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Fly Fishing with Snakes

I’m not afraid of snakes. What I’m not a fan of is their snaky-ness. Herpetologically speaking, this is the trait that snakes possess that allows them to surprise you. Rarely does one see a snake coming from a long distance off, as you would with a bison or a truck full of rural folk. The aforementioned disturbances announce their presence, and often their intentions, with snorting and general carrying on. Snakes might rattle. And that is only some of them.

If you fish, you’ve encountered a snake. Swimming through the water. Laying across the trail. Dangling from a tree. Curled up in the toe of your wading boots. Such are the joys/perils of being outside.

In every one of those circumstances, the snake catches you off guard: “What a wonderful day. This is a pleasant path. I love nature. Look at that, a length of hose all the way out… OHGEEZITSASNAKE!” Then, your heart is in your throat. If you’re over 65 or have a “condition,” you probably need to sit down at this point. What fun!

I’ve had some memorable snake experiences. Trigger warning: there are snakes in the stories about snakes I’m about to relay.

It was early springtime. I was fishing a slow stretch of a catch and release, fly fishing only freestone stream. Trout were sipping midges, and I was having as much fun as one could have pretending that the fish were going to take my sad imitation of the hundreds of real bugs on the water. A few fish were caught, and the promise of a great day swung through my mind like my dragging fly.

Then I saw it: a great trout, gulping midges and moving upstream. It was the gluttonous behavior I’ve seen in large fish. It is essentially the whale/baleen/plankton or college student/pizza feeding strategy. Furthermore, it was heading towards me. A downstream cast with a tiny dry isn’t ideal, but at the rate this trophy was feeding I assumed the fly would be halfway digested before I set the hook. But it was getting awfully close…

Yeah. It was a snake.

Basically acting like the Loch Ness Monster, this thing undulated right under the surface. It’s snaky maw agape; it was gorging itself on little gnats. Terrifying to behold. What’s more, it saw me at about arm’s length (my arm – not the snake’s) and dove. Underwater. At my submerged waist. I don’t think my Simms lightweight breathables were snake proof, nor was my wading belt tight enough to keep it from springing up behind me and slithering who knows where.

I thrashed around in the water with my wispy 3 weight. I slipped and regained my balance. Ironically enough, the contortions employed to remain upright strained and sprained things much more severely than a quick fall might have. But I’m sure I taught that snake a real lesson, because I didn’t see it again.

Second story: Summertime on a spring creek. The high streamside grasses provided great cover to sneak up and flip a chunky streamer. Once in the water, I could jig it around to probe the deep, undercut banks. Even with relatively large flies, this whole process can require a lot of finesse. Slow approaches, natural presentations, and no shadows or silhouettes are virtually necessary.

Jumping and shrieking aren’t part of that equation, usually. The reaction was largely due to a very distinct rattling noise within close proximity to my face. Composure restored (which, of course, is mainly comprised of making sure no one saw me), I girded my loins to confront the serpent.

In all seriousness, although I don’t like being surprised by snakes I really don’t bear any animosity towards them. I know that the streams and woods are more theirs than mine, and that they are important parts of the ecosystems they live in. That being said, the following continuation of the story is kind of bittersweet.

It lunged. I reacted with my weapon of choice: the 3 weight. The tape measure on the snake may have only read 16 inches, but it was a mean 16 inches. As a result of my parry, it was flung into the stream. I’m pretty sure that once it got its legs underneath it (…) it started back towards me.

Then it happened. Out from underneath a telephone pole that had been lodged in the stream bank to shore up the riparian area and provide cover, a large object emerged. The brown trout was 26 inches, easily. The fish’s mouth opened slowly and clamped down on the midsection of the snake. Then it slurped it in, head and tail inhaled parallel to one another.

Circle of life. And me without a snake fly.

Again, I’m generally fine with snakes. Many other animals have caused anxiety while I’ve been fly fishing. Muskrats, beavers, red winged blackbirds, bears, deer, snapping turtles, housecats, stray dogs, other anglers… snakes probably end up pretty low on that list. It is how they surprise me that gets me all frazzled. And what happens after you’ve had a snake encounter? You assume there is going to be another one any second. Deer don’t connive like that.

I’ve seen all of the Field & Stream articles about being careful, I’ve paused to look at the snakebite-proof armor sold at Cabela’s, and I know that statistically I’m more likely to die in a train accident. And I don’t even ride in trains. But that split-second moment of SNAKE! doesn’t adequately allow one to recite “red to black, friend of Jack.”

In conclusion, I’d like to propose a truce. I want to fish, you, snakes, want to do your thing. Sunning yourself, coiling menacingly, etc. I’m pretty sure we can both do these things harmoniously. I’ll not write any more species-defaming articles if all snakes agree to wear rattles. That light up. And sound less snaky. Maybe “Maneater” by Hall & Oates. Just a thought.


As a peace offering to all the ophiophilists (I had to look that one up) reading this: a fine song from a spectacular singer/songwriter that celebrates some of the snake’s more charming qualities.

One comment

  1. Jeff Parsons says:

    Wow, great stories. Upon reflection, Harper’s Ferry and that snake in the grass have something in common: they were both seized by a Brown.

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