Trapping wild animals for their furs probably goes back to the dawn of time.
The Old Testament refers to trapping in Judges in 15:4, where Samson caught 300 foxes. And in Song of Solomon, a woman urges her man to “catch for us the foxes.” She probably wanted a fur coat.
There seems to be something hard-wired to make us want to trap animals. That applies to boys, anyway.
I was around 9 or 10 when I learned to set a homemade box trap. I propped one end of a large cardboard box on a forked stick and tied a piece of carrot to the stick with a string. I placed the carrot under the box so when a rabbit nibbled it, it would yank the stick out and the box would drop, capturing the rabbit.
It worked! Once, anyway. I never moved the trap out of the back yard, so I guess it wised up the local rabbits.
Later, when I was a teenager, a friend and I went camping, planning to set the kind of traps you see in an old-timey woodcraft manual, like a rabbit snare tied to a bent sapling. We not only didn’t catch anything, we almost froze to death, and starved too.
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It was only in the late 1970s that I learned the proper ways to trap. For a year or two I ran a trapline in Amite County. I never was much good at it, but I sure learned a lot.
Trapping was controversial back then, and no doubt still is. Not only animal rights folks opposed it, but so did fox hunters, who didn’t like trappers catching their prey and were concerned about their hounds stepping in traps.
I only caught one dog — Vanessa, my beloved Shetland sheep dog — and that was because I made my set too close to the house. I unfastened her foot and she crept away with nothing hurt but her feelings.
The only other domestic animal I caught was a feral house cat. I threw my wool coat over it, which calmed it down, then released its paw. When I pulled the coat off and stepped back, the cat headed for the hills, uninjured.
I didn’t put a dent in the fox population, either, as I targeted mainly raccoons, catching only an occasional fox, beaver, mink or possum.
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There were three basic trap styles: foot-hold, body traps and snares.
Foot traps came in single-spring, double-spring and coil-spring. Sizes ranged from No. 1, the smallest, to No. 4, big enough for beaver.
I started out with single-spring traps but discovered animals could pull their foot out the opposite end from the spring, so I switched to double-spring. Later I got coil-spring, which were more compact since the springs were under the trap rather than out to the side.
Rubber-jawed traps became popular later as a way of preventing injury, which was more humane and also made sure non-target animals weren’t hurt.
A body trap consisted of a square metal frame with a trigger in the middle so when an animal passed through it, it clamped shut, breaking its back. Those traps were bulky and expensive.
Wire snares drew tight around the neck when an animal walked through, but getting an animal to walk through a snare is harder than getting it to put its foot on a trap pan.
I did catch a beaver in a snare one time, and also a human. I had set the snare by a beaver dam and my friend and neighbor Randy Toler happened to walk by, entangling his foot in the snare. Fortunately he was good-natured about it.
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Fur trappers have territories, as I discovered when working a creek in the Homochitto National Forest and I came upon somebody else’s trap.
Shortly thereafter I ran into the owner and we struck up a conversation. I offered to move my traps, but he said he was already through in that area and graciously told me to have at it.
That was the late Gary Decker of Gloster. He was a true woodsman with a long beard and an intimate knowledge of the national forest. He not only trapped foxes, he raised them live.
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Sometimes I took my son Andy along with me on the trapline. He learned, as did I, that running a trapline means getting out every morning, no matter the weather, no matter how you feel.
I tried to set a good example. One time I was crossing a log over a creek when I fell in. I knew he’d be watching me closely when I came up, so I emerged laughing rather than cussing.
Being out in the woods every morning, day in and day out, teaches you a lot about nature. Trappers learn animal tracks and habits. They have to if they want to catch anything.
I dyed my traps in hot water with wood chips but didn’t go so far as to wax them like some do. I carried them in a pack basket and wore rubber boots and gloves to help hide my scent.
I used a .22 pistol to dispatch my catch — something I never got used to, being tender-hearted.
I had a cabin I used for a skinning shed. Trappers are particular about their knives. I preferred a Schrade Old-Timer finger knife.
You skin most furbearers by hanging from them one foot, ringing the ankles, making a cut from heel to heel, and pulling the hide off like a shirt. You then turn it inside out, scrape off any fat or flesh, and either freeze it in a plastic bag or stretch and dry it over a frame to sell later.
Beavers are the exception. Every inch of the hide has to be cut away from the skin, a job that can take a solid hour.
An elderly neighbor, the late Bunyan Duck, used to bring me beavers he trapped. He cut off the tail for the state bounty and gave me the rest.
I ate the meat, which isn’t all that different from deer. I also ate coons, but I learned to cut the “kernel,” or scent gland, out of every joint, or the meat would taste gamey. I sold extra coon meat to people who liked it. The custom was to leave one foot on so the buyer could be sure it wasn’t, say, a cat.
I ate possum once and that was enough. Same with nutria rat. Animals like fox, mink, bobcat and otter always seemed too musky to eat.
Eventually I quit trapping as I got too involved with other work, such as the Enterprise-Journal.
The market changed, and live foxes and coyotes became more valuable alive than dead. Local expert trappers like Sam Miller and David Turnage would catch them alive and sell to fox hunters, who kept them on fenced property to let their hounds chase.