By way of a few muscular breast stokes, and tennis shoe-pushes off the sand bottom, I enter the main channel of a great stream, the Altamaha River. Pronounced "All-ta-mahaw" — 137 snaky miles of emerald water.
As far as I can see, only the slow-flowing river, fringed by massive cypress and hardwoods. Yellow-white sandbars shimmer in the sun. No sign of our fellow species, no boats, no tents, no buildings or powerlines.
Only the river, endless.
I'm at home. I melt into the cool water.
A colleague had e-mailed and requested a dozen specimens of brown watersnakes (Nerodia taxispilota) and redbelly watersnakes (Nerodia erythrogaster) for a food habits study that will include laboratory trials. I was happy to oblige. These species, both nonvenomous, are common along the Altamaha, the fish-eating brownies favoring the moving waters of the mainstem, with the salmon-ventered redbellies partial to oxbow swamps and soggy bottoms adjacent to the river — where their frog-prey abounds. I was joined by Dr. Josh Parker of Clayton State University.
The first leaning tree, a crooked water elm — with trunk extending horizontal over the river — holds two brown watersnakes, or as I like to call them, "water taxis." Peering hard to make out the scales, the dark chevrons running the body, we admire the snakes. Stretched long, their bellies hug the same branch. Anoles and skinks hustle about in the vegetation, jumping for insects. When a basking watersnake senses danger it doesn't hiss or strike. It doesn't tarry. In an instant the snake slips with elegance from its perch into the water below, not to be seen again. A subtle, diagnostic splash.
By sound alone, the swamp-wise naturalist knows when a watersnake has dropped from a limb (less cannonball "ker-plunk" and wave-noise, compared to the awkward flop of a basking turtle).
Immersed to our ears, swimming like crocodiles with prey in mind, Josh and I work the edge of the river. Our eyes devour each and every root-wad and "hurricane," "leaner" and logjam. To spot basking snakes. We brave waters thick with spiny softshell turtles the size of washtubs, as well as "Appaloosas" (flathead catfish) — brutish leviathans often to 50 pounds, with power-vacuums for mouths. Leaping mullet remind us that "big water" like the Altamaha is kin to the sea.
"DIRK! DIRK! LOOK, IS THAT ONE SNAKE OR TWO?" Such a query is sweet music to the ears of a herpetologist. In fact, it proved to be three snakes, all massive female taxis, each over four feet long. Josh spotted the snakes curled on a spidery mass of exposed roots — a good five feet above us. Did I mention they were very big water taxis? Shaking, we hatch a plan.
"Josh, since we can't reach them we need to startle them. I am going to softly toss this mussel shell to make them jump. Do you think you can catch the left-most snake? I will try for the other two. Get the bags ready." We catch two of the three — catching them in mid-air as they dive toward the river!
Later, Josh will vault himself off the bottom to grab a stout willow limb. Pulling himself skyward with one arm, he deftly snatches a sleeping brownie from an even higher limb. I had bet him supper he couldn't do it. Josh hadn't told me he was a former NBA all-star.
Upon grabbing snakes we briefly submerge them while feeling for a safe grip behind the head, hoping their lunges would find swim trunks — and not exposed flesh. We take extreme care not to hurt or unduly stress any of the snakes. When snake teeth hang up on our skin, we gingerly remove the offender so as not to injure his/her mouth.
We are bitten about two dozen times. I should say "nipped," since most of these bites leave but faint superficial scratches. Interestingly, a few of my watersnake bites itch intensely for a few minutes. I am unsure whether this is due to something in the water, or in the snake's mouth. One bite will be memorable: I espy a strapping female resting in the river close to me, with only her head above the water. Taking in her hefty form, muscled jowls and vacant eyes, you might have thought she was doing her best impression of an anaconda. I tremble just looking at her.
Awaiting courage, I watch a meter-long gar sink into the depths with the methodical control of a submarine.
I strike rapidly, catching the snake underwater a foot behind her head. She responds with repeated bite-and-chews to my wrist (yes, it hurts). Dripping adrenalin and sporting shoelaces strewn green with tadpole chow, I emerge from the river with the snake's body looped in my right hand (a rough greensnake in my left). An onlooker at the boat landing familiar with snake identification holsters his libation and exclaims, "Oh-ho, good-gracious son, why that ain't no moccasin, that's a water rattler!" (I've heard it before, but I don't often hear this colloquialism, a local name for the brown watersnake, its origin related to the species' superficial resemblance — with respect to its dorsal markings — to the timber rattlesnake).
All in a day's work
In 18 person hours of searching over two days, Josh and I observe 66 snakes (65 brown watersnakes and one rough greensnake). We capture around 22 "brownies," releasing all but six soon after capture (these snakes will be liberated at their capture sites immediately following the feeding trials).
"Water taxis" favor the succulent flesh of catfishes. Camping on an Altamaha sandbar, my wife and I were once awakened in the middle of the night to a violent thrashing on our stringer to find a substantial specimen attempting to fit a two-pound channel catfish into its mouth. We carried the whole mess, snake attached like a lamprey to the right flank of the cat, a short distance downstream before shaking the brownie free. Over a gritty catfish breakfast, I told my wife that such catfish prey are usually swallowed head-first so that the stout spines in the dorsal and pectoral fins "fold back" during consumption (rarely, they "unfold" after ingestion, causing serious injury to the snake).
Over the last 12 years, I have surveyed the herpetofauna of the wonderful Altahama, documenting in detail the distribution of fauna reptilian and amphibian. Remarkably, cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) are rare along the Altamaha River mainstem and in the 170,000 acres of hardwood swamps lying in the floodplain of this magnificent alluvial stream. Only near Darien, where the river braids and spills into rich marshes and brackish estuaries, can one commonly admire the lackadaisical swim of an undisturbed "trapjaw".
This intriguing mystery will be the subject of a future article. Stay tuned.