Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About How To Catch, Kill,
Clean, Cook And Eat A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake But Were Afraid To Ask
By Jason Hunter
Other than spiders and flying, little frightens the average person more than a poisonous snake... especially a rattlesnake. To the hunter or outdoors person the chances are sooner are later you will come across such a snake and if you live and hunt in one of the more southern states, your chances increase tremendously. However this is not an article about how to avoid rattlesnakes, but rather how to find them and eat them. At first this may sound odd, but a big rattlesnake makes a nice trophy and the end result is you will have meat that should not be wasted.
The Western Diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, (also known as the Arizona or Texas diamondback) is not the only species of rattlesnake to inhabit the southwestern United States. It is however, the most prevalent of the species in terms of range being found from central California to southern Nevada, eastward to central Arkansas and south through all of Texas and at elevations to 6000 feet above mean sea level. A small group of western diamondback rattlesnakes was introduced accidentally in Wisconsin in the 1930's but it is believed they have all died out. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus, can be found along the southern seaboard from Louisiana through all of Florida and along the eastern seaboard up through North Carolina. The western diamondback can be distinguished from the eastern diamondback by the absense of a light vertical line in the front of its nostrils. Size is not so much of an issue, but in the upper limits, the eastern diamondback is slightly larger than the western diamondback. The size differential is approximately 84 inches (213 cm) for the western diamondback to 86.6 inches (220 cm) for the eastern diamondback.
The western diamondback rattlesnake's habit is varied, but the most likely areas where they can found are among cactus, mesquite, in and about rocky terrain, limestone outcrops, thick brush and throughout both arid and semi arid regions. In Texas, the western diamondback has been found in dense populations. It has been reported that within Shackelford County, Texas a rancher killed 1200 western diamondback rattlesnakes while clearing approximately 9900 acres (4000 ha) of mesquite, cactus and scrub brush. Concededly, this occured in the 1920's however the author's son, Adam, has been in Live Oak County, Texas and has personally seen a group of western diamondback that must have been 50 in an area of 25,000 square feet (talk about giving you the creep!...yes, he brought five of the biggest home... alive!...in an act of pure humanity he let them all go by Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas). In one of, what must have been, the earlier snake roundups, 3500 rattlesnakes were rounded up in Wilson County, Texas between June 1 and September 1, 1926. The author has located the western diamondback along riverbanks and in semi populated areas. It is reasonable to assume that where there is a steady food source, you can find a rattlesnake.
The food of the western diamondback is largely rodents. While it is unusual, the prey of a rattlesnake need not necessarily be alive for it to serve as a meal. Rattlesnakes hve been known to carrion. In captivity, rattlesnakes have been fed small chickens, ducks and rabbits with sucess. Prey size is largely determined by the size of the snake. The western diamondback rarely grows to more than 84 inches (213 cm) in length. The western diamondback can clims small trees and is an accomplished swimmer. There has been at least one reputable sighting of a western diamondback swimming 19.9 miles (32 km) from land. In captivity, western diamondback live for 25 - 30 years, however, in the wild their lifespan is probably much shorter.
The western diamondback has few natural enemies. Hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats and other snakes occasionally prey on rattle snakes, but in reality, few animals (if any) make rattlesnake the staple of their diet. Rattlesnakes are not immune to their own venom nad be killed by a bite from another rattlesnake. There is at least one report of a rattlesnake bitting itself and dying.
There are only two types of poisonous snakes in the United States. Those are pit vippers and coral snakes. The western diamondback is a pit viper (viperine) whose venom is different than that of a coral snake (elapine). A coarl snake's venom is a neurotoxin which affects the respiratory system and effectively paralyzes the diaphram. The western diamondback's venom, however, is considered hemotoxic (toxic to the blood) and generally works as anticoagulant. Basically, you bleed to death. A small number of rattlesnakes, not necessarily precluding the western diamondback, have venom that includes both neurotoxins and hemotoxins. Bites of humans by western diamondbacks are not uncommon and are often fatal. The western diamondback is probably responsible for more deaths in the United States than any other venomous snake. If bitten, the individual needs immediate medical treatment including the administration of an antivenom. It is more likely, however, that a hunting dog would be the subject of a rattlesnake bite. At one time it was believed a scent was emitted from the tail end of a western diamondback that would repel attackers such as dogs and/or coyotes, however, recent studies indicate this might not be the case. Curiosity of the dog probably leads to most bites.
The symptoms following a rattlesnake bite on either a human or hunting dog include an intense burning pain followed by swelling, edema, discoloration of the tissue, hemorrhage, necrosis, low blood pressure, and an increased heart rate, nausea and vomiting. If a dog is bitten, the owner should bring the snake to the veterinarian for identification. Make sure the snake is dead. The owner should try not to mutilate the head of the snake so that the veterinarian can make a proper identification of the type or species of the snake.
The events that follow a rattlesnake bite on an animal can be categorized into three periods. Those include 0 - 2 hours after the bite, the first 24 hours after the bite, and a recuperation period of about 10 days after the bite. If not treated, but within two hours, death of the animal has not occurred, then the prognosis of survival is good. Treatment after two hours on animals would include corticosteriods and IV fluids to combat hypotension. After 24 hours, if no death has occurred, hte main concern would be necrosis ( the death of tissue) and infection. Several potentially dangerous bacteria have been cultivated from a rattlesnake's mouth including Pseudomonas a., Clostriduim spp, Conynebacterium spp, and Staphylococci. For the next days, treatment includes, butis not limited to, antibiotics, Tetanus antitoxin and for humansonly, diphenhydramine hydrochloride (a type of antihistamine).
Seeking out a western diamondback is not a casual thing to do. A large rattlesnake is a formidable adversary and can lift its head off the ground almost 20 inches (50cm) in an attempt to bite you. Rattlesnakes have aggressively pursued its attackers including humans. Nevertheless, hunting rattlesnakes is little different than hunting bear or mountain lion, both of which have been known to hunt and kill humans. As long as you are properly equipped and use common sense you have little risk in being bitten. The first item of business is snake boots and/or chaps.
There are a number of good products from which to choose. Cabela's offers snake boots with a Dry-Lex® lining beginning at around $90.00. They also offer snake gaiters and chaps beginning at around $50.00 for men, women and children. In addition, snake pants are available for around $100.00 and Snake Guardz® is available for around $60.00. Dunns offer Russell® snake boots made with bullhide leather for around $300.00. The Sportmen's Guide offers Guide Gear® snake boots for around $90.00 and, in addition, makes available other brands on a seasonal basis. This is not exhaustive list and there are other manufacturers from which to choose. The author personally uses Chippawa® snake boots and Cabela's chaps. A good starting place is to look for boots and/or chaps that use bullhide leather or DuPont's® Cordura 1000 denier nylon. The second item of business is the license.
Hunting with the intent to kill a western diamondback rattlesnake requires a valid general hunting license. There is no stamp or special permit required. This is different from simply trying to "catch" a rattlesnake for retention. In that case, you would need (at least in Texas) a permit if the amount of rattlesnakes to be retained exceeds ten snakes. By the way, this rule applies to all non-game non-endangered species whether it is a western diamondback rattlesnake or a chipmunk. There is another permit required if you intend on selling the snakes. The third item of business is the weapon.
Harvesting a rattlesnake for eating and harvesting a rattlesnake for trophy are two separate matters. A shot to the head whether it is a handgun, rifle or shotgun is all that is needed if the sole purpose of the hunt is the meat. From personal experience the author has noted that the vast majority of rattlesnakes encountered have been coiled. This creates a slight problem if the only weapon you have is a shotgun. The simple fact of the matter is that a shotgun will destroy too much meat. The author is from deep south Texas and hunts primarily in the fall. The animals hunted include mourning dove, whitewing, quail, jackrabbit and later on deer, javelina and coyote. Naturally, there is problem when all you have in the field is a shotgun and you are lucky(?) enough to stumble upon a rattlesnake.
You may think all you would need to do is throw a rock at the snake, let it uncoil and then take the shot. This might surprise a lot of you but, a rattlesnake moves very fast. Not only that, but a rattlesnake does not usually travel more than 140 feet (approx.50m) from his den. This means he is going home fast. A wild shot simply to kill the snake is not proper. Not because you will not kill the snake. You will kill the snake but you will ruin the meat for eating purposes. The best weapon is probably a medium caliber handgun. The author recommends a .38 special or up. The brain of a rattlesnake is small. You need some leeway. Therefore, if you are slightly off with your aim, you will make a kill. Not always, but most of the time. I remember one 4 foot rattlesnake that I shot with my Smith & Wesson Model 686 .357 Mag. (for those who are interested, I believe I was shooting .38 Special 95 gr. Silvertip +P) just outside his den. He didn't die quick enough and managed to crawl in his den before I could get him. Nevertheless, in that situation, I don't know what else I could have done. A shotgun would have rendered the meat not edible and a rifle would not have made the kill any cleaner than the handgun.
If your purpose is strictly trophy, you may want to avoid a shot to head and try to break its spine with the shot. You may also use a tool called a pinner to "pin" the snake and bag it. Then you may bring the live snake home and put the bag with the snake in the deep freeze(a must for every hunter). You may also trap the rattlesnake but, eventually he will have to be removed from the trap. Occasionally, methods used to control rattlesnakes as pests are used. This includes glue boards. Glue boards are not recommended for use as either a trophy seeking device or for catching a snake for culinary purposes. Not necessarily because it is inhumane but simply because it doesn't meet the objective of the hunter (i.e., it is not sporting). For information on purchasing equipment on capturing a rattlesnake check the internet at www.wildlifedamageunl.edu.
After the rattlesnake is dead, you may take the snake to a taxidermist. the rate to have a snake mounted varies but is approximately $4.00 - $5.00 per inch. Naturally, there are a number of factors to be considered such as the base and position, and whether the snake is to be mounted or simply the hide tanned.
Once you have a western diamondback rattlesnake, and it is dead, the next order of business is to skin and clean it. To skin a rattlesnake, turn the snake belly side up. Start at the head and make an incision down his stomach to the tail where white meets black. Assuming you want to keep the hide, cut through the meat at the tail and simply peel the meat from the hide. It will come off with little difficulty. You gut the snake and wash it off in cold water. The snake's mouth is still dangerous in that there is residual venom and you must take care not to handle the head. However, you should not be concerned with eating venom tainted meat as it will not hurt you. Cut the rattlesnake into 3 inch pieces and freeze in water. Do not leave a lot of meat at either the head or tail because, if you choose to tan the hide, you will have to "flesh" the snake anyway. Why waste good meat?
Rattlesnakes can be cooked like most other meats including grilling, roasting and frying. However, there are some subtleties that will help the novice chef in preparing what should be a very delectable meal. The meat of the rattlesnake will have a thick part (near the spine) and a thin part on the lower part of the ribs. Thus, when cooking by frying or grilling, the lower part of the ribs will cook quickest and may tend to dry out or become overcooked using any of those methods. There is not the same problem in roasting or baking using a moist heat (i.e., sauces or plain water). The lower part of the rib meat will be tender as the "brisket". Note the following two recipes use one of each method, specifically "moist" baking and "dry frying." Most individuals will want the meat well done, but the author could not find a reason why slightly undercooked rattlesnake would be harmful. Think of it as "Texas sushi."
The meat of the snake is tasty. It always bothers me when someone says it tastes "a lot like chicken". It doesn't taste a lot like chicken. Probably the best way to describe the taste of a western diamondback rattlesnake is to ask how it was prepared. If you prepare the snake like chicken, it will taste a little like chicken. If you prepare the snake like fish, it will taste like fish. You might say "rattlesnake....the other white meat." One thing that is agreed upon is that the meat is a little stringy. It is a little like quail and more like Cornish game hen, but as an analogy, probably closer to pork. Here are a couple of recipes that will enhance your table at breakfast or dinner time.
Fried Rattlesnake and Ham Gravy Great for Breakfast.
~ 1 24" to 30" skinned and cleaned western diamondback rattlesnake, cut into 3" to 4" pieces
~ drippings of 6 slices of bacon
~ 3/4 cup oil
~ 3/4 lb. cooked ham, diced
~ 2 cups milk
~ 1 tbs brewed coffee
~ 1/2 cup flour (1 tbs reserved)
~ biscuits or toast
~ salt and pepper
~ tabasco sauce, optional
* In a cast iron skillet, fry the bacon. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Reserve drippings
* Add the oil to the drippings. Flour rattlesnake and fry over medium heat until golden brown.
* Remove each piece as it becomes done and drain on paper towels.
* Drain off the oil and drippings reserving 1 tbs. Add 1 tbs of flour. Stir and scrape bottom of the skillet to remove any browned stuck pieces.
* Add the ham, coffee and milk. Stir until bubbly. If too thick add water, coffee or milk a tablespoon at a time.
* Serve the rattlesnake with biscuits or toast and the ham gravy.
* Salt and pepper and/or season with tabasco sauce to taste.
* Serves 2 -3.
Variation: Try ground sausage instead of ham.
Baked Western Diamondback Rattlesnake This dish is appropriate for a formal dinner.
~ 1 tbs butter
~ 1 tbs flour
~ 1/4 tsp salt
~ 1/8 tsp black pepper
~ 1 cup half & half or whole milk
~ 1 24" to 30" skinned & cleaned western diamondback rattlesnake
~ 1 cream sauce
~ 4 oz. fresh mushrooms, sliced
~ 1 lime thinly sliced
~ 1 tsp white pepper
~ 1 tsp dried basil
~ 1 tsp rosemary
* Melt the butter in a medium size non-stick skillet over low heat. Add the flour, salt and pepper. Cook until combined.
* Add cream and increase heat to medium and stir until bubbly. Remove from heat.
* Cut snake into 3" pieces. Place snake in a casserole dish and top with the cream sauce. Top with remaining ingredients.
* Cover and bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour or until tender.
* Serves 2 - 3.
The above recipes are adaptations from the originals which can be found in the Complete Fish & Game Cookbook by A.D Livingston (copyright 1996) and Mesquite Country Tastes & Traditions From The Tip Of Texas, (recipe by Faye Carter), Hidalgo County Historical Museum (copyright 1996).
Mating and Reproduction|
Probably no subject has been of more speculation in Crotalus atrox than that of its mating and reproduction. Studies indicate that maturity is related to body length rather than age of the snake. Generally, the snake is mature for breeding purposes when the snake has reached a length of 35 inches (90cm). The western diamondback reproduces biennially. The mating sequence is as follows: The male uses his tongue to sense the presence of the female. The male then approaches the female and the male's body begins to jerk spasmodically at the rate of approximately 1 per second. As the male begins to approach the female, his spasmodic rhythm increases to approximately 2 per second. The male brings his entire body next to the female and begins to bring his body next to hers. This entire process may take some time. When their bodies are aligned, the hemipenis of the male is inserted (and this is not an easy process) into the female and the female begins a rhythmic movement. Coitus may last from 15 minutes to 8 hours. Females give live birth to approximately 10 young. It is possible that the female western diamondback may exhibit maternal behavior. At one time, a female western diamondback was found next to a pit fall in which a small western diamondback was found.
Rattlesnake competitions differ from locale to locale. The methods of catching a rattlesnake also differ primarily because the object in a competition is not necessarily to kill the snake, but to either sack it or otherwise keep it alive for retrieving venom which is used to make antivenin. This can be done with a b