Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Fishing for Snapping Turtles

Fishing for Snapping Turtles
A large percentage of Americans feel that the consumption of anything not found on a grocery store shelf, sitting on a sterilized bed of Styrofoam and double wrapped in plastic, is unfit for human consumption. Travel to most other countries in this world and a person quickly realizes that many cultures on this planet have a much more open view of what is considered “fit for human consumption”. This isn’t to say that pockets of hardcore outdoorsmen, are not scattered throughout the United States, willing to eat just about anything, as I have watched sportsmen eat raccoon, porcupine and squirrel, as well as much “wilder” game like alligator, snake, kangaroo, wild hog and even camel. While these animals may seem wild to some, to others these critters are considered normal everyday food. 
With sufficient arm-twisting, many individuals can be pried out of their comfort zones and convinced to try a small morsel of the above mentioned game animals. Where the line exists that few negotiate is with the eating of organ meats such as lung, stomach, intestines, tongue and even the magnificent tasting heart and liver. I encourage readers to be more open to trying new foodstuffs, as in the end, many will be pleasantly surprised.
This long rather long introduction leads me to my latest outdoor adventure, the trapping, cleaning and the eating of a snapping turtle. Yes, you heard that right, those scary looking dinosaurs of the depths that many swimmer and anglers have seen lurking in the waters of Maine’s various lakes, and ponds. 
The Plan Forms
This adventure all started, as many do, with an alcohol fueled late night discussion on how one would actually go about trapping, cleaning, preparing and lastly preserving the shell of a snapping turtle. With all of the unknowns and the added possibility of an unscheduled finger amputation, this escapade had all the important elements needed for a truly grand time.
Arriving upta camp, armed with the necessary gear for trapping a massive snapper, we were greatly encouraged by several turtle sightings as the sun dipped below the horizon. We watched with particular attention, as an enormous prehistoric head protruded out of the lake, as a massive snapping turtle began its nightly ritual of searching for food in the lakes quiet shallows. Examining my meager fishing tackle, consisting of a handful of large hooks and 45-pound test steel leader, I debated if my limited gear stood a chance of holding such a hefty and powerful amphibian. In all honestly, my brother and I believed our chances, at actually catching one of these beasts, were zero.
Early the next morning, well before sunrise, my brother and I baited our hooks with chicken livers, then secured the hook to a steel leader and lastly to a 20 lb monofilament fishing line. To suspend the chicken liver about 2 feet under the surface, we used an empty bleach bottle as a bobber. Once set, I began chuckling at the ridiculous thought that our line might actually be effective.
            About 30 minutes after sunrise, I noted a sizeable turtle head protrude from the lakes mirror smooth surface about 10 yards from our “bobber”. Not even a minute later, the beast struck! I violently set the hook and after about a 10 minutes battle had the hissing and very angry snapping turtle on the shore.
With a hatchet in my right hand and wielding a large knife in the other, I stared at the turtle with slight dread knowing the extensive task that lay before me. Of course the most obvious place to start the dissection was with the removal of the creature’s mouth implements, capable of removing a man’s hand at the wrist. (I was told later that because of the low oxygen environment in which a turtle’s brain exists, its brain still functions hours after it is severed from its body!) With any animal, it is always a sportsman’s desire to dispatch it as quickly and humanely as possible. Given snapping turtles impressive defensive capabilities, the most direct and safest approach, is to deliver a hard blow to the back of its neck with a sharp axe, completely removing the head in 2-3 quick blows. 
Eating Turtle
Turtle meat is somewhat tough so it is best to parboil it for an hour or so before planning to incorporate it into any recipe. One of the favorite methods of preparing is including the delicate bits in a soup. In our “experiment”, the turtle parts were boiled and then allowed to cool. The bones were picked of meat and placed in a shallow casserole dish then lightly sprinkled with pineapple chunks and a small handful of diced summer sausage. The end result was predictably as described in most of the literature, each of the different turtle parts all having uniquely different tastes. Perhaps my favorite was the white, rubbery neck meat that had a texture and taste similar to lobster. Also, the dark leg meat was what one would expect were it possible to combine beef with chicken. 
All in all an enjoyable eating experience, albeit a tough sell among the rest of the tribe. While everyone was willing to “try” a small morsel of the final meal, few were wiling to make the commitment to fill their plate. It appeared that, try as I might, some of the preconceived notions and ideals about what food should look and taste like were difficult for some individuals to overcome. In the land of plenty, the snapping turtle has little worry about becoming extinct due to over harvesting.
Preserving the Turtle Shells
The shell of the turtle we harvested was gorgeous. In order to preserve it, a fair amount of work had to be done to make sure that the connective cartilage between the turtles plates did not decompose and cause the shell to crumble. Of prime importance was the removal from the shell of all flesh. This was done initially during the cleaning process and repeated in more details once the shell were allowed to dry in the sun for a few days. The beef jerky texture of the flesh that remained was easy to scrape out of the shells with a sharp knife. Next the shells were washed in soap and scrubbed with Comet cleaner to help remove the dried on algae. If we had things to do over again this step would have been done before the drying as the algae would have been easier to remove. Lastly, the shells were again set aside to dry and we dusted a good heap of Borax into each. After about a week of drying in a cool dry spot the shells were ready to begin accepting their coats of lacquer. About 8 coats provided a beautiful “wet” look to the shells and preserved them for future mounting on the wall of the man cave.
Final Thoughts
Since snapping turtles are not considered either endangered, game or a sport fish, there are no specific laws related to harvest regulations, gear and season.  The gray area arises when considering the potential by-catch of fish that do have rules and regulations associated with them. So, while personal snapping turtle trapping is legal without specific permits or licenses, anglers must consider the anticipated methods and whether or not they could potentially take other species (by-catch) that do have laws/rules associated with them. So with that said, while a fishing license isn’t “required” to fish for snapping turtles, it’s a good idea to have one incase one accidentally catches a regulated fish species.  
Snapping turtles are top level predators in most of the water bodies in which they live and as such carry high levels of mercury, PCB's, and other bio-accumulates.  Therefore limiting consumption of snapping turtle meat (and avoid if pregnant, etc) is a good practice to follow.

Snapping turtles take years to reach sexual maturity (18+ years for snappers), have very low hatching success, and as such need to live a long time in order to replace themselves.  While limited personal take should allow populations to persist, commercial harvesting of snapping turtles in Maine would quickly decimate the population.

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