When a friend told me he had discovered dozens of rattlesnakes concentrated on the edge of a pasture, I thought he was exaggerating. So I went to the spot to check it out for myself. This coiled viper greeted me about three steps from the door of the pickup, and the excitement was about to ratchet up a few notches.
My friend had found a hibernaculum, or winter denning site, and scores of snakes were slithering their way to the same quarter-acre of prairie near my home in northeastern Montana. Most were prairie rattlesnakes, and most were big, mature vipers, averaging over three feet long.
The largest snake we spotted was this 5-1/2-footer, which my buddy Chris shot on the road into the den. We were armed for an army of snakes. I carried a Ruger Single Six .22 revolver loaded with #13 shotshells. Chris toted a .22 Mag, and our friend Josh took his Mossberg 12 gauge and low-base 7-1/2s.
The hibernaculum is located in this prairie cutbank. The snakes were active on this sunny October afternoon, with some rattlers emerging from the slope to bask in the sun, others slithering across the prairie toward the denning site to lay up for the winter.
The view from the top of the cutbank. This spot has been used as a dump site for generations, and the snakes love to coil up around decrepit old furniture and junk.
This big rattler emerged from the bare ground of the cutbank, almost growing right out of the dirt. The area is pocked with gopher holes, and the snakes use the holes to leave the den, appearing to sprout right out of the drab soil.
It’s not just rattlesnakes that use this den site. We spotted garters, racers and some of the largest bull snakes I’ve ever seen. This bull snake, also known as a gopher snake, stretched over 6 feet long.
They’re harmless, but bull snakes try to intimidate potential predators by coiling and hissing just like a surly rattlesnake. They will occasionally strike humans.
The area was well used by Eastern racers, bright blue and green snakes that slithered effortlessly across the rough ground.
Finally we had enough of simply watching snakes, and Josh and I walked into the den to retrieve rattlers we had shot from above. We were assisted by a paint roller with a telescoping handle that allowed us to “sweep” vegetation for live snakes and to retrieve dead rattlers. Note Josh’s weapon in his other hand.
A big rattler gave up the fight to a dose of 7-1/2 shot.
One of the largest rattlers of the day was this 5-footer that slithered right up to where Josh and I were nervously picking up snakes.
Dozens of the snakes weren’t in the pit, but were speeding across the prairie to enter the den. The warm day, after a run of cold wet weather, probably signaled that it’s time for the cold-blooded reptiles to hibernate for the winter.
A long-handled shovel is a critical tool in the snake den.
I clean up an especially large snake skin. We kept about a dozen of the largest rattlers. I’ll use mine to back a new bow. Check out these photos to see exactly what a Rattlesnake bite can do!
Discovery of denning site leads to nerve-racking encounter with dozens of prairie rattlers