TURTLES / CATFISH
My grandfather ran trot lines all through the year, when I was just a boy. He loved catfish and fresh water turtles. He claimed that turtle, or “cooter” as it is known by the Seminoles, was the best meat in the everglades. It is soft, tender, and sweet. There are a variety of turtles (box, alligator snapping, and softshell to name a few) in freshwater lakes, ponds, canals, and streams, and they are all great eating. My uncle and I always ran trot lines when we went camping. You can run them in salt or fresh water. They can also set them underwater while spearfishing.
You can always bet on a good meal when you have a line baited right in the proper location. A “trot line” as it is called by the Florida natives is nothing more than a gator catch line with some minor differences. It is made using monofilament line (fishing line) and a few small hooks spaced out about every 8-12 inches. They are very simple to make and will yield fresh meat on a regular basis. All you need to do is take a 15 ft. length of monofilament fishing line and tie a small weight at one end. Next, you will need to tie some small treble hooks or small single hooks every 8 inches in a span of 12 feet. Remember the innards of the seagulls and pigeons or anything else that you caught and saved? This is where they come in. After you retrieve those inner organs you saved, simply cut small portions of them and bait all of the hooks on your trot line. Drop your baited line in the area you intend to fish, and tie the end to a strong stick, root, branch, or anything else that is stationary. You are going to want to conceal it, like you did the gator catch line. After your line is secure, it is best to make sure some of the hooks with the bait are on the bottom of the lake bed and some of the hooks are shallow enough to attract turtles and allow them to get to it. All of the hooks should be submerged. Once you have your trot line positioned right where you want it, take some (but not all) remnants of your innards and throw them in the water around the area that your trot line is located. This will draw the catfish into your area and will guarantee you some positive results. If you still have some innards left, you may want to run another line in another location, preferably somewhere a little ways away. If you don’t want to fish in another location, then bury your innards in your airtight container close to your trot line. This way you won’t have to go far if you choose to rebait your line the following day. Never let your lines go unattended longer than two days. It is preferable to set them in the late afternoon and check them two hours after the sun is up.
Remember you want to fish in different locations so that you don’t wipe out your resource. Give your little hunting ground the proper time to recuperate and reproduce so you can count on a successful bounty in the future. You are going to need it.
To clean a catfish, simply cut off the head and throw the body in the skillet with some oil to fry. The fish will move around for a while even when they are cooking, so don’t be alarmed. They are very good eating and go great with grits.
To clean or process a turtle, you are going to need to euthanize him first. The best way to do this is to shoot or strike him in the head. In order to do this, you will need to set him on the ground first. Step behind the turtle and wait for him to stick his head out. Once the turtle emerges, it is time to strike. Do not do this if it is a soft shell turtle; they are very fast, will run away, and you will never catch it. You can recognize soft shell turtles because they have a long pointy beak and their shells are low to the ground. To euthanize a soft shell, you will need to improvise using a spear or a knife. Be creative but humane. This animal is giving up its life for yours. Be curious, and make it as pain free as possible for the animal.
Turtles are tough to clean, so I’m going to share with you the way my uncle and I always did it. First is to build a fire and get some good coals working. (Make sure the coals are flat.) Next, simply set the turtle on the coals, and let it cook for about 40 minutes or until the meat is tender. (The larger the turtle, the longer the cook time that is required.) As the turtle cooks, the meat will slowly start to sag outside of the shell. Poke it with a stick and when the meat is coming off the bone you know it is ready. The inner parts of the turtle take a little longer to fully cook, so remember to give it enough time on the fire before pulling it off the flame. Eat around the innards and don’t be afraid. The meat is spectacular, and once you have put it in your mouth you won’t be thinking about anything else but the next bite. (Remember to save your turtle innards; they are an excellent bait for alligators, even after they have been cooked.)
On a final note I would like to point out that there are always small grass shrimp and mollusks that live just on the edges of whatever water source you are fishing. They can be caught by sweeping a small net about an inch below the surface at the water line where the water grass grows. These little shellfish are an excellent bait for bluegills and bass and can also be used on your trot line, if you don’t have innards.
RACCOONS / OPPOSSUMS
Opossums and raccoons can be found in almost every neighborhood in the country. Although they are not considered a viable food source to people nowadays, the old “Florida Crackers” felt otherwise. In fact, opossums were the land meat of choice to most of the old timers. Eating opossums was the norm for my grandparents; it was something to look forward to. Because opossums are scavengers and not hunters, they tend to move slowly and don’t require the need to move fast. They lack the dense muscle tone that predator animals poses. This makes their meat extremely tender. Opossums usually freeze when they encounter anything that poses a threat to them. This is where the term “playing opossum” came from, and it makes them a very easy animal to catch.
Raccoons on the other hand are less timid and tend to move quicker. Their meat is tougher than an opossum and a bit strong in taste. However, anything can be made to taste good with the right seasoning and preparation. The rule of thumb is “the stronger the animal tastes, the longer the cooking time that is required.” (Raccoons are best stewed. They can also be cut into small nuggets, pounded with a hammer, and then deep fried. My grandfather used to soak the meat in milk for several hours before cooking.)
Now that you have met the opossum and the raccoon, let’s learn how to catch them. A dead fall trap is one of the easiest traps to make. The Seminoles have used this same technique for centuries. All you need to do is dig a hole five feet deep with an opening that is larger than the animal you are targeting and taper the edges backward. You will need to shape a large circumference at the bottom and a small circumference at the top opening. This will prevent the animal from escaping once it has fallen into the hole.
The next thing you will need to do is find some very delicate branches to place on top of the hole. Place some leaves on top of the sticks and make sure that the opening blends into the surroundings. You don’t want anything to look out of place, and you shouldn’t be able to tell there is anything there once you have everything set. Make sure it is strong enough to hold your bait but delicate enough to give way immediately once your target stands over the hole. All you need to do after that is place your bait in the center of the area and wait. Be patient, and your dinner will arrive soon.
To euthanize your catch, it is best to use a gun or compound bow. If you don’t have either one, I advise you to make a spear. You will figure it out from there. You could even place sharpened spears at the bottom of the hole embedded in the sand to kill the animal right away, if you would like, but I don’t recommend this. If you delay in checking the trap and the animal spoils, then you have killed something for nothing and that is not acceptable. If the animal is alive, it guarantees you freshness when you are ready to consume it. The great thing about bait selection for these animals is they both eat most anything they can get their claws on. Raccoons do prefer fish or seafood over anything else; so remember to save your fish and turtle remains after you are done with them.
It is important also to note that both animals are usually nocturnal and will most likely get trapped at night. So make sure to check your trap every morning.
Prior to cleaning any type of scavenger animal it is best to build a fire and set the animal in the fire for three minutes fur and all. This will kill all mites, fleas, and ticks that may be on the animal. Don’t leave the animal on the fire too long but just enough to kill the unwanted creatures that may be living in the fur. Remove the animal from the fire, and let it cool for about 10 minutes. Now you are ready to proceed with the processing of your catch. Clean it the same way as a squirrel. (Think about separating the skin from the meat.)
Deadfall traps will work on many different animals, including dogs and cats. So, if and when TSHTF, do not hesitate to use them. Start digging, get your deadfall trap baited, and you’ll be eating soon enough. As a final note, dogs and cats have been eaten for years all over the world and are still considered a prime food source in many countries. Stand outside the realm of normalcy, and you will live to hunt another day.