“Be sure you marry someone who loves copperheads,” said no parent to their child ever. “You’re going to have to find someone willing to put up with venomous snakes, which is not going to be easy,” I rather recall my own saying. Fortunately, after a string of failed experiments in the matter, I found both. When an unfortunate rattlesnake bite on our second date landed me temporarily in the hospital and the girl stood by my side, telling me to hurry up and shake off the effects of the venom so we could get back out into the field, I knew I had at last found “the one.”
Amber likes copperheads almost as much as I do. So much so that she has hit “copperhead road” (a little-traveled backroad near our house that still sustains a healthy population of the abundant little pit vipers) by herself whenever I am out of town on herp trips, and has been suggesting I do an article on them for some time now. So Amber, this one’s for you.
I have shared my life with the greatly misunderstood, feared, and generally underappreciated copperhead since as far back as I can remember. When my family first moved to Wise County back in the mid-80s I distinctly remember my mother showing me a dead one that had been flattened by a car near our house. My love for snakes was well-evident even back then (I couldn’t have been more than four or five) and I remember her warning me. ‘If you ever see a snake that looks like that don’t pick it up!’ (the warning not to pick up any snakes had long since been abolished due to repeated acts of noncompliance). I also distinctly recall thinking ‘Wow! That’s the prettiest snake I have ever seen!’ Nice try, Mom.
Later that summer my dad, who used to take me on backroad “snake hunts” showed me my first live copperhead. The beautiful chestnut crossbands alternating across a background of burnt orange that faded laterally to pinkish-grey still stand out vividly in my mind. I remember my dad (who was afraid of nothing) toeing the snake to the roadside grass with his leather boot, which neither provoked it to strike or crawl quickly away. My brother and I watched it slowly disappear with wide eyes, its body blending in with the tall grass and leaf litter in a remarkable display of camouflage.
Fast forward five or six years and my dad would take me with him to one of his friend’s houses which was located in that vast section of red dirt canyonland mixed with oak and mesquite that lies between Jacksboro and Lake Bridgeport in western Wise County. Charlie was a backwoods mechanic and bachelor who lived alone on some acreage, and he and my father would spend hours shooting the breeze over cans of Coors while I ran wild through the fields. Charlie even made me my first pair of tongs, and even encouraged me to ‘catch all the copperheads you want and get’em off my property!’ While diamondbacks were plentiful around his house and barn, he treated them with comparative indifference. It was the copperheads alone that Charlie feared. “They look just like the damn leaves”, he said on more than one occasion, to which my dad would raise his beer can in a silent gesture of affirmation. “And they don’t give a warning before they bite. I dread raking leaves every fall. I always find two or three.” This would always get me started on a thorough survey of Charlie’s yard, where I would ‘rake’ leaves with my tongs ever at the ready. I never did find a single specimen, although Charlie continued to find many and eventually gave me a juvenile he had managed to somehow coaxe into a pickle jar, I assume as payment for all that fruitless leaf-raking. That was the first venomous snake I ever owned, for a full 24 hours, until my mom found out about it and hit the ceiling. “Get rid of it!” was the verdict after what I deemed an unfair trial in which my court-appointed lawyer must have been sleeping with the judge. The next day was a school day, and the little snake was exiled to the porch until I could find it a proper home (apparently Charlie held no return policy when it came to copperheads). Fortunately my English teacher had a brother that worked at the Dallas Zoo and I was able to make a trade: a small copperhead for a lively little problematic green iguana, which introduced me to all the subsequent miseries involved in their husbandry. Ironically, the iguana ended up giving me a case of salmonella poisoning, which proved more dangerous than the copperhead.
“No venomous snakes in the house!” was mom’s proverbial cry as I hit my teen years. With a driver’s license and truck , I was now free to go on my own road cruises in search of snakes. The first night out I got fourteen copperheads on “Copperhead Road”, and of course brought them all home,where they shared a homemade wood and plexiglass cage on the front porch that I assured my mother was full of rat snakes. I guess I made the viewing window a little too large, because after a week or so mom peeped in and once again I was summoned back to court, found guilty of endangering my own life and the lives of others, and sentenced to “get rid of those things now!”
I must admit I treated copperheads with less respect than they were due during my early years as a teenage snakehunter. I would frequently catch them by the tail or (I hate to admit this now) with a swift grab behind the head while “distracting” them with my free hand. All that changed when I received my first copperhead bite, whereupon I soon found out that “the least venomous of our native pit vipers” was nevertheless quite venomous indeed. The bite was through a pillowcase, a single fang to the knuckle of my left hand, by an adult copperhead. It left me in 24 hours of unrelenting pain as my hand and wrist swelled to 13 cm in circumference. It stayed that way for a full month before it finally began to recede, and I lost all feeling in the finger below the bite for four years. My days of disrespecting and underestimating the lowly copperhead were over! It was hooks, tongs, and reliable buckets with screw-on lids from then on out! I have always loved copperheads, but one kiss was enough to last a lifetime!
As the years passed I shared my life with countless copperheads. My travels afield gave me the opportunity to meet what were then recognized as many subspecies of Agkistrodon contortrix. Brazos County’s “Peach Creek” , before it fell to the bulldozer of “progress”, gave me my first taste of the southern copperhead..33 in a single night, to be exact. These were more pinkish than the broadbanded variety that frequented my stomping grounds in the cross-timbers, with wider more hourglass-shaped crossbands. Later excursions into the Big Thicket and Sabine National Forest of east Texas would provide even more opportunities to view this beautiful variant.
A trip to Kansas in 2004 introduced me to the lovely little osage copperhead. Around the shores of Lake Perry north of the city of Lawrence, it seemed every other rock seemed to relinquish one of these beauties. Ten years later, on a return trip, I found them just as common as I remembered.
I didn’t find my first Trans Pecos copperheads until the summer of last year, after they had been absorbed into the all-inclusive species A. c. contortrix, although I had spent fifteen years searching for them in the Chihuahuan Desert. Fellow herpers assured me they were fairly common in certain locales, but they somehow always managed to elude me. Then, on a single fateful night on the River Road in southern Brewster County, Michael Smith and I happened upon a “pictigaster party”. We found three specimens in the span of perhaps five minutes on the road and nearby banks of the Rio Grande.
To tell of all the copperheads, or even the notable ones, for that matter, who have crawled across my path over the years would fill up far more space than this blog has to offer. There were the threevmy friend Scott Robinson saw hidden in the leaf litter between my legs as I squatted on my haunches to photograph a western diamondback den in Montague County. There was the hypomelanistic specimen I accidentally ran over on the LBJ Grasslands, which my wife never forgave me for, and the one that got out in my parents’ house and found the only non-snake-proof area in my snake room, a tiny 1/2″ crack beneath the sink I had missed with the caulk gun (I remedied this by sealing it up in the void between the sink unit and floor for a week or so and then removing the caulk and coaxing it out with a water dish in the center of the room, which luckily worked like a charm but soon found me seeking other means of habitation). I could go on forever…
By now I am past all hope (sorry Mom!) All those tall tales told at family reunions meant to dissuade a young herper from venturing over to the Dark Side and pursuing that bane of the north Texas country folk apparently fell upon deaf ears and seems to have faded into obscurity. My lifelong romance with the copperhead has left me with more memorable field experiences than I can count and (sorry again) it looks like the fever was a contagious one, catching on to my wife and even my young son. Many “family nights” have been shared in a unanimous decision to forsake the Yahtzee board or latest cinema flick for an evening on “copperhead road.” I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to my father, who never lacked faith in my knowledge, ability and maturity when it came to living among venomous snakes (even when those traits seemed to be lacking!) and also to my wife, who never once batted an eye when it came to sharing her home with copperheads, rattlesnakes, and a host of other species that neither of us were ever naiive enough to consider “pets”. And to my poor mother, too, for maintaining her sanity over the years. (My experience with copperheads came in handy when I removed the one that had slithered out from the fire pit and coiled itself on the porch between her and the grill during an outdoor cookout). But most of all I owe it to the copperhead itself, without which, of course, none of this would have even been possible.