Don Moyer knows about snakes in the grass — especially those with rattlers.
When spring rolls around the Ripon land use consultant and outdoor columnist spends 10 to 12 days each spring hunting rattlesnakes primarily in the hills south of the Altamont Pass.
In a typical season Moyer — who has free range of several large cattle spreads — can bag as many as 1,500 rattlesnakes making him a good friend of cattle ranchers who want to protect their livestock.
“It’s a great hobby,” Moyer told Manteca Rotarians during their weekly meeting at Ernie’s Rendezvous Room.
Moyer got hooked on hunting rattlesnakes as a teen noting it gave him an adrenaline rush.
Rattlesnake hunting is best done as a two-person affair with one carefully grabbing the poisonous snake and the other handling the thick bag they are placed in.
“That’s where the saying ‘don’t get stuck holding the bag’ came from,” Moyer joked.
Once the snakes are secured in a bag, they are placed in an ice chest and are gassed by placing a towel soaked with starter fluid on top of the bag and closing the lid. Some of the rattlesnakes Moyer has collared over the years have ended up as “rugs” — their skins sewn onto cloth and used as a wall conversation piece, hat bands and as stuffed specimens.
If you’re opting to eat rattlesnake meat, gassing them is not the way to go. Some say it tastes like chicken while others in the Southwest call it “desert whitefish” that some liken to the taste of a sinewy, half-starved tilapia that’s basically bland with a lot of small bones.
Whatever you may think it tastes like, Moyer warns it won’t fill you up.
“A piece of rattlesnake meet is about the thickness of a pencil once you skin it and remove the bones,” Moyer said.
Moyer noted there are no shortages of rattlesnakes in the 209 especially as you head toward the Altamont Hills near Patterson or Tracy or places like Oakdale and the Sierra foothills. The prime months for rattlesnake activity are March, April, and May.
Moyer has never been bitten but he always carries a snake bite kit whether he is rounding up rattlesnakes or hiking to a Sierra fishing spot.
Rattlesnakes are venomous. The ones you will find slithering around the 209 region such as the common Western Diamondback have toxins that are released through their fangs. The most poisonous rattler in California — and the United States as a whole — is the Mojave Green Rattlesnake found in the Mojave Desert and Death Valley. Its venom attacks the nervous system as well.
Moyer’s advice for avoiding rattlesnakes that play an oversized role in keeping rodent borne diseases in check in the wild is simple and to the point — watch where you are walking, where you reach with your hands such as under rocks, and where you sit when you are exploring the great outdoors.
“They won’t come looking for you,” Moyer said. “They only attack if they feel threatened.”
Even when people come face-to-face with rattlesnakes, many adult rattlers will try to avoid contact unless agitated. The same is not true with young rattlers.
“They are much more dangerous and always inject venom (and most of the time) in larger amounts than adult rattlers,” Moyer said.
Moyer said that is because younger snakes have less control over their fangs.
He noted that in bites involving adult rattlesnakes, about half the time they are “dry bites” with no venom released.
“Bites from young rattlers are always venomous,” Moyer said.
Rattlesnakes have a striking distance equal to about one-third to one-half of their body length. That means the longest rattler that Moyer has bagged — a 54-inch snake — had a striking distance of a little over two feet.
The Center for Disease Control notes there are about 8,000 bites from venomous snakes each year in the United Sates. Twelve people die annually from snake bites. That is much less than the 50 plus that die from bee stings.
Moyer has been penning an outdoors column dubbed “Tight Lines” for 37 years. He started in 1979 with the Tracy Press and was picked up by other area newspapers including the Manteca Bulletin.
An email from a reader in Bulgaria that came across one of his columns online suggested that Moyer put his columns in book form. The resulting book “Tight Lines” became an Amazon bestseller for several months. It is available for $20 from Amazon.com.
Moyer is a former Ripon City Council member and mayor. He at one time served as an assistant sergeant at arms for the California Assembly.
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