Catching Turtles for Date Money
In the 1950s and 1960s, growing up on the farm in Tidewater Virginia, I participated in just about every enterprise my father pursued—especially when it involved harvesting the resources of the farm.
In the fall and winter my father trapped the marshes for muskrat, mink, and otter. I learned to set traps and skin, stretch, and dry animal pelts. These fur pelts fetched needed income during the winter months (not to mention muskrat meat for the table—no it does NOT taste like chicken!).
In the spring he fished the Chickahominy River for spawning herring and shad. Both fish were valuable for their meat and especially for the roe (eggs) in the females. I learned to clean and fillet the bony shad (they are delicious fish when broiled) and collect roe from herring.
The haul seine was laid out from the bank to the middle of the river. Herring typically ran up river just offshore of the banks to lay their eggs.
Herring fishing involved a crew of four or five men who maneuvered the long haul seine into the river, then hauled in the net heavy with its catch.
A typical catch would be nearly a ton of fish.
Catching shad was a more solitary pursuit. Each fisherman had a net piled on the front of his boat. My father would row (actually scull) his boat across the river current letting out the net and then let the net drift with the tide. He drifted along with the net, watching the net’s floats. When a float began to bob up and down, he would pull up that section of net. Shad caught in the net were tossed in the boat. Other fish, except rockfish (striped bass), were released. Rockfish had little commercial value but they are excellent fish, so they ended up on our dinner plates. There is nothing better than fresh caught fish served the same day it is caught.
Although I was too young to actually help with the nets, I learned how to use a net mending needle to fix holes in the net and assembled a new net.
Net mending needle used to repair both drift nets and haul seines. It took some practice to learn how to use the needle, but it was the quickest way to fix a net.
Photo by Jim Love. Photo from: “Jim and Elizabeth’s Brown House” at:
I learned something else: I could make 25 cents a pound catching catfish and snapping turtles and selling them to a local fish house. A couple of forty-pound catches would pay for gas and a movie-and-burgers date.
In the spring of 1960, I found four large diameter metal rings or hoops used to make a fish or turtle trap. With netting from the local fish house, I assembled a cylindrical trap about the size of a 55-gallon barrel. The entrance was a funnel-shaped net cone that opened into the middle of the trap. Fish and turtles could swim in, but the opening would close behind them trapping them in the net. On the other end, I rigged a purse-string opening to open and empty the trap.
I put the trap in the farm pond. The farm pond was actually a 10-acre cypress swamp that had been dammed off of Diascund Creek*. This created a nice wooded pond that supported a healthy population of bass, perch, catfish, and all manner of turtles—most of which had no market value.
Typically, the trap was baited with several “ripe” fish caught one or two days earlier. The bait was put in a small net bag that hung in front of the narrow end of the entrance funnel.
Knowing that the trap would attract many turtles, it was placed in water shallow enough to allow the top to be above the surface—that would allow turtles to come to the top to breathe.
The boat was a wide, flat-bottomed row boat and was usually stable. It leaked a little, so there was always a little water in the bottom of the boat and the floor was a little slippery.
Each day I would see a few turtles bobbing inside the trap. I could lean over the edge of the boat and lift the trap out of the water. Every day there were a dozen or more turtle scrambling around in the net. Most of these were small painted turtles (about five inches long) or larger “sliders” (about 10 to 12 inches long). None of these were marketable. A good catch would be several 3-to-5-pound catfish and one or two small snappers.
That same summer, the news reported that certain brands of canned tuna contained high levels of mercury and it was recommended that they not be used. Sure enough, my mother had several cans of the suspect tuna, which I used to bait in the trap.
I punched holes in the top of the tuna can and dropped it in the bait bag. I guessed the aroma of the fluid from the can should certainly attract something.
The next day, it seemed there were more heads bobbing in the trap, but again nothing marketable. I reached over and gave the net a good heave to pull it into the boat. The net did not budge, the boat tipped sharply and my feet slid across the wet bottom. I let myself fall back into the boat (and an inch of water) rather than roll overboard into the pond.
Puzzled, I braced myself against the side of the boat and began to pull again–carefully. Slowly, heavily, the trap began to come up. With the trap almost out of the water I could see the problem. There were three huge (well really large, anyway) snapping turtles. The tops of their shells were at least 16 inches long. They had to weigh at least 20 pounds apiece. Already my mind was calculating the money I would get.
I braced my feet against the side of the boat and rolled the trap up over the boat’s rails. In addition to the snappers there were at least 30 other turtles in the trap—more than a hundred pounds total weight.
Once the trap was in the boat, I made my big mistake. I untied the purse string on the back of the net with the intent of tossing the little turtles back in the pond, and putting the snappers in burlap bags.
As soon as I tipped the open trap, turtles came pouring out, running all over the boat. Ordinarily this would have been no problem, but I had three angry snappers in the mix. I started tossing small turtles over the side, keeping an eye on the snappers. They began to advance. I tossed more small turtles over the side and scooted back in the boat from the advancing snappers. I slipped again and landed, feet in the air, on the rear seat of the boat, with no place to go but overboard. I pushed the closest snapper away with my paddle. Fighting back with his sharp jaws, he chomped a notch out of the paddle blade.
Snapping turtles have strong sharp jaws that can cause serious injuries to fingers! But they also make an excellent turtle soup.
In the close confines of the boat, it was difficult to safely grab one of the snappers without placing my hands precariously near one of the others. They had clearly figured out who was responsible for their capture, and they were intent on changing the situation.
It was no easy matter to stand up in the rocking boat, hold a burlap bag open with one hand, and guide a reluctant, squirming snapper into the bag, but eventually all of the snappers were safely in the bags. I cleared the boat of the smaller turtles and dropped the trap back in the water with new bait. Exhausted, I paddled back to shore.
In retrospect, I should have paddled to the shore where I could have dumped the trap in a controlled manner, put the snappers in burlap bags and ignored the smaller turtles, which would have happily scurried down the bank back into the water.
I wrestled the squirming bags into the trunk of my car. At the fish house, I got the 25-cents a pound for my 60 pounds of snapping turtle and left with $15.00. In 1960, $15.00 would put gas in the car for a week (10 gallons, $3.00); pay for movie tickets (2 tickets, 35 cents each) and a couple of meals and drinks (two orders of a Whopper©, fries and a drink, $1.00 each). I could splurge on milkshakes (35 cents each) and still have some “walking around money” in my pocket.
It was a good day.
*Refer to the first article in this series that describes the farm.