EAGLE LAKE — There's not really much skill to hunting turtles, Tim Thomas explains. Just jab your stick around in the mud 'til you feel one, then dig it out with your hands. Be sure to grab the shell on either side so the turtles don't latch on.
"If one gets your finger, you won't get it off until it's ready to come off," says Thomas, 51. "It'll make a grown man cry."
Thomas's family has been catching freshwater turtles in Polk County for almost 80 years. Over the summer, they caught hundreds, each weighing 2 to 60 pounds. Then state officials said fishermen could only keep 20 turtles each per day, the Asian economy collapsed and China stopped importing turtles. The Thomas Fish Co. was stuck with 20,000 pounds of softshells. So Thomas dug holding pens in his yard and waited for an order.
Two weeks ago, a Chinese fish dealer finally called. Thomas set Monday for the roundup. He and his family herded turtles until it got too dark to see, loading softshells as big as manhole covers into cardboard boxes.
They caught at least 130, Thomas said — 3,000 pounds of live softshells. At $2.50 a pound, the haul should bring in about $7,500.
"We didn't catch 'em all," Thomas says. "I got no idea how many turtles are still out there."
Lane DeGregory, Times staff writer