July 23, 2012
I tensed as something rapped my plastic worm and began slowly moving off. I cleared the slack and set into a spongy feeling creature that grudgingly approached my feet after a short tug of war. Instead of a big, heavy-bodied bass, I spied an alligator snapping turtle on the end of my line.
As I gingerly led it ashore, it gazed at me with ancient unseeing eyes, then snapped repeatedly as I used a stick to dislodge my hook. For an alligator snapper, this was a young 'un, as this species (Macroclemys temmincki) is the largest freshwater turtle in the world, reportedly reaching over 200 pounds. I met an old turtle trapper in south Georgia who claimed to have caught a 200-pounder with a stone arrowhead buried deep in its shell from an encounter with a turtle hunter of an earlier time.
The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) ranges from Maine and southern Canada, west to Montana, and south to New Mexico and Florida. Alligator snappers are far rarer and are considered threatened or endangered in portions of their range, from the southern Mississippi Valley to the Gulf Coast.
Both snapping turtle species require more than a decade to reach maturity, and their nests often are raided by skunks, raccoons, dogs, fox, or opossum, or damaged by human alterations. To feed, snappers combine their cryptic coloration, including colonies of algae on their shells, with large lung capacity and lightning fast neck muscles to waylay fish, small ducks, or other prey items that move within range. Turtles also meander the bottom, scanning for crayfish and other invertebrates.
Like other reptile and fish species, incubation temperature influences the sex of offspring. In Minnesota, for example, incubation at 82F produces an equal sex distribution, but lower temperatures produced predominately males, and higher temperatures predominately females. Hatchlings measure just 1-1/4 inch across their top shell (carapace). Both species of snapping turtles are generally sedentary, with small home ranges they return to if transplanted. They're also solitary except during winter when groups of 25 to 30 may den together. Adult males often fight fiercely over territorial or breeding rights, with the dominant individual sometimes killing its rival.
Regulations for harvesting snappers vary among states and provinces. In Minnesota, licensed anglers and children under 16 may possess up to three snapping turtles captured by angling, bow, spear, or hand. They must measure 10 inches across the carapace and cannot be sold. Trappers may set 40 traps after purchasing a commercial license. Alligator snappers are protected more strictly, with no states allowing commercial sale.
During winter in northern states, commercial hunters locate overwintering aggregations by probing through the ice with long poles. With a hook on the end of the pole, they pull turtles through a hole in the ice.
Although unappetizing to some observers and often stinky when hauled from the mud, snapping turtles provide a tasty meal when pan fried, broiled, stewed, or made into soup. Chefs marvel at the variety of types of meat found in different parts of the snapper's body, each with its own texture and flavor.
As with other long-lived, late-maturing animals, selective harvest should be the rule for common snappers. And since old timers accumulate PCBs and other pollutants over time, check with water quality or health authorities for consumption advisories. A couple smaller specimens are fine for an occasional special meal and may be the star attraction at a wild game feed. Alligator snappers should be left entirely in peace to increase their numbers. Careful protection of their habitat also is important.