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I Speak for the Fish: Water snakes are spooktacular

I Speak for the Fish: Water snakes are spooktacular
October 17, 2022 Kathy Johnson

I Speak for the Fish is a new monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor Kathy Johnson, coming out the third Monday of each month. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television. Check out her previous columns.


When it comes to Halloween, I’m a Hallmark participant.

I like costume parties and I’ve mooched enough candy to make a significant contributor to my dentist’s children’s college fund. But I do not visit haunted houses and fail to see the appeal of fear.

I have an adventurous spirit but I do not think I’m overly courageous. Yet, when it comes to the natural world, I do lack the fear that many seem to possess.

When I’m suiting up to dive, I’m frequently reminded of this. Bystanders will ask if it’s scary “down there.” I assure them it’s exciting and cool and fun but no not scary. Often, they scan me with an oddly assessing expression as if trying to determine why I lack the appropriate level of fear they feel is warranted.

I always thought it was the unnatural act of breathing underwater that bothered them. But I’ve revised my opinion after a recent conversation I heard between two ex-divers.

Both enjoyed their dive training and after getting certification went to Florida to try out their new sport. Each made one ocean dive and has never dove again. Why? It was too scary.

Listening, it became clear they shared the perception that all marine life is down there just waiting to get humans. From moray eels to barracuda and sharks that could strike at any moment without warning, it all terrified them.

I’m the opposite.

I dive because I find marine life fascinating rather than scary. Which is not to say that I’m immune to being scared underwater. I generally find it easy to be brave in freshwater where there are no aquatic species that can really kill me.

So far, there is only one Great Lakes species that has the ability to scare the bubbles out of me. Here is that story.

Water Serpents

The surface of the spring-fed river sparkled where the midday sun struck it. The streambed was a mere 3 feet beneath the surface, and transparent water rushed over a patchwork quilt bottom comprised of sandy white shoals with pockets of colorful gravel.

The sun felt unusually warm for mid-September.

Dogwoods and willows formed an unruly hedge along the riverbank. Their branches extended out over the water casting just enough shade for a sucker to slumber in the shallows below.

The shrub also reached down into the water to provide a school of minnows and a half dozen salmon parr swimming along the shoreline some much needed shelter from larger fish and the birds hunting above.

In addition to sheltering fish, the shoreline shrubs also provided the perfect habitat for one of the river’s VIP — very important predators.

Water snake enjoying the sunny weather. (Photo Credit: Greg Lashbrook/PolkaDot Perch)

For me, trying to spot snakes on branches is a bit like playing a hidden-object video game. I can look and look and look before suddenly realizing one has been right in front of me the whole time.

The minnows and salmon parr swimming below find it equally challenging to spot the serpents amongst the branches. But unlike myself, it could cost them their life.

Northern water snakes were not venomous and since I’m not afraid of snakes I was not scared of diving with them … until I did.

Freak Zone

As my husband and I eased into the river, we found the water that had appeared colorless from the surface was actually a pale green like a poorly-seeped cup of herbal tea. The shallow depth and bright sunlight provided ample visibility but it still felt a little bit creepy.

We slowly drifted down the riverbank. It was deeply undercut in areas. I stopped and stared into one of the deepest shadows.

Peering into the dark cavity I saw nothing, but for some reason it still spooked me. I backed out and rejoined Greg as he moved toward the serpent branches.

We cautiously approached the cluster where the snakes were resting above. The branches were not orderly like the boughs of a pine tree nor uniformly-orientated like the limbs of a maple. Rather, they were twisted and crossed like a snarled spider’s nest.

The school of minnows and salmon parr moved further down the river. The sucker ignored us.

Looking up we could see the mass of dogwoods above but the water distorted our vision like a fun house mirror making it impossible to distinguish the snakes. Knowing there were four or five above us but not being able to see them was very unnerving.

I had to remind myself there was no reason to fear the snakes and much to admire.

Selling Points

Northern water snakes are found throughout the eastern half of North America and are fairly common in the Midwest. They are nonvenomous but are often mistaken for cottonmouths which are a venomous species.

Water snakes do not simply live near water, they are excellent swimmers both on the surface and underwater. They stalk and catch fish underwater and they can hold their breath way longer than I can.

Three and a half feet is common for an adult, but they can reach 4 or more feet in length. Their skin is banded with shades of chocolate, mocha and bark brown.

Northern water snakes head straight for the water when threatened. When cornered on land, they will defend themselves by striking out. I have been unfortunate enough to witness this behavior.

This site is a fairly busy public access point. On nearly every visit, I have seen people go out of their way to harass the snakes. The lucky ones go unnoticed. The less fortunate are most often poked or stoned until they seek shelter.

The snakes spend a significant portion of their time in the water. Resting or basking on shore helps them raise their body temperature after spending time in the cold water. Repeatedly being forced back into the water disrupts their ability to regulate themselves.

Water snakes are fully aquatic predators.

They will take any small fish from minnows, catfish and sunfish to juvenile bass and trout. In addition to fish, water snakes like to eat frogs and salamanders. Occasionally, they have crayfish for supper. And they are not opposed to taking any mice that wonder too close to the riverbank.

Like all predators, water snakes play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to control prey populations and eliminating sick individuals.

Vanishing Act

The cluster of branches was denser underwater than it appeared from above.

I squinted behind my mask. Just like topside, I looked and looked and looked before I saw it. Laying on a branch no different than the ones above water.

Water snakes hiding in a cluster of branches. (Photo Credit: (Photo Credit: Greg Lashbrook/PolkaDot Perch)

It was a good sized adult about 3 feet long but the amplification from my mask and my nerves made it appear slightly larger.

The snake belonged here and yet the sight of it basking on a branch underwater felt completely surreal to me. If I was diving in the Amazon, it might have seemed appropriate but in a tiny stream beside Lake Michigan it was very unexpected and super spooky.

At best, we thought we might see one swimming around. We never expected to see one lounging underwater.

Greg moved in closer, his camera extended out as far as his arm would allow. He filmed a little and then moved a bit closer.

He was so focused on filming that he got too close. His leg barely brushed against one twig but it was enough. The vibration traveled across the spiderweb of branches and the snake vanish.

Like, one moment it was there and then it wasn’t!

I was staring right at it and had no idea where it went.

There was no puff of sediment or flash of movement to indicate a direction of retreat. It just simply disappeared.

It was one of the creepiest, freakiest things I’ve seen underwater. And I’ll admit it scared the Halloween out of me.


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

I Speak for the Fish: A Fish’s Shelf Life

I Speak for the Fish: A jarring look at gizzard shad


Featured image: Water snake slithering across the surface. (Photo Credit: Greg Lashbrook/PolkaDot Perch)

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