Canadian Wildlife Publication

This pamphlet explains how to quickly, safely, and humanely remove fish hooks from accidentally caught turtles.  Where there are fish there are often people fishing and turtles looking for a meal.  Bait on a fish hook may look like a tasty snack to a turtle, and the unfortunate animal may find itself in trouble, attached to a fishing line.  Occasionally, a turtle’s shell or leg can be snagged while fishing.

Many anglers have found themselves reeling in turtles, not fish, and want to know the best, least stressful way to remove hooks.  With all turtle populations seemingly decreasing it does not make sense to kill the turtle just to retrieve the hook.  Cutting the line but leaving the hook in the turtle is not an acceptable alternative either.  The hook may cause life-threatening internal damage, infection, and/or possibly starvation because the mouth is too sore or swollen to eat.  Preventing an unnecessary death only takes a few minutes of your time.


How To Hold A Large Turtle

When picking up a large turtle always carry the turtle with the head facing away from your body.  Beware of the head, because a turtle can sometimes stretch its neck over half the length of its shell and surprise an unsuspecting person. Also be careful of the turtle’s sharp claws.

DO: Grasp the carapace (upper shell) near the tail with your thumbs up, and hold the turtle with its head down and belly towards you, well away from your body.

DO:  Support the turtle with one hand underneath the plastron (lower shell) and hold the base of the tail with the other hand for control.

DON’T:  Picking up a Snapping Turtle by the tail can be very harmful for a medium to large snapper.  This method leaves the turtle’s tail bearing all of the weight and can very easily result in a dislocated tail and spine.  Unless it is a life or death, quick situation (e.g. the turtle is on the road), do not use the “tail hoist” method.

DON’T:  Carrying the turtle by its sides is sometimes effective but the turtle may still be able to scratch you with its back claws.

REMEMBER:  Take care that you don’t accidentally drop the turtle.  A struggling turtle or one with a wet, slippery shell can slip out of your hand and be severely injured (e.g. broken shell, neck or limbs).  Carry the turtle with a firm grip and close to the ground so if a fall occurs, there will be no injures.



While small turtles such as Painted, Map, and Spotted Turtles as well as young snappers or softshells can still bite and scratch, they are much easier to handle.  Many methods work but the most effective is to hold the turtle in one hand with your fingers on the plastron (lower shell) and your thumb on the carapace (top shell).  Keep your hand at the side or back to avoid injury from the mouth and front claws.  Again, only lift the turtle a short distance from the ground to avoid injures in case it is dropped.



A turtle that has just been caught and pulled to shore may be panicked, and will struggle and bite in its attempt to escape.  Covering the turtle with a heavy cloth, shirt, jacket, or bag should calm it down and prevent it from scratching you.  Large turtles are very strong so to preserve your fingers, find a strong stick or rod and let the turtle bite it.  Gently but firmly hold the turtle’s head in its shell with the stick.  This will keep the head still and the mouth open but occupied, and the turtle cannot push its head out and drop the stick.  With a pair of pliers (which most anglers keep handy) or, if necessary, by hand, gently remove the hook, the same way it went in.  Stay very alert and, if you doubt your technique, find another.  Don’t underestimate the strength of an animal in fear!

Another method that can work if the turtle extends its neck is to put on a thick glove and hold the turtle gently but firmly just behind the skull (do not constrict the neck), keeping the neck slightly extended to prevent the animal from lunging at you. Keep the turtle still by wrapping it in a cloth or having a second person hold it, and remove the hook as above.



Be careful – even small turtles can still inflict a nasty bite!  With a small turtle, usually the hook can be taken out by hand, as with fish, because the turtle is not strong enough to stop you.  The stick method explained above usually does not work for turtles other than snappers and softshells but, if you think it might work then try it.

Needle nose pliers can work well to remove the hook.  As you grasp the hook and curve it back the way it went in, the turtle is unable to retreat to its shell.  Cloth can be wrapped around the turtle for safety.  If the turtle refuses to come out of its shell and you can’t tell where the hook is, gently pull the hiding turtle backwards across the ground until it emerges to stop the pulling or to see why it is moving.



Submerged turtles are often snagged as the fishing line is reeled in.  Before removing the hook, the turtle’s face and head should be covered by cloth or blocked somehow (the stick method may help occupy the mouth).  Once you are safe from bites remove the hook by hand or with pliers.



Turtles are nervous animals and very easily stressed.  Any turtle caught should be gently dealt with as soon as possible and released immediately after the hook is removed.  The longer the turtle is kept the weaker it becomes and the longer it will take to recover.  Expect the turtle to bite and scratch to get away, because it is scared and in pain.  Be very careful with every move and, if you don’t trust your method, try something else.  If a turtle does grab hold of you, the best way to get it to let go is to submerge the whole turtle in water.  Usually, the turtle see its chance at freedom and will opt to take it.

Turtles do not seek out people, preferring instead to avoid us at all costs.  A turtle will not initiate aggressive tactics unless it feels threatened or in pain.  One way to avoid catching turtles is to file the barb off the fishing hook before going fishing; the barb’s efficiency is not comparable to its downfalls.