The Business End- Terminal tackle for turtles consists of a stout hook, wire leader and chunks of freezer-burned venison shoulder
As I straightened up to give my aching lower back a rest, I looked over the assorted entrails and miscellaneous fluids splashed across the table in front of me.
At that moment I realized I’d rather be playing cards. Instead, on a whim, I had decided to go turtle-catching.
The common snapping turtle, those moss-covered second cousins of the alligator, is found throughout the state in almost any body of water that doesn’t dry up completely during the summer months. Catching them isn’t the problem as turtles are always hungry and happy to eat nearly anything that doesn’t eat them first. The problem is how to dispatch and butcher the profoundly foul-tempered beasts because, after all, the snapping turtle is the Sherman tank of the aquatic world.
Aside from a tough shell and long claws, the jaws of the snapper are some of the most fearsome dentures on any Hoosier wildlife. The turtle doesn’t have actual teeth but rather bony gums forming a self-whetting pair of meat cleavers attached to a creature with a terminal bad attitude. Should a stray finger get too close to the lightning-fast head, future typing assignments will become challenging.
It is important to note that the previously liberal turtle regulations have changed drastically. The Indiana Natural Resources Commission recently voted on May 18 to reduced the bag limit while adding a minimum size and closed season. Now, you may only take four turtles per day and they must have a shell (carapace) that is at least 12 inches in length. Turtles may now only be taken from July 1 until March 31 and you must have either a hunting or fishing license to pursue the critters.
Methods for taking turtles in Indiana include fishing equipment or hand grabbing, if you are legally insane. Turtle traps may be used but must have an opening above the surface of the water. Softshell turtles are also legal game but seldom hunted in Indiana.
The easiest and arguably most productive method for catching turtles is by the use of a setline. Though they can sometimes be caught through the ice, warmer weather is far more productive. My own favorite time is right now, early summer, as the cantankerous critters are active looking for both food and love. Note that the new rules prevent turtle hunting until July 1.
On the most recent attempt, my rig consisted of a medium-sized trotline hook tied to three feet of heavy cord and affixed to a plastic milk jug, which in turn was tied to ten more feet of cord and a stout stake on shore. The bait was a two inch cube of venison shoulder from the freezer. Five of the floats were tossed into a nearby pond just after dark and I retired from the field of honor.
Just before first light the next morning I made my way down the dirt lane to the pond, shivering slightly in the cool air while marveling (and avoiding) thousands of dewy spider webs that suddenly shimmered like golden lace as sun sleepily peeked just over the horizon.
Cresting a small rise I could see the pond and my jugs, at least one of which was dancing wildly, straining against the heavy black line anchored to shore. Moments later, after a brief tug-of-war, I was the proud owner of a large, hissing, unhappy snapping turtle. It was given temporary residence in a large plastic bucket while I checked the other lines.
The catch for the night amounted to one snapper and two other lesser turtles: a small soft-shell and a painted pond slider. The pond slider and soft-shell were gingerly released and I headed home to begin the chore of unzipping my snapper.
Turtles have earned their bullet-proof reputation. Essentially, you must dismember the armor-plated beast and then skin the various legs and tail to access the meat. This seems fairly simple in theory, but actual practice is another story. There was also the not-insignificant fact that, while I have witnessed many a turtle-cleaning, this was my first time to wield the knife personally.
Approaching the outdoor operating table with the confident air of a surgeon, I surveyed the situation. My victim had already been humanely killed by chopping off the head, but this did not really seem to deter the turtle. The legs were still flailing and would actually attempt to push and scratch when touched. In fact, the turtle still seemed quite healthy in spite of its missing head. Confidence was beginning to fade.
I now began the process of cutting away the lower carapace to expose the insides. Needless to say, the turtle was having none of this affair and continued its vain and ghoulish struggles. As time passed, my mood went from Confident to Bothered and finally onward to Tremendously Upset. Attempting to dissect a thrashing zombie turtle had not been on the agenda for the morning.
Forging ahead, I managed to remove the lower shell and found myself wrist-deep in a ready-made bowl full of turtle glop. I began flailing away, cutting, gouging, pulling and occasionally pounding for good effect but with no real discernible results other than splashing an assortment of vile, foul-smelling juices onto my arms, shirt and face. The meaty portions of the beast remained firmly anchored while all manner of repulsive items continued to spill onto the table and over the side, ending up on my boots.
Eventually, two large plastic bags of meat were recovered from the loathsome parade of turtle giblets covering the entire tabletop. The butchering process had taken over an hour, not including the clean-up that would eventually require a pressure washer and bleach scrub down of the entire area, including a passing beagle. I now understood why some people pay to have their turtles cleaned by someone else.
Several pounds of meat had ultimately been wrestled from this turtle and later proved a delicious deep-fried accompaniment to a platter of fresh rock bass. Smacking my lips on the last savory piece, I decided the effort was worth the trouble.
That is, assuming you weren’t downwind of my boots.