An Interview With Legendary Trapper And Lure Maker Oscar Cronk Jr. of Maine
By: Bill Falkowski
I can still remember the first time I read the book They Called Him Wildcat, the story and legend of V.E. Lynch. His life was everything I wanted mine to be. A trapper, houndsman, and sportsman in the deep rugged, vast Maine wilderness. I read the book cover to cover, and when I was done, I read it again! It was a book I would never forget and to this day, it still remains one of my favorite outdoor books ever written.
While I was only a youngster the first time I read the book, little did I know some forty plus years later, I would get the rare opportunity and privilege to interview the author of this book. Oscar Cronk is one of the true pioneers of the industry that is still around today. The tales that Oscar spun for us, along with the unbelievable set of photos he supplied to us makes this interview one we will not soon forget. A special thanks to Oscar for his generosity, time, and contributions to the trapping industry! Sit back and enjoy this interview with Legendary Trapper Oscar Cronk!
1. What year were you born Oscar, and what state were you living in?
I was born in 1930 in Aroostook County, Maine. I was born in a little town called Haynesville right during the depression.
2. How old were you when you started your outdoor career?
Well, I was probably nine or ten when I started playing around with trapping.
3. I know you used to dig worms for money, can you elaborate on that?
My worm digging worked real well with my trapping career. I started digging worms in March or April and would dig until about October. The trapping season would come in and I was all through digging worms. Wiscasset the town where we live, was called the worm capital of the world. There were six or seven shippers and these worms went all over the country. There were two types of worms, a bloodworm and a sandworm. I made good money back then. My brothers and I were digging together. I would start digging when the tide was out, and just before the water would come back in, the worms would sense that, and they would start coming up. Your back was down all the time, and if your hoe wasn’t moving you weren’t making money. I dug up until 1975 and our big business was built in December of 1971. I couldn’t dig anymore. My wife said, “You have to decide if you want to be a worm digger or an outdoor supply dealer”. As I got better at it, I came up with a system. I would dig 500 worms and give my back a break and have a candy bar or some crackers. Then I would dig another 500. The most worms I ever dug was 3100 and that’s a lot of worms! They were paying $1.40 for 100 worms the year I got out of the service. When I retired in 1975 I think it was up to $2.50 for 100 worms.
4. Did you have any family members that were also outdoor enthusiasts?
They hunted and fished, but they never trapped like I did. All the way back to my grandfather who trapped things like muskrats and weasels as a boy, but he never got into it like I did. What really fascinated me, when I was five years old, and I can remember it as plain as day was an old Indian trapper who would come in with his nephew. They were trapping beaver, and it was cold. Mother would make him a tea or coffee, and he had a .22 revolver on his side. He could see me, I was eyeing that pistol. I had a little toy pistol at the time because I was only five years old. He said to me, “Let’s trade pistols, you take mine and I’ll take yours”. Boy did I think I was something big then. I believe it was a single shot pistol, and from then on, I was fascinated with trapping.
5. How old were you when you started trapping and were you living in Maine at the time?
I went into the service when I was eighteen, but I trapped before that of course. I came back out in 1950 and from then I became a professional trapper. I trapped for money. I went all over the state, and by 1968 I could catch any animal. I was good trapper by then and I was lucky enough to tie in with a guy by the name of Vincent Hinks. He was one of heck of a sportsman, trapper, and guide. I had a lot of questions for him and I watched what he was doing. I saw him go through a weak spot in the ice one time way up in the St. John Allagash country some of the roughest country in Maine that I trapped for more than thirty years. He showed me exactly what to do when you break through the ice. The same thing happened to me only I had snowshoes on. I was miles from camp and the temperatures were well below zero. If I hadn’t learned that trick from old Vince, I could have been in serious trouble.
6. I know you’re married, but tell us about your wife Edie and do you have any children?
We don’t have any children together. I was married once before. I have daughter and she’s 61. My wife Edie is an outdoor gal. She’s trapped with me. She trapped with me one winter full time. She would cut all the poles and fencing sticks for my sets and I would be chopping the hole. We were married back in 1960 so we’ve been married quite a long time. She’s a good woman…a tough woman that’s for sure.
7. How old were you when you started to get interested in hunting with hounds?
I was twenty-one I think. I had a hound but I didn’t know anything about training them. I think it was two or three years later, and I bought one of the best hounds I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have bought him, but the guy who had him got caught drinking and driving and a combination of things got him to sell the hound to me. Back then in 54’ you could buy a good dog for a hundred dollars. I paid three-hundred for that one, but he was well worth it, a thousand probably. He was a Bluetick, and boy did he have a good bloodline.
8. What is your favorite breed of hound?
I really fancy Blueticks, but I always tell people it’s not the breed of dog, it’s the itself or what he or she can do that really makes the dog. I had a Walker Bluetick cross, and he treed every cat, they never got away from him. I never shot a cat on the ground with him. He put them up every time. He was a semi-silent trailer. He wouldn’t say a word until he was just about on top of the cat, and then he’d open up and scare them half to death and put them right up the tree.
9. What breeds of hounds have you hunted with?
I have hunted with just about every breed. I have one hound today, and he’s a cross. His father was Beagle and Plott. The mother was a Bluetick, so he has some really good blood.
10. What or who got you interested in the lure making business?
Ed Howe lived about twenty miles from Wiscasset, and I used to buy all my trapping supplies from him as a kid. In 1938 he bought V.E Wildcat Lynch’s formulas. Ed sold them from 1938 up until 1961. He sold me the formulas and that got me started, but I didn’t know anything about making lures. You really need to know the strength of the ingredients you’re putting together. Walt Arnold the legend who had been in the business since 1918 left the settled country and had a camp way up north. I wrote him a letter telling him what I had done, and I went up to see him. He put the question to me and asked if I wanted to buy his business. I had no idea I would buy his business, but I did, and bought all his formulas, and lure ingredients. He had a big notebook with all kinds of information in it. Even if you have formulas, you really don’t know what you’re doing until two or three years into it, you get the hang of it. I started making my own lures after that.
11. Tell us, how was Walter Arnold to work with? What influence if any did he have on the style of lures you make?
Well, he had a lot to do with it. I knew what he used for preservatives and for a base, and I used the same things he used. I experimented a bit. I looked at what he had and I would try something a little bit different. Every once in a while, you’d hit it. He had a lure called XXX. I added a few things to it, and it’s what I now call Allagash Fur Call. I call it that, because that’s the area that I trapped for years. Tough, cold, hard conditions. When you get a lure that can stand up to those types of conditions, you’ve really done something. It’s one of my best sellers.
12. What year did you write your first book?
I wrote the Lynch book back in 1980. My next two books were trapping books. One was on coon methods and the other on muskrat methods. I found that after I wrote the Lynch book, it appealed not just to trappers, but also to hunters and outdoorsmen in general. It was a great book and did very well.
13. I know you have several books; tell us a little bit about each of them.
The first book was on coon, and at the time, coon were bringing good money back then somewhere in the forty to forty-five-dollar range. I had hunted them with hounds for years and trapped them in large numbers. I sat down, outlined my chapters, and began writing. I did the same thing with the muskrat book. I wrote the fourth book on well-known trapper Pete Rickard. I covered his entire life and it also was a good book. The Lynch book was most captivating mainly due to his lifestyle. I lived and did many of the same things he did, and when you can do that, it makes the passion you put into a book that much stronger.
14. I know you have a wide range of lures and animal scents covering a wide variety of species. Is there one specific lure you are most proud of?
I would say the Allagash Fur Call but the Musky Musk Call lure for mink is really a good one. There are very few lures that will actually attract a mink, but they will come to this one!
18. Did you do a lot of trapper’s conventions?
I went all over the state for quite awhile. I made a lot of great friends.
19. I know your wife Edie is your partner in the business, tell us the secret to making a husband and wife business a success!
Well, we don’t say this is your job, or this is my job. Working together is the key. Many times, there are jobs we both can do, but one of us is busy, so the other one does it.
20. Tell us about your Maine trapline? How big is it, do you still do it, and when did you start it?
Of course, we had the business, so I had to be around to make the lures and do the advertising. I was glad my wife could just pick up on the business when I would go trapping. At one time we had six or seven people working for us. We had a mail order business and were sending catalogs all over the world. She was the general manager and ran the business. When I was longlining, I was using 250-300 traps. Location and habits are the keys to success in trapping. I was a great blind setter for mink, but I found that I wasted a lot of time looking for that perfect blind set. After I learned the habits of the mink, I started using bait and lures, and my mink catch went up. The more traps you have out, the more animals you’ll catch. Longlining takes dedication and hard work. Weather can never be a factor when you’re doing it. You have to go out no matter what. I always kept a log book of my sets, because when you have 250-300 sets, there’s just no way to remember all of them. Keep it simple, put in long hours, and put out a lot of traps. I did mainly water trapping, but when I went North, then I had a mixed bag line consisting of bobcat, fox, coyote, fisher, and marten. When I was beaver trapping, it was pretty thick country, so I couldn’t use a snowmobile. I used snowshoes. I trapped with Vincent Hincks and a game warden once told me, he was the most efficient trapper he’d ever seen. When you’re longlining, you can’t waste time and along the way, you find little tricks that really save you time.
21. What is your best year trapping as far as numbers go?
I think one year I took 58 marten and like before, I had no preparation. I went in cold, and just started trapping.
22. What is your best year hunting with hounds?
I never really had big numbers of animals with hounds because I was always trapping, but my biggest year was nine bobcats, and I’ve had years where I gotten 150 coon. It’s all about how much time you have. If you can only do it part time, you will never have really large numbers.
23. What is your favorite animal to trap?
If I had to pick one, it would be the mink. That animal is the one I decided that I really wanted to learn how to trap well. Back in the 40’s, mink were bringing thirty-five to forty dollars. I learned how to blind set mink from an old guy who was an expert blind setter. I learned how to blind set, and years later, I learned their habits, and started using bait and lures, and my catch went up.
24. I know you were president of the Maine Trappers Association, can you tell us about your time in that position?
I went into the Maine Trappers back in 1963. I took it over in 1964. When I went in, there were a hundred members I think, but only a handful of those members actually trapped. I retired after 14 years, and when I left, there were over 1200 members.
25. What year were you inducted into the Maine Trappers Hall of Fame?
September 6th, 1997, I’m also in the Trappers Hall Of Fame and this is nationwide. I was inducted back in 2016.
26. What does the future hold for Cronk’s Lures? Do you have any plans to retire?
Well, I’m 88 I suppose I should be thinking about it pretty soon. I’d rather not sell my lures if they were going to cheapen them. If they are going to cut ingredients to make them cheaper, I’m not going to do it. They are good lures, they are expensive to make, and I’m really proud of them.
27. Do you have one specific achievement that you are most proud of?
Well, two things actually, the first one is taking our state trappers association from a handful of real trappers to 1200 trappers fourteen years later is something to be proud of. Secondly being a member of the statewide organization called the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine or SAM for short. I know to of two times that if I hadn’t been there, the organization would have went under.
28. If you could pinpoint one thing that was responsible for your success in the outdoor world Oscar what would it be?
Well, I think being honest, telling it the way it is, and working hard. Our lures are responsible for a lot of our success. We are in stores like Cabela’s, and L.L. Bean. Our lures are everywhere!
29. What do you think the future of trapping and hound hunting hold for the next generation?
I think the future belongs to the hunters and the trappers. The future of guns is the NRA. If we didn’t have the NRA fight for us, we wouldn’t have the right to bare arms, and it shocks me at how many hunters and trappers are not members. I always tell people, “It’s a good thing a few of us belong to the NRA, because if we didn’t, you wouldn’t have your guns”.