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Time-Tested Tips From a Top PA Turtle Trapper

June 13, 2018
By COL(Ret.) Grey D. Berrier II , Ohio Valley Outdoors

My family has lived in Lawrence County, PA for the past 20 years. Soon after we moved here, I started to hear stories from locals about the outdoor exploits of "Bigfoot". Word was he resided in Bessemer, PA and his diverse outdoor interests made him almost legendary. Over the years, our paths crossed a few times, but I never had the opportunity to talk to him and really learn about him and from him. That all changed in 2018, when he sought me out to invite me to be the guest speaker at the annual wild game dinner hosted by First Covenant Church in Bessemer in March 2018.

Now, for a second, you may have thought I was referring to the hairy, ape-like, upright-walking being, Sasquatch, who reportedly dwells in the wilderness of North America; and that would be incorrect. I'm referring to Wayne "Bigfoot" Anderson, who is widely known for the tasty turtle soup he brings every February to Laurel Conservation Club's Sportsman's Night Out, the many live snapping turtles he formerly had on display when he owned the feed mill in Bessemer, and the fact that he is one of the premier snapping turtle trappers in Pennsylvania. When Wayne brought a pot of snapping turtle soup and a pan of roasted beaver to the wild game dinner, which were both delicious, I knew I needed to sit down with the man at some point and pick his brain.

It's not uncommon, especially for children raised in the country, to want to bring home every frog, toad, snake, lizard, salamander, and turtle they find during their daily outdoor exploits. That fascination hit Wayne Anderson over 50-years ago and it has never left him. He is an accomplished life-long hunter, fisherman, and trapper, who prides himself on consuming everything he harvests and using every part of each animal as practically possible. His home and his shop are testaments especially to his affinity for turtles, since he proudly keeps live specimens of over a dozen species and he has learned each one's idiosyncrasies, when it comes to feeding, habitat requirements, and behavior.

Article Photos

Wayne “Bigfoot” Anderson poses inside his shop in Bessemer, PA holding the largest live snapping turtle he currently has in captivity, a 31 lb. brute. Also shown are many interesting carapaces (shells) and plastrons he has for sale. Photo by Grey D. Berrier II

When I sat down with Wayne, I had to ask, "How did you get the nickname: Bigfoot?" He revealed that years ago, locals would comment on the large tracks they saw in the snow all around the Bessemer area, left behind during his extensive fox-hunting forays and he subsequently became known as "Bigfoot". I also learned from Mark Bryant, the president of the local Lawrence County Coon and Fox Hunters Association in Bessemer, that Wayne was legendary for playing basketball in a community hoops league for decades in his bare feet. Wayne humbly admits, that he not only has some of the biggest feet in the area, but probably the toughest as well.

Wayne began keeping turtles as a child, when his dad got him "the tank" so he could bring home his many discoveries to add to their collection. He always thought turtles were neat and over 30 years ago he began butchering snapping turtles and making turtle soup. For decades, his unique "go to" snapping turtle collection method was to wait until ice froze over the mudflats of local ponds. Subsequently, he would be able to see snapping turtles through the clear ice and then chop through the ice with a machete to harvest dormant snapping turtles that he deemed were of appropriate size. He quickly learned that there were certain ponds where snapping turtles tended to migrate to and congregate in for the winter and Wayne said it wasn't uncommon to harvest a dozen snappers at a time from one particular spot he knew.

Wayne was forced to change his tactics about a dozen years ago when the PA Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC), which has regulatory authority for amphibians and reptiles in the Commonwealth, implemented an annual four-month season on snapping turtles from July 1 through October 31.

Fact Box

Snapping turtles are slow growers and take roughly 12 years to reach 5 to 6 lbs., which is minimum breeding size. Snapping turtles are roughly twice as old as their weight, so a 15 lb. turtle can be expected to be around 30 years old.

Wayne commented that he has always advocated waiting until July to begin harvesting snapping turtles to insure the females have ample time to successfully lay their eggs, but he questioned why the PF&BC choose October 31 as the closing date. When he contacted the PF&BC years ago about the established dates for harvesting snapping turtles, he was told October 31 was selected as the end date to make the open seasons for harvesting frogs and snapping turtles align and to make it easier for people to remember. When he told the PF&BC representative about the new season eliminating his preferred method of harvesting snapping turtles from under the ice, he was told they had never heard of anyone doing that and they weren't going to change the rules for just one individual. Wayne has subsequently adapted his tactics and techniques to continue harvesting snapping turtles.

Wayne Anderson is one of only a few dozen licensed commercial turtle trappers in the Commonwealth of PA. The $50 per year commercial license enables him to legally sell snapping turtle meat that he has harvested and to perform nuisance turtle trapping.

After years of experience, he prefers Quarles Turtle Traps, which are made and sold by Alfred Bradford in Marion Station, Maryland. These large turtle traps are basically a wire mesh cylinder, which is approximately 4-feet long and 2-feet in diameter. Two Styrofoam floats keep part of the trap above the surface, so captured turtles can breathe, while a one-way nylon mesh entrance on one end allows hungry turtles easy access, but no exit. A bait container and cinched-closed nylon mesh that can be quickly opened to remove caught turtles comprise the other parts of the simple, yet highly functional turtle traps.

Wayne owns and operates eight Quarles Turtle Traps, which he said run about $120 each, the last time he purchased them. The live-trap features of the Quarles Turtle Trap permit Wayne to release smaller snapping turtles and other non-targeted turtle species that may be incidental catches. He relayed that it's not uncommon to catch up to 6 to 8 turtles in the trap at one time and all that weight can make trap checks a laborious task.

Being a highly prolific fisherman and trapper, Wayne's preferred turtle trap baits are fish offal (heads, guts, skins, bones, etc.) remaining after filleting a batch of bluegills and chunked beaver meat frozen during the fur-taking season. He admits other fish and animal remains will work as well, but bluegill offal and beaver meat are what he has readily available each year and are proven attractants. With the floating Quarles Turtle Traps, scent from the bait container is disseminated both through the water and through the air, and the snapping turtles' amazing sense of smell will permit them to easily find the bait and enter the trap. He prefers snapping turtles in the 10 to 20 lb. range for eating and any snapping turtles over 25 lbs., he saves in a secure tank for live display. Wayne is in the process of remodeling his shop and hopes to have his "zoo" with his many live turtles in Bessemer, PA open to the public in the very near future.

Wayne highly recommends getting a turtle trap, if you can afford one. (Turtle traps and set-lines must be labelled with the owner's name, address, and phone number.) For individuals just starting out, who are interested in harvesting snapping turtles for private consumption, a current PA fishing license is all that is required. Snapping turtles can be legally taken on strong hooks that are at least 3 1/2" in length with not less than a one-inch space between the shank of the hook and the point. Wayne recommends using a wire leader between the hook and your line. Set-lines can be attached to a branch, stake, or jug. He also recommends being very careful where you position set-lines, so that hooked turtles don't get the line wrapped around underwater structure and subsequently drown. I learned from Wayne that snapping turtles are much more cold-tolerant, than heat-tolerant. Snapping turtles basically don't eat from November through April, and in their dormant state are perfectly capable of breathing underwater. However, once things warm up and they become active, they must surface periodically to breathe air. For set-lines, Wayne recommends baiting with bluegill heads, since they will stay on a hook and are an excellent natural snapping turtle attractant.

Snapping turtles are slow growers and take roughly 12 years to reach 5 to 6 lbs., which is minimum breeding size. A few "rules of thumb" when it comes to snapping turtles is that they are roughly twice as old as their weight, so a 15 lb. snapping turtle can be expected to be around 30 years old, while a 20 lb. specimen is pushing 40 years. (There is a means of aging snapping turtles by means of the annual marks on the scoots, which are layers of keratin, on their carapaces; however, sometimes these marks wear off and proper aging can be a challenge.)

Another general guideline is that you can expect to get approximately 1/3 of the total live weight in meat after butchering. This translates into an 18 lb. snapping turtle yielding 6 lb. of fresh meat for the table. One of Wayne's biggest perpetual customers is a local volunteer fire department, which hosts a special fund-raising dinner every August featuring turtle soup on the menu. He has a standing order for 100 lbs. of fresh snapping turtle meat for their recipe, and this past year it took 18 snapping turtles to fill that requirement. Wayne also reserved one snapping turtle for his batch of turtle soup at Sportsman's Night Out in February and another for his church's wild game dinner in March.

Handling any live snapping turtle can be tricky, and potentially painful, given their strong jaws and sharp claws. It is highly recommended not to pick up a snapping turtle by its tail, since its own bodyweight can displace its tail bone, but rather pick it up from the rear by the outside edges of its shell, the carapace, at roughly the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions. Just starting out, you'll want to consider wearing leather work gloves as you learn exactly where to safely grip a snapping turtle to avoid getting scratched by the claws on both its front and rear legs as it attempts to free itself. According to Wayne, every snapping turtle has a unique carapace, with some being almost completely round and other more closely resembling an oval.

Snapping turtles have few natural predators once they hatch, with most mortality coming soon after the females lay their eggs and marauding raccoons or skunks raid the nests. Adult snapping turtles are generally left alone and typically only meet their demise as roadkill during periodic migrations to either find a mate, find a new body of water for a home, or move to a familiar wintering spot. As many who have tried have found, snapping turtles are hard to dispatch and Wayne has found the best way is with one .22 short round to the head.

After he shoots a snapping turtle, he puts it in a cooler on ice for several hours. If you've never butchered a snapping turtle, you will quickly learn that even when deceased, they can eerily move their appendages. So, don't be surprised if a leg starts to move while you are butchering, and remain cautious so you don't get scratched by its sharp claws. In fact, Wayne recommends cutting the paws off first to eliminate the potential hazard.

He begins butchering by removing the neck and front legs first, which will require severing each front leg at the ball joint after carefully cutting around the carapace and the plastron (the bony "undercarriage" of a turtle). After removing the front legs, he cuts out the back legs and tail as one piece, which normally requires cutting carefully where it is firmly attached at the base of the tail/spine. Next step is to cut the plastron away from the carapace at its outer edges. This will expose the entrails, which will need to be removed. After eviscerating the turtle, the tenderloins can be cut out by the backbone, and then Wayne sets to work on carefully removing what he considers the best meat from the turtle, the small "nuggets", which are muscle intermixed within the spinal column that is interfused with its shell.

To prepare for consumption, he carefully skins out all the meat from the rugged hide and cuts it into chunks for soup. He then trims off as much fat as possible, thinking the fat could contain any potential contaminants the snapping turtle ingested over its lifetime (much like the PF&BC's public health advisory for fish consumption).

Wayne has been making his own recipe for turtle soup for over 30 years, which closely parallels his wife's recipe for vegetable soup. He starts by boiling the chunked turtle meat in a 21-qt. stock pot. After the meat falls off the bones and the neck meat has turned white, he removes the bones, while saving the boiled meat and broth. To the broth and meat, he adds onions, carrots, potatoes, along with two cans of crushed tomatoes and some salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. After the vegetables have softened, he adds canned corn, peas, green beans, and a 1 lb. box of pasta (elbow macaroni), along with additional salt, pepper, and garlic powder, if necessary.

After the pasta has cooked and the flavors of all ingredients have infused, it is ready to serve. I know from personal experience that Wayne's turtle soup is extremely tasty and very popular at both Sportsman's Night Out and his church's wild game dinner. Wayne said some folks include barley in their turtle soup recipes, which he doesn't; and I mentioned the French custom of serving sherry with turtle soup, which Wayne wasn't familiar with.

Keeping with his philosophy of using every part of any animal, Wayne cleans out the carapaces and preserves them with multiple coats of polyurethane. He also does the same with the heads and plastrons. Wayne regularly participates in regional reptile and turtle shows/sales in Pittsburgh every other month and his many preserved carapaces, heads, plastrons, and accessories/craft items with claws and turtle insignias are popular selling items.

Wayne Anderson is a consummate outdoorsman and one of the top snapping turtle trappers in all of PA. I don't think it would be a stretch by any measure to say he's forgotten more about snapping turtles than most outdoorsmen and women learn throughout their lifetimes.

To learn more about harvesting snapping turtles, be interested in purchasing fresh snapping turtle meat or turtle-related items, possibly be looking for someone to remove a nuisance snapping turtle or two from your pond, or possibly just want to visit his "zoo" and see some live snapping turtles for yourself; Wayne can be reached at 724-667-7563 or found at 1106 East Poland Avenue, Bessemer, PA 16112. (When he's not up at his cabin on Old Hickory Road in Tionesta, PA.) Wayne's old-school, so he doesn't have a website, an e-mail address, or text; but he welcomes readers making contact with him by phone, letter, or just stopping by.

"Bigfoot" is very much alive and thriving in Bessemer, PA and by all means a subject matter expert on snapping turtles and what it takes to consistently harvest them.

 
 

 

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