Snake hunting in Big Cypress - 1960's -
- 1960's -Dave Daly, AKA: Florida Gladesman
For several years my only source of income was from selling snakes to an importer/exporter in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. Okay, so it was in the early 1960’s but why does that matter? It matters because back then there were snakes everywhere. I took my children down to the ‘Glades in the late 1980’s and much to my surprise the snakes just were not there.
In the “old days” one could walk up to the edge of the water and see snakes all around. In the 1980’s I only spotted one snake. Much has been said about run off from central Florida causing problems. I also noticed that the huge schools of garfish were gone. The gar were still there but in much smaller numbers.
Alligators love to eat garfish but the supply was way down. However, the alligator population was way up with ‘gators seemingly everywhere and they had lost their fear of humans. Prior to being listed as an endangered species in 1967 ‘gators had a fear of humans for good reason, they were free game. Now they swim right up to you looking for food. Things have changed.
We had several favorite ways to hunt snakes. The best way was with three or four guys. In the early morning before it got hot one guy would walk the edge of the highway pavement scanning the road and part of the road shoulder. The next guy would walk the middle of the shoulder and the third would walk the edge of the water. Each had an overlapping view.
There was always a canal alongside a road; the canals were dug to provide fill for the road bed. The fourth guy, the unlucky one, known as the “Duck” had to swim in the canal. The guy on the waters edge would spot for the Duck. Duck’s job was to grab snakes in the water and throw them up on the shoulder for the others to catch. Perhaps it was my ability to Dog Paddle for hours on end that gave me the unenviable position of “Duck”.
The only good part about swimming was it kept me cool. On occasion a ‘gator would slide off the bank into the water and if frightened they would dive in with a big splash. There is a feeling of fear that comes over you when alone in the water as a five hundred pound lizard splashes in just fifteen feet away.
Waiting for lunch to swim by
Fear and panic, I’ve known them all my life. We are not friends but I know them very well.
But never did a ‘gator really bother me. Sometimes after a ‘gator dove into the water they would surface behind me and swim behind until a shore spotter warned me and I’d just get out of the water.
At times there would only be two of us and I always took the lead using my ‘gator spear as a probe just to make sure we didn’t step on one resting on the bottom.
Roy with a bag of snakes and Dave with a ‘gator spear
Steve and Dave cooling off Dave spotting a snake
Snake hunting along the Tamiami Trail was fun but resulted mostly of a catch of common water snakes and Water Moccasins. Water Moccasins brought more money from importers/exporters than the common non-poisonous snakes. It was rare to see an Eastern Diamondback in the swamps; they seem to prefer a drier environment. The best place for Diamondbacks was on the edge of North Miami but that is for another story.
Water snakes are not poisonous and not always easy to catch. They are usually in the water or in the branches and grass at the edge of the water. You can’t use a snake hook to pin them down because there is nothing underneath them but water or soft mud. The only thing to do was grab a snake knowing you were going to take a few bites. Grab the snake and sling the head end between your legs and clamp down, then work your way to the head. Yes, the backs of your legs will get bitten.
After about a week all the little teeth that you couldn’t see to pull out before will have become slightly infected. Little puss bumps will show up and all you had to do was pop each one with a pin or knife and squeeze. The tooth will slip out with the puss.
Each snake has four rows of teeth in the top jaw and two rows in the bottom. So, with six rows of teeth some are bound to stay in you. Like sharks the snakes regenerate teeth quickly.
Water Moccasins are just not real friendly. They will, of course, bite but just like a Copperhead they will strike with their mouth closed just “thumping” you as a warning. Below are a few pictures of my favorite Water Moccasin. For the picture below I Was on my knees and elbows trying to focus my single lens reflex camera but just couldn’t get the snake in focus. Then he struck the camera! I couldn’t get him focused because he was moving towards me. He hit the lens.
The next shot is the snake closing his mouth.
I had no idea he had gotten so close. No more free ranging snake photos.
Yes, I have always been skinny. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had the crap scared out of me way too many times.
Dave and Water Moccasin on snake hook
Yep, he is a well fed snake, loved to eat Mourning Doves. Now, let’s see the fangs!
Getting ready to expose fangs
There they are!
Big mouth and large fangs
Pygmy Rattlesnakes could be found along Tamiami Trail especially where the Old Tamiami Trail met with Loop Road and the new Tamiami Trail at Forty Mile Bend. Road construction turned a bit of the old road into an island. I could always count on a few Pygmy Rattlesnakes on that island.
Dave trying to catch something
Once the heat of the day was on us and the snakes had sought shelter in the shade we’d spear garfish from a bridge.
Garfish are one of the few prehistoric fish: they have inflexible overlapping scales that interlock to form an armored exterior.
The picture below is of a mounted garfish I copied off the internet.
The schools of gar were so thick you didn’t have to aim at a particular fish, just throw the spear at the school- you’d hit something! At times others had been spearing gar several days before we arrived and dead fish would litter the bridge.
I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years by not being able to control my impulses. Dead gar lying in the hot sun for a few days get cooked on the outside but the inside is just liquid green slime with writhing maggots. Because of the hard exterior the fish bodies give no clue as to all the slime and maggots within.
So there on the bridge stood my former friend Steve gazing out over the water. I took my spear and slid the tines under a rotten gar and slung it at him. He turned just in time to have the maggot missile hit him in the forehead. The gar split open like a rotten egg, slime and maggots streamed down Steve’s face. He vomited immediately and dove off the bridge. Another friend gone!
The best day came by chance. We had been catching snakes and spearing gar fish. I was holding a wet sack of snakes and carrying my spear. In the sack were a few water snakes and one very large Black Racer. The Racer wasn’t a favorite snake; although not poisonous they tend to strike and bite and never seem to calm down. This one was particularly large. It was so long that it could “stand” in the sack and one third of its body would be out the top of the bag with the typical “S” curve and striking at anything that moved.
While walking along the shoulder of the road I could hear a Wildlife Officer’s vehicle approaching. They all had big knobby tires and made a loud humming noise on the highway. The Officer went past me and then turned around. He pulled up behind me, stopped, and got out of his vehicle. He walked up and asked what I had in the sack. I said there were snakes in the sack. He didn’t believe me and said he thought I had been spearing game fish and demanded that I open the sack.
I asked if he was sure that is what he wanted me to do - the Black Racer had been nosing against the knot in the sack ever since he was caught. “Open the sack” said the Officer, so sure that he had caught me and I said “Okay”. With the Officer was leaning over to look in the sack I untied the half knot and holding the sack at arms length, opened it as wide as possible. The Black Racer popped out of the top and struck at the Officer’s face. The man’s hands went up and he just screeched while running backwards. He jumped back into his truck and drove away. Imagine that; a Wildlife Officer afraid of a snake.
I know what snake crap smells like and it wasn’t snake crap that I smelled as the Officer ran away. This was the only time the ripe odor of people poop made me laugh.
Steve never went snake hunting with me again and whenever the Wildlife guy drove past me he just blew his horn and shot me the bird.
AKA: Florida Gladesman