Okefenokee Joe: The SwampWise Legacy
He may the best friend a snake ever had in Georgia and one of America’s greatest snake hunters ever. But he’s so much more. He’s a self-educated naturalist, an expert on animal behavior and a gifted singer and storyteller who has enthralled audiences young and old with his popular snake and wildlife programs for well over 40 years.
During those 40 years, the man most Georgians recognize today as “Okefenokee Joe” became an institution in Georgia, standing up for numerous conservation issues and always teaching respect for wildlife and nature.
Born in Philadelphia in 1932, Joe attended a YMCA camp in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania from the age of 8 to 18. It was there he developed his love for camping and the great outdoors. He spent his days catching snakes and studying nature and his evenings strumming his guitar and singing to his cabin mates. After high school, three years of roughing it in the Army in hotspots like Korea helped cement his love for Mother Nature.
For 19 years, from 1954 to 1973, Joe made his living in Nashville as a singer and songwriter. In those days he went by his given name of Dick Flood, and he wrote a number of successful songs and traveled internationally with his own band. During those Nashville years, he was highly respected by his peers and became good friends with many of the country greats of that period. Several of his pop and country songs were recorded by the likes of Roy Orbison, George Hamilton IV and Porter Wagoner. Joe was a frequent guest on the Grand Ole Opry, and in 1956 he was given a regular spot on the Jimmy Dean TV Show. One of Joe’s proudest achievements in music occurred in 1962 when his song, “Trouble’s Back in Town,” recorded by The Wilburn Brothers, hit the charts as the No. 1 song of the year.
It might seem like he had the world by the tail, but in early 1973, at the age of 41, all was not well in Music City. Although he had supported two wives and five sons through his singing and song writing, and by his own words earned a “pretty good living,” his first marriage had broken up two years earlier, and his second marriage was on the rocks. The country music business had its rewards, but Joe never got that big break everyone always talks about. When his second marriage dissolved, forcing a divorce he did not want, he was disillusioned and heartbroken.
Joe packed up his meager belongings, including his guitar, and headed as far south as he could go, leaving show biz and 19 years of his life behind in the dust.
A few days later he found himself deep in the Everglades near Homestead, Fla., where he camped alone for three months. For a man with a broken heart, being out in the wilds of the ‘glades alone for that period of time proved to be a breath of fresh air. Joe realized he had a real affinity for living off the land—fishing, catching crabs and shrimp, shooting an occasional deer during deer season, and finding other edibles. He relished every minute of it.
Then a good friend who operated the Okefenokee Swamp Park near Waycross offered him a job working with the animals in the park, and after his self-imposed hiatus in the Everglades, with no better prospects in sight, Joe, and an energetic mixed-breed mutt he named “Swampy” that had taken up with him, headed north to the “land of the trembling earth.”
He had nothing to lose.
Goodbye Dick Flood, Hello Okefenokee Joe
Little could he imagine that he would find his true calling, working with wildlife in the vastness of America’s largest swamp wilderness.
A long-abandoned cabin in the swamp that needed considerable work served as home to Swampy and Joe for the next nine years, along with a stray cat named Skeeter that Joe and Swampy adopted.
“In hindsight, taking that job was probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” Joe said later.
With his diverse skills and his love of nature, Dick Flood the Nashville country singer/songwriter became Okefenokee Joe the naturalist, conservationist and resident snake expert.
Within a few months Joe became a high-profile and popular ambassador for the park and its wildlife. He easily worked into the multi-faceted positions of animal curator, animal keeper and resident herpetologist.
The list of animals under Joe’s care in the park included a small deer herd, four black bears, 13 alligators and a variety of local mammals including raccoons, ’possums and bobcats, as well as a variety of snakes, both venomous and non-poisonous.
At the time the park’s best-known animal celebrity was Oscar, the free-roaming alligator nearly 14-foot-long that hundreds of tourists had come to know and love and look for on a regular basis. Oscar was a fixture at the park from its inception in 1946 until his death in 2007. The gator was thought to have been nearly 100 years old when old age finally caught up with him. Oscar’s legacy was insured thanks to Don Berryhill, a friend of Joe’s and noted authority on the ecology of the Okefenokee Swamp, who along with Jim Brewer and many other volunteers gave of their time and skills by piecing Oscar’s bones together like a massive dinosaur and putting them on display in the park.
By being with the animals every day, Joe became well-versed in wild animal behavior. Slowly but surely, the one-time singing star came to believe that the creator made every living thing from the smallest insect to the largest alligator for a reason. With his natural gift for storytelling, performing and sharing knowledge, Joe began doing numerous programs about snakes and other park critters. He always tried to instill a message of respect for nature and its creatures. He became the park’s good-will ambassador for preserving not only his beloved snake friends, but wildlife everywhere. Within a few years, people started referring to him as the “Johnny Appleseed of the Okefenokee.”
Catching ‘Em Asleep
Joe’s hands-on job at the park evolved into one of the most unusual and unique sidelines in the South—he and several like-minded snake experts began going on snake-hunting expeditions in parts of south Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. Often he went by himself, catching both poisonous and non-poisonous snakes alike. The non-poisonous snakes, mostly king snakes and rat snakes, were sold to pet shops and collectors. Poisonous snakes were sold to research labs. It was hardly a profitable business, but each expedition was a true labor of love and a true joy for Joe and his friends.
Interestingly, Joe always tried to catch most of his snakes while they were sleeping or inactive.
“They seek out warm dry places like underneath old sheets of roof tin near old barns, and when you find them in these situations, they are usually asleep and very easy to catch. Once they wake up and start moving, they are much harder to catch.”
That goes for both poisonous and non-poisonous snakes alike.
In those days, cell phones were still a few decades away, and Joe frequently spent all day by himself in very isolated areas, often on remote coastal islands accessible only by boat. If he got into trouble, he had only himself and Swampy to depend on. Joe became an expert at catching Georgia’s three most common venomous snakes—the cottonmouth, the canebrake rattler and of course, south Georgia’s diamondback, the largest of the rattlesnake species in America. Occasionally he got lucky and caught a coral snake or two. On his best day ever, he caught seven eastern diamondbacks.
Once, while snake hunting on an isolated island in southeast Georgia in knee-high grass, he walked right up to the tail-end of an alligator lying partially hidden in the grass in front of him. Thinking the gator was dead because it hadn’t moved or spooked upon his approach, he reached down to grab it by the tail and turn it over. With lightning speed, the “dead” 4-foot alligator suddenly came to life. It twisted around and grabbed Joe across his midsection. Thinking quickly, Joe jabbed the gator in the ear opening, a very tender spot to gators. It let go, and he was able to throw it off before any real damage could be done. Joe wasn’t sure whether he, or the alligator, had been more surprised. For the man who later coined the term “SwampWise,” that was not very swamp wise at all, he says with a smile whenever he tells this story.
Don’t Get Snake Bitten
Although he has been bitten dozens of times by harmless snakes, of the hundreds of venomous snakes he caught and handled, he was only bitten once. That occurred early in his snake hunting career in the mid 70s. He had captured a cottonmouth while on a snake hunting trip to Florida. The snake was safely tucked away in a cloth bag on the floorboard of his van on the passenger side. He reached down to grab something on the floor, and the snake bit him on the hand through the cloth bag. He drove himself to the nearest hospital and spent one night there. He was never in any serious danger, but it proved to be an expensive mistake.
“You don’t ever want to get bitten,” he says with authority. “My hospital bill was close to $50,000.”
After nearly 10 years of working in the park, Joe developed a widespread reputation as a speaker and advocate for snakes and other swamp creatures. He decided to leave the park and become a full-time spokesperson for snakes and other wildlife. He soon had a thriving business doing his unique brand of programs at schools, hunting shows, Indian Festivals and numerous other outdoor events across the South where wildlife was featured.
“From the first day, I fully believe that God wanted me to do what I was doing,” Joe said.
Admittedly, many sportsmen are afraid of snakes and either kill them on sight or keep their distance, and Okefenokee Joe became a relentless ambassador for their conservation, teaching young and old alike about the “joy” of these much misunderstood creatures. His mission always was to foster an appreciation for wild places and the creatures that lived there. Often he would pick up his guitar and sing one of his amazing songs about swamp creatures and taking care of Mother Earth.
By the late 80s, Joe had endeared himself to countless thousands of Georgians who attended his programs, and he was asked to host a TV special on GPTV about the Okefenokee Swamp. The Emmy Award winning production of “SwampWise” was so popular that he soon did a second special for public television called “The Joy of Snakes.” Over the next decade, both shows were aired dozens of times to Peach State viewers.
One of Joe’s famous catch phrases often mentioned in songs is: “If you don’t need it, leave it.” In other words, if you’re going to cut down a tree, have a good reason. Try to always leave nature as you found it. And when it comes to snakes, probably the world’s most persecuted species since Adam and Eve, Joe has these words of wisdom: “God created the snake to do exactly what he does. The snake doesn’t want to bite you; he just takes from nature only what he needs and nothing more.”
Facing several health issues, Joe officially retired from doing programs in 2014 at age 81. After more than 40 years of doing countless nature and snake programs across the South, it was time to take a well-deserved break. But the important messages he has shared with so many people continue to inspire. In one of his recent albums, he sings a moving ballad titled “It’s only a Tree.” It begins, “It’s only a tree, Just one more tree, Who cares if it lives to dies? It’s only a tree, What’s one less tree, Who’d miss it? You’d be surprised.” Of course, Joe’s underlying message is that everything in nature has its purpose and is tied together in some way. He goes on to say, “Life is intertwined, And somewhere down the line, Somehow we’re all connected to that tree.”
Over the years Joe has received numerous awards and accolades. In 2015, at the age of 83, under his given and stage name of Dick Flood, he was inducted into the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2019, at 86 years young, Joe was inducted into the Georgia Outdoor Writers Hunting and Fishing Hall of Fame.
When you talk to this amazing man about his favorite subject, snakes, his spirit and enthusiasm is reminiscent of a teenage boy preparing to go on his first deer hunt. It may well be that Okefenokee Joe is the greatest snake hunter alive. He’ll always be young at heart, and he’ll always continue to inspire those around him about the wonders of nature.
His book, SwampWise, tells about his life in the swamp as Okefenokee Joe.
His audio book “SwampWise – Secrets Songs & Stories from the Land of the Tremblin’ Earth!” is a collection of “swampwise” secrets with 42 original songs. His book Snake Hunter, Snake Talk tells about his amazing adventures as a snake hunter. His soon-to-be-published autobiographic book, Walk Among the Stars, tells all about his 19-year singing career in Nashville.
For more information, go to www.okefenokeejoe.com.
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