Just the name “alligator snapping turtle” churns up memories for anyone who has waded barefoot in the creeks, rivers, and sloughs of East Texas.
My folks always warned of getting my toes bitten off by a gnarly old snapper. They would say that once they bite down they won’t let go until it thunders.
Back in the early 70’s there were still quite a few big snappers around. We would regularly catch them in our bait seine and some were as big as 40-plus pounds.
The alligator snapping turtle (macrochelys temminkii) gets its name from the three distinct dorsal ridges that run down its back and look amazingly like those of an alligator. These throwbacks to the dinosaurs can and do live far beyond 100 years. It is even estimated they could reach as much as 175 years of age.
An alligator snapper does not even reach breeding age until its twelfth year. The alligator snapper is the largest turtle in North America and among the largest in the entire world. Along with the crocodilians, they are one of only a few species that have not changed much since prehistoric times.
Surprisingly there are three separate species of alligator snapper. The largest verified snapper on record weighed in at a whopping 249 pounds. Other reports say some monster turtles as big as 298 pounds. have been held by the Brookfield zoo in Chicago.
That being said, I have seen some huge snappers in my many years exploring the big muddy banks of the Sabine. I’ve seen them in the creeks that feed it, as well as every slough and oxbow I could get into on a boat or on foot.
Way back when I was just a nubbin, I was working my way down Wilkerson Creek with a buddy when we saw what had to be a dinosaur. This had to be the granddaddy of every snapper in Texas and half of Louisiana.
We dropped our fishing poles and ran for help. We returned with his dad and a 22 rifle. Back in those days we ate turtles just like we did catfish and crappies. It took a John Deere tractor with a front-end loader to haul that snapper back to the house.
This monster measured just shy of four feet across the back. I have no idea of its weight, but I do know it would not fit in a No. 3 washtub. It took a single bit axe and a hammer to hull it out. We ended up with an ice chest full of meat off of this giant. We didn’t waste it. We had gumbo and BBQ along with fried turtle and a good, old turtle mulligan.
Another encounter with these monsters came when I was a few years older. We were gathering bait in a pond. Alligator snappers like to lie on the bottom and hold their mouths open while wiggling their pink tongue like a lure. When a fish swims in to grab what he thinks is a worm the turtle snaps its jaws shut.
I drew the short straw and was making my way out when my big toe slid right in the snapper’s mouth. Needless to say, the jaws snapped shut on my big toe, and the race was on.
I ran out of the pond so fast that I didn’t realize I still had the turtle on my toe. This thing was about the size of a snuff can, but believe you me, it felt like it was the size of a garbage can.
After some gentle persuasion, the turtle decided to let go, but not before taking a good chunk of my big toe with it (barely a scratch). I am sure that just about everyone who tromped around in the water like I did has similar stories about the alligator snapping turtle.
Today these amazing beasts are very rare in the waters they once thrived in, and guys like me are part to blame. I was a kid and the word “conservation” had little meaning. We fished and hunted to feed the family.
There were no trophies except for the ones in our freezers and on our tables. Where I lived we went to town once a week for perishables, but ate mostly from what we grew, caught or killed.
Luckily these survivors from the age of dinosaurs are making a comeback thanks to strict laws and protection efforts by TPWD and Texas outdoorsmen and women. Alligator snapping turtles now are protected in Texas waters, so please take care if you happen to catch one in your net or on your hook.
If it’s in your net, release it right away. If you catch it on a hook and you can’t easily remove it, just cut your line. The hook will rust away quickly unless it’s stainless steel.
Too many anglers feel the need to kill a turtle once it’s on their line. Remember this, if you’re caught harming a turtle, particularly an alligator snapper, it could mean thousands of dollars in fines and maybe even jail time. That would put a damper on any fishing trip. Killing them also has a deep impact on the environment we all love.
So next time you snag an old alligator snapper, have a little respect for it and return it unharmed to the water. Maybe if you do so, your children and maybe even your grandchildren will be able to enjoy telling their children stories of their adventures with a true icon of the Texas wetlands.
—story by Jeff Stewart