During the winter Jim and Karen McLain take care of their rufous hummingbird that has set the state record for length of time over wintering. During the summer he tends to other creatures that are not so charming.

During the winter Jim and Karen McLain take care of their rufous hummingbird that has set the state record for length of time over wintering. During the summer he tends to other creatures that are not so charming.

At about sunset every other day Jim McLain takes his fishing rod onto his boat dock. He tosses a couple of small buckets full of catfish pellets onto the water and the bluegill start nibbling. After a while the catfish splash about and when the commotion settles the flock of Canada geese with their fluffy goslings swim over to peck at the pellets.

At about this time McLain expects to see a couple of long brown heads poke out of the cattails creeping toward him. His brown water snakes are hungry, too.

A few years ago McLain was fishing and noticed a snake was interested in the bluegill he had caught.

“I was watching one and thought he looked kind of hungry. I started splashing a fish at it,” McLain said.

McLain knew the snake was attracted to the fish slime smell that he splashed toward the snake. Eventually, the snake took the fish and slowly swallowed it whole.

Over time the snakes learned that when McLain was on the dock with his fishing pole, it was feeding time. Now as many as five at a time swim under and around the dock waiting for their dinner. When especially eager they swim up on the bank and onto the dock, almost corralling McLain at the edge of the dock. McLain feeds them as fast as he can catch the bluegill.

“A couple come up to take the fish just as gentle as they can be. Others rush right in,” McLain said.

Biggie is one of two large snakes. The other is named Brown because it is more brown than the others.

They are patient snakes that will approach slowly and wait until McLain allows them to take the fish. Checker is so named because of his distinct checkerboard-type pattern on his back. Checker is the most aggressive snake in the pond, striking quickly,  and is as likely to bite a finger as he is the fish. Checker has grabbed McLain’s finger twice. 

Monday McLain was on the dock early. The snakes were not around. He fed the fish and after about an hour noticed a brown ribbon swimming toward the dock. A snake was hungry.

He took a bluegill he had caught earlier for the demonstration out of the fish basket and walked to the concrete bench.

“This is the gruesome part,” he said.

He slapped the fish against the bench seat, killing it instantly. Soon the snake was writhing in the water beside the dock.

“It’s Checker,” McLain said.

As McLain offered the fish out over the water Checker’s head surfaced. McLain drew the fish back, forcing Checker to stretch for it so the snake could not strike. For a second McLain had Checker charmed, following the fish as McLain waved it to and fro. In a flash Checker chomped the fish head and disappeared beneath the dock with it.

A second snake was unusually shy, creeping in from the cattails. McLain has learned when the snakes’ eyes are cloudy they are about to shed their skins. During the shedding time the snakes are not as hungry. They may go several days between meals during the shedding time. The snake that cautiously approached had cloudy eyes.

It was as though the snake came more out of habit than hunger, or perhaps out of jealousy over Checker’s free meal.

Checker flipped and swam in circles beneath the dock. The bluegill in his mouth flashed in the water.

McLain splashed the dead fish toward the newly arrived snake and though the snake was interested, it would not take the fish and finally swam away.

A third, smaller snake arrived at the dock and McLain lured this one onto the land. McLain drew the fish back and the snake slowly rose up to it as though saying, “Please.”

The snake took the fish gently from McLain and coiled on the bank.

There it took the fish head into its mouth and seemed to be sucking on it more than eating it. It, too, had cloudy eyes and either was only mildly hungry or perhaps was savoring its dinner.

There was wild movement in the water.

“Oh, boy, Checker wants another one,” McLain said.

He slapped the third fish against the bench and cautiously held it out. Checker, with an already fat abdomen from his first helping, swam close, but then thought again. As though suddenly recognizing the sensation of fullness, Checker swam lazily under the dock.

McLain laid the fish at the water’s edge, knowing during the night another snake or a raccoon would appreciate it.

Brian DeNeal can be reached at bdeneal@yourclearwave.com.