I watched a lone pedal biker struggling against the wind and mud. Out on the Point Mouillee dikes you can see things from a mile or more away. The biker was far down the dike road from my position. Since he was headed in my direction, and I in his, I knew we would eventually meet. Typical of Mouillee, the winds were especially gusty, but they were atypically warm for this last day of January. Temperatures were around 55 degrees at mid-day. The two-track road was slowly melting into a mushy stew and made the going rough for both narrow-wheeled contrivances and hiking boots. Because the biker had a basket on the front of his two-wheeler and was wearing above-the-knee wader boots, there was a good chance that he was a trapper.
The figure paused to catch his breath when an empty water bottle flew out of his basket. He dismounted and bent down to retrieve it – the wind nearly pushing him over in the process. After a slow minute he again straddled the bike and made like he was ready to continue. I was close by that time and hurried my step in order to reach him before he started moving again. By the time I opened my mouth to greet him I noticed a hatchet in the basket along with a pair of heavy gloves. Only trappers and Lizzie-Borden-types carry such implements about. I blurted out a point blank question in order to start up a conversation. “Are you a trapper?” I yelled over the roar of the wind.
“Yes, I sure am,” the gentleman replied while remaining straddled on his bike. He was basically bundled up to his eyeballs but I could see that he was no youngster – or even a middle ager for that matter. I’d say he was in his seventies and based on the size of his enormous plastic-rimmed glasses it looked like he hadn’t gotten a new pair since the seventies. He looked like Harry Carey (of baseball announcer fame). His windbreaker sported a Ford steel-making patch of some sort. His name was Loran, as I was to find out later. “I’m getting too old for this,” he then puffed and shook his head. Ironically, his name was Loran Young.
“Had much luck this season?” I asked. “No, not much,” Loran answered, “but I started late – I always do.” Given the warm nature of this winter his response didn’t surprise me (the trapping season started in early December). Muskrat trappers, at least those of the Mouillee kind, depend on good solid ice to reach their quarry. “I’ve gotten probably about twenty five ‘rats so far. He motioned to the small green sack sitting in his basket and continued, “I got two today.”
Further inquiry on my part revealed that even though he may have started late in this particular season he’d been trapping for many seasons. “I gave it up back a while when they stopped letting us drive our trucks out onto the dikes. We were tearing up the place. I see why they stopped it. But I got to looking at the fur auction prices and saw the prices. I decided to give it a go again.”
“What’s a prime ‘rat going for these days?” I asked.
“They’re getting $8-$12.”
“Wow,” was my immediate, if un-inspired, response. Four years ago they were getting up to $10 or more for the large perfect muskrats. That unusually high price prompted a flood of trappers out onto the Mouillee marshes. Trucks were allowed out on the dikes then, so even inexperienced trappers were setting out to reap the hairy gold.
The present vehicle ban necessitates that all trappers carry their goods to and from the pelt fields via non-motorized means. Bikes, hand carts, and back packs are required tools for transporting trap stakes, bait bags, metal Victor traps, and dead muskrats over the long distance. It makes for hard work and these restrictions have separated the wanna-be’s from the die-hards. I can’t say for sure, but I’ll bet this restriction, plus the crummy seasonal conditions, have kept the newbies out this time around.
The end of January would be the normal end of the muskrat season, but Loran informed me that “they” (assuming the game area folks) extended the season for one more month. If things stay the way they are, however, it is un-likely that the trappers will get much more work done. “I’m not sure that the ice will come back yet this year,” Loran remarked. He went on to infer that he’d keep it up for as long as he could.
I asked if I could take his photo and he graciously agreed. After my first take, he said “wait a minute” and rummaged into his green sack and held up one of the ‘rats for a trophy shot. This is somewhat of a trapper’s tradition. I can’t tell you how many black & white, or faded color prints, I’ve seen that portray a young trapper with their first catch – a smiling little boy standing next to a shed holding up a little muskrat. I’m sure Loran has one or two in his family photo album. It is a tradition that carries through life as long as there is someone to point and shoot a camera.
“That’s a nice one,” I commented as I focused for my second shot. This was a large ‘rat – fat and glossy. “Yes, but you know,” Loran said, as if apologizing for the smaller ‘rat he left in the bag, “a lot of ‘em aren’t this big. It’s all that grass out there. They eat the stuff but don’t get much out of it.” By that he was referring to the vast spreads of Phragmites (reed) grass in the marsh. I approached to examine his catch and we both agreed that muskrats need cattails in order to thrive. The Game Area has been waging war against the Phrag (as it is un-affectionately called) because it is equally bad for ducks and muskrats.
There were a bunch of square wire frame traps in the bag along with the other ‘rat. These traps, called Conibears, are kill traps used primarily for working bank dens and runways. I figured these critters were taken with “Coney Bears” (an odd-sounding phrase unless you know what one is!) and said so aloud. “Oh no, no,” Loran retorted, “these were taken on boards.”
Board trapping is a method relying on ice. A hole is chopped through the ice and a narrow board is shoved down into the mud at the marsh bottom. The top sticks out and leans against the edge of the hole. A carrot (a very large carrot) is skewered onto a nail just below the waterline and an open-jawed Victor No. 1 trap is set just below that. Apparently there was enough ice remaining to employ this time-tested Mouillee method in spite of the flaccid winter. “I had a bunch of these sets out earlier, “he lamented, “but after a while I couldn’t reach them anymore. I had to pull them out.” I expect he’ll be switching over to the “Coney Bears” soon.
Knowing that he was anxious to get back home where he could skin out his catch and frame it for drying, I bid Loran a good day and good luck. He waved, re-mounted his seat and took off at a wobbly pace. Fortunately, he only had a half mile to go before reaching his parked truck just outside the gate. Hopefully he only has a month to go before receiving his payback via a check from one of the local fur auctions.
The check will be small. He might make a high dollar on a few choice specimens but the incentive to return to the marsh boils down to “because it is still here and because I still can.”