Kenneth Kieser:  Mississippi snake wrangling tournament is unique

The Examiner
Kody Lucas is holding a 60-inch long water snake from Lake Washington that took second place in a snake wrangling tournament in Mississippi.

Men and woman in the Mississippi Delta play rough. The folks on Lake Washington, near the town of Chatham, Mississippi, have a snake wrangling tournament – the kind where you jump in the lake to grab snakes in their own habitat. 

Lake Washington, a 5,000-acre oxbow in the Delta region, is loaded with large fish, especially crappie, catfish and bass. Thousands visit this unique lake annually to fish or in some cases to wrangle snakes. 

Mississippi lakes have a good variety of non-poisonous water snakes to wrangle or avoid. Diamondback water snakes, broad banded water snakes, plain-bellied water snakes, brown water snakes, Mississippi green water snakes and several others have plenty of thick habitat in which to hide and survive. Alligators, largemouth bass and predatory birds eat snakes, so thick cover is required for survival. 

Lake Washington shorelines are a series of aquatic weeds, cypress trees and stumps. A wide variety of snakes could be found almost anywhere, but most seem to lay on low cypress branches or on top of weeds. Some find cool, safe spots in the middle of thick vegetation.  

You might not be surprised to learn that this is a one-of-a-kind event. Most wrangle rattlesnakes on dry land and with loops. This may seem totally out of the question to most of us, but not to the brave water snake wranglers. Participants know there is a 100 percent chance they will be bitten by a snake before they jump in the lake. Being bitten by an angry or frightened snake is just part of the sport. 

Water snakes tend to be aggressive with vicious strikes. Imagine being hit by a strong man’s fist and add a bite of sharp teeth. Some wear necklaces of broken off snake teeth that broke off during their bite.  

These southern folks, 30 to 35 contestants, quietly slip by cover and use their bare hands to capture often-aggressive snakes. Many are law enforcement agents and some likely are retired special forces soldiers. Others are just big, tough southern men or women who have little or no fear and love this challenge.  

Dangers are real and all participants are aware that this could be a deadly experience. 

The biggest dangers are cottonmouths, happy to share their poisonous venom through a painful bite, or the rare occurrence of stepping on a foul tempered alligator. This excitement draws participants from all over the country. During Snake Grabbin’ Rodeos, reptiles are caught to raise money for charity.  

It is suggested that contestants grab only non-poisonous water snakes, but the bold will occasionally grab a cottonmouth, North America’s only poisonous water snake, because they want to. No points are awarded for these dangerous varieties. Contestants are encouraged to not bother the poisonous cottonmouth or copperhead snakes. However, the Grabuone Outfitters enter these events and occasionally bring in a cottonmouth or copperhead to show spectators the difference between venomous and nonvenomous species.  

Accidents happen in this competition. Unfortunately, two participants were bitten by poisonous cottonmouths in the recent June 1 tournament. A young man was bitten several times and taken to the hospital. Both survived but no doubt was sick and sore for several days. Non-poisonous snakes are a different story.  

“Folks wrangling snakes get bit by non-poisonous snakes and brag about it,” said Mike Jones, owner of Bait and Thangs Bait Shop on Lake Washington. “This is a true redneck sport. Lake Washington, Mississippi, is the only place in America that has this kind of event.” 

The event is simple, consisting of four teams that compete for the best catches. The teams have been predetermined. Teams start at 9 a.m. and return to the dock at 4 p.m. for the weigh-in. There is a ceremony and trophies are awarded to the participant who catches the most snakes and the biggest snakes. 

Snake wranglers either wade in the snaky cover or slip close enough in boats for a grab. Irritated and suddenly caught snakes are shook back and forth in the water to calm or disorient them. Snakes are lighting quick and often bite its captor on the hand, arm or anywhere it can reach.  

“I decided to drive down for the snake grabbing event,” said Kody Lucas, a Missouri angler. “I caught a couple of small snakes but one over 60 inches took first place. I did catch one about 23 inches long. This event has been featured on television shows and videos. A large crowd of spectators attend. Most go out in boats to watch wranglers jump in snaked infested waters and grab their prey. Sometimes the spectators’ boats actually get in the way of snake wranglers.” 

Many inquire about the snake’s welfare, but participants are careful not to harm each reptile. Many of the snakes are released but some get donated to science museums or herpetologists. 

“Before the snakes are released, team members with the lowest scores lay on the dock and the bucket of snakes are dumped on them,” Jones said. “This has become a tradition for our snake wrangling rodeo. We once had a dunking chair where a ball hitting the target would release the loser into a bucket of the snakes.” 

There are two important facts to understand about water snake wrangling. This sport is not for weak-hearted individuals and you will never see me doing it – and my heart is perfectly fine. 

For more information about fishing or snake wrangling at Mississippi’s Lake Washington or fishing for monster crappie, catfish or bass, contact Mike Jones at 662-822-2087. 

Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at kieserkenneth@gmail.com.

Kenneth L. Kieser