Jace and Tony stand next to the hole in their chaps and boots, picking up the snakes one at a time and dropping them into a rectangular wooden box about the size of a big league strike zone.
Some people use plastic trash cans. Only idiots use bags, according to Ransberger.
"Never metal containers," he says. "Metal gets hot and cold pretty fast, and the snake will get a cold and succumb. A rattlesnake will get cold real easy."
Jace and Tony have eight snakes in the wooden box, which isn't great. They figure it was the mild winter that kept the snakes from denning up. Diamondback season in Texas runs from Jan. 1 to late April, when the snakes start shedding and their hides become undesirable for tanning. In cooler climes, with different rattlers, the season extends into midsummer, and in Texas it gets a brief second wind during October and November.
"I have caught 200 at a time," says Ransberger. "Up until about 1964 I might get 180 to 200 in a den. Now weather patterns have changed, and the snakes' breeding patterns have, too. I might pull 25 from a den at most."
Jace and Tony say they haven't been hunting for very long, but they know enough not to get bitten. They have a rule about not mixing beer and rattlesnakes, but they are ignoring it because the ice is melting in Jace's backpack.
"Beer and rattlesnakes don't mix," says Ransberger. "Sober people don't tend to die from rattlesnake bites anymore. But if you get bit by a rattlesnake and you're drinkin', you'll die. The blood is sped up." Another, less technical argument against beer on a snake hunt is that it makes you dumber.
Rogers hunts on his own before the actual roundup, walking the pastures and rocks looking for signs that a rattler has come this way. "You find hair balls—that's what we call 'em, hair balls—where they've passed what they've eaten," says Howard. "They won't defecate in their den. Or you find the mashed-down grass where one has been coiled up."
Meanwhile, back in Sweetwater, the county coliseum is filled with snake handlers, snake milkers, snake sexers, snake skinners, snake pits and, of course, the smell of rattler pee, which hunters know as one of the most pungent urines of the outdoors. "Right Guard," says Daniel Riley, a pit worker. "That's the only thing that'll get rid of that smell."
In one pit there are about 400 diamondbacks, freshly caught and cranky. One at a time the snakes are brought to the research area. There, volunteers supervised by representatives from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences department at Texas A&M determine each rattler's sex, then extract its venom.