Rattlesnakes on Ekaneetlee

By Joe Woody

I have a tendency to walk headlong into interesting, sometimes “puckering” situations while fishing streams in our mountains. I don’t think my experiences are much different than what most people would encounter if they were to spends days at a time fishing back country water. I just like to tell the stories.

So here goes…

Me and my buddy, Barry Holcombe, decided to spend a week exploring Eagle Creek on the north side of Lake Fontana in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had to divide the trip up, so we actually spent about 10 days fishing and exploring the watershed from bottom to top and top to bottom. In all actuality, we could have spent another week and still not have gotten to it all.

On our second day in, we were lucky enough to share the campsite with local legend Perry Jenkins. He’s real and not just some bigger than life character you hear stories about from passing anglers. His GSMNP adventure stories will keep you on the edge of your haac (half an ass cheek) camp seat for hours. Maybe one day, I’ll convince him to write for the magazine. Perry, when you read this, I’m trying to recruit you.

Where was I…

Our first week was filled with wildlife encounters. We ran into several bears during the first few days but similar to most “Smoky” Bears, they paid us no mind.

We also found ourselves in the midst of a sow hog and her piglets playing near the trail we were traveling through. I could not believe how big this pig was. She was much bigger than the bears we’d run across. I honestly did not know that hogs in the smokies got that big. She was easily pushing three to four hundred pounds. Like the bears, she paid us no attention…even when her piglets ran across the trail leaving us standing between themselves and her. We just went silent and didn’t move a muscle. Eventually, they just moved on off…or maybe it was we who were getting out of dodge.

But that is not what I want to share with you guys.

Our fifth day in, Barry and I decided to explore Ekaneetlee Creek. Ekaneetlee is a small tributary of Eagle Creek which joins the larger creek just on the north side of campsite 89. It has no discernable trail so fishing it means bushwacking. You will spend a lot of time in the creek or on your knees, crawling through the rhododendron and dog hobble. We spent all day on that stream and barely made it a couple miles.

About halfway up in our journey, I spotted an open flat spot on the right side of the creek where I thought I could make up time to the next fishing hole. The way Barry and I fish small streams is by alternating fishing spots. He fishes one then I fish the other, so as not to spook fish. It works fairly well so I viewed this open spot on my right as a chance to move around Barry and not spook the tiny bit of pocket water he was stalking.

There was a fairly high bank that I was climbing up so I grabbed a root from a tree and hoisted myself up to the flat spot on the other side. I crested the hill and stood up straight to enjoy the sunlight that was shining through the opening in the canopy. Before moving on, I glanced down next to the tree where I’d just climbed. I almost did not see it at first but as my eyes focused, it all came into focus. There at the base of the tree, warming in the sun, laid a jet-black rattlesnake. It was so black that I at first I thought it was just a black snake, which would not concern me. I took the tip of my fly rod and moved some of the leaves off of it and sure enough, there were the rattles.

After I gained my composure and hollered at Barry to be careful if he followed the same path, I actually took a picture and a video of the snake. Like the Bears and the hogs, it paid me no mind.

Now I’ve thought about this particular encounter quite often over the last year or so. I’ve always been taught that Rattle Snakes will rattle if they feel in danger or to warn before striking, but this snake did not rattle. It remained quiet even when I foolishly brushed leaves off it with my fly rod; it stayed perfectly still. In my research, I’ve discovered that hogs like the ones I encountered earlier in our fishing trip love to eat snakes, and rattle snakes are high on their menu. When a snake rattles, the hogs make a beeline to the snake and eat it up.

So are Rattle Snakes evolving to not rattle?

This is the stuff of nightmares. I read recently about the rattlesnake roundups in L.A. (Lower Alabama). Hunters find rattlesnakes by shaking bushes and kicking rocks with snake proof boots on. When the snake rattles, they catch it just like our local mountain hogs do. But something interesting happened in L.A., They started finding Rattle Snakes without…wait for it…rattles.

Apparently snakes born with the mutation or defect of no rattle were now thriving in Alabama…Life finds a way. Perhaps this is happening in the Smokys but with behavior modifications rather than mutations. As always, I hope a “Snake Scientist” will read this and give their opinion because this is just the world according to Joe Woody.

Getting back to that Rattlesnake on Ekaneetlee. When I got home and studied the picture and video, I realized that I’d overlooked one, maybe two other snakes adjacent to the snake I described; each one making no sound. I was standing in a silent den of rattlesnakes.

Now that really is the stuff of nightmares.

Joe Woody is Co-Publisher of The Angler Magazine WNC with his wife Debra. He is an Army Veteran and a self proclaimed “Adventure Angler”. You can usually find him wandering around Western North Carolina telling fishing lies. He is also a baseball nut and a crazy FCS Football fan. He has a Bigfoot magnet on the back of his truck.