Fisherman Wasn’t Casting For This Bite

George Hesselberg, State Journal, Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Reprint from Wisconsin State Journal, Tuesday, September 16, 2003

One day in July Dennis Franke was inspecting the condition of Black Earth Creek. Franke has been fishing in this famous trout-filled creek since June 1966, long before he moved here in 1992. Franke is a trout-fishing expert, and he makes a living designing and building the rods that anglers use to catch fish. Franke knows this creek – he lives along it, on Highway KP – and he knows fish stories. He now has one of his own, but it is not really about fish.

“I was walking through the high grass, and I felt a sort of deep prick, to the skin of the calf on my lower right leg,” he recalled. “I felt a warmth, and then a gradual dissipation of that warmth,” he said. Since there are lots of nettles in that particular area, he assumed he had been stuck by a nettle that went through his lightweight, nylon trousers.
Later that night, after spending time picking up storm debris, he had “a lot of achy joint and muscle pain,” which he attributed to the cleanup. The next day, a Monday, it was just as bad, only with a fever added. “Tuesday I was feeling so bad with fever and joint pain, I went in to the emergency room” of St. Mary’s Hospital.

The disputed consensus was a spider, possibly the notorious brown recluse spider, had bitten him. The spot was swollen, dark in the center. He went home and read up about venomous bites. He was treated with anti-inflammatory
painkillers, but he did not get better. He got worse. He was admitted to the hospital, hooked up to a feeding tube and spent three days in the intensive care unit. He developed hives.

“The doctors said they didn’t know what it was, but they would just have to nurse me through it. I went through fever, chills, rigors, shaking, sweats, no appetite. I was totally soaking wet most of the time,” he said. Because of the tissue damage around the wound, he was sent to a plastic surgeon, Dr. John F. Noon. “I told him the story and showed him the wound and he said, ‘that’s not a spider bite, that’s a rattlesnake bite, that is just the way it looks,’” said Franke.

For further proof, Noon suggested Franke bring in the trousers he was wearing that day. After lining up the wound with the trouser leg, a magnifying glass disclosed two brown marks, 5/8 of an inch apart. Those, Noon said, showed where the snake’s fangs went through the trouser, into Franke’s leg. Noon said Franke had been bitten by a swamp rattler, also known as a massasauga (sistrurus catenatus), a rare and endangered snake and one of only two types of venomous snakes found in Wisconsin. “They live in burrows at the edge of creeks and in the long grass. Dennis is walking along
and feels this on the side of his leg and only later does he see the two fang marks in his pants. The whole clinical course of this case shows (poisoning with venom) by snake.

“Most healthy adults will tolerate a rattlesnake bite without dying. It depends on how much venom is given. Apparently rattlesnakes can control how much, as a warning. They won’t give you a big shot, they are not interested in eating you, just in scaring you away from their lair.”

Noon said there is ample anecdotal evidence of the presence of swamp rattlers in the Black Earth Creek area. Franke probably suffered more than usual for this bite because he wasn’t aware he had been bitten, Noon suggested. “What happens is that the body can have various reactions to the venom, a local reaction can be tissue damage, a systemic reaction can lead to vascular collapse and death. You have to get help quickly, and usually within 12 to 24 hours you are out of the woods. Dennis got very ill because nobody knew what it was and he delayed coming in,” he said. “And to be
honest, we don’t see very many snake bites. Only a trout fisherman, like Dennis, or someone who travels in those areas where the snakes tend to be, are going to run into them.”

Bob Hay, an endangered resources specialist with the Department of Natural Resources, strongly doubts Franke was bitten by a swamp rattler. He said there have been only two reported bites by that type of snake in Wisconsin since the early 1970s, and no reported sightings of the snake in the area where Franke was walking when he was bitten.

He was not only skeptical of the swamp rattler story, he also said it was unlikely Franke was bitten by a timber
rattlesnake. “If he had been bitten by a timber rattlesnake, the bite itself is unbelievably painful, and the swelling alone would have stretched the fabric in his pant leg,” said Hay. Franke said he will present his entire health file to the DNR for investigation.

His experience has been the talk of Trout Unlimited meetings, and his follow-up has a curious ending, too. The first week of September, he was exercising by walking around nearby Salmo Pond, which is adjacent to the Black Earth Creek.

“I was looking up at the cottonwoods, and when I looked down on the path, in front of me, I see a snake. It’s about 3 feet long, dark brown, mottled, and it crosses my path going from Black Earth Creek to Salmo Pond. I started going down to the pond to look for it when I thought, wait a minute, I already know this guy.”

That would rattle anybody.