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Mountain Home Magazine

Crotalus Horridus Amicus

Jun 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard

Steve Henneman spent the summer of 2012 on a well pad in Renovo working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, patrolling for rattlesnakes. A Wellsboro elementary school teacher for decades and snake hunter since he was fourteen, Steve was accustomed to working with snakes. This was his first time living around the gas workers away from home, and he was uncertain what to expect, but the burly guys treated him like a hero for doing protection duty. That’s what he was doing alright, but it was the rattlers Steve was protecting from the workers—so both could go about their business.

Some folks think that’s a strange attitude for a rattlesnake hunter—let alone the 2023 state champion rattlesnake hunter—but when it comes to snakes, hunting doesn’t automatically mean killing. Steve has always been an educator as well as a hunter. He releases his snakes where he found them, a must for their survival. According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the agency in charge of managing the state’s reptiles and amphibians, Crotalus horridus, the timber rattler, is a candidate for listing as a threatened and endangered species. But the numbers are rebounding. “I think we gain every year because of snake hunts,” Steve says. There are five hunts in Pennsylvania, four of which are run by the Keystone Reptile Club. “They really incorporate the education aspect,” he explains. “The main guy brings lots of other snake species, tame ones. They remove the rattlesnakes from the pit, counting to be sure they have them all. Then they let the kids in the pit with the tame snakes.” He feels strongly about teaching kids not to fear snakes.

Steve is a seasonal ranger with the US Army Corps of Engineers. “I’ll do presentations over at Ives Run,” he says, “and people come up and thank me. They had no idea of the lifespan and habits of the rattlesnakes. How amazing the creature is to spend six months underground. That they can go miles in one direction, turn around, and come back on the exact same path.”

When the laurel blooms, rattlesnakes emerge from their winter hibernation seeking sunny rocks the way humans gravitate to porches and decks. After shedding, the males and non-pregnant females travel a familiar path to forage for prey. July is when humans and snakes start crossing paths, but Steve wants everyone to know the rattler isn’t moving into your property. If they take shelter in your woodpile, relax, and wait a few days. They’re probably just digesting a rodent that was going to mess with your garden.

The Renovo well pad was built right in the middle of such a path for many snakes, and it was fenced. Steve basically gave the snakes an Uber ride to the other side and let them continue on their way. “I walked them across to the other side and dabbed nail polish on each rattle, so I could tell if they came around more than once,” he explains. “Only two out of twenty-six were repeat offenders.” If you come across a nuisance snake, don’t move it more than 100 yards away. Actually it’s best to contact the Fish and Boat Commission to move them.

If you see one crossing the road, don’t run it over.

“Big males are what you see crossing the road,” Steve says. “That snake was twenty-five to thirty years in the wild, bothering no one. They’re not going to come after you. I’ve stepped right beside ones I didn’t see, and they’ve never struck. They don’t want to waste the venom.”

If you hear a rattle, know it’s saying I’m here, not I’m pissed. As the Gadsden flag proclaims, Don’t tread on me. But if you hassle them, they will strike. That’s why Benjamin Franklin thought they were a good symbol for our new nation.

Steve has tramped through hundreds of miles over the years searching for snakes. At home, his wife, Patti, can track him on her phone. With a fishing license and a venomous snake permit, rattlesnakes can be legally taken in 2024 from June 8 through July 31, the season starting only after they’ve shed and are less susceptible to injury. The regulations state that a permit holder “may take, kill, or possess timber rattlesnakes at least forty-two inches in length, which have twenty-one or more subcaudal scales.” These are scales on the underside of the tail, and, since males have more, this requirement protects females. Only one is allowed per year. Because some populations are protected, interested hunters should go to or pick up their free 2024 summary book and study it.

After thirty years of guiding friends, and as his teaching career was coming to a close, Steve decided to compete for the state rattlesnake championship. This required having a snake in three of the four Keystone Reptile Club hunts. Steve caught his largest last year in Monroeton at fifty-six-and-a-half inches, his personal best and a half inch short of the largest ever brought in. His overall score—including ones he’d caught at Noxen, Sinnemahoning (heaviest black rattlesnake and largest timber rattlesnake), and Crossforks (second largest timber rattlesnake)—brought home the prize.

The provisional permits issued to the competitors stipulate that snakes must be released back where they were found by sunset of the last day of the hunt. “Some guys who don’t win get pissed,” he says, “and release it just down the road out of their truck. The snakes will keep searching for their den till it gets too cold and they die.”

No system is perfect, and, let’s face it, people who want to harm snakes aren’t trying to follow regulations anyway. But the hunts are way better than when Steve’s father used to compete and there were no limits on the numbers. His dad won in 1967 in the Morris Rattlesnake Roundup. Steve remembers, “Back then the pit would have 400 or more.”

Now that he’s retired both as a competitive snake hunter and elementary school teacher, Steve says his focus is on passing his knowledge to his grandson, Luke Szentesy. He says when he was young, he was more hunter than educator. But, at sixty-two, that has flipped. At the Tioga-Hammond Lakes, he continues preaching the gospel of snakes: Be not afraid.

“It’s not what you see on TV,” says Steve.

Check Tioga-Hammond’s Facebook page for announcements about rattlesnake programs, or call (570) 835-5281.

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