May 6, 2022 - Business

I hunted rattlesnakes in Oklahoma, and here's how it went

Photo of a man standing in a pit with rattlesnakes.
Attendees pay $1 to watch experts handle rattlesnakes and talk about how to keep from being bitten. There are about 150 rattlers in the pit. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

Worth here with a dispatch from Mangum, Oklahoma.

In a dusty town where the church marquee reads "pray for rain," hundreds of people turned out for a rattlesnake derby and flea market. It's held here every year on the last weekend of April.

What happened: For the first time, I decided to don boots, plunk down an $80 deposit for a snake catcher and go hunt rattlers on 600 acres filled with mesquite trees and scrub brush.

  • Goading by the family got my son, Gray, to join me on the hunt, which was loosely supervised.

Why it matters (to me): V. L. "Sparky" Sparkman, my grandfather, was on the committee that jump-started the event in 1966 to both cut the snake population and lure out-of-town money to this speck of a town, now home to less than 3,000.

  • It was a small way to connect with his memory, though I'm told he probably never participated in a hunt.

Details: We looked for flat heads, flicking tongues and diamond-shaped patterns in the scant shade, under rocks and sheets of tin. We listened for rattles.

  • The idea: find a snake, pick it up (with the yard-long catcher) and put it in a bucket.
  • When I asked for tips on how to hunt, we were told, "Don't step on 'em."

The verdict: 82 degrees is hot in full sun, and Oklahoma isn't flat. What passes for trees doesn't give shade, but it does create a maze. Within 20 minutes, Gray and I were separated.

  • Two and a half hours of poking, squinting, careful stepping and close listening brought nothing.
  • If I saw a rattlesnake, it was invisible. I'm sure several saw me but paid no mind to the novice.

The intrigue: The experience left me with more questions than answers. I worry the snakes are over-hunted, that our thirst for thrills endangers the ecology.

  • These are things I'll ponder in the coming months.

The bottom line: There's always next year.

A bucket and catcher on the hunt for rattlesnakes. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios
Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios
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