Summer of the Snapping Turtle

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

By Jack Kredell

One of the first things my grandfather told me when I went to visit him on the Abita River in Louisiana was that if I was bit by a snapping turtle it would not let go until it thundered. I was nine years old then, and in my imagination where the snapping turtle had taken hold with its vice-like jaws, it has yet to thunder. Many years later, after deciding with a friend to make use of the area’s abundant snapper population for turtle soup, I realized he was probably referring to Macrochelys temminckii, the Godzilla-esque alligator snapping turtle, and not the more diminutive common snapping turtle, which can be taken legally throughout the Northeast.

That summer the snappers were everywhere; we saw them splattered on roadsides, roving between water hazards on golf courses, and once, while fishing, I saw a turtle the size of a municipal trashcan lid dart out of the tea-colored depths and give chase to a hooked bluegill. That turtle, which we called King Snapper, became the turtle of our dreams, the turtle of legend against which all other turtles were measured. But we knew that King Snapper would not be caught, or if he was, it come at the price of our sanity and livelihoods, so we focused on small to medium-sized turtles (which were supposedly better for soup).

Catching snapping turtles isn’t as easy as it looks. They’re nimble swimmers and the moss that collects on their shells makes them hard to spot. Our early tactics were based on a series of Youtube videos that showed a guy waist deep in pond scum using a hiking staff to feel for submerged turtles. Armed with newly made turtle staffs, we trudged through the stream behind our houses, stopping every so often to prod the bottom for the knock of a turtle shell. We logged 15 to 20 hours of futility using this method. The closest we got was a set of turtle tracks that ran up a muddy bank. At least they were in the area.

In the meantime, our quest for turtles had become an obsession. We judged lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and wetlands on turtle potential alone. In our new snapper-inspired lexicon things were either turtley-slow, shallow, murky, foul-smelling-or not turtley-fast-moving, rocky, trout infested. If we happened on a clear and fast stream while searching for the turtle gold of stagnancy and putrefaction, we might disdainfully overturn a rock or two before leaving it for some fly tyer to explore. It was useless to us if it didn’t hold turtles. If you could drink the water after boiling it once, maybe twice, it was not interesting to us. Turtle water will kill you. Turtles thrived in human poison. To get closer meant poisoning ourselves.

Or so we thought. As summer progressed we began to refine our methods. We traded in turtle staffs for less labor-intensive jug lines that we manufactured from orange juice and milk containers. We also narrowed down our list of turtle waters to a few nearby lakes and ponds. One of the more promising locations was a shallow, seasonal overflow pond adjacent a popular trout-fishing stream. When I went to scout it I saw a 20-pound snapper furtively slip into the water from a tree stump where it was sunning itself. This was the place. When I got home I called up my turtle partner with the news and we drove over to set up a few jug lines baited with chicken gizzards before it got dark.

Though smaller, the common snapping turtle is no less fierce than its bayou-dwelling cousin. They will claw and bite you if handled improperly. We rode our bicycles over the next morning and found that something had taken the bait. The first line came in without resistance; we found nothing but a severely misshapen 2/0 hook. Whatever was capable straightening a steel hook was an absolute brute. Was it the monster I had seen the day before? When I began to draw in the other jug, which had been pulled from the bank to the middle of pond, I felt the writhing tug of a turtle, and then horror; the mono broke above the leader. Panicked, I waded in to see if I could grab the turtle. The line was caught on a limb and next to it, facing away from me, was a 15 pounder snapping turtle. I moved in and snatched it by its tail. The search was over. I pulled the snapper from the water like a mad turtle baptist.

We put our prize in an army surplus backpack made of thick canvas and started for home. The feeling of the turtle raking my back with its claws as we cycled down the highway filled me with sadness, not to mention a sense of the absurd. I felt sorry for the creature strapped to its own death, struggling to make sense of its dark canvas cell. But I also looked forward to the idea of soup, and to wearing the shell as a breastplate after the apocalypse.

Turtles must be purged before you can eat them. This is done by placing the turtle in a large plastic container and changing the water every other day for two weeks. A turtle is considered purged when you no longer have to change the water after 24 hours. It is also recommended that you bleed your turtle out by cutting off the head and hanging it upside down in the shade for a couple hours. Then comes the hard part. Turtles are resilient – if not the undead – creatures who will fight the butcher’s hand long after the head is removed (I mean for hours). Butchering turtles is not like other animals because the shell restricts your access from the top. Meat must be cut out rather than stripped away with neat linear cuts. Nevertheless, in a few hours the turtle yielded 5-7 pounds of very fresh, clean-looking meat. The soup was incredibly delicious, which we made that evening with the help of my friend’s kids. We topped it off with a little sherry and ate it with a side of sourdough. We were amazed that such a delicate and clean flavor could issue from mud and muck. In terms of flavor the meat is somewhere between alligator and beef, without being as chewy as the former nor as tender as the latter. We were very pleased.

Later that summer, I went back to the lake where King Snapper lived to fish for bluegill. When I arrived I was greeted by a vast wasteland of sun-baked mud. Evidently the state couldn’t afford the repairs needed to fix the dam so the lake was drained. I walked over the hardened flats collecting bits of derelict tackle. The thunder had spoken and the summer of the snapping turtle was over.

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