George Biggs brought ‘em back alive.
Not the wanted lawbreakers whose pictures hang in post offices, but cargo just as deadly.
During the late summer and early fall, the 69-year-old Wyoming County native followed his dangerous avocation of catching rattlesnakes and copperheads for sport.
“I like to think that I’m performing a service to the community,” Biggs said. “I’m not trying to upset the balance of nature—only trying to make the woods safe for people and pets.”
Although Biggs didn’t consider snake hunting the most dangerous sport in the world, he admitted that he was cautious while surveying wooded ravines and rocky slopes for the poisonous prey.
“You can’t be too careful when you’re after snakes,” said the former electrical foreman of the Norfolk-Southern Railway shop in Mullens.
“And you’d better keep in mind what you’re doing. A lapse in your concentration could mean disaster. Even if you aren’t bitten you could slip and fall from a 150-foot cliff.”
Biggs dragged rattlesnakes and copperheads from their dens with long, metal rods with crooked ends. He also used thin loop ropes tied to 3-foot sticks.
He sometimes used a metal rod with a clamping device to secure the snakes while they were being deposited into sacks.
Biggs estimated that he bagged more than 1,380 of the venomous reptiles this way since the summer of 1972. “When you go out and collect 50 to 100 a day, it doesn’t take long for the number to add up.”
He reported having caught a 41-inch copperhead near Hurricane Branch in Wyoming County and a 39-inch rattlesnake near Whitesville in Boone County.
Biggs once hauled 52 copperheads from a rock-cliff den during a morning hunt several years ago. Then he and his fellow hunters caught another 54 snakes during their afternoon trek on the same day.
The hunter was especially cautious when placing the serpents in cloth sacks after capture.
“Putting the snakes in the sack is the most dangerous part of the hunt,” he said. “That’s where you must watch, or they’ll hang a fang in the sack and then strike back at you.
“I always try to shove them all the way to the bottom and then tie the opening in a knot.”
Biggs recalled that some strong snakes have crawled through the knot of his sack and then eluded their captor. He then used rawhide cords to bind the sacks for double protection.
“I had snakes get loose in my pickup,” he said. “One snake was in there for two weeks before I got him out. I knew he was in there because the sack was empty. I drove everywhere before I finally got him back to where I caught him. Then I turned him loose.”
And some snakes are more dangerous than others, according to Biggs.
“Copperheads are timid and cause little trouble unless they are starved or injured in some way,” the veteran snake hunter explained. “But rattlers, especially the large ones, don’t give ground easily. They won’t back off from fright, so they are more of a threat.”
He added, “Snakes are the most dangerous when you are not aware of their presence. About the only danger of being bitten is running up on a snake when you least expect it.”
Biggs kept a vigilant eye out for rattlesnakes. He got a string of horny rattles taken from the ends of the serpents’ tails.
He carried a glass vial in the bottom of his gunny sack. Sometimes, he displayed his skill at collecting venom from the fangs of his captives.
“A rattler that I caught the other day had fangs that were nearly an inch long,” he said. “I put my hand up against the glass cage and I could feel the power of his strike. He had plenty of poison to put in you.”
In the heat of late summer, when many rattlesnakes are on the move, Biggs’ expertise was in demand.
He got calls from neighbors whenever they saw a snake—any snake.
His name was synonymous with serpents, especially among those who would handle the wriggling, hissing creatures during candlelight vigils in the sanctuaries of remote country churches.
Both rattlesnakes and copperheads will fetch a fair price on the sectarian markets. “Fifteen dollars for a big one,” confessed Biggs. “Just about any size will bring a $10 bill.”
Biggs added that he’s heard of a few snake-handlers paying as high as $50 for a prime poisonous specimen.
“I’d just like to catch up with the feller who offers that price,” he said with a grin. “I could flood the market.”
Biggs caught hundreds of snakes since he was a boy. For years, the talkative woodsman spent several days each year traipsing through the rugged forests of Wyoming County in search of the poisonous reptiles.
The snake hunter warned that hikers should never step over a log without first stepping on top of it and looking for snakes on the other side.
He stressed that snakes, which have a cooler body temperature than most creatures, enjoy lying just out of the direct rays of the sun.
And, he said, the high ridges and rocky terrain are the best locations for snake hunting. “It’s the best place to look for copperheads.”
Other likely spots for the snakes often were around rock, wood and sawdust piles.
Biggs said he scoured the woods along nature and hiking trails from May until October to help protect woodsmen and hikers who go there.
And though he’d never been bitten by the dreaded vipers, Biggs admitted he had his share of close calls, like the time a 3-foot copperhead almost nailed Biggs on the face as he peered under a rock with his flashlight:
“He nearly got me on the lip,” he recalled, shaking his head. “At that distance, I was lucky he missed me.”
Biggs continued, “I learned something from that incident. I don’t go around jamming my head under rocks anymore without first looking to see what’s in there.”