Beneath a photograph of what appears to be a snake inside the mouth of a large fish, the warning exhorted fisherman that they were at an increased risk of snake bites this season that came from baby copperheads “found alive inside of feeding fish.”
The warning had been spreading for years by this point, without an attendant influx of copperhead bites among Pennsylvania anglers.
A reverse image search led to the photograph’s first go-round on the internet, a June 2009 Outdoor Life gallery titled “Smallmouth Heaven.”
That image no longer appears to be available in this particular gallery. However, when the warning first appeared in 2015, other sites captured its original caption. An Outdoors360.com post that month quoted the image’s original caption:
OKAY, WE’RE HALF COMPLETELY GROSSED OUT AND HALF FASCINATED BY RICKY STEPHENS PHOTOS OF A LARGEMOUTH BASS HE CAUGHT THAT SWALLOWED — OR RATHER HALF-SWALLOWED — A GARTER SNAKE.
At the time that it originally appeared, wildlife biologist Dr. David Steen observed a number of inaccuracies in the warning. Among them: The snake shown was not a copperhead but a garter snake, the provenance was as stated above, the circumstances described were atypical of both copperhead and fish behavior, and that overall that this is not a great survival strategy for either the fish or the snake:
This is not a Copperhead. It’s a harmless Garter Snake that is identifiable by its markings, eye, and head shape.
Copperheads do sometimes hang around wetland edges but they don’t tend to swim too often. So, it’s not realistic to suggest bass are eating them in great numbers. Although it is not unusual for large predatory fish to eat small snakes, they tend to be species that hang around in the water a lot.
Some snakes can hold their breath for a long time, even up to 45 minutes or longer. But, they can’t breathe water, no matter how much oxygen is in it. Interestingly, sea snakes may be able to take up some oxygen from the water through their skin, but this isn’t a major strategy for other species, if they can do it at all.
The image of a purported copperhead snake in the mouth of a caught fish has been circulating since 2015, but was originally posted with a different caption in 2009. Since the warning began to circulate, wildlife experts have denied its claims were accurate. Finally, in the years since it first appeared, we were unable to locate evidence of attendant copperhead bites sustained by fisherman bitten in the manner described — which means anglers will have to find another way to explain away their lack of “bass thumb” after a long day out on the water.