Skip to main content

How to Identify Snakes in the Field

We’re sharing some advice that will tell you how to identify snakes while hunting or fishing.

Picture this scenario: you’re out in the woods with some friends, minding your own business on a hunt or a hike, when you stumble across a snake blocking your path.

Your first instinct is to either walk over the snake and continue on your way, or to pick up a stick and use it to nudge the snake from the path. However, either course of action is a bit like playing roulette if you can’t identify the snake on sight.

Sure, only about a third of all snakes are venomous, but you are several miles from a vehicle, and several more miles from any sign of civilization; if someone does get bitten by a poisonous snake, they may well be out of luck.

So what do you do? There are a few options: first of all, there are several smartphone apps on the market that provide photographs and descriptions of different kinds of snakes, both venomous and perfectly harmless. If you are particularly afraid of snakes, or if you are hunting abroad in a foreign country – especially Australia, where venomous snake varieties are considerably more common – having an application on your smartphone to help you identify the different specimens you come across will likely help to give you peace of mind.

If you don’t plan to hunt beyond the borders of the United States, however, it may be easier for you just to learn which snakes are dangerous.

The fact is that, in this country, the vast majority of snakes you come across are going to be completely harmless. If you try to memorize identifiers for non-poisonous snakes, you are going to end up wasting a lot of time. A more efficient method is to always be on the lookout for identifiers of the snakes that actually could be dangerous, and since there are only a few common types of venomous snakes in the United States, memorizing their characteristics is a fairly simple task.

The snakes that should send up a red flag if you ever see them are rattlesnakes, cottonmouths (or water moccasins), coral snakes, and copperheads.

Rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes are arguably the easiest snake to identify, thanks to the distinctive namesake rattling sound they make with their tail. If you come across a rattlesnake, chances are they will warn you of their presence with sound, but even if they don’t, you can glance toward the rattle at the end of their tail for an indication that you should stay away.

how-to-identify-snakes-rattlesnake
Western Rattlesnake

Cottonmouth

Cottonmouths are a bit less visually distinctive, largely because they can vary in color from green to brown to black without becoming any less dangerous. Look for a white stripe on the side of their heads, and avoid stepping into their preferred habitat – groundwater – if you can’t see what is in the water.

how-to-identify-snakes-Cottonmouth
Juvenile Cottonmouth

Cottonmouths and water moccasins are in the same Genus, and share many of the same characteristics. In fact, many snakes fall under different common names but are indeed an identical reptile. The above photo shows a juvenile, while the image below shows an adult with its darker coloring. The two snake names are basically interchangeable.

Water moccasin

A water moccasin can be tricky to spot, especially considering most snakes of the genus Nerodia look just like it, but are perfectly harmless. The water moccasin has a thicker, heavier body and blocky head, with a distinctly narrow neck. These poisonous snakes will stand their ground when threatened, and even shake their tails when excited, like a rattlesnake minus the rattle.

Water-Moccasin
Water Moccasin

Copperhead

Copperheads also bear similarities to cottonmouths in shape and maturation – young snakes in both species have yellow tails – but copperheads are hard to miss because of their unique colors. If you find yourself staring down a snake that is orange, pink, or copper-tinged, steer clear.

how-to-identify-Snakes-Southern-Copperhead
Southern Copperhead

Coral snake

Coral snakes are likely the most visually striking snakes you will see in the United States, so take their black, yellow, and red bands as a warning sign. Remember this rhyme to distinguish a coral snake from its look-alike brethren: “Red and yellow, kill a fellow; red and black, friend of Jack.”

how-to-idenify-snakes-Eastern-Coral-Snake
Eastern Coral Snake

In fact, most venomous snakes are more visually noticeable than their non-poisonous counterparts, still it’s best that you don’t take any chances in not knowing what’s harmful and what’s harmless.

Learning the telltale signs of these five main groups of American poisonous snakes will help keep you safe in the field, which will help you avoid turning a hunting trip into a trip to the emergency room.

WATCH

NEXT: Epic Rattlesnake Den Will Make You Afraid of Snakes All Over Again [VIDEO]

you might also like

How to Identify Snakes in the Field