The hunter and his son scrambled up a secret mountain in Columbia County, and far above them, a serpent knew they were coming.
The snake sat coiled in a rock vein, waiting for the sun to warm its cold blood. It sensed every vibration and tasted the hunters’ sweat with its forked tongue. Glen Ellsworth III, 44, and his son, Glen IV, 19, were just about on top of the snake on a recent Saturday morning when it let them know it was there. Nature, thankfully, had balanced out a timber rattlesnake’s formidable fangs with a simple and loud warning system on its tail.
It sounds like a cicada in high summer, except that this animal can kill you.
“They’ll put a hurting on a bear,” Ellsworth III said while peering down into the rocks. “They’ll drop a bear dead.”
Hunting timber rattlesnakes is an oddity in Pennsylvania because unlike, say, deer or ducks, few snakes are killed. Most are collected and taken to one of the handful of carnival-like “rattlesnake roundups” in the state. Once there, the snakes are measured and ogled by the public, then, ideally, returned to the crag where they were found, often in the higher, rockier regions north of the turnpike.
“They tend to be up high and away from people, which is good,” said Chris Urban, chief of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s natural diversity section.
The licensed season for timber rattlesnakes and northern copperheads, one of Pennsylvania’s other venomous snakes, runs from the second Saturday in June until the end of July. Hunters are given special permits to catch multiple species of snakes for the roundups.
Hunters can collect only male rattlesnakes 42 inches or longer, and once they catch one and fill out the proper forms, their season is over. Females are protected. Figuring out a rattlesnake’s sex alone is a deterrent for the casual hunter. Once the snake is caught, its head is secured in a plastic tube and the hunter must count its subcaudal scales, the enlarged plates just before the tail. If it has 21 or more, it’s a male.
Figuring out a snake’s demeanor is more of a guessing game. Along for Ellsworth’s hunt and his journey to the Noxen Rattlesnake Roundup in Wyoming County, this reporter didn’t see one snake try to strike out. Mostly, they want to get away, or sit in the warm grass, sometimes even slithering up and over a hunter’s boots.
Still, a snake is a snake.
“They’re like a dog,” said Tim Kreger, an assistant fire chief at Morris Fire and Ambulance in Tioga County. “Some are friendly as hell, and some are just nasty.”
Getting bitten is always a possibility, and it happens more than a few times each year in Pennsylvania. Most hunters wear protective boots, or gaiters, and use long snake “forks” and grips to keep them at a safe distance. Most hospitals in the northern counties carry an antivenin, which can cost thousands of dollars a vial.
In 2015, a man died after being bitten by a rattlesnake at an Elk County campground, the first fatality in the state in more than two decades. One hunter was struck on the thumb last weekend.
“You get real sick and you swell up,” Kreger said. “You’re not going to die unless you’re a weak person.”
A rattlesnake bite victim should get to the hospital immediately and remove any jewelry from the hands before they start to swell, said Brendan Dragann of Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center.
“Something like a ring could act as a tourniquet and result in the loss of fingers,” he said.
A rattler’s venom interrupts the coagulation process and can shut down nerves that control breathing and other organ functions, Dragann said. “Time is of the essence when you’ve been bitten.”
Ellsworth III said smaller, younger snakes can often be deadlier because they don’t regulate their venom as well. An older snake can “dry bite” and not use venom.
“When people get hit by a smaller snake, they usually get everything they got,” he said. “The first time you disrespect a snake or forget what they can do, they’ll get you.”
Morris held its 59th annual Rattlesnake Roundup earlier this month with hunters turning in 26 rattlers, including a 53-inch “yellow” rattlesnake. Timber rattlers come in a variety of colors, often called light phase and dark phase. Some are nearly black, but their colors can include tans, greens and grays.
Rattlesnake roundups are major events out west, where the western diamondback rattlesnake is much more common. Those hunters often use gasoline fumes to drive the snakes from their den, and once they’re caught, the reptiles become snacks or boots, or are stuffed in a striking position, fangs forever bared.
At one large and controversial roundup in Texas, thousands of pounds of rattlesnakes are collected in one weekend alone, many of the reptiles decapitated with a machete before a crowd of gawkers.
On this Saturday morning, the snake rattling somewhere beneath Ellsworth III’s knee-high protective boots is burrowed deep. He won’t flip rocks over to get snakes out of their dens. This one caught a break, but Ellsworth III found more later in the day on a boulder by the edge of nearby field.
“It is what it is,” he said. “I won’t go digging. I won’t mess with them.”
Once the roundup is over, Ellsworth III will head back to the secret locations where he caught them, hike in, and release them on the same rock. Snakes don’t stray far from the den where they were born and are often helpless if they’re dumped elsewhere.
“Even if it’s just a couple of hundred yards away, they’re lost puppies,” Urban said. “They will just wander until they expire.”
Love for the rattler was hard fought in Pennsylvania, Urban said. Landowners in the state used to pour gasoline in their dens, killing them in bulk. Some counties paid bounties — $2 a snake — which could turn weekend hikes into part-time jobs.
The state began implementing strict hunting regulations in the early ’80s. Timber rattlesnakes are listed as a candidate to be an endangered species, Urban said, generally thought of as “worthy of great conservation.”
“Hundreds of thousands is probably accurate. Not a million,” Urban said when asked how many timber rattlers there could be in the state.
Pennsylvania is also home to a smaller venomous rattlesnake called the massasauga, which is rare and found in only a few western counties.
Last weekend’s Noxen Rattlesnake Roundup felt more like an educational program at a local zoo, with handlers standing in a fenced-off pen, talking herpetology to the crowd.
“Is it slimy?” a girl asked.
“Is that a milk snake?” a man asked about a colorful specimen.
That snake was a venomous copperhead. Big difference.
Hunters in Pennsylvania can “take, kill or possess” one snake a year, but most are out for glory at roundups, not snakeskin or their sweet, white meat, which tastes like chicken.
The Ellsworths’ basement in Sweet Valley, Luzerne County, is full of trophies and plaques father and son have won for “biggest rattlesnake” and “most species collected” at various roundups. Ellsworth III has a tattoo of a rattlesnake on one forearm, a tattoo of his son as a boy holding a python on the other arm.
“Oh, yeah, we’re hooked,” he said.
After a shower, the Ellsworths arrived at Noxen like minor celebrities, smiling and shaking hands with fellow hunters but also eyeing up the other snakes slithering around the perimeter of the pen. About 70 hunters fanned the area that weekend. Ellsworth IV brought in 10 different species, winning a plaque. The elder Ellsworth brought in four species, confident his 50.5-inch light-phase rattlesnake had a good shot at winning two plaques for both days.
“It’s all about bragging rights, the epitome of a measuring contest,” he said. “It’s a men’s soap opera.”
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is conducting a statewide survey of reptiles and amphibians. It's simple. If you see one, shoot a picture and send it in. For more information, click on https://paherpsurvey.org/