, Port Arthur, Texas

December 8, 2012

Chester Moore column: Catching a snake in December

Chester Moore
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR —    Last week I caught a yellowbelly watersnake.

    While walking near the fishing pond at Claiborne West Park I nearly stepped on the serpent and so I did what comes naturally to me. I caught it.

    Although we've had some cool weather, it looks like we will have more than our share of warm weather this winter and that means encounters with reptiles which do come out on warm days.

    Big snakes seem to give people the creeps more than small ones but the fact is most of our big snake species are harmless.

    Take the mud snake for example. They are black on tap and red on the bottom and can grow to nearly six feet in length.

    Mud snakes are the source of the “hoop snake” legend in which a snake waits atop hills and when it sees someone riding by on a bike or strolling along, they grab their tail with their mouths and roll down hill after them.

    In reality, the mud snake does have a very specialized tail that is very pointed and sharp and they use it to jab amphiumas and other amphibians they prey on. I know these are sharp by the way because one jabbed me a few years ago after picking it up off a dirt road near a big rice canal. It is a good thing the barb on the tail is just as benign as the other end.

    There are four venomous snakes species in North America (and numerous subspecies) and all four are present in Southeast Texas.

    The coral snake and timber rattlesnake are rare sightings but we do have many cottonmouths and copperheads both of which are pretty small.

    Cottonmouths are the most aggressive and are far more dangerous than the typical docile copperhead. And due to the lowland habitats destroyed by Ike, they are the most likely poisonous snake to be encountered in debris. Most cottonmouths are from 18 to 24 inches but they can grow up to three feet long and should be avoided at all costs.

    Diamond-backed water snakes grow to nearly six feet and are one of the most frightening non-venomous snakes because they look a lot like a cottonmouth. Several of the photos circulating on the Internet showing alleged huge cottonmouths are indeed this species.

    Although they are not cottonmouths, they try very hard to be.

   When alarmed, they open their mouth full and strike just like their dangerous cousin. These snakes and several other local water snakes will also change the shape of their heads to look like a cottonmouth as well.

    This gets most of the ones spotted by local outdoorsmen a death sentence, especially when most people are far more concerned with cleaning their properties than enacting snake conservation.

   And there are only two real ways to tell the difference between the cottonmouth and other local water snakes. One is to look them in the eyes. If the pupil is round, the snake is nonvenomous. If it is split, it is a cottonmouth. The other way is to look for fangs as water snakes have bunches of fine teeth while the cottonmouth has fangs.

    Despite giving these identification tips, I do not think many people will get close enough to look or at least I hope not.

    The most common large snake in the area is the rat snake (aka chicken snake), which attains lengths of over six feet, is common around barns, campsites, and does quite well in the city. In fact, I have removed two from my neighbor’s garage over the last few years.

    Rat snakes are excellent climbers and have been known to get into attics by climbing straight up houses. They will actually do you a favor by eating the rats have also sought refuge in human habitations. I would personally rather deal with the snake, but many would rather have a horde of rats to deal with rather than a single snake, even if it is harmless.

    Don't think just because the calendar says "winter" that snakes will not be around. Its the temperature, not the date that affects their activities.

(To contact Chester Moore, e-mail him at You can hear him on “Moore Outdoors” from 6-7 p.m. on Newstalk AM 560 KLVI or online at