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Montana Outdoors: Snakes are out there and they're swimming
Duane Hons spotted this rattlesnake far out in the waters of Nelson Reservoir last weekend.

It's not an uncommon sight to spot snakes swimming across the rivers and reservoirs of Montana at this time of year.

In fact, Laurel angler Duane Hons spotted one just last weekend as he boated and fished on the waters of Nelson Reservoir.

"We had a visitor to our fishing hole, a three-foot prairie rattlesnake!" Hons wrote me, sending along a photo with his e-mail.

"It was probably half-way across the lake," he continued. "It looked like it was heading across the lake and I wanted a better look, so we actually went to it and did a loop around it with the boat.

"That made it a little nervous and it started toward the boat," Hons wrote. "That freaked my wife Steph out a little (OK, a lot). It was about 15 to 20 feet away and picked its head up about 2 inches and she hollered, 'It's gonna jump in the boat!' I explained that I wouldn't let it get close enough to do that."

Snakes, including rattlesnakes, are strong swimmers in the warm waters of midsummer.

And while Steph really was in no danger as her husband circled the rattler, Bernie Hildebrand, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist out of Miles City and an avid Fort Peck fisherman, tells a tale that shows just how strong a swimmer those snakes can be.

"Don Childress and I borrowed a friend's boat and we were fishing at Sutherlin, across from Hell Creek Bay, on Fort Peck. It was some years ago," Hildebrand began.

"We were going to motor across to the other side of the lake and I put the rods in the rod holder and heard something. I didn't think anything about it," he said. "But when we got to the other side, I went back to get my rod and there was a rattlesnake that had climbed into the back splash well of the boat.

"I got a stiff fishing rod underneath him and flipped him out into the lake and he was immediately back in the splash well. They can swim very fast," Hildebrand said. "I flipped him out again and started to beat him with a bottom bouncer as Childress got on the electric trolling motor. Wide open, that snake had no problem keeping up with us with that trolling motor.

"Finally, he put his head up and spotted the shoreline and the snake started heading for it," Hildebrand said. "At that point we were OK. That's when Childress came up with his fool-proof method for snake control. His answer was to fill the splash well with empty beer and pop cans so you could hear one come in."

Over the years, Hildebrand has seen other snakes swimming across the reservoir. I've seen them crossing the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers and a few reservoirs, too.

Are snakes drawn to the water at this time of year? Hildebrand said it was more likely a matter of abundant food sources being near water rather than the water itself.

"I suspect it's prey-based," he said. "They can live in some pretty dry areas so I don't think water alone is the reason they're there. Right now, on Fort Peck, all those toads we were hearing in early summer during their breeding season have hatched out a bumper crop of young.

"The little toads are not bigger than your thumbnail and prime size for a snake to eat. There are so many toads and the snakes find them and stay with them. If they find a good food source, they hang with it, like everything else."

As for snakes climbing into boats, Hildebrand said, "The one that Childress and I had an encounter with was certainly able to come up over the splash well and get into the boat. I don't know if they all could.

"Swimming is not a problem for them," he said. "Of course, I don't think you'd want to be out in the water yourself swimming around one. They like to climb up on something and rest and that would be the top of your head."

Swimming with a snake? Rattlesnakes resting on my head? That's not even close to a pleasant thought. Maybe I can fashion a hat out of beer and pop cans …

Mark Henckel is the outdoors editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted at 633-2598 or at henckel@billingsgazette.com.

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