Ernie Brown, a professional snapping turtle catcher, has had his front teeth knocked out by a chainsaw, his wrist severed by a snapping turtle and even more teeth knocked out in a car accident. But it takes more than a few nicks and dings to stop the Turtle Man.
Brown, a good old boy from central Kentucky, has earned a modest amount of fame for both his personality and his profession: catching snapping turtles with his bare hands. He is currently working on a potential deal with Animal Planet and has been featured in several local news outlets. His popularity on Youtube is incredible; he has almost 3 million page views on his original video (see his video at the end of the gallery).
Turtle Man got his start as a seven-year-old boy trying to help feed his family. Brown grew up poor and his family relied on the land when times got tough. Snapping turtle was a large part of their diet, Ernie’s uncle eventually taught him how to catch the turtles himself. He never looked back from there.
The Turtle Man has four main turtle catching techniques. His standard technique is called the bubbling technique. He moves around a pond in a circle and scares the turtles to the middle. He locates them by their bubbles and from there he steps on their backs to pin them to the bottom of pond. Then he lets the turtle bite his free foot and grabs it by the tail. As a sidenote, Brown says you should always wear good boots when catching turtles, never go into a pond barefoot.
He has also mastered the scoop technique where he basically chases the turtle’s bubble trail and tries to catch it while it swims away. “If you come up from behind them you’re OK, hopefully the turtle doesn’t turn around on you,” he says.
Probably the most dangerous technique is diving, which is exactly what it sounds like. Brown will dive down into a pond, usually where the water is too murky to see through and too deep to stand in, and grab for the turtle’s tail. If things go well, he’ll snag the turtle and wrestle it to the surface. If things go badly, he gets bitten or drug down into the mucky bottom.
Brown has been bitten 32 times in 39 years of catching snapping turtles, which have notoriously powerful jaws. He suffered his worst bite when he was a kid. A turtle slashed into Brown’s wrist and he nearly bled to death. Under doctor’s orders Brown had to stop catching turtles for almost two years. But the Turtle Man was undeterred. When he healed up, he headed back to the farm ponds.
Brown now makes a living catching turtles out of ponds for farmers. He also performs at events like birthday parties or reunions as the entertainment. What’s attractive about watching a middle-aged man wade through murky, chest-deep water to catch snapping turtles that sometimes weigh more than 30 pounds?
“It brings something out of you, it’s spiritual … you can be yourself around the Turtle Man,” says Brown, who gives a wild rebel yell every time he catches a turtle. “The kids go crazy for it, they just love it.”
The biggest snapper Turtle Man has ever caught weighed about 55 pounds. “It was the biggest turtle I’ve ever seen, it was bigger than a truck tire. It was as big as a dinosaur,” Brown says.
Brown says they weighed the turtle on a bathroom scale and then ate it. It fed 30 people. “We were so poor we never had a camera or anything. All we have is our memory and hope that people believe us,” James says.
He now has a small but dedicated group of fans and a website that documents his adventures. There are even two songs dedicated to Turtle Man (one of them is a rap song).
Aside from big, angry snapping turtles, Brown also has to deal with bugs, foot-sucking mud and snakes on his turtle catching expeditions. A word of advice from Brown if you’re thinking about taking up turtle catching: “Ease into a pond, don’t dive into it.”
Brown maneuvers around a pond in his patented alligator crawl. Here’s how it’s done: lay on your stomach and try to float on top of the mud. Kick with your feet and sweep your hands in front of you to feel for turtles. “Don’t fight the mud,” Brown says. “You have to coast through it like you’re ice skating.”
Through years of practice, Brown can tell which way a turtle is facing and what it’s going to do even when he can’t see it in the murky water below. He can also hold his breath for about two minutes.
What possesses Turtle Man to hunt turtles?
“I’m just trying to cheer people up a little bit and get them to love the Turtle Man … and keep it wild and true,” Brown says.
You can see the rest of Turtle Man’s photos and video in this gallery and visit his website here.
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Ernie Brown makes his living catching snapping turtles with his bare hands. Now this homegrown Kentucky boy is on the brink of making the big time.