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Uncommon questions on common snapping turtles: In the soup or not?

A snapping turtle caught and released by a fisherman on an area pond while night fishing.
Credit: Dale Bowman

While fishing classic spots in the south suburbs, Michael O’Brien has been doing well on panfish and encountering some “really good-looking snappers.’’

“Some are older ‘mossbacks,’ ’’ he emailed. “I remember the older guys, nearly 50 years ago, snagging ’em at Sherman Park and selling ’em to local taverns for soup, etc.

“Talking with my brother made me wonder, though, if they’re OK to eat. Are there too many accumulated toxins within to be concerned about? I’m talking 20- to 40-pound big ’uns. I’d love to get one outta there and fix it up because I remember how tasty they were smoked, etc.’’

Interesting question, which led to interesting tangential points when I contacted Chris Phillips, curator of amphibians and reptiles for the Illinois Natural History Survey, about common snapping turtles.

O’Brien’s concern about toxins is legitimate. I was also concerned about harvest of old snappers.

“Toxins do build up in older aquatic organisms, especially in the fat stores, so there is a health risk,’’ Phillips emailed. “That risk varies by location, and only thorough water testing and turtle-tissue testing can determine the risk.

“Then there’s the risk to the snapping-turtle population incurred by harvesting mature animals, especially females. This is because most turtle species have delayed maturation, where sexual maturity takes much longer than most other reptiles, up to 20 years for a female snapping turtle to lay her first clutch of eggs. Taking even one mature female from a population could have serious consequences.’’

Illinois has a season for common snapping turtles from June 15 to Oct. 15 with a daily bag of two.

They may be taken “only by hand, hook and line, or bow and arrow except in the following Illinois counties where bowfishing for common snapping turtles is not permitted: Randolph, Perry, Franklin, Hamilton, White, Gallatin, Saline, Williamson, Jackson, Union, Johnson, Pope, Hardin, Massac, Pulaski and Alexander.’’

The prohibition on bowfishing in those southern counties is to prevent accidental harvest of the protected alligator snapping turtle.

The obvious question, at least to me, was whether we need stiffer regulations on common snappers.

“I suspect we need to tighten the regs, but first we need to know about our current harvest levels,’’ Phillips said. “We need the same data as we collect for game fish in Illinois, but currently there are no reporting requirements. We also don’t have a funded program to track trends in snapping- turtle populations as we do for some game fish. It may be that snapping-turtle harvest is so low in Illinois, that the current regs are fine. It would be nice to know.”

Yes, it would be nice. Money to study that would be nice, too.

Wild things

I noticed cicadas singing heartily in the trees on the full-moon weekend. The cadences of summer build.

Stray cast

Of the many things wrong at Wrigley Field this year, James Taylor getting top billing over Bonnie Raitt bugs me the most. It’s like choosing old salt cod over fresh-caught redfish.

Follow me on Twitter @BowmanOutside.


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