By Steve Weisman
When many people hear the words snapping turtle, they cringe thinking about what that sharp, hook-shaped mouth could do to an unsuspecting finger! Yet there are individuals who relish the opportunity and the challenge of catching, cleaning and eating snapping turtles. At the same time, there are approximately100 commercial harvesters in the state of Iowa that will catch or buy turtles from others, and then clean and sell turtle meat to a growing customer base.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regulations allow the non-commercial taking of turtles by Iowans to a maximum of 100 pounds live weight per year or 50 pounds of cleaned turtle meat. These individuals are only required to have a fishing license. Commercial harvesters, meanwhile, can trap an unlimited number of turtles the year around. They must pay a $100 annual license fee and report their harvest monthly to the DNR.
DNR regulations allow turtles to be taken only by hand, turtle hook, turtle trap or hook and line. Turtle traps must have no more than one throat or funneling device. All turtle traps must have a functional escape hole provided with a minimum diameter in all directions of 7-1/2 inches to allow passage of fish and small turtles. On hoop type traps the 7-1/2 inch escape hole shall be located in the last hoop to the tail-line. Any unattended gear used to take turtles must have a metal tag bearing the owner’s name and address. All turtle traps must be lifted and emptied of their catch at least once every 72 hours.
Certainly, snapping turtles are sometimes caught by accident, but to purposely catch one requires knowledge of the snapping turtle’s life, its environment and what it eats. For this background, I used information from pamphlets from the Iowa Naturalists and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
About snapping turtles
Their range is across the eastern United States to the Rocky Mountains, from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and into Central America. They are best known for their long tail and their large head, long neck and sharp hooked, upper jaw. Hence the nickname “snapper.” They are known to be relatively docile in the water, but on land they become much more aggressive, and since they cannot completely hide within their shell like other turtles, they use their beak, aggressively snapping toward their aggressor.
They can be found in creeks, rivers, marshes, creeks, swamps, bogs, pools, ponds, lakes and impoundments. They do prefer slow-moving water (river or creek) and a soft muddy or sandy bottom. Depending on the size of the water area, their home territory can be up to 20 or more acres.
Snapping turtles are omnivores eating both plants and animals. They’re not picky and will eat about anything live or dead – aquatic plants, fish, frogs, crayfish, young birds, etc. Young turtles will forage for their food, but the older adults will lie in wait, motionless in the water and ambush their prey and attacking with their powerful jaws.
Average size is 15-25 pounds (they get much larger), and they can live 40 or more years in the wild. The older, the more they weigh, but instead of getting much bigger around, they get thicker. Although they usually remain in their natural environment, snapping turtles do become vulnerable during the breeding season (April-June in Iowa), when the female will leave the water in search of a place to dig a nest and deposit anywhere between 20-40 eggs. During this time, many adult females are hit on roadways as they cross to a nesting area. The female will dig a shallow nest in a sandy, well-drained sunny location and then cover them. The eggs are then left to hatch (80-90 days later) and the hatchlings are on their own to make it to water. Often times, the eggs are deposited on the edge of a gravel road and predators such as raccoons, skunks, dogs and even birds will ravage the nest.
As late fall approaches, they will burrow into mud and leaf debris, beneath tree snags or in undercuts of a bank and often hibernate for the winter. However, some people have witnessed seeing them moving beneath the ice (clear).
Catching snapping turtles
To share this part of the story, I visited with a northwest Iowa man, who spent over 50 of his 77 years catching snapping turtles: Ed Kabele from Spirit Lake. “When I was 15 years old, I was working at Stoller’s Fisheries in Spirit Lake. So did Red Thompson. He caught turtles and asked me one day if I wanted to hunt turtles. I said sure.” Kabele remembers that they got $.08 a pound for live turtles. “That was good money then considering we were getting paid $.75 an hour at Stoller’s.”
That began a lifetime of hunting snapping turtles, first for himself, and then as a commercial harvester and owner of Kabele’s Trading Post, where he and his wife, Alice ran a bait shop in the front and later a fur harvester business in the back addition. It was here that Kabele brought his own turtles to clean, along with turtles brought in by others. He even began dressing out turtles for two major companies. Kabele remembers prices creeping up over the years from $.30 to $.50 and eventually up to $5.00 a pound for cleaned turtle meat when he retired. The spike in prices came with the increased demand for turtle meat in the Asian market.
“You can figure on a 15-pound snapper that you can get about 1/3 meat.” At first, Kabele would place the meat in cans packed in ice, but later he would vacuum-pack them in 1½-pound packages. In addition, he had a source for the turtle shells and the claws.
According to Kabele, there are many ways to hunt snapping turtles, but the turtle trap is his favorite. “I would build 150 traps a year, because a lot would get torn apart or go downstream in high water. So, I was always rebuilding traps. Snapping turtles will eat a lot of things, but they really like a carp head. I would put the carp head in a wire basket attached to the corner of the trap.” Kabele would check the traps every couple of days and often have several in an individual trap.
Kabele also found that mid-October to the end of November was prime time to find snapping turtles in holes along the riverbanks, as they got ready to hibernate. For this type of hunting, Kabele would use a probe, which is a long rod with a curved hook. He would probe back in the hole until he “felt” the turtle and would then hook it out. Many times, he found them stacked in the hole catching anywhere from 10 to 50 turtles in one hole.
Another means of taking snapping turtles is the milk jug method with a line, hook and bait attached to the jug. “I’ve used this method in gravel pits, because the shoreline drops off so fast. The jug works in this case, because once the turtle takes the bait, it will then swim to the shoreline. Then all you have to do is walk the shoreline, hook the jug and line and pull the turtle up the bank.” This is the least favorite means for Kabele, because it takes so much time.
50 years equals a lot of stories. Listening to him reminisce, I truly believe that he remembers every big snapper and each spot. Most prominent, though, is the 73 pounder he caught in North Dakota, and then there’s the picture of four snappers on the cleaning table, all over 50 pounds, and then there’s the 44 pounder he caught out of the Little Sioux River in 1972, which sits as a mount in a case in Kabele’s Trading Post, and then there’s the…the memories go on and on.
Words of advice: Be cautious after catching the turtle. Know where the head is at all times. With 50 years of turtle catching in the bag, Kabele has only been bitten once. That’s right. No missing fingers or anything. Pretty amazing when you have a stock tank filled with water and snapping turtles waiting to be cleaned. The one time? “I was hauling out a gunny sack full over my back and I must have had one situated a little wrong. All of a sudden it bit through the sack and right into my back. All I could do was drop the sack and let it tear the meat off my back!” Kabele’s preferred way is to pick one up is by the tail with body and feet toward you. “I’ve found they can bite out but not under.”
Cleaning a turtle
• If possible, keep the turtle alive in a tub of clean water for at least 24 hours.
• Cut off the head and the claws (even claws can cause gashes after the head is severed)
• Slice around the edge of the bottom shell and cut through the joint between the top and bottom shell on each side. The bottom shell lifts out.
• Remove the entrails.
• Slice the legs and neck loose from the inside of the top shell.
• Skin out legs and neck.
Make sure to get all of the fat off of the meat.
Certainly, Kabele has made some good money over the years, but he also says with a smile, “I’ve eaten a lot of turtle. They say there are seven kinds of meat on a turtle. I know for sure that some tastes like chicken, some like frog legs, and some like venison and some like beef. My favorite way of preparing it is to brown it and then put it in a roaster in the oven for at least an hour and a half. This really helps get the meat tender.”
Snapping Turtle Stew
• 2 lb Snapping turtle in pieces
• 1 Onion, med, sliced
• 2 c Celery, chopped, incl greens
• 1 c Lima beans, soaked overnite
• 3 Potatoes, diced
• 2 tb Butter
• 8 oz Potatoes, can
• 1/2 c Parsley, chopped
• Salt & pepper to taste
Melt butter in frying pan and brown turtle meat, cut in cubes 1″ or larger, on all sides. Remove turtle meat. Add 2 quarts water and bring to a boil. Return to fire, add turtle meat and all remaining ingredients. Cook slowly for 45 minutes or until turtle is very tender.
VARIATIONS: After browning turtle, make a roux with butter then add water. Add 1/2 jigger of good sherry to stew when serving. Add 1/2 C bell pepper, chopped, to veg. mixture.