Spring has sprung, the ponds have unfrozen, and snapping turtles are on the move. During this time of year in my midwestern hometown, you will often see snapping turtles leaving their overwintering grounds and heading out to look for a mate, new bodies of water, or a place to lay their eggs.
Back home in Illinois, common snapping turtle season doesn’t open until June 15th, but in Colorado, where I currently reside, it opens in early April. These early spring and summer months are prime for catching these herptiles on the move. They are often crossing roads near muddy ponds or slow-moving rivers. Snappers usually cause a scene at neighborhood parks or stop traffic until someone drags them off the street.
My family is lucky enough to have a pond and some wetlands on our property back home. We have pulled out dozens of snappers over the years. Usually, we relocated them. But during the COVID-19 quarantine, we figured there must be plenty of snapper recipes on the internet. We decided to give it a try.
How to Catch a Snapping Turtle
In the past, most of our turtle catches occurred while I was sitting on the deck or playing in the yard. Someone would spot one crawling towards the pond. On one occasion, my dad caught one trying to drown one of our ducks. He pulled the turtle out by the leg of a Peking duck! But, usually, we grabbed a big fishing net and an empty trashcan, scooped them up, and popped them in the can until we could take them somewhere else. My family never targeted them specifically nor went after them in earnest.
You can buy traps for snapping turtles and there are plenty of DIY trap designs to choose from. When my interest in eating snappers began, we were in the first quarantine of 2020. I decided to take a few daily walks around the pond with a net in hand. I hoped one would turn up and my general anxiety about getting bitten might go down a little, too. Whatever you choose to call it, patience or nervous pacing, it paid off. A substantial snapper crept up behind me on a pile of woodchips.
Purging Snapping Turtles
The pond and wetland system the captured turtle lived in is in good health. There’s no sewage or overly anoxic waters in it. However, after some initial snapping turtle processing research (and reading some horror stories about what these critters eat), my family and I decided to “purge” our turtle. All purging entails is keeping the turtle alive in clean water for about a week and changing the water every couple of days. This gives the snapper a chance to finish digesting their last meal, pass it, and have a clean bath before butchering.
Butchering a Snapping Turtle
There are many ways to kill a snapping turtle, but this is no easy task. Most recommended techniques involve cutting the head off after you get the turtle to stick its head out. One way is to get the turtle to bite onto a stick or broom handle, pull out the neck as far as you can, and remove the head with one clean cut with an ax. Alternatively, if you have a .22 caliber rifle and can safely and legally fire it where you are, one shot to the top of the head will quickly kill the turtle. However, this method can waste some meat on the back of the jaw if your shot placement is a bit off.
When butchering turtles, or any chelonian for that matter, it is highly important to destroy the brain. Turtle nervous systems are radically different than mammals’. When their brain tissue is intact, the chelonian remains alive, conscious, and sensate for a very extended time. Be sure to destroy the brain to ensure an ethical kill.
The snapper will move and even try to walk away after it is dead, so be prepared. Depending on the outside temperature, it is best to hang the turtle by its tail. This lets some of the blood drain, giving those prehistoric nerves time to calm down. We hung ours for about three hours. Still, every time we would make an incision, it would try to kick away the knife.
The butchering was difficult but pretty straightforward. Even when deceased, the turtle will fight you back on every cut. I left my turtle hanging by its tail against a tree while I butchered it.
First, skin each leg and the neck. A good knife and some catfish pliers are necessary for this step. Next, separate the plastron (bottom shell) from the carapace (top shell). A thin line runs between the plastron and carapace that is soft enough to cut through with a good knife. Cut through one side and be careful not to cut too deep and puncture any organs. Peel the plastron away and cut away any attached meat. This will expose the organs and is when a bucket strategically placed below the turtle comes in handy.
Most of the guts should slide down, detach with a few easy cuts, and drop into the bucket for easy cleanup. Ours was a female with a clutch of eggs; there are recipes out there for turtle eggs, but we ended up passing on them and leaving the eggs out for the coyotes and raccoons.
Once the organs are out of the shell, the quarters are easily removed. You can either de-bone them or leave it whole. I boned mine out and ground the meat for the turtle soup recipe featured at the bottom of this article. You can also remove the “backstrap” from the spine running along the turtle’s back, the neck meat, and two considerable chunks from the back jaw.
Preserving a Snapping Turtle Shell
If you intend to save the shell, remove as much meat from it as you can and give both sides a good scrub. I used a pressure washer to blast off some of the stuck-on flesh, but it slightly damaged the outside of the shell. I recommend doing the outer side by hand with some bleach. Once it is cleared out as much as you can and washed with soap and water, leave it to dry out and give it a good coat of borax powder to help sterilize and dry out any leftover flesh that could spoil. I put a coat of polyurethane on mine to give the outside a nice shine. I mounted the shell to a board and installed a light bulb behind it to make a beautiful turtle shell sconce.
Making Turtle Soup
After I ground all my snapping turtle meat, I searched the web for a turtle recipe to try. The classic turtle soup recipe you find below is my favorite one; it is slightly adapted from Food Republic.
Snapping Turtle Soup
- 1 ½ lbs fresh turtle meat coarsely ground
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 tbsp Creole seafood seasoning
- 1 1/2 tbsp Creole meat seasoning
- 1 cup green bell pepper finely chopped
- 1/2 cup celery finely chopped
- 1 tbsp garlic minced
- 1/2 tsp dry thyme crushed
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 cups veal stock or substitute canned no-salt beef broth
- 3/4 cup tomato puree
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup dry sherry
- 2 tbsp Louisiana hot pepper sauce
- 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- Juice from one lemon
- 5 ounces fresh spinach stems removed, washed, patted dry, and coarsely chopped
- 2 hard-cooked eggs finely chopped
- dry sherry for garnish optional
- 4 cups cooked white rice
- shredded cheddar cheese
- sour cream
- Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Brown the turtle meat along with seafood and meat seasonings. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid has almost evaporated.
- Add onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic while stirring constantly. Add thyme and bay leaves. Reduce heat to medium and sauté (stirring frequently) 20 to 25 minutes, or until vegetables are tender and start to caramelize.
- Add stock and tomato puree. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered 30 minutes, periodically skimming away any fat that rises to the top.
- While stock is simmering, make a roux. Heat ½ cup oil over medium heat in a small saucepan. Add flour, a little at a time, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon being careful not to burn the roux.
- After flour is added, cook for about 3 minutes, until roux smells nutty, is pale in color, and the consistency of wet sand.
- Using a whisk, vigorously stir roux into soup, a little at a time to prevent lumping. Simmer uncovered for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking on the bottom.
- Add sherry and bring to a boil. Add hot sauce and Worcestershire. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes or until starchy flavor is gone, skimming any fat or foam that rises to the top.
- Add lemon juice. Return to a simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Add spinach and chopped egg; bring to a simmer and adjust seasoning with seafood seasoning or salt. Remove bay leaves before ladling the soup into bowls.
- Serve with white rice and a teaspoon-splash of sherry on top.