The only thing I can think is maybe they just tend to over-compensate, and that’s often what gets a watersnake into trouble.
That or the one we handled Friday just happened to be a pugnacious SOB.
With turkey season still open and the crappie spawn rolling into gear in northeast Oklahoma this week, a tutorial on telling the difference between a cottonmouth and a watersnake, or juvenile cottonmouths and copperheads, could be useful. Cottonmouths and watersnakes both have been known to try to make a meal out of a fish on a stringer — and to scare the daylights out of anglers large and small.
Rick Pride and Tim Fitzer get credit for the snake catching and handling for this column. Pride boated out overnight on the Verdigris River a few days ago and came home with a box of cottonmouths pulled from rocky ledges. Among the 30 or so snakes was a neonate (young snake) and two different color phases of adults. It’s not every day you get to see all three like that side-by-side.
Typically, according the fine folks on the Oklahoma Snake Identification Network Facebook group, the younger cottonmouths are lighter and the banded pattern on their body more clear. They get darker as they age and may look almost completely black, depending on the snake, where it lives and whether it has recently shed its skin.
Apparently a large lighter colored cottonmouth is less common. All of the other cottonmouths in Pride’s catch were dusky.
Cottonmouths are more closely related to copperheads than watersnakes. They in fact share the genus Agkistrodon (the American Moccasins), according to The Center for North American Herpetology. With that relation, it’s not surprising juvenile cottonmouths and copperheads have a similar reddish-pink pattern appearance and both have a yellowish-green tipped tail they use to attract small prey.
Friends at the snake identification Facebook group noted the neonate cottonmouth is more of a brick red or maroon while the young copperhead is grayish pink. The cottonmouth has a dark line through the lower part of the eye and a dark chin, while the copperhead has no eye-line and no dark markings on the chin.
However, the confusion that confronts most anglers involves the adults, all of which can be large, heavy, dark-bodied snakes with some variation in color and visible pattern with individual snakes seen in darker or lighter color phases.
But cottonmouths have vertical-slit pupils and heavy, angled triangular heads, with an obvious pit structure between the eyes and nostrils. Water snakes have round eyes and lack the pit structure and have narrower, more rounded heads.
The stout body of the water moccasin generally thins abruptly at the smaller black tail, and it seems almost too small for the body, like the tip of an under-inflated balloon. Water snakes have the more typical long taper down to the tip of the tail, and its color is consistent with the rest of its body.
Field guides note the cottonmouth will swim with its head raised and its entire body on top of the water, while the water snake’s body is more submerged. Both can swim underwater and can bite things underwater. They both eat fish and frogs.
The plain-bellied water snake can be easier to ID because, as the name suggests, its belly is a plain yellowish or cream color. That’s a dead giveaway, especially if you see it up on a branch or tree.
Both the cottonmouth and diamondback watersnakes have spots on their bellies, but a cottonmouth’s belly has big brownish-yellow blotches throughout — and they have that black tail. The diamondback has a yellow or cream belly with small dark half-moon shapes along the lateral edge of the belly.
To be clear, none of these snakes attack in swarms. That is a myth loved by Hollywood and other tellers of tall tales.
To be exact, both will flee if given the chance.
Between the three cottonmouths and one plain-bellied watersnake Fitzer handled Friday, the one that caused the most trouble was the harmless watersnake. It struck out at us and showed its gaping mouth (briefly) in a pretend — but pinkish — imitation of the warning behavior that gave the cottonmouth its name. It’s also the only one of the four that managed to escape.
To boot, the water snake flattened out and puffed up, which gave its head a more triangular appearance and it’s body the more stout appearance of a cottonmouth.
In short, the water snake exhibited the behaviors of a pretender, over compensating, a poor harmless snake acting like its more dangerous cousin and prepared to confuse anglers everywhere.