Setlines for Turtles
HAUL IN GIANT SNAPPERS WITH A $2 SETUP
Haul in giant snappers with a $2 setup
Almost every body of water—ponds, lakes, creeks, rivers, swamps and ditches—potentially holds snapping turtles. Since turtle traps can be expensive (and illegal in some states), the next best method—my preferred method even over traps—is to catch snappers with setlines.
The materials needed for turtle “fishing” won’t break the piggy bank and are easy to find. To get started catching turtles, you’ll need sharp fishing hooks, nylon cord, rubber boots and a knife.
Hooks must be at least 3 ½ inches long with at least a 1-inch gap. Make sure they’re sharp. Even new hooks straight out of the package should be sharpened before use. You want the turtle to hook itself when it picks up the bait to eat it. A dull hook won’t do the job. Hooks can easily be recovered from inside the turtle’s stomach when you’re butchering them. Make sure to sharpen the hooks before using them again. Also, from time to time, touch up the hooks on your lines.
When choosing cord for the setline, look for these two things: non-rotting nylon and strength. I use braided-nylon twine, which many people use to make trot lines. The roll I currently use is of 73-pound test, and I paid around $12 for a 1-pound spool (about 2,200 feet of cord). I set a lot of turtle lines each summer. A spool this size is probably more than most people would use in one summer.
Rubber boots are important when dealing with turtles. Run a turtle line once without wearing rubber boots, and you’ll understand why. Sometimes you’ll have to walk through deep water to reach the best set locations. More times than not, you’ll end up in the
“I’ve pulled in some exceptional catfish throughout the years on turtle setlines.”
water while hauling in a hooked turtle. I never run my line without my Pursuit Stealth Cool hunting boots by Muck Boots. Their Express Cool technology keeps my feet dry through all of the water I encounter, and cool on hot days when other boots make your feet sweat.
A knife is a valuable tool on the line, too. A knife can be used to cut bait and to cut the nylon cord after you catch a turtle. Cut the line a couple of feet above the turtle’s mouth to keep your hand out of reach of its bone-crushing jaws. As I mentioned earlier, the hook can be recovered during the butchering process.
I’ve had good luck with several different bait types. Fish heads, beef lung, chicken, deer and even turtle livers are all tough baits that’ll stay on a hook.
When cleaning out my deep freezer to prepare for the upcoming deer season, I usually find a few packages of deer liver. Next summer, that deer liver will account for many of my turtles. That’s just fine with me; I’ll eat turtle over liver any day.
Later in the season, once I start butchering turtles, I retain their livers. I do not eat turtle liver, but as unpleasant as it might sound, other turtles do, so why not use them?
Beef lung can be found at butcher shops for little or nothing. Most butchers will happily give you all you want. Beef lung floats, and I believe that makes it easier for turtles to find.
When using fish for bait, I only use small pieces of the head. The rest of the fish is too soft, and turtles can yank it off without being hooked.
Baiting the Hook
Throughout the years, I’ve found that I catch more turtles on fresh bait than I do with rotten meat. Refrigerate your bait until you’re ready to use it. When you start making your sets, take only the amount of bait you need and leave the rest at home. On especially hot days, store your bait in a cooler with a few cubes of ice while you’re working the line. Also, after bait sits in the water for two or three days, remove it and replace it with fresh bait.
When using liver and lung, each person has their preferred method of attaching it to the hook. Practice until you find what works for you. Regardless, a walnut-sized piece of bait should cover the bend and point of the hook. It’s not necessary to cover the shank.
It’s important, though, to not leave any loose pieces of bait dangling. A snapper can easily steal the bait and avoid the hook by pulling on loose bait ends.
As you fish for turtles, you’ll begin to notice where they prefer to live. I’ve discovered that turtles choose calm water over rough water. Slow-moving creeks and rivers hold a lot of turtles. Look for mud bottoms combined with slow-moving water.
Big turtles prefer deep water edges where they hunt for food. You won’t catch as many small turtles out there, but you’ll still catch a few. Also, because there aren’t as many small turtles on the deep edges, you’ll find that you have fewer bait-stripped hooks. Small turtles prefer to stay close to thick, weedy cover in the shallows.
Many ponds and lakes have weeds in the shallow water along the shore. If possible, place your bait in the open water on the inside edge of the weeds.
I’ve caught more turtles on points than on any other part of the water. Snappers swim along bank edges and around the point, hugging close to the bank at the point’s tip. Never walk by the tip of a point without wetting a line.
“Using setlines for turtles is an exciting and successful way to get some great-tasting meat.”
Setting lines is easy. Make sure all knots are tight, and that the nylon cord you’re using isn’t frayed.
When setting a short line, simply give the line a toss, or drop it where you want. Setting a long line is quite simple, too. With your setup baited, loop the cord loosely in your left hand. Take the looped cord in your left hand and, with your right hand, grab it about 18 inches above the bait. Keeping the cord looped in your left hand, use your right hand to toss it where you want it. If everything works properly, the cord in your left hand should smoothly peel out without tangling.
Tie the cord to an anchor; a live tree works well. Tying the cord to a tree limb works somewhat like a fishing pole. It will bend without breaking until you’re able to land your catch. Don’t use a dead tree or limb. A strong turtle could easily break off the weak anchor. If you’re concerned with your catch being stolen, anchor your cord underwater to a bush or some other sturdy object. When checking your lines, it feels good to see your cord bouncing violently back and forth. You just never know what might be at the other end; it could be a 5- or a 30-pound turtle. However, it’s not always a turtle at the other end. I’ve pulled in some exceptional catfish throughout the years on turtle setlines.
One Big Catch
A word of caution: it’s possible for turtles to drown. This happens when a snapper gets the cord wrapped around debris underwater and cannot get its head to the surface. The only way to avoid this is by setting your lines in water free of objects that could cause entanglement. If using a shorter line will help prevent the turtle from getting tangled, use it.
Take your time when pulling a turtle in. A turtle can easily become tangled up in the brush. Even though you’re using a cord with high-test poundage, turtles are very aggressive and could easily fray it. If you need to get in the water to help retrieve your turtle, do it. After all, you should be wearing rubber boots.
Turtle for Dinner, Anyone?
Using setlines for turtles is an exciting and successful way to get some great-tasting meat. For less than $2 apiece, you can make setlines all day long. Can you think of a better way to spend the summer?
(right) Catfish are a bonus species that can be caught on a turtle setline. (below, left) Anchor your setline to a nearby tree so the turtle doesn’t take off with your bait and line. PHOTO BY JASON HOUSER (below, right) When using fish as turtle bait,...
Snapping turtles can grow large and boast an attitude. Never attempt to unhook a snapper, or your fingers could become victims of its bone-crushing jaws. PHOTO BY JASON HOUSER
Don’t overlook points. Turtles often hug the bank as they travel around points. These can be killer setline locations. PHOTO BY JASON HOUSER