The Snapper Grabbler

Hal Coleman is a "turtle extraction expert," but you won't believe the methods he employs to yank angry snappers from local ponds.

_"You know, i've always been interested in anything i could pick up that would make everybody around me haul ass." _Outdoor Life Online Editor

-Hal Coleman, Turtle Extraction Specialist

"Nah, there aren't any cottonmouths in this part of the country," says Hal Coleman as he shoves his right arm deep under the bank of a sewage-colored retention pond. "We do have copperheads,"-with his free hand, he points to the snakeskin that encircles the crown of his soft, wide-brimmed hat-"but they don't like water. Of course, there are some nasty water snakes here." He grins a big, toothy grin. "And they will bite the crap out of you."

Coleman is playing to the crowd, and five of the six members of the media clustered around him-the cameraman from the outdoor television show, the director, the two magazine photographers and me-smile politely. The sixth person, host of the television show, is standing hip-deep in the pond next to Coleman, hamming it up for the camera. It's a classic deer-in-headlights routine: wide eyes, frozen grimace, lips curled back to expose gritted teeth.

The director pushes a microphone closer to Coleman. This is probably the first time the varmint exterminator from just north of the Chattahoochee River has ever found himself in the center ring of a mini media circus, and he's clearly enjoying it. Coleman drawls apocryphal stories about his granddad as his right arm explores an unseen pocket beneath the edge of the pond. "That's kind of a deep hole right there. Throw me that hook," he says. The TV host hands him a steel rod with a curved tip, and Coleman-now on his knees, most of his coveralls swallowed by the pond's brown waters-uses the implement to probe the nether regions of the bank.

We all grow quiet, a reverent congregation gathered around Coleman's half-submerged figure. Only this is no baptism. It's a turtle hunt.

"Whoa," he says in a husky whisper. "Whooooaaa." We brace ourselves, anticipating the appearance of a reptile as big around as a manhole cover. The cameraman scrambles closer to get a better angle for the shot. In an instant, Coleman's hand breaks the surface and...nothing. He shakes his head and returns the rod to his TV-host sidekick, who holds an empty duffle bag waiting to be filled with turtles.

"That's a slicked-out hole," says Coleman, rubbing his thumb back and forth across the pads of his fingers. "There's been a turtle swimming in and out of there. You can feel where the smooth part of his belly has worn it slick."

Coleman moves up the bank a little ways, and the media clump follows. As he goes, he fingers every hidden nook and cranny, reading its unseen surfaces like Braille. Shutters click. Video rolls. A boom mike lurks just outside the frame. All to document a guy catching a snapping turtle with his bare hands. Or so we hope.

[pagebreak] ** Something to Do**
Roswell, Georgia, has been home to the Coleman family since 1837, and home to big snapping turtles much longer. Hal Coleman doesn't know when the two groups first crossed paths, but by the time he jumped into a creek as a teenager to wrestle out his first snapper, he'd been listening to his grandfather's stories of turtle grabbling for most of his life.

Grabbling?

"The sport or activity of sticking your arm into a hole underneath the bank to catch something," says Coleman. "It's always been called grabbling around here." But what you're after and what you find, he adds, can be two different things. "It could be a snake. A muskrat. A beaver. Or a catfish." Even, thankfully, a snapping turtle.

Common snappers live in fresh water throughout the U.S. and can grow as large as 60 pounds. They eat fish, bugs, dead things and the occasional duckling. Their cousins, alligator snappers, have been known to have heads as big as paint buckets and bodies the size of coffee tables, but you won't find those brus in the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains. "The elevation's too high," says Coleman.

There's a tendency to believe everything Coleman says when he speaks about snapping turtles. Perhaps it's his delivery-slow and chicken-fried, as charming and persuasive as a country preacher's. Or maybe it's the long open face and laughing green-gray eyes. Most likely it's the graveyard of snapper shells adorning the reception area of his pest-control business on the outskirts of Atlanta.

"Yeah, I caught all of those," he says.

I count the empty carapaces hanging on the wall. "So," I ask, "you've caught fifteen snappers by hand?"

"Oh, no. I've caught hundreds of them. Those are just the ones I hung up."

It's the day before our retention pond adventure, and I've come to visit Coleman at his headquarters for a primer on all things turtle. He ushers me back to his private office, a place that Martha Stewart has clearly never seen. One bookcase is filled with skulls-anaconda, sawfish, antelope, snapping turtle, bobcat, shark, pronghorn and coyote. "I probably ate that one," he says, tapping a snapping turtle skull.

A 15-foot reticulated python skin stretches from one wall to another, kept company by empty hornets' nests, a colony of beaver pelts and a gallery of mounted exotic insects. And then there's the really creepy stuff. The bookcase is filled with tarantulas and scorpions. Live tarantulas and scorpions.

He switches on a black light over a terrarium, and the scorpion inside fluoresces like a white T-shirt in a disco. "Their exoskeletons glow. All species of scorpion glow under black light," says Coleman. I knit my brow and nod, thinking only: Please don't ask me to hold that thing.

He doesn't.

[pagebreak] ** A Nice Mouthful of Fingers and Toes**
Eventually, Coleman plunks himself behind his desk to talk turtle. "For grabbling, what you need is a creek or a pond that's not too big. In the really big ones, the water has washed out caverns under the bank that might go a dozen feet back." Which can be a problem, because it's those holes where snappers spend most of their days. "And if that hole's too deep, you can't get to where the turtles are."

As cold-blooded creatures, snappers lack the ability to regulate their body temperatures, which is why some nights you'll find them warming themselves on asphalt highways. And that's also why Coleman goes looking for them in shallow creeks and ponds with little or no tree cover. "The warmer the water," he says, "the higher the concentration of turtles." Grabbling requires no sonar, bait, tackle or hooks. You just climb into the water and start feeling along the underside of the bank for a turtle in its lair. If your fingers encounter something "turtlish," says Coleman, gingerly run them over the creature to get the lay of the reptilian landscape. "If he's facing out toward you and you feel his head, just reach around behind his neck and grab him." This approach, he admits, is not for the faint of heart. "It takes nerve, but once you've got him by the neck, he can't bite you. Then all you have to do is keep pulling, and he'll come out of there." He pauses. "Just don't let go." Or? "You're gonna get snapped."

If you can't find the snapper's head (either because it's retracted or because the turtle is turned away from you), feel along the edge of its shell until you find the jagged area directly above the tail. "Then just reach down and grab his tail," says Coleman, "and start pulling." Extracting a turtle by its tail, he says, requires considerably more work than the neck-yank method. When you pull a snapper out of its lair backward, it will splay its legs and dig its claws into roots, rocks and anything else within reach, making the extraction process slightly easier than raising the Titanic. "A small turtle-ten pounds or so-is unbelievably strong," says Coleman. "And he'll turn around and try to bite you."

Ah, yes, the biting thing again. With powerful, beaklike jaws and necks that can stretch two-thirds the length of their shells, snappers can inflict serious injury. "One time, a buddy of mine got bit so bad his finger looked like it had been chopped by a butcher knife," says Coleman. Still, he has yet to see the fabled bite that cleaves the finger clean off. Coleman himself has been bitten only once-on the forearm. "I had long sleeves on, so it didn't cut my arm so much as it totally bruised it. From my elbow to my wrist, everything just mounded up and turned black and blue immediately."

Somehow, the episode didn't dampen Coleman's enthusiasm for grabbling. "You'll see tomorrow," he says as he shows me the skin of an 11-foot diamondback rattlesnake he killed in a cabbage patch. "Turtles aside, it's just a fun, frolicking, social event." A moment later, he's dangling one of his (live) pet scorpions by the tail. "You know, I've always been interested in anything I could pick up that would make everybody around me haul ass." And it strikes me-not for the first time-that Hal Coleman sees the world a little differently from the rest of us.

[pagebreak] ** A Turtle Man Practices His Craft**
Grabbling D-day breaks gray and still, the soupy air ripe with the promise of late-summer rain. Our entourage gathers in the parking lot of Coleman's exterminating business, then heads to a subdivision that looks better suited to an episode of Desperate Housewives than a reptilian wrestling match. But behind the brick colonials with manicured lawns, we find one of Coleman's favorite grabbling haunts: an unassuming, man-made pond.

This is no professional mission. Although Coleman is paid handsomely to remove various insects, reptiles and assorted fauna from the violated space of humankind, nobody from the subdivision has contracted him to take snapping turtles from their midst. Then again, the subdivision's pond snappers, which apparently haven't cultivated many friendships among the residents, have no champions here who will protest Coleman's efforts. Coleman swaps his oxford and khakis for a union suit, coveralls and an old slouch hat. The get-up is part Hee Haw, part practicality. "If you wear pants and a shirt, your shirt comes out and you get rocks and stuff down there," he says. That "stuff" can include the occasional water snake.

Grabbling requires a sidekick, and today that office falls to O'Neill Williams, Coleman's buddy and host of the television show O'Neill Outside. The short but bull-strong Williams plays Costello to Coleman's Abbott, providing comic relief and toting the sack that will serve as a holding pen for any quarry the grabbler lands. He also stands ready to drive Coleman to the ER if a snapper runs amok and g," says Coleman. "And he'll turn around and try to bite you."

Ah, yes, the biting thing again. With powerful, beaklike jaws and necks that can stretch two-thirds the length of their shells, snappers can inflict serious injury. "One time, a buddy of mine got bit so bad his finger looked like it had been chopped by a butcher knife," says Coleman. Still, he has yet to see the fabled bite that cleaves the finger clean off. Coleman himself has been bitten only once-on the forearm. "I had long sleeves on, so it didn't cut my arm so much as it totally bruised it. From my elbow to my wrist, everything just mounded up and turned black and blue immediately."

Somehow, the episode didn't dampen Coleman's enthusiasm for grabbling. "You'll see tomorrow," he says as he shows me the skin of an 11-foot diamondback rattlesnake he killed in a cabbage patch. "Turtles aside, it's just a fun, frolicking, social event." A moment later, he's dangling one of his (live) pet scorpions by the tail. "You know, I've always been interested in anything I could pick up that would make everybody around me haul ass." And it strikes me-not for the first time-that Hal Coleman sees the world a little differently from the rest of us.

[pagebreak] ** A Turtle Man Practices His Craft**
Grabbling D-day breaks gray and still, the soupy air ripe with the promise of late-summer rain. Our entourage gathers in the parking lot of Coleman's exterminating business, then heads to a subdivision that looks better suited to an episode of Desperate Housewives than a reptilian wrestling match. But behind the brick colonials with manicured lawns, we find one of Coleman's favorite grabbling haunts: an unassuming, man-made pond.

This is no professional mission. Although Coleman is paid handsomely to remove various insects, reptiles and assorted fauna from the violated space of humankind, nobody from the subdivision has contracted him to take snapping turtles from their midst. Then again, the subdivision's pond snappers, which apparently haven't cultivated many friendships among the residents, have no champions here who will protest Coleman's efforts. Coleman swaps his oxford and khakis for a union suit, coveralls and an old slouch hat. The get-up is part Hee Haw, part practicality. "If you wear pants and a shirt, your shirt comes out and you get rocks and stuff down there," he says. That "stuff" can include the occasional water snake.

Grabbling requires a sidekick, and today that office falls to O'Neill Williams, Coleman's buddy and host of the television show O'Neill Outside. The short but bull-strong Williams plays Costello to Coleman's Abbott, providing comic relief and toting the sack that will serve as a holding pen for any quarry the grabbler lands. He also stands ready to drive Coleman to the ER if a snapper runs amok and