Volume VI, No. 2, Winter 1978
Article and photographs by Doug Sharp
Fur trapping has always played a major role in American history. Beaver trappers were the first white men in many areas of the American west and the first settlements were frequently trading posts where trappers traded their furs for goods. Some of these trading posts, such as St. Louis, became today's major industrial cities. St. Louis depended on trappers from the Rockies and the Far West, but trapping in the Ozarks was a major source of income for many early settlers. Still today, there are men who supplement their income by trapping the rivers of the Ozarks.
John Earl Kays is what could be called the modern day trapper. He is a cattle farmer, putting up his hay in the summer and trapping in the winter. "I started trapping just as a kid six or eight years old down below where my dad and I fed hogs. My dad didn't trap. I learned most of it from my uncle, Hadley Murrell, who has trapped all of his life. I trapped for four or five years and just kept spreading out, getting a little bigger and bigger and finally went to the river. I started trapping heavy about fifteen years ago. Up till then I set fifteen to twenty traps a year, and just walked the bank."
John Earl's trapping technique has evolved from walking the bank to what he now calls river trapping. He floats by johnboat on different rivers throughout the Ozarks. The float's lengths range from about eight to ten miles each. He always asks the permission of the landowners of the section of river he intends to trap before beginning the float. Starting in the morning at about eight o'clock, after doing his chores, he and his trapping partner, Keith Lundh, also a farmer, usually take out of the river before dark that night. John Earl and his wife, Barbara, in one truck and Keith in his, drive to their take-out point. Leaving one truck there, they drive the other, with the johnboat in the back, to where they are to put in. All the equipment--paddles, traps, electric trolling motor and battery, wire, two sets of dry clothes in waterproof cases, trapping bail, and a .22 rifle--are loaded in the boat. After John and Keith are in the river and on their way, Barbara drives the truck back to the house.
John said, "On that ten miles I usually set about seventy to a hundred traps, depending on what kind of game is on the float. If there are lots of rats we use more traps. The traps I use vary a lot according to what I'm trapping for and the condition of the water. If it's clear, I use a lot of conibears, and if it's muddy, I definitely have to stay with steel traps. I usually leave the traps set six nights if the game is pretty heavy, I figure I can get seventy-five percent of the game in six nights. Then I don't trap that section again for two years. I let it rest a year."
John Earl traps many rivers near his home, but the major three are the Gasconade, Osage Fork and Niangua. He prefers smaller rivers. "Smaller rivers probably don't have more game, but I like a smaller river because I can switch from one side to the other so much quicker. Also, a big river like the Missouri, if it gets up it will be up the whole trapping season. You don't have as much vary and fall on a small river. And they are clearer, you can see sign better."
In John Earl's thirty some years of trapping his largest catch for one day was twenty-seven coons, four mink, twenty rats and seven beaver. The highest percentage he has had was on the Osage Fork River when he caught twenty-two coons, one mink, one rat and one beaver out of twenty-seven traps set.
On the first day of trapping a section of river he sets the traps. For coon and mink sets he and Keith maneuver their boat along the banks looking for tracks in the edge of the water. "Mink is the only animal I set for as an individual animal. The rest I set wherever there are tracks. When I see a mink track I might have to go a mile down stream before I find a place to make a set. After I catch him, I pull up traps and go on. Mink are really unpredictable. I have always heard that you'll never catch a mink with his toe cut off because they're so high strung that they will just keep picking at it until they kill themselves. I had a mink set right below Lambeth bridge. One morning I had caught a mink but he had cut his toe off. I went on and didn't think no more of it. Then about three miles down river to the Fall-in-bluff Eddy, I caught a mink. I pulled it out of the water and the first thing I noticed was that he had a toe gone and it was still bleeding. Mink are very nervous. If they get scared from a thunder storm or a jet, the females will bite the young ones and kill them. If you walk up to where the female has them, she'll get excited and kill them.
"Male mink really roam a lot. A male mink might roam twenty miles a night. A female won't go over two or three miles either way. Very seldom do male mink go to the river, not until the creeks and branches of the river freeze up and then the rivers become populated with them. The first ones you catch every year are full of ticks for they're coming off the ridges. They are up there catching crawdads and minnows and birds and stuff in the small branches. They eat all kinds of fish, muskrats, young ducks and all kinds of birds, frogs, crawdads. They eat about anything in the meat line they can get a hold of, but muskrat is probably their main diet. They only kill for food, but they will eat muskrats out of the traps."
Raccoons eat a lot of the same animals that mink eat, but they will also eat grain crops. They are often numerous where a large corn field edges a river. Raccoons walk at the edge of the water searching for their nightly meals. Coons seldom travel in the day as they are nocturnal animals, whereas mink travel both day or night.
John Earl uses the blind and bait sets for both raccoon and mink. He uses the blind set more than he does the bait set because he doesn't have to bring as much bait. In preparing to make a blind set he says, "I usually look for tracks in the edge of the water, where they Gravel. I put the trap where they have to go, like by a rock or root. Eighty percent of the time you'll catch him without bait, but if he happens to miss the trap and you got bait, he'll hesitate to smell and you'll have him."
The bait doesn't have to be fresh for raccoon sets but it does for mink. He prefers fresh shad or suckers. He places the bait back under a root or rock where the raccoon or mink has to struggle to get it. The more the animal moves around the likelier he is to step in the trap.
"I like number 11 traps for coons, because they're very small jawed traps that catch them across the paw. A smaller jawed trap will catch them across the toes and they will gnaw their toes off. If you get them higher up the leg, it will break their leg and they will gnaw out." The number 11 catches them across the paw where it won't hurt the coon. The trap is always placed under water. This lessens the chance of human scent being on the ground around the set as John Earl doesn't need to dig a hole in the bank to put the trap in. The trap is placed about three inches under water. It is best to push the trap firmly into the mud to keep it from moving when a raccoon steps on it. The trap is then wired to a root or tree with about six feet of wire. After the trap is securely wired it needs to be covered. John Earl uses mud and wet rotted leaves that he has collected from backouts along the river to cover his traps. He first takes several leaves and carefully places them over the trap pan and chain. Then he sprinkles a thin film of mud over the entire area to hold the leaves in place and to make the covering look like the river bottom. After covering the trap, he sometimes places guide sticks on each side of the bait. Guide sticks are sticks stuck at an angle slanting toward the bank. Their purpose is to narrow down the area that the coon or mink has to get to the bait, thus he is more likely to step in the trap.
When the set is finished, John Earl gently pushes off from the shore being sure not to disrupt the cover of leaves covering the trap and chain.
John Earl sets the same way for mink, both blind and bait sets, but he places the trap (he prefers a number 2 trap) a lot shallower, about 1-1/2 feet. He uses fresh fish in the bait sets and also small birds, scattering a few of the feathers from the bird around the set to attract mink by sight. "You can drive a mink into a trap by laying a twig in front of the trap or to one side, for a mink won't brush against a stick on the bank. The twig has to be the right distance in front of the trap, about twenty-two to twenty-four inches for a male mink. A set for mink has to be perfect--no human scent, no shiny sticks showing, the trap and chain has to be covered completely, and most of all it must look natural." The mink are probably the hardest river fur bearer to catch. A coon is worth about $12.00 to $20.00 and mink about $10.00 for a male and $6.00 to $12.00 for a female, but because of difficulty in catching mink, they bestow the trapper with a great deal of pride when he catches one.
John Earl also traps muskrats, or rats as they're usually called, which make up the majority of his catch each year. Because of the ease in catching muskrats and their fair prices, $3.00 to $6.00, they have been called the trapper's meal ticket. The most he has ever caught in one season was 260. "I know some boys down on the Piney River that catch 500 rats a year, but that's about all they catch, along with a few mink. There's more rats on the Piney than any other river I know of. Rats are getting really scarce because of their drowning from floods and because mink are coming back. Also, owls catch a lot of young muskrats."
Muskrats live in dens, usually about ten to a den. The opening to a den is just below the water. From there it leads back several feet then rises back above the water level to the den proper. Each den has an air hole that supplies fresh air.
The major two sets for muskrats are the den set and the feed set. The den set is a simple but effective set which can be made very quickly and easily using materials along the river. The set consists of a small conibear trap placed over the opening of the muskrat den with a stick long enough to reach the bottom of the river pushed through the spring of the trap and the ring and into the bottom. This will place the trap at a ninety degree angle to the stick. The trap needs to be firmly fastened so that the muskrats can't push it out of the way. When the trap is in position over the opening, small sticks are pushed in front of the jaws of the trap and into the bank. This will further make the trap secure.
The feed set is a simple set John Earl uses almost exclusively for muskrat. Muskrats go up under the overhanging banks of rivers and dig out the fine roots from trees and plants. These roots are tender and make up a great deal of the muskrat's diet. Muskrats also eat watercress, river weeds and horse weeds. Though muskrats aren't actually meat eaters, they do eat river muscles.
Muskrats spend a lot of time underneath the bank, not only digging for roots and eating the other plants that they have collected, but also where they are protected from predators, such as owls, hawks and coyotes. Small piles of weed ends and stems can be seen underneath these banks from the many muskrats that have fed there.
John Earl prefers a number 2 trap for muskrats over a traditional number 1-1/2 because the additional spring of the number 2 adds enough weight to drown the muskrat much quicker. The trap is placed in front of where a muskrat has been digging or a pile of weeks in about 1-1/2 feet of water. The trap is wired with enough wire for the muskrat to swim out and get tangled in a stump, about three or four feet, and drown. John Earl places small leaves over the trap and chain, and then covers them with a thin film of mud. This set catches the rats as they travel back and forth under the bank.
The last fur bearer on the river John Earl traps is beaver. Beaver, like muskrats, also live in dens, but their den openings are much harder to locate than muskrat dens as they are two to five feet below water level. "Beaver dens are usually about eight feet across and probably two feet high. They've got air holes. If it's going to turn cold they put mud and leaves in the hole. If it is a fairly good day, they go up and open up the holes to make a draft. Whenever it turns cold, they will go back and plaster back the hole.
"Their dens aren't but about two to three feet below the top of the ground. Their openings are way deep in the water and that gives them five to six feet play for the rising water. When the river gets up, they leave the dens. Beaver eat mostly ash and cottonwood trees. They also eat the bark of willow, cedar and white oak but they will never cut them down. They eat large muscles which they open with their teeth."
When John Earl is lucky enough to locate a den opening, he places a number 330 conibear over the opening. The trap is secured in front of the den opening with two poles which are put through the A spring of the conibear. This type of set forces the beaver to pass through the trap when leaving or entering the den. But because of the difficulty of locating the openings, John Earl doesn't use this set very often.
Another set he uses for beaver is the slide set. "I usually use double traps on slide sets. I put the traps about eighteen inches apart, which is about the length of a beaver's leg spread. If you put them in the middle of the slide, you'll catch him by the belly and he'll pull out. I put the traps about ten, twelve inches deep. Some trappers put their traps only two inches deep. This is for the front foot catch. The deeper you set, the more likely you are to catch the back foot, which is the best. That way they drown quicker and won't gnaw as much."
John Earl uses numbers 4 and 44 long spring traps for beaver. The number 44 trap has a larger jaw spread and set trigger. A set trigger can be set with different tensions by means of a nut and screw. The tighter the screw is tightened, the harder the pan is to push down. This is very useful because a trapper can set the pan to let only large beaver trip it and then not catch small, young beaver.
When the traps are set they need to be covered with leaves so that the set is even with the river bottom. When this is done the leaves are covered with a layer of mud film.
The traps are wired to a limb with enough wire for the beaver to swim out, wrap around the
closest stump and drown. Beaver and muskrats alike seek safety in the water so when they get in
a trap they will immediately head for deep water and drown.
"I don't use weights on beavers, but some do. If the water's deep it's fine but if it's not, a beaver can use the weight for leverage. Most people use too much weight, two bricks is enough. Weight just helps hold him, but too much weight and it's like tying it solid and he'll pull out."
Beaver, like muskrats, have hollowed out places under the river banks where they go to eat. These can be seen by the slick mud floor and the small bark stripped sticks scattered about. These feeding stations also make for a good beaver set. John Earl again uses two traps placed on each side of the station. They are covered the same as the slide set, then wired with about twenty feet of wire to a limb or root. This also is a very good set.
John Earl and Keith Lundh continue on the trap line making sets wherever there is sign. John Earl marks each set he makes because on such a long float it becomes impossible to remember where each set is.
On a good day on the line John Earl estimates he'll catch about $400 worth of fur. This seems like an extremely good income, but with all the work and skill that is involved, he most certainly earns it. On the particular day that I accompanied John Earl we caught eight raccoons and thirteen rats, which is about $200 worth of fur. The catch was down on this day mainly because of the cold weather and rain. The best night for catching fur is a warm, misty night.
The first day of trapping a section of river is normally the hardest as all the traps must be set. The following days the only thing that is done is checking the sets and removing the catch. If a fur bearer has been caught in a trap, the set must be reset exactly as it was the previous day. Most fur bearers don't tear up a set too much, except raccoon. Raccoon will shred the bank as far as he can reach, until he becomes tangled around a tree or root. Unlike raccoon. beaver, mink and muskrat will always head straight for deep water when they get in a trap. Because of the weight of the trap, they will quickly drown.
Beaver usually get tangled up in stumps on the river bottom when they are caught. This causes a lot of trouble for John Earl as the wire has to be untangled. Sometimes the wire has to be cut so that the beaver can be pulled up. After the catch has been removed from the trap, John Earl and Keith always look over the animal checking for quality and thickness of the fur. All the day's catch is thrown in the bottom of the boat so that it is out of the way.
Each day at the end of the float the boat must be unloaded. Boat, traps, bait, paddles, motor and catch must be carried the long walk to the truck. They place all the fur carefully in the truck so not to damage the fur. John Earl doesn't skin his catch as neither he nor Keith have enough time. They sell the catch every couple of days.
"When I first started trapping, coons were one dollar apiece, muskrats ninety cents and beaver were twenty cents a pound. Mink were pretty high when I first started, twenty-five dollars a piece. They went down two or three dollars a year till they got to about eight dollars. Now they've started back up again. Coons are as high as they are going to get right now. The price of fur is determined by supply and demand. The Oriental women are wanting long-haired fur right now and because of this, the prices are high. A lot of fur goes to Europe. The government buys a lots of coyote and fox to line coat collars. Europe controls the fur market. They set prices. All the prices are based on beaver prices."
When everything is loaded and ready to go, the trappers wearily get into the truck for the long awaited ride back home and a waiting cup of coffee. John Earl and Keith agree that trapping is a lot of work, but they both say they get a lot of enjoyment out of it. "I learn every day, yet."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.