Sweetwater, Texas has been on the AFP radar for months. For fifty-one years, this small west Texas town has hosted the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup which has grown into what they proudly tout as “the world’s largest.” An estimated 30,000 spectators come through the doors of the Nolan County coliseum over 3 days to wander amongst the 5,000 pounds of slithering snakeness. There’s a weigh-in pit, a milking pit, a demonstration/safety awareness pit, and of course, the skinning pit. This is, more or less, the fateful final course of events of any rattlesnake that ends up near the coliseum. Then they become a pair of boots, a sweet guitar strap, a pair of dice, or a tasty snack on a stick. But the “hunters” who bring in these venomous reptiles aren’t just doing it to help control the local population. They’re making $5/pound and on Saturday afternoon one leading team had brought in $6500 worth of rattlers. With our eyes, ears, and cameras we plunged into this fascinating world of ‘living with rattlesnakes.’
Indeed, living in this land of dry heat, shallow canyons, and rocky mesas, snakes are a part of life. Not so much perhaps inside the city limits, but out in the country, you better watch your step. Locals are more likely to get spooked by the site of a squirrel than a rattler. But don’t get the impression that everyone out here in west Texas is cool at the site of a rattlesnake. Far from it, in fact, but there are some hearty men and women who can drag these snakes out of their dens and then stand in a pit of hundreds with total aplomb. With a durable pair of kevlar leg guards and some thick leather boots, a rattlesnake bite and the subsequent venom never make human contact. It’s not advised for amateurs, but with the right protection you can wear your shorts in the snake pit.
Our time in the coliseum was certainly informative and the AFP now knows more about rattlesnakes than we ever thought we would. But our time in Sweetwater would be incomplete if we didn’t go out on a real bona fide rattlesnake hunt. With crummy weather, the outlooks was bleak. Our Friday and Saturday, rain and wind canceled our hunting appointments. Sunday was our last hope. Luckily, the sun emerged and we were able to pin down Mr. Riley Sawyers who gave us a first class hunting experience. With a few other local members of the Jaycees who organize the Roundup, Riley led us to an exposed hill side that had numerous promising snake dens. Because rattlesnakes aren’t great burrowers, they slide into homes already dug out by porcupines, skunks, mice and other rodents. For the winter they hibernate, but come spring, and especially on warm spring days after a cold spell, they’ll come out on the rocks and soak up the heat. This was exactly the situation we found ourselves in. So Riley and Co. gave us the speech to “watch out.” And watch we did as the team of Jaycees pumped gasoline fumes into a few different potential holes. Sometimes the snakes will come out quickly and most often they’re pretty fired up.
Stepping back from this scene, Ross walked a few steps back to compose a photograph. Suddenly, he heard the chilling sound of shaking rattles and saw an angry rattler poised to strike if he should step any closer. He was only 3 feet away. It was a very close call. And that was the first snake we caught on our hunt. Shortly after, a few more came rushing out of the gassed dens and Andrew had the privilege to grab one and drop it in the box brought along for this very purpose. In the end, we caught 4 good size snakes to add to the 5,500 pounds turned in at the 2009 Roundup. It’s safe to say we got our fill of rattlesnakes and learned a thing or two about how to handles ourselves if we should ever encounter one again in the wild. If that day never comes, we won’t be disappointed Enjoy the photos and the video!