Catching and Cleaning Snapping Turtles
Snapping turtles are a quality and mostly overlooked food source. It’s too bad because they are fine table fare if they are prepared correctly. Turtle was a major food source for people in a lot of different areas historically and during hard times. Turtle is kind of like a cross between clam and pork but can have a funky smell. There are a hundred myths surrounding snapping turtles. 7 different kinds of meat, each tasting like a different animal is one of the bigger yarns. I can identify two, light meat and dark meat. The light meat is white like frog legs or firm fish, yet has a consistency more like chicken or pork. The dark meat is more like pork or veal
There aren’t a whole lot of secrets to trapping turtles successfully. They can be caught from May through September. And even a little later if it stays warm. Be sure your state doesn’t have a minimum start date. IN Va it’s June 1. Really any gunk hole can hold turtles, but I like a little deeper water. Most every tidal river will have turtles as well.
I have a large beaver swamp that can always produce a few turtles a year. This is about all I use in normal consumption. My wife doesn’t eat it and I’d like not to trap out my holes before a true survival scenario arises. You should rotate through a few different spots. Turtles grow, mature and breed slowly. So, pounding a hole year after year is going to trap it out eventually. Even though we may be legal we are conservation minded here.
When I find a hole, I like to set the trap next to a deeper channel. The trap is maybe 20” tall and I want the floats holding it up, not sitting on the bottom. A little moving water will help to distribute the scent of the bait. For bait, I like Bunker which is an oily fish. It’s common all up and down the east coast. We have a plentiful supply at bait shops around the Chesapeake. Any cut fish will work. Cut oily fish is better. I have not had great luck with meat like chicken. If you can trap or catch a few catfish or other cheap fish to throw in the trap, all the better. I like closed loop systems. I know other guys like beaver or groundhog meat and have good success with them.
For traps, I like and use the Quarles trap. This trap is made on the Eastern Shore of Md. It is about $90 shipped. But the construction of this trap is high quality. And as long as you don’t destroy it, it will probably last a lifetime. This is a wire mesh cylinder with a net throat on one end and a net closing the other end. There are multiple traps out there, like the hoop nets. They work well, could be cheaper and are definitely easier to stack in a boat. But for my needs, I like the Quarles. It has a nice bait box, accessible from the top which is a nice feature.
It’s not uncommon for me to check a 24hr soak and have more than one keeper snapper, at least one throw back and a half dozen sliders. Make sure to check your regs on size. I believe they have to be 9” across the shell front to back to be legal here. After I get them out of the trap, I either stuff them in a back pack or a feed sack and pack them out.
For best quality meat, you need to let them flush for a few days. A week is better, but gets kind of long. I use a 55 gallon drum full of water. Don’t fill it all the way up because if they get a claw on the lip they will get out. Every day I throw in a chunk of fish, a piece of chicken or deer meat. If the water gets real raunchy I will drain most of it and fill it back up. You will notice after a couple days the water stays cleaner longer. This step isn’t absolutely mandatory, but turtles live in some pretty stagnant cesspools and I think flushing them makes it a cleaner process.
The night before you plan to process the turtle, pull it out of the barrel. Getting it to stick its neck out is a chore in itself. It’s hard to force a turtle to extend it’s neck. It can easily turn into a 30 minute chore. Some people say you can use pliers to pull the turtles head out but a turtle’s neck is stronger than my arm. I can think of 3 ways that I have used. Leave it alone for a bit so it relaxes and starts to escape. It will extend it’s neck. Flip it over and it will extend it’s neck to flip back over. Or hold it by the tail and it will stick it’s neck out sideways. This is when you lop its head off with a machete or a hatchet
Once it’s done, it’s best to hang it overnight. It will give it a chance to bleed. A turtle has a very basic nervous system and it’s heart can beat for hours, even after it has been removed from the body. The legs move for hours as well. And it’s kind of irritating to try and butcher a turtle who’s legs are constantly trying to push you off and claw you. It’s nerves should have subsided by the next day. If it’s real hot, you can put it in a cooler on ice overnight.
Split it’s shell on the sides with tin snips. Take the guts out and cut the quarters from the shell. In the top of the shell there are a row of adapted rib bones. Clip these rib bones and fillet out the tenderloins. They are a bit tough to get at, but are some of the most prime meat. Pure white meat. Use a skinny fillet knife to free them.
Some old timers claim if you dip the turtle in boiling water it will help with the funky smell. I’ve never done it, so I can’t say. But I don’t see how it would do much of anything, it’s some of the folklore I was talking about. A quick scrub with a stiff brush does make the chore a little cleaner.
Once I have all the quarters removed I will just skin and freeze. I like to then just throw it in the crock pot and pick the meat off the bones after it’s done. If you plan to cook without freezing, give it a couple or three days to rest in the fridge. I let all my meat do this. It can be slow processing a turtle. Make sure you have a couple hours for your first one. Only attempt processing one your first time.
I think the most common preparation for snapper is soup. Given that these big turtles can be quite old, I like methods that braise them. Soups, dumplings and gravy, that sort of preparation. You’ll have to tune back in for my snapper soup post.