Want to hear some good country music, shop at numerous arts and crafts booths, and eat some delicious Southern-fried rattlesnake? Then the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo is the place to be.
What started out back in 1960 as just a snake-catching event to reduce the local snake population has turned into an event that has become famous across the country. According to Don Childre, the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo got started as a result of a Geneva dentist, Dr. Howell, wanting to reduce the exploding rattlesnake population on his quail hunting land.
"Dr. Howell had lost several bird dogs and had others injured as a result of snake bites. He and his hunting buddy, J.P. Jones, began harvesting snakes to reduce the danger," said Childre.
Dr. Howell came up with the idea of taking a short piece of hose, running it down in a gopher tortoise hole and shaking the hose back and forth. The hose was then held up to one’s ear to see if a snake could be heard shaking its rattlers. Once a snake was detected in the hole, a small amount of gasoline was poured into the hole. Fumes from the gas would make the snake exit the hole and it would be captured and placed in a snake sack or cage.
This method was used for many years and catching rattlesnakes in the Opp area became a popular past time.
"J.P. Jones had a restaurant south of Opp that served as the headquarters for the snake-catching event in the early days. Jones and others decided it would be a good fundraising project for the local Jaycees. In 1971, we moved it to Opp and held it at the football stadium. We soon added arts and crafts, country music and offered various prizes for the most snakes caught and the largest snake. We added a program to educate people about snakes and did a snake milking demonstration," Childre explained.
Childre, who has been hunting rattlesnakes and participating in the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo for 40 years, has earned quite a reputation as an expert on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
"Most of the snakes we have on exhibit are eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. We also have a few timber rattlers or cane break rattlers as some call them. The eastern diamondback is the largest venomous snake in North America. They feed primarily on rodents like field mice, ground squirrels and young rabbits. The largest I’ve ever seen was seven-feet, two-inches long and weighed 13 pounds, eight ounces. The largest snake we have this year weighs eleven pounds and is about six-feet long," said Childre.
The Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo is held the first weekend in April at the Channelle-Lee Football Stadium in Opp. Most of the snakes displayed are harvested within 30 miles of Opp.
"We do most of the hunting in Covington, Dale and Coffee Counties. North of these counties, you just won’t find the eastern diamondback. We find them in gopher tortoise holes where they coexist with the tortoise. I’ve found as many as seven snakes in one hole. They like to den in the tortoise hole because the temperature tends to stay more uniform. Being cold-blooded, a rattlesnake would freeze to death if it stayed out in cold weather too long," Childre said.
The first thing the snake hunters look for is a gopher tortoise hole. Once you find a hole, you will likely find several more tortoise holes nearby, increasing the odds of finding snakes.
"We hunt the same area year after year and find about the same number of snakes each year. The eastern diamondback population is not being depleted in this area as a result of the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo. As a matter of fact, fewer snakes are harvested now. Back in the earlier days when we gave prizes for quantity and size, there were 15 or more hunters bringing in hundreds of snakes. Now, we have four or five bringing in 60 or 70 snakes," said Childre.
During the earlier days when a lot of snakes were brought in, large quantities of rattlesnake meat was cooked and sold at the event.
"We no longer cook the meat from snakes captured for the Rodeo. Therefore, we don’t need nearly as many snakes. We do cook snake meat at the Rodeo, but we buy our snake meat from a USDA inspected producer now," Childre said.
The Opp snake hunters have abandoned the old method of blowing gas into a tortoise hole to make the snake come out. The new method employs a hose inserted into the hole to detect if a snake is present, but instead of using gas, a hook is attached to the end of the hose. The barb is mashed down or sniped off and the hook point is dulled. The snake is hooked just under the skin and pulled from the hole. The new system does no environmental damage to the land, tortoise or snake. Childre said they have never lost a snake from injury after they started using the hose and hook method.
Snakes captured at the event are often sold to medical facilities to use in the production of antivenin.
"We put on a venom-milking demonstration just to show how it is done, but to obtain venom to be used in manufacturing antivenin it must be done in a sterile laboratory," stated Childre.
The most likely place to encounter a rattlesnake is anywhere that attracts rodents, like feed rooms and debris piles. These areas in turn attract feeding rattlesnakes. But he also cautions they can be found anywhere. A rattlesnake was run over recently near Opp City Hall. Maybe that eastern diamondback had heard about just how entertaining the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo really is and was just trying to get there a few days early.
Ben Norman is a freelance writer from Highland Home.