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Cottonmouth coming (Part II) - The Warren Record: Opinion

Cottonmouth coming (Part II)

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Posted: Wednesday, February 14, 2018 9:00 am

Editor’s note: Columnist Frank Newell is on temporary leave.  Until he returns, we will reprint submissions from our archives. The following is reprinted from July 2006.

The old cottonmouth moccasin was resting comfortably deep in the middle of an old beaver dam, all 5 feet of him lying on mud mixed with rotting wood. Like bobcats, cottonmouths love a beaver dam because of the many and varied species of prey animals living in and around the dam, and the water it holds back. There are fish, frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, muskrats, swamp mice and a variety of ducks and other water fowl in abundance, and nature has given the cottonmouths, bobcats and other predators the job of controlling the population of the prey animals.

Last night around midnight, the old cottonmouth caught and finally swallowed a catfish about 60 inches long. His system will gradually digest that enormous meal, and he will not eat for two more days. Nature works in wondrous ways. The cottonmouth and most other snakes will fill up with many small prey such as tadpoles, little frogs and mice, or they will catch and swallow only one or two large prey like fish or big bullfrogs.

One quality that all wild animals have is patience, expect for a brief spell once a year during mating season. And that’s when many of them lose their lives. Many a buck deer and turkey gobbler have fallen to the hunter’s gun when they cast aside their patience, therefore, letting their urge to mate override their stealth, caution and wisdom.

Cottonmouth moccasins have another characteristic in addition to patience, and that’s what causes them a lot of trouble. They have more than their share of curiosity. Most humans, myself included, have mistaken the cottonmouth’s curiosity for aggressiveness or meanness. His curiosity, combined with his lack of fear, add up to a dangerous situation when he comes into contact with a human, especially somebody like me who ain’t afraid of much, either.

Most snakes, especially the dangerous ones, are more active during the month of May, which is the breeding season. One day this past May, I was sent to Northampton County near the village of Lasker to remove a few beavers and their dam, which was backing water dangerously close to the road. Now, we have a scattering of cottonmouth moccasins here in Warren County, but as you go east into Halifax, Northampton, Hertford and Bertie counties, you will discover that there ain’t no shortage of cottonmouths. Also, you will occasionally run into a timber rattlesnake, called by some local residents “canebreak rattlesnake” — same snake, different names. Cottonmouths are always found in or near water. I have never found a timber rattler in water, always on dry land.

Because I encounter many cottonmouths and very few rattlers, I am more wary of the rattlesnake, especially when I hear his buzzing before I see him. That means that he has seen me first, and he is warning me that he is about to strike. I have to admit that sometimes such a situation causes chills to my spine — not fear, but chills.

Anyway, when I arrived at that beaver damage site near Lasker, I began to set a few beaver traps near the dam. A Jeep Wrangler driven by a clean-cut young man pulled over on the roadside near me, and sitting beside him was a boxer bulldog wearing a red bandana around his neck. The young man’s name was Darren, and I noticed that the bulldog’s toenails were painted white. Darren said that his wife first painted the dog’s toenails pink, but he made her redo them.

Darren also said that he lived just up the road a piece and told me to be careful because that swamp up from the beaver dam had a good number of cottonmouth moccasins in it. In fact, the day before, he was rowing his canoe in the swamp, and a big moccasin began to follow him. The big snake even climbed into the canoe with him. He took his paddle and threw the moccasin back into the water, but it again tried to get back into the canoe. Darren didn’t really want to kill the old cottonmouth, but he couldn’t stand to share his canoe with him, so he picked up his rifle and shot the snake. He said it kept coming, so he shot it again about an inch behind his head, and it fell back into the water.

I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I believe this kid or not. Sounds like a wild tale to me.” But when I returned the next day, I saw that I had caught two big beavers in my traps. Tracks and other signs indicated that they were the only beavers present, so I decided to tear out the dam and thereby drain the backed up water from the road’s edge.

I began to pull small logs and sticks from the middle of the dam. Soon, the water was swirling through, so I waded out about knee deep to finish tearing out the dam. By then, the water from upstream in that swamp was flowing through the busted out middle of the dam. I grabbed hold of a small log about a foot underwater, and right then, a cottonmouth moccasin glided across both of my hands. It startled me at first, but I took that small log and pinned that moccasin against the dam.

Oddly enough, the big snake didn’t move. I pulled it out of the water and onto the creek bank. It sure enough was dead. I looked closer and saw two bullet holes, one about mid-length and the other about an inch behind his head. Darren was telling the truth. The current of water running through that break I had made in the dam had drifted the big snake from upstream where he had shot it.

A few days later, I encountered another cottonmouth in another area of Northampton County, this one being bigger and very much alive.

— Continued next week. —