Turtles and Fishing

Turtle stew, anyone?

A few days ago I was fishing from my dock and noticed a light brown shape under the water several yards from me. It gradually got bigger then a head about the size of my fist came near the surface. A big snapping turtle had taken up residence in the pond.

Snapping turtles are usually very cautious but this one got a gulp of air, gradually sank and eased off. I could follow its progress across the pond since its light brown color showed up in the sun. It would slowly swim about 20 feet then come to the top for air again. It worked all the way across the pond like this until I lost sight of it.

Thursday I was on the dock again and the cloud of bluegill around me waiting on a handout suddenly started acting strange. They would open up and move away from something. Then I saw the light brown shape down deep under them. Slowly the snapper came to the top. I stayed perfectly still and it did not see me although it was only about five feet away.

It got a breath of air then its front end sank down while its rear stayed right on the surface. It floated in this position, looking for all the world like a floating chunk of wood. Its head was pulled back near its shell.

When a bluegill got near its head it would strike out at it. Anyone who has ever held a snapper up by its tail knows they have very long necks and can almost reach around to their tail. This one could strike out about a foot. I saw it try for three different bluegill but it never got one that I saw.

Friday it was back. When it came up a few feet from the dock and went into its hunting position I threw some food past it. The bluegill splashing around made small waves that pushed the floating turtle to the dock. I was able to reach down and grab its tail. When I lifted it out of the water it looked around at me like it wondered what was going on.

The turtle felt like it weighed about 15 pounds and its shell is about 20 inches long and 16 inches wide. I dropped it back into the water and it quickly swam off. I started to kill it then decided there were plenty of bluegill for both of us. Also, I thought I remembered they are a protected species.

We have two kind of snapping turtles around here. The one in my pond was an alligator snapping turtle, often called a loggerhead. They have huge heads and ridges that are almost spikes on their shell. They get big. The one in my pond looked pretty big until I remembered the picture I was shown several years ago. It showed a man standing by a turtle hanging from a tree by its tail, and it was taller than him.

I was told, if I remember right, that the turtle was caught in Lake Blackshear back in the 1960s and weighed 115 pounds. The biggest alligator snapper known is a 236 pounder living at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. There are unverified reports of a 403 pound snapper caught in the Neosho River in Kansas in 1937.

The common snapping turtle is smaller and has a smooth shell. Its head is big but not nearly as big as the alligator snapper. It too has a long tail but it is not as thick as the alligator snapper. The biggest one recorded was 18 ½ inches long.

I found a dead alligator snapper on the dam of my lower pond a few years ago. When stretched out on the tailgate of my truck, with the head and tail fully extended, it came within a few inches of spanning the whole width of the tailgate. The shell was about one third of its length with the head, neck and tail making up the rest.

Another alligator snapping turtle somehow got into a beaver trap I had set out a few years ago. The trap grabbed its head and drowned it. A third one got on a baited hook I had put out for catfish in my lower pond. I caught it soon after some baby geese, the first to every hatch on the pond, disappeared. I thought it may have eaten them but found out it is more likely the parents walked them off.

I have eaten turtle a few times. The first was when I was doing yard work in Athens when I was in college. The lady I worked for usually gave me lunch and one day she had turtle stew. It was pretty good.

Turtles are interesting and our world is full of many kinds, if you just happen to be in the right place at the right time to see them.

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