Photo: Heiko Kiera/Shutterstock

The Secret Message Behind Baby Turtle Lures

by Shane Townsend Jan 19, 2012
As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of people in this world: those with a soft spot for baby turtles and those without.

THE LATTER don’t deserve the sweetness of a dip cone or the comfort of two-ply toilet paper.

Thing is, baby-turtle haters look just like you and me. They walk among us. So, before you go indiscriminately breaking out the Breyers or sharing the Charmin, you may want to weed out the herpaphobes.

The turtle test

Raise a picture of a recently hatched turtle. Ask what it is. Anyone replying “hatchling,” is at once correct and just plain wrong. One-ply for him. Hatchling better describes the pissed off progeny in an alien invasion flick. If, however, someone replies “baby turtle” and his voice changes a little, he leans in a bit, and he raises his thumb and index fingers to show the turtle’s size — well, that’s good people.

The turtle-test is 98% accurate. It’s the litmus test of a person’s soul. Ten years ago the test yanked my uncle out of his baby-turtle hating closet. I haven’t spoken to him since. True story. So don’t try the test on anyone you like. The results may even be grounds for mandatory annulment in Minnesota.

This morning, I came across the Bombshell Turtle™ lure website. “Game fish despise egg-raiding turtles in both fresh and salt water and attack juvenile turtles aggressively year-round.” I read and re-read the website. I studied photographs and loaded the trade show video. There was no denying it. These folks were talking about baby turtles…as bait. Your “missing link,” they say, to catching more fish.

Now, I’m not squeamish. I’ve slurped Filipino duck fetus, crunched Thai beetles, gnawed armadillo off the half shell, and eaten the udder and both ends of a scraggly Amazonian bovine, for breakfast. I’m also fully aware our farm-fir-fin-and-feather-to-fork-food-chain and proudly participate in every link therein. In fact, my most precious memories involve hunting and eating the forest creatures that fill Disney’s cast.

However, there is just something wrong about fishing with a baby turtle. It feels a little like fishing with a puppy.

Heroes in a half-shell

The turtle lure idea, though, intrigued me. I considered its origins over my first cup of chicory coffee. I imagined my own baby turtle, three inches in diameter. I turned him this way and that, looking for the best way get him on a hook. I didn’t get far. I just rubber-banded a two-ought hook on his back and set him down. He tried to walk, but the rubber band stuck him to the table. He flapped a while, stopped, and stared at me. I pulled off the rubber band and let him go.

It took another cup of coffee to replace the images of puppy-fishing with more palatable memories. At a wildlife preserve in the Yucatan, I once laid alongside a green sea turtle as she slid ping-pong-ball sized eggs into her nest. Sand from her front flippers peppered my head when she covered her clutch.

Last summer, I flopped out of a flimsy Filipino Bangka boat at Apo Island and swam the convergence of the Sulu and Bohol Seas where marshmallow tourists bobbed along. Green sea turtles soared angelic in concerted routes through the grass beds, drawing us after. Every time our chalky herd got too close, the turtles would slip to deeper water. They stayed just beyond our reach — I’m convinced — to lure us to the blue depths where 12-foot hammerheads lay in ambush for the plumpest of us. I’ll miss big red Gerald from Germany (but not his Speedo).

Most folks don’t realize turtles are hard like that, but they are.

Even baby turtles are just pecan-sized gang members. In their first 10 minutes of life they have to power through a gauntlet of beat-down dished out by wild kingdom thugs: angry birds, pestilent poachers, clumsy corn-fed tourists, beach combing dogs. But wait, there’s more. I’ve seen photos of turtles’ bottoms wedged into fish gullets. Is there a charity that protects baby turtles from natural selection? (Baby turtles are the most vulnerable humans. They have so few options. But given a chance — just a dollar a day — the sea’s the limit!)

The Mel Gibson of baby turtles

I recall every time a nature show would come on, Dad would fire up the yellow-topped popcorn maker. If the camera panned the beach and zoomed in on a trembling patch of sand, we knew we’d found the plight of the baby turtles. It usually went like this:

Pooop, out pops a baby sea turtle from the sand. Dad and I cheer and name him ‘Little Man.’ He’s our turtle. He surveys the skies and flits off across the sand. He crests a dune. A hundred more join him. Little Man is Braveheart assembling men for a full assault on Edward the Longshanks. A rallying cry (a turtle version of “freedom”, no lips and all) and off they charge, broad swords drawn. Dad races in and out of the kitchen for the popcorn bowl.

Frigates swarm in prehistoric profiles overhead. “Booo,” we yell. The baby turtles take the beach. We turn into NASCAR fans, cheering our hard-topped-hustler to the finish line. One turtle curls off course like he blew a tire. Little Man slows. A frigate spots him. We jump and holler orders, “Straighten out!” “Don’t slow down!” The frigate dives. We throw popcorn. Our voices sing high and loud like the Bee Gees of the outdoors.

At the last second, Little Man thrusts forward with both front legs in a baby turtle burst of speed that breaks the frigate’s timing and measure. We sigh. The bird takes Little Man’s compadre. A wave clobbers Little Man, washing him back ashore to begin again. “Come on Little Man!” Another try and he tumbles into the briny froth. He swims away, drunk, toward the uncertain. Behind him, feathered blurs pick off the less fortunate of his cohort. Dad and I look over at my new .410 and his old 12-guage and mumble about how things would be different were we there.

Millions of folks – most probably unarmed – connect with those baby turtles. They are the ultimate underdogs. Little Man is living the hero’s journey. If he can make it, we can too.

Eco-warrior battalion

It’s no wonder “baby turtle” is nowhere on the Bombshell Turtle™ website. It’d reveal the soul of a frigate. Bad business. Instead, the website misleads us with a pastel logo and words like juvenile. One-ply. Thankfully, the pro fisherman who endorsed the lure at the 2011 ICast trade show was more honest.

“Baby turtles,” he squinted, his brow all crinkled and serious, “are one of the biggest threats to spawning bass”. I had to chuckle at hearing baby turtle and biggest threats in the same breath — not discounting the truth. Then he relaxed. “Numerous times,” he said, “I’ve seen little baby turtles…”

With those words he was eight years old standing at the chalkboard with something cupped in his hand. His voice raised a quarter pitch. He nodded a bit. With thumb and index finger, he raised his little baby show-and-tell turtle for the class to see. His feet weren’t in frame, but I’m pretty sure his school shoes were caked in ditch mud and he kicked at the ground at least once.

Maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong. He’s no herpaphobe. This is a good guy, two-ply worthy. I must be missing something.

Missing link, missing link… I studied the logo. Pastel green for sportsmen, interesting choice. It looks nothing like a hook-impaled baby turtle, okay. Looks like something you’d find on a hemp bag in a head shop. Things didn’t add up. I looked closer. The legs are C shaped — Clandestine. And the hook, two Ls – Legionnaires. That’s it!

Could this be the logo of an eco-warrior battalion? Is this the insignia of the Clandestine Legionnaires of the Baby Turtle Protectorate? And these lures are the missing link, but for a worldwide genetic manipulation campaign. They’ll empower legions of hell-bent and trophy-bound mercenary anglers who’ll swarm the world’s waters to take out would-be turtle-assassins.

No quarter will be offered. No sir. It’s the Fry-Daddy for you. Surviving fish will learn to eat socially responsible foods like minnows, bugs, tofu and so on. They’ll be the brood stock of change. In time, fish will develop something akin to an evolutionary nicotine patch so every time they see a baby turtle they’ll feel sick, need to lay down a second, or have to swim out for a little fresh water.

This is big. Way bigger than Occupy Wall Street. This is the biggest thing since the Green Revolution. Everything’s hush-hush now, but books will be written and names will be named. I want in.

I can see it now: we Legionnaires will operate independently to keep low profile. We’ll congregate once a month at local Waffle Houses. When we pass elsewhere, we’ll just share knowing looks, feign a salute, and run our fingers through our thinning hair. Thirty years from now, when the world realizes the service we’ve done, our grandkids will ask us to talk to their first grade classes.

Then, finally the Legionnaires will unite openly at the public library for newsletter photo ops. But the first rule of the Clandestine Legionnaires of the Baby Turtle Protectorate is that you don’t talk about the Clandestine… I’ve already said too much.

Join us! These waters are just roiling with big rogue fish that play by their own turtle-eating rules. But I’m not rubber-banding hooks to red ear slider turtles to get in there. I’m through puppy-fishing. I’m ordering the soft plastics. I’m thinking either “cooter” or “junebug”.

* * *

Cooter and Junebug made it (the lures, not my cousins). They look okay I guess, but the Legionnaires forgot my wax-sealed invitation letter. I’m sure it’ll come. In the meantime, I’ll tear into the turtle-murdering bass on Lady Bird Lake.

If the Legionnaires are reading:

I’m ready. Dip cones and two-ply all around, my treat. I’ll work my way through the ranks. Remember, I’m not squeamish. Birds, tourists, dogs — you name it. Just give me a chance and I’ll be standing sentinel over Little Man and a thousand others. With Dad’s Remington 1100 and a footlocker of #6 high brass shells, I’ll be shooting straight and hollering “Run turtle run.”

Natural selection be damned.

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