Old Men, Tattered Jackets, and Smelly Cars by Mike DiSalvo
This was the first and story I ever wrote, and quite possibly is still my favorite. It covers trapping lessons I learned from my Grandfather (POP). Though he was a crotchety old bugger, Pop dearly loved to trap and talk about it, and this story relates that love, and just for a short while brings the old man right back to me.
I can well remember the early fall days of October when my brother and I were sent out to gather walnuts for dying the traps. Dad and Pop would have the entire collection of traps spread out on a sheet of plywood that was placed on two sawhorses.
I can still see them standing in the field under the big walnut tree. They each had a small file, two screwdrivers and a wrench. They would file the pan notches square and level, then adjust the pan tension to their liking; making sure the pans set flat and level, before they were tossed in the dying pot. I can still smell the odor of the dye and to this day it is one of the smells of fall and trapping to me. After the traps were done dying they were hung up to dry, while the wax was put on to melt. I can still hear the crackling of the wax pot as the traps were placed in it. Then they were hung up to dry; even coon traps were dyed and waxed.
The Old Man who I always called “Pop” it seemed everyone else did to, was my paternal Grandfather. He was an ornery, opinionated, gruff, outspoken old cuss. It was at his house my first memories of trapping occur. I was 4 or younger, I have a good memory of my youth, and in the basement watching Pop do something with traps. I remember it was snowing like the devil outside and my Dad had gone to check Pop’s fox traps for him. Dad came in the basement door carrying 2 beautiful red foxes dusted in snow. Pop told my Dad he had overly dispatched the foxes, Pop always had something to say.
I remember spending the weekend at my Grandparents house during trapping season, waiting for Pop to get done running his lines so I could go with him down to Wilson’s in the woods behind the house. I was too little to be able to keep up with him on the big lines yet, so I had to wait. He’d come in and go to the bathroom then sit and have 2 cups of coffee. Then when he was done we would put our boots and coats on and head off into the woods. I remember some lessons he taught me back then. We used to walk down an abandoned railroad track to get to the sets. I always walked to close behind him and got smacked with branches and briars, he told me to make sure I walked at least 4 ties behind him and that way I wouldn’t get hit with branches.
I remember asking the questions kids ask, like “Why is the set there?” “Where do coons sleep?” and stuff like that. Sometimes he would answer my questions and other times he would just grunt. It seemed if I made my question specific to trapping I could get a better answer. He told me he made the set there because two streams came together, and that way any coons following either stream had a chance of getting caught. He showed me how to make cubbies using flat stones in the creek. One of those cubbies is still there; it just needs to be remade. He showed me how to read coon and fox tracks on the sand bars. I can still see him in his trapping outfit, a blue stocking cap, a dirty, smelly, battered hunting coat and only one of his numerous “golfing sweaters”. He called them that because they had at least eighteen holes in them. Pop never wore gloves while trapping coon, handling the rotten fish he loved to use for bait (maybe this coincides with his high opossum catches) and the lure with his bare hands, leaving him with a unique odor during trapping season. However if his jacket and coat were slightly odorous, his vehicles were obnoxious. He had an old blue station wagon he used for trapping, and he kept a five-gallon bucket of rotten fish on the floor in the back seat. Oh man did that car ever reek! We used to joke about when the car was taken to the junkyard and crushed up that the block of metal would still smell like fish.
Two of the biggest lesson I learned from Pop were “seeing ain’t noticing” and “observe don’t just look”. The “seeing ain’t noticing” lesson took place on a small stream. We got out and looked under the bridge, there was another trap there, this being during the fur boom, at least 2 trappers worked around this bridge. As Pop had trapped this creek for the better part of 20 years he was not about to let the other beat him out. “Where can we put our sets, the others seem to have covered the best spots’ I said to him. He looked at me and sort of smiled, “Seeing ain’t noticing,” he said. He then went on to point out to me the sand bar that ran just under the water out and around the bridge and upstream. “Notice anything different about that sandbar?” he asked. “Not really, except it seems to have bumps going through it” I said. “Right, but those bumps are where coon have been walking on the sandbar, also notice the sediment is slightly removed from the bar itself” he told me. We quickly put walkthrough sets on both sides of the bridge at the edges of the sand bar, rigged to drowning wire to hide the catches.
We were trapping about a mile from the house one morning when we stopped at a small creek and started looking for coon sign; I couldn’t find any, as the banks were thick with leaves. Pop asked me if I had found anything, and I told him I had not. He asked if I had looked inside the culvert itself I said I had, and he quickly told me I must be blind. I asked what he meant, and he showed me, that inside the culvert about 2 feet were coon tracks. I had missed them because I was in hurry and looking not observing. He also pointed out to me the leaves on one side of the culvert were slightly disturbed, showing were coons had been going through them to get into the culvert. “Looking ain’t observing, you need to pay attention to your surroundings, notice the slight imprint a ½ a track a overturned rock anything that could show a animal has been through”, he quietly told me. I have since become an observer more than a looker, and it really helps find slight sign especially mink.
I could write a book on the memories I have or running trap with Pop but will just hit three very good ones.
One of the best memories I have or running traps with him was a certain set we had at a culvert. I used to hop out and give the thumbs up if we had something or get back in if we didn’t. We caught so many coons 12 – seemingly 1 or 2 every weekend in that one set, that Pop used to just hand me the pistol and tell me to go take care of things while he waited in the truck. That was a big deal to an 11-year-old kid, I not only got to shoot his pistol, but also remake the set as well. It wasn’t anything special, just a coon trail coming out of the culvert on one side, because the other was deep, narrowed down with a small hole in the bank above the trap with lure and bait. I guess the coon population was up that year and they all used that path.
Another great memory I have is why to use a good dry hardwood drag for coon. I was about 7 or 8 and Pop and I went down to check a coon set. When we got there we could see the usual carnage a coon leaves when caught. I quickly saw that the coon had gnawed Pop’s drag down to a mere pencil. Pop hurriedly dispatched the coon and we observed the drag. It appeared that another few minutes and the coon would have gotten free. Pop tugged on the wire and it broke through the gnawed area easily.
The last memory I mention was a crossing log set Pop had on a local stream. I have tried crossing logs; all I ever caught were squirrels! Pop loved them and used them whenever and wherever he found them. I remember we were checking sets before I had to go to school; I got to the log and saw the trap was missing and the wire was leading into the water below. “Pop we got something,” I yelled back to him as I started pulling up the wire. Imagine our surprise when I got the wire up and it held a drowned red fox. Pop was as surprised as I was. I’ve never seen anything like that again.
Pop stopped trapping when I was 16 due to injuries, although he still trapped any critters that tried to eat his chickens. He was always ready to give advice and criticism. “If I told you, that you were doing a good job you wouldn’t try to do a better job,” he’d always say. I can still hear his voice when my partner and I would roll up at the end of the day and throw our catch on the front porch for inspection. He would always be sitting in the living room and could hear when we threw out catch on the porch. He’d come out look at our catch and say “That it?” It used to drive Arnold crazy, when we roll up with 2 foxes a couple coons and a grinner or two and Pop would come out and say “That it?” “What does he want from us?” Arnold would mutter half cursing under his breath. I had to explain that was Pop’s way of saying we were doing good.
It finally took a season of 49 coons in 2 weeks for him to say we were good coon trappers. It took 78 foxes in 6 weeks before he paid me the greatest compliment he ever gave me. “You could write a book, with your methods” he said. I damn near cried because he meant it, and he was telling me that in his eyes I was as good as he and my Dad ever were and probably a tad better.
I can still recall Arnold saying one year “The saddest day of my life will be when we pull up and throw our catch on the porch and Pop doesn’t come out and say “That it?” and I wholeheartedly agreed. That day came on November 2nd, 1998 one day after his 75th birthday.
His funeral was on Saturday morning, I made sure to stick his blue hat in the coffin with him (I know he’d want it). Then after the service and the cemetery I went and got my hip boots on, grabbed my traps and headed out. Some people probably asked how I could do that; well I’m sure that is just what Pop wanted me to do. Sometimes in my mind I can still hear him say, “That it?” I always say back, “Nope, not by a long shot Old Man, not by a long Shot.”