DALLAS — Here's the deal with poisonous snakes. They don't really want to bite you. Snakes bite for one of two reasons — to kill prey that's small enough to swallow or to defend themselves from attack.

Since no American snake species is capable of swallowing even a small child, rule out the possibility of becoming a menu item for a snake. Snakes bite people in self defense. They often bite people who've just uttered a macho statement. Something like, "Hold my beer and watch me grab this thing by the tail."

I don't have much sympathy for folks who get nailed while trying to emulate the late Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter. Unfortunately, a snake lacks the ability to reason that a person reaching for a stick of firewood beside the snake doesn't know that the reptile exists.

Likewise, the snake doesn't know that a person who accidentally steps on it will share its fright in the unfortunate step.

I've had two venomous snake encounters this year that pretty much illustrate how most snakes react to people. The first was with a western diamondback rattlesnake that crawled across a gravel ranch road during spring turkey season.

It was a warm day, and I got out of the truck with a camera to try and photograph the snake, about a four-footer. The snake was just trying to get away, but you can usually get a reaction from a rattlesnake by cutting it off from its intended cover.

This snake just ignored me and kept crawling. Even when I tried to aggravate it into standing its ground in a defensive coil, the snake just changed directions and kept crawling. It never coiled, never buzzed and never attempted to bite either me or the photography monopod that I used as a make-do snake stick.

I snapped a few photos of the crawling snake, then left it alone. It promptly crawled under the cover of a low, green bush and coiled there in the shade. Even though I knew exactly where the snake was hiding, its camouflage was so good that it was almost impossible to see.

That's how snakes spend virtually their entire lives — hiding in dense cover, waiting for a small animal to come within striking distance.

My second encounter this year with a venomous snake came in June, when my wife and I were fishing on a South Texas ranch. As I used an electric motor to propel our small fishing boat toward the launch site, Emilie pointed out a snake swimming through dense vegetation near where we planned to go ashore.

It was a cottonmouth, a species I was very familiar with during my East Texas childhood. Though other water snakes are often misidentified as cottonmouths, this snake had the unmistakable triangular-shaped head and the dark, blotchy coloration of the venomous water moccasin.

The snake was living near the edge of what herpetologists consider its normal range, but its identity was further solidified by its swimming style. A cottonmouth swims with its entire body flat on the surface.

Once the snake became aware of our presence, I eased the boat toward it very slowly and it moved out of our way. Cottonmouths have a reputation for being aggressive, but their bad attitude is mostly bluff. When cornered, they open their mouths in a threat display, showing the white mouth lining from which their common name is derived.

The open mouth display is the cottonmouth equivalent of a rattlesnake's buzz, but it's basically a warning — not an indication of a bad temper. Once on the bank, I tried to approach the snake with a 300 mm lens on my camera, just to see if I could get the cottonmouth response. Since he was not cornered, the snake merely swam away, in search of a quieter neighborhood.


Rattlesnake facts

Rattlers get their name from specialized scales on the end of their tails that create a dry, buzzing sound when shaken.

Rattlesnakes add a rattle each time they shed their skins — up to three times annually. They may also break off rattles. The number of rattles is not an accurate indication of a snake's age.

Not all rattlers sound a warning.

There are exceptions to every rule but most snakes can strike about one half their body length.

Protect yourself by wearing sturdy boots when walking through heavy cover. Do not reach into an area surrounded by cover.

During the heat of summer, snakes are most active at night.

Not all snakebites result in venom being injected. Some bites, known as dry bites, inject no venom.

If bitten by a rattlesnake or any poisonous snake, seek medical treatment as quickly as possible. It helps if you can positively identify the species of snake that bit you. Only five or six of the 7,000 or so snakebites that occur annually in the U.S. result in fatalities, but snake venom can make you very sick and may result in serious tissue damage. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. snakebite fatalities are from rattlesnake bites.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.