I’ve always been enamored with all sorts of wild critters, whether it was bees, snakes, lizards, spiders, frogs, you name it. So it was just natural that I’d develop a fascination with the snapping turtle. This sharp-jawed, beady eyed, nasty looking beast lived in all the lakes and ponds where I grew up. I’d see them with just their heads poking out of the water’s surface, or swimming near shore, or crossing a road. Several times I tried to catch one by skewering a chunk of fish on a hook and tossing it out in the lake, leaving it overnight. I always came back to find a busted line or straightened hook.
As my career progressed, I landed a job at the US Military Academy at West Point where I was forester, wildlife biologist, game warden — whatever, as long as it had to do with the outdoors. The military reservation was large, at 16,000 acres, given the fact it was only 50 miles from New York City. There were a dozen ponds and lakes within the installation, and they were loaded with snapping turtles. I was determined to catch some, and got permission from my boss to trap them on the reservation, as long as I was on my own time and used my POV ( military lingo for Privately Owned Vehicle). At first the turtles outsmarted me by breaking my lines, but I came up with a plan to use Bailey beaver traps that can catch animals alive. To describe the trap, when closed, it looks like a clam. When open it lays flat. It’s made of rugged chain link wire with a trigger that looks like a « T ». The open trap is placed in a beaver run or place where the animal is likely to swim. As it’s belly brushes the trigger, the trap slams shut.
My plan was to tie a chunk of fish to the trigger and lay the set trap near shore, typically next to a creek where the trickling water would disperse the smell of the dead fish into the lake. The turtle, having an outstanding sense of smell, swims over, bites on the fish and the trap slams shut. Traps were always set in shallow water so the turtle didn’t drown.
I decided that if I could catch enough turtles I’d keep them alive until I had enough to take to town. I had arranged with a family friend who owned a fish market in my home town (I was born and raised 12 miles from West Point) to take the turtles to Fulton’s Fish Market in Brooklyn when he drove his empty truck down to pick up fish. Fulton’s was supposed to be the largest fish market in the world, and the owners were anxious to get my turtles. If all worked, the local fish market would get a cut for transporting them down and I’d keep the rest. I planned on using the money to buy Christmas presents for my kids.
So before my little operation began, I needed a place where I could stockpile my turtles and keep them alive until it was time to load them up and take them to town. I found a huge wooden crate as big as a coffin and decided to keep my turtles in it. I wanted a spot where I could hide the crate, because they could attract curious people. The crate had to be in the water. I drilled holes in the bottom and planned on putting big rocks on top so it would partially sink and keep the turtles wet.
But where would I put it? It had to be where there were few or no other people around. Then I had a brilliant idea. West Point has an artillery range where the cadets fire 105 mm howitzer rounds over a mountain and into another mountain. This was called the Impact Area or Dud Danger Area. No one was allowed in there except MP’s and me, being the game warden. I had keys for the locked gates. There was a small swamp in the Impact Area with an old road running to it. I doubted anyone ever went in there. It was the perfect place for my turtles. As it turned out, trapping was successful. I caught plenty of snappers and the little business operation was working out nicely.
If you’re wondering why I was bold enough to enter the Impact Area in the first place, every day the military issued a bulletin on what ranges would be used. At a glance I knew when the Impact Area was safe. No way did I want to be anywhere near that place during active firing days. If my memory serves me correctly, a 105 mm round is about 4 inches thick and 14 inches long. One day, when I was bringing in some roadkill to feed my captive turtles, ( usually woodchucks, raccoons and possums) I heard and felt an explosion. It was a large explosion. Suddenly I realized I had evidently read the bulletin incorrectly or had the wrong date. I jumped in my vehicle and sped out of there just as two more shells exploded. I got out of there safely, and as soon as thé range was safe I gathered up my turtles and terminated my business. One mistake was enough.
At least Santa Claus was good to my kids that Christmas.