Claim: An unlucky waterskier topples into a nest of deadly water moccasins.
I heard this story when I was in about the sixth grade or in about 1966. It occurred at Guntersville Lake [Alabama] over on the back waters where there's still tree trunks and things like that. Under the surface of the water it's pretty shallow, and it seems that there's a barbed wire fence that is still stretched under there from when before the waters were backed up that far.
One time these people were skiing back over there, and this guy was skiing, and they made a wide turn into this area and he got caught on the barbed wire — this old rusty barbed wire that was still submerged under the water. And when he fell, he fell into a bed of snakes — water moccasins or something like that.
When they came back around to get him he started hollering, and when they got to him they found he'd been bitten about 40 or 50 times and he died from this accident.
[Collected on the Internet, 1994]
A family is waterskiing down on the lake one weekend. The mother loses her grip in a turn and goes underwater near the shore. She surfaces screaming "barbed wire!", thinking her legs are stuck in barbed wire. Her family pulls her into the boat, only to find that it's not barbed wire, it's a nest of water moccasins!
Origins: Though it's hard to tell when this story of a hapless waterskier falling into a nest of snakes began, it was very popular in the Mississippi Delta during the late 1960s. In another common version of the tale, an intrepid lad yells "Last one in is a rotten egg!" then
dives into a mass of snakes writhing just below the surface of the water. His calls to his friends warn them to not follow him in even as the snakes continue to bite him.
As horrific as either of these tales are, they couldn't have happened as described. Water moccasins don't form "nests" in the water; they're solitary creatures, and even their young quickly go their own ways after coming into this world. But this legend casts water moccasins (or cottonmouths, as they're also called) as the villains because these are the only venomous aquatic snakes in the United States, and to make this legend work, you need a snake that likes water. So water moccasins are the only baddies that will do.
According to snake expert William Hutchins:
[Cottonmouths] do not form nests or live in colonies, nor do the ones in our state [Florida] meet in hibernacular dens. They eat a variety of creatures, including their own kind, so they tend to be solitary animals. They bear live young that scatter as soon as they are born, and the babies are afforded no maternal care. They will vigorously defend themselves if molested but are not overly aggressive.
Contrary to popular legends, there are no documented cases of anyone suffering multiple snake bites from tumbling into an aggregation or cluster of water moccasins. In fact, human deaths attributed to that species are less than one person per year — out of more than 250 million Americans.
Other snake experts point out that water moccasins frequently don't inject venom when striking in an effort to defend themselves. Though anti-venom does exist to treat those bitten by cottonmouths, it's not employed in every case, as the bites are not seen as life-threatening. The wounds will hurt like the dickens, and there's a very real possibility they will permanently damage tissue in the victim, but they are highly unlikely to prove fatal.
Barbara "herpet theory, anyway" Mikkelson
Sightings: The unlucky waterskier legend is mentioned in Willie Morris' 1967 novel North Toward Home. The incautious swimmer tale shows up in Lisa Alther's 1976 book Kinflicks. And though it lacks either a foolhardy waterskier or overly-enthusiastic swimmer, Larry McMurtry's 1985 novel Lonesome Dove (made into a television mini-series in 1989) contains a memorable "underwater nest of water moccasins" scene.