Dream Trapline

Dream Trapline
Russ Carman

I had just climbed down the bank into the small stream when I heard my partner, Doug Sturek holler to me from a short distance up the road. “Russ!” he yelled, “The truck stalled on me and I can’t get it started.” I quickly finished making the mink set at the mouth of the small sluice pipe, but by the time I reached the truck Doug had already ground the battery almost dead.

It was the first day of mink and muskrat season. Doug had dropped me off at the outlet of a small pond to make a couple mink and muskrat sets while he drove to the inlet of the pond to make a couple mink sets. He only made it a hundred yards up the road and over a small knoll before the truck sputtered and died. Before I had finished making one set, our truck, loaded with several hundred traps, stakes and equipment, sat dead at the side of the narrow and remote dirt road.

Years of planning and dreaming had led up to this day. As young boys trapping the streams and small marshes that bordered town, Doug was my most serious competition. By the time we reached high school we became friends, drawn together by our love of trapping. Long before Doug graduated from high school we had made plans to operate a full time trapline together following his graduation. The time had come to fulfill that dream.

Almost every weekend that summer was spent traveling back roads in Doug’s 1949 Ford, prospecting and mapping out a trapline. I had already run long auto traplines for the previous two years since I quit school, but we could more than double my trapline with the aid of a partner. With each passing week our enthusiasm grew. The muskrats were in plentiful supply and we found mink sign on every small stream we crossed.

By early fall we faced our first dilemma. It was clear that we didn’t have near enough traps. Doug had never expanded his trapline beyond the streams and marshes around town. At best he had less than a hundred traps. Although I had been running full time traplines during the fall and early winter and had built up a stock of over two hundred traps. I never had enough traps to operate my own lines efficiently. As close as we could figure, we needed at least two hundred more traps to set up our proposed trapline. Out stock of traps consisted of mostly No. 1 Blake and Lamb single long springs, a few stop-less traps and a good number of No. 1 ½ Victor coil springs that I used for mink and fox trapping (The conibear trap was not available at that time.) We needed more traps, but we couldn’t scrape up two nickels between us.

Almost from the time I began trapping, I had sold my furs to an old fur buyer who lived close to twenty miles south of me. Fur prices had been low for years and old Harry Crawford was the only fur buyer for miles around. Despite his monopoly he treated everyone fair. I never once heard a person grumble or

Memories of traplines of the past are dear to all dedicated trappers. (Carman Photo)

complain about the prices he offered. We walked into Harry’s store on a Saturday morning and were greeted almost immediately by Harry’s booming voice. “Hi Russ, what brings you here this early in the season.”

Being shy, (some would say a slightly backward young man,) I had to screw up my courage to even walk through the front door. I had rehearsed my statement over and over in my mind. I replied in one breath, “Well, Mr. Crawford, Doug and I plan on running a full time trapline this fall and we need more traps. The problem is we don’t have any money. I was wondering if you could sell us some traps now and let us pay for them out of our fur check,” I concluded with a slight gasp for air.

“What kind and how many do you need,” Harry asked.

Now came the hard part. I was about to ask the man for a huge favor and almost expected him to laugh at me or get mad because I had so much brass to ask him such a favor. I almost couldn’t get out the words. “We need 20 dozen No. 1 Blake and Lamb long springs.” I answered.

“Come back next Saturday and I’ll have them for you,” he replied as he turned and walked to the back of the store to talk another customer. We were both dumb struck. I was an awful lot to ask a man, but he never hesitated for a moment.

We were both elated during our drive home, and I felt as proud as a peacock. He was the first man to trust me for a debt. (It took me a while to realize that the only way I could beat him out of his money would be to sell the traps and quit trapping.) He knew me good enough to know that I wasn’t about to quit trapping. That may not seem like much today, but I got a job that summer that paid $80.00 for working six days per week at hard physical labor. Also, we were going to pay for them trapping muskrats that brought 80 cents, (50 cents for kits), $12.00 and $6.00 for male and female mink, and $3.00 for large prime coon.

That summer dad bought an old Jeep truck. I can only guess at its year, but I would guess that it was manufactured shortly after World War 2. What may amaze some people is that it was two-wheel drive. I’ve never been a great fan of Jeeps, and in my mind a Jeep minus four-wheel drive equals a zero. That summer I helped Dad pull out the little four cylinder flathead engine, and he rebuilt it. It ran good enough after we got it back together although it was drafty, slow and rode like a lumber wagon. Most trucks of that day had some characteristics, but this truck was a real stand out. We drove it for a couple years and it never gave us a lick of trouble, except one day when a small piece of dirt got into the fuel line, leaving us stranded on the first hour of season.

The season was fast approaching. We had everything ready. Stakes were cut, and stones were notched and all stashed close to our setting areas. We made a couple dry runs over the line to be sure we had more than enough trapline scouted to keep us busy from dawn until after dark. Our traps had long ago been dyed and waxed, ready to go. Suddenly were left with nothing to do but wait. And wait.

At that time there was no closed season on coon, and although we didn’t plan on trapping them, we had to do something to take the edge off our impatience. A large, prime, well scraped and dried coon pelt brought $3.00 at that time. Small, damaged or slate colored hides brought even less. Low prices, even in those days. It was two weeks before the mink and ‘rat season and we could hardly sleep at night in anticipation of running our dream trapline, so we decided to run a few coon traps. Besides, if we trapped a few coons now we wouldn’t have as much trouble catching them in our best mink sets later, which proves that a person can find a good excuse to do anything.

I worked with my dad on the farm, and he would do chores for the first month of trapping. I could expend every ounce of my energy on the trapline for the first month but after that I would be required to do the evening chores. This would allow me to spend all the daylight hours on the trapline, although after the first month it meant that I finished skinning late at night. The arrangement didn’t take effect until after the opening of the fur season, but I was still able to spend three or four hours a day trapping a coon. Doug was always a hard worker, even as a child. He would shovel snow during the winter and mow lawns during the summer, along with any odd jobs he could pick up around town.

During our summer prospecting we had found a number of locations where the mud banks and streams were loaded with coon tracks and trails. We figured that we would catch 50 large coons, turning the small

ones loose in less than a week, but when we returned to those “hot” coon location it was obvious that they had cooled down considerably. In fact, they had turned stone cold. We couldn’t find a single fresh track or dropping anywhere. We both had trapped long enough to know what had happened. Most of the streams in this area are shallow and rocky. Although some of the larger streams have a few trout, the primary supply of fish are creek chubs. Coon will work the streams for chubs, crayfish, frogs and bugs during the spring and summer, but as soon as the field corn begins to mature, and the wild berries begin to appear the coon quickly disperse into higher ground. We have found also that most of coon caught along the streams and rivers during the fall months are the yearling coons that are slow to move away from the whelping grounds.

Although we prefer to trap the streams for coon, (when they are working the streams their numbers are more concentrated and they become much easier to take in numbers), we began setting up the fence lines that bordered prime feeding grounds. Coon travel fence lines more than most people realize, especially if they border logged off areas that have grown up to briers. Swamps and marshes, old apple orchards, corn fields, old grown up pasture lots, etc. are prime areas. We also set near small stock ponds, spring holes, and even large mud puddles. When coon are working the high ground for berries, nuts, grapes, etc. they will make regular trips to any source of water available. In the back field and pastures such water supplies are often isolated and limited, but even a large mud puddle formed in the ruts of a farmer’s tractor, logging trucks or equipment will be visited by coon every night or two.

Our sets were simple dirt holes with the trap set back a bit from the hole and two inches to the right or left. We used 1 ½ Victor coil springs with the old square pinch pans. They were about the best trap for dirt sets available at the time. For bait we used a chunk of fresh fish and a few drops of my homemade lure.

In a little over a week we had close to 50 coons, all skinned out square and tacked on the inside wall of our hay barn. At the time coon pelts brought just as much as they did cased. Oh, how times has changed. We finished up only a couple days before the opening of the fur season.

I’d better quit rambling and get back to the crisis of the stalled truck on the mink line. I jumped into the truck and hit the starter. It cranked over a couple times, and the battery was dead. “What are we going to do now?” Doug asked. His voice clearly conveyed his sense of urgency. “You’ll have to stay with the truck,” I instructed. “I know the farmer up the road a little bit, maybe he’ll give me a ride to my brother-in-laws so I can borrow his truck.” With that I began running up the road and when I bent over slightly to enter the old dilapidated cow barn, my breath came in short gasps. Old man Richards was squatting down milking a cow. I appeared to startle him a bit when I barged through the door. “Mr. Richards, it’s the first day of trapping and our truck broke down. I would sure appreciate it if you would give me a ride to Pete Goff’s house so I could borrow his truck,” I said between gasps. “That’s to bad.” he replied. “I’ve got one more cow to milk and I’ve got to put the milk cans on the dock. It’ll only take me a few minutes and I’ll take you over there” he offered. Those few minutes seemed like hours as I rode the three miles to my brother-in-laws house. When we pulled into the driveway I thanked Mr. Richards several times for giving me the ride. “Anytime,” he replied and down the road he drove.

Two hours had passed before we set our second trap of the season. A No. 1 ½ coil spring set in the mouth of a small sluice pipe, the trap Doug had started out to set two hours earlier.

Our next stop was a long shallow pond, one of the best muskrat producing areas on our line. I dropped Doug off at one end of the pond with a pack basket full of traps and drove the truck to the other end of the pond and parked it along the road. For the next two hours Doug set traps along the eastern shore of the pond and I set the swampy inlet and the winding, mud banked stream that fed the pond. Muskrat signs were everywhere and not a sign of another trapper.

When we met back at the truck I asked Doug, “Did you meet any other trappers?” “No,” he replied. We were surprised and delighted. As muskrat trappers, this pond was the object of our affection. The first person to set this pond could expect to catch at least 100 muskrats in the first three or dour days. When the truck first broke down our first thought was that we would loose the spot to competition, but our fears were unfounded.

We planned to concentrate most of our effort for the first week or two on muskrats. We hurried from one pond or swamp to another, setting traps for mink at all the streams we crossed. Our early morning misadventure had put us in a hurry-up mode that lasted all day. By 10 o’clock that night we quit setting traps and started for home, tired but excited.

Although it was mid-November the weather was warm. Probably in the mid 40’s. Fog was beginning to form in the valleys. The muskrats would really be moving. We decided that we still had enough energy to check a few muskrat traps before going to bed. We picked up a couple fresh flashlights at home and headed for the first pond we had set that morning. In an hour we both had our pack baskets full to the top with muskrats. The adrenalin was running so we decided so we decided to check more traps. We jumped into the truck and started the five-mile drive to the next hot spot. Apparently, we were more weary than we thought. I was driving a little to fast for the corner and in a moment found myself in the weeds that lined the road, the steering wheel locked all the way to the left. Fortunately, the berm of the road was wide with no deep ditch and I was able to bring the truck back on the road with no damage.

“What are you crazy?” You’re going to get both of us killed!” Doug yelled. I swallowed a couple times to get my heart out of my throat. “I guess I’m more tired than I thought,” I mumbled.

Let’s go home, I’ve had enough,” Doug concluded.

Muskrat trapping required a touch more trapping skill before the advent of the Conibear trap. Trapping the river and large streams was relatively easy because the steep muddy banks and adjoining deep water allowed the muskrats to drown quickly before they could escape. Trapping the small swamps and marshy shore lines of the ponds and small lakes that made up most of our trapline was a different story. No matter how good a set location looked, if it wasn’t near water at least a foot deep in which the muskrat could drown, the location had to passed up. The small, light weight traps we used were not the best because a muskrat would swim around for quite some time before the weight of the trap would pull his nose below water. We solved the problem to some degree by wiring a lead weight, the kind used to balance tires, on the base of the traps to give them extra weight, but only a few of our traps were rigged that way. Most traps were rigged with a two or three-foot length of stove pipe wire to allow the animal to reach deep water but occasionally the wire would get tangled in some roots or grass and the animal would escape. (Most old timers know what was left at the set for your efforts.”)

We made every effort possible to eliminate these losses, but the most effective way was to check the traps two or three time a night for the first two or three days. (During the depression my dad and an uncle set around 30 traps on the nearby Susquehanna River and continually checked the traps all night long. By morning they pulled the traps after catching seventy-five rats). It was common practice at the time to check muskrat traps all night and, if the weather was warm, you could take all the ‘rats on your line in a night or two, with a minimum of losses.

We were well after midnight getting the close to one hundred muskrats and two mink skinned we caught the next day. We were dead tired when we finally turned into bed that night. We pushed it very hard that first week, pulling up dead spots and setting up new, skinning and stretching fur late into the night. Our bone deep weariness was beginning to show. My life-long friend was beginning to become a royal pain in the neck, and it was apparent that I was wearing a little thin on his nerves also, despite my always sunny, light hearted nature. We spent a couple days checking traps in almost total silence. Our dream trapline had become a drudgery.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon how you view it, our catch of muskrats dropped off drastically after about a week allowing us to get a little more sleep. We began pulling up the bulk of our muskrat traps. (Anyone who has trapped muskrats on foot all day long in the swamp and marshy areas knows that it takes more physical endurance than any other type of trapping.) Wearing hip boots, walking through mud and water carrying a pack basket half full of traps and muskrats can tire a man out in a few hours. We were doing it all day long and half the night.

We began extending our mink line and although we were still operating from before dawn until well after dark it was much easier work. Our attitudes changed drastically, and trapping became fun again. We were taking from one to several mink a day and a handful of muskrats.

About 10 o’clock one night we were checking the end or our mink line with the aid of flashlights. We

The “dream trapline” produced good daily catches of muskrats and mink, and it also taught us a lesson about how professional trapline is real work. (Carman Photo)

walked about a hundred yards to the stream on a narrow deer trail through a thick tangle of brush. We had made three or four mink sets just below a small beaver dam. We crossed the dam and walked down stream to the remnants of an old plank bridge. Doug had made a mink set under a 2” x 10” plank that extended about three feet over the water. He got down on his knees and crawled out onto the plank and peered over the end with his flashlight. “I got one,” he declared.

At the very second I heard a loud “Crack!” In the next split second the plank broke and Doug plunged head first into four feet of ice cold water. He came to the surface in an instant. “Ohh, ahh, ooh, ahh. It’s cold, it’s cold. he yelled as he sloshed to the bank. I was laughing so hard I had to sit down. A week earlier we would probably have been in a fight, but fortunately Doug saw a bit of humor in the situation himself. Unfortunately, when he turned around and saw the beam of his flashlight shining from the bottom of stream, his mood turned a bit sour. He had to walk back into the ice cold stream and totally submerge himself in the water to retrieve his flashlight. When he came out of the water the second time his teeth were chattering. I retrieved his mink with the innocent remark that he had destroyed a perfectly good mink set, I won’t give his reply, and we started up the trail to the warm truck.

Suddenly Doug stopped so quick I almost ran into him. Waddling up the trail ahead of us was a large broad stripe skunk. “That’s all I need right now is to get skunked up,” Doug said as we patiently followed the skunk up the trail. When I told him the next day that I would have loved to have a photo of last night, he replied “A photo of what?” “A skunk, a half drowned rat and the worlds greatest trapper all walking up the same trail,” I kidded. Again, his reply wasn’t fit for a family magazine.

The days turned into weeks and before we knew it we had been trapping for a month and a half. We had sold most of our fur through the season. The first fur check paid for our purchase of traps and left us with enough to buy gas for a couple of weeks. Now our fur catch was beginning to diminish to the point of nothing, so we decided to pull up our traps, and sell the balance of our fur catch. We had learned a great deal during those six weeks that would serve me well for many years to come. (Doug went into the Army later that winter and after four years in the service he never trapped again.)

But, on that final day of our adventure together, we had one more lesson to learn.

A narrow dirt road ran parallel to a five-mile section of stream made wide and marshy by four or five small beaver colonies. An old trapper, well known to the area as a trap and fur thief was also operating along that stretch of stream although we never saw any sign of our traps being disturbed. When Doug pulled up our first mink trap set along that section of our line and tried to spring the trap the pan wouldn’t drop because of a small pebble lodged between the pan and base. This is not all that unusual when trapping small rocky streams where water currents carry small pebbles and debris against your traps, but after we pulled three of four more traps, all with a small pebble under the pan, we knew that a two legged skunk had messed with our traps. By the time we pulled the dozen or so traps along that section of our line, all with a pebble under the pan, our first thought was to wreck eternal vengeance on the man. All kinds of sinister thoughts came to our minds. An hour later we pulled into the parking lot of a small roadside grocery to get a snack.

Before we could get out of the truck the object of our vengeance pulled up beside us. He rolled down his window, and with a broad canary eating grin asked, “Having any luck?” “Yeah, we got four mink and two rats so far today,” I replied in total honesty. “How many minks have you caught over by Shorty Dawses?” he asked, his nasty grin getting even wider. He was talking about the area where the pebbles were found under our trap pans. He was rubbing our noses into it!

I turned towards Doug, and with a wink I said, “I don’t know Doug, we caught quite a few over there, how many do you think we caught?” “I think we caught about eight,” he replied. When I turned back to look the man in the eye, I could see that his smile wasn’t quite so wide. “We didn’t catch any mink there for a while, but we made a few new sets and we began really catching them” I said. “It was the best section of our line” I concluded. The man was still smiling, but now his smile was much more forced. In a few minutes he backed out and drove away. We felt better having turned the situation around a bit.

The man was a top notch mink and muskrat trapper and could have achieved a great reputation as a trapper. Instead he died a few years ago with a reputation as a sticky fingered thief and a sneak. The local game protector hounded his every movement and on at least two occasions he lost his license to trap for several years. I’m sure that he got some kind of twisted pleasure messing with other peoples’ traps and fur and bragging about it, but in the long run it simply tarnished his memory and overshadowed his reputation as a great trapper.

Within a few days we had sold our furs. If my memory again serves me, we ended up with a little less than $200.00 each and the 20 dozen traps we bought on credit. (I still have a few of those traps left, in good working condition forty years later.) Doug continued running a few traps for mink north of his home for a couple weeks, and I set out a few fox traps to keep me occupied until beaver season.

Through hard work, persistence and a little help from an old fur buyer our dream trapline turned into reality, producing experience, knowledge and memories that will last a lifetime.

But, when one dream is realized it is quickly replaced with another. I dreamed of running a wilderness trapline, to trap in the Rocky Mountains and in the swamp country of the South. Over the next forty years all those dreams were realized – but those are different stories.

The above article first ran in the February, 2000 issue of “Trappers World” magazine. We thank Russ for letting us reprint it. D. S.

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