Black Phase Rattler

Terra Haines holds up a nice black phase rattler she caught during a recent snake hunt. Though terrified of snakes at first, Terra has come to appreciate their gentle nature. When released this rattler crawled over Matt's boot while escaping and never made a single aggressive move toward any of us.

Last week, Matt Wilson, Terra Haines and I were in Cameron County on our quest for rattlesnakes. None of us intended to harm the snakes in any way, they simply hold a fascination for us, a respectful fascination I may assure you.

Snakes don’t mix well with people, even the smaller common varieties which are harmless. Unfortunately, people’s first reaction is to kill them. Larger varieties such as water snakes or black snakes increase that fear.

Rattlesnakes are in reality timid and docile, only striking if threatened. Here are some recent statistics. Lightning strikes kill 43 people a year, 62 die from bee or hornet stings, 3,536 people die from drowning, 5,172 on motorcycles, 17,000 from a fall, 38,800 in auto accidents, while only 5 per year die from snake bite, only 4 in 2019. As you can see, your odds of getting struck by lightning are far, far higher than being bitten by a venomous snake of any kind.

Nature, in her wisdom, gave most venomous snakes a sinister appearance. Rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths have broad, triangular heads and cat-like, vertical slit pupils. A quick glance tells you they’re nothing to be messed with.

Matt took us on a long drive down some spectacularly rough, rutted roads, then we hiked to a large field covered in knee high blueberry bushes, sweet fern, shield fern, wood fern and some tough wiry grasses. Here and there larger rocks stuck up and it was to those we headed.

Everyone is required to have a fishing license and a snake permit to hunt or handle rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania. It’s also illegal to kill a reptile or amphibian using a firearm of any type

Terra was to my left as we approached a refrigerator-sized stone. She stopped abruptly.

“Here’s one!” she called out. I immediately glanced at her, wondering how she’d react. She appeared very calm.

When I reached her side I saw a black phase rattler about three feet long coiled in the deep blueberry bushes. He knew we were there and was staring at us, tongue flicking in and out and almost immediately began to head for the safety of the rock only two feet away. Terra used her snake hook to gently lift and stop the snake’s progress and move it to clearer ground.

Terra was all smiles as we examined the snake, but despite being a five-year veteran in the snake business, she, like me, still gets that scary jerk inside when the rattlers are first spotted.

She expertly worked her prize into a snake tube so it could be handled safely and without harm. This rattler had 20 subcaudal scales between her vent and rattle. signifying she was female, Terra explained. Males have 21 or more.

We took several pictures before she lowered the tube releasing the snake. The rattler, only two or three feet from our feet briefly coiled, assessed the situation, then simply crawled away, right over Matt’s boot, never once making any aggressive motions. She was much more forgiving than I believe I would have been in the same situation.

Terra was grinning broadly as the big snake slid over Matt’s boot and I quickly snapped a picture.

“See,” Terra said, “She isn’t antagonistic at all despite being handled. Rattlers only want to be left alone and avoid trouble.”

Spying another good-sized rock, I headed toward it. Moving carefully through the bushes I was still some 20 feet from the rock when a sudden motion brought me to an abrupt halt.

There, a foot in front of me, lay a big coiled rattler well hidden in the thick foliage. The snake had quickly lifted and turned its head to see what I was and, frozen, we stared at one another.

Again, being so close, the encounter was so rapid and unexpected it couldn’t help but have its effect. I’d almost jumped out of my boots, the poor heart was pounding, my entire body quivering.

The big, black, triangular head and the dark, vertically slitted eyes regarded me impassively, the forked tongue darting rapidly in and out to catch my scent. After 30 long seconds the snake turned and hightailed it to the rock disappearing underneath.

Whew, that was thrilling, but again, the rattler wasn’t aggressive at all. By noon we’d seen 14 snakes and a big bull elk. It was quite a day. Strangely enough I found myself becoming concerned over the vulnerability of these potentially deadly, but surprising gentle creatures. They were so easy to kill if you wanted, it wasn’t even a challenge.

Rattlers only have young every three years, and out of the eight born, only one on the average makes it to adulthood. Their populations are very fragile, and the snakes’ threat to humans is practically nonexistent.

There’s little doubt my experiences with rattlesnakes has brought about the widest gulf imaginable in my feelings. First sight practically sends me up a tree. However, greater experience has, surprisingly, generated real concern for their safety. Those stretching meadows and dark rocks would be empty indeed without the snakes which generate such fascination.

Terra certainly taught me an important life lesson. By mastering her fear of snakes and turning it into understanding and concern she’s come to a greater understanding and appreciation of our world. That’s something we all could apply in so many situations in our lives today and profit by.

(Wade Robertson is an award-winning outdoor writer whose articles have been published in Pennsylvania Outdoor News, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur, Fish & Game and other publications. His email is