Tiny Turtles Tempt Bass and Other Predators
By David A. Brown
Is it intentional targeting; some ill-willed adversarial relationship manifested through lethal force? Or is it classic opportunism – a momentary decision to get while the gettin’s good?
Definitive answers as to when and why bass and other predators eat young turtles have long remained elusive, yet throughout the years the tackle industry has seen several attempts to mimic the baby amphibians. From the moldings of yesteryear, to the modern Bombshell Turtle, amphibian imposters are no accident; no random pondering.
Anecdotal evidence runs the gamut from vague recollections to vivid first-hand accounts of violent attacks. Renowned photographer/videographer Billy Linder recalls filming underwater footage of bass responding to live baby turtles (in see-through containers, as well as free swimming) and, to put it mildly, the interaction was anything but warm and fuzzy.
Additionally, while shooting the Bombshell being attacked underwater, Linder observed very deliberate aggression toward that bait.
“My impression of watching bass strike these baits is that they inhale them entirely,” said Linder, who more than once has found turtles spit up in live wells. “They hate them.”
Chad Hoover, author of Kayak Bass Fishing and a YouTube channel of the same title, describes turtles as “nest raiders” – natural enemies that have earned a high ranking on the bass’ you-know-what list. This, he finds, elicits decisive strikes.
THOUGHTS ‘N THEORIES
Today’s bass scene, with its heavy emphasis on power fishing and finesse presentations may have its favored tactics, but Texas pro Stephen Johnston recalls several instances of drawing aggressive strikes by pitching Texas-rigged turtle baits deep into matted vegetation and slowly dragging them across the top. Indeed, from the California Delta, to southern lakes and coastal rivers, weed mats offer convenient hiding/sunning spots for juvenile turtles.
As with topwater frogs, bass will track the overhead movement and attack when the prey reaches a spot where lesser density allow them to access the meal. That being said, any small turtle, live or fake, that crosses one of those random “window” holes in a grass mat – the ones that usually indicate a log, stump or rock below – will likely meet with hostile response.
Now, some may say that bass have learned to look for small turtles; others maintain the position that a bass bites first and asks questions later. With the latter belief, turtles probably find themselves on the wrong end a bass’ appetite through wrong-place-wrong-time happenstance, similar to that yellow-wing black bird that grips those California tule stalks too close to the water’s surface. (Story has it that this was the inspiration for a black/yellow topwater frog pattern from Snagproof.)
Bob Wattendorf, Marketing/Special Projects Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Freshwater Fisheries, offers this report: “At a recent focus group meeting where we had to discuss our TrophyCatch program, one of the anglers mentioned catching a bass with ‘a bunch of turtles stuffing its belly.’ It was part of an aside where other anglers were commenting on finding a big bass with another big bass stuck in its throat floating dead, and someone else brought up seeing a bass swimming with a small gator part way down its throat.”
Wes Porak, a biologist at the FWC’s Florida Bass Conservation Center echoes these thoughts by pointing to agency studies of bass stomach contents. Performed with plastic tubes that allowed examination without sacrificing the fish, the study found several atypical prey items such as turtles, birds and snakes in low frequency inside bass stomachs.
“Bass, like many top predators, are opportunistic and will eat prey that happens to be available at any given time,” he said. “In the scarcity of native prey and abundance of non-native species, bass will target non-native species that are not normally part of their diets. In coastal rivers in Florida, bass eat saltwater species (mullet, blue crabs, etc,) that they obviously do not eat in Florida lakes.”
Considering the large number of eggs female turtles lay each year, overpopulation would likely occur if all hatchlings reached maturity. Within nature’s balance, alligators, herons and raccoons take quite a few, but as Brian Folt, doctoral student at Auburn University notes, little turtles should not be overlooked as an attractive food source for bass.
“Bass or other large predatory fish likely eat juvenile turtles simply because the turtles provide a source of food,” Folt said. “I'm not sure we know much about specific 'motivators,' other than that the fish need to consume caloric resources to survive, grow, and reproduce.”
Clearly, bass make a lot of their feeding decisions on the fly. Nevertheless, Linder’s personal accounts – along with those noted in bass documentaries such as Glen Lau’s renowned Bigmouth and Bigmouth Forever, seem to indicate that a bass’ decision to put the chomp on a turtle is a pedal-to-the-metal kinda deal.
As Linder points out, it may be difficult to directly connect the turtle’s bedding irritation to males with big females (that do not guard nests) targeting turtles out of retribution. In terms of natural behavior, it’s probably more of a defense response during bedding and then a separate opportunistic feeding behavior the rest of the year.
“Obviously anything that comes near a bass bed, whether it’s a turtle, a sunfish or a bunch of minnows, is immediately attacked because there is nothing more aggressive than a male bass guarding its nest,” Linder said.
Linder goes on to point out that, while turtles irritate the larger females during their shorter time on the beds, it’s the males that are most likely to carry any turtle bias throughout the year. Females on the other hand, probably just view turtles as a convenient meal option.
“Small turtles are easy prey because they’re not moving fast,” Linder said. “I think that would be more of a primary factor in bass preying on them – because they’re easier targets than chasing a school of shiners or frogs up in the pads, which may be a little more challenging.”
So, where can we reasonably expect to find success with turtle-imitating baits like the Bombshell? Here’s a rundown of potential-laden presentations:
Bed Fishing: Show those big nesting females something different. Anglers often use a bold and atypical bait to irritate bed fish and then close the deal with a smaller, finesse presentation. This seems like a good example of how that turtle shape can be just enough variance from the bream that bass has to look at all day to get on her nerves.
Prespawn Staging: When large, ripe female bass position outside their spawning grounds, they’re focused on filling their bellies in preparation for the upcoming procreation ritual. Dragging a Bombshell Turtle on a Carolina Rig or pitching one to those likely staging spots may be too much for the big gals to pass up.
Punching: The broad “beaver” figure is one of the most popular options for anglers driving a heavily weighted rig through canopies of matted weeds. The Bombshell Turtle’s form also presents that compact profile that gets through cover quickly – an important feature for shallower weed mats where a longer bait takes too long to exit the salad.
Laydowns: Anyone who’s ever poked into a creek knows the sound – plink, plink-plink, plink, plink. That’s your turtles dropping off their sunning perches. Good chance that some of the smaller ones end up on the bass’ radar, where those “reaction bites” anglers talk about might send that little turtle to the dinner table.
Swimming across Vegetation: A self-proclaimed topwater fanatic, Hoover notes in his YouTube channel that he’ll often turn to the Bombshell Turtle when a frog bite subsides. Rather than nose weighting the bait, as we would for flipping, pitching or any diving/hopping presentation, Hoover uses a keel-weighted screw-lock hook, which allows him to swim the bait over pads, grass, etc. On the pause, the keel-weighted bait flutters like a parachute, rather than falling head-first, as it does on a nose weighted rig.
Although turtles and fishin’ connect more readily in freshwater, we can’t forget the coastal zone, where redfish often mingle with bass in brackish waters and readily gobble just about anything they can catch. Suffice it to say that a baby turtle’s resemblance to the general profile of a small blue crab makes him fair game for the gluttonous redfish. Then again, reds seldom pass on an easy meal, so a Bombshell slipped in front of a grazing school won’t be lonely for long. And when the reds are tailing in shallow grass, those nimble noses will quickly detect the bait’s scent enhancement.
Another possible redfish scenario: skipping the little turtle under mangroves. When sun-weary reds use high tides to tuck into the shade of overhanging mangrove limbs, they’ll gobble anything remotely edible that falls, flips or floats into reach.
Big gator trout might also take a liking to your turtle imposter. Unlike the bottom-oriented red, trout feed higher in the water column, so a lighter jig head or weighted wide gap hook is a better bet. Over deeper grass flats, try rigging a Bombshell Turtle (jig or hook) beneath a popping cork or clacking cork rig. Tugging the float chugs the water with a sound similar to a feeding predator. Trout looks up, sees a vulnerable little sea turtle and it’s lights-out.
Dr. Ray Waldner, Professor of Biology and Associate Dean of Sciences, School of Arts and Sciences, Palm Beach Atlantic University notes a couple other coastal turtle munchers: “One other major and often overlooked predator is mutton snapper. During turtle hatching season on the east coast of Florida, muttons apparently come close to shore at night and pick off hatchlings. Snook are also known to feed on hatchlings.
“The late George DeBay, a (South Florida) tackle shop owner, developed a very realistic lure called ‘Itsaturtle’ after watching a school of snook feed on a bunch of newly hatched loggerheads.”
Here, it seems that a light presentation is your best bet for mimicking a hatchling turtle attempting to traverse the shallow surf. If windy conditions necessitate more bait punch, or if spooky snook require longer casts, the Bombshell Turtle’s broad body offers plenty of space to insert a nail weight into the shell on either side of the hook slot.
Mark Dodd, biologist with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources said that in various studies tracking sea turtle hatchlings off beaches at night, researchers have documented predation by gamefish/sharks. Darkness prevented predator species confirmation, but Dodd said his personal experience has confirmed the fact that various marine fish have a taste for turtle.
“I have seen hatchlings taken from the surface by fish on several occasions after releasing nest stragglers in the early morning,” he said.
Elsewhere, Dodd points to a more revealing study that approached sea turtle predation from the other end of the relationship. In its study on the predation of gray (mangrove) snapper on loggerhead and leatherback post-hatchlings, the FWC’s Florida Marine Research Institute found that snapper, tarpon, sea bass, grouper, moray eels, barracuda, jacks, wrasses, parrotfish, dolphin eat a lot of loggerhead, green, Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill turtle hatchlings entering the ocean from rookery beaches and during the swim-frenzy period on their way to nursery habitats.
Farther offshore, the study’s gray snapper sampling found sufficient stomach content evidence to support the notion that this predator continues to occasionally prey on young turtles in the post-hatchling phase.
On the offshore scene, Spud Woodward, Georgia DNR’s Director of Coastal Resources, terms Sargassum weed as “a known hot spot for post-hatchling and juvenile sea turtles.” No doubt, these floating gilded masses shelter a host of finfish and crabs, but baby sea turtles critically need this shelter for their first several weeks. It’s unlikely that pelagic predators such as dolphin, tuna, cobia and jacks would pass up the easy pickings of a little turtle hors d’oeuvre.
In this scenario, a cast and wind presentation tracing the edge of a weed line is always a good bet, but we might also take a page from the bass angler’s play book and punch a Bombshell Turtle through that offshore weed mat. Just imagine that dolphin patrolling the shadowy realm below a weed line in hopes of spotting a careless turtle drifting too far from the safety of the tangles. Suddenly, a little figure comes crashing through the weeds and, well, it’s just too easy.
Jigging the Bombshell on a ½-ounce leadhead might create the appearance of a wounded or disoriented straggler wandering from the weed line, while calm conditions may favor and offshore version of the popping cork routine. Either way, the ruse shows predators a vulnerable target and that’s an easy sell for offshore schooling fish driven by feeding competition.
From freshwater ponds, to the bluewater expanses, turtles will always hold a place in ecosystem dynamics. Fishing with baits that mimic these shelled morsels may be edgy, out-there, maybe a little on the atypical side; but when the bite is tough, this may be just the trick you need.
Opportunistic or calculated? The jury’s still out, but debates over motivation tend to vaporize when that rod doubles over.