January thaws bring back memories about the first time I went turtle hooking years ago when it was still legal to hook turtles in winter.
The Old-Timer, an anonymous outdoors sage in the Coulee Region, asked me to tag along with him.
"You know the rules," he barked. "No names, no saying where we go and no photos showing my face."
It was a relatively warm January day in the low 40's with clear skies and a bright sun above us.
For more than 60 years, the short, bald-headed, retired plumber hooked turtles in the winter. He even made his own turtle hook.
The Old-Timer, who died in 2005 at age 89, also introduced me to other interesting outdoors adventures, but on Jan. 13, 1984, it was a day to, hopefully, hook a few turtles.
"I've hunted snakes in more than 20 states, caught sharks and have been huntin' turtles since I was about 8 or 9. Let's see, I'll be 68 or 69 in July," he said as I pointed my vehicle south of La Crosse.
A turtle hook is 9 to 10 feet long, including a 3-foot iron rod with a sharp hook on the end.
The idea is to probe muddy banks of rivers and streams, locate a turtle, and then twist the hook around to catch the neck or underside of the critter and pull it from the bank.
"Turtles go into banks after a few frosts, but it has to be pretty cold. They'll also move around from time to time depending upon the weather and when the ice shifts," The Old-timer said. "You can also hook them in the back pockets of rivers, especially where there's walking ice with no snow."
Trying to be a bit knowledgeable about the sport, I told The Old-Timer that my dad, God rest his soul, grew up in Plainfield, WI. He walked along the shore of nearby lakes when the ice was clear. Dad and his school buddies would actually see the shells of turtles along shore, and would cut holes and pull them out.
"Yeah, I've done that, too... plenty of times," The Old-Timer said.
As we walked along the creek, The Old-Timer said we would find turtles and explained that turtles prefer soft banks facing south shores. That's where the sun shines most of the day.
"Turtles also like to get close to trees where they can hunker down in the roots," he said, wading into the stream.
Find a stream with little current and you're in snapping turtle heaven.
"When the streams flood in spring and there's a run-off, the mud is washed away from the turtles and they become active for another season," he said.
The Old-Timer wore chest-high waders. I wore hip boots. Needless to say, that was a mistake. I struggled in snow that was knee deep. Did I mention I'm only 5-foot, 8 inches tall? The Old-Timer was shorter than me, but was like a rabbit on ice-crusted snow.
We broke ice in the creek, climbed over logs and poked our turtle hooks into the muddy banks.
"A rock is a sharp sound. A log is a dull thud. But a turtle sounds like the noise you made when you were a kid," The Old-Timer said, opening his mouth and pounding his knuckles on his head.
"You mean a hollow sound?" I asked.
"That's right, but I wasn't going to say it because you would say I had a hollow head," he muttered.
Suddenly, The Old-Timer hit a turtle with a big THUD.
"Did you hear that? There's one down there," he said, twisting his hook several times.
Seconds later, he pulled out a 10-pound snapper from the bank.
"See what I told you. The first thing it will do when it comes out of the water is open its mouth," The Old-Timer said. "It's ready to eat... or snap."
The Old-Timer went on to explain that once a turtle is brought out to water level you must look for the tail. And, once you've got the reptile out of the water and onto shore, be sure to hold it with the belly toward you.
"The reason is a snapping turtle can snap above its neck, but it can't bend its neck very far below its belly," The Old-Timer shouted. "And once you toss it on the bank, don't let it go because it will take off to the water. Once it gets there, you'll never see it again."
I quickly discovered turtle hooking was hard work, but not for The Old-Timer. He smiled all the time he was in the water as I snapped one photo after another.
"It's not work if you enjoy it," The Old-Timer said. "I do it for fun, exercise and for the meat for me and my friends."
We hooked 10 turtles that day and my gunny sack was almost too heavy to lug to the Jeep.
The Old-Timer laughed, as he watched me struggle dragging my heavy gunny sack.
"Now you have turtles to clean," he said, suggesting I try his turtle chop suey recipe.
"I just dice the meat off the bone. I don't really have the recipe written down. I use my own seasonings. It never tastes the same. But it's good enough for me and my friends," he said.