Watoga Park Foundation
The One-Season Turtle Noodler
Turtle soup was king in Columbus area restaurants in the 1960s, particularly in German Village on the south end of the city. The now gentrified section of Columbus, Ohio, still maintains its original brick homes, shops and streets in this neighborhood settled by German immigrants in the mid-1800s.
The once ubiquitous turtle soup has been replaced by nouveau cuisine in most of the village’s trendy restaurants. The unique flavor of turtle meat cooked slowly in a rich broth with garden vegetables accompanied by a hunk of dark rye bread has slowly made way for dainty portions of seared Ahi tuna, artfully covered with thin ropes of wasabi aioli.
But before all of this culinary blasphemy took over the area restaurants, Benny was the main supplier of fresh snapping turtles – live or dressed. My chance encounter with Benny introduced me to this world of feeling for turtles in the evening and being at the kitchen door of select restaurants the following morning to sell the turtles to anxious chefs.
Until then, I had no idea such a vocation existed.
When I first started my apprenticeship, I was Benny’s bagman; that is, I held a burlap sack in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other while Benny felt up under the riverbank for turtles. Following every two or three ventures into turtle holes, he would ask for the bottle and would down a swig or two.
He would explain to me the finer points of feeling for turtles while he was practically lying down in the muddy water. Often his head was just above the waterline as he spoke to me. Yet somehow he managed to smoke a cigarette in one corner of his mouth at the same time – and keep it dry!
As I stood on the bank a few feet above Benny, he stressed the things that would give me the greatest protection from a turtle bite.
“Always keep your fingers together and make sure that your arm is flush against the top of the hole as you extend your arm back into the hole. Don’t lower your arm until you are back as far as you can go.”
At this point in his instructions he would often have his own arm at full extension, buried in a muddy turtle hole.
It was at this point that his voice became more of a command rather than advice.
“Now, very slowly lower your hand, and don’t forget to keep those fingers together if you want to keep all of them. If there is a turtle in the hole you will most likely come down on the turtle’s shell. It’s here that things can get a little tricky, just don’t panic and pull your arm out yet.”
Benny explained that the front of the turtle’s shell is fairly smooth and rounded but the back of the shell, where the tail is, has jagged points.
“Still keeping your fingers together, find the edge of the shell and follow it back until you feel the points. You will shortly come to the tail. When you get to this point slowly put your hand around the tail, but don’t pull on it yet.” he instructed.
“Putting your other hand on your extended arm, follow it all the way to the tail. Then place this hand on the tail alongside the other. Get a firm grip with both hands and start pulling.”
He further explained that the turtle has strong arms and claws and will heartily resist the pull. He said that it may take a while to get the turtle out so just maintain a steady pull; adding, “And do not jerk the turtle out, otherwise, you may tumble backward with a very angry snapping turtle landing on your chest.”
He said that once the turtle is out of the hole, get it in the burlap sack as quick as you can. He warned not to swing the turtle by your side as you walk, he said that he was once bitten doing that as the neck of the turtle is quite flexible.
Benny told me that turtles go in the hole head-first and make their way up onto a dry platform above the waterline. He said that they generally do not turn around until they are preparing to leave the hole; then exclaiming: “But, not always!”
I gulped hard at that, thinking that he would go on to say that the turtle would have to be pulled out by the head, something I didn’t want to even imagine. But instead, he said something that took me years to fully understand, “Remember, ‘discretion is the better part of valor.’ So if you think that he’s turned around, get your arm out of that &%###&# hole as fast as you can.”
After a couple of weeks of training, he finally let me give it a go. I remember my first snapper was a small one, and Benny instructed me to release it immediately back into the creek.
Over the next week or so, I managed to pull a dozen or so turtles, one of them a 15 pounder. I was starting to feel like a seasoned noodler, but deep down inside I was fearful each and every time my arm disappeared into a turtle hole.
At this point I felt comfortable asking him how he had lost his fingers. He only said that they were mangled by an Alligator Snapper, a much larger and stronger species of snapping turtle found in the streams of the southern U.S.
It crossed my mind that Benny’s calm demeanor while risking at the very least a painful bite, and at worst an avulsed finger, came from his steady consumption of liquid courage.
But that thought was put to rest by the other vets that hung out at the VFW – our office if you will. They shared stories with me about Benny’s service record and afterward I understood that for Benny, noodling was not about displaying his bravery; he had already done that many times over while serving his country.
Benny, a child of the Depression years, was doing whatever it took to feed and clothe his family – there was nothing macho about him.
I went down to eastern Kentucky for a spell in June and I never saw Benny again. But I continued to feel for snappers in between running trotlines, bank lines and fishing for smallmouth bass in the rivers of both Ohio and Kentucky. I was never truly comfortable with turtle noodling and always felt trepidation every time I did it.
My relationship with turtle noodling came to an abrupt end on a small stream in eastern Kentucky called Brushy Creek. During dinner one evening at my host’s home, I mentioned my newfound skill of noodling for snapping turtles.
As the conversation continued, it became apparent to me that a snapping turtle was not considered a food item in this area. Furthermore, judging from the looks around the table, the idea of actually reaching into a turtle hole and pulling one out was not in their repertoire of outdoor skills.
So, of course, they insisted that I give them a demonstration of this unusual endeavor.
The next afternoon the four of us younger guys went down to the banks of Brushy Creek. I put on my lucky shirt, a plaid long-sleeved Woolrich, and buttoned the cuffs so as not to get caught up on anything. It was a warm day so I unbuttoned the top of the shirt.
The first several holes were dry so I kept on moving downriver, not really paying attention to anything around me but the task at hand. At one point I looked up as I moved from one hole in search of the next and noticed quite a group of onlookers developing up on the dirt road that bordered the creek.
My eyes went straightaway to the prettiest pig-tailed gal I had ever seen in my 16 years of relative inexperience with the opposite sex. But the expectation of the crowd made me turn my attention back to noodling. The lucky shirt worked again: I pulled a six or seven pounder out of the hole. And for some reason, I was glad that the girl was watching.
Thusly inspired, I found another promising hole just a short way downstream and prepared to amaze and astonish again. This time I very confidently ran my arm fully into the hole and without the slightest hesitation I brought my hand down, expecting either a mud floor or a turtle carapace.
What my bare hand encountered instead, was a cold, writhing mass of water snakes. And worse, they had only one escape route which I was blocking with my face.
Before I could gather my feet under me and push away, they streamed out of the hole and slithered over my shoulders and around my face.
I issued a short but embarrassingly shrill scream, which was thankfully muffled by the simultaneous collective gasps from the onlookers. My vocal response to the incident was definitely not befitting a seasoned turtle noodler.
As I rose up out of the muddy water to a standing position I could see that the crowd was terrified for me. I told them in the most confident and calm tone I could muster that I was fine.
Without hesitation, one older man in bib overalls ran down the bank and wading right up to me said: “Stand real still son.”
He grabbed the collar of my plaid long-sleeved Woolrich “lucky” shirt and ripped it wide open. Buttons flew through the air and a snake fell from just above my belt right into the water and swam away.
When I got up onto the bank all of the people who had witnessed this incident showed their concern with kind words. Shortly, everyone started walking back in the direction they had come.
The young lady that had caught my eye just before the snake calamity, turned and looked back at me with the sweetest smile that I had ever seen.
Well, that was the very last time that I ever noodled for a snapping turtle. But I wasn’t too upset about it – I now had a new interest in life, and she had pig-tails.
From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,