The Meche family of Arnaudville has turtled together on various lakes for 20 years. Locals welcome Stoney Meche with his five adult sons, Errol, Todd, Ross, Alan and Shane, as they capture turtles on the 75-mile-long Toledo Bend lake located along the Texas and Louisiana state lines.
The ancient reptiles that they’re hunting have no teeth, but their pointed, parrot-like beaks slice sharper than scissors, quickly snaring fish, waterfowl, small mammals, crawfish and plants. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reported findings of squirrel, opossum, armadillo and hog in alligator snapping turtles’ stomachs and intestinal tracts. Many fishermen claim that the overabundance of turtles in a lake destroys the largemouth bass, crappie, catfish and bream populations.
Turtles live longer than any other animals on earth, up to 150 years. That requires a lot of fish over the decades. From the smooth, soft edges of the soft-shell to the sharply toothed edges of the snapper, their protective shells are comparable to a knight’s armor. Man is virtually the only predator of these indomitable vertebrates.
The most common turtles are the red-eared sliders, with the distinctive dash of red behind their eyes, and the map turtles. On warm days, these smaller species like to bask on logs, lined up like children for recess, clawing for the best spot.
A cove full of logs packed with turtles looks deceptively like prime hunting ground. “But when they’re sunning, they’re full and satisfied, not interested in our bait,” says Todd Meche, a computer systems technician for the St. Martin Parish School Board.
The fast-moving, long-necked soft-shell is the favorite delicacy of turtle connoisseurs, but they have vicious tempera and weigh as much as 35 pounds. They use their tube-like snouts as snorkels, keeping their bodies underwater while they inhale air. Soft-shells are most often captured in shallow water near sandy beaches.
“The soft-shell is the filet mignon of all turtle meat,” says Errol Meche, a water resources specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey of the U.S. Department of Interior. “We don’t sell them; they’re for family use only.”
Another favorite turtle meat comes from the huge snapping turtle, which weighs 20 to 75 pounds, but these aggressive reptiles must be quarantined or the snapper will chop off smaller turtle heads before the cooking pot is ready.
“The snappers will chase you and hiss at you, even jump off the ground to bite you,” says Ross Meche, a supervisor at Bell Helicopter Textron. His brother Errol often uses a boat paddle for protection when a snapper is loose in the small flat-bottomed boat. The old saying that a biting turtle won’t let go until it thunders originated from an encounter with an angry snapping turtle. The lone severed head of a snapper can bite and maim for hours until the powerful jaw reflexes relax.
Its larger cousin, the alligator snapping turtle, often called the loggerhead turtle in South Louisiana, can weigh up to 200 pounds and is the largest freshwater turtle in the world. This ferocious beast “fishes” by opening its mouth underwater and wiggling a worm-like pink strip of flesh on its tongue to lure the largemouth bass. The alligator snapper is a rare catch and can only be caught on a stump line rather than with a traditional hoop net. Although the meat is not sold commercially, the Meches save alligator snapper meat for personal use.
“We caught an 83-pound loggerhead . . . the largest turtle we have ever caught on Toledo Bend,” says Alan Meche, a Lafayette attorney.
The Meches start a three-day hunt with 30 hoop nets (4 feet in diameter and 7 feet long), each set with fish bait in various coves and tributaries, and they check them three times a day. In total, they trap several hundred turtles of all sizes and species. They haul the live turtles from Toledo Bend Lake to Southeast Louisiana in a 16-by-7-foot flatbed trailer with 3-foot wire cage walls. Driving Interstate 49 with hundreds of live, crawling turtles is always good for a few laughs when travelers slow to pass, mouths agape, cameras flashing.
Friends in Arnaudville know the turtle trailer well. When the Meches drive into town with their turtle haul, word spreads quickly. People rush to place orders for cleaned turtle, a delicacy priced at $6.50 to $7.50 per pound.
Cleaning turtle is a messy and tedious chore, but the Meches work assembly-line style, laughing and telling stories in their chest waders. Tubs of live turtles are hauled to the worktables where the first step is to chop off the head. Next, a jigsaw is used to cut off the lower shell, or plastron. Then, the bottomless turtle is passed down the table, and a sharp knife separates the meat from the top shell, or carapace. The skin is then stripped with pliers, and finally, the claws are snipped.
“It’s a lot of work; we’re not trying to make a living, just having fun,” says Ross Meche, who is commercially licensed for turtling along with his brother Errol.
Fun for the Meche brothers is skipping a small stinkpot or musk turtle, unfit for cooking, across the lake like a flat rock. Fun is catching a 6-to-8-foot alligator in the turtle trap and wondering how to free him with your arms intact. And fun is laughing with your family while enjoying life and playing hard.
Though all five sons are married, they continue the long-held family traditions of appreciating the great outdoors. They hunt, fish and turtle together. Four of the five sons live within a half-mile radius of the Meche family home. Shane Meche currently lives in Houston but joins his family as often as possible for their many adventures. And the adventures are sure to continue to the next generation.
Stoney Meche has purchased lifetime hunting and fishing licenses for each grandson, usually before they reach the age of 4. Five sons, three daughters and 15 grandchildren bring Stoney and Leatrice Meche great pride and joy.
When asked what holds his family so close, soft-spoken Stoney jokes, “I carry a big stick!”
“Mother is a fine cook!” adds Alan. The sons and daughters regularly show up on Sunday afternoons with grandchildren to enjoy meals with a lot of laughter and stories.
Recently, the Meche brothers cooked a superb dinner under the stars on Toledo Bend Lake, with the background music of bullfrogs competing with D.L. Menard. The flavorful, mildly sweet turtle meat was gently simmered in gravy and served with cayenne-spiked mashed potatoes and rice. Heaping plates of the cuisine were served along with spellbinding tales of Louisiana hunting and fishing.
“Almost all Cajuns not living in Louisiana quietly wish they could,” says Alan, speaking of the rich culture of our state.
In Louisiana, turtle soup holds an honorable place on the menu alongside crawfish étouffée, gumbo, shrimp Creole and jambalaya. But smothered turtle with thickened gravy is the crème de la crème.
Stoney and Leatrice Meche have given a heritage to their children: love for family and the outdoors — and for turtle on the menu.