An Interview With Legendary Trapper and Lure Maker Leo Hoeft of Wisconsin
By: Trap and Trail Staff
It was a cloudy day in September many years ago. It was pouring rain and it was colder than any September I could remember. I was at the Wisconsin Trappers Association Fall Convention. I was just a youngster at the time and was drinking in all of the displays, traps, smells of lures, and listening to the men that surrounded me talking about trapping. I was there with my dad and we were getting ready for the season picking up some last-minute stuff. The vendor table we were at was busy and the line didn’t seem to be moving. I got bored standing there, and soon my young mind wandered across the room to where he sat. There sitting all by himself was wiry old man. He looked to weigh probably 100 pounds soaking wet. He wore a thin little jacket and well-used baseball cap. His display was far from fancy compared to all the other vendors. It was a couple pieces of plywood nailed together to hold his lures. He had used black magic marker to write the names of the lures on the plywood. I sat there looking at his display and I almost felt sorry for him…Almost, that is until we started to talk. Over the course of the next hour Leo invited me behind his table and we sat together talking about his lures, and trapping. From behind the table he turned a poster size photo of himself around showing him with a season’s catch of fox numbering in the hundreds.
This is how I met Leo Hoeft and it is a meeting I will never ever forget. Leo and I remained friends over the years, and I trapped with his lures every year since I met him. It always amazed me when I would call him on the phone to order my lures for the season, he would say, “I’m working on something special, I’ll send a jar over for you to try”. “Do you want my credit card number Leo?” I would ask. “You’re a trapper”, he’d say. “That’s good enough for me. Just send a check when you get your stuff”. Leo Hoeft is truly one of the last of his kind.
We finally caught up with the legendary trapper who is now in his nineties. Although he hasn’t been able to trap for a few seasons, the interview he shared with us was nothing short of spectacular. We didn’t do this interview as we’ve done the others. This one was special, and we wanted it to be a story rather than a question and answer session. It was an extreme pleasure to interview and be in the presence of this legendary trapper. So, come along with us to the north woods of Wisconsin, pull a block up next to the campfire, and listen to Legendary Trapper Leo Hoeft.
“I started trapping full-time 1948 and stuck with it all my life up until three years ago when I got sick. I never missed a season in that time. I trapped in the Flambeau area and man you wanna talk about fox. There was fox everywhere in those days. The area where I trapped was probably sixty miles north of here. I could take eight fox a day and never put a dent in the population.
For some reason, we always had trouble with fox trapped close to the road. It seemed that no matter what people just couldn’t leave a red fox alone. Bird hunters back in those days would shoot every fox they saw in a trap. I only remember one time when a guy left his spent shotgun shell letting us know it was a bird hunter who shot our fox and stole it too.
I would never brag about how many fox I caught, because that’s not the right way to do things. In 1968, I had my best year ever. I caught 387 that year. It was a combination of red and gray fox. I caught 19 fox in one day that year. The price on fox was a funny thing. My brother Joe and I had fox on the farm. They were running all over the place. We loved trap fox but in the 50’s they weren’t worth anything. Then, the next year, they had to be shipped out and they were worth two bucks, and we thought we were rich, so we decided to trap some fox. The next year, they went up to four dollars. The year after that they were ten dollars. That first year we trapped fox, it took forty fox to make a hundred dollars. The next year it took half of that. Soon enough, two fox would bring one hundred dollars.
I made my first bottle of lure in 1948 and it was the best lure I still own today. It’s my #1 Fox Lure. I remember going out to make a few sets that day and I only had gotten one set in for one reason or another and the next morning we got several inches of snow. As I approached the set I picked up a coyote track several hundred yards from where my set was located, and he was making a beeline for my set. When I got to the place where I had made my dirthole set, there was a beautiful young pale coyote waiting for me. That lure proved itself if not once a hundred times over the years. When you put that down a hole along with a few drops of skunk urine, you can’t miss with it. At one point in time, I owned my own animals for making my lures. I had 240 fox consisting of 14 different color phases, a couple of coyotes and raised one wildcat too.
Over the years, I’ve made some mistakes. I remember trapping this farm, and I came upon a woodcutter that was cutting brush. This farm was like no other. Every day I was catching coyotes and fox. I started talking to this guy cutting brush. I told him, you know, every day I come through here I catch a fox or two. Well, I should have kept my mouth shut. The next day he shot a fox in one my traps and sold it for bounty.
I started making my trap baskets in 1966, and there was a ten-year period in there where I didn’t make them because the fur market was so good. I started making the pack baskets kind of by accident. Back in those days, boy I was secretive. I boiled my traps way back in the woods so no one could see what I was doing. While I was back there boiling traps, I found an ash tree and I thought to myself I’m going to take that tree apart. I cut it down, and just kept taking it apart until the pieces were small enough to make something out of. The first basket I made was pretty funny looking. The next one was better.
Although my favorite animal to trap was the fox, I really enjoyed trapping mink. I read Curtis Griggs book on mink trapping, and that’s how I learned. Sam Parker was a local fur buyer and I remember asking Sam what the mink market was like. He said, “Whatever you do, don’t go mink trapping. The ranch mink are worthless and the market is flooded with big blues. They’re only worth seven dollars apiece”. So, what did I do? I went mink trapping. I went up north and trapped 347 mink that year. That was 1956. I got nineteen dollars for my jumbos that year. It was the best year I ever had. There was no competition up north, and there was mink everywhere.
I’ll tell you one last story that you should keep in mind. I was trapping up by the Flambeau. I had moved back from the river and found this area with a big oak tree that really looked good for coyotes. I had been trapping mink on the river and had only one fox or coyote trap with me. I made a dirthole set with the trap, and looked what I had left for bait. All I had left was a rabbit leg that I had been using for mink bait. I never used rabbit for coyote or fox bait. After shoving the rabbit leg down the hole, I looked what I had for lure. All I had was mink urine, so I squirted mink urine down the hole. When I came back the next day, there was coyote bouncing about a hundred yards away with the drag tangled up. The hole where I had put the mink urine looked like a bomb had went off. It was all torn up where other coyotes had worked the set. There were droppings everywhere. If you want to catch coyotes and fox, there’s a trick you should try. It really works”!