Where the Wild Snakes Roam

Firsthand accounts of Surf City’s infamous rattlesnake hunts from the men who bagged them

By Robert Rehder

Late in the summer of 1965 — for reasons yet unknown — hundreds of snakes, primarily Canebrake rattlesnakes, became abnormally active on the island of Surf City, triggering a series of fantastic snake hunts.

Charlie Jones and Frank Henry are herps — that’s short for herpetologists, who, in most cases, are credentialed reptile scientists. In Southern swamp-speak the shortened moniker can also refer to snake hunters — a curious band of veteran woodsmen who hunt an animal with the ability to maim or kill you before you can even see it. Jones, a former Outward Bound instructor and Navy veteran, and Henry, a seasoned bush pilot and Army veteran, have both lived in close contact with nature their entire lives. They are both college-educated men, but with a passion for perilous outdoor adventure.

Three of the darkest, most treacherous, most formidable snake-infested swamps in all the South lie along the North Carolina coast. The Great Dismal Swamp, the Green Swamp, and the Angola are home to every creeping, crawling, death-dealing creature imaginable. Those places are not without their own strange stories, and some are even real: panthers flashing rows of razor teeth, wild boar with ivory tusks, 6-foot water moccasins that eat rabbits, to name a few. Jones and Henry are no strangers to those swamps — but that’s not where they were hunting this particular September afternoon in 1965. They were hunting in Surf City.

But wait — Surf City? The cozy, coastal, Topsail Island paradise? Could this be a place where snakes went wild? Oh, but it could.

One week in late August 1965, the Surf City rattlesnake rampage came into its own. It started one afternoon when a farm worker reported several large snakes that buzzed and hissed from the border of the field he was tending on the farm of Alex Trask Sr. Word of the sighting circled around to Jones, who immediately identified the buzz as the age-old rattlesnake warning system. Jones and Henry planned the first of many trips to the Trask farms. Other snake men from the area, Roy Armstrong, Charlie Davis, Allen Warwick, Stan Rehder, Carl Hiatt and Rafe Jones, soon joined them.

Part of Surf City lies on Topsail Island, home to miles of Crystal Coast beach. The barrier island has a rich maritime history infused with tales of pirates who moored their sloops in secluded bays hidden by massive dunes and dense maritime forests nurtured by layers of peat subsoil deposited there eons ago. From those quiet, clear waters, the pirates set out to sea brandishing cannons, swords and muskets, striking fear as they ambushed hapless merchant vessels sailing along the coast. Those peaceful bays remain today much as they did in Blackbeard’s time, and while steady development has absorbed much of the island’s land mass, remnants of the original groves of yaupon, oak and myrtle remain intact.

Alex Trask Sr. built a cottage in one of those native groves in the early 1960s. The cottage overlooked a vast marsh to the west, and to the north he cultivated acres of land that yielded bountiful grain crops. Mr. Trask’s primary interest was duck hunting in the nearby brackish marshes, but — being an experienced farmer — he and his sons, Alex Trask Jr. and Bill Trask, cleared acreage for planting soybeans, corn and wheat. That’s how the stage was set.

“We farmed Permuda Island, Heath Island, and three pieces near what is now the N.C. 210 Bridge,” says Bill Trask. “The farms had both native and migratory song birds, doves, geese, ducks, quail, raccoons, deer and Canebrake rattlesnakes.”

From the N.C. Highway 210 Bridge to North Topsail Island, less than a mile south on Island Drive, a farm gate guards the old Trask property. With a creak and a moan, the gate slowly swings open and leads through a wall of thick vegetation, down a winding, rutted path to the site of the 1960s cottage.

Back then, in the process of clearing the land, great mounds of earthy material were pushed up along the field borders. Those mounds did double duty as protective berms against saltwater intrusion from lunar tides and hurricane surges, but also as condominium-style lodging for the bumper crop of field mice produced by a smorgasbord of grain in the fields below. No one knows exactly how or when the snakes arrived, but in the natural order of Southern ecosystems, it was sure to happen. A complex structure of wood and organic debris laced with communities of field mice makes a prime habitat for Canebrake rattlers.

Coastal Canebrakes are lighter in color than their upland cousins, Timber rattlers, and often wear a distinctive mottled-pink hue. They feed on rodents and other small mammals and give live birth to venomous young in August or September. A large pit viper of this variety can grow up to 5 feet and inflicts a deadly bite with toxic venom.

What actually caused the rattlesnakes to become uncommonly aggressive that year is a question often debated among locals and herpetologists alike. Some say it was an unseasonably cool late-summer storm known to locals as a “northeaster.” Animals are highly tuned to changes in normal weather patterns, and with a drop in barometric pressure associated with coastal storms, they become active and can feed ravenously. Others say the aggression was caused by a sudden die-off in the field mouse population. With a loss of their primary food source, the snakes could have become highly aggressive and on the hunt. Whatever the reason, it was a phenomenon not seen before or since.

On their first their trip to the Trask farm, Jones remembers a hot September sun rising slowly above sleepy Topsail Island. A ravaged section of roof snatched from some mainland shed protruded from the sand. A torn timber pierced by jagged rows of rusted nails clung to one end of the roof,
a latent reminder of Hurricane Hilda’s wrath.

Jones and Henry approached quietly, cautiously. They had already enjoyed a good morning’s hunt; their thick canvas sacks bulged and writhed as if the sacks themselves were alive. They hooked their Land Rover’s winch to the timber and dragged the entire roof aside to expose the shaded lair below. Nothing could have prepared them for what lurked beneath.

“Five very aggressive Canebrake rattlers,” says Henry.

“That was just on one end,” says Jones. “Three copperheads, two chicken snakes, one moccasin and two black racers crawled out the back end of that lair.” Rattlesnakes, copperheads and moccasins strike when threatened, and Jones and Henry had just threatened an entire lair.

The snakes turned their diamond-shaped heads in the direction of the intruders. With a surge of adrenaline, the two men went into action. An intense, athletic duel ensued — one that could easily turn fatal. Minutes turned to seconds as the big snakes coiled, ready to strike, within feet of sinking their needle-sharp fangs into the intruder’s ankles. The men pinned the venomous creatures to the ground with industrial tongs as fast as they could. Some snakes were attempting a mass exodus between their feet, but the Canebrakes held their ground. The hot, damp air vibrated with the eerie sound of multiple death-warning rattles. Jones and Henry usually have a game plan, but they were caught off-guard by the sheer number and variety of snakes.

“As one of us caught a snake, the other would hold open the canvas drawstring sack, and the first would release the tongs and drop the snake into the sack . . . then very quickly draw the string before the creature could arch up through the opening and strike,” says Jones. They traded back and forth — pinning, wrangling, and bagging. Sometimes a snake had to wrap its body around the tong handles so the men would pry it off and shake it into the bag — a bag filled with other snakes. The sight would terrify most humans — knowing that your life could be one minute closer to ending. Death would come slowly, painfully, from a cocktail of vicious hemotoxic chemicals: massive uncontrolled interior bleeding, panic, loss of vision and, in the end, organ shutdown far from any hospital.

Not Jones and Henry. To them, this scene was the whole point, as if they had no expectation of living forever. They simply engaged in a battle that had no rules, no strategies, only a countless combinations of foot and hand actions — offensive and quickly defensive to deflect the strike — feint and lunge. They bagged every poisonous snake. It was over in minutes.

“It was the most intense hunt I can recall,” says Jones. The men packed up their vehicle and left the farm with a trunk of venomous snakes and a story to tell.

Another time at nearby Heath Island, “We found an abandoned, wooden-hulled fishing boat that washed up on the shore during a storm. I was looking under the boat for snakes when we heard a scuffling movement in the plywood cabin ceiling. I managed to tear down a portion overhead, and to our surprise nine fat chicken snakes piled out onto the deck where we stood,” remembers Jones.

“We hunted on Permuda Island,” says Stewart Y. Benson, a surveyor who also caught rattlesnakes during this era. “The Canebrakes over on Surf City probably came from Permuda originally and don’t think they can’t swim. They normally will not strike unless threatened, but if you make the mistake of stepping on one . . . Well, let’s just say things get interesting at that point.”

Allen Warwick, an outdoorsman and veteran snake hunter, remembers finding rattlesnakes all over the Trask farms — “in the pump houses, in the yards, under the decks, but mostly around the brush mounds. A 5-foot Canebrake Rattlesnake is a very strong creature — difficult to catch and uncommonly aggressive when handling.”

What do you do with all those snakes? “We never killed snakes but sold them to zoos, or donated them to schools and museums,” explains Warwick. “The going price at that time was fifty cents a pound for the nonpoisonous species and $1 a foot for pit vipers: Canebrakes, moccasins and copperheads. Those were our college and high school years, and it was one way to make some extra money.”

Thomas Tackle and Seafood on Highway 50, just before the swing bridge to Topsail Island, has been a Surf City icon for over 50 years. Behind the counter, Doug Thomas talks to customers while weighing out an order of fresh-that-morning jumbo shrimp. He speaks with a soft, Southern accent, his eyes flashing as he recalls a story about rattlesnakes:

“Back then the 210 bridge had not been built,” says Thomas, “and there was little development here. We were about the only store around, so the guys who would go over to the island to work the farms, roads and impoundments at Permuda, Heath and the Trask farm would stop back at the store in the afternoons for a drink and a pack of nabs. It was nothing for them to bring in two or three rattles from Canebrakes they had tangled with during the day. Some rattles had as many as 10 sections. For years we tied them five or six to a bundle and hung them from a beam in the ceiling of the store. I’d say there were a hundred, easy. The customers would glance up and see them. They would all gasp and ask about the rattlesnake stories.”

“Other than man, Canebrakes have few natural enemies, especially on an island like Surf City,” says Jones. “The conditions there were near perfect for them, and so 100 snakes in a colony could easily turn into 1,000 in a very short period of time.”

Perhaps we will never know what caused the rattlesnake rampage of the 1960s. It was a long time ago and thankfully short-lived. Could it ever happen again? Never say never. The remnants of those old berms are still there, so next time you’re out on the island, make sure you watch your step.

Robert Rehder writes from his home in Wilmington. His work has appeared in Wildlife in North Carolina, Quail Unlimited, and Our State magazine

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search