Succulent Snapper: How to Catch Snapping Turtles

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When learning how to catch snapping turtles, make sure you know how to hold them.
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LEFT: Snapping turtles can't pull their heads all the way in. RIGHT: They can turn themselves over pretty quickly when rolled on their back though. 
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Snapping turtles can be dangerous, but not if you're clear of their jaws and claws.

One of my earliest little-girl memories is of going with my
dad and brothers to catch snapping turtles in the muddy
Auglaize River near Wapakoneta, Ohio. The rugged,
hook-jawed beasts–once pulled ashore and
cleaned–would be cooked into a big pot of turtle soup
or fried to a golden brown in a sizzling hot skillet.

This abundant and practically free source of
delicious protein can be found in almost any body of fresh
water in eastern North America. And though snappers
look mean, they’re a cinch to catch and–
if you know what you’re doing–easy to
handle.

Foraging for the wild meat can be a profitable
business, too! One of my nephews sells uncleaned snappers
for over 50¢ a pound, and a single catch can net him
an average of $7.50. Then there are folks (such as Noble
Isley of Disko, Indiana), who make their living as turtle
hunters and wholesalers. Isley sells dressed meat for $2.50
a pound, and he regularly supplies the product to large
turtle fries … which are becoming very popular at
Legion halls, union gatherings, and friendly neighborhood
hangouts in the Midwest.

What Makes It a Snapper?

Like its relatives, this tastiest of turtles (which bears
the Latin name, (Chelydra serpentina) does have
four legs, a head, and a tail sticking out from under a
shell … but it’s pretty easy to distinguish snappers
from their less feisty kin: Imagine a street fighter at a
ladies’ tea party, and you have about the right amount of
contrast.

A snapper’s shell is a dull (often mossy and algae-covered)
piece of armor without any bright spots or markings, and
neither the turtle’s head nor its tail can ever completely
retract into the protective carapace. The reptile’s front
legs are unusually quick and flexible, and a snapper can
flip from its back to a traveling position in no time at
all. Its yellow feet are tipped by claws as sharp as its
eyes, and its jaws–supported by a thick,
weightlifter’s neck–can amputate a finger
easily
… so be warned!

The snapper’s Achilles’ heel, however, is its tail! Grab it
… hold the creature well away from your body … and
you’ll render this reptilian cousin of “Jaws” almost as
harmless as a bucket of water.

Most snapping turtles have top shells that are about a foot
long and 8 to 10 inches wide. The snappers we hook usually
weigh between 10 and 20 pounds … but 35-pounders are
not unheard of, and very old turtles (zoologists guess the
maximum age to be between 80 and 100 years) may tip the
scales at 50 to 60 pounds. (A cousin of the common snapping
turtle, the “Alligator Snapper,” is found in the lower
Mississippi and its bayous. These big fellows may weigh as
much as 140 pounds, and I don’t recommend that any but the
most experienced turtle hunters tangle with them.)

Snappers hibernate all winter, so you won’t see the
formidable beasts during the cold months. Come spring,
though, they can be found in swamps, wetlands, muddy areas
of streams or lakes, and even in drainage ditches. They
often wait in muskrat holes for prey, and will scour creek
bottoms for tasty morsels. The carnivorous scavengers live
on insects, fish, birds (including ducklings), and any
carrion found in their environment. And, even though
turtles breathe air, they must swallow their food
underwater. (Therefore, if you become affectionately
attached to a snapping turtle, make sure your pet’s new
home has sufficient water to allow the reptile to
submerge.)

Inexpensive Equipment

I guess the methods of catching snappers are as different
as are the people who employ them. The previously mentioned
Isley family tell me that they just boat slowly over a
lake, trailing a stringerful of fish. A
partner–swimming in scuba gear–follows, and
when he sees his prey going for the fish, he quietly swims
up behind the snapper and flips it into the boat. The
Isleys claim they catch hundreds of pounds of turtles in
this way.

A second, more ordinary technique is simply to use turtle
traps. These wooden frames covered with chicken wire are
usually rectangular in shape and measure about 2′ X 2′ X
4′. One-way openings at both ends allow the turtle to enter
the snare and eat the bait, but not to exit. (A hinged lid
on the top of the trap gives the hunter easy access to the
catch.)

The turtle trap must be lowered under the water, fastened by its rope to a convenient tree or stake,
and left until a snapper is caught (or until small fish or
crayfish eat all the bait). Traps are handy for folks whose
property borders a stream, but they can be less than
pleasant to deal with if you have to load the contraptions
into your pickup and cart them all over the countryside.

Probably the easiest and most inexpensive “turtle
tricker” is a plain old hook and line. Such a rig can be
rolled up to fit in your pocket, and should cost less than
a dollar. It can be used in almost any depth of water,
and–if put in the right spot–it’s almost
guaranteed to bring home some meat for the stewpot.

A turtle hook looks like a large fishhook, and is generally
at least one-half inch from the barb across to the shank.
The line should be an extremely stout cord (most fishing
line won’t be strong enough, and could easily cut your
fingers if used to pull in a heavy turtle). Make sure the
hook is securely fastened to the free end of the
line … and to keep your cord untangled, wrap it around
a stick or an empty tin can.

An even simpler rig is a two-foot length of 3/16″ nylon
cord tied to a discarded plastic jug at one end and to a
short steel leader with a heavy hook attached at the other.
Just float it–baited–in any likely looking spot
overnight. (You can secure the jug to a tree on the bank,
but a turtle will usually come in close to shore when it
finds itself hooked, so such an anchor isn’t really
necessary.)

The Best in Bait

Bloody chunks of beef, such as neck bones or oxtails, are
about the best snapper bait. Cut them into pieces
approximately 1 1/2 inches long, and secure the meat firmly
on the hook. (If you just gently “drape” the bait over your
barb, you’ll be surprised later at the hook’s singular
cleanliness … and turtlelessness!)

Friends of ours prefer to lure the turtles with dead fish,
and they keep small “heads-on” perch in the freezer for this
purpose. (Others–folks who supplement their incomes
by trapping fur-bearing animals–like to use muskrat
meat.)

Since turtles are night feeders, it’s best to wait until
evening to set your line. The prime spots are the muddy and
slow areas in a river … places along a bank where some
obstruction (such as a fallen tree) enters the water …
or most anywhere in a creek with lots of sloping banks and
potholes. If you scan the water carefully, you may see a
turtle head or two poking up, and you’ll know you’re near
success.

Check your hook early the following morning if you’ve
snared a turtle, pull it out of the water carefully,
keeping the critter a good distance from your body …
then grab its tail and put it in your bucket or basket. (Be
aware that turtles are much more aggressive on land than in
the water!)

Before you take your snapper home, sprinkle or cover it
with water. Remember, too, that turtles can’t tolerate long
periods in the hot sun, so keep your catch in a cool, shady
spot … preferably in a covered container, such as a
garbage can. As long as it’s sitting in a few inches of
water, the reptile will be fine for several days … but
if you plan to keep a snapper for a week or more, you
should feed it to be sure it stays alive.

The Cleanup

Cleaning a snapping turtle–if you don’t know how to
do it–can be almost as difficult as peeling an
armored tank. If you follow my procedures, however, you’ll
find it to be a fairly simple task … one that can be
accomplished in less than half an hour.

The first step is to cut off the snapper’s head. If the
hook is still in its mouth, you can put a foot on the shell
and use the line to pull the head as far out as possible.
Otherwise, gently tickle its mouth with a stick,
and–when the turtle snaps at this prod–quickly
grasp the outstretched neck with a pair of pliers …
give the turtle a sharp rap on the nose with a piece of
hardwood to anesthetize it … and cut through the thick
(and often surprisingly long) neck with a sharp knife.
(Again, methods vary. My neighbor uses a chopping block and
an axe.) Bear in mind, though, that reflex action keeps a
turtle’s jaws and claws active long after they’ve been
severed … so put any such cutoff members out of reach
of children and family pets.

Now you can tie a stout cord to the tail and hang the
turtle from a tree limb or clothesline to drain the blood
from the carcass. This will take 10-15 minutes, though some
folks prefer to let turtles hang overnight. (Actually, this
step may be omitted altogether, but it makes the rest of
the cleaning chore less bloody.)

Next, put the headless, bloodless carcass on its back,
and–with a sharp knife–cut between the shells
and lift off the bottom one. Remove the entrails from the
top shell. Next, skin the legs, neck, and tail … then
cut these from the body and put them in a pan of cold
water. Finally, you’ll see two nice pieces of meat attached
to the inside of the top shell. Break off the few small
bones covering these chunks, and remove them also. (Snapper
shells , once they’re cleaned and dried, make
unusual dishes or baskets. I used one this past fall in a
flower show, and the result was spectacular!)

Old Family Know-How

Turtles are reputed to have seven different types of meat,
though I must admit I’ve never been able to discern the
various flavors … other than noting that–like
chicken–some of the flesh is light and the rest dark.
I do know some delightful ways to prepare this foraged
delicacy, however.

The following two turtle recipes have been enjoyed in my family
for years … and I can guarantee that they’ll add a
little “wild” variety to your normal dining fare.

To make a hearty turtle soup, boil your skinned turtle
sections until the meat can be removed easily from the
bones. (This step will take about an hour in a pressure
cooker.)

At that point, pick off the meat, discard the bones, and
save the broth. Now–in a 10-quart
kettle–combine the meat and broth with 1/2 of a small
cabbage head, 1 cup of corn, 1 cup of peas, 1 cup of green
or navy beans, 3 carrots, 3 stalks of celery, 6 potatoes,
the juice from 1 lemon, 1 diced onion, and 1 quart of
tomatoes (or tomato juice).

When the vegetables have been simmered until they’re
tender, stir in 3 tablespoons of browned flour, 1 cup of
uncooked noodles, 2 diced hard-boiled eggs, and salt and
pepper to taste … and cook the dish for another 10
minutes.

Then put 1 teaspoon of pickling spice (it’s on the herb
shelf in most grocery stores) in a small muslin bag. Tie
the cloth tightly, drop it into the soup, let the pot
simmer for five minutes more, then remove the bag promptly.

At this point, the soup is done and can be served at once.
Some folks, however, prefer to let the treat slow-cook for
12 to 24 hours. Whatever your preference, be sure to freeze
any leftovers for a quick meal after a busy day.

Fried turtle is another favorite around our house. Small
snappers, between 5 and 10 pounds, are best for this
purpose. Bigger turtles can also be cooked in a skillet,
but will “chew” much better if they’re finished–until
tender–in an oven.

To make this dish, soak the skinned neck, legs, and tail in
cold water in the refrigerator overnight. Drain the meat
and pat it dry, then roll the pieces in flour and set them
aside while you heat 3/4 cup of shortening in a large
skillet.

Add the turtle to the pan when the shortening has melted,
and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Brown the pieces on
each side for about 10 minutes … cover the pan with a
lid … and continue cooking until the portions are
tender. (It should take around 45 minutes.)

If you’re going to finish your fried snapper in the oven,
set the temperature control at 350°F. First brown the
turtle … then put it in a roasting pan, cover it, place
it in the oven, and check the “finger-lickin” meal in about
an hour.

Too Much Luck?

If your turtle hunting brings in more snappers than your
family can consume, remember that a marketplace does exist
for the wild meat.

Hucksters used to peddle snappers from wagons, especially
during the 30’s. Today, many butcher shops and gourmet meat
companies–and even independent groceries–will
handle them. Some outlets are actually
looking for suppliers. (Keep in mind that cleaning
the turtle first will probably more than double your profit
… and be sure to check into any laws that might control
or prohibit the sale of wild meat before you start
selling.)

So get out and forage up a few turtles. Whether you turn
them into a tasty soup, a pan-fried treat, or some easy
profits, I think you’ll agree that snappers are a quarry
worth catching!

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