By Wayne Heinze
There are few words that evoke such a universally visceral reaction in us as the word snake.
And from the Garden of Eden to the legend of St. Patrick to Harry Potter, the reaction is usually negative. And that is unfortunate, because as I hope you realize beyond the initial knee jerk reaction, snakes are a fascinating, crucial part of the ecosystems they exist in. And as an angler, the ecosystems I most often visit are waterways, home here in the mid-atlantic to the Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon). So it makes sense that over these many years of sloshing through the creeks and swamps, sloughs and ponds, in search of fish, I have had the opportunity to get to know and admire water snakes as well.
One of the many benefits of being outdoors pursuing whichever activity we cherish, is that you can’t help but notice many things not directly related to your particular activity. Thusly the rockhound becomes a bird watcher, the bird watcher becomes engaged in botany, the hiker starts tracking deer, and so on. It is happily unavoidable and grows exponentially in many of us, until we start seeing ourselves as naturalists. It is an inevitable and greatly pleasing evolution. We may never reach a high level of expertise in each field of natural history or outdoor recreation save our original interest, but that is not the point. We develop an appreciation of and curiosity about more aspects of the natural world and we take it from there.
As I was reviewing some of my field notes recently, I read and was reminded of some of the now ancillary activities and experiences that accompany my main activity of fishing. One that stood out to me were my encounters with water snakes at various times. The water snake I’ve interacted with in the mid Atlantic region is the non poisonous Northern water snake. Most descriptions credit this serpent with a length up to four feet, but I haven’t seen one much bigger than two and a half feet, at which length the girth has increased enough to make it a considerable creature. The coloration varies from shades of brown, tan, gray or mocha, with a series of bands around their body. Most of the water snakes I have encountered in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have had a slightly yellowish cast to them to my eye, and the bands somewhat lighter in color rather than dark. Coloration does vary in animals, and even a textbook fish like a yellow perch shows subtle variation in shading and banding from common illustrations, so variations in appearance of the water snake are to be expected.
It would be appropriate to state here that there is some misconception about poisonous types of water snakes, generally concerning the range of the cotton mouth aka water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus). This venomous water dweller resides primarily in the Southern tier of of our country, and does not occur in the northern states, so the need to differentiate the poison from non poison in the mid Atlantic or New England is moot. If you see it swimming by it will be a Northern water snake. And if you see it, that is quite enough.
As with any wildlife, observation and picture taking should be the goal, getting up close and personal definitely not. Especially for te water snake, which has a bit of a bad reputation in terms of temperament, and does bite. It is often reported that the snake will act aggressively, and attack someone harassing or trying to take hold of it. Actually, wouldn’t you do the same? While might use a left hook or or a heel to instep, the snake bites. Different sides of the same coin. Eyes, lenses and notepad are all we ever need to use to have a pleasantly memorable wildlife encounter with this interesting critter.
Although I was aware of and had seen a few water snakes, previously, my first significant encounter took place when I was nine years old, while fishing the headwaters of the Rockaway River in New Jersey’s Berkshire Valley. I was dunking night crawlers for large bluegills, in a deep pool just downstream of the falls at Longwood Lake, marking the source of the Rockaway.
My worms were kept in a coffee can at my feet, and as I was having many bites from the bluegills and several caught fish, I was constantly reaching into the coffee can and extracting a large wiggly night crawler (or night walker, as they are known very locally) to add to my hook. Presently, I became aware of a fairly large water snake lying in the shallows just downstream, watching me intently.
Each time I would land a fish or stoop to retrieve a worm, the snake would glide closer. When I landed a small bass and got involved releasing it carefully, the water snake made it’s move, gliding up to the coffee can, tipping it over, and commencing to gobble up the night crawlers. As I perceived the commotion at my feet, And with my respect for the aggressive potential of this serpent while engaged in the procurement of food, I backed off to the log a streamside boulder, sat down and watched the water snake eat it’s fill before slithering back into the stream and taking up it’s vigil once more. Since the vigil most definitely included me, I abandoned both my bait and my pool, and relocated to the base of the falls where I tied on a spinner instead of a worm. Schooled by a water snake, but not in an unpleasant way.
Another unique experience involving a water snake occurred in a small farm pond near the Delaware Water Gap. I was casting a shallow diving plug along the dam, when the surface of the pond erupted with the leap of a twenty inch class largemouth bass. Of a singular nature, was the fact that the bass has a two foot water snake protruding half it’s length out of the bass’s mouth, on no fewer than four subsequent jumps, the snake was ingested further into the gullet of the bass, until on the final jump only the snakes head was visible, clamped between the jaws of the bass.Then all was quiet. I have not before or since seen a bass feeding on a water snake, yet I am certain they do. However, I have certainly seen them feeding on other things.
One of my favorite streams is Stony Brook located outside of Princeton. It is the nearest stream to me whose gradient, and therefore fish population, was influenced by the southward grind of the glacier area in the Northeast. Therefore, species like smallmouth bass, rock bass, and fallfish reach their southern terminus here. And it is excellent carrying water for stocked trout, although a little too warm for much holdover or any natural reproduction of salmonids. But in the spring and through the fall, the trout here often draw my attention. And wouldn’t you know it, the attention of the water snakes as well.
On a very pleasant and productive May morning a couple of years ago, I was fishing upstream in the Hopewell stretch when as often happened a unique wildlife experience ensued. As I approached the largest bend in the stream, I heard a sound coming from the large gravel bar to my left, a loud rattling of stone that caused me to pause and scan the bar. There at the edge of the water was a large thirty inch class Northern water snake, engaged vigorously in trying to devour a foot long rainbow trout, the twin of three I had taken to this point. The trout was still alive, and protruded head first out of the expanded jaws of the snake. The snake would whip itself around noisily on the bar, trying it seemed to stun the trout, and make ingestion easier. I observed this behavior by for fifteen minutes or so, then slowly waded on upstream. The snake was unamused be my actions, thrashing vigorously as I passed by, continuing as I waded upstream, as I heard the gravel and small rocks clacking over the gurgle of the brook for several more minutes.
An hour later as I worked my way back downstream, the gravel bar was empty, and I assume the snake was resting somewhere with a belly full of trout. Since I had not fished this usually productive run on the way upstream for obvious reasons, I chose to do so now. And lo and behold, after a few casts, I spotted a smaller, roughly eighteen inch water snake lying on the surface under some overhanging brush on the opposite bank. And you guessed it, protruding from his mouth was another rainbow trout, this one eight inches or so and expired. I caught a couple of rock bass from the depths of the run, and the snake just sat there with the trout one quarter out of his distended jaws. Wishing him “Bon Appetit” I continued on my way.
Interestingly, it was a smaller water snake that actually was the most aggressive I’ve ever encountered. I was enjoying a lazy afternoon panfishing from shore in a small central Jersey pond, catching a lo of mostly small bluegills, pumpkinseeds and green sunfish. After a dozen or so came to hand, a twelve inch water snake appeared on the surface from under a patch of lily pads. TI hooked another fish, and as I reeled it past the snake, it shot towards it and snapped its jaws, but missed. To make a long story short, this continued, with varying degrees of success on the part of the snake for the next half hour or so. Sometimes he would grab on for a bit and drop off, and eventually, frustrated by his lack of success, he followed one fish right up onto the bank, and slithered right up onto my left boot, staring woefully it seemed right into my eye. I lifted my leg slowly, gave a slight flip, and deposited him back into the pond, He swam off, I walked off, both satisfied enough with the days proceedings, having in the least, both learned something.
Probably the largest Northern water snake I’ve ever seen was along the Perkiomen Creek north of Philadelphia, PA. I was fishing a productive spring hole adjacent to a log jam, when a large water snake in the three foot range emerged a swam downstream towards me. Fortunately he harbored no ill will, and passed between me and the bank, taking up position under some weeds growing along the shallows there. As the spring hole and adjacent area provided good fishing and took careful, slow presentation to fish effectively, I spent the next ninety minutes or so under the watchful gaze of the big serpent. And I watched him as well, not from trepidation, but from appreciation of the enhancement he afforded to my experience astream this day. And this is the bonus we who spend outdoors in our sundry pursuits receive: more than we bargain for. Whether it is the scenery, the weather, the wildlife or whatever reaches beyond our initial reason for being outdoors, they are priceless bonuses. In my case the dividend is frequently paid me in encounters with water snakes, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Photo of Northern Water Snake by the author, Wayne Heinze.