Bar/fly: Rattlesnake round-ups in Oklahoma

By Kevin Pilley

Kevin Pilley survives a deadly all-American sport.

Photo / Rod Emmerson
Photo / Rod Emmerson

The oldest regular at Earl's place is the rust. Earl's Galvanized Palace is a small bar in the middle of nowhere on the way to nowhere. It is kept going by snake men and kept upright by the buildings on either side. The dress code is cowboy hats and live snake necklaces.

Earl's is the headquarters of "The White Fang Society". This an elite and highly select sports club. You must be invited to join - usually post-posthumously.

If you aren't dead then, ideally, you must have had something amputated, suffered paralysis or undergone reconstructive surgery. Members must be conversant with excruciating pain, and knowing what agonising frothing convulsions feel like helps too. In other words, they must like American draft beer and have survived a rattlesnake bite.

Oklahoma is the spiritual home of the ultimate "buzz". The 46th state stages five of the biggest rattlesnake hunts in a regular season which lasts from March to September, beginning in New Mexico and ending, six states later, in Pennsylvania.

Rattlesnake hunting is a popular sport in the southern states, and there is even a travelling press corps which reports on the major "diamondback drives".

Okeene in northwest Oklahoma, an hour's drive from Oklahoma City, is the "Grandaddy" of all rattlesnake round-ups. It goes back 40 years. Every April, hunters come to comb the snake-infested gypsum hills of Blaine County. There are meant to be more rattlesnakes per square metre in Salt Creek Canyon than anywhere on Earth.

There is not too much high-tech paraphernalia to rattlesnake-hunting. All you need is US$10 ($12) for a licence, a weird laugh and a personality that combines an abnormal love of wearing welding gloves with a pronounced death wish.

The basic hunting hardware consists of a sack, some rope, innumerable beers in the back of your pick-up truck, and a device like a prosthetic aid with a golf grip known as a "rattler iron".

You wait by a hole and when a snake comes out you grab it. Imagine trying to get a 2m piece of spaghetti into a sack using a pair of salad spoons, and imagine your life depends on it, and you have some idea of what rattlesnake wrangling entails. It's the all-American sport - and practice makes perfect.

You learn by experience. If you don't die, you've had a good day. Over a few beers at Earl's, my tutor Peppy Wenglarz told me that a rattler can strike half its body length, urinate 360 degrees and kill you two hours after being decapitated. The biggest snake ever caught was 2.18m long. No snake under 76cm is taken.

In Okeene, 2722kg of snake is caught each year. No part is wasted. The meat is sold to restaurants to make rattler steaks and "hissburgers". At Okeene you can buy rattleskin hatbands and boots, as well as coffee-table rattlers stuffed into the strike position. You can also buy mink penis earrings and racoon penis toothpicks.

"The real art is keeping control of your bowels," said Peppy as he shook some salt into his beer. "Forty is a good count for a day. A snake senses through his nose - shitting yourself can be fatal."

"It's no walk in the park," said rancher Rick Reames, who described himself as "a barstool philosopher with a professorship in advanced bullshit".

"It gives you a real energy zap and unlocks the stress keys seeing a big wheel spitting fury at you. I've got some real perty skin punctures and had some swellings I've been proud of. But I'm still here, I think."

Peppy said goodbye, and after he left the bar lady told me about him. "Peppy used to share his mobile home with an alligator, until it ate his curtains and his two dogs," she said.

Knowing I was an out-of-towner, she asked me if I wanted to smell her car seat. She said she had just had a skunk pay a visit. I declined, citing sinusitis.

"We hunt anything around here," said Rick, slugging back another beer. "This 'dicing with death' kick's a tradition. As guages of manhood go, one day's snake bagging is worth a whole week's wheat baling ... We're all into life-and-death situations. That's what weekends are for. It's difficult to have a near-death experience fishing for catfish."


Earl's is the headquarters of "The White Fang Society", an elite and highly select sports club. You are invited to join, usually post-posthumously. If you aren't dead then, ideally, you must have had something amputated, suffered paralysis or undergone reconstructive surgery.

- NZ Herald

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