Quality Over Quantity
Well here we are; one full month deep into another fur trapping season here in New Hampshire. I would be kidding myself if I said it hasn’t been a slower season to what I’m used to. I ended up getting a curiosity fever this past summer, and that quest for new experimentation has played a big role in the fall season numbers. Over a decade ago, when I first started seriously toying with the idea of running a trapline, I knew nothing, and frankly, didn’t have anyone around (that I knew) who was really willing to teach me. For these reasons, long-line distinguished trappers weren’t as eager to share their secrets and trapping locations with newbies like some of us are now. I pretty much learned how to trap like most “old school” trappers did – trial, error, and experimentation. As a result, I had fur trapping seasons that amounted to just a handful of quality pelts, and other seasons that amounted to a stray coon, possum or two. As the seasons progressed, I began to hone skills, and had the opportunity to listen to those around me who were willing to share information; the end result was years of stacking the fur much higher!
Flash-forward to this season and I was left with a little void in my spirit. I spent the entire off-season conjuring “what if” thoughts in my head. Different trap placement, different location, closer to the bank or closer to the middle of a water channel, different bait, different presentations; these thoughts kept me lying awake at night wondering if I simply changed one variable, would it mean the difference between success or empty traps? I have the obvious and successful locations down to a science on my trapline, and it was high time to shake things up and see if trying something different would increase success rates, and present me with knowledge and understanding to bring to a new location in future seasons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful for the vast properties I’ve inherited from control work and other trappers who’ve moved on; but I find myself making the same sets, in the same locations year after year as a “safety net” so to speak. It was high time to break out of my comfort zone and try some new trial and error.
So I decided early on that I wanted to expand my understanding of the animals I trapped. I wanted to dive deeper into completely understanding their individual movements, habits, traits, and rationale. Basically, I wanted to take this season to play psychologist. Add to the fact that I know my entire trapline by now like the back of my hand, and one particular portion of my ‘line is very fruitful with furbearer populations; you have a recipe for a logical scientific “case study” in trapping. It didn’t matter to me how successful my catch rate was this year, it didn’t matter how many furbearers I “missed” by not placing traps in the obvious locations, because I was gaining something much more useful for future seasons – education and better understanding on individual habits and characteristics.
I decided to focus my experiments on the primary furbearers in my territory; Otter, Muskrat, Beaver, and Mink. I was in the green for the season by the time the first trap was checked after opening day. I have an old beaver dam that lies along one of my territories, and it has always been a “honey hole” for traveling otter. I typically catch a few otter per season in the same location here annually, some years its more, rarely is it less. Despite the urge to set the same locations again, I arranged the traps in more “unknown” areas. Otter are notorious for hugging banks in search of crawfish and frogs, not to mention the appeal of being able to fluctuate between land and water. I set either side of the banks with “Bottom Edge Sets” (traditionally reserved for muskrat and mink). Bob Noonan (a skilled and well known trapper from Maine) brought up the idea of bottom edge sets being used for otter and beaver, based on the same principles applied for mink and muskrat; but would it work? Was it true? Or was it just a theory that paid off with some “lucky catches”. When thinking about a river otter’s traits and characteristics, it makes perfect sense. So, my “version” of Bottom Edge Sets were installed on the winding sides and curves of the river banks, with 330’s secured vertically to out-growing tree trunks serving as points along the under-cut bank. I also placed two traps in small runs believed to be running down the centers of the river channel. I chose areas downstream from the obvious beaver cross-overs in an attempt to see which direction the otters would choose AFTER crossing over the dam; because let’s face it, there will always be those situations where a primary dam crossing or obvious travel channel do not present themselves; and if I could get a better understanding of the habits, I could be that much more prepared for when these situations arise in the future. It was a “two roads diverged in a yellow woods” kind of situation, and now it was time to figure out which one was more traveled.
Four Otter caught in two traps by the end of day two checking the trapline – a new “speed” record for me trapping (but who’s keeping count really?). What was most interesting was which traps did the catching – the traps that hugged the banks paid off with three, while the center “channel” trap caught one. The following day, the center trap snagged a large muskrat – another educating surprise as I always had “bottom edge” tunnel vision when it came to rat trapping. The traps would remain empty for a couple weeks, and I began to get antsy as there was no other fresh sign from any furbearers presenting themselves in this stretch of the river system. I held my ground, and refrained from setting the obvious areas where I expected beaver and otter to cross. After a two week hiatus, like clockwork, the traps began to catch fur on an almost daily basis – the first large beaver was trapped in the “bottom edge” traps, followed by two more also trapped in the same location. A few more beaver (including one yearling) were snagged in the “center stream” sets shortly thereafter.
So what does it all mean? Bottom line, based on my observations and experiences, if you’re going to set that prime “sweet” location where the obvious trails in the water are running, it doesn’t hurt to hug those banks a little further downstream for those beaver and otter who may not follow the perceived “well-traveled” trail.
During the slow hiatus on my lower valley trapline. I decided to set a string of traps along a chain of beaver ponds up in the mountains. This chain of ponds within a flooded brook was my go-to location deep in the New Hampshire wilderness for a few years now, and has never failed to produce quality fur. I was rather surprised to arrive on location after a brief hike to find the chain of ponds seemingly abandoned. The beaver lodges had no fresh chew sticks, the dams were decrepit, dry and unmaintained, and there wasn’t a scrap of fresh feeding or castor mounds anywhere along the water system. I began to question whether or not all the beaver here had moved on or were chased out. I trap a different section of the chain every season – with multiple colonies at each chain, I knew over-trapping was not to blame. While the poplar and willow were thinned out, they were certainly not depleted to the point I would expect a “move out” would be needed on the part of the resident beaver colonies.
Nonetheless I was going crazy, and was concerned my lower valley trapline wasn’t going to produce any beaver. I rely heavily on beaver each season for not only the fur and castor gland values, but for meat for hearty winter stews and tail leather for other crafted goods. Not knowing what to expect, I set some of the obvious spillways and water channels in hopes of catching a traveling otter or bachelor beaver. I told myself I would only set two traps, and retrieve them the next day to move on whether I had caught something or not. The next morning’s trap checks certainly educated me once again, with two hefty adult beavers caught in each trap. My impression is that they may have just been bad housekeepers, and perhaps the recent droughts the area has seen were responsible for the lax maintenance to the dams. I hauled those swamp beasts down off the ridge and returned to my lower valley trapline where several more beaver would await me in the coming weeks of the fall trapping season.
Now, as December creeps in, I look forward to the slower pace of the winter trapping months. Fisher, weasel, raccoon, and other land-based furbearers now become the focus. December has rolled in with fluctuating temperatures, and I rarely have good success during “warmer” “snow-free” Decembers. Of course winter in New Hampshire can change in an instant, with 40 degree sunny, dry days quickly turning to 5 degree snow squalls with freezing rain; we’ll see what the winter trapline in the mountains has in store for this curious trapper. Stay safe out there brothers and sisters.