Trapping: The Forgotten American Heritage by Mike DiSalvo
My friend Mel once asked me, “Mike, why do you trap?” To which I replied, “I don’t know how not to trap. I have trapped for as long as I can remember, and probably before that!” I then started thinking about why I trap. My mind drifted back to my youth spent trapping with my Father and Grandfather.
I remembered, as a young child, running traplines with my Dad and Grandfather (Pop). I also remembered the names of other trappers who trapped in the same areas. Men like Arnold Favinger and Jack Bonney, the raccoon and fox trappers from up in Lenni. Bob Currey, the raccoon trapper who let my Father trap foxes on his farm; and Jack Murphy, the long lining trapper who would catch three to five hundred raccoons a season.
Back then, you could go into any of the numerous small grocery stores similar to Ahearns, or the Frogtown Country Store, or into any local bar like Martins, Eddie’s, or The Hilltop and ask the name of a local trapper and get three or four responses. People would tell you whom you were looking for, what they could catch, and where to find them. Now you’d be lucky to find anyone who knew a trapper at all, let alone where to find them, and what animals they specialize in.
To me it is a sin to let this great American heritage fade away like a wisp of smoke. Think of all of the great outdoorsmen and adventurers of the old west that were trappers. Men like Jim Bridger, who helped map out the Oregon Trail, as well as many overland stage routes. Kit Carson, the famous Indian scout who knew the desert southwest like the back of his hand. These men, and others to numerous to name, helped map out and settle this country. Their in-depth knowledge of the land and waters is what guided them through the wilderness. They had no maps or atlases, only their own knowledge of the land and what they could gather from other trappers and hunters. By running their trapline in the wilderness they came to know and love the land, much like trappers today.
In this day and age it is hard to find a trapper, unless you belong to a trapping organization such as the National Trapper Association. America has more outdoorsmen per capita than probably any country in the world. Only a small handful of those are trappers. Trappers not only have to defend themselves against the anti-trappers, but even against other outdoorsmen, hunters as well. Trappers have long had their back to the wall, between ever increasing cost of equipment and gas, lowering fur prices, and the ever-present antis. Some trappers have hung it up and quit. Traps now gather dust in old barns, outbuildings, and musty basements.
My generation was just old enough to catch the tail end of the great fur boom, when fur prices were high and everyone seemed to trap. The boom lasted until I was about twelve. Fur prices dropped, and dropped and dropped, until by the time I graduated high school, you could hardly give wild fur away. My siblings and their generation never got to experience the type of trapping I did. Trapping taught me so many things about life and the wild world, that I don’t know what I would have done without it.
I learned planning and preparation from watching my Dad and Pop. Every year before the opening day of trapping season, you could find us in the field under the big walnut tree. There would be a large cauldron of water and walnuts boiling over a wood fire (we later went to gas) to dye the trap in. My brother Matthew and I personally gathered the walnuts, by either picking them up off the ground, or shooting them off the branches with our BB guns. The traps were arranged in piles on the battered sheet of plywood that Dad and Pop had supported on sawhorses every year. Dad would check the pan tension on this one while Pop was checking the springs on other. Only after careful inspection were the traps put in the dye to obtain the proper shade of black. When the traps were dyed properly, they were removed from the cauldron and allowed to dry on a rack. Pop would put the wax on to melt. After the wax was melted the traps were dipped in, just until they stopped crackling and popping. Then they were removed and allowed to dry. Pop and Dad did this many weeks before the season, so that when the season opened they would be ready.
I learned about truth, honesty, and fair play from two different instances that I can remember. One morning, while checking traps with my Dad, we came to a small creek, and I could see there had been a catch made. “Hey Dad, you got a coon!” I yelled to him. He walked up the creek, looked at the coon and said, “Son, that coon isn’t in my trap; my set is up around the bend.” He walked back downstream, and I looked longingly at the coon, knowing it was worth 35-40 dollars. Dad later explained to me that he hated when someone stole his traps or fur. He despised thieves and would never be counted among them.
One cold November morning, I was checking traps with Pop, down in the Darlington Valley. As we were walking down the train tracks, we could see three people in the distance. They saw us and waved and we met about halfway down. It was Arnold Favinger, Jack Bonny, and a young kid. “Morning Charlie,” Arnold said to Pop. “Morning Arnold, morning Jack,” Pop replied (all local trappers pretty much knew each other back in those days). “Say Charlie, did you shoot one of my coons yesterday, down under the trestle?” Arnold asked. “Yes I did, it was only held by one toe and I didn’t want it to escape on you,” Pop replied. “I appreciate it, but was wondering why a thief would shoot my coon, and then leave it for me?” Arnold said laughingly. Arnold later told me when he and I trapped together that he never feared losing a trap or an animal when he and Pop trapped the same area. Pop unwittingly showed me fair play, and how to establish an honest reputation for yourself.
I also learned that you have to take responsibility. I can remember one year my Dad hurt his foot at work and could barely walk. He still made sure his fox sets got checked every single morning, even if it took him twice as long. I can also remember Pop driving through a blizzard to pull his traps, just so they would not be operating when he would not be able to reach them.
I learned a few things about honor as well, from trapping. I can remember every December 23rd we would either pull or snap all of our traps. “Nothing should die on Christmas,” Dad once said to me. I still carry this tradition with my children; all traps are sprung or pulled on Christmas Eve.
Another thing I can remember is a single set of fox tracks on a frosty trestle bridge. I saw them many times as Pop and I walked over that bridge to check his sets. “Why don’t you ever try to catch that fox Pop?” I asked. He just looked at me grinned slightly and said, “Someday you’ll know why” and continued on down the tracks. Later I did know why neither he nor Arnold, nor Jack ever tried to try to catch the fox that left the tracks. I wish I could tell you but it is something you have to discover for yourself.
I was taught a lesson in respect every year. Although Pop and Dad had been trapping some of their farms for a decade or more, they still stopped by the farmhouse in early October to renew permissions with the farmer. It also gave them a chance to ask questions on where the farmer had seen foxes or coons, get to know the dogs again, and find out if any areas were off limits. The farmers appreciated that we stopped to ask permission, talk again, and that we did not take their permission or land for granted.
The greatest thing trapping has taught me is appreciation and knowledge of the outdoors. I can readily look at a field, creek, pond, river, or woods and know where to look to find whatever animal I am searching for. I have learned how to read just a small piece of track, or identify a single strand of hair I may find in a fence or tree, and determine what left it. I now know that no matter how much I know about trapping and animals, that there is always something new to learn. Every fall I am still amazed at the myriad of colors of the woods, the bright burning reds of the maples, the glimmering yellow of the oaks and beeches, blazing through the valleys like an arboreal forest fire. I love to listen to the slow, soft murmuring of the mink stream, which sounds like a distant conversation I can’t quite make out. I chuckle on days when hunters look outside and decide the weather is just too nasty to venture forth, and I am out tending my traps. I love to walk in the falling snow, hear it sizzle past my ears, and marvel at how the rest of the world seems to have been silenced by the beauty of the snow covered woods. I’ve seen sunrises so beautiful that they are beyond my power to describe. And, even though I have witnessed more sunrises I can remember, I still, on occasion, stop my truck and watch the spectacle of it again.
Trappers are out in the woods and water every day of the three to four month trapping season. They spend hours in, and around, their location, and know it better than any hunter or fisherman ever could. Trappers know every bump, rock, pool and sandbar on the creeks they trap. They know every saddle, draw, cow/deer path, and trail on the lands they trap. They know a fox’s bark from a coon’s, and can tell you how far away a coyote is just by hearing the howl. Trappers are among the most observant people in the world. They have to be, in order to be any good at their sport. I had always just taken my powers of outdoor observation for granted, but my children helped to bring this trait to my attention. My daughter, Teagan (8), walks through our neighborhood and woods like a modern day Osa Johnson (famous woman African explorer). She amazes her friends by pointing out to them rabbits and squirrels, which they cannot see. She also identifies bird songs, squirrel barks, or tracks in the snow, to her amazed friends. When her class goes on and ECO- trip (an outside field trip), the teacher and students call her the “resident expert” in identifying animal tracks, droppings, sign, and calls. My son, Jamison (12), says on field trips he sees many different animals, but for some reason none of his friends can see them. “I keep saying, ‘it’s right there, just to the left of that tuft of switch grass,’” he tells me. His friends can’t see the tuft of grass, let alone the pheasant that just strutted by it.
Trapping is one of the few sports every member of the family can enjoy and participate in. No matter how old or young, everyone can be a part of trapping. My youngest daughter, Charly (3), helps Teagan and Jamison collect the walnuts to dye the traps with (much like I used to). The older kids run traps with me on weekends and days off of school. They are learning to develop the skills to pick their own location, and the ability to read the tracks and other signs. They tough it out, despite the sub zero temperatures, wet feet, or the snapped finger, just to catch something. The smile on their faces when they do make a catch is incredible. Even Pop, when he had long quit trapping, still participated. Most days he’d have me and my partner show him the catch, then heckle us for not catching enough. He’d ask where we got which animals and in what kind of set. Even when he was losing his battle with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease, when I said trapping, a light came to his eyes and they seemed to clear. For the briefest of moments, he knew me, and we talked about trapping. It was the last conversation I ever had with him, and I’m glad it was on trapping.
I hate to see this heritage die a slow death, so I try to keep it alive in my children, and hopefully my grandchildren (when I have some). Someday, I’ll be just a shadow following my children on their trapline, much like I feel I am followed on mine at times. When that time comes, maybe I’ll meet up with Pop and we’ll try to catch that trestle fox.