I was about ten years old when I ate turtle meat for my first and only time. If I had not known that it was turtle, I probably would have thought that it was some form of fried chicken.
When I was growing up in Dunbar, we had a neighbor who loved to go turtle hunting. There were times when he would return from some of his many turtle hunting trips, and he would have some real monsters.
I remember one that was larger than a bushel basket. My wife's family had some land bordering Scotts Lake, and her uncle would come from Maryland to catch turtles for turtle soup.
Snapping turtles are found in almost any size body of water. This could include decorative lawn pools, small creeks and major rivers. It was just a few years ago I spotted a large turtle swimming in the river from the South Davis Avenue Bridge in Elkins.
When on land, the common snapping turtle is very aggressive and hot tempered. They are not called snappers for nothing. Over the years, they have evolved from their ability to snap. They are too large to completely hide in their own shells when confronted. Snapping is their primary defense mechanism. When in water, they will usually try to slip away from any disturbance.
Snapping turtles are an ambush-type predator, which means they surprise their prey. They often prowl about on the bottom of a stream sitting motionless and waiting for their prey to come by. Sitting on the bottom, a snapping turtle covered with algae will often look like a covered rock.
Their favorite foods appear to be any kind of fish, crayfish, aquatic larvae, frogs, snakes and other small snapping turtles.
I had a person tell me that from a boat he saw a turtle swim under a large duck, grab it by the leg, and take it down.
The neck of a snapping turtle is very flexible. A large turtle can bite its handler, even when picked up by the sides of its shell. Its powerful jaws are capable of amputating a finger in short order.
The range of the common snapping turtle is also somewhat unusual. They can be found from the southern tip of Florida to as far north on the east coast as Nova Scotia. Westward they can be found in just about all of Montana, Colorado, and in the northern panhandle of Texas.
In West Virginia, they are not hunted as extensively as they are in many of the southern states like Alabama, Georgia, or South Carolina. In this state, the Division of Natural Resources has not established any kind of season or bag limit on snapping turtles. It is unlawful to sell turtle or turtle parts in West Virginia. When hunting turtles, an individual must have a valid fishing license in their possession unless they are over 65 or less than 15 years of age.
Now I would like to conclude this week's column saying that I have never been turtle hunting in my life. Therefore, I do not want any reader to think I am an expert on this subject.
First, I will go into how to clean a snapping turtle:
n Slice around the edge of the bottom shell and cut through the joint between the top and bottom shell on each side.
n The bottom shell will lift out like a can lid. Remove the entrails.
n Slice the legs and neck loose from the inside of the top shell.
n Skin out legs and neck. Parboil or pressure cook to make the meat tender before using in your favorite recipe.
Below are two recipes for preparing turtle meat:
1 turtle, cleaned and cut into large pieces
Flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
Oil for frying
2 beaten eggs
2 pints milk
Dry seasoned bread crumbs or cracker meal or Panko bread crumbs
Parboil turtle meat, separate it from the bones, and cut the met into bite-sized pieces or larger. Coat it with seasoned flour, dip it in the eggs and milk mixture, and coat it with bread crumbs. Fry them in an inch or more of cooking oil. Break up into bite-sized portions.
Pretty Good Turtle Stew
Meat from one medium-sized turtle, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
4-5 potatoes, cubed
2 (14.5 oz) cans peeled tomatoes or
8-10 fresh tomatoes, coarse chopped
1 11 oz can of corn or package of frozen corn
Chicken broth or stock (optional)
Brown turtle meat with onions and garlic in a hot skillet with a little cooking oil. Drain meat and transfer meat, onions and garlic to Dutch oven. Add potatoes, tomatoes and corn. Season the mixture with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Add water (or chicken stock or broth) to just cover ingredients and cook covered at a high simmer for 45 minutes or until potatoes are thoroughly cooked. If you prefer a thicker stew, create slurry with flour and water and cook for an additional 15 minutes.