Early in the year 2000 I had an epiphany that changed everything. It took every facet of my life up to that point and combined it into a single focus. It forever changed the way I viewed the world, how I think, and how I react to the physical world. It took the small picture I had been seeing all those years and blew it up to the “big picture”. It allowed me to see sights that I never would have imagined seeing before. It got me in shape, toughened my body, and sharpened my mind with what I learned, and had to figure out. It brought me into the woods of Maine, back to basics, made me free, and instilled a kindred historical spirit in me that I cannot put into words. A friend once told me the reason he enjoyed it so much was instead of waiting for things to happen, he was making things happen and that makes all the difference in the world. Indeed it does. He also said that doing it made every day like Christmas. And you know what’s funny? I used to hate it. When I came across the subject in a magazine or catalog I would immediately turn the page. I thought it was wrong. And you know what else? At one point in your life you’ve probably done it on a small scale. What is it you ask? First, let me back up for a second.
The history of our country is ripe with exploitation and romanticism. From the moment the Europeans hit shore they exploited the Native Americans the land and all of its resources. Our nations wildlife was no exception. We hunted and trapped many animals to the brink of extinction for greed. Over the years since our exploitive days we’ve turned things around. Don’t forget that there are a myriad of other reasons besides hunting and trapping that have hurt our animal populations including pollution and habitat destruction. But we’ve come a long long way towards repairing some or even most of that damage. Unfortunately a lot of what people and the media believe today comes from the stories from our exploitive past, and I think at least some of it has to do with our culture today being far removed from our food and clothing sources, instead we let other people do the dirty work for us. I’m sure at some point in your life you have heard of the success stories of wildlife re-introduction to habitat where they once thrived, but because of habitat destruction, pollution, and exploitation no longer lived there. One of the best reintroduction stories are the river otter in Ohio, a detailed description of which you can find here.
So let me ask you this – How do you think they caught them for reintroduction? (hint: the linked research article above describes how)
To answer the question above, in a seemingly ironic twist animals intended for reintroduction are caught in foothold traps. The most misaligned and misunderstood wildlife management tool.
And to answer the first question above, in 2000 I started on my journey as a trapper.
It evolved very slowly. As a kid I would plead with my Dad to let the fish go we had just caught instead of taking them home. I once swam out to a float to rescue a grasshopper that I thought would die if I didn’t. But over time as I matured I realized that things, including us, die. And that each day, for us to survive something has expired for us to do so. Whether you do that deed yourself, or whether you have someone else do it for you, something expired. Being self-sufficient and independent , by the time I got to college I tried hunting, and over the years I got better at it. I liked being outside, exploring, and occasionally getting my own food. Then, one day while deer hunting in 1999 I sat down for a break on a big beaver dam. It was a beautiful fall day..the kind where the leaves are aglow, some floating on the brownish water of the beaver pond, the sun was warm, and the air had a hint of cool to it. I sat there lost in thought, and then I started looking at the beaver house, the dam, and the runways on the bottom they had created. And I started thinking to myself, you know, one of these days you might want to try trapping. Here on the coast of Maine they had just come up with stringent new rules making it almost impossible to get into the lobster industry, and at the time I was upset that I didn’t have the foresight to buy a license when I could have. I had a recreation license to trap lobsters for a while, and I enjoyed it, but the new rules would have made it very difficult for me to get a commercial one. I thought what if they do that with trapping and someday I want to go and I can’t? I thought about it, and decided to look into it when I got home. I grabbed a law book from the town hall and pored it over, and then bought some books on the subject, and I began to get excited about it. The state makes you take an education class to get a license application and I went to one over the winter, and got my license. Now that I had it, I might as well try to go and see if I could catch anything. I bought a couple of traps, and decided to see if I could catch one of the beavers at the dam I had been sitting on the year before, using the knowledge I had read about in books. I eagerly checked them for a couple of weeks, with no catch at all. Turns out trapping is a lot harder to do then I thought. I do think when it comes to trapping, people for some reason think it’s easy. It’s not. You have to be intimately familiar with everything there is to know about the creature you are after. Where it lives, how it travels, why and when it travels, how it thinks, and a whole host of other criteria. It’s hard to do. But now I can tell you when a stream looks “minky”, or when a beaver house is active, or notice the signs that point to a bachelor beaver den upstream. And believe it or not, most sets that trappers set are blind sets – that is to say they are not baited with anything. You have to know a lot to get a creature in the vast forests and streams, to know where they are going to step on less than a square inch spot. So, the first time I went after beaver I caught nothing. The first time I tried to catch a fox he dug the trap up and pooed on it. But I was undaunted and challenged. This was going to be hard, but I was going to learn how. I attended the Trappers weekend that the MTA put on the next fall, and attended all the demos. That fall, everything came together. My love for being outside, canoeing, backpacking,exploring, and learning were all focused. I went hard-core, and old school. Snowshoeing miles in to backcountry beaver flowages, backpacking 60+ pound beavers back out, and cutting ice with a chisel that I packed in. It was unbelievable. For several years when it was clear I saw the sun rise each morning. I learned to skin, flesh and stretch fur. I learned as much as I could about each creatures habits, and how they thought. When I look at a map these days, I instinctively pick out otter routes (an otter typically has a 20-80 mile circuit they run) , and look for crossover trails in the woods. I can’t drive by a pond without scanning it for beaver houses. I saw huge bobcats. One night miles from anywhere,standing in the frigid and still January air, I watched a small plume of steam rising up from a beaver house silhouetted by the moon. I met some incredible, down to earth, and trusting people. I had a “ghost” cat following me one year and visiting all my sets. I felt such a connection with history it’s hard to describe. Trapping is akin to a chess game, except who you are playing against has more pieces than you do. You are on their turf and in their “home”, and just like you would know if someone had been in your house, they know that someone has been in theirs. There is truth behind the cliche “outfox a fox”, and on the days when that happened it was great. I enjoyed the peace of the woods and the freedom. After a day in the woods things smell better, taste better, and there are always the wonderful and rich stories that come with the adventure, like falling through the ice on a wind chill advisory day. I had so many rich adventures that first year, that I wrote a story about them. “Tales of a First Year Trapline” appeared in the Jan/Feb edition of Trapper’s World magazine.
There is a little bit of trapper in each of us. As a nuisance trapper I had interesting clients including a Park Ranger. He came out to watch the sets be made, and was always ready and waiting when I showed up to check them. His wife said it was the highlight of his winter to check sets with me. If my stories have piqued your interest at all I linked two books below, they are both valuable resources that can get you started, along with your states Association.