The 1st hunt of 4 is planned this weekend to save snakes across Pennsylvania

Brian Whipkey
Pennsylvania Outdoors Columnist

The first of four Pennsylvania snake hunts aimed at reptile conservation will be held this week in central Pennsylvania.

This weekend’s hunt, where no snakes are killed, will be held at the Sinnemahoning Sportsmen Club in Cameron County.

“We are doing this for the good of the snake, we’re not harming them,” Bill Wheeler, 53, president of the Keystone Reptile Club, said about the hunts being educational opportunities.

Bill Wheeler holds a snake for visitor at a Youth Day event in Cameron County.

“It’s evolved a lot in the last 50 years,” he said. “Where they may have killed and eaten them back in the (19)60s and early 70s, we’re now more of a conservation effort trying to educate the public on why we shouldn’t kill the snakes and why they are good for the area.”

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Men and women will be looking for snakes within a 30-mile radius of the club. “That engulfs a lot of land,” he said about Cameron, Elk, Potter, Clearfield and parts of McKean, Tioga, and Centre counties.

More than 200 hunters are expected to register for the hunt. Participants need to have a fishing license and those who are looking for rattlesnakes and copperheads need to have a venomous reptile permit that’s also available through the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the agency that regulates snakes and other reptiles.

By late Saturday morning, Wheeler expects hunters to be bringing in their snakes and having them measured and weighed. 

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In Pennsylvania, he’s said rattlesnakes can grow to be close to five feet long. “Fifty-five to 57 inchers are giant snakes. The average adult males are four foot to 50 inches,” They also weigh them. “If you get a 5-pound rattlesnake, you got a giant rattlesnake in Pennsylvania.”

The winners get a plaque. “It’s more of a pat on the back kind of thing. There’s no money involved,” he said about reducing the incentive for participants to cheat.

Plaques are given out for a variety of measurements including having the most rattles. “The longest set of rattles I had was in 1989; it had 24. That’s extreme,” he said about the larger ones usually having 14 or 15 rattles.

Hunters can bring in any type of snake that is legal to hunt in Pennsylvania. He said they have a plaque for the largest non-venomous snake, and that’s usually a black ratsnake that can be more than six feet long. “People like seeing the long ones,” he said about the reaction from the crowd when a mature snake is being measured.

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His goal for the Sinnemahoning hunt is to have 50 to 70 snakes measured. “The Sinnemahoning is the biggest hunt out of all the ones we do as far as number of snakes and number of people,” he said. That’s because he said the hunting season has just started, and the snakes haven’t dispersed as far from their winter dens yet.

“It’s harder to find a bunch of them later in the year,” he said as they can move three to five miles away.

The events become good fundraisers for the hosting sportsmen clubs and volunteer fire departments.

There are educational talks held throughout the day and a variety of vendors with food and various items like T-shirts and belt buckles are available. Groups like the Keystone Elk Country Alliance will also have booths for the public.

There’s free admission to the hunts, and he encourages those who attend to support the food and beverage sales offered by the hosting venue.

The events have something for everyone in the family. If someone in your family doesn’t like snakes, he said, “They can go out and eat ice cream and look at the vendors.”

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For those who like, or are curious about, snakes, there are kids pits where families can learn about the reptiles. They can touch and learn how to handle the nonvenomous slithering creatures.

The hunts were actually started by Wheeler's father Bill who died a few years ago. “He had a lot to do with a lot of the hunts around. It became a family tradition,” he said. Bill has helped with the hunts as long as he can remember and now has his wife, Sherri, and kids involved in the hunts.

Wheeler urges people to respect snakes and allow them to be part of the ecosystem.

“We want every snake taken back to where you caught it,” he said about the hunters needing to plan time to take them back to the spot they found them, not just the general vicinity.

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 “Our club has never promoted the killing of any species of snakes,” Wheeler said about the conservation efforts.

“They are a great equalizer in the forest floor,” he said about them eating rodents and other small critters. “They have their unique spot in our ecosystem.“

Hunt schedule

June 11 and 12: Sinnemahoning Snake Hunt, Cameron County, Sinnemahoning Sportsmen Club

June 18 and 19:  Noxen Snake Hunt, Wyoming County, Noxen Fire Department 

June 25 and 26:  Cross Fork Snake Hunt, Potter County, Kettle Creek Fire Department 

July 16 and 17: Monroeton Snake Hunt, Bradford County, Kellogg Mountain Rod and Gun Club

The hours vary for each hunt. For example the June 18-19 event runs into the evening hours. “It’s a carnival atmosphere,” he said about the venue having live bands.

For more details on the events, visit the Keystone Reptile Club’s Facebook page.

Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.