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Snakes in the Water


All snakes can swim. They use the water’s surface tension to glide and can lift 1/4 to 1/3 of their body length off of the water surface. Some snakes, such as Northern water snakes, redbelly watersnakes, brown water snakes, banded water snakes, and cottonmouth snakes are more likely to be encountered on or near the water. A snake on land can only lunge forward (strike) a distance of half of its body length. A snake on water does not have a solid surface to thrust against, so its strike range while swimming is extremely limited. Snakes prefer to flee rather than fight. But if they feel cornered or threatened, or if they are accidentally stepped on or provoked, a water snake (venomous or nonvenomous) seldom backs down. Here’s how to minimize snake encounters in the water.

Image of a copperhead

Copperhead | Richard Gardner, UMES, Bugwood.org

On land or water, giving snakes a wide berth will minimize your chances of being bitten. In a lifetime of outdoor work and recreation, the only snakebite I have ever received was when I stepped on a copperhead while walking through tall grass.

Avoiding snakes while canoeing, fishing, rafting or boating is similar to avoiding snakes on land in that you want to stay away from areas that the snakes use for sunning. This means avoid drifting underneath overhanging tree branches. Many of the water snakes like to sun on tree branches then drop into the water when they detect movement.

Image of a canebreak rattlesnake

Canebreak rattlesnake | Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

Unfortunately, if the current is swift or the snake is slow, this means snakes sometimes drop unintentionally into a boat or canoe in their attempt to escape. Getting a scared snake out of a canoe is not fun!

Carry a pair of long-handled reptile grips if you are canoeing in areas where it is impossible to avoid overhanging branches. They aren’t very expensive, especially compared to the expenses of mending a canoe or a trip to the emergency room. You are more likely to be injured by a upsetting the canoe if you panic than by getting snake bit, so get the grips and practice grabbing pieces of soft garden hose from various parts of the canoe then dropping and retrieving them from the water. When you get good at this with minimal rocking of the canoe, you will know you are prepared for the “worst that could happen”. Be sure you retrieve all hose pieces from the water!

Image of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake | James Henderson, Golden Delight Honey, Bugwood.org

You aren’t going to want to scrape your canoe, raft or boat on rocks, so I won’t bother mentioning them as the other popular sunning place for snakes. Swimming snakes are not a threat to you in a boat or canoe; they can’t jump into the canoe from the water.

You are much more likely to be stung by a bee, wasp or hornet than bitten by a snake. Learn to identify the snakes you see while you are boating, canoeing or fishing. If you are bitten, you need to be able to identify the snake that bit you if possible. Don’t capture or kill it–that’s how most snake bites occur. Nonvenomous snake bites form a horseshoe-shaped area of many small punctures about the depth of briar scratches, which may or may not bleed profusely. Venomous snakes will leave one or two visible puncture wounds.

Image of a pigmy rattlesnake

Pigmy rattlesnake | Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org

Bring a standard boating first aid kit for the emergencies that may occur while boating, canoeing or fishing, including bites and stings. Also bring liquid soap, antiseptic wipes and bottled water to clean the various minor wounds that occur outdoors as well as bites and stings. If you go canoeing in the deep south where venomous snakes are more prevalent, you may want to add a venom removal pump to you first aid kit, but it’s really not necessary here in the Piedmont. Never go boating, canoeing, or rafting alone.

Image of a water moccasin

Water moccasin | Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org

You will see more water snakes during the daytime in hot humid weather, but North Carolina snakes in general emerge in late March or early April and go into brumation/hibernation in October. Most land snakes are much more active at night.

Distinguish between Venomous & Nonvenomous Snakes

Of the 37 species of snakes throughout North Carolina, only six are venomous:

  1. Copperhead (found throughout NC)
  2. Canebrake Rattlesnake (found throughout NC)
  3. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (found in southeastern NC)
  4. Pigmy Rattlesnake (found in southeastern NC)
  5. Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin (found in wetland areas in the eastern half of NC)
  6. Coral Snake (the rarest, found in the south and southeastern areas of NC)
Image of a coral snake

Coral snake | Jeffrey J. Jackson, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

North Carolina’s non-venomous snakes have many tiny teeth. These small teeth will make superficial cuts similar to briar scratches. If you, a child or a pet is bitten by a nonvenomous snake, the bite will look like a horseshoe of tiny scratches. Clean the area well with soap and water and wipe it with hydrogen peroxide. If only one or two puncture wounds are present, or if you are allergic to snakes, or if you are not sure the snake is nonvenomous, go to a doctor. Unlike venomous snakes, most nonvenomous snakes cannot bite through clothing.

If a confrontation is unavoidable, how can you tell the difference between a venomous cottonmouth and a harmless Brown Water snake? The rattlesnakes, copperhead, and cottonmouth are pit vipers. They are characterized by a pit between and slightly below the eye and nostril, long movable fangs, a vertically elliptical “cat’s eye” pupil, undivided scales on the underside of the tail, and a large triangular-shaped head that has a small, smooth, shiny cap over the nose. Nonvenomous snakes have round pupils, a large smooth cap over the top of the head past the eyes, divided scales on the underside of the tail, no pits and no long fangs.

Non-venomous snakes should not be killed. Venomous snakes should only be killed if their presence endangers humans or pets. More than 80% of snakebites occur when a person is trying to kill or handle a snake. If the snake is encountered outdoors, the best defense is to back slowly away from it.

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