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Canebreak rattlesnake

The canebreak rattlesnake is one of five venomous snakes you may encounter in the Lowcountry.

My brother mentioned to me at lunch the other day that he killed a rattlesnake in his yard. Many of you may remember that he was bitten a few years back and spent the better part of a week in the hospital on a respirator. It’s interesting in that he said he didn’t want to kill the snake but it was in his back yard so it had to go.

My wife Breta had a similar response after a very close call with a canebreak rattler five years ago. The snake could easily have bitten her exposed ankle, which was only a half-foot from its face but decided to let her pass. It kind of reminds me of the shark attack victims who say afterward they don’t bear any malice against the shark that severed their limbs.

The Lowcountry deer season is upon us and with the August heat, we have a great deal of movement and migration of snakes. We in the Lowcountry are blessed with the five poisonous snakes common to South Carolina in the diamondback rattlesnake, the canebreak rattlesnake, the cottonmouth, the copperhead and the coral snake.


The snake that bites most people around here seems to be the copperhead. This smaller shy snake can grow to about 30 inches in length but is usually smaller. It likes being around human habitation and adapts well to nooks and crannies as in woodpiles and old tires, and under metal sheets. That is why many of its victims are bitten on the hands, which is a little more dangerous than being bitten on the leg.

Fortunately, the hemotoxin injected by copperheads is weaker than its larger cousins and is rarely fatal to humans. The copperhead is nocturnal during the summer months but is perfectly happy to be out and about midday in milder seasons.

An interesting tidbit on the copperhead is that females are larger than males and during courtship they put their chests against one another and push each other around. The female will not mate with any male she can overpower.


The cottonmouth is a whole nuther story. This big, thick snake is very aggressive and has a nasty bite from a toxin and bacterial standpoint. The reason for its aggressiveness is quite simple: The cottonmouth is one of the slowest snakes around and is able to move at about 2-3 mph on land.

Its more at home in the water, where it can escape a threat easily. But on land, it backs itself into a corner when threatened and displays its fangs and snow-white mouth, thus the name. The display is a warning, but the bite will not be far behind.

There are many stories of cottonmouths attacking boats and aggressively moving toward people. I’m not sure how much of that is exaggerated, but while on a deer stand, I had a big cottonmouth detect me from 20 feet away and make a beeline for my feet before I stopped him with a shotgun blast about three feet from my toes.

I had another at the base of a deer stand refuse to give way and I had to ruin my hunt by putting my rifle barrel in his mouth and pulling the trigger.

Coral snake

The little Coral Snake is very shy and doesn’t have very large teeth. Thus the snake cannot bite through boots or gloves and must bite and chew to inject venom. Once the venom is under the skin though, it's bad news.

The coral snake has neurotoxin similar to the most poisonous snakes in the world. Within an hour or so, the victim’s respiratory system collapses and he stops breathing.

Anti-venom and artificial respiratory help are the only thing that will keep the victim alive as the muscles are paralyzed. I get confused with the little rhymes that help us differentiate between the coral snake and snakes like the scarlet snake: “red on black friend of jack” and “red on yellow kills a fellow." This is simpler. Think of a stop light that goes from green to yellow to red. Yellow is a warning, red means danger -- stop. So yellow next to red means stop.


Last but not least of the reptiles that may share your deer haunts this year is the rattlesnake family. The most common in our area is the canebreak rattler. You’ve all seen them but did you know that if you have spent any time walking in the woods, you have probably set your foot down within striking distance of several without knowing it.

Most canebreaks will do anything they can to preserve their venom for something they intend to eat. It’s estimated that in 30 percent of rattlesnake bites, venom is not injected.

When my brother was bitten, he had very little injection as his leg never really was swollen, but he did have an allergic reaction to the venom that was injected. As a result, he had no tissue damage but had to be sedated and intubated because his throat closed within 30 minutes.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no 100-pound rattlesnakes out there. The largest diamondback rattlesnake on record was 96 inches long and weighed 34 pounds. The largest canebreak was 74.5 inches and weighed about 24 pounds.

I know, I know, I’ve seen the pictures too. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen a stuffed snake that far exceeded these dimensions. Remember, a dead snake is a lot longer than a live one as they stretch as the muscles relax.

Both vipers have potent hemotoxin that destroys tissue by destroying the clotting factor fibrinogen. The diamondback has massive poison sacs that deliver enough toxin that about 20 to 30 percent of its bites are fatal. The canebreak has far fewer victim deaths.


When you hit the deer woods in August, you do so rolling the dice if you don’t have a good pair of snake boots. It isn’t the snake’s fault if you step on his back with tennis shoes.

While I carry a snakebite kit in my truck, it doesn’t have any razor blades in it. Most people do far more damage and endanger themselves by trying to cut around arteries in their legs than if they just remain calm and drive to the nearest hospital.

My snakebite kit has a suction syringe and an assortment of suction cups. It cannot create a good seal around bony areas like hands and feet but would be effective on legs and arms. The reason I have it is if you can get a little poison out of a shallow bite quickly, you may limit tissue necrosis and the necessity for filet-type surgery later. If you decide to use a tourniquet, loosen it every couple of minutes to keep blood flow to the limb.

A cellphone is a good tool to have if you are way back in the woods. If you walk slowly after a bite and keep your pulse rate down (I know what I just said), it is far better for you than running around in a panic. You have time to get out of the woods.

Even with an allergic reaction, you have a good half hour to call help or get to a hospital. The best offense is a good defense. Watch where you put your hands. Step through heavy brush slowly. Give the unseen snake time to move away or make a decision as to whether to just watch you or defend itself.

I don’t know how many snakes I have tread by in my life. I’ve stepped on about six that I can think of. I’ve been bitten twice. Neither penetrated my boot.

We used to run around in the swamps as children with our Tarzan suits on (barefoot with only a towel and a belt). I’ve been incredibly lucky or the snakes have been incredibly forgiving. Help them out by doing your part.

Ninety percent of people who are bitten by poisonous snakes do so while trying to “handle” them or move them. You look pretty stupid showing off for your friends with that look on your face when you have just been bitten. Common sense goes a long way.

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Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.


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