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Turtle fishing loses popularity among area outdoorsmen

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Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008

Turtle fishing -- almost always a niche sport -- is becoming even rarer, it seems.

Though turtles can be caught by hand, on hook and line, or with hoops and line, fewer and fewer people seem to be pursuing them, say those who still do it.

"When I was a kid, I knew about 30 turtle hunters," said 66-year-old Al Clemens of Jeannette. "The only ones I know now• My sons, John and Joey."

Part of that might be because catching turtles, by any method, is time consuming, said 50-year-old Jeff Pruszenski of Brookline. He and a friend, 42-year-old Nick Petito of Upper Saint Clair, catch turtles on wire lines using 3.5-inch hooks baited with chicken or baitfish.

They do well. This year, for example, fishing a pond in Washington County, they captured several weighing between 18 and 35 pounds. Three such turtles will produce more than 20 pounds of soup, he said.

Before you can eat a turtle, though, you have to take it home and put it -- while still alive -- in a large tub of water, he said. That, while changing the water several times over the next couple of days, cleans the turtle out so that it can be butchered.

That may be more than some people are willing to do.

"There are not many of use 'turtle men' left," Pruszenski said. "It's a dying custom and it's hard work from the time you set the lines until you put the spoon in the bowl."

The problem is not a lack of snapping turtles in Pennsylvania. No specific population estimate exists, but all indications are that snappers are doing well, said Chris Urban, chief of the natural diversity section for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

"I think they're an animal we're still learning a lot about in Pennsylvania," Urban said. "But in most aquatic situations, if you look around, you're going to find them."

Opportunistic, ambush hunters that will eat everything from fish and frogs to vegetation, ducks "and anything else they can get their mouths around," snapping turtles can get large, Urban said. Adults typically weigh between 15 and 45 pounds, but one topping 60 pounds was caught in Wayne County in 2006.

Females leave the water to nest -- mid-June is the peak season -- and annually lay 30 or so eggs per clutch. Babies are the size of a 50-cent piece when born, and many fall prey to raccoons and opossums.

Those that survive are generally long-lived -- 30 to 50 years is not unheard of -- and provide some good sport.

"Turtleing is a ritual in the summer months for my family and friends when fishing is slow and hunting season is over," Pruszenski said.

Commission reins in harvesters

Snapping turtles are the one wildlife species in Pennsylvania that you can legally harvest and sell commercially.

Last year, for the first time, the Fish and Boat Commission instituted a commercial harvest permit to get a handle on how many people target turtles for commercial purposes, and to see how many turtles they are taking.

In 2007, 18 people killed 189 turtles, 99 of them in Dauphin County alone. Fifteen were caught in Warren County, nine in Lawrence, three in Juniata, and one in Butler.

Twenty-three permits have been issued so far this year. The snapping turtle season runs from July 1 to Oct. 31 and the limit is 15 turtles per day.

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