Common Snapping Turtles: Catching, Cleaning, Eating

By Tom Johnson | June 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 1996

One old timer so much enjoyed eating turtles that his friends would often give him the snapping turtles they caught while fishing. Once, when giving him two turtles, a friend said, "Boy, I don't see how you can eat those nasty things."

"You mean you haven't eaten turtle?" replied the old timer. "I'll tell you - I'll clean these rascals for you and give you my favorite recipe!" Unfortunately for the old timer, his friend never gave him snapping turtles again. He kept them for himself!

We really don't know how many Missourians catch and eat snapping turtles, or softshell turtles for that matter. The Conservation Department tracks the commercial harvest of these species, but there are no records of those taken for personal use.

As the name implies, common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) are native to Missouri and the Midwest. The alligator snapping turtle, Macroclemys temminckii, which lives mostly in the southeastern U.S. and can weigh over 120 pounds, is a close relative. In Missouri, the alligator snapping turtle inhabits southern and southeastern streams and oxbow lakes and is classified as rare. There is no open season on these turtles.

Common snapping turtles average 10 to 12 inches in upper shell length and weigh from 15 to 25 pounds. They can live in a wide variety of aquatic habitats: large creeks, rivers, river sloughs, swamps, marshes, farm ponds and sewage lagoons.

Snapping turtles will eat just about anything (alive or dead) they can find in their watery habitat including fish, frogs, drowned animals, crayfish and aquatic plants.

A Missourian, with a current fishing permit, can capture snapping turtles in a variety of ways. Catching snapping turtles is relatively easy. Anglers fishing for catfish usually catch snappers while using jug or limb lines baited with cut or live bait. Chicken livers and gizzards also work well. However, gizzards are probably less attractive to fish and tend to stay on the hook better. Turtles caught with jug lines will usually move near shore, making them easier to handle. The daily limit is five.

Other turtle catching methods include "handfishing" along rivers and streams or, during the winter months, spotting and catching them through the ice. This can be effective if you have both clear ice and water; look for turtles half buried in the mud, chip through the ice and grab them by the tail. As you might guess turtles are slow at this time of the year. During late spring, look for snappers in upland sites as they are dispersing or searching for places to lay eggs. Road killed snappers are common at this time. However, no matter what the capture method, a current fishing permit is required.

Prior to killing and cleaning a snapping turtle it is a good idea to keep it in a tub of clean water for a period of time. Change the water every few days until it remains relatively clear. This usually takes one to two weeks. We suggest being somewhat selective about where you obtain snapping turtles. Although they often live in sewage lagoons and other sites with low dissolved oxygen, those used for eating should come from clean ponds and streams.

Cleaning a snapping turtle is actually easier than you might suspect. Cut the turtle's head off and hang the turtle upside down overnight to eliminate the blood. The next day nail or otherwise fasten the upside down turtle's tail to a stump so that most of the shell hangs off the stump but is parallel to the stump surface (see illustration).

Cut and remove the plastron or bottom shell and then cut away each leg and the neck from the carapace or shell. Turtle fat is yellow and should be removed from the meat. Turtle meat is best if cooked immediately, but it seems to keep well if frozen in water.

Another way to clean a turtle in preparation for cooking is to parboil it first. Dick Stauffer, Conservationist art director, says about five minutes of parboiling the turtle, after killing it, makes a much easier job of cleaning the beast. You cut away the plastron, remove the entrails and then fillet the meat, including the legs and tail, away from the top shell. The skin, Stauffer says, should peel off easily after parboiling. The meat, after rinsing and cleaning in water, is ready for whatever recipe you prefer.

Snapping turtles can be prepared in a variety of ways, much the same as squirrels or rabbits. The best results are obtained by parboiling the meat until it can be easily removed from the bone. Try stir frying the meat with bacon in a very hot skillet or adding it to a stew or gumbo.

Snapping turtle meat can be delicious if the turtles are cleaned properly, the meat tenderized and prepared with a good recipe. Don't let their looks deceive you.


How to Clean a Snapping Turtle

  • Slice around the edge of the bottom shell and cut through the joint between the top and bottom shell on each side.
  • The bottom shell will lift out like a can lid. Remove the entrails.
  • Slice the legs and neck loose from the inside of the top shell.
  • Skin out legs and neck. Parboil or pressure cook to make the meat tender before using in your favorite stew.

Steve's "Pretty Good" Turtle Recipe

This is one of the best snapping turtle recipes we've encountered.

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 of peeled tomatoes or 8-10 fresh tomatoes, coarse chopped

1 11 oz. can of corn or N package frozen corn.

  1. Brown turtle meat with onions and garlic in a hot skillet with a little cooking oil, (get the skillet real hot and drop the pieces of meat into the hot oil.) When the meat is browned on all sides drain oil and transfer meat, onions and garlic to a Dutch oven. Add potatoes, tomatoes and corn.
  2. Season the mixture with salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste. Add water to just cover ingredients and cook covered at a high simmer for 45 minutes or until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked.
  3. At this point the stew is ready to eat. However, some people prefer to thicken the sauce with a whole wheat flour/water mixture. If you do this you should simmer the mixture for another 15 minutes.



This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer