Only in your worst nightmares are you apt to come upon 18 rattlesnakes crawling out of a porcupine den—unless, of course, you are in Sweetwater, Texas, during the town's annual Rattlesnake Round-up. Here you may actually feel a snake's fangs pop against the chaps covering your shins. Or you may take a step or two backward when JoAnna Cornutt, Miss Snake Charmer, extends a hand covered in snake blood as if she were welcoming you to the First Baptist bake sale.
Since 1958, reptile wranglers have gathered each March in Sweetwater to hunt rattlesnakes and trade stories, propping their rear ends against caliche ottomans and rolling up flannel sleeves to show the scars of snakebites or to enlarge their gestures illustrating "the biggest ever."
"Bill Ransberger, now, he's been bitten 33 times," says Don Castillo, a rattlesnake merchandiser from west Texas.
"Nope. Forty-one times," says Ransberger, who helped run this granddaddy of all snake hunts from its inception until 1993.
Sweetwater's is by far the largest of about 36 organized roundups held in the U.S. each year. Most take place in Texas, with a few in Georgia, Alabama, Kansas and New Mexico, and the rest in Pennsylvania. In the Southwest the quarry is the diamondback. In the East it is the timber rattler.
This year the Sweetwater event, which like the others evolved from a desire to thin a rattlesnake population that was killing livestock, brought in more than 100 snakes, ranging in weight from one to 11 pounds. Howard Rogers alone brought in 405 pounds' worth, and at five dollars a pound he made a tidy sum. Thousands of pounds of rattlers were captured, killed, eaten and tanned—and also, this year, stuffed, jeweled and wigged like diamondback drag queens.
The hunting itself is an odd affair. No guns, just tongs. The prey is more dangerous than the weapons, and no catch is killed until after it is carried, hissing fiercely, to a central point for decapitation.
No dogs help the hunters. You couldn't pay a pointer his weight in Milk-Bones to ferret out rattlesnakes. No lures are used. No earthworms or blood bait, no doe-in-rut. Rattlers don't go for bait. Instead they are forced from their dens with gasoline fumes.
Out among the rock outcroppings, Jace and Tony from Dallas—they don't want their last names used because their wives think they are at a gun show—are busy shining a mirror into a hole. The mirror reflects sunlight into the hole, picking up the somewhat iridescent glow of a snake's skin. This helps a hunter figure out how many rattlers may be getting ready to slither toward his snakeskin boots.
Next Jace and Tony tip a bucket of gasoline downward so that the fumes enter a copper tubing contraption and, eventually, the den. "Just the fumes won't hurt 'em," says Ransberger. "We used to use raw gas, and it hurt 'em, but the fumes won't. Any kind of gas will do."