By Kenneth Williams
Turtles are the oldest living reptiles, over 200 million
years old. Ecologically, they are important scavengers; and are
common inhabitants of most Oklahoma ponds and streams. They are
often seen basking in the sun, on rocks and partially submerged
logs that have ready access to water. Turtles are diurnal
creatures, active during the day and sleeping at night. Many
pond owners find turtles to be a nuisance because they sometimes
interfere with angling activities. Turtles occasionally will
strike at catfish baits and become hooked; or feed on captive
stringers of fish. Also, turtles quickly learn to eat commercial
fish foods that are often fed to channel catfish and hybrid
bluegill. Turtle populations can grow rapidly to nuisance
proportions when fish feed is available regularly.
This fact sheet will describe life histories and habits of
common aquatic turtles and offer methods to reduce turtle
populations in ponds. Construction plans for a low-cost, easily
constructed turtle trap are included.
It is a common misconception that all turtles consume large
quantities of fish and consequently, ruin angling opportunities.
This is not true. Oklahoma’s most common pond turtle, the
red-eared turtle or red-eared slider, feeds mainly on aquatic
vegetation, dead fish and other organisms.
Carnivorous species such as the common snapping turtle do eat
fish. However, their numbers are usually quite small in most
ponds and actual numbers of fish eaten are few.
There are three main groups of aquatic turtles, the sliders and
coots, snapping turtles and soft shell turtles.
Pond Turtle Life Histories
The red-eared turtle - Trachemys scripta elegans
is the most common turtle found in Oklahoma ponds. Typically,
adults weigh 5-18 lb. and shell length is 5 -113/8 inches long.
Life span of this turtle is about 20 years in the wild and up to
40 years in captivity. Red-eared turtles (deletion} inhabit
ponds and quiet, river back waters with soft muddy bottoms and
Red-eared turtles were once sold in many pet stores, however,
Salmonella bacteria found on about 14 percent of young turtles
now prevent sales of turtles less than 4 inches in length as
pets in the United States.
The turtle is identified by the bright red “ear” patch found on
the head, behind the eye.
Red-eared turtles are often seen basking on logs in or near the
water. Basking increases body temperature and speeds digestion.
Basking also dries the skin of the turtle causing leeches and
other external parasites to fall off.
Breeding season is from March to June. Nests are constructed
through June and July. Red-eared turtles lay 1-3 clutches of
4-23 oval eggs in shallow pits dug by the female. Nests are
covered with a layer of soil after eggs are laid. Young turtles
hatch in 8-10 weeks but many spend their first winter in the
nest. Hatchlings are about 1 inch in diameter.
Young red-eared turtles feed on aquatic insects, tadpoles,
snails and crawfish. As they mature they convert to a plant
Red-eared turtles begin to hibernate in muskrat burrows, hollow
logs or other cavities when water temperature drops to 500 F.
Optimum temperature for red-eared turtles is about 850 F.
Snapping turtle - Chelydra serpintina
Snapping turtles are large, usually 10-35 lb but can weigh up to
85 lb. shell length is 8-18 inches. The tail is almost as long
as the shell. Snappers are aggressive turtles when on land,
often lunging forward repeatedly and biting when provoked. The
powerful hooked jaws of a snapping turtle can cause severe
injury and may result in severed fingers.
The common snapping turtle can be distinguished from the closely
related alligator snapping turtle Macroclemys temmincki
by a row of saw-toothed keels on the tail. The snapper also has
a smaller head.
Common snapping turtles live in a variety of permanent bodies of
freshwater. Unlike the red-eared turtles, snappers bask in
shallow water with only their head above the surface.
Populations rarely reach nuisance levels in most ponds.
Snapping turtles bury themselves in the mud with only eyes and
nostrils exposed and await their prey. They are omnivorous and
eat a variety of crayfish, snails, mussels, fish, reptiles,
amphibians small, birds and mammals, carrion and
vegetation.Mating season extends from April to November. June is
the peak egg laying month. Typically, 25-50 spherical eggs are
deposited in 4-7 inch deep cavity. Female snappers are sometimes
seen on roadways as they travel to nesting sites sometimes far
away from water.
Like the red-eared turtle, snapping turtles hibernate in winter.
Snappers are edible and considered fine table fare by many
anglers. The meat is reported to consist of 7 flavors.
Alligator snapping turtle - Macroclemys temmincki
Alligator snappers do not have saw-toothed keels on the tail and
can become much larger than the common snapping turtle.
Alligator snappers typically weigh 35-150 lb. but may attain
weights as much as 219 lb. Shell length is 15-26 inches.
These turtles are found in sloughs, oxbows and deep rivers.
Preferred habitat includes areas of fallen timber.
Feeding habits are similar to the common snapping turtle.
Alligator snappers have a pink, worm-like structure located on
the tongue. The turtle lies quietly in the mud on the pond
bottom with mouth open, moving the worm-like lure to attract
unsuspecting prey. Alligator snappers are more effective fish
predators than the common snapping
April to June, alligator snappers lay one clutch of 10-52
spherical eggs in an excavated cavity in the soil. Unlike the
common snapping turtle, the alligator snapper does not go more
than about 150 feet from water to lay eggs. Young turtles hatch
in the fall.
Snapping turtles are long-lived creatures with a relatively slow
metabolism and low activity level. They require little food
throughout the year to grow and reproduce.
Spiny softshell - Apalone spiniferus
Softshell turtles are identified by their flexible, flattened
carapace covered in leathery skin. Softshells have paddle-like
webbed feet with 3 claws. They move quickly on land and are fast
swimmers. The neck is very long. Adult softshell turtle shell
length can reach 16 inches. Use caution when handling softshells;
their beak and claws are sharp and they can be aggressive.
Softshell turtles have the ability to breathe by absorbing
oxygen in the pharyngeal (throat) tissues and in anal tissues as
well as through the lungs.
Softshell turtles can be found basking on banks or floating in
the water of ponds, lakes and rivers, but rarely on rocks and
Softshell turtles lay 4-32 spherical eggs in nests constructed
in sun lit banks of sand or gravel, May through August.
Young turtles emerge August to October. Eggs deposited late in
the season may not hatch until the following spring.
Softshell turtles are carnivorous and feed almost exclusively on
aquatic insects and crayfish. Fish are a minor item in the diet;
however, it does compete with fish for food organisms.
Softshell turtles are edible and are sometimes used to prepare
Turtle Trap Construction
Most turtle traps are constructed to use to advantage the
turtle’s inclination to bask in the sun. This trap design allows
the turtle to climb easily upon a rectangle of 4 inch PVC pipe,
however, when the turtle slips back into the water on the cage
side, it can not climb out of the trap. This trap is inexpensive
to build and will last many years. One of these traps has been
in continuous use for more than 15 years with only minor
1. Construct the top frame of 4 inch diameter PVC pipe. Use 900
elbows for the four corners. Carefully glue each joint to
prevent leaks. An outside coat of silicone sealer can be used as
extra reinforcement against leakage at the joints. The PVC pipe
frame serves to float the trap. Frame size is not important,
although traps larger than about 4 ft. x 4 ft. are difficult for
one person to handle. Also, plastic coated welded wire is sold
in 4 ft. widths which makes 4 ft. dimensions convenient and
efficient. Smaller traps work equally well
2. Construct a 4 ft. x 4 x 2 ft. open top cage around the
outside of the PVC pipe frame. The cage is best constructed of
plastic coated welded wire mesh. Up to about 2 inch by 2 inch
mesh size can be used. Other mesh materials can be used,
however, trap life expectancy may be less. Fasten welded wire
with stainless steel hog rings spaced about 1 inch apart. It is
important that the wire mesh is attached to the outside edge of
the PVC pipe frame.
3. Attach the trap cage to the frame with plastic cable ties or
sturdy, plastic coated wire. The sides of the cage should be
even, to slightly above the top edge of the pipe.
4. Build a walk ramp on one or more sides of the cage. Construct
the ramp by folding a 16-24 inch piece of wire mesh into a “V”
shape. Attach one edge of the ramp to the top side of the cage.
Attach the bottom edge of the ramp 6-10 inches below the top
edge. Attach the ramp with cable ties, sturdy wire or stainless
steel hog rings.
5. Anchor the trap conveniently near the edge of the pond with a
concrete block or other suitable weight. The trap will catch
turtles as is, however, it is much more effective against
snapping turtles when baited. Fish food, dead fish or pet foods
are effective turtle baits. Snapping turtles have limited
ranges. The trap will be most effective on snappers if it is
periodically moved around the shoreline about 100 feet at a
time. This is particularly necessary in ponds larger than about
an acre in size.
Turtles naturally climb the ramp and attempt to sun themselves
on the PVC pipe. The pipe is slick and some turtles fall into
the trap. Others are attracted to the bait and enter the trap in
search of it. Turtles cannot climb the slick PVC pipe and are
trapped inside the cage.
The trap should be emptied occasionally and turtles relocated to
a different area.
A fishing license is required to collect turtles in many states.
Daily possession limits may be in force and some species such as
the alligator snapping turtle are protected and can not be
collected. Turtles smaller than 4 inches can not be sold in the
United States. Check local regulations in your area before
taking turtles from the wild.
Oklahoma regulations concerning turtle harvest are as follows:
(Noncommercial): Taking of turtles shall be lawful in all waters
throughout the year with a resident or nonresident fishing
license provided that:
• no more than 6 turtles per day are taken;
• shooting of turtles on federal reservoirs is prohibited;
• terrestrial (land) turtles may not be sold;
• taking of the western chicken turtle, map turtle
and/or alligator snapping turtle is prohibited;
• the Wichita Mountains NWR is closed;
• no aquatic turtles may be sold or purchased without the proper
commercial turtle harvester or buyers license.
Always carefully wash hands with soap and water after handling
turtles to prevent possible Salmonella infections. Handle
turtles only when necessary. Red-eared turtles are normally
docile turtles but they can give a sharp bite or scratch that
can become infected if care is not taken. Softshell turtles are
quick, agile and often of an aggressive temperament. Handle all
snapping turtles with extreme caution. Snappers are very
aggressive and will readily lunge and bite the unwary person. A
20 lb snapping turtle can easily damage a finger.