Conibear trap

Conibear trap, locked.

Submitted photo

I will start this article by acknowledging that for every person that does not like hunting and hunters, there are probably two to three times that many people who dislike trapping animals just for their furs. I understand that, but I hope you read this piece with an open mind and, hopefully, learn something you did not know before reading it.

I also understand in this day and age of being able to order anything online made of man-made materials, say a pair of gloves or a warm hat, that trapping animals for fur seems a bit unnecessary, some would say downright cruel. Again, please have an open mind about this subject.

As a career natural resource specialist doing live educational programs for 30 years to every conceivable group of individuals, I always asked folks to just listen to my presentations and form their own opinions. These are my opinions based on my experiences, I just happen to have a forum (this column) for stating them.

First off, I grew up a trapper. My granddad, father, and my brother Bill were my mentors and sometimes partners in these endeavors. We trapped for several reasons, the main one being we needed the money to live, but there were several other motivations that still drive the last of the few souls who trap animals. Reasons like damage to crops and trees (called nuisance trapping today), predation of desirable species of wildlife by furbearers, and a need to maintain a balance in the web of natural life we were part of daily.

I cut my “trapping” teeth on muskrats. My granddad happened to own a vast slough in his bottomland that was precarious on a good day, balancing between flooding his crops and pastures and drying up in droughts putting wildlife in peril. The muskrats were main players in this drama. Too many of them and they would eat the place out of food, dig into levees and unintentionally drain the sloughs. Too few of them and the cattails and water plants would take over and choke out the oxygen and therefore the fish and other species dependent on the slough for life would suffer.

We also trapped mink, raccoon, beaver, and the occasional fox or coyote. My preference for any trap was called a Conibear trap or a body-gripping trap. These traps are like a large mouse trap all made of steel designed to dispatch the animal almost immediately as it moved through the trap. Particularly effective for water sets for muskrat, mink and beaver. They are hard to set, come in several sizes (we used a 110 for muskrats and mink and a 220 for beaver). The 220 was meant to catch and dispatch beaver weighing up to 40 pounds, so it was formidable in trying to set and place without breaking your arm in the process. Foot-hold or “jump” traps are smooth-jawed spring loaded traps meant for grasping a foot or leg of an animal, allowing you to release any accidental animals trapped like a barn cat or the neighbor's dog, or even a raptor or bird of prey like a red-tail hawk.

Back in the day in Wisconsin, we could use exposed bait to lure specific animals to our traps -- usually meat or frogs or canned meat products. That practice is no longer in use, and baits can only be scents or used in a manner as to not attract anything other than intended quarry.

The trapping season was short. We set traps, checked them daily as required by law, gathered our quarry, skinned and stretched them on special stretchers and did most of this before and after a day of school, sports practice, work, and other commitments. It was little sleep and hard work. We hopefully sold the pelts when the market price was right. In the early 1980s, in a good year, I could make more than $1,000 (after expenses like gas, bait, a few new traps, chest waders) in a couple of weeks. It would take me all summer sometimes to make that kind of money from a single job.

Many people who lived in our area trapped to augment their salaries; there was a demand for fur and available land and water to trap. Then, the market for furs went south, or actually east, to be specific. Europeans who ended up buying many of our furs began farming their own animals for pelts. Man-made materials were developed to rival natural furs' warmth and looks, and down went the trade. Like many endeavors, take away the incentive and folks start to drop out of the practice. Hard to justify all that work and expense for a couple of bucks when all is said and done. Most trapping seasons in the Midwest states begin around the first of November -- still a ways off.

So, is that the end of the story? There are no more trappers and muskrats, beaver, raccoons and the like have no reason to worry?  Negative, there is plenty more to the story. You see, Newton’s theory that every action has an opposite reaction (paraphrasing here) also applies to our habitat or web of natural and man-made life, especially the web of life. It is those reactionary events or apparent results from the lack of trappers seeking these furbearers that I will try to explain from my perspective in my next article as part two of this story.

Until then, get out and enjoy nature whether you hunt, fish, bird watch, seek colorful fall foliage or take photos. Mother Nature is about to put on a spectacular fall show.