That Ain’t A Water Moccasin: The Northern Water Snake

Editor's note: the following is from a recent newspaper column by WildIndiana Publisher Brent T. Wheat. It is directed to readers in north-central Indiana; if you live elsewhere- Your Mileage May Vary!

I’m going to viciously puncture a cherished assumption held by many outdoors enthusiasts in this area: I’m sorry, but there are no poisonous snakes here. There are some nearby but the chances of you running into a rattlesnake or water moccasin locally is about the same as this writer being crowned Indiana State Fair Queen.

In either case, make sure you get pictures.

The frightening specter of poisonous snakes becomes an issue every summer as more folks are wandering around the outdoors. I speak with countless outdoors enthusiasts during my own adventures and frequently the subject of snakes is invariably raised, quickly followed by a discussion of poisonous snakes and their frightening abundance in the immediate area.

I must then shake my head and explain that there are no poisonous snakes hereabouts, followed by a detailed description of the documented home ranges of Indiana’s various poisonous snakes. This collection of fact and personal observation is always met with scorn and disbelief, sometimes bordering on violent, and is occasionally even followed by vague conspiratorial references to “that’s what the DNR wants us to believe.”

It would all be laughable except the fact that I’ve had even close friends get mightily offended when I explained they’re wrong about the topic. But they are, and I’ll try to show why.

Above all, realize I don’t like snakes. I’m better than I used to be but I still find them disgusting, frightening and otherwise repulsive. On the other hand, I realize they are an important part of the ecosystem and should otherwise be left alone. If they would give me the same courtesy, we’d all be happy.

However, as an always-curious outdoorsman who also believes that you should intimately understand your enemy, I began to learn more about snakes. My education took a big boost two years ago when I met Jarrett Manek, an Interpretive Naturalist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources at O’Bannon Woods State Park. Jarrett gives educational talks across the state and is a great guy, aside from the fact he madly loves snakes.

Jarrett also enjoys mildly taunting this writer with said reptiles whenever possible during public events but it always makes for great photos and video so everyone enjoys the arrangement; especially the snakes.

Under Jarrett’s tutelage, I’ve learned that the problem with snake identification is that to the untrained and frightened eye Indiana’s most common snake, the Northern Water Snake does bear a middling resemblance to some poisonous varieties.

The water snake is a surly, non-poisonous medium-sized brown reptile with dark bands that is usually found in or around water. They often are seen sunning in logjams and other woody areas along creek banks and shorelines. They also lounge around in low-hanging branches as I discovered to my horror a year ago at Shirley Springs Nature Preserve near Bloomington when 10 of the reptiles simultaneously dropped en masse from branches as I sauntered up to the shoreline of the large swamp at the preserve.

I’m “better” about snakes but that incident nearly cost me a brand new pair of undergarments and a hefty water pollution-related fine.

Anyway, the water snake also varies in color from light brown to nearly black. In these various shades, it does sometimes resemble the northern copperhead and even the dreaded water moccasin. Therefore, whenever people see a heavy-bodied black snake sunning along a creek, it is obviously a water moccasin.

Except that it isn’t, unless you happen to be in one of two locations along the Ohio River in southern Indian but don’t worry, I’ve made the same erroneous assumption.

Likewise, it isn’t a copperhead because they are typically found in dry, rocky upland areas, especially around sunny outcrops and old buildings. Copperheads have been reliably reported as far north as Turkey Run State Park though there could be a few holdouts in southern Montgomery County along Sugar Creek.

Indiana’s least-known poisonous snake, the massasauga rattlesnake, is highly endangered and only lives in a few protected swamps in the northern tier of counties. The massasauga is a small, non-aggressive aquatic snake that feeds primarily on insects, frogs and turtles. At a northern Indiana farm pond owned by a friend of mine, I watched in fascinated awe as several of these tiny rattlers pluck big green dragonflies out of the air. I was in awe mostly because I was sitting inside a vehicle.

Indiana’s other poisonous snake, the timber rattler, is also endangered and quite rare. They are found in similar habitat to copperheads but only in a thin strip of upland hills south from the Morgan-Monroe county lines. These are a heavy beige snake with obvious rattles so there is no problem with identification.

In a nutshell, if you’re hiking or wading anywhere between I-74 and the town of Rochester, you’re not going to encounter any poisonous snakes.

None. Zilch. Nada.