Originally created 07/03/05

Carelessness can be deadly at the lake and in the wild



David Prather considers himself a savvy, knowledgeable outdoorsman.

So when his young son's friend snagged a garfish on a fishing trip and begged to keep his prize, the Columbia County man thought nothing of cleaning it - and cooking it.

"I read an article once, and they called it 'poor man's lobster,' " he said. "When I cleaned it, it had this blackish-gray roe, like you'd envision caviar."

The garfish was grilled and tasted excellent, he said. "Good, white meat, dipped in butter."

Later, he fried the roe. "It turned bright red. I thought, 'this is really going to be good.' "

After barely a forkfull, however, he discarded the rest. "I had just a tiny taste; it was too rich."

Around 4 a.m. the following day, Prather became violently ill, with the sickness lasting for hours and leaving him weak, dehydrated and five pounds lighter.

He learned later, from a colleague at work, that he had eaten a potentially fatal toxin - contained in garfish roe.

"I had no idea," he said. "Now I know better."

Garfish roe is among a host of things outdoorsmen might unknowingly encounter that are potentially harmful.

Some things can be eaten or ingested. Others, like venomous snakes, can simply be encountered.

Although snakes usually bite only if handled or mistreated, there are less and more-dangerous venomous snakes among the few such species living in Georgia.

For example, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the deadliest of all, said Whit Gibbons, a noted herpetologist and author of more than a dozen books on snakes.

"Drop for drop, the venom is 10 times as potent as what you get from a copperhead," he said. "And they inject more than twice as much. So if you're bitten by one you may as well have been bitten by 20 copperheads."

Damaging toxins can originate from less obvious creatures, too. Some of them are caterpillars.

The Augusta area is home to several venomous caterpillar species, and most of them are pretty and harmless looking, said Hartmut Gross, a Medical College of Georgia emergency medicine physician.

The saddleback caterpillar, with its distinct saddle markings and spines on each end, has hollow hairs that can inject stinging venom.

Another example is the puss caterpillar.

"They are hairy, nice, beautiful, furry little thing that almost remind you of a cat," Dr. Gross said. "You almost want to reach out and pet it, but don't."

If it stings someone, they are likely to get a painful sensation. "One of our residents knelt down on one while tying his shoe," Dr. Gross recalled. "They can cause stomach cramps, shortness of breath and intense chest pain."

The assasin bug is another relatively unknown danger.

"They're about an inch long, and gray, and from the side he looks like he has a gear-wheel on his back," Dr. Gross said. "What's unusual about them is they have piercing mouth parts that fold like a jack knife. They don't normally feed on humans, but if you hold them they will pierce you - and they hurt."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.