**Featured in the March/April Issue of Trapper’s World**
When I think about the distinctive moments that have defined my life as an outdoorsmen, memories of being out in the duck blind as a young child, bagging my first wild turkey, and magnificent scenes from the deer stand flood my head. However, one particular memory stands out amongst the others: my first exposure to conflicting feelings of happiness, pride, over exhaustion, and exasperation blended into one unforgettable afternoon. The tradition of trapping snapping turtles has deeps roots in our family, and when my dad offered me the job as his turtle trapping partner, I jumped on the opportunity. Every spring of my high school career I found myself digging deep into forgotten swamps, endless creeks, and backwoods lakes with my father in search of these prehistoric monsters. There was a sort of primeval satisfaction when it came to successfully capturing such an immense and unique creature. We got payed well for each turtle we sold, but I always felt that the experiences accompanied with trapping was worth more than anything. I couldn’t have been more right when it came to the 2011 trapping season, for I do not recall how much money I made that year, but I will never forget the afternoon of April 19th, 2011.
In the weeks prior to the opening day of the trapping season, my dad spent countless hours studying aerial maps for an uncharted location of good snapping turtle habitat. “That’s it,” he announces proudly as he shows me his latest find. As I look at the computer screen I see a large freshwater creek about a forty minute drive south of our house. From the aerial map, it is easy to see this location has unlimited potential: secluded, freshwater, and more than likely never trapped by any other turtle trappers. We sat there staring at the aerial map quietly, day dreaming of the unspoiled snapper population that may call this area home. Disrupting my daydreams of pockets full of money and a world record snapping turtle in my hands, my dad begins to explain the route of entry. One way in, and one way out. We would first have to obtain permission from a landowner to enter this secluded territory through their backyard. From there we would face a 20 yard trek through the thickest of phragmite filled marsh which leads to a small ditch that appeared to hold water. We would follow this ditch about 50 yards to the main creek, which was where we would set all of our traps. In total we would have to travel close to 70 yards through treacherous terrain just to reach the target location. Unable to find any other feasible entrance route, and knowing that this spot held a lot of potential, we determined that we would head to the landowner’s house the day before we planned to trap and request permission to enter through their backyard. Before we knew it the time had come and we found ourselves at the man’s door requesting permission, of which he obliged while refusing a generous money offer for his kindness. We examined our point of entry and left knowing we had our work cut out for us.
The following morning we arrived to the man’s house ready to set out our trapline. Carrying our canoe filled with collapsable turtle traps, my father and I headed towards the wall of untamed 7 foot phragmites. Maneuvering all of our gear through the thicket of phragmites was no simple task. With hands clenched tight on the handles of the canoe, we found ourselves using our bodies as human plows lugging through the thicket blindly. Eventually we had stumbled into a clearing where at our feet lay the ditch that led to the main creek. We took a minute to take in the sight that was before us; the promising ditch that we had found on the aerial map was virtually an elongated and narrow mud flat. At most, a one inch layer of water covered the base of dark soft mud. Having already reached the point of no return, we decided to push onward despite knowing how much of a pain in the ass trudging through 50 yards of muck would be. We placed the canoe in the muck heading in the direction of the creek. My dad took position in the front of the canoe as the pull man, and I took the back as the push man. Step after step our legs would sink into the soft mud up to our hips, and my dad would pull the heavy canoe as I pushed. By the end of the ditch we were beat and exhausted to our wits end, but the untouched beauty of the creek before us served as a great distraction.
We began our journey upstream taking in all the sights. Ducks, geese, and turtle heads littered the surface of the water beyond every bend. Having witnessed countless numbers of red belly and painted turtles pop up and sink back down as we canoed, we knew there had to be a hidden population of snapping turtles lurking beneath the surface. We took our bucket full of bunker and began soaking every fish in pure bunker oil as we baited our traps. Bunker oil slicks rose to the surface as each trap settled on the bottom of the creek bed. These oil slicks followed the flow of the creek, and served as our ticket to draw monster turtles into our traps. From the mouth of the treacherous ditch, we successfully set out twenty well placed traps over a half mile span of creek. Making our way back, passing all the traps we had just set, my peripheral vision caught one of the most exciting sights turtle trapping has to offer: ripples projecting outwards from one of our previously set traps, and at its source sat a prehistoric turtle head the size of my fist. Further down the creek lay our next trap with the same sight, yet this time two turtle heads stuck out from inside our trap. At that moment, we decided to head back home to grab a jon boat and ten more traps to set out. The plan was to tow along our jon boat as we canoed to every trap. When we bagged the harvested turtles we would place them in the tow along boat to save canoe room. So we power rowed our way back to the ditch I began to hate so much, trudged through it with equal difficulty, and drove home to grab our gear.
We arrived back at our honey hole mid afternoon and got to work. We took the additional ten traps and set them out first. As we passed our previously set traps we saw that big snappers had been falling victim to the temptation of the delicious oil covered bunker. We pulled up to our first set and much to our delight the weight of two oversized snapping turtles bellied the bottom of our trap! The next trap bore the same weight, and as time went on we were becoming over run with turtles. Every single trap we had set held at least two snappers: some held three or four. It wasn’t long before our tow-along jon boat was filled to capacity, and to the point of near sinking. As well as our loaded jon boat, the canoe in which we were paddling from held the weight of two fairly large size men surrounded by as many snapping turtles as we could fit. Between the canoe and jon boat, we became so filled up that we could barely find room for our last couple of traps. As my ego inflated and the feelings of pride and joy overcame my mind, reality came through and sucker punched me with harsh calculations:
We had loaded our already heavy boats to near overflowing levels with the weight of well over thirty turtles. The average weight of our harvested snappers was over twenty pounds each. This meant that we had loaded our boats with over six hundred pounds worth of snappers. This six hundred pounds worth of turtles, our two boats, and ourselves had to make it through the wickedly brutal ditch before sun down.
As the smile on my face began to fade away silently, we managed to row ourselves to the mouth of the ditch. Much to my disgust, we found the water level had dropped significantly, and the ditch that once held a provocative one inch of water was now dry: nothing but bottomless soft mud. The task at hand seemed impossible, but we had no other choice, we had to hammer through.
Words on paper do not do justice to the difficulties we faced ahead of us. With daylight fading and our bodies victimized by sweats and aches, we began to plow hundreds of pounds through the soft muck. Like before, every step taken was followed by mud swallowing our legs up to our hips. Pulling a leg out of the muck to take a forward step felt like pulling a balls and chains latched to our ankles. Inch by inch we continued to cover the fifty yards of hell. The seconds turned to minutes, and the minutes turned into an hour, and we now found ourselves lying exhausted on the ground at the tailgate of our truck. After exchanging powerful pep talks to each other, we regained our feet and motivation in one last push to load all of our equipment and turtles into the bed of the truck. Fatigued beyond description, we took our seats in the cab covered with mud, sweat, and bunker oil. Slowly the smiles on our faces had reemerged. We had done it, we had conquered the honey hole with six hundred plus pounds of turtles to show for it.
The story of conquering our sacred turtle location will stay with me for as long as I live. The experience stands as a testament for what a relentless drive topped with hard work can produce. Being overcome by depletion both mentally and physically followed by feelings of triumph and accomplishment provided an indescribable sense of fulfillment I will never forget. To this day if I get tired carrying decoys through long treks on the meadow, or if I find myself exhausted hauling fifty pounds of bait on my back to my tree stand, I think back to that afternoon and what my dad and I accomplished. April 19th, 2011 shaped my definition of mental toughness, and further blossomed my love for the outdoors. On that day we hit the honey hole, leaving ourselves forever a tale of too many turtles.