Tony Felder and Dean Wilson climb among the hills west of Okeene, Okla. (pop. 1,240), searching cracks and crevices in the porous gypsum rock for the elusive Western diamondback rattlesnake.
“If you’re going to find snakes, this is a good spot,” says Felder, 39, poking among the prickly-pear cactus and juniper bushes with a long-handled snake catcher.
As the men descend a steep ravine, Felder spots a snake partially hidden behind a rock. “There’s one, he calls to his hunting companion. See the rattle sticking out?”
Using the pinchers on his aluminum catcher, Wilson, 38, plucks the 3-foot snake from a fissure in the rock and eases the coiled creature into a 5-gallon plastic bucket.
Each year, from February through April, hunters scour the western Oklahoma countryside for the venomous snakes, which emerge from underground dens on sunny days to warm their cold-blooded bodies.
The largest of the captured snakes are entered into annual competitions, including the Okeene Rattlesnake Roundup, which, in its 69th year, is the oldest event of its kind in the world.
In addition to cash prizes for the longest snakes, the May event features live snake exhibits and handling demonstrations, batter-dipped, deep-fried rattlesnake, snakeskin souvenirs and caravans to the snake-hunting grounds.
Snake hunting is a time-honored tradition in Okeene. Residents have hunted rattlesnakes for generations, initially killing the venomous reptiles with guns or garden hoes to protect livestock and impress their neighbors. In 1939, resident Orville von Gulker decided to turn the spring ritual into an annual competition, thereby giving birth to the rattlesnake roundup.
“It’s just like jumping out of airplanes or riding bulls; it gets in your blood,” says Virgil Pugh, 74, of Colwich, Kan., a snake hunter who has attended the roundup for 44 consecutive years.
While it may be addictive for adrenaline junkies, snake hunting can be difficult—and potentially dangerous. Rattlesnakes often inhabit rugged terrain, and with their mottled skin, blend into their natural surroundings, helping them remain undetected to the untrained eye.
“If you hear the rattle before you see the snake, you’re not a very observant hunter,” says Anthony Felder, 79, a senior member of the Okeene Diamondback Club, which organizes the roundup and buys captive rattlesnakes.
Last year, the club purchased more than 1,000 pounds of snakes for $3 a pound. The longest snake, a 75-inch rattler, landed Mike Meek of nearby Waynoka (pop. 993) a $150 prize and bragging rights for a second consecutive year.
During the roundup, hundreds of snakes are butchered, deep-fried and sold to people who want to eat—or at least taste—the exotic meat. The remaining rattlers are auctioned to taxidermists who make belts, hatbands and wallets from their beautiful leather hides. Profits from the event benefit local charities and community organizations.
Occasionally, a snake hunter or handler is bitten and must be taken to the Okeene Municipal Hospital for treatment with antivenin, which counteracts poison injected by a snakes sharp fangs. “I’m glad our hospital stocks it,” says Teri Becker, a registered nurse and member of the Okeene Diamondback Club. “If you don’t get a bite treated immediately, you can lose a limb.”
Anthony and Tony Felder both have been bitten multiple times by rattlesnakes. “The worst bite I ever got was dumping one out of a sack,” says the elder Felder, who now leaves snake handling to his son, Tony, and other members of the Okeene Diamondback Club.
Still, the Felders concede the possibility of being bitten is part of the allure. “Hunting snakes is about having fun and enjoying fellowship,” Anthony says. “And the fact that theres danger involved adds to that.”