By Craig Davidson
The excitement in their voices rang out, and told the tale before I caught up with them. My two younger kids had run ahead to check a bucket we had set at the base of a large tree. It was a very cold morning, as is often the case in December, here in Utah. The bucket guarded by a 220 body grip trap, held a very large boar raccoon. This was one of several, as well as muskrat, and fox we caught during the Christmas school break. Over the years, my children and I have had many exciting experiences trapping, and look forward to the season with the same excitement and planning, most deer or waterfowl hunters give to there sport. When checking sets, the anticipation of what may be caught is similar to opening gifts on Christmas morning, with rewards contributing to the bank account.
Unfortunately, many young kids are left behind during the fall hunting season, their only involvement is listening to stories told by parents or older siblings. These kids, dream of the day when they will be old enough to hold a license and join the hunt. Unfortunately in some cases, by the time these eager boys and girls, are of legal age, they have found other things to fulfill there interest. Trapping can be a family event with no age barriers. In fact, I took up trapping solely to give my kids the opportunity to learn from the outdoors. Few children these days have the opportunity to learn the outdoors by doing. Trapping, gives kids the opportunity to grow and build confidence, by meeting the challenges provided by many hours spent running a trapline. Only by doing, does someone understand the repercussions, or rewards of decisions, such as carelessly crossing a stream only to become soaking wet when falling in, or failing to dress properly when the temperatures are well below freezing. Fortunately, when trapping most species, the safety of a warm vehicle, and a thermos full of hot chocolate are usually only a short distance away.
For many sportsman today, trapping has fallen out of favor, an unfortunate victim of modern society and fashion driven markets. In fact, I am constantly surprised by how little hunters and fisherman know about trapping. We all know the Hollywood version of the mountain man. Robert Redford, plays Jeremiah Johnson, a civilized man wet behind the ears, who quickly learns to survive off of the land and make a living trapping the bounties of the West. Men like Jeremiah Johnson, Jedediah Smith, John Colter, William Ashley, Kit Carson, and many others, made the film makers job easy, as there lives were every bit as exciting as the movies. Yet trapping’s roots go much further back. Since the beginning of mankind, we have used animal skins to protect ourselves from the elements. Trapping in North America, sculpted the early history of the United states, and Canada. Had trapping not taken place, one could argue, much would be different including borders, and nationalities.
Fur became a means of trade between the first European settlers in eastern Canada and the local Indians during the early 1500’s. The settlers traded tools and weapons for furs, and shipped them to Europe. Thus the first real commodity exported from North America. By the late 1500’s a great demand for North American furs had developed, as some suggest, gold came in the form fur, triggering exploration of the land and claims of territory. In the early 1600’s, demand for Beaver grew to provide for the fashionable hats of English gentleman. Capitalizing on the opportunity, French explorer, Samuel de Champlain established a trading post in what is now known as Quebec. The French trading territory extended West, along the St. Lawrence river to the great lakes, North into Canada, and South along the Mississippi River. During the same time period, English settlers established trade routs along the east coast, extending from Maine, all of New England, and South into Georgia.
With these riches being shipped back to Europe, it did not take long for large European companies to establish themselves. Most notably the Hudson Bay Company, established in 1670. The Hudson Bay Co. was granted by the English government, sole trading rights in what is now the Hudson Bay Region. With such riches to be had, competition between the French and English traders was bitter, eventually becoming a major factor in the French and Indian war. England’s victory in 1763, England became the dominate power in the fur trade.
The Hudson Bay Co. Was the prominent trader at this time, yet other companies emerged in attempt to compete. Increased competition, and population growth (habitat loss), necessitated further exploration west. The Hudson Bay Co. and the North West Company, being the two main figures to establish trade routes. In 1793, Alexander Mackenzie, was the first to cross the continent, establishing a Hudson Bay post at Fort Vancouver (Washington). Shortly thereafter, Russia established the Russian-American Company in what is now Alaska.
As the exploration west continued, no longer could the trading companies rely on Indians to provide pelts. The western Indians did not trap. Alas, the mountain man. In alliance with the various trading companies, the mountain man set out, traps in hand, and pioneered the western part of north America. To facilitate these men, William Ashley began holding annual gatherings, rendezvous, where furs were sold and supplies could be bought.
By 1830 the demand for Beaver, and thus the prices, sharply dropped, due to the European trends favoring silk. By 1870, due to habitat loss, over harvest and demand, the golden age of trapping had ended it’s more than 300 year run.
Due to conservation efforts led by sportsmen throughout North America, fur bearing animals meet or exceed carrying capacity. Also in our part of the country, most big game hunting is finished by the time the trapping is getting good. For an investment of less than $100.00, much less if you are resourceful, a person can be well on their way to a successful season trapping, expecting to recover all, if not more than there initial investment. If you are considering trying trapping, here are some things I suggest. First, contact your state trappers association. You will find a group of dedicated people who can help you get started. Next, check you regulations, know your seasons, and don’t assume because something is in a store it is legal to use in your state. If you plan on involving children, and I hope you do, start small, and keep it fun. Children have shorter attention spans, are are not as willing to tough it out, like an adult. I like to drive to an area and set no further than one hundred yards from the truck. Remember, keep it fun, trapping will be enough work as it is. Also, let the kids participate in the skinning and fur prep. I can’t think of a better time to teach safety, and knife handling skills, than one on one in the garage skinning a muskrat or fox.
Each fall when the days get shorter, and the leaves fall from the trees, you will find the modern trapper in the hills, lakes, and streams, looking to find gold in the form of wild fur. While he or she won’t get rich, they will still have the same sense of adventure, and feeling of accomplishment, that only comes from challenge, and hard work, as the early Mountain man.