Hunter or Hunted: The Trapline After Dark.

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Trapping is a full time obligation. In my state, each trap needs to be checked every calendar day, regardless of weather conditions or schedules. If you’re like me, and hold down a full time job on top of fur trapping, then I’m sure those times arise when traps simply cannot be checked during the short daylight hours winter presents. Am I afraid of the dark? Absolutely not, but there is a certain “lore” that comes with being in the wilderness at night. Trails, landmarks, and even time itself all seem to be drastically different once the sun goes down. This is especially true during the winter months when the night air is so calm and crisp that you could hear a pin drop from miles away. How you handle yourself, both with your bearings, and what is presented to you, can play a role in even the most basic survival situations when you’re on the trap line after sunset.

I recall one instance where I was followed by a small pack of coyotes while returning from the last trap set on my line. Every step I took further into the brush was met with another close pass-by from the curious canines. With every twig snap or brush stir within the low growing saplings around me, I would reply back with a shine of the flashlight, only to be met with a small dimly lit circle of dense forest. It was almost as if they were toying with me, testing how far they could push the boundaries. This was before I started carrying a firearm with me, and I was armed with nothing but an axe handle to return any kind of attempted attack. I can’t say I was “fearing for my life”, but certainly a little on edge as to the boldness of something that supposedly has a strong fear and distrust of man. Situations become more unpredictable when you can’t see what’s moving around you. I was, however, somewhat comforted by the fact that the actual chances of some kind of attack from coyotes around here was slim to none. What had me most bewildered was the fact that, despite making it clear that I was human, both through smell and sound, those dogs followed in close proximity for a good mile and a half back to the truck. It’s almost as if they were bolder knowing I had the disadvantage via lack of night vision. Obviously this type of behavior would be more common at night, as nocturnal creatures are hunting and foraging under the cover of darkness.

Then there are the physical aspects - wading through four feet of swamp muck becomes ten times more difficult when that dull headlamp only illuminates four feet or so in front of you. The worst for me is always those darn beavers slapping tails in the pitch black; they seem to get a small sliver of revenge when they whack those tails six feet away and send me sky-high, waders and all! If you’ve never heard the beaver’s warning tail slap, it’s equivalent to a large person slapping a canoe paddle as hard as possible on the water’s surface. Now picture that happening in close proximity, miles from the nearest speck of human sign, and not seeing it coming. For that first second and a half, it makes you find your religion right quick - or at least a change of underwear. I have since upgraded to a high quality flashlight for night trapping; something with a nice wide beam, “three thousand-something” lumens – boy what a difference. The headlamp is still utilized for remaking sets. There aren’t many things more frustrating than using both hands while trying to re-set a 330 beaver trap with a flashlight cranked between your neck and shoulder. I have to laugh to myself some nights and wonder “how in the world did the trapper’s of the 19th century do it all by lantern or torch?” - up hill, both ways, over broken glass and hot coals.

Seasons offer different experiences for night trapping as well. During the fall, dead leaves and stiff brush make every small sound around you amplified; a possum sounds like Sasquatch! Once mid-winter sets in, the light of the moon reflecting off of undisturbed snow actually gives my flashlight a rest, as I can see a quarter mile or more in clear timber even with the smallest of moon phases. I think a lot of it has to do with our perception; there are no birds, traffic, insects, or other background noises to break up the sheer silence on a December evening.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who prefer nightly jaunts in the backcountry. I’m impartial to it myself; it’s certainly not desired, its more time consuming, and I feel that I increase my chances of spooking off potential catches while approaching set traps. For me it’s an experience based out of necessity, although I will admit I feel much more in tune with my surroundings in the dark. I remember when I used to night hunt coyotes with a buddy of mine. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more in-tune with nature as when you are dead set on calling in predators at night. I feel my train of thought is more heavily focused on the “end result” when I don’t have all kinds of extra visual stimuli cross wiring my immediate intensions. For the purpose of trapping however, it simply comes with the territory.