MIDDLE BASS ISLAND - Balancing on the rocky Lake Erie shoreline, Arthur Wolf leans over, lifts a rock, and plunges his right hand underneath.
“I have one!” the boy shouts, waving his arm. In his fist is a Lake Erie water snake, its wispy, brown and gray body wriggling back and forth. “He keeps trying to get out of my hand.”
“I just saw another one,” calls Kristin Stanford, a snake expert from Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on nearby Gibraltar Island. “There's like six under every rock here.”
“I told you this was a good spot,” Arthur tells her, his eyes shining with excitement.
He ought to know. At age 7, Arthur Wolf has made a name for himself on Middle Bass Island for his prowess in finding and catching snakes.
Island homeowners and visiting handymen, who wouldn't dream of going near one of the slithering reptiles themselves, sometimes call Arthur's parents to see if he can remove a snake.
Margie Wolf, Arthur's mother, recalled a visit from a house painter who had come across snakes at his job site.
“He came to the front door and said, `I need your son,'” she said, laughing. “I told him, `He's at school now, but I'll send him over when he gets home.'”
Ms. Stanford and Julie Ray, a graduate student who also works at Stone Laboratory, count on Arthur to collect snakes for them to measure, weigh, and tag as part of conservation efforts. Arthur's father, Art Wolf, is senior boat captain for the lab.
“Art came to me one day and said, `My 5-year-old son is obsessed with snakes. You really should come and meet him,'” Ms. Stanford recalled. “Every time he calls and tells me he has snakes, we usually end up coming over.”
Middle Bass Island is home to four types of snakes: garter, brown, fox, and Lake Erie water snakes, which are considered endangered by the federal government. All are nonvenomous.
Most days, Arthur hunts for snakes under rocks, logs, and construction debris. He carries his catches home in pillowcases and dumps them into a plastic yellow garbage barrel.
He keeps his pets for a day or two, watching and playing with them. Then he lets them go and hunts for new ones.
With so many snakes, it's hard to pick a favorite, but this day, Arthur decides he likes the fox snake best.
“They like being held,” he says. “But they will bite when you're trying to pick them up.”
Ask Arthur about being bitten, and he shrugs.
“It's like a little pinch,” he says. “One made me bleed a little bit once. He bit me on the thumb. I'm surprised I don't have marks all over my hands.”
Mrs. Wolf says she has adjusted to the idea of having snakes around her house.
“I didn't used to like them very much, but I'm getting used to them,” she says. “You have to check his pockets before you wash his clothes. Before he goes to school in the morning, we always ask him, `Do you have anything in your pockets?'”
Not everyone in the boy's family shares his affection for the reptiles.
“I don't like them,” Gloria Wolf, Arthur's grandmother, says firmly. “When Arthur comes to my house, I check his pockets.”
Every day after school, Arthur's mother meets him at the boat dock near the former Lonz Winery. On this warm, sunny afternoon, he walks briskly up the dock, backpack slung over his shoulder.
“How was school today?” Mrs. Wolf asks, putting an arm around her son. “What did you do today?”
“Nothing,” Arthur replies. “Nothing I wanted to do.”
Soon, the boy is climbing over the guardrail onto the rocks beside the dock. Several beefy construction workers gather at the rail, watching him, Ms. Stanford, and Ms. Ray comb through the rocks for snakes.
“They're going right after them,” marvels Brad Clark of Monroeville, Ohio, shaking his head. “They said there's no poisonous ones on the island.”
“To me, they're all poisonous,” replies Chris Hafner of Reedtown, Ohio. “I run like a little schoolgirl from them.”
The group has little luck near the dock, so they drive toward the island's western shoreline. There, the hunting is good. In less than half an hour, they scoop up 20 water snakes.
Next, the hunters visit a farm and find a few brown snakes under sheets of metal roofing.
“They like this tin stuff, because it gets warm underneath,” Ms. Ray says.
With dinnertime approaching, it's time to head home. Arthur finds two garter snakes under his “snake trap,” a two-foot square piece of plywood resting in the backyard.
The last place to look is a storage shed behind the house. Arthur and Ms. Stanford pick through boxes and tools, then find a surprise under a board.
“Ooh, I see one - it's a garter snake,” Ms. Stanford exclaims. It's an adult about two feet long. “Go ahead, it won't bite,” she tells Arthur.
The boy stands back and lets her pick up the snake, which has gold and dark brown stripes that go from the head to the tail.
To a visitor, the snake looks big, but Arthur says he's seen bigger. “I caught a six-footer one time, a fox snake,” he says.
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