PEMBROKE, VA. -- Everyone has different ways of relaxing, although for most people snake hunting is probably not one of them.
"What is life about? Life, liberty and the pursuit of rattlesnakes," said Paul Vanover of Roanoke County.
Vanover and David Wright, a products design engineer in Blacksburg, practice the sport of rattlesnake hunting as a team. A friend, Russell McDaniel, often hikes along to capture the hunt on videotape.
The best time to hunt rattlesnakes is in dry weather. "Late October is too late, and early May is too early," Wright said.
"In the winter, the snakes hibernate, but it's a good time to find out new places to hunt," Vanover said. The snakes like bright, sunny days -- about 80 degrees is best, when it's not too hot to lie in the sun.
"Today, we were looking for a new place to hunt," Vanover said. "We're not sure how far from the road we are, at least a mile and a half."
Vanover and Wright use two trucks. One is left at the bottom of the mountain and the other is driven to the top where the hike begins. When the team has reached the bottom of the mountain the hunters can climb into that truck and drive back up the mountain to pick up the other one.
The team rarely follows a trail, preferring to take to the woods.
"I've never been lost," Vanover said. "I've been bewildered a couple of days at a time -- that's what Daniel Boone said."
Vanover and Wright hunt in nearly all the counties in southwest Virginia. Vanover is a native of southeastern Kentucky, where he got his start stalking rattlesnakes.
Charlie Bailey, who handled snakes in church in southeastern Kentucky during the '60s, taught Vanover the ins and outs of rattlesnakes.
Vanover is in his 14th season of snake hunting and sees no lack of quarry. "If you know where to look, there's quite a few rattlesnakes around here," he said.
On this trip, the group hiked for five to six hours, stopping for drinks of water at the fresh creeks that flow along the route.
The equipment "is real complicated stuff," Wright said. "We use a stick with a forked end to pin them down and another stick with a hook on the end if we need to pull them out from under a rock, and one with a noose, if we can't get to 'em too easy."
The snakes are carried home alive in a reinforced plastic feed sack. "This sack ain't got no holes in it," Wright said. "Once, on the way home a snake was on the floor of the truck beside the sack. Yeah, Vanover let me know about that for a while."
Wright began hunting with Vanover about four years ago. He was sitting around one day with not much to do, and Vanover suggested rattlesnake hunting.
"There are three different kinds of rattlesnake hunters: First, there are those who handle snakes for religious purposes in church; second, there are those who hunt to kill for the joy of killing something or for the hides -- some people are funny in the head and want to shoot everything -- and, third, there are those who hunt for the exercise and the excitement of the sport," Vanover said. Vanover and Wright, who said they fit into the third category, keep the snakes alive.
"It's good exercise: You catch one rattlesnake, your cardiovascular system pumps so much you don't need to exercise for two weeks," Vanover said.
Often, the hunt is simply a very long walk interrupted with snake sightings.
"Shush, quiet, we've spotted two coiled up over here on the exposed rock face. They're just layin' there," Wright said.
"We can't alert them or they'll take off and crawl under the rocks," Vanover added.
Vanover approached the two timber rattlers carefully, probing his forked stick until it was positioned around one snake's neck and quickly grabbing the snake's neck with his forefinger and thumb.
"Look at his eyes -- they're milky, which means his skin is turning dry and getting ready to shed," Vanover said as he dropped the snake in the feed sack, knotted the sack securely and put it in his rucksack. The snake was not happy and expressed his displeasure through his rattles.
The other rattlesnake had escaped under a rock. Wright was down on his stomach with a flashlight looking for it. Vanover was above the rock, working the snake from the other side. Wright hooked the snake and pulled it out of hiding, grabbing the noose to throw around its neck for quick control. With two sticks, Wright picked up the furious 3 1/2-foot snake as it wrapped its jaws around one of the sticks. The two men dropped the snake into the bag with its buddy and tied a tight knot.
"I'm addicted to the excitement of it," Vanover said. "Now, it takes more to get that excitement high. I want more and bigger ones. It's more exciting to go hunting by myself; but you get in tight spots.".
Vanover keeps the snakes in a cage outside his house during the summer.
He feeds them mice. Snakes may only eat two to three times a month, then loll around and digest. He will set most of the rattlesnakes free deep in a national forest before winter.