I’d never seen a dead body before. So, when I pulled one up on the trotline, I reacted like any normal 8-year-old would. I screamed, dropped the line, and slid across the catfish-strewn floor of the boat to hide behind my Uncle Dwight. He killed the engine and looked down at me hiding behind his shoulder with a perplexed look on his face.
“It’s a dead guy,” I said, pointing a trembling finger at the line.
Dwight went up to the bow of the boat and lifted the line. “That’s not a dead guy; it’s a big old snapping turtle.” Without missing a beat, he drew his .45-caliber handgun and shot the turtle through the head. Dwight then lifted the beast from the water and laid it across the bow of the boat. “Grandma will be happy,” he said.
As we motored back to the boat launch, I couldn’t take my eyes off the snapper. It looked like something from the prehistoric era, as if my plastic dinosaur toys had suddenly come to life. When we got back home, Dwight cleaned the turtle and brought the meat to my grandma who fried it up beside a couple catfish filets. It was my first introduction to eating snapper, and after that day, turtle was always on the menu.
Most folks tend to think of snapping turtles as an oddity they see plodding slowly across the road or sliding begrudgingly off a log into the water. Some even look at them as pests that raid minnow and crawfish traps or steal fish off stringers. But, there was a time not so long ago when snapping turtles were seen as a delicacy. Much like frog legs and bear fat, snapping turtle meat is a food of the old world, once common on the dinner plates of the past but one that quickly fell out of fashion. In most states, however, hunting and eating turtles is still perfectly legal with just a fishing or hunting license—although it’s important to do your research so you can properly identify the correct turtle.
There are two species of snapping turtle in the United States: the common snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle. As the name suggests, common snappers are much more common, inhabiting all types of water across the Eastern United States, from Maine to Florida, and as far west as New Mexico. Alligator snapping turtles are more concentrated, only found in 14 states with the highest populations along the coasts of the South. Unlike common snappers, which maintain a healthy population in almost every state they inhabit and can be freely hunted, alligator snapping turtles are on many threatened and endangered species lists with their harvest being heavily regulated. In the state of Louisiana, for example, only one alligator snapping turtle can be kept per person per day, but there are no limits on common snappers. Therefore, it’s vital to know the differences between the two species when you are hunting for them.
Common snapping turtles are smaller and darker in color than alligator snappers, usually weighing between 10 and 25 pounds and coming in a variety of colors, including dark green, gray, and black. Alligator snapping turtles are much larger, weighing up to 120 pounds, and are usually light green or brown. In addition, alligator snapping turtles have a much larger, diamond-shaped head and very prominent jaws. Common snappers have more rounded heads with smaller jaws. Once you can identify a snapper properly, all that’s left is choosing how you want to go after them.
You can find snapping turtles in lakes, rivers, ponds, and creeks across the United States. Though they do sometimes head into deeper, clearer water, they mostly prefer shallow, muddy, or brackish water with a lot of weed growth. Good spots to start looking for turtles are areas with a lot of underwater structure like logs and boulders where turtles can both hide and bask during the heat of the day.
There are a lot of different ways to catch snapping turtles. The most common method is to bait a line rigged with a heavy 4/0 to 6/0 bait hook. Tie the hook to 10- to 20-feet of 50- to 100-pound test monofilament or nylon fishing line. Attach it to a limb close to the water’s edge or to a large jug floating on the surface of the water. Bait the hook with a large chunk of cut bait or even a whole dead panfish.
You can also have a lot of success using meatier baits such as chicken livers or gizzards, which often work better when targeting turtles as they have less chance of being eaten by a passing gar or catfish. You can increase your chances of success by chumming the water around the bait with some fish guts, heads, and skins you’ve left to ripen in the sun for a couple hours. Snappers tend to be more active at night, so it’s best to leave your bait to soak overnight before checking to see if you’ve gotten lucky.
Another common way to catch snappers is by hand fishing. Similar to noodling for catfish, hand-catching turtles is a risky business but can be incredibly effective, especially when targeting turtles in small creeks and shallow ponds. Unsurprisingly, it’s best done in clear water where you can see the turtle before grabbing it, allowing you to grasp it by the tail or back leg, well away from its snapping jaws.
Look for turtles beneath large boulders, undercut banks, and in and around roots balls and hollow logs. Once you find a turtle, slide your hand slowly in behind it, take a firm grip on its tail, and then pull it back towards you quickly away from cover. This will help you prevent the turtle from tangling up in the structure and also from turning around to bite your hand off. Once you have the turtle in the open, grab the edge of its shell just above its head, lift it from the water, and bring it back to shore.
There are other ways to catch turtles, including drawing them in close with bait and snagging them with a hooked line or a large landing net, or even by bowfishing for them in shallow water. Regardless of the method, be sure to check local regulations for legal means of harvest before hitting the water.
There’s not a lot of edible meat on a snapping turtle and most turtle folk only eat the legs and neck. It should also be noted that turtle meat often contains salmonella, and since they often swim in dirty water, it’s best to wear plastic gloves when you’re field dressing them and when handling the raw meat. If you catch your turtle alive, it can be a good idea to keep it in a tub or basin of clean fresh water for 24 to 48 hours before killing and butchering it.
A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of cleaning a turtle with an armored shell that seems almost impenetrable. Yet, when you know how to do it, it’s incredibly easy. To start, remove the turtle's head and then hang it upside down by the tail to drain the blood from the animal. Next, cut and remove the bottom shell by slicing through the joint between the two sections of shell on both sides of the snapper and then pull the bottom shell away from the turtle’s body. Remove the entrails and then cut the legs and neck from the inside edges of the top shell. Using a sharp filet knife, skin out each leg and the neck by sliding the tip of the blade along the length of each piece of meat, and then peel and cut away the skin until you’re left with clean, pink turtle meat. Be sure to cut all the bright, yellow fat off the meat prior to cooking or freezing it, as it has a very strong fishy flavor that can corrupt the meat and make it taste like the bottom of a chum bucket.
The meat of a snapping turtle is fairly unique in the wild game world. A lot of people compare it to chicken but it’s more along the line of pork with a bit of a seafood edge. Like squirrel, most people who try snapping turtle for the first time are utterly surprised with just how good it tastes. It has a firm texture, similar to rabbit, with a very distinct and slightly sweet flavor. It’s great on its own, tossed in flour and then either deep- or pan-fried, but turtle meat really shines in almost any small game or fish recipe. Snapping turtle is perfect for chowders, stews, and soups, and it’s a fantastic substitute for chicken or pork in any sort of mishmash dish like jambalaya or dirty rice. You can also grill turtle meat, parboil it and bake it, or stick it in a crock pot and pick it off the bones.
There’s something mystical about snapping turtles. Whether they’re big or small, every snapper you handle feels like you’re touching some ancient missing link from prehistoric times. They’ve been here since the beginning and, according to some Native American legends, the world itself was formed from earth being placed on a great turtle’s back.
That mysticism is a big part of what makes the pursuit so great. It feels primal, like you’re returning to the very foundations of your being as a hunter, living and surviving as you were always meant to. No matter where or how you catch them, snapping turtles are always going to leave an impression on you—even if it’s just a bit of fear every time you’re pulling up a trotline.