably not reaching double digits over the last two centuries. Those that have occurred have probably been on the trail to or from the stream. Timber rattlesnakes and copperheads encountered on land are the culprits, but with proper medical treatment, a serious bite is rare.
The following “Five Steps to Avoid Serious Snakebites” put any angler’s probabilities into perspective.
First, the chances of encountering a snake on any outdoor excursion are very low. Secondly, harmless snakes outnumber venomous ones in most regions at ratios of better than 6 to 1. Third, even venomous snakes want no part of people and give a defensive bite only as a last resort. A venomous snake’s first choice is to escape.
Number four, based on a study of more than 1,000 U.S. venomous snakebites, almost two-thirds would not be life-threatening even without professional medical attention. Finally, modern medical facilities with access to advice from nationwide Poison Control Centers can deal successfully with snakebites. Personal first aid in the form of cutting, tourniquets, freezing or using a stun gun on the bite are all strongly discouraged by most medical doctors. Get the victim to a hospital and chances of recovery are very high.
A snakebite is a highly improbable event. Enjoy your fishing adventures by letting snakes be among the least of your worries of what you may meet in the water or on the trail leading to it.
Photo credit: John D. Willson