Watoga Park Foundation
The One-Season Turtle Noodler
I was recently asked what is the dumbest thing that I have ever done. There are so many possible answers that it took a fair bit of rumination before arriving at a solid answer.
After a string of flashbacks about failed romances, a disastrous ice climbing adventure and an ill-fated go at hang-gliding, I remembered the day I met a whiskey-drinking die-hard turtle noodler when I was 16 years old.
What followed from that fateful meeting was definitely the dumbest thing that I have ever got myself involved in. And I did end up having some of the scariest experiences of my young life – one in particular that ended my short turtle catching career. But more on that a bit later.
With the annual Wild Edibles Festival fast approaching, I recently walked the route along the Greenbrier River where I am scheduled to lead a wild foods hike on May 8.
As I made my way down the Greenbrier River Trail from Seebert, I started to recollect a youth that was spent foraging, hunting, and fishing. I don’t hunt nor fish anymore, mainly because my interests have changed. Nor is there a real necessity for the extra food now as there was in my youth.
Before I met the man who would teach me to noodle for snapping turtles, I spent many hours setting trotlines and bank lines for catfish and catching the occasional turtle.
Those unfortunate turtles invariably ended up in a pot of savory turtle soup, which by any standards is premium eating. Many a gathering of friends was centered around turtle soup; people loved it back then.
And when I could get ahold of a canoe or small rowboat, I set jug lines. This is a lazy method of fishing in which a baited hook is strung from a plastic jug and followed downriver. When the jug bobs or takes off in beeline for shore, you have a fish on. One only has to unhook the catfish, put it on a stringer, and go right back to daydreaming.
One day in early March of 1966, I was wandering along the banks of Big Walnut Creek in central Ohio. I came upon a crystal clear oxbow pool a short distance from the riverbank.
I spotted a snapping turtle that had been drawn out from the depths of the water by the unseasonably warm weather. The large snapper was effortlessly floating just under the surface of the warming water, soaking in the heat of the sun. A stout log protruded out from the bank of the pool and was situated directly over the lethargic turtle.
This would be an easy catch with minimal risk!
Wrapping my legs and arms around the log, I inched out within easy reach of the floating turtle.
You may be thinking right now that the very next thing that I do in this slightly precarious situation will qualify as the dumbest thing that I have ever done. But you would be wrong in that assumption because I have done much dumber things as you shall see.
In fact, I grabbed the ridged tail of the snapper and deftly reversed my movements back to shore as the turtle dangled below on an extended arm. I neatly backed off the log and, turtle in hand, headed back up the bank.
I could already taste the turtle soup that would be prepared; tender pieces of delicate-tasting turtle meat in a savory broth packed with carrots, potatoes, celery, barley, and a couple of bay leaves thrown in for good measure.
I was awakened from my culinary daydream with the sudden realization that I had hitchhiked out to the river from town. It suddenly occurred to me that there was zero chance that I would be picked up for a ride back.
Besides, just imagine the mental state of someone who would give me a lift carrying a live snapping turtle. I wouldn’t want to be riding in the same car with such a person.
Fortunately for me, there was a VFW Post at the top of the hill by the highway. And if there is one thing those World War II vets loved, it was turtle soup.
I boldly walked right in the front door of the establishment and when the vets got a look at what I was carrying, all talk about the complexities of the Normandy Invasion immediately ceased.
After the initial shock of seeing a kid walk into their watering hole with a snapping turtle wore off, they got up from their bar stools and gathered around. I told them of my predicament and asked if anybody wanted the turtle. At that, they started ambling back to their seats and resumed their battle stories – the momentary diversion was over.
One fellow still at the bar said: “I know someone who can help you out.”
He looked back towards the kitchen and shouted, “Is “Three Fingers” back there?”
The man who promptly walked out of that kitchen and in my direction was Benny “Three Fingers” O’Sullivan, the most fearless man I was ever to meet.
Walking my way was a smiling face covered with freckles under a shock of red hair. Under all that, stood a body comparable to a fire hydrant in shape and durability.
He held out his right hand to shake my right hand, and as I shifted the turtle to my left hand I noticed that Benny’s index and middle fingers were missing at the knuckles. I knew now why they called him “Three Fingers” but not how that came to be. But that was soon to be divulged. *
Benny commented, “You got yourself a nice turtle there, did you noodle it?”
Not sure what he meant by noodle, I simply replied, “Why no, I grabbed it out of a small pool of water from a log. I thought maybe someone here at the VFW might want him to make soup.”
Benny told me that the turtle wouldn’t go to waste and said that he would freshen up the turtle for a few days in clean water (his bathtub as it turned out) and make a soup for the vets. I then handed over my turtle.
I thanked him for taking the turtle off my hands and started for the door. Before I got more than a few steps Benny said, “Hey, there is a better way to get turtles than plucking them out of the water from a log. If you want to learn how to noodle turtles just be here tomorrow afternoon by five; that’s when I get off work.”
I really wasn’t sure what he meant by noodling. But if it meant getting more of the main ingredient for turtle soup, it sounded like a grand idea, so I said: “Sure, I’ll be here.”
Stay tuned for part two where we take a deep dive into the world of a commercial turtle noodler where the hazards sometimes include amputations and horrendous scars.
First, let me say that I still have all of my fingers and only one small scar. But for the 16-year-old boy, this experience gave me some life lessons on what constitutes real courage and the lengths that those who suffered through the Great Depression and World War II would go to take care of their families.
See you next week,
*Note, technically speaking, he should have been called Benny “Two Fingers,” as the thumb is not really a finger but rather, a digit. But who really cares – only the turtle that removed the two fingers.