Freshwater anglers often complain about how many water moccasins they see out on the water. (Although the vast majority of the so-called moccasins are harmless water snakes, not venomous cottonmouths.) When they head out to fish in the salty stuff, they often seem relieved that there are no snakes to be seen.
Oh, but how wrong they are.
Aside from the snakes occasionally spotted swimming between barrier islands and mainland (which regularly include eastern diamondback rattlers, by the way), there is a species of snake that is very much at home in the brackish waters of Charlotte Harbor. In fact, its preferred habitat is the mangrove edges where so many fishermen like to target redfish and snook.
The mangrove saltmarsh snake (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) is a relatively small water snake, growing to a maximum size of about 40 inches but more common at about 18 to 24 inches. They are nonvenomous and hunt a wide variety of fish and invertebrates in and around mangrove swamps.
Truthfully, you’re not very likely to see one unless you’re looking for it. Most of our local animals are grayish or brownish, and their camouflage is excellent. However, there is a rare color phase that ranges from brick red to bright orange. I’ve only seen one of those in our area. It swam across the channel leading to the Placida boat ramp, right in front of our boat.
Actually, we did have another one swim up to the boat out in the Myakka Cutoff, but that one was a much plainer color. I startled my fishing partner (Dave Coffee, the manager at Luigi’s in Port Charlotte) by leaning over the gunnel and grabbing the snake. He thought (like everyone else thinks) that it was a cottonmouth, but I showed him the differences.
Although there are a fair number of saltmarsh snakes in our area, there are a lot more south of us. From the Ten Thousand Islands south of Naples all the way to Biscayne Bay south of Miami is the hotspot for this subspecies. The farther south you go, the more likely you are to find animals with the brighter orange/red coloration.
“Compressicauda” means “flattened tail” — presumably an adaptation to an aquatic lifestyle, since a flat tail makes a better paddle than a pointy one. But while the truly aquatic sea snakes do often have tails that are laterally flattened, I have looked at several saltmarsh snakes and noticed no such adaptation. I don’t know if they’re poorly named or if I’m expecting the flattening to be more noticeable than it is, but it looks no different than any other water snake tail to me.
The very best places to find mangrove saltmarsh snakes (and therefore, the best places to avoid if you don’t want to see them) are along the edges of mangrove creeks and tunnels. These narrow passageways go deep into the heart of the mangrove swamps, and that’s exactly where the snakes want to be. They are also relatively abundant in areas where there are lots of black mangroves, which have a lot of small rhizophores that protrude a few inches out of the sandy sediment. This “miniature forest” makes a fine hunting spot for a hungry water snake.
If you happen to spot a snake swimming across the water while you’re out fishing, try not to overreact. There are far more injuries caused by people trying to get away from snakes than there are from the snakes themselves. And as much time as I’ve spent out intentionally looking for snakes, I’ve only seen two cottonmouths in the wild (compared with many hundreds and probably thousands of harmless water snakes). Avoid them, and they’ll generally avoid you.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. For (almost) daily photos of local wild things and places, follow florida_is_wild on Instagram.