Wilber Shell’s hunting trip turns into nightmare

Published 5:00 am Thursday, July 26, 2001

“It’s a rattlesnake, Daddy.”

These were the first words that came out of my mouth after myflashlight had found the big culprit. What had started out to besuch a promising day had just turned into a nightmare that wouldlast for months. The journey would include six days in thehospital, with two of the days in the intensive care unit, 11 vialsof anti-venom, swelling, intense pains, high fever, and thehives.

Wilber Shell, 61, the District Forester for the MississippiForestry Commission in Southwest Mississippi, had just celebratedhis birthday two days before the bite. Where the accident happenedis a place he knows well. He grew up playing, working, and huntingthese woods since childhood. By growing up in this area, he hadencountered poisonous snakes hundreds of times, but this was thefirst time he had ever been bitten or struck at.

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My father and I were going turkey hunting at our camp inFranklin County. It was April 14, and the turkeys in this area hadjust started rattling the woods with their gobbles. My dad runs ourcamp, Indian Mound Hunting Club, which is located in theSouthwestern corner of the county. The land we were hunting is apiece of property that we have successfully hunted over the years.The lease is named the “Nan Bass Place” and Wells Creek flows onone side.

When we arrived that morning about six o’clock, the woods werequiet except for the occasional owl. We were really excited aboutthe morning, because we had heard turkeys gobbling the previousweekend. Our confidence was high as we pulled off the road on thisbeautiful spring morning.

We got our guns and gear together and started walking for theold house site, which was about a half mile from where we parked.To get there is a straight downhill walk toward the creek. We go tothis location when hunting this area before sunrise to owl hoot. Bydoing this here, we have a good listening point for gobbling.

I was leading the way that morning, carrying only a smallmini-mag flashlight when we left the truck.

When we arrived at the spot, we set our guns and gear down torest a moment before we hit the locator calls. At 6:15, my dad letout a owl hoot that was, immediately, answered by a gobbler. Wequickly discussed what route we wanted to take to get to the bird,and then we picked up our guns and started in his direction.

As I retrieved the flashlight out on my pocket, I led the waydown a well-used deer trail that is surrounded by Virginia Creeper.We had traveled about 20 yards from where we were sitting when allof a sudden, my father came running up behind me.

” I just got snake-bit,” he said.

The first thing that entered my mind was he had walked into somebarbwire that was on the ground, just as I had done the weekbefore. The last thing that entered my mind was that he had reallybeen bitten by a rattlesnake.

I asked him where he was bitten. He pulled up his pants leg, andthere above his boot, were the puncture holes. The bite was on thebackside of his left calf. The holes, within seconds, had alreadystarted to pour blood.

“Daddy, where’s the snake?” were the next words I uttered. Mydad pointed a few yards back up the trail where we had just passed.I eased back up the trail with my small light, searching for thesnake. In the back of my mind, I was hoping it was a copperhead orcottonmouth, which produce a smaller amount of venom thanrattlers.

When the light found the snake, he whipped his head toward whereI was standing, and my heart sank.

“It’s a rattlesnake.” I said the words that I hoped I would nothave to speak.

There, lying on the ground about a foot off of the trail, was asnake that looked as big around as a man’s upper arm. I hadapparently passed within inches of the snake without ever seeinghim. I still to this day can’t believe that I missed seeing a snakethat big.

I told my dad that I was going to shoot him. I quickly raisedthe Browning Auto and fired a shot into the snake. Only then, afterI had killed him, did the snake rattle. This was just aninvoluntary action and lasted only for a few seconds.

My attention then turned to my father. He asked me if I wantedto cut the bite, and I told him no. We decided our best course ofaction was to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. I lookedat my watch and told my dad the time was 6:22.

Since we were so far from the truck, and the walk was almostcompletely straight-up, I decided to leave all our guns and gear inthe woods at the old house site. My thoughts were to lighten ourloads, and to keep his heart from pumping the venom even faster. Tomake this walk in the shortest time we didn’t need anything to slowus down.

We quickly got on the straightest course to the truck and beganthe walk. This was no time to get turned around in the woods oreven get the slightest bit off-course. I began to lead the way backto the truck in the dark, using that small light.

On the way out of the woods, I repeatedly asked Dad how he wasfeeling. Each time he would answer “I’m OK.” He described the painas like being bitten by a wasp, only many times worse. Also, hesaid it felt like someone had taken a hot iron poker out of afireplace and held it to the back of his calf.

On the way out, he even joked about how pretty the snake was,and that the next weekend we were through hunting and would befishing. During the previous April, I had been diagnosed withcancer and I spent most of last year enduring surgeries andchemotherapy. He then joked that we were both “snake-bit” for themonth of April. I told him I didn’t find his humor funny at thismoment.

I knew by the size of the snake that the bite was bad, and mydad was trying to keep our nerves and the situation calm. He latertold me that he was not afraid of dying, but that he was afraid ofwhat I was going to have to see him go through. He was expecting tobecome immobile, vomiting, and be too weak to get himself out ofthe woods.

When we got within 50 yards of the truck, I asked him again ifhe was OK and he said he was. I then told him I was going to runahead to the truck and get the air conditioner going to cool offthe cab. When I got to the truck, I started the air conditioningand grabbed a frozen bottle of water and threw it on the seat.

By this time he was close to the truck. I quickly opened thepassenger door and helped him inside. We then took off his boot toget a better look at the bite. When the boot slid off, we couldimmediately see the fist-size lump that was around the bite. Theboot and sock were covered in blood. The walk took about 7 minutesto get to the truck, and the swelling was already going up the leg.We put the ice bottle on the bite to slow down the swelling and thevenom.

I then started the 20 minute drive to the Franklin CountyMemorial Hospital. My dad described that trip as one of thescariest experiences he has ever had. On the way into the hospital,I called the Franklin County sheriff’s office and asked them tocall the hospital and tell them we had a snake bite victim enroute.

My dad then took the phone and called my mother, Nancy. Hewanted her to hear his own voice when she got the news. So hecalled and told her, as casually as you can, that he had just beenbitten by a rattlesnake. She then phoned my twin brother, Mike,with the news and soon they, too, were on their way to thehospital.

Next week: Treatment and recovery.