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Last year, Harveys Lake resident Kevin Voelker handled a yellow-phase timber rattlesnake and returned it to the exact location of where he captured it.

The full grown, native ferns that slowly swayed in the morning breeze had become so dominant across the top of the mountain, that they seemed to swallow up the fallen trees and rocky outcropped areas that were much more visible in the earlier part of the year. The rugged terrain near the area of where the old lumbering town of Ricketts once stood makes for very good deer hunting in the autumn months, but also offers the opportunity to learn more about an often feared, but usually very docile reptile in the summer months — the timber rattlesnake.

“From my experiences, timber rattlesnakes seem to favor the more mountainous and upland regions of Pennsylvania, and very often, the remote areas that don’t see a lot of human activity,” said Harveys Lake resident and avid rattlesnake hunter, Kevin Voelker.

“Even though the mountainous and remote areas may be where timber rattlesnakes spend the majority of their time and den in the late fall and winter months, many of the snakes, especially males are known to travel a good distance, up to a few miles, from their dens looking for food and mating opportunities during the warmer summer months.”

Many who hunt rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania during the summer find it different than hunting animals like deer, turkeys, bear or smaller game. First, all regulatory matters involving timber rattlesnake hunting in the state, including licensure, is overseen by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and not the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Second, the season typically runs from mid-June through the end of July and firearms are not permitted. A fishing license is required with the addition of a venomous snake permit. Although the PFBC allows the harvest of one timber rattlesnake per year under very specific regulations, a practice of catch and release is encouraged.

Voelker grew up hunting deer and turkeys in Pennsylvania and spent countless hours exploring the outdoors, but he always had an interest in reptiles and amphibians and that eventually developed into a love for snake hunting, which he became very serious about in 2013.

“I have the utmost respect for timber rattlesnakes and truly enjoy slowly moving through the upland woods and searching for them near the edges of rocky outcrops or where there might be a downed log or an opening in the ferns and where the sun might come through the treetop canopy for a few hours. I almost always learn something new with each encounter and want to be as knowledgeable as I can — and that comes with experience,” Voelker said.

Some of the most common gear in snake hunting are protective boots or chaps and a hook. The hook is connected to a handle that is about three feet in length and is used to control the snake to keep it calm and to support its weight when lifting it.

“I never kill a snake,” Voelker said. “Mostly, the hunting involves just seeing the snakes in their natural habitat. If I do attempt to catch one, it will normally be a larger male and I enjoy identifying it by the color phase, either black or yellow, which is determined by the color of the head area of the snake as the snake will remain in that phase for the entirety of its life. As long as I remain calm and treat the snake with respect, they are very docile and calm creatures.”

According to the PFBC, rattlesnakes are rarely aggressive and typically retreat or hide when they feel threatened. If a rattling sound is heard, it’s the snake’s warning sign to avoid a confrontation when it senses a form of danger is near.

“Timber rattlesnakes are most often very calm creatures that generally try to avoid situations where they sense that a danger could be present. The most important thing for a hiker or someone to be aware of who may be in terrain common to rattlesnakes is to watch where you step or what you reach for — basically, avoid a surprise encounter where a snake could be startled,” said Dave Hughes, a Lackawanna County resident and field herper. “I’ve spent a lot of time observing rattlesnakes in their natural environments with a goal to keep everything as undisturbed as possible and believe that anyone who comes across a rattlesnake should keep a safe distance from the snake and move on without disturbing it.”

Even if a person is spending time in a mountainous area where they have not encountered a snake before, it does not mean a rattlesnake couldn’t be present. The PFBC explained that the cold-blooded timber rattlesnakes emerge from their dens in the spring as air temperatures begin to warm and could travel as far away as

5 miles by the height of the summer as their mating season comes to its peak. As autumn emerges and with the threat of colder temperatures, the rattlesnakes will slowly travel back to their dens. The PFBC said multiple snakes can winter in the same den and timber rattlesnakes will come back to the same den year after year.

For more information regarding timber rattlesnakes including regulations about hunting them, please consult the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission website.

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