Tom Watt of Clovis takes precautions when he hunts rattlesnakes, including knee-high boots. (Staff photo: Andy DeLisle
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
When most would run, Tom Watt hunts. He hunts even when he is not on the hunt.
Like a January day he heard a soft rattle in his barn. He moved a pile of tin and exposed a rattlesnake with 12 rattles, coiled and ready to strike.
“I got ready and grabbed that little jewel,” Watt said.
Hunting rattlesnakes is a pastime for the Clovis resident, along with more benign hobbies of golfing and fishing, he said. Since the 1960s, he has participated every March in the Sweetwater, Texas, Rattlesnake Roundup.
His 10-man team captured 700 pounds of rattlers at the last roundup, he said.
Watt spends October through January rounding up the snakes, usually with the help of his father-in-law, Raymond Althof.
In Clovis, he readily finds rattlesnakes near prairie dog colonies and just off the Caprock.
“It’s is a real rush when you get into a big bunch of them,” said Watt, who refers to the sound of multiple rattlers as “singing.”
Rattlesnakes typically emerge from their dens around spring to mate. They roam around the dens during the summer and retreat to them in the fall, according to Curry County Extension Agent Les Owen.
By October, there should be little to no snake activity in New Mexico, said Roy Thibodeau of Las Cruces Reptile Rescue.
Rattlesnakes are more prevalent in the southern portion of the state, where the weather is warmer, Thibodeau said. This year in Las Cruces, development and the dry weather have pushed rattlers toward the city, said Thibodeau, who has lately responded to an average of 30 calls a week from people who encounter snakes on their southern New Mexico property.
So far this summer, the dangerous belly crawlers have been sparse in Clovis, according to Clovis pest control officials.
Mostly rural residents come face to face with the reptiles, Owen said.
“Everybody has an inborn fear of snakes … for a reason,” he said. The chance of a sighting, however, “depends on your proximity to a rattlesnake den,” he said.
The son of a Roscoe, Texas, farmer and rancher, Watt grew accustomed to snake sightings long ago. He moved to Clovis for a job with the railroad and frequently encounters rattlesnakes soaking up warmth on the tracks. But he still respects the snakes’ lethality.
Rattlesnakes struck more than 1,000 people in the United States in 2004, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Watt takes several precautions while on the hunt, using an aluminum pole with a clamp to grab the slithering creatures and sometimes wearing boots that reach past his knees.
He and his team of hunters pour gasoline down rattlesnake holes to draw them from their dens. They crouch on the ground, aiming compact mirrors down holes, so they can watch as the snakes emerge from their hiding places.
His mantra: Rattlesnakes don’t want to bite humans.
“They will warn you before they strike with their rattles,” he said. “They won’t strike unless you get too close, unless you force them to.”
“When you can’t see a rattlesnake, that’s when you should get nervous.”