"Don't count on Hollywood to tell you the truth about rattlesnakes," Bob Davenport said. "Your image of rattlers probably came from westerns. The cowboy is riding across the desert, the horse spots the snake, the horse rears the snake rattles - which identifies the snake to the ignorant movie-goer - and at the peak of the movie-goer's fear, the cowboy draws and blasts the snake's head clear to Chicago."
I agreed. That was my image. Change the horse to the damsel in distress and the scene was still the same: rattlesnakes, the West and the stinking hot desert. But, rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania, or for that matter in Maryland and Virginia?" Hollywood had never told me about that.
Now, there sat Bob Davenport stuffing me full of a country morning Sunday breakfast and saying that he and three other Pennsylvania rattlesnake hunters, Mike Chylack, Rob Grabish and Al Sever, would have me into rattlers before the sun set. Davenport and the others were taking me rattlesnake hunting for the Morris, Pa., Rattlesnake Roundup. Except for Sever, who was 31, all were 18 or 19, and I could scarcely swallow my scrambled eggs when one of the non-hunters at the breakfast table leaned over and said, 'Them boys will get you snakes; they got a lot more guts than brains."
Morris, Pa., (population 300) held its 24th annual Rattlesnake Roundup June 9 and 10. It was the first of several rattlesnake roundups that will be held in north central Pennsylvania this summer. Other roundups will be Cross Fork June 23-24; Lake City, 13 miles west of Ridgeway on Rte. 949, June 30-July 1, and at Sinnemahoning July 7-8, with headquarters at the Willows Motel.
A feature of the Cross Fork and Sinnemahoning hunts will be a sacking contest in which contestants will step in a pen with five rattlers. The person who bags them the quickest - no sticks allowed - will be the winner.
In recent years as many as 400 timber rattlesnakes have been captured alive near Morris during the weekend hunt. Most are purchased by the village volunteer fire department, which sponsors the event, for resale to dealers who supply pharmaceutical houses that produce snakebit serum. Some snakes go to zoos, and a few are sold directly by the snake hunters, according to the sponsors of the hunt, to tourists who probably have a hatband, trophy or belt in mind for the snake's skin.
After registering for the hunt we drove south of town to an abandoned logging road and followed it on foot to a transmission line right-of-way. Each of us carried a snake stick, which had an elastic rubber noose on one end and a blunt rounded hook on the other. The hook was used to turn over rocks, to push brush aside and to control snakes before noosing.
"The power companies cut and fear a lot of timber building these right-of-ways," Sever said. "It's prime snake country with plenty of rocks, sun exposure and cover. Timber rattlers need water, too. In the creek ravine ahead is a large table rock. It's a den. Last August we found it covered with many snakes. We approached and all the snakes slithered into the ferns. That was awful hunting. There were snakes buzzing everywhere in the ferns and you couldn't see the tops of your boots. Took 27 snakes that day, but I didn't like the ferns."
We spread out in the tangled timber cuttings. Every dark broken branch looked to my untrained eye at first glance like it could be a snake. I moved slowly until the others assured me that I should look for coils ahead of me and listen for buzzing anywhere nearby. Sometimes when you approach a rattler it won't rattle. I was told, and they are the ones for which you watch. Others will buzz when you come within 20 feet of them, and it is a general rule that the snakes are noisiet and most agressive when they are away from their dens hunting for food and therefore vulnerable to their enemies.
The timber cuttings produced no snakes, and the others began to speculate that the morning rain had kept the snakes from coming out.
We headed for the den at the table rock. Chylack drifted off alone and noosed one timber rattler on the edge of the ravine. The rest of us found no snakes at the den. Mike dagged his snake and told us that it had not been rattled. What was more troublesome was that even with the snake noosed, obviously angry and attempting to rattle, it was only capable of a dull hiss. A rattlesnake's rattles are dried vertabrae, and they don't rattle well when we wet.
With the snakes perhaps away from the den, and therefore inclined to rattle and be assertive, I suddenly felt a bit more nervous not being able to hear this one snake's faint rattle above the noise of the creek in the ravine.a
On leaving the ravine Chylack saw a tail sticking out from under a rock. Grabish assumed it was one more rattler for the bag and grasped the rock so as to avoid any possible strike from the snake. He turned the rock and his error was evident. A second rattler was coiled, quiet and ready to strike right from where he had turned the rock. Chylack leaped to the backside of the snake. In an instant it turned to face him, struck and missed his leg by a few inches. Grabish had been able to back off, and both snakes were soon in the bag.
These last three snakes gave my guides a total catch of a dozen snakes in three days.Almost all were between 30 and 40 inches, which meant they were adults probably about 3 years old. However, none of us felt like putting the last three snakes into captivity. With hopes of restocking the table rock den we released there the first snake caught that day. The other two were released in the backyard of the cabin where we had all eaten breakfast. Davenport and the others said the ratters would keep the rodents down - a benevolent excuse to let the snakes go.
Rattlesnake roundups have come under some criticism in recent years. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has occasionally checked the roundups to assure proper handling. However, some snakes die, and the sponsors blame the mishandling on hunters who use inelastic nooses, snake hooks with sharp corners, or who try to life heavy snakes longer than 45 inches without supporting the body weight.
Critics of the roundings also allege that the snakes are much less common than they used to be. The Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission is considering prohibiting the commercial sale of wild rattlesnakes taken in roundups and requiring that all snakes be released after the roundup.
Ted Sutsboro of the Morris Hotel bar has his own opinion.
"These environmental nuts don't know how many snakes there are," he said. He had a child killed by a rathler and last summer rattlers closed down the logging of a valley because the lumbermen refused to work with so many snakes.
"That's people's jobs," he said. "The snakes have to be controlled." Some surprising people agree with Sutsboro.
Kerry Gyekis, a local Sierra Club member, sees no shortage of the rattlers. "You may be able to reduce them in certain areas," he said, "but so much of these mountains is not easily accessible that you can't seriously reduce the snake population." Nevertheless, only 68 snakes came in, with almost half accounted for by one hunter.
Bill Davis, a professional snake handler hired by the Roundup, said 100 to 150 snakes just didn't come in to the volunteer fire department snake pit because hunters wanted to get a better price from tourists or wait and turn their snakes in at a later roundup.
About 2,000 people, mostly of the sort you would expect at a rattlesnake roundup, came to Morris for the hunt. More than 150 snake hunters registered. There were vans and pickups and kegs of beer. There were brawny bikers from everywhere who raced their machines through town while the state troopers looked on.
A bluegrass band played in the evening, and "Junebug," a one-man blind square dance band, sang and called songs until 2 a.m. Local families of grandparents, parents, and children trickled in and out. They were like many hill people from Maine to Georgia.
They were meat and potato people: obviously honest, probably conservative and hardly a politican, a bureaucrat, a lawyer or a journalist among them. "You know that almost every one of them makes a dependable neighbor," Gyekis said. CAPTION: Picture, Bill Cook holds 53-inch timber rattler he caught at Morris, Pa., Rattlesnake Roundup. It was the longest bagged. By Geoff Parker for The Washington Post