Catching turtles is something I’ve done since childhood. In fact, I used to catch and sell them with a reptile collector’s license as a kid.
Setting and raising more than a dozen giant metal turtle traps by foot through the swamp — then hauling out dozens of turtles — was quite a task.
Now, I get my turtle fix a much easier way: noodle lines.
I enjoy eating common snappers and softshell turtles, but catching elusive alligator snappers is a passion of mine. I’ve caught these turtles at many locations across the state, from the south central to southeast and even northern parts of Louisiana.
After chatting with several turtle experts years ago, I found out an amazing fact: nearly all hooked alligator snappers will pass the hook within weeks and live with no issues. But I still like to use non-stainless hooks so just in case the turtle doesn’t pass the hook, it will eventually dissolve in its stomach acids.
The turtle specialist at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries office said that less than 1 percent of their more than 500 tagged alligator snapping turtles have been recaptured, and the tags usually fall off.
The department doesn’t have a current tagging program for recreational anglers. The turtles take more than 10 years to reach sexual maturity, and I was told the state will not know for another 50 years if the population is declining or not.
Many people I chatted with said that most alligator snappers have been fished out of many waters. Because of this — and knowing that a hooked turtle will most likely live — I release all of my alligator snappers so future generations of sportsmen will have a chance to catch these dinosaur-like creatures.
One reason turtles get easily fished out is because they tend to group up in packs for the winter in one location buried under the mud. During the winter, I read a turtle’s heart may beat only once every 10 minutes, and the reptile will absorb oxygen from the water through pores in its body.
Once a turtle is caught in one spot, another turtle from the group will soon arrive there. But if someone keeps catching turtles from the same location, the entire group likely will be fished out, but I also read that alligator snappers sometimes travel great distances, as well.
I usually wait until April to set my noodles lines when the waters warm and turtles move to feed. Also, without nighttime froggers in the mix, the noodle lines aren’t at risk of being checked or stolen by others.
Tying lines to tree limbs along the bank takes a lot of work and time. I found it’s much easier to set several noodles lines — the more lines that are set, the better the odds of hooking a turtle.
The trick to setting noodle lines is to set them late in the evening and check them first thing in the morning. This doesn’t bother me since I rarely sleep late when my lines are set because I’m eager to see what bit during the night.
The turtles feed the most during thunderstorms, so I avoid bluebird days and high pressure systems when I can, but I have caught snappers during any warm conditions.
As for bait, any type of dead fish works, but I mainly stick to using cut catfish, gaspergou, choupic and bullhead because most fish won’t bother eating them, and they stay on the hook.
Sometimes I use game fish bellies or cut chunks of shad — that way I’ll also catch some catfish and choupic to eat and use as future bait for the lines. But keep in mind that cut game fish and shad will get stolen from the hook quickly if the place has a lot of crawfish.
Some people bury their baits at locations where bait stealers are present because a turtle can smell the bait and then dig down with its powerful feet to find it. However, this takes a longer time when setting lines and rarely do I find this step necessary.
Seldom will a hooked turtle travel further than 40 yards. The noodles are easily found, but since I use a bay boat to run lines by myself, I often have to go out and walk in the swamp barefooted to grab my lines. I’ve never lost a noodle or killed a turtle in all my years, but I’ve seen many dead turtles on other peoples’ trot lines and hoop nets.
Last month I set some lines in the midst of a bad thunderstorm. The lightning was so intense my dog and I rode out one storm for more than an hour on the swamp bank huddled under a log. We were both freezing cold and wet, but the hardcore mission paid off nicely.
The next morning, I caught two alligator snappers: one was pretty big at about 50 pounds with a flawless, beautiful shell. I spent tons of time and gas to only catch two turtles that were eventually released, but the adventure was well worth it. I have several shells mounted, but a nice framed picture of the beast is all I want these days.
On my next trip, I caught two more alligator snappers, one even larger than my previous trip.
The attached video shows exactly how I make my inexpensive noodle lines to catch my snapping turtles. Here’s what you’ll need: 4-inch diameter pool noodle floats from Walmart, non-stainless, strong 5/0 or 6/0 hooks, 200- to 300-pound test untarred twisted or braided nylon string and a ½-inch hex nut for the weight.
I use a 4-turn improved clinch knot to connect my string to an 8-inch piece of noodle. Next, I attach the hex nut from Lowe’s 2 feet above the end of a 10- to 15-foot piece of rope with two overhand knots. Lastly, I attached the hook with a doubled-over overhand knot.
Within a few minutes and for only a few bucks, a bunch of noodles can be made and a turtle adventure can begin.
But if you do catch an alligator snapper, please consider releasing the creature — or at least only taking one from a particular location each year, so the population will remain sustainable.