How to Clean a Turtle




About: I'm 27 years old, and I live in a small town in northwestern Indiana, USA. I stumbled across this website a few years ago. I love it. I've always enjoyed making stuff and doing things with my hands. My g...

So, by some method, you have come into the possession of 1 or more legally edible turtles. Congratulations! They are legendarily good eating. Or, if you're into catching, cleaning, and eating turtles, there's a good chance that you might refer to them as good eatin', if that makes any difference.

What do you do with it (them)? Well, that's where this instructable comes into play.

Note: Some of the photos depict some pretty graphic turtle-ness. If you are a card-carrying Sierra Club/PETA member, or just don't want to see some turtle guts pictures right now, then don't look at this instructable.

I'm sick of people leaving comments saying that this is mean. Can you please be concerned about something infinitely more important, like the millions of innocent human beings that die each year?

If you eat meat, especially, realize that the meat you eat was once an animal. The difference between it and these turtles is that (except in the case that someone hunted the animal and gave/sold its meat to you) these turtles, while alive, were free to roam around the lake they lived in and wherever else they chose to go. The animals whose meat you buy in the store were probably kept in ridiculously small pens, fed ridiculously low-quality feed, until they were fat enough to kill profitably.

Caution: Obviously, you'll be dealing with a turtle (quite possibly a mean, old snapper), so be careful around its mouth (esp. if a snapper), and watch the claws. Also, be careful, you're using knives. And scissors, and maybe a bone saw. That bit's up to you.

Step 1: Assemble Materials and Tools.

Well, you're going to need at least 1 turtle. You can catch turtles (at least in many states) by rod-and-reel fishing (same rig/bait/techniques as catfishing), with float lines (baited hook on a line, tied to a float, tied to a tree/dock), with traps, or even noodling (although I'll just stick to one of the others, and not risk my fingers).

You'll also need:

1 sharp knife (such as a short (4-6") fillet knife
1 piece of stout wire for each turtle (I used 14 ga electric fence wire (had it around), it worked for a 5 and a 7 lb turtle)
1 pr wire clippers
1 very heavy knife or a hand axe (I would recommend a hand axe)
1 stout stick that can survive the turtle's bite (for snappers)

Gloves (leather work gloves or fishing gloves, for grip and protection)
Kitchen shears/heavy-duty scissors
serrated knife/small saw (for cutting through bone/tough shell bits)

Here, I have two turtles, and some of the tools (I took these pictures as I went along, before I knew just what I would/wouldn't need for sure).

A lot of people recommend putting the turtles in a big barrel (55 gal), with clean water, for 7 days. Replace the water ever couple days or so. This is to purify their system (so when you accidentally puncture the bladder/bum pouch, it doesn't stink up the room or risk possibly tainting the meat). This is optional.

Step 2: Pre-cleaning Preparations

First of all, you remove the turtle's head in this step.

With a snapper, you can usually get them to bite onto that stick you should have, then they'll hold on pretty hardcore. Pull the neck out as far as possible, and then, cut the head off, leaving as much neck as possible. If it won't snap onto the stick, then just wait for it to poke it's head out enough.

The key is to cut off the head cleanly, in one chop. A hand-axe would help greatly, especially if you positioned the turtle's neck over a board. Minimize the animal's suffering. One thing my dad always taught me when we were fishing, was that you never mock your catch, and if you're going to kill it, you should do it as painlessly as possible for the animal. Do turtles feel pain? I don't know. But it'll be better for you (less gore, less mess) and the turtle (suddenly over, no bleeding in the face or whatever).

Now, take the pliers, and hold the wire with them. Poke the pointed end that you clipped into the wire through the turtle's tail, or (if a soft-shell), it's shell at the very tail-end. Wrap the other end around a tree branch, and leave it for a while, so it will bleed out. Small turtles= less bleeding, I would assume. So, no set time. I bled mine until the blood stopped dripping and started clotting on the neck.

Step 3: Clip, Dip, and Scrub.

Because a turtle has both nasty claws and terrifying reflexes long after death, it's a good idea to remove the claws after bleeding out. Use the wire clippers. These are some gnarly toes.

Next, fill a big pot with water, and bring it to a boil. Dip the turtle in there, and then scrub the turtle with a hard brush. My turtles were too big to fit, so I dipped them halfway (holding the bleeding-out hook was handy), and then pulled them out, then dipped the other half. You can figure something out, I'm sure. Check out the pictures for some more details of the process. It's pretty self-explanatory.

A skin might come off of a soft shell turtle. Maybe these twe were mutants.

You might be thinking, "Why boil it?"

Well, that's because this is a turtle. It's spent it's life wallowing in rotting fish parts, decayed plant matter, all sorts of aquatic critter poop, and it's been pretty unconcerned. Maybe you shouldn't have asked questions. Just scrub. Rinse well afterwards.

Step 4: Remove the Meat

Start by laying the turtle on its back.

Note: While cutting-try not to open the organ sack. Try not to stab anything that looks like a little water balloon. Chances are, no matter what it is, when your knife pokes it, one of the foulest mixtures of liquid hell will pour out. Just avoid stabbing at the turtle in general.

Cut around, and remove the bottom plate. A serrated knife/saw comes in handy at times here.

Then, cut the back legs and tail off the top shell in 1 piece. Cut the front legs and the neck off.

Throw away the carcass (the shell and guts). You can look in the stomach to see if you can find your bait and hook. Here, I found the hook, with the whole liver still on it, in both stomachs, unharmed in each of them! (Both meaning both turtles, not two stomachs in one turtle).

You can either skin it, or cook it with the skin on (in a soup, maybe?).

Once you've skinned it (sorry, no more pictures), if it's an old granddaddy snapper (12 + pounds or so), parboil the meat first, to tenderize it. After that (or if it was a younger turtle), you can roast/fry it just like chicken. Or make the ever-popular turtle soup.



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    186 Discussions


    2 years ago

    Thanks for the info!! Beinf invaded by soft shells and red ears while Cat fishing.. Been catching amd releasing 5 or 6 a day. Next one that steals my bait im trying this.


    2 years ago

    I think we should eat death row inmates due to overpopulation and the money we waste on them in the courts, cell space, their food and housing etc. there should be a way to humanely homogenize and sanitize them for consumption like Spam.

    Oh Screw You ! I Just wanted to clean my shell ! Now I have blood stains all over it and they will never go :(

    Indy Dawg

    3 years ago

    This is rediculous. Why do you want to kill a turtle. You are stupid

    4 replies
    ayano.manningIndy Dawg

    Reply 3 years ago

    turtles are yum your just a softy' circle of life atleast i know what im eating.

    sleeping_geckoIndy Dawg

    Reply 3 years ago

    The "why" is fairly clear--to eat the turtle's meat. I realize that some people would prefer not to eat meat, and I support anyone's decision to reasonably follow his or her own conscience.

    There are, of course, also people who do eat meat but who refuse to kill or process their own meat when an opportunity arises. They opt instead to rely on the oft-unsustainable or at least undependable modern food system. This group makes much, much less sense than either the content meat eaters or the moral vegetarians.

    That said, you shouldn't be rude, it violates the Instructables "be nice" comment policy. If you're going to be rude, you definitely should make sure you spell things correctly (ridiculous), punctuate correctly (your second sentence is interrogative--you need a question mark there instead of your period), etc.

    In general, the person who makes the first personal insult loses. It undermines your argument. I hope you feel better by the time you read this reply!


    2 years ago

    Turtles in a half shell, turtle power!


    3 years ago

    I'm trying to turn this turtle shell I found into a ashtray should I bake it to kill any bacteria. Any feedback would be appreciated.

    2 replies

    Reply 3 years ago

    Hi! I'm doing taxidermy for a hobby and actually am doing three tortoises at the moment. The best you can do is clean out as much of the meat and connective tissue as possible. Then you can either leave it outside in an opened box out of the rain! so beetles, ants, woodmites and/or maggots can get in to eat what you should not want on there. You can also use a dermestid beetle colony if you can find someone who owns one.. I am not exactlt sure about turtles tho, this is what I do for turtoises. For them it is really important to keep the shells as dry as possible because otherwise they can lose their scutes. Contact me if you need any more information!


    Reply 3 years ago

    While I have never attempted that sort of project, I will give you my thoughts:

    If it is a soft-shell turtle (as the turtle in this Instructable was), you might want to think of it as closer to a hide than a shell. In other words, there might be more of a drying process involved.

    If it is a hard shell (not a leatherback, etc.), then I would still bake it, for a couple reasons. One reason, as you mentioned, is to kill potential nasty critters that might have taken up residence in the shell. The other is to do a more complete drying of the shell. This would probably make it easier to remove any meat or connective tissue from the shell (once it has dried).

    Again, I haven't attempted this--I'm just giving my (untested) thoughts. I do think it would be a cool project, so feel free to post a pic or make an Instructable about it when you finish!


    3 years ago

    Snapping turtles and other hard shells can be well cleaned by ants. In Hawaii when we catch or harvest items from the ocean we place them in the sun near an ant hill. In a week it is absolutely picked clean and regards a sea shell bleached near white by the uv from the sun. Turtle shells don't turn shite but the u v does great good in killing microscopic critters and bacteria on and in the shell. Good idea to separate upper and lower shells first. This works good for many other items that need micro cleaning. Good luck


    3 years ago

    This is very informative, I'm looking forward to trying this. :) As far as the pics and butchering of the animals, that is a part of life, I'm sorry if any one gets offended by the fact that I eat meat but, to get meat the animal is raised fed and then killed if you like steaks you understand my point of view. And to indy dawg, you can't rip the meat off while the animal is alive that would just be cruel. The animal has no idea what will happen of when it happens they can't feel a thing. :)


    4 years ago on Introduction

    first, i have to start with a confession... my girlfriend and i watched a few episodes of 'naked and afraid' on the net. i'm curious about this incident.

    looks like the couple caught a turtle and, judging by the clip, didn't carve it the way you suggested. Would it be safe to assume they clipped a bladder or other sac and tainted the meat?

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    and, by the way, thanks for posting this information in such a simple and straightforward manner. i really appreciate it.


    4 years ago

    I had to research and see how you are supposed to kill a turtle for this. My neighbor last night disrupted my sleep (I am sick, atm) by "hammering " right by my window. I found out this morning he was killing pet store bought turtles, I imagine (since catching and disrupting turtles in our area is illegal.) I am debating calling the cops for animal cruelty because the way they killed the turtles, was inhumane (death by smashing)

    I just have a couple points I'd like you to consider. "Pig" and "hog" are pretty much interchangeable terms. As my brother discovered at the state fair when he was a child (and my grandfather took the excited child to see the hogs), "They're just big pigs!"

    People can develop close relationships with cows just like they can with dogs. Both can be beautiful animals with unique traits (what you might call "personality"). Just because many people never interact with cows that aren't wrapped in plastic at the supermarket does not mean that they aren't real animals.

    If you've never seen chickens, it would be easy to assume that they are annoying. All that clucking and crowing. What is a person to do? If you've actually had or tended chickens (at least those of the free range persuasion), you would probably know how amusing they can be to watch. Not to mention how efficiently they can keep down a bug problem around the yard/garden.

    Why would people be universally better off eating fish than turtles? If your only reason is that turtles are cute and fish are not, let me be the one to tell you that this is a personal opinion. Many people find fish to be quite adorable, and turtles to be nasty. Put a turtle terrarium in one room, a freshwater aquarium in another. See which stinks first. Turtles won't seem as cute.

    If you've never eaten turtle meat, I'm curious to find out why you assume that it would not be as tasty as fish meat.

    I made sure to state clearly in the introduction that this was about preparing turtles for eating. If you somehow missed that part, and you didn't understand that the opening picture of turtles+big knives=not a turtle bubble bath, then I probably cannot help you.

    I mentioned that different, "typical" American food animals can be cute or friendly. That doesn't mean I wouldn't eat them. I do eat most animals. I've never eaten dog or cat, but that's largely because I've never come across the right restaurant.

    And, to answer the question (which you punctuated not as an interrogative statement but as an exclamatory), "HOW DO {I} EAT THOSE TINI {sic} CUTE TURTLES! {sic}

    Fried, usually with a knife and fork. Kind of like how I like to eat squirrel.

    1 reply

    I have personally cleaned and ate at least 20 snapping turtles in my lifetime and don't plan to stop just because someone else doesn't like it.  Yes, I will kill a turtle just as it killed and ate fish and other animals to live - it's the way man has survived for centuries, killing and eating. I always cut the shell around the head/legs/tail areas with a hatchet but I guess there are other ways.  I like them in a stew and barbequed the best and I'm sure that someone someplace has a way to make patties, etc.  There are 11 different flavors of meat in a snapping turtle, like there are 7 different flavors in a hog.(Bacon, T-loin, ham, etc.)
           I try my best to kill humanely and be as fast and efficient as possible so the animal doesn't suffer regardless as to what kind of animal it is.  I try to get the hides tanned and use everything, no waste. I feel that anything killed for sport alone is wrong, but if you plan to use all the animal then it's not so bad.  What bothers me is when an animal like, say a deer, gets hit and the meat isn't harmed totally and they put the freshly killed animal in the dump when there are so many people around the world hungry - The meat could be used in prisons or jails for one, almost fat free to boot!   
       As for the people that are vegetarians, my hat's off to you, you don't like something that you have never tasted!  That's not the way to make an informed decision, but it's your right.  I like fruits and vegetables, fish, poultry, turtles, mammals, nuts and berries, and I plan to continue eating all of it for as long as I can.  It was put here to eat or use as a medicine, and I try to use everything as I see fit.  If you don't like this instructable because you are a vegetarian, please tell me why you are so interested in looking at it to start with, I don't get it.....