What Are Soft Shell Turtles?

Forty or fifty years ago, it was rare to see soft shell turtles on our lakes. But for the past ten years or so I have been seeing more and more of them while fishing. Soft shell turtles are seldom seen out of the water, but they look very distinctive when near the surface.

Common painted turtles that we often see sunning on rocks and logs in the water have a dark shell and yellow markings. They are everywhere, and I see them so often I even named a cove at Clarks Hill “Turtle Cove” there were always so many in it.

Soft shell turtles, named Florida Softshell Turtles, are a different family from other more common turtles. They are much flatter and look brown in the water. Rather than the sharp beak-like nose of other turtles, softshells have a long hog-like nose. And they have very long necks and much bigger webbed feet.

Softshells spend most of their lives lying on shallow, muddy bottoms, blending in with the mud. They don’t move around much. Their long neck and snout allow them to stick their nose above the surface to breathe. Bigger ones can extend to the surface from more than a foot deep. They feed on fish that swim by, grabbing them in their mouth by shooting their neck out.

The first softshell I ever saw was one caught on a trotline at Clarks Hill back in the 1950s. We were camping at Germany Creek and someone else in the campground brought it in. It was as big as a #2 wash tub.

Back then folks put out a lot of hooks for catfish, and sometimes, but rarely, caught a softshell turtle. If one was caught it was cleaned and eaten, since softshells are much easier to clean than other turtles. I think that is the reason they were so rare back then. Few people run hooks for catfish now so a big threat to the turtles has been removed.

The biggest one I have ever seen, and the only one out of the water sunning they I ever saw, was lying on a log at Lake Hartwell. It was huge, at least three feet across its back. Most of the time they are very shy and spooky but this one let me get close enough to get a good look before splashing into the water.

This time of year, turtles, including softshells, crawl out of the water to lay their eggs in holes they dig on the bank. You are much more likely to see them in the shallows. At Hartwell last week, in one small sandy cove, I counted five of different sizes. The biggest was about two feet wide and the smallest about a foot across.

In the ten days I fished Hartwell I saw more than a dozen softshells. I am glad they entertained me since I didn’t see or catch many bass!

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