Devotees of competitive rattlesnake hunting, a new sport complete with thrills, chills and its own moment of truth, are deeply gratified that the winter (rattlesnake) season in northern Florida and southern Alabama attained such a smashing climax. The season's peak came with the windup of the National Rattlesnake Rodeo, featuring both sporting and social events, in Chipley, a small town in the middle of Florida's long arm that points toward California.
Pride ran high when Cub McDonald, a power-company lineman, was declared the principal winner with a total of 39 rattlesnakes, and Miss Amy Lee Wilson was crowned queen of the National Rattlesnake Rodeo. It was only too obvious, however, that many of the town's elite were missing, an absenteeism indicative of a certain division in the ranks of Chipley's citizens. Some feel that the National Rattlesnake Rodeo will bring fame, tourists and growth to Chipley just as sports-car racing has focused attention on Sebring and horse racing has lent fascination to Saratoga. There are others, including real-estate interests, who fear that publicizing Chipley as the rattlesnake capital of the world may have just the opposite effect.
While this controversy smolders, a close look at this test of man's skill, inventiveness and daring is in order. It is not a sport to be taken up lightly. As one snake catcher said, "You're not after a rabbit that can't fight back. When you're up against one of these big eastern diamondbacks you're dealing with something that can kill you if you don't handle him in an orderly fashion."
For two months, the duration of the rodeo, aficionados coaxed rattlers from gopher holes, using curious techniques evolved over the last eight years. Despite heavy rains that flooded many gopher holes, 234 rattlers were brought in to rodeo headquarters. A "gopher" in southern parlance is a tortoise that digs holes down to 20 feet deep in the soft, sandy soil. Incidentally, gophers were once considered a delicacy, and back during the Depression when money was scarce the gopher became an article of trade. Each corner grocery store had its box of live gophers. A man turning in a large gopher for, perhaps, a box of matches and some bacon would get a small gopher as change. He would have his purchases and still could make some delicious gopher gumbo.
When the region's brief winter arrives the rattlesnakes seek the warmth of gopher holes. Franklin Morris, insurance man and ardent snake catcher, said, "The gopher and the rattlesnake are real good friends. You see, the gopher builds a home for the snake." Friends or not, they share the same hole, a fact that spices the sport with uncertainty.
The rodeo contestant searches carefully until he finds a gopher hole, into which he puts one end of a 20-foot length of garden hose, twisting and pushing until it reaches the bottom. Then he blows into the funnellike mouthpiece attached to his end of the hose, like blowing into a speaking tube. Transferring the funnel to his ear, he listens, his expression intent. If a big grin spreads over his face, it means he has a snake on the other end of the line.
"The snake will either rattle, start crawling or blow back at you," Morris said. "Whichever he does you can hear him, because you have a direct line. An experienced man can tell immediately whether it's a snake or a gopher just by the way he moves."
Many holes must be tested, because the national average is only one snake per 19 holes. Having ascertained the rattler is there, the snake man pours a small amount of gasoline down the hose (not more than three ounces of regular gas is recommended). After blowing into the hose again he grabs his snake stick, a six-foot aluminum pole with a noose at one end, and takes an alert stance behind the hole. Discomfited by the gas fumes, the rattler crawls out. The snake is permitted to get clear of the hole. Then comes the moment of truth.
The eastern diamondback is the largest poisonous snake in the U.S., even larger than the western diamondback. The record for the eastern is 8 feet 9 inches, but it is such a heavy-bodied snake that anything over 4� feet is a big snake. Its venom can cause death, and a badly bitten man will not want a repeat experience. It is upon this sinister, cold-eyed critter that your snake hunter must advance to place the noose over its head and pull tight. Novice catchers have been known to come to the moment and suddenly retreat in a cold sweat, but the seasoned snake man lifts the snake and maneuvers it into a five-gallon lard can, removes the noose and claps down the lid.
These are time-tested procedures, although there are some variations. One is to suck the juice out of a lemon and, after filling it with gasoline, roll it down the hole. Some snake men locate the snake by shining a mirror down the hole, but this necessitates a sunny day and a straight hole. Occasionally there is a skunk in the hole. At such times the moment of truth becomes the moment of departure. Man's nature is such that he will face death but flee from an unpleasant odor.