“You see that big snake on the log?” my neighbor Mike asked by way of greeting as he ambled down the driveway. A note of excitement in his voice immediately piqued my interest.
Yes, “big” is a subjective term — especially when applied to snakes. Experience, distance, lighting, familiarity, along with any number of similar factors all come into play. Equally pertinent is the witness’s fear of snakes. An innocuous, foot-long queen snake to me can become an ophidiophobic’s monster serpent capable of swallowing a Volkswagen.
But I paid attention because Mike is an observant, skilled outdoorsman who’s lived near the Stillwater all his life. Moreover, he’s not a fellow given to exaggeration.
“What snake?” I asked. “Where?”
“Right over there,” Mike said, pointing to the stretch of river which forms my property’s western boundary. “Biggest water snake I’ve ever seen!”
We headed across the grass toward the yard’s upstream corner — pausing momentarily at the rear of the cottage long enough for me to make a quick detour inside and retrieve the binoculars I keep near the back door. Approaching the stream’s brush-screened bank, we slowed, moving stealthily so’s not to spook the snake.
“Wow!” I said, stunned at my first glimpse. “That’s a huge water snake!”
And it was — easily the largest northern water snake I’d ever seen in a lifetime of fishing, floating and poking around countless lakes and streams. I’ve encountered literally thousands of water snakes, photographed many, caught a few—but never spotted one nearly as big as the specimen sunning on a nearby driftpile.
Northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) are common throughout the state. One of Ohio’s largest species of water snakes, they’re found around lakes, farm ponds, rivers, creeks, and jump-across ditches.
The basking snake lay fewer than a dozen feet from where we stood. Not all its length was in view — though plenty enough was to reveal its remarkable overall size.
An elongated bulge a third of the way back from the reptile’s head showed evidence of a recent feeding. Judging by the lump, the hapless meal could have been a fish, chipmunk, or duckling; a fairly substantial bulge, anyway.
The snake’s head was perhaps two-thirds the size of my closed fist. The bulk of the body diameter — from below the head-end taper to where the tail taper began, not counting the prey bulge — was only slighter smaller than my wrist.
And the length? Let’s return to that in a moment.
The only way to truly measure a snake’s length accurately is to capture it — then either coax it into a plexiglass tube, or euthanize and stretch it out on a flat surface. Anything else is, at best, a close guess.
Northern water snakes are not easy to capture. They’re alert, quick to drop off a sunning log into the water at the first hint of approaching danger. When you do manage to get one, they’re aggressive biters, tricky to handle.
I’m not a herpetologist. But I have a fair amount of snake experience, having run across numerous large snakes afield in Ohio and elsewhere. Some were caught and kept awhile. These included rat snakes exceeding six feet; both black and blue racers to five feet; king snakes and fox snakes going four feet.
So, not an expert, but not unacquainted with big snakes in the wild, either. I know one when I see one, certainly—and that water snake was indeed big.
How big? During the period Mike and I observed it, the snake changed positions several times. We got a good look at the entire snake—but not of the entire snake all at once and fully extended. There always seemed to be a loop, or a portion of tail dangling in the water.
As a carpenter’s son I’m pretty good at estimating an object’s length. When obtaining an actual measurement isn’t feasible, I know how to employ reference points to come pretty close. Later that day, after the snake moved elsewhere, I measured the log and compared that with my numerous photos of the snake atop the log.
My best guesstimate…something exceeding 48 inches, possibly even in the low-50s. And trust me, I’m being conservative.
The length record for the largest northern water in Ohio that I could find was 47.5 inches; the maximum length recorded anywhere throughout its multi-state range is 55.125 inches.
Maybe Mike’s big water snake is a genuine new Ohio record. Perhaps even a new range-wide record. But I can’t prove it, one way or the other.
What I do know is that it was the biggest northern water snake either of us has ever seen!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]