What to do if you (or one of your fishing buddies) gets bitten by a snake…

The black mamba is pretty high up my shit-your-pants list. Right up there with a croc, bull shark and a grumpy dickhead of an old, lone, buffalo bull. This is only very loosely based on zoological fact, you understand. Pure animal bad-assery. Some years back in the Serengeti I witnessed a two-plus metre black mamba savagely devour a large lizard in less time than it takes to drink a beer. He slid off right after as though it was merely an hors d’oeuvre, onward to go find the entree.

Fortunately where I mostly fish locally, the black mamba is not a worry. Other snakes, such as puff adders and Cape Cobras very definitely are. And, while they give me far less chills than the mamba, I’m still super wary of them.

Snakes live here

Now, common (very sensible) handed-down wisdom says that you should never fly solo when going fishing somewhere remote (or local even). The reality though is that many of us do fish alone. This however means that there are a few dangers we need to be aware of and equipped to deal with should it happen. Aside from things such as dehydration, debilitating injuries and, getting in some way stuck without cellphone signal (review of the SPOT X Bluetooth unit to follow shortly, which I now take on almost every session with me) snake bite tops that list.

Here, in broad South African sweeps, is what you need to know:

“Snakes encountered in the wild in the Western Cape include a wide variety of harmless snakes, but also a few dangerous ones, such as Cape cobras, puff adders and rinkhals,” says Raymond Meneses, avid fly fisherman and passionate serpent enthusiast.

“In KZN, we encounter puff adders, rinkhals, boomslang, night adders and black mambas, to name a few, although seeing a black mamba in the wild is not a common occurrence,” he says. According to Raymond it can be difficult for an untrained eye to distinguish venomous snakes from non-venomous species, so snakes in the wild are best left alone and undisturbed.

The reality is that snakes will not chase you down, and even large and defensive snakes generally only bite when they feel threatened. “Many people are bitten trying to kill or capture snakes. Just don’t do it,” says Raymond, adding that there is also false and misleading information on social media on how to easily distinguish between dangerous and harmless snakes by looking that shape of the snake’s pupil and other physical features. “This information is not to be tossed aside lightly, but rather thrown with great force.”

puff adder
(c) Peter Coetzee

Raymond suggests that for an accurate and easy-to-use resource on snake identification, download the mobile App developed by Johan Marais.

“Even with great resources such as this app, field identification can be tricky, so always play it safe and keep your distance. This is not a game of tag you want to lose,” Raymond says.

The ‘good’ news, according to Johan Marais of the African Snake Bite Institute is that “nine out of 10 snakebite victims do not require antivenom and do not receive it.” According to Johan, the reason for this is because bites usually occur from non-deadly snakes or, in the case of potentially deadly snakes, there is only mild or no envenomation at all. “Deadly snakes often give dry bites,” he says. “Doctors will monitor patients and only if symptoms justify it will they administer antivenom.”

Puff adder
Puff Adder venom is potently cytotoxic, causing severe pain, swelling, blistering and in many cases severe tissue damage. (c) Peter Coetzee

The trick here then is the ‘doctor’ part. According to Johan, the first (and most obvious) thing to do, is to get the patient to a hospital as soon as possible. “Getting to the nearest hospital is by far the most important,” he says. “Deaths from snakebite in less than an hour are rare. If it is a Cape Cobra or Black Mamba bite apply a smart bandage if available (I guess never) and resort to artificial respiration if the patient stops breathing.”

Perhaps more important is, what NOT to do?
According to Johan, one should never use an arterial tourniquet, attempt to cut-and-suck the bite wound’ or apply ice or heat. “Those are a waste of time and may do more damage than good,” he says.

puff adder
A puff adder moving it on the ‘Transport’ beat on the Smallblaar in Du Toit’s Kloof (c) David Karpul

Johan suggests making use of Lite SNake gaiters if you are hiking into a beat through high risk areas. They’re made from two layers of Kevlar and are super light and flexible. “If you encounter a snake immediately back off five paces – then you are safe and cannot be bitten,” says Johan.

For more info on the potentially dangerous snakes in your area, download the African Snake Bite Institute’s App, from the App Store and Google Play. There are also various useful resources and products on their website.

*Featured image courtesy of Shawn Townsend

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