This lunker snuck aboard the boat of Ken and Tammy Cook when they were fishing on Lake Michigan this week. Ken fished professionally with BASS from 1980 to 2009 and in retirement has mostly run a big-game ranch in Oklahoma. It’s a skillet there this time of year, so the couple ditched for the Great Lakes to go catch smallmouth.
They’d just been fishing behind an island near Green Bay and pulled up after making a run down the shore. Tammy and a golden retriever named Moxy were in the seats; Ken was at the front. As Tammy slid her life jacket off her hand brushed against something that felt funny. When she turned, she saw the 4-or-5-foot specimen pictured here. “With one giant leap, I made it to the front of the deck where I almost took Ken out,” she wrote on her Facebook wall, where she posted the photo.
(My favorite response among the dozens came from an outdoor photographer named James Overstreet. “This,” he wrote, “is when you shoot your own boat.”)
Said Ken, by phone: “I think she levitated to the front of the boat.” Despite a long, unbroken scream and loud barking both ringing in his ears, he quickly ascertained that the snake wasn’t poisonous and got to snapping photos. His best guess was that the snake hitched a ride on the splashwell, by the motor, before moving up to the deck. “We happened to be an island he ran into,” Ken said.
That jived with the expert assessment. I emailed the photo to a couple of Great Lakes-area herpetologists to get an ID. Both Bob Murphy of the Royal Ontario Museum and James Harding of Michigan State University made the same call: a fox snake. “They are a harmless species that prefers coastal marshes and feeds on small rodents,” Harding added in his reply. “Sometimes they swim between islands and shore, and so end up pretty far out in the lake. A tired snake would find a boat a good place to rest!”
Ken’s experience with snakes has been that the poisonous species in North America — your cottonmouths, your copperheads, your rattlers — tend to swim high in the water, as if they prefer not to get wet, a more aggressive posture. Many snakes have tried to crawl onto his boat over the years but he does not tend to get crossways with them. One exception was a garter snake that made its way up into his outboard motor and got sucked into the carburetor. Ken noticed his motor running funny and took it for repairs. When the techs took it apart, they found the snake strung around the inside. “That’s been talked about a lot in the service community,” Ken said.