A Beaver Killed in a Snare

Subsistence Trapping, or the Art of Making Up Your Own Mind

Who Makes Up Your Mind?

As we mature and increase our self-awareness, we can realize that much of what we believe was once what someone else believed, fed to us with the spoon of trust, whether intentionally, inadvertently, or even maliciously.

When I was young, my mother made sure I thought of trapping as barbaric, cruel, and unnecessary while we happily ate meat at almost every meal. For many years, I blindly went with that point of view, even espousing it to others. Once I started hunting, the role that trapping could play in resource acquisition became more obvious, and I began to question my longstanding beliefs.

As a child, I spent much of my time in the woods of upstate New York. I somehow came to have a copy of Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, and I wore that book out. I built dozens of survival shelters, tools, and traps, squirreling away knowledge in case I ever needed it. I considered trapping a last-ditch effort not to die of starvation, though. What I didn’t know at the time is that New York was, and still is, one of the great states for trapping, and that trapping was an important part of my heritage as well as a legitimate method for securing dinner! Opportunity missed due to closed mind. Again.

From the NYS Dept. of Conservation Website:

Trappers in New York have a long and proud heritage. After all, New York State was explored and settled largely due to the fur trade. New York State has an abundance of furbearing animals whose populations are thriving and secure. For nearly ten thousand New Yorkers, trapping remains a vitally important activity, affecting both their lifestyle and livelihood.

Without getting political, trapping was a powerful influence on the westward exploration of North America by Europeans. Without a resource to chase, not much got done back then, just like today. Like most everything, though, it was taken too far. The North American beaver was nearly extirpated from the entire continent at one time. That Wikipedia page, by the way, details some very interesting history of North American settlement.

A Beaver Killed in a Snare

A Snared Beaver Provides Me With Fur, Meat, and Lure to Use in Trapping

Time Is Not on Your Side

Time, especially in a survival situation, is precious. You need it for building a shelter, finding and purifying water, and gathering wood for your fire. Or, maybe to build a strong relationship with your spouse and children.

You also need it for finding food. Food becomes energy, and energy is critical. Without calories, especially in colder climes and times, you will be unable to make use of your time to complete the other tasks required to keep you alive. If he was still with us, you could ask Christopher McCandless, who grew too weak to find or even digest food and died in the Alaskan bush.

A hunter might sit all day waiting for game to come by, for just a chance to take a shot. Even if game does come by, he might miss, or, worse yet, wound an animal and have it run off. A fisherman might spend all day and not get a bite, or get plenty of bites but be unable to land a single fish.

These activities require time and energy that can’t be reclaimed. It’s a bet, and if the result is failure, you could lose everything. Hunting and fishing are single-point-of-failure (SPOF) scenarios. I am not a fan of that exclusive approach. Trapping, by virtue of setting many traps, allows for strong redundancy, the best way to improve the robustness of a system plagued with SPOF problems.

A Dozen Snares Coiled Together

A Dozen Heavy-Duty Snares Will Fit Easily in a Survival Pack

Hedging Your Bets

From a subsistence point of view, trapping can provide the highest ROI of any year-round food-gathering endeavor in temperate climates. If you happen to be stranded on a tropical island, you might do better picking fruit or coconuts, at least until you need protein.

Trapping is a way to amplify the effect of your time and energy. Like dozens of hunters as patient as the bedrock, traps will wait. Traps can harvest game for you any time of day or night. When well-placed and expertly set, the right kind of trap delivers a quick, humane death to your quarry, food to your plate, and much more. Traps can be commercially manufactured or made from naturally available materials.

The Fur Industry

I considered titling this section, “How to Take Advantage of People and Animals,” but thought that might make my opinion too obvious. I guess I did it anyway, because it needed to be done.

From time to time, I place an ad on Craigslist for nuisance wildlife control services. Basically, I trade access to property that I can trap for the service of removing the animals that are giving people trouble. Sometimes, landowners get my name from someone I’ve worked with or even place an ad themselves looking for someone to help remove a problem animal or animals. Beavers flood fields, orchards, homes, and driveways. Coyotes eat pets and livestock. You get the idea.

Almost without exception, everyone wants to trade “the value of the fur” for my time, energy, fuel, and expertise. This tells how poorly educated and/or unaware of reality the public is about trapping. The screenshot below from Trapping Today summer 2016 fur price update should set the record straight.

The Truth About Fur Prices

The Value of Fur Must Be Found Somewhere Besides in the Dollars

Keep in mind that we are not talking about “whole round” critters here, or even “green” or “raw” furs, but large, prime, “put up” pelts of high quality without significant flaws. The amount of time, money, equipment, and knowledge that goes into producing a fur for which you can “command” $8 is ridiculous. I won’t go into it all here, but suffice it to say nobody I know of is coming close to breaking even selling to the fur market.

Commercial Trapping Equipment

I’m probably going to get a bunch of shit for this comment, but it’s my website and you don’t have to like it. Trappers are fools. Despite receiving prices far below production cost for the furs they sell, they continue to serve the fur industry hand and foot. They seem to think that the solution is to TRAP MORE FUR rather than withhold inventory until a reasonable price is offered.

What was once a flourishing industry that supported trappers with reasonable prices for fur has become a predator. In turn, trap and equipment makers have become an industry that plays on the idea that trappers need more equipment, so the market can be more flooded and the price of fur can be further degraded, increasing profit margins for fur dealers.

The trapper is paying (and getting played by) both sides to ply his trade (or hobby, as the “costs money to participate” model is often called.)

A Few Dozen Conibears

Body-Gripping Traps Kill Almost Instantly, are Compact, and Reusable

Quit Your Bitching, Winslow

You might be thinking to yourself, “Winslow, you need to stop complaining and get out of this time and money suck if it’s as bad as you say.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I’m going to share how I’ve done that right now.

I trap things we can eat.

There are plenty of trappers who are solely interested in the products that can be sold. The poor fur market has forced trappers to become very resourceful in order to afford the activity. Skulls, scent glands, claws, even bones and urine can be sold if you know where to find the market. I, on the other hand, simply choose to trap what I can use myself.

So far, we’ve eaten beaver, muskrat, possum, and raccoon. We aren’t alone, either. While it isn’t common fare, I know others (mostly through trapping forums) who eat them, too. Also on the list to be tried: bobcat, cougar, porcupine, coyote, and fox. Note that you can’t trap cougars in Idaho, but if you spend enough time in the woods trapping and hunting other beasts, I am assured you will come across one.

The animals we’ve eaten also contributed fur that I will tan when we have enough to do one large, efficient batch. I’m not too concerned with maximizing “profit” but will most likely sell the valuable parts when I get enough of them. No reason to waste anything.

I Don’t Want to Eat Raccoons

I hear you, and I’m not advocating that you start trapping or anything else. I am, in fact doing just the opposite. I’m asking how you came to think how you think and do what you do, and if that’s all serving you well.

So, is it?

A Day on the Trapline

Trapping is a grind. I heard a guy say once that, “trapping is the art of learning to manage disappointment.” I think he nailed it.

So much can happen out there. Simplistically, it’s go look in your traps and see if you caught anything. Realistically, there is catch/no catch, trap theft, bycatch/non-target catch, danger, resource expenditure, (often) discomfort, the joy of being outside and (usually) alone, the elation of success when it wasn’t luck, and on and on.

Friday I had an…interesting day on the trapline. I had decided that it was the day to pull the line and take the weekend off for once. The line had not been productive, and I felt like I needed a reset. Here’s what happened.

First spot – my first double of the year. A couple of baby possums who ignored their mother’s warnings. It was fun to chat with them. They were pretty excited to get out of those cages and find a warm, dry spot after spending a cold night out in the rain.

Some people kill all the possums they come across, as they do damage to ground-nesting bird populations. This is on a cattle ranch, though, so we are already talking far-from-natural ecologically, and these two will probably end up coyote food anyhow. Not my job to figure that out. I’m working on the coyotes there. I know, coyotes won’t go in cages, but legally I have to try before I can use more effective measures.

IMAG3017 IMAG3019

Then, I moved to my next spot and went out to retrieve my two bobcat sets, only one of which was still there. :/ Yes, some low-life piece of shit STOLE my trap. It was cabled to a tree, so I know it didn’t blow away or get carried off by a bear or cougar. This was the low point of the day.

It’s somehow more hurtful than the $125 that the trap cost. It’s hurtful because I want people, especially hunters (it’s late archery deer season right now) to be better than that. You know what they say, though – not all bowhunters are felons, but all felon hunters use a bow. So there you go. I might entertain myself by setting up a little sting operation later in the season.

Finally, the high point of the day – paydirt. I had wired two 12X12X48 double door traps under water just below a major crossover. Per my mentor’s advice, I blocked the channel off well with natural materials to funnel beavers to the opening of the traps under water. Well, after only two nights in the water, I got a double!

I was only able to hold one of them, but it was a 45-pound male with thick, prime fur. I think the other was either a small beaver or an otter, as he did some damage to both ends of the trap, including ripping a hole in it big enough to escape in less time than it took him to drown.


The one that didn’t get away.

The other pic didn't do the size of this guy justice - here's his foot next to my hands for scale.

The other pic didn’t do the size of this guy justice – here’s his foot next to my hands for scale.

Mr. Beaver Ready to Go Into the Sauce Piquante

Mr. Beaver Ready to Go Into the Sauce Piquante

The One That Did Get Away

The One That Did Get Away

So, there you have it. Ups and downs and some entertaining in-betweens. That’s life on the trapline. Early Monday I’ll be out setting my line that will run for the next two weeks. The focus will be on bobcat sets way off the road (too far for lazy thieves to haul traps!) and dirt hole sets for coyotes.