COLLECTED STORIES: Tales from five decades in the wildlife biology field

This section contains a sampling of stories from Jack Ward Thomas, stories collected in a forthcoming book called FORKS IN THE TRAIL. The book's stories relate incidents that took place over a 65-year period in the life of an outdoorsman, including 50 years spent as a wildlife biologist, administrator, and teacher with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the U.S. Forest Service, and the University of Montana.

The Biggest Rattler I Ever Saw

People will often get to talking about "big rattlers" when sitting around a campfire. This, more often than not, leads to competitive storytelling about "the biggest" rattlesnake - it never fails that the old-timer in the bunch will be asked, "What's the biggest rattler you ever saw?"

Because I was born and raised in Texas, and having spent some ten years working in the Edwards Plateau Country, I have encountered more than a few really big diamondback rattlesnakes. And there is little doubt in my "rememory" as to which one was the biggest and scariest.

One September evening in 1958 or so, I was walking a deer census line in Llano County when I heard a rattler cut loose - and very close at hand. I froze in my tracks and starting looking around for the snake. Given the noise level of the rattling, I figured I was near to standing on the booger. Finally, I saw the snake - nearly 20 feet away. The size of the snake gave reason to the noise level!

He was right out in the open and coiled up. Obviously he figured that, under the circumstances of being caught out in the wide open, a threat was better than an attempted getaway. Rattlers - even very big rattlers - were no oddity in that part of Texas, and we often encountered one or two or more in walking a two-mile census line. But this was no ordinary rattler. This fellow was the biggest rattler I have ever seen. We had all heard stories of six-footers, but I had never seen one that came even close to that size. But as I circled the coiled and agitated rattler, it came to me that here was a snake that really might be six feet long.

Ordinarily, I just walked around the rattlers that I encountered, having exhausted the idea that killing them was in any way decreasing the population. Besides, I was more and more convinced that "live and let live" was a worthwhile philosophy - except for deer, quail, turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, doves, and other assorted legal and tasty game. In this case, dragging in a real honest-to-goodness six-foot-plus rattler was a temptation too great to pass up.

In the process of scouting around for some rocks with which to do in the snake, I ran across a mesquite limb lying on the ground with a forked end. Heck, the story would be even better if I showed up with a live six-foot rattler!

So I poked at the coiled snake with my mesquite stick until he decided that trying for a getaway was a better option than getting poked to death. When the snake lined out for a nearby cactus patch, I pinned his head to the ground with my forked mesquite stick and reached down with my right hand and got a grip right behind his head (so close that he could not bite me), and picked him up.

Sure enough, he was longer than I was tall - and very heavy. The snake's head seemed the size of my fist - heck, it was the size of my fist - and he was as big around in the middle as my forearm - maybe even a tad bigger. He was not really happy with his predicament and objected mightily by thrashing around with some vigor.

Okay, now I had the biggest damn rattler I ever saw in hand, and there was just a mile or so to carry him to the end of the census line where the crew would pick me up. The snake was heavy, though, and it was obvious that I couldn't carry him for a mile at arm's length - so I swung the rattler up, thinking I'd catch his body over my left arm to ease the burden. Somehow, though, I not only got the snake over my arm, I also got him wrapped around my neck!

Now he had something to pull against to try to get his head loose - and pull he did. This was getting to be a bit exciting - for both of us. He had my right hand - and his head - pulled up uncomfortably close to my face and neck. So, my left hand joined my right in holding the snake in a two-handed grip.

To make matters worse, the old boy really really smelled like a male rattler, and that seemed to be getting worse - multiplied by the 100-degree-plus temperature and my rising sense of - well, let's say mounting concern.

In short, it suddenly dawned on me that I had enjoyed about as much of this as I really cared anything about.

I struggled to come to some conclusion as to how to rid myself of my acquisition. The first idea that came to mind was to use my left hand to get my trusty razor-sharp pocketknife out of my pants pocket and cut off the snake's head. But it quickly became obvious that there was a small problem with that solution - how to get the knife out of my right pants pocket with my left hand. It didn't take me long to figure out that wasn't going to happen.

Plan B, which then came to mind, was to lie down and put the rattler's head on a rock and, using my left hand to hold another rock, smash his head in. But my right hand was getting so tired that I was afraid to disengage my left hand for fear the snake would pull his head loose while still wrapped around my neck.

He wasn't getting any happier, and he certainly didn't smell any better.

Plan C was to choke the rattler to death. But, either my hand was too tired or big rattlers choke poorly. The harder I squeezed, the harder the snake pulled, and the more arm weary I became. I was now down to Plan D.

I came to the conclusion that the only way out of this mess was to get to the end of the census line, wait for the crew, and get them to extricate me from my predicament. So I set out for the end of the census line, and the county road, a mile or so ahead. My pace was somewhere between a fast walk and a slow trot. I kept having a vision of tripping and landing flat on my face - or, rather, face first on the rattler's head. That did not happen, and the rattler finally began to tire and ceased pulling so hard. That gave my aching hands and arms some relief.

I breathed more than one sigh of relief when I finally reached the county road. But now, how was I to get across the barbed-wire fence? Fortunately, I spotted a cattle guard several hundred yards down the fenceline. I made it there and crossed over.

I figured it could be as much as an hour before the crew truck arrived for relief. I couldn't decide whether to pray for someone else to come along first to help me from the embrace of the rattler (which would require some degree of explanation to some incredulous rancher, most of whom already thought game department biologists were slightly more than a half bubble off plumb), or whether I should pray that one didn't come along.

Finally, I could see the lights of the crew truck coming, and I stepped out into the middle of the road festooned with a huge rattler wrapped around my neck. The truck stopped and six of my "buddies" quickly gathered around me to gawk at the sight. Finally the crew chief asked, without cracking a smile, "Who has who here?"

Someone else declared - indelicately, I thought - "Man, you really stink!"

Once they figured out that I wasn't hurt, the laughter started and the wisecracks mounted. I was trembling and tired and had no sense of humor left. My pals finally managed to get me unraveled from the rattler and offered up a burlap sack into which I could deposit the snake.

But now a new problem arose. I had held the snake's head so long and so tightly that I couldn't seem to relax my grip. Finally, we got the snake in the bag and after several up and downs, and "1, 2, 3's" I managed to release my grip on the rattler's neck and the snake went into the bag. The top was very rapidly tied shut.

Now all agreed that this snake was, far and away, the biggest rattler any of us had ever seen. The conversation turned to what "we" should do with "our" snake. I had developed, somehow, a strange feeling about the big rattler. We had been struggling for well over two hours, with the result that he had never given up - and I felt really stupid. Suddenly there was no doubt in my mind as to what I should do with the big fellow.

I walked across the borrow ditch to the fenceline, untied the top of the sack, and flung it over the fence. I figured any rattler that had lived long enough to get that big and still wanted to live that badly ought to have the chance to do so.

I was bigger and meaner than the rest of the crew and threatened each one of them with a thrashing if they ever told the story. Over the years, though, the story leaked out and someone would occasionally ask me, with a quizzical look, about the biggest rattler I ever saw. I would look them straight in the eye and ask, "How could you ever fall for a story like that?"

I was saved from a lot of ridicule by the fact that nobody ever really believed the story. After all, not even a wildlife biologist could be that stupid!