Over the years, seasoned deer hunters have experienced any number of unwelcome guests in their stands, including ever-present wasps, some squirrels, maybe a coon or two and perhaps even an owl, among others.
But on Oct. 12, Paul Lawler got up-close and personal with an unexpected visitor that might make lots of Louisiana hunters think twice about settling into their stands before the sun rises without first taking a very close look around.
Lawler, a firefighter, R.N. and paramedic with Caddo Parish Fire District 1, was doing some maintenance work on 200 acres of family property in Bienville Parish near Taylor when he decided to squeeze in a hunt late that Monday afternoon.
About 5 p.m., he grabbed his bow and hunting bag and climbed up the rungs of his lean-to stand, which is attached to a white oak tree. The platform floor is 17 feet above ground, and the whole stand is covered in camouflaged burlap material.
“I climbed up the stand, and when I got about eye level with the platform, I could see into the back of the stand,” he said. “The front camo material that goes around the railing is old and tattered, so I could see into it easily.
“I thought, ‘That doesn’t look like a copperhead too much.’ I’m just glad the snake was not on the front of the platform, otherwise I would have soiled myself as he sunned himself.”
Just more than an arm’s length away, Lawler encountered a 30-inch velvet timber rattler, coiled up and resting comfortably in the burlap he uses to cover the platform’s metal grid floor.
“I’m sitting there looking at him, and thought, ‘This is 17 feet off the ground. What the hell is a snake doing in my stand?’” he said. “I knew it was a venomous snake because I took an arrow off my quiver and kind of nudged him a little bit.
“I saw the pupils in his eyes were vertical slits — not round — and his head was shaped like a shovel. He was in a real restful state. He just raised his head up and looked at the arrowhead. I thought if he’d bite something, he’d bite the arrowhead and get a mouth full of razorblades."
Temperatures that day were in the low 70s, and Lawler said the snake seemed pretty lethargic, remaining coiled up the whole time. He carefully climbed back down, warily watching the platform as he descended.
“The last thing I needed was a venomous snake dropping on my noggin,” he said. “I put my bow and my hunting bag back down, walked 300 yards to my truck and got a pruning stick.”
When he returned with the branch-cutting tool — which features a 6-foot long handle — the snake was in the exact same position as when he left.
“As soon as I clamped down on his head and started lifting him up, he started to rattle, and it became very apparent what I had on the other end of my pruning stick,” Lawler said.
He climbed down once again and was able to put a boot firmly on the snake’s head — just before he cut it off with the pruning shears.
“When I removed my left boot from his head, there was a dime-sized drop of yellow-green venom, and I looked at that and shuddered again because in a worst-case scenario I would have been bitten on the face,” said Lawler, of Blanchard. “With a full load of venom, the last thing I wanted to do was to be airlifted out from the well site just north of me.”
He bravely returned to the stand to hunt, but only saw a bunch of squirrels.
Lawler eventually skinned the snake — which had eight rattles — and currently has the hide soaking in a mixture of alcohol and glycerin. If it comes out like he’s hoping, he’s going to frame it and slip the 2-inch rattle back on the hide to create a memento of his chance encounter with the reptile.
“I can only speculate how he came up the tree, but he was long enough to coil around the rungs and work his way up to the next one,” he said.
He advised hunters to pay extra attention when entering their deer stands in areas where rattlers roam, because this snake remained completely silent until it was confronted.
“He didn’t do anything until I clamped his head and started lifting up — that’s when he cranked up the rattles,” Lawler said. “There’s something unnerving about hearing a rattlesnake rattling.
“When I clamped his head and lifted him up, my heart was going thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk.”
The next time he goes up that ladder to hunt, you can be sure he’ll take a good look around before he climbs onto the platform.
“I’m going to do it like I usually do — quietly,” Lawler said. “But I’m going to lean a little further back at the top of the ladder. I’m going to put my eyes in there before I put my hands.
“Remember, an ounce of prevention can keep you from having to be flown out from the scene.”