“YOU KNOW,I’VE ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTED IN ANYTHING I COULD PICK UP THAT WOULD MAKEEVERYBODY AROUND ME HAUL ASS.” –HAL COLEMAN, TURTLE EXTRACTION SPECIALIST
“NAH, THEREAREN’T ANY COTTONMOUTHS IN THIS PART OF THE COUNTRY,” says Hal Coleman ashe 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 thesnakeskin that encircles the crown of his soft, wide-brimmed hat–“but theydon’t like water. Of course, there are some nasty water snakes here.” Hegrins a big, toothy grin. “And they will bite the crap out of you.”
Coleman isplaying to the crowd, and five of the six members of the media clustered aroundhim–the cameraman from the outdoor television show, the director, the twomagazine photographers and me–smile politely. The sixth person, host of thetelevision show, is standing hip-deep in the pond next to Coleman, hamming itup for the camera. It’s a classic deer-in-headlights routine: wide eyes, frozengrimace, lips curled back to expose gritted teeth.
The directorpushes a microphone closer to Coleman. This is probably the first time thevarmint exterminator from just north of the Chattahoochee River has ever foundhimself in the center ring of a mini media circus, and he’s clearly enjoyingit. Coleman drawls apocryphal stories about his granddad as his right armexplores an unseen pocket beneath the edge of the pond. “That’s kind of adeep hole right there. Throw me that hook,” he says. The TV host hands hima steel rod with a curved tip, and Coleman–now on his knees, most of hiscoveralls swallowed by the pond’s brown waters–uses the implement to probe thenether regions of the bank.
We all growquiet, 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. Thecameraman 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 returnsthe rod to his TV-host sidekick, who holds an empty duffle bag waiting to befilled with turtles.
“That’s aslicked-out hole,” says Coleman, rubbing his thumb back and forth acrossthe pads of his fingers. “There’s been a turtle swimming in and out ofthere. You can feel where the smooth part of his belly has worn itslick.”
Coleman moves upthe bank a little ways, and the media clump follows. As he goes, he fingersevery hidden nook and cranny, reading its unseen surfaces like Braille.Shutters click. Video rolls. A boom mike lurks just outside the frame. All todocument a guy catching a snapping turtle with his bare hands. Or so wehope.
ROSWELL, GEORGIA,HAS been home to the Coleman family since 1837, and home to big snappingturtles much longer. Hal Coleman doesn’t know when the two groups first crossedpaths, but by the time he jumped into a creek as a teenager to wrestle out hisfirst snapper, he’d been listening to his grandfather’s stories of turtlegrabbling for most of his life.
“The sport oractivity of sticking your arm into a hole underneath the bank to catchsomething,” says Coleman. “It’s always been called grabbling aroundhere.” But what you’re after and what you find, he adds, can be twodifferent things. “It could be a snake. A muskrat. A beaver. Or acatfish.” Even, thankfully, a snapping turtle.
Common snapperslive 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 andbodies the size of coffee tables, but you won’t find those brutes in thefoothills of the North Georgia Mountains. “The elevation’s too high,”says Coleman.
There’s atendency to believe everything Coleman says when he speaks about snappingturtles. Perhaps it’s his delivery–slow and chicken-fried, as charming andpersuasive as a country preacher’s. Or maybe it’s the long open face andlaughing green-gray eyes. Most likely it’s the graveyard of snapper shellsadorning the reception area of his pest-control business on the outskirts ofAtlanta.
“Yeah, Icaught all of those,” he says.
I count the emptycarapaces hanging on the wall. “So,” I ask, “you’ve caught fifteensnappers by hand?”
“Oh, no. I’vecaught hundreds of them. Those are just the ones I hung up.”
It’s the daybefore our retention pond adventure, and I’ve come to visit Coleman at hisheadquarters for a primer on all things turtle. He ushers me back to hisprivate office, a place that Martha Stewart has clearly never seen. Onebookcase is filled with skulls–anaconda, sawfish, antelope, snapping turtle,bobcat, shark, pronghorn and coyote. “I probably ate that one,” hesays, tapping a snapping turtle skull.
A 15-footreticulated python skin stretches from one wall to another, kept company byempty hornets’ nests, a colony of beaver pelts and a gallery of mounted exoticinsects. And then there’s the really creepy stuff. The bookcase is filled withtarantulas and scorpions. Live tarantulas and scorpions.
He switches on ablack light over a terrarium, and the scorpion inside fluoresces like a whiteT-shirt in a disco. “Their exoskeletons glow. All species of scorpion glowunder black light,” says Coleman. I knit my brow and nod, thinking only:Please don’t ask me to hold that thing.
A NICE MOUTHFULOF FINGERS AND TOES
EVENTUALLY,COLEMAN PLUNKS himself behind his desk to talk turtle. “For grabbling, whatyou need is a creek or a pond that’s not too big. In the really big ones, thewater has washed out caverns under the bank that might go a dozen feetback.” Which can be a problem, because it’s those holes where snappersspend most of their days. “And if that hole’s too deep, you can’t get towhere the turtles are.”
As cold-bloodedcreatures, snappers lack the ability to regulate their body temperatures, whichis why some nights you’ll find them warming themselves on asphalt highways. Andthat’s also why Coleman goes looking for them in shallow creeks and ponds withlittle or no tree cover. “The warmer the water,” he says, “thehigher the concentration of turtles.”
Grabblingrequires no sonar, bait, tackle or hooks. You just climb into the water andstart feeling along the underside of the bank for a turtle in its lair. If yourfingers encounter something “turtlish,” says Coleman, gingerly run themover the creature to get the lay of the reptilian landscape. “If he’sfacing out toward you and you feel his head, just reach around behind his neckand 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.” Hepauses. “Just don’t let go.” Or? “You’re gonna getsnapped.”
If you can’t findthe snapper’s head (either because it’s retracted or because the turtle isturned away from you), feel along the edge of its shell until you find thejagged area directly above the tail. “Then just reach down and grab histail,” says Coleman, “and start pulling.” Extracting a turtle byits tail, he says, requires considerably more work than the neckyank method.When you pull a snapper out of its lair backward, it will splay its legs anddig its claws into roots, rocks and anything else within reach, making theextraction process slightly easier than raising the Titanic. “A smallturtle–ten pounds or so–is unbelievably strong,” says Coleman. “Andhe’ll turn around and try to bite you.”
Ah, yes, thebiting thing again. With powerful, beaklike jaws and necks that can stretchtwo-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 hadbeen chopped by a butcher knife,” says Coleman. Still, he has yet to seethe fabled bite that cleaves the finger clean off. Coleman himself has beenbitten only once–on the forearm. “I had long sleeves on, so it didn’t cutmy arm so much as it totally bruised it. From my elbow to my wrist, everythingjust mounded up and turned black and blue immediately.”
Somehow, theepisode didn’t dampen Coleman’s enthusiasm for grabbling. “You’ll seetomorrow,” he says as he shows me the skin of an 11-foot diamondbackrattlesnake 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 inanything I could pick up that would make everybody around me haul ass.” Andit strikes me–not for the first time–that Hal Coleman sees the world a littledifferently from the rest of us.
A TURTLE MANPRACTICES HIS CRAFT
GRABBLING D-DAYBREAKS 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 DesperateHousewives than a reptilian wrestling match. But behind the brick colonialswith manicured lawns, we find one of Coleman’s favorite grabbling haunts: anunassuming, man-made pond.
This is noprofessional mission. Although Coleman is paid handsomely to remove variousinsects, reptiles and assorted fauna from the violated space of humankind,nobody from the subdivision has contracted him to take snapping turtles fromtheir midst. Then again, the subdivision’s pond snappers, which apparentlyhaven’t cultivated many friendships among the residents, have no champions herewho will protest Coleman’s efforts.
Coleman swaps hisoxford and khakis for a union suit, coveralls and an old slouch hat. The get-upis part Hee Haw, part practicality. “If you wear pants and a shirt, yourshirt comes out and you get rocks and stuff down there,” he says. That”stuff” can include the occasional water snake.
Grabblingrequires a sidekick, and today that office falls to O’Neill Williams, Coleman’sbuddy and host of the television show O’Neill Outside. The short butbull-strong Williams plays Costello to Coleman’s Abbott, providing comic reliefand toting the sack that will serve as a holding pen for any quarry thegrabbler lands. He also stands ready to drive Coleman to the ER if a snapperruns amok and connects with one of his pal’s extremities.
For an hour orso, there’s lots of documentation and a few false alarms, but no turtles–or,for that matter, frolicking or fun. Coleman, with media coterie in tow, makeshis way slowly around the pond, methodically combing one empty hole afteranother. By the time he gets to the pond’s far end, directly beneath aneffluent pipe that empties into the pond, he’s up to his chin in water thatwould send any right-minded individual running for the nearest shower and a jugof anti-bacterial cleanser. But Coleman sloshes ahead stoically, disappearingbehind a clump of alders that crowds the bank.
“Got’im!” his disembodied voice yells a minute later. Up above, we fightthrough the brambles to see what’s going on. Coleman’s got both hands up underthe muddy bank, and a moment later he pulls out a rather befuddled turtle thesize of a basketball shoe.
“That’s notwhat we want,” says Coleman in a deflated tone. “That’s just a littleold cooter [a soft-shelled turtle].” He lets the creature swim away.
He continues hiswaterlogged lap of the pond, and about three-quarters of the way around, hestrikes pay dirt, ripping a sludge- and leaf-covered snapper from a hole by itstail. “That’s a ten-pounder,” he says, holding the hissing beast atarm’s length. It looks for all the world like some sort of miniature, shelleddinosaur.
The turtletelescopes its mottled brown neck and snaps at Coleman, hoping to connect withsome grabbler flesh, but to no avail. The snap echoes through the sultry airlike the slamming of a thick book, and Coleman deposits the snapper into thesoaked duffle that the wide-eyed Williams has been lugging around the pond.
KUDOS FOR A JOBWELL DONE
TAKING A BREAK,Coleman introduces his latest conquest to a pair of snappers he brought alongin the back of his pickup. “Television insurance,” he says with a winkand a smile. These larger, thoroughly ill-tempered models become props for thecameras, as Coleman pretends to pull each from beneath the bank. The two mengrin–Coleman easily, Williams nervously–as they hold up the turtles for a fewsnapshots. Then it’s back to the duffle, which Williams shoulders towardColeman’s pickup.
“Ouch!”yelps Williams, dropping the sack on a freshly trimmed yard. One of thesnappers, it seems, has gotten a small measure of revenge, biting Williamsthrough the bag.
“Did he getthe meat?” asks Coleman.
“Yeah,”says Williams, rubbing his shoulder blade and scowling. “He got themeat.”
“Now we’rehaving fun,” says Coleman.
Unceremoniously,Coleman empties the three snappers (now in a sodden scrum, all biting at oneanother) into a tub in the back of his truck, and I ask what he plans to dowith them. “I used to eat them, sometimes fried up with mashed potatoes,gravy and cathead biscuits. But it’s just too much work to dress out aturtle.”
He climbs downfrom the flatbed, his coveralls and union suit dripping wet. “You know,I’ll probably take them up the road to that creek”–he points to a streamabout a half mile away–“and they’ll end up crawling home to thispond.”
Just then, awoman in a minivan drives up and rolls down the window. A young child sitssilently in the backseat. “Did you catch any?” she asks. Word of theturtle hunt has apparently spread through the neighborhood.
“Yep, we gota few,” Coleman says slowly.
“Good,”says the woman. “I’m glad to be rid of those snapping turtles. They werefrightening. Thank you so much.”
As she drivesaway, Coleman looks at me and grins. The turtles will be back, and so willhe.
STEP 1 GET WET: To Hal Coleman, snapper grabbling is all about sticking your hand in aslimy hole and seeing what comes out.
STEP 2 GRAB HOLD: In the ideal scenario, the grabbler catches the turtle’s head ortail before the turtle catches the grabbler.
STEP 3 MIND YOUR FINGERS: Seldom does a snapping turtle appreciate the grabbler’sefforts. Hence, special care is required.
STEP 4 BAG AND BACK OFF: A vanishing art, grabbling once was considered a legitimateway to get turtle meat.
STEP 5 WILL IT HURT?: O’Neill Williams hefts a sackful of angry snappers, one of whichdemonstrated it could bite through canvas.