A Fishing Guide Shares Some Hard-Earned Wisdom
I literally did not know what hit me. At first I thought I'd cracked my anklebone on a rock. But in addition to the unusual tingling sensation, my ankle just seemed to hurt far too much for a simple fracture. At the time, I'd been stumbling through some tall grass in an effort to fetch something from the car. Blame it on my enthusiasm, but understand too, that as a newly fledged fly-fishing guide I felt constrained to forego caution in an attempt to be Johnny-on-the-spot. It follows that I didn't mention the incident to my clients, who probably wouldn't have appreciated me aborting the trip.In spite of my mysterious and painful injury, I attended a holiday party that night. While I'm not what you'd call a closet Bacchus, I enjoy having a few drinks at social functions. I mention this only to preface my observation that for the first time in my adult life, I couldn't swallow the booze. Now this was serious. I mean, the stuff tasted just like carbon tetrachloride. And it came from my own freshly opened bottle. This had me very worried. The next morning I could barely stand. After hobbling to the bathroom for damage control, I discovered that one of the boots I'd been wearing the day before bore two jagged puncture marks. Snakebite! When I finally got around to reporting the injury to my doctor, I learned that too much time had elapsed for antivenin therapy. Instead, he insisted I come in for a good going-over, an antibiotic prescription and a long-overdue lecture on common sense. I didn't do much walking for the next five or six days. But the down time wasn't wasted, since it gave me an opportunity to read up on the effects of pit viper envenomization. I say "pit viper" (a group of venomous snakes with sensory pits on either side of their heads) because I learned that the intense pain I experienced was the result of tissue destruction which, in turn, indicated that the bite had come from either a cottonmouth or rattlesnake. Another tidbit I discovered was that had the culprit been a coral snake (the other local option, and not a pit viper), I might not be writing this. Whether we like it or not, in some places, snakes are almost as much a part of fly-fishing as trout and mayflies. And with the recent rise in adventure travel, today's fly fisher can find himself tramping through territory where these creatures hold the upper hand-if you've fished in Africa, the Amazon or Australia, you don't need any further clarification. Anyone who's unfamiliar with names like "green mamba" and "bushmaster" might try watching the Discovery Channel. Meanwhile, although I admit I've never heard of a traveling fly fisherman being killed by a snake, I readily acknowledge that dead men don't tell tales. Whenever I ponder an angler's chances of encountering a venomous snake in the US, I automatically think of two places where snakes are prevalent: Florida and the Southwest. Florida, where a growing number of anglers take to the field each year, is home to six species of venomous snakes. The warm, wet habitat is perfect for them. I frequently see cottonmouths in the Everglades (especially near levees or other dry ground); I also understand there are quite a few big diamondbacks left in central Florida where the famous bass lakes are located. But just how easy is it to get bitten? To find out, I contacted Dr. F. Wayne King, curator of herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Like a three-fingered lumberjack, I figured my personal experience might provide a good opening for my conversation with Dr. King. On the contrary however, when I related the tale of my misadventure, the good doctor suggested I just might be in the wrong business. I laughed at that, but not at his opinion that snakes in the US are non-aggressive, and that when humans venture into snake country, we are the interlopers. If my experience might seem to suggest otherwise, ask yourself who wouldn't be angry if someone stomped on their tail? I feel safe in saying that at the top of Dr. King's list of snake tips is the simple tactic of avoiding confrontations. In fact, every other expert I spoke with also insisted that domestic snakes won't go out of their way to attack a human. Notice that I said "domestic." Still, nothing's etched in stone, so steering clear of them in the first place remains the recommended strategy. Although Florida has its share of snakes, nowhere in the US is more celebrated for its venomous reptile population than the Southwest. I contacted Dr. M. J. Fouquette, professor of life sciences at Arizona State University in Tempe, and when I mentioned FR&R, the professor was briefly confused: "Snakes? We've got plenty of 'em. But I didn't think anybody fly-fished in the desert," he said. I explained that today's fly fisherman is likely to hike almost anywhere in the Western half of the country, from desert impoundments to alpine trout streams. Dr. Fouquette got the picture and said: "Herpetologists and ichthyologists have a lot in common. We hang out together and go to the same conferences." I asked if this had anything to do with trout making good snake food. "I don't know for sure, but snakes eat fish. Incidentally, that reminds me how often someone asks if snakes can bite underwater. It's crazy. How else could a snake catch a fish?" Good point. I mentioned that here in Florida, anglers have actually been bitten while cleaning fish they caught. Usually, it's the case of a largemouth bass ingesting a small cottonmouth just prior to striking an angler's lure. Then when the hapless angler decides to keep the bass and later begins cleaning it, the still-live snake retaliates in the kitchen sink. Dr. Fouquette began to get specific about the Southwest's venomous snakes: "Besides big desert rattlers (the famed sidewinder is only two feet long), we have several smaller varieties that live in the hills. They don't kill, mind you, but they cause major necrotic damage [destruction of flesh]." He agrees that rattlesnake populations in the Rocky Mountain states seem to be somewhat localized. For instance, I've personally never seen a rattler in all my trips to Montana. However, they are known to frequent certain areas, like the Beartrap Canyon on the Madison. While local anglers in the Rockies tend to spread the word on snaky areas and recent sightings, Dr. Fouquette suggests that anyone fishing in the West take the added precaution of spending some quality time with a good field guide to reptiles and amphibians. Likewise, although anglers in the Northeast are unlikely ever to see a native copperhead (yet another pit viper) or rattlesnake in the wild, it might one day pay to familiarize yourself with the types of habitats these creatures prefer (see sidebar). safety Although snakes normally hightail it at the approach of a human, an occasional specimen may be sunning itself or otherwise preoccupied and fail to make a speedy retreat. That's when the rules of engagement change. For starters, if you can't identify a snake as definitively non-venomous, keep your distance. Since some species are capable of striking a victim standing two-thirds their body length away, you can't be too careful. The other safety rules are equally straightforward. For example, it goes without saying that fly fishermen shouldn't reach under rocks or in crevices where venomous snakes might be hiding. The same goes for grabbing objects, such as tree branches, that they can't see clearly. I learned from experience about tramping through the underbrush. Going a step further, it pays to wear heavy, snake-proof boots whenever crossing snake-infested terrain and, if possible, to travel with at least two companions versed in basic snakebite first-aid (one stays with the victim; the other goes for help). As a final consideration, fishermen planning to venture into snake country should always ascertain the whereabouts of the nearest telephone with an outside line, as well as the location of a hospital or other facility that carries the specific antivenins for snakes in their particular area. Despite taking all precautions however, at one time or another many outdoorsmen eventually stray too close. That's when the better part of valor consists of knowing when to back off. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths are purported to emit audible or visual warnings prior to striking. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. Rattlers don't always rattle, and cottonmouths have the disconcerting habit of showing their pearly whites immediately after, rather than before, striking. And, since a snake's reflexes continue to work for a while after death, even freshly killed individuals have been known to bite unsuspecting victims. It follows that fly fishermen usually get into trouble by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We need to realize that each species has habitat preferences that occasionally intersect with our own. For instance, in the South, rattlers and cottonmouths especially love golf courses-which reminds me of a client of mine whose golfing partner lost a leg, as well as the round, to a rattlesnake. Banks and levees also score high marks, which means that anglers fishing on foot should always exercise caution. And since both cottonmouths and rattlesnakes frequent the edges of tidal creeks, it doesn't matter if you're fishing in fresh water or salt. The same goes for the proximity of civilization; in fact, one of the snakiest canals I know runs through a posh South Miami neighborhood. As far as wading is concerned, I'll let you decide. I've heard reports of cottonmouths grabbing fish on stringers, so be extra careful, and remember, no fish is that important. Snakes are capable of turning up in unexpected places. I once heard about a customer being bitten while shopping in the nursery department of a superstore. At the same time, the odds of a fly fisherman being bitten are low if he or she exercises caution. And this brings me to the inevitable topic of treatment. treatment First, it always helps to identify the offending species. However, it's nice to know there's a broad-spectrum antidote known as polyvalent antivenin that provides effective treatment for all pit-viper bites. Keep in mind, though, that a potential downside of injectable antivenins is the horse serum, which can cause an allergic reaction. At the same time, a competent ER staff can usually circumvent any problems. OK, now what follows here is the experts' by-the-book approach to snakebite first-aid, some parts of which will seem more practical to you than others-and at least one major point is a matter of some controversy: Say I'm out fishing a remote stretch of canyon water and get bitten (again!) by a rattler lounging in the sun. The experts recommend the following first-aid steps: Before doing anything else, stay calm and take a moment to identify the species responsible for the bite. After that, it's time to start immediate first-aid. Meanwhile, I'm not supposed to panic or do anything strenuous that might elevate my heart rate. (I might mention that when I was bitten, I did not feel faint or breathless. However, a friend's brother was bitten by a captive pygmy rattler and immediately became ill, so you never know.) After allowing the bite to bleed freely for 15-30 seconds (now who's supposed to be timing this?), I then use something called a Sawyer Venom Extractor, if I have one handy (this is a plunger-type tool that I most likely would not have with me, incidentally) to aspirate the wound. In the case of bites on the hands, fingers, feet or toes, some authorities advocate slowing the dispersion of the venom through the use of an Ace or crepe bandage wrapped tightly across the knee or elbow joint to the point of immobilizing the appendage, then covering the bite area with a 4 x 4-inch gauze pad soaked in Betadine and overwrapping it snugly with additional turns of bandage. By now, I'm probably getting a little flustered. However, the authorities insist that whoever's treating the bite should not wrap the bandage too tightly (check for a pulse on either side), since the whole idea is to stop the spread of venom, not to cut off systemic circulation. This is dicey business. And while some of the lab-jacket guys argue that this method forestalls life-threatening consequences by confining the venom to the bite area, some opponents claim it can result in an increase in long-term tissue damage that could even lead to amputation. One thing I definitely should not do is apply heat or cold to the bite. And, despite the persistent wives' tale, most authorities would not incise the bite with a blade or use oral suction. In fact, one of my physician friends believes it's possible to envenomate yourself by simply having venom in your mouth. Ingesting alcohol or any type of medication is also strictly taboo, as is the use of a narrow, constrictive tourniquet. Finally, I should leave the dressing undisturbed until I'm safely in the hands of an ER staff. Of course, the above is quite a tall order for someone in pain and scared silly and, to compound matters, most of us don't carry elaborate first-aid gear. But when I asked my fly-fishing friend, Dr. Marty Arostegui, what to do in case of a bite, his response was considerably less complicated: "First of all, I'd apply a light tourniquet between the bite and the next joint up. If necessary, I'd use a shoelace. However, I wouldn't make it too tight, since I'm only interested in slowing the venous return. Just to be sure, I'd check for a pulse on the distal (farthest away from the heart) side of the tourniquet." Marty is a celebrated angler (among other laudable catches, he's landed a broadbill swordfish on a fly) who fishes all over the world. He takes his next cue from personal experience: "I'd then attempt to neutralize the venom by allowing ammonium hydroxide solution to drip into the wound." I asked him to explain, and he said, "I believe that ordinary household ammonia denatures certain proteins. Last year when I was fishing for peacock bass in Brazil, one of the guides stepped on a freshwater stingray. "They also carry venom. Nothing would stop the pain, which was excruciating. Luckily, I always carry a small bottle of roll-on sting antidote, which contains ammonia. I drizzled the liquid into the wound and it stopped the pain immediately." Arostegui admits that a deep bite from a large snake such as a diamondback rattler or from a coral snake is a different story: "My final piece of advice is to get to a hospital emergency room immediately, even if you're not sure whether you've been bitten." So, if you remember nothing else about snakebite treatment, just remember this: Get to a hospital as quickly as you can! Although snakes will always remain a mystery, I do learn something new about them from time to time. For example, ever since the day I received my personal orientation at the edge of an Everglades canal, I had always assumed that the culprit was a cottonmouth. But Dr. Arostegui found some convincing exculpatory evidence in the fact that the venom made my whiskey taste so horrible. He said that the distortion in my sense of taste was likely the result of neurotoxic agents that could only have come from a rattlesnake. Like I said, learn something new every now and then.