My Favorite California Kingsnake Find

My favorite Cal King find was in the spring of 2011. Though I had found countless Cal Kings prior to that time (90% via road cruising for Rosy Boas), finding a targeted specie as well as a targeted morph the first time trying, makes for an amazing lifelong memory. Because of my son Jake’s new found interest in Cal Kings in 2006, I wanted to of course support his interest in the hopes of that maybe he would one day be in to herps as much as I am. This of course led to my love for Cal Kings. Thanks Jake, I love you buddy……

During the winter of 2006/2007 I began to research Cal Kings and discovered that there was so many unique animals in terms of color and pattern within specific geographic areas throughout their range. I began probing others that I knew had experience with Cal Kings, discovering how Cal Kings could be found under artificial cover or even under rocks. My mentor Gary Keasler, and very close friend Tony Lanzi became my go to guys for info. I’m sure at one point that I was trying their patients. They humored me and we spent many hours on the phone conversing about Cal Kings. This was a whole new thing for me, and I hadn’t learned anything new about herps in decades. It was so odd to me when explained that Cal Kings could easily be found in manmade trash and debris piles, under discarded furniture and appliances, as well as piles of concrete and asphalt. This seemed like such an unglamorous way to find Kingsnakes as I was so used to finding them out on the crawl while looking for Rosys. I was never in to rock flipping as it infuriated me to find destroyed natural habitat while in the field. I just stuck to driving roads or lantern walking at night when searching for Rosys.

My research revealed that Cal Kings preferred habitat associated with water, so I began looking for suitable habitat in areas that produced these naturally occurring color and pattern morphs to see if I could observe them in the wild. Being the locality geek that I am, I only wanted to find locality specific animals that possessed unusual color and patterns as I was so used to only seeing the classic banded animals. I always admired them, but then just moved them off the road.

By the time 2011 rolled around, I had found a few Cal Kings in various areas throughout northern California by just driving around in what I thought was suitable habitat and looking for artificial cover “AC” as well as natural cover during the early spring months. Again, I was learning a lot about this whole “flipping” thing, I wasn’t all that good at it. To increase my odds, I took advice in creating my own spots to look for Cal Kings by placing AC in desired habitat. This led to finding more Cal Kings, but nothing that was different in terms of pattern. Some had different colors than what I was accustomed to seeing, but still they were all banded.

During the winter of 2010/2011 my very close friend Tony Lanzi invited me down to southern California to look for Cal Kings during the approaching spring time. He said he had some spots that he had been going to since childhood and would love to spend time at again to see what we could stir up. I of course accepted his invitation, spending the entire winter dreaming of what we might find. During this time of anticipation I invited my best friend Ryan Pear to join us as he had never looked for Cal Kings in southern California via flipping either, and I wanted him there to hang out with me and Tony.

My best friend Ryan happens to be one of the smartest and most well-articulated individuals that I know, leading to some of the most stimulating conversations on not only herps, but life in general. I always seem to learn something from him, and during our conversations of planning our venture to southern California I learned Ryan knew of a couple spots in central California containing AC that could potentially yield one of black belly morph Cal Kings that I had been so desperately trying to find in northern California’s Davis area. Ryan lived in Bakersfield and had spent time in the Mendota CA area, successfully finding a black belly morph along the San Joaquin River. He told me about a field right by the river across the street from the Refuge, so I thought I’d take a little side trip off of Interstate 5 when heading to his place in Bakersfield before we headed to southern California for our venture with Tony.

While driving southwest to Central California, I stopped by a couple of my Davis CA spots to try my luck, but once again only found banded animals. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing any Cal King in the field. It’s an amazing site to turn something over, not knowing what lies underneath, to reveal a slumbering Cal King. I took photos of the animals as I found them, being careful not to disturb them and resumed my journey to try my luck in Mendota.

I arrived in Mendota around 1:30pm, and heading to the location Ryan provided. Upon driving through Mendota all I could think about was that this was a known area for black bellies but that the odds were against me, being I only knew of one location to go to at that point. Never the less, I was excited as I had never been to central California to look for Cal Kings, and love the thrill of the unknown when it comes to herping. My concern was that it seemed too hot to flip items as I was there during the heat of the day. Temperatures were in the low 80’s and conditions were dry, but I figured, what the heck I’m here.

The field that I was supposed to examine was just as Ryan described it. It was right in between the road and the railroad tracks, triangular in shape, bordering a house at the northeast end. Since no dogs were greeting me I figured it was safe to proceed, thinking to myself, Ryan wouldn’t set me up to fail. I began at the southwest corner, flipping favorable pieces of aged plywood, scaring up lizards and rodents as I went. At one point a jackrabbit exploded out from under one of the boards, almost putting me on the ground as I jumped back from the scare. Now my heart was racing even more. I was getting more and more anxious as each board I lifted didn’t reveal any type of snake let alone a black belly morph Cal King. As I approached the very middle of the field I found a half sheet of plywood partially buried in the sandy soil. By the way, during this exploration I was thinking that the sandy soil was not conducive to finding snakes under AC as I was told on several occasions that kingsnakes like a soil type that enables rodents to create burrows in, as well as create fissures when dried out. The snakes retreat down in to the fissures under the AC to maintain proper hydration and temperature. Basically they prefer a soil that will become mud when saturated with rain water.

As you enter the town of Mendota

Anyway, as I slowly pick the board up, using the end of the board not buried in sandy soil, I could see it, the jewel I was hoping for. While holding the board up and fumbling with my phone to get an “in situ” shot (In situ just means how the snake was found) as I try to do with all finds, the snake begins to take off. As it turns out the snake was very warm from laying under the board, making direct contact with the board that was baking in the afternoon sun. I dropped my phone and grabbed the snake, only to have it evacuate its last digested meal all over me. As the snake calmed in my hands I could see just how lucky I was with my find and even said out loud as if I had an audience there in the field with me “wow, what lucky guy I am”. I repeated this several times as I walked back to my car to get a cold drink of water as I was perspiring from all the excitement. I examined the snake in more detail while refreshing myself as I was amazed that I had finally found a black belly. Not only was it a black belly, but an aberrant one as well. I may have said “wow” a dozen more times while standing there in disbelief at what had just happened. Once I finished my water I returned to the field and picked up where I left off. I flipped the remaining various pieces of AC with no other snakes to be found. It didn’t matter in the slightest, because I had finally found what I had been dreaming of. Once back at the car I called Ryan to give all the details of the day’s events and thanked him profusely. Once I terminated that call, I then called my mentor Gary Keasler to celebrate one more time. It was truly magical.

The first Mendota California Kingsnake I found in April of 2011.

As I drove away from the little field I was so content knowing that I was on my way to southern California to spend quality time with my two best friends. It was just icing on the cake. We had an amazing time over the remainder of the weekend finding Cal Kings in southern California, sharing many good meals, and laughing ourselves to tears with our candid conversations. I couldn’t ask for a better time or better friends to share the moment with, even if they weren’t right beside me. In my mind, they were right there and always will be.

The following spring I returned to the same little field with Ryan in hopes to find a male, even if it was a normal banded male I would be set with a locality pair. As we approached the little field my heart sank as the entire field had been bulldozed and cleaned up of its island of kingsnake habitat. All of the AC was gone except for a few partially buried broken pieces. It was void of all vegetation as well. I couldn’t help but think about how many other kingsnake perished during the cleanup process and how many future generations will no longer populate the little field. Luckily Ryan and I were able to find a male speckled morph only a couple hundred yards away from where we found the female on the other side of the home. They have produced some amazing babies in captivity, creating a legacy of the little field for other pure locality herp enthusiast to enjoy.

To Ryan and Tony – Thanks for the memory my brothers. I love you guys……

A street and aerial view of the little field two years after it was cleaned up. Just sandy soil and some vegetation is all that remains.

My Favorite Gopher Snake Find

Not sure if it is part of the aging process, but as I grow older I find myself becoming more and more sentimental. Maybe it’s just me. Never the less, things that have made a big impact on my life bring great pleasure to me via memories triggered by sights and smells that instantly bring me back to a place and time that makes me long to experience them all over again. One of these significate life shaping moments was of course acquiring my first snake, a pacific gopher snake.

For decades I have observed dozens of gopher snakes in the field, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2012 that I decided that I’d like to try my hand at breeding them after seeing a picture of a stripped pacific morph in an old Audubon field guide that I purchased at a yard sale. I remembered when that book came out in 1979 and thinking how different the animal looked in comparison to the pacific gophers I found growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. This also triggered another memory of finding out that the stripped morph of the pacific gopher snake occurred in Vacaville California, where I used to visit my Uncle Nick’s seedless cucumber farm off Cherry Glen Road. At that moment I decided that I wanted that specific locality to be the first gopher snake in my collection to honor the first snake specie that created my lifelong passion. Because I knew nothing of the Vacaville area, other than Cherry Glenn Road, I committed to going there first.

My plan was to scout out the area to create a small board line to hopefully flip the targeted animal the following spring. In July of 2012 I decided that it would be a good time to investigate the area and place a few boards, thinking that all of the surrounding vegetation would be mostly dead due to the drought that the entire west coast was experiencing. The thought was it would be easier to find areas that contained water as there would potentially be areas that remained green with what water content they might still contain.

Me and my first snake in 1967. A Pacific Gopher Snake from Oakland California

My son Jake and I loaded up 25 boards in my old Tahoe and we made our way from Northern Nevada over Donner Summit and through the Sacramento valley toward Vacaville. Once we arrived in Vacaville there were signs for Cherry Glenn Road so we exited highway 80 and began our search. It didn’t take long to realize that Cherry Glenn Road was a frontage road for a short stretch before it turned in to Pleasant Valley Road and headed northwest away from Vacaville. I reluctantly decided that we would place the boards along the shoulder of the frontage road, with the fear of them being seen by any passerby. My fear would later be validated upon returning, as the boards had been removed. Anyway, once the boards were in place I figured that since the sun was setting and we were already there, we would try our luck at road cruising the frontage road.

The Cherry Glenn frontage road

In all my years of road cruising herps I had never purposely cruised for gopher snakes, so I was excited. Jake and I started to make passes on the little 3 mile stretch of frontage road, not seeing anything other than rodents. This of course is always encouraging to most herpers as it seems to build hope that snakes may be out hunting for these prey items, following their sent out on to the road and exposing themselves to us goofs that are out in to the late hours of the night hoping to see just one snake.

Now I had spent a lot of time in the surrounding area looking for California Kingsnakes, but that was all done during daylight hours of spring, never during the summer during what most consider road cruising time. As a result, this was to be my first time road cruising in the area, so I had no idea as to what to expect. That being said, the first thing I noticed was that the temperature dropped fast being so close to the coastal communities. Ambient humidity was much higher than what I was used to, making temps drop at a much more rapid rate. Though it was 97o during the heat of the day, the temperature was noticeably changing with each pass.

After several passes I was beginning to think that maybe there just wasn’t any herp activity once the sun went down and told Jake that we would finish the pass we were on and then head out. Jake replied with “Why don’t you do what you usually do when we aren’t finding anything and light up a cigar”. Being the amazing father that I am….LOL, I could hardly refuse my son, nor deny the fact that the thought of having one of my favorite Nicaraguan cigars would make for an awesome evening. So I stopped at our turnaround spot and complied. This had worked on numerous occasions with not only my son, but with best friend Ryan Pear or longtime friend Dave Long. What I mean by that this had worked on numerous occasions is that after not seeing and activity on the road, I would stop, light up a cigar and proceed, only to find the first snake of the evening just minutes later. By the way, this doesn’t always work, but what the heck.

Once I lit the cigar we did an about-face in the old Tahoe and started back down our little stretch of road. As we proceeded we saw more rodents as well as a big toad bounding across the road to get out of our oncoming headlights. Just as we were getting close to our opposite turnaround spot at the other end of our pass we both noticed a good sized snake starting out on to the road from the right shoulder. Jake stated “there’s a snake dad” with enthusiasm and excitement in his voice as I slowed to a stop. The snake stopped crawling and froze in a straight line as the headlights illuminated it. I replied to Jake “It sure is buddy, and its gopher snake”. With the mention of gopher snake, Jake was the first one out the door of the Tahoe and moving toward the snake. I was quick to follow him and before I could catch up, he is yelling “it’s a striped one dad, it’s a striped one”. As I approach I can see no discernable pattern and realize that it is in fact a striped phase. At that point, all the little boy came out of me and I started celebrating with Jake in the middle of the road while the snake just sat motionless, probably hoping we couldn’t see it. I was so excited I didn’t even take an “in situ” picture with my phone. I picked it up to examine it and it was calm as could be. Upon examining it, it was easy to see that it was an adult male with a nice dark striped pattern. We were blown away. It’s always a rush when you find a targeted species for the first time.

After examining our prize and getting our celebrating out of the way, we returned to the Tahoe, I relit my stogie and we proceeded to our turnaround spot and continued to cruise long enough for me to finish my cigar. During that time we did not see any other snakes, but we were still elated over the one that we did find.

Experiencing moments like this with my son means more to me that words can express. I honestly believe that he knew how much it meant to me to have not only found an amazing specimen of the pacific gopher snake, but that I got to experience it with him. That moment will always hold a very special place in my heart and I hope that it does for him as well. Priceless doesn’t even come close to illustrate how much the moment meant to me. I can only hope that Jake and I get to experience many more of those moments. Here’s to you son, I love you very much……..

Four years later in the spring of 2016 I was able to return to the same locality and find a female with a normal pattern to try my luck at reproducing the striped phase Pacific Gopher Snake. I was very fortunate to have a successful breeding, producing 5 healthy eggs. All five eggs hatched. Four of the five were males with one having the striped pattern.

2016 Siblings from the wild Cherry Glenn Road pair.

My Favorite Bull Snake Find

In July of 2015 I was fortunate enough to be invited back to the Midwest for training in a new process that I would be managing at work. I say I was fortunate for two reasons. One is because of being fortunate enough to have such a great job, and two, the training location put me geographically within a couple hour drive of Kankakee Bull Snake habitat. Immediately, I began thinking that I might be able to do some afternoon herping once the training was complete for the day, but really had no idea of what events were going to transpire. Being a bucket list item, I was determined to figure out how I could make it a reality. Upon the first day of training I knew what my schedule consisted of, resulting in being able to be in the field that Friday afternoon. With that knowledge I was able to contact my old friend Brett Nelson, who lives in Indianapolis, and he agreed to meet me in Kankakee that Friday afternoon.

Brett directed me to go to the nearest sporting goods store to purchase an out of state hunting license once I got to Kankakee, to ensure we were legal while in the field. Since I had always purchased my licenses at Walmart, I went directly to the one there in Kankakee and was pleasantly surprised to find that an out of state license was only $15.00. The most I have paid for an out of state license was $150.00 in Arizona.

After a brief conversation via cell phone, Brett and I met-up at 3:00 in the afternoon. I was already discouraged before we even met as it was in the mid 80’s that afternoon and I’m not used to looking for snakes when the sun is still so high in the sky and the ambient temperatures are so high. Brett on the other hand was very optimistic and said, “let’s get something to drink and get out there”. Brett had done plenty of herping in the Midwest, whereas I had never even been to the Midwest. What the hell did I know? We jumped in his rig and off we went, looking for fallen tin or wood from dilapidated structures and whatever other debris we could find to flip over on the outskirts of Kankakee.

Though I had received detailed information as to where we should begin our search, I still had no ideas as to what to expect. We headed east on highway 17, which is just a little two lane road through corn fields looking for tree lines and whatever roads branched off of highway 17 toward Hopkins Park, Pembroke, and Saint Anne. It’s a maze of little roads, including dirt roads, all intersecting together through the agriculture fields, resulting in often just going in a big circle. The challenge is finding roads along the tree lines as those areas are uncultivated swaths, containing old dilapidated homes, mobile homes, and barns that are literally falling in on themselves, creating perfect artificial cover for a multitude of prey items of both lizard and mammal eating snakes.

One of the many dirt roads through the area. This was heading toward the intersection were we found the vacant lot containing the female Bull Snake

Though the afternoon ambient temperatures where very warm by my standards most of the cover was not in the direct sun, due to the canopy of the surrounding trees. This and the high humidity created decent conditions for snakes to be on the surface under the cover. The cover was hidden in waist high grasses and weeds, but partially erect structures gave away their locations visible from the maze of roads, enabling us to find spot after spot to investigate. It didn’t take us long before we were turning over old pieces of siding, tin roofing, doors, and furniture on abandon lots.

At one of the many intersections we spotted some debris created by a burned up structure and parked in what was left of a drive-way to investigate. Once out of the car we quickly notice that most of the debris was badly burnt and laying on the bare concrete foundation. Bret said, “this doesn’t look good a proceeded to take an intermission and call his wife while I stood and surveyed my surroundings.

Upon observation it did not look like the actual cover was conducive to finding anything under it. I decided that the remains of a burnt door was all that looked of any good as it was not completely burnt and was still intact. Though it was laying on the concrete foundation I figured that since I was there, I’d look. To my utter surprise upon lifting it up on one edge, there coiled up at one corner was an amazing big female Bull Snake. As soon as she was exposed she began to bolt for the nearby grass growing at the edge of the door, so I quickly grabbed her before she could escape. Upon grabbing the four-foot specimen, I was surprised that she did not proceed to hiss or display in a typical Bull snake manner. She merely cowered into my arms, try to hide its face against my body. I of course yelled out a little celebration cheer, which turned Bret around, giving me a thumbs up while he was still on the phone. He then terminated his call and gave me a high five and a big smile and said congratulations. I then gave him my cell phone for a couple of pictures to immortalize the event. I couldn’t have been happier. We investigated a couple more locations in the area before it got dark, and then headed back to the hotel.

Me and the female Bull Snake

The next day after eating some breakfast, we headed back to the same are that I found the female, in hopes of finding a male to pair her up with. We stopped at a couple of different spots along the way back as we took a different route back to the area. Though we didn’t find any Bulls we were finding other snakes, keeping us optimistic. We then proceeded down the same little road that the female was found and found another vacant lot a couple hundred yards away. It had a dilapidated home that was collapsing in on itself. Upon investigation we discovered several larger pieces of siding to flip. As I stood next to Bret while he lifted the third piece, I watched him reveal a young male Bull Snake. It was his turn to grab the specimen, and again, this young male did not display any of the typical Bull snake behaviors. It was as calm as the female just down the road. Again we celebrated while Bret had it in his hand and posed for a picture to again immortalized the moment. It was another amazing find and the perfect way to end my Kankakee bull Snake adventure.

I’d like to thank Nick Mesa for not only his knowledge of the area, but providing me with some guidance as to where to look for Kankakee Bull Snakes. I’d also like to thank longtime friend Bret Nelson for taking the time out of his very busy schedule to drive me around the Kankakee area. His stimulating conversation, sense of humor, and enthusiasm made it an even more memorable experience. I’m a lucky guy to be able to check one of the boxes on my bucket list.