An Interview With Legendary Trapper And Lure Maker Ardell Grawe of North Dakota
By: Bill Falkowski
When Ardell Grawe agreed to do this interview, I started looking through some of my old trapping memorabilia that I had saved since I was a youngster. I ran across an old A.M. Grawe catalog circa 80′-81′. It featured a great cover of a youngster spotting his first mink on the bank of a small stream. The excitement on the boy’s face pales to how we felt about doing this interview with Ardell.
The interview with Grawe was over three hours long. When it was finished, I felt like we had only scratched the surface with this Legendary Trapper and Lure Maker. We’d like to thank our good freind Ardell for this tremendous interview, and all of the laughs. We thoroughly enjoyed this one, and we hope you do too!
1. What year were you born Ardell, and what state were you living in?
I was born in North Dakota back in 1942.
2. How old were you when you started trapping?
For fur? Hell, I don’t remember. Let’s see I was getting a nickel apiece for gophers out of our garden. We had a three-acre garden back then, and my mom had it as a source of income. I suppose I was six years old. We only owned four acres, but our land adjoined a section of cow pastures. When you only own four acres of land, you run out of gophers. I would sneak into the cow pasture for some gophers so my nickels would come thicker!
3. When you were a youngster, what was your first animal you ever trapped?
I suppose it was gophers and mice. I can remember taking fishing line and making a loop and sitting back ten or twelve feet. When he’d pop his head up out of the hole, you’d jerk it! That’s how I got started. They were those little striped ones. If you moved they’d disappear down the hole, but sooner or later, they couldn’t take it, and they’d come back out!
4. How much trapping or hunting did you do growing up Ardell?
Shortly after trapping gophers, I got a .22 rifle. I don’t remember whose it was, but I started shooting gophers and then I moved on to what we call flicker tails. My God they were big! I bet some of them weighed three pounds. They would pop up out of their holes, whistle at you, and you’d shoot them with your .22 and they’d grab their little hearts and tip right over!
5. Do you have any funny stories from when you were growing up for us Ardell?
Well, we lived on the West edge of town. Not in town but on the edge of town was a Catholic school. Most of the kids lived there during the school year because they came from ten or twelve, or even up to twenty miles away. They’d go home for the summer. The school owned acres of land, pasture with cows to feed the kids, gardens and so forth. Well, it was summer time, and all the kids had gone home, and the pasture was full of those flicker tails. I was out shooting, when, Oh my God here comes one of those “penquins” from the Catholic school. Back then Lutherans shouldn’t be around Catholics because who knows what would have happened. (Ha Ha). Anyway, she come over to me, and I was up in a tree wondering if she was gonna zap me or what. Well, she reminded me to not shoot at the cows! (Ha Ha).
6. Did you have a favorite animal to trap back then?
Well, our neighbors had twelve kids and they owned a dairy farm with Jersey cattle on it. On that farm was a slough that was oh hell probably a mile long and a half mile wide. The local dump joined into the slough, so we’d get on the ice there. The neighbors brother was trapping rats and boy did that look fun. He was sixteen and I think we were in third or fourth grade. He’d sell traps four traps for fifty cents apiece and then I could trap what he’d already trapped. I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was the second year, I had 53 muskrats. I was going to sell them in town at a place that bought cream and eggs. The big rats were bringing fifty cents and the small ones were a quarter. That’s the way it was back then. I was going to have a big party or hay day with that money, but Christ I come home from school one day, she had sold my rats in a bigger town when she went shopping. She bought me a flannel shirt, overshoes, a red parka and there went all my money. I was gonna play the pinball machine and buy a pack of Lucky Strikes like the rest of those guys but that never worked out.
7. What’s your favorite animal to trap today?
I like to see a big buck mink floating there on the bottom, a great big coon up in the tree, or a nice silky coyote pissed off with his hair up in the air. As far as a favorite, God I don’t know whatever is the easiest to catch, has the most numbers, and is bringing the best money. Guys always say to me, Jeez you trap for money don’t you love it? Yes, I do, I love money!
8. What’s your biggest day as far as numbers go?
Well, you have to remember back then, we had fox in great numbers. People always ask me what my average was. I guess six would be considered a poor day, while nineteen was probably average for a day. I do remember one day that I had thirty-six fox. Theft was so bad back then, I used to have a saying, Anything you had in your traps after sunup was a bonus!
9. What kind of resources if any did you have back then to learn how to trap?
People hated to read, but not me. If there was a hunting or fishing magazine, I would read it. Any book I could afford, I would buy it and read it! I used to get Fur-Fish-Game. Oh my God was that some magazine back then. I used to write a lot of letters too. I met Butcher, wrote to Dailey, J Curtis Grigg, I met Frank Kerry, and John Collins. These people would actually write you back and help you.
10. Tell us about the time you met Bill Nelson.
Well, it took me all day to get there from here. He was only down in the Southeast corner of Iowa, but the speed limit was only 55 back then. I was on gravel roads before but never on a double lane interstate highway. My God was I lost. I was nineteen or twenty years old when I met him, and it was the best money I ever spent. The itch to start making my own lures had started. Bill Nelson was way the hell ahead of anyone at that time. Before I went to meet him, I knew how to make a lot of different sets, I just didn’t know where to put them. I had only caught a few fox before going down there, and when he showed me how to pick locations, it all clicked. I was there only a half an hour and I had it figured out. He had a folder card with some lure recipes on it for like 15.00. I bought it and everyone knew about these recipes. But anyway, we got to actually be good friends from writing back and forth. We had a mink ranch a short distance from my place and I would collect urine and glands that I had cut from the mink and ship them to him. In return he would tell me in letters how to make this lure or that one a good lure. It was quite a good agreement. Getting back to this little lure card, it had probably 15 recipes on it. I made some of them, and they didn’t work worth a hoot. Forty years later, it hit me, that when Nelson was making these recipes, he was using far superior ingredients than we have today. I made those recipes years later, with high quality ingredients, and what do you know…They were just like his and they catch! I don’t make them to sell, I will make a quart for myself just to trap with these days.
11. Tell us about your family.
I’ve been married to my current wife Barb for 38 years. I have four children from a previous marriage. The daughter is in Duluth and she’s in real estate. The twins both spent over twenty years in the air force, one works with computers in IT, and the other works in hospital heating and cooling. The youngest boy passed away unexpectedly when he was about 40. I have eleven grandchildren.
12. Who got you interested in the lure making business?
Well, my visit to Bill Nelson’s place really got me intrigued.
13. How many baits and lures did you start out with your first year doing it?
I had two coyote, two fox, two mink, a coon, one beaver, but I never had a rat lure for quite awhile because all the rats were in the houses. That’s how I trapped them.
14. How many conventions were you doing in the Fur Boom years?
Every one we could go to or hear about! Boy did I get burned out. Sometimes Barb and one of the boys would do a convention in one state and I would do a convention in another. Barb and her sister even drove to Kentucky one year for a convention because I was sick of driving.
15. Tell us about your career as a longliner?
I don’t know, I just get up in the morning and just go like hell. I started going to Arizona for coyotes with a partner because I didn’t know where to go. Hell, I had never been anywhere. I longlined four or five years here at home until the weather got bad. I was probably twenty-five when I was running really hard. It never mattered. I would get home, sell the fur, get my traps ready for the next year, and start grinding bait in March.
16. Tell us about your first catalog.
I remember that first catalog I had. It resembled a church bulletin…you know, you fold a piece of paper in half and you have four pages. I think back then it cost five cents to mail it to a customer. I would tell people to send for a catalog and they’d open their mailbox and here’s this raggedy little piece of paper! In my own state fur buyers talked and word spread by word of mouth.
17. What was your biggest season for fur numbers?
I don’t answer that question anymore because no one believes you and no one understands how successful a professional trapper can be. There’s just so much bad kickback on it, I don’t even talk about it anymore.
18. What year did you really notice things were clicking business wise?
Well, I would say the third year is when we really noticed things picking up, but the last ten or twelve years have been unreal. We’ve been around for over forty years and carry a lot of items in our catalog. Things get crazy around here to say the least.
19. Tell us about the books you’ve written.
Well, my fox book was my first one and probably the easiest one to write. I wrote it in about two weeks. I wrote that along time ago, and I was charging 15.00 for a paperback. People always asked me how I could charge that much. I just tell them, you’re buying knowledge! I’ve got seven or eight books that I’ve written total.
20. Do you prefer to trap with a partner or solo?
When I trap out of state I prefer to trap with a partner, because it can really get boring. At home, it doesn’t matter, because when you get home, you have skinning to do, phone calls to answer, and about twelve other things that need attention too.
21. If you could give advice for a bait and lure maker just starting out today, what would it be?
I would tell them, don’t cut corners with your products, and buy only the best ingredients! I can’t stress that enough. You may not sell as much as the next guy but your rewards will be far greater by offering a superior product.
22. If there was one thing that you could contribute to your success in the trapping industry over the years Ardell, what would it be?
If I had to say, it would be other people. I’ve met a lot of people in my life and they’ve all shared knowledge with me. I’ve tried to do same for people over the years whether it was through demos, books, or personal instruction. Helping people so they are successful at the sport creates a real sense of personal satisfaction.