It was a long climb in the dark from the river bottom to the top of the hill, especially with two raccoons in my pack basket. The top of that hill was one of the highest points in the county and just happened to be on my uncle’s farm. Whether it was actually the highest point or not, or just another of my uncle’s tales, didn’t really matter. All I cared about was that I had a fox set up there on the tree line, and if I had any chance of making it back home to catch the school bus, I’d better walk fast.
I heard the snapping of the trap chain long before my flashlight found my set and caught the white tip of a red fox’s tail bobbing up and down. It was my first fox but I barely had time to savor the moment. As I walked the length of the tree line and dropped down over the other side to check the second half of my ‘line, I glanced back over my shoulder at the river bottom from where I’d just come. The moon was halfway up the sky and cast a spooky light on the fog in the bottom, yet overhead was a plethora of stars. Maybe that hill really was the highest point in the county. That morning, with two raccoons and my first red fox in my pack basket, it felt like the top of the world to me.
There’s more than one way to run a trapline. As a schoolboy trapper, I was pretty much limited to what my grandpa sometimes referred to as “shanks’ mare.” In other words, my first trapping vehicle was my own two legs, and they carried me around my uncle’s farm every morning before school. Back then, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to get my driver’s license. Then I would be a real trapper, high rolling across the countryside, racking up monster catches as I did. I even made lists and ran figures in study hall about how many fox, mink, muskrats, and raccoons I’d have to catch to make a living from trapping. Oh, it was good to dream!
Yes, I did eventually give road trapping a try, and I put up some good numbers and had some fine seasons. In fact, I still enjoy a good auto ‘line. It’s as American as the concept of the road trip, where the journey is the destination, and it’s what you learn about yourself along the way that leads to personal discovery. A successful longline requires dedication, perseverance, and a willingness to adapt to any situation, and it’s only during that kind of adversity that you find out what you’re really made of.
One thing I learned along the way, though, is that I don’t trap for the money – after all, I like having a warm bed to sleep in at night and food on the table. I don’t even trap for the numbers, although sometimes they make for impressive photos. I trap for the experience and the thrill of the catch, and every year I remind myself of that by running a trapline on foot for at least a week.
When road trapping, common practice is to pound the bridges, especially for raccoons and mink. Bridges serve as funnels for animal movement and create natural blind sets and set locations. All of the guesswork is taken out of the equation. That’s one reason why I still enjoy walking a trapline. It changes my mindset, clears the air, and gets me thinking fresh again. I start looking for other funneling characteristics such as feeder creeks, hollows, and other terrain variations that will narrow down furbearer travel.
(Photo: Finding places where animal movement is funneled through a tight area is essential to making good catches regardless of whether you're running traplines all day or for just a few hours each morning.)
One of the footlines I occasionally trap is a four-mile stretch of stream between two bridges. The stream is too small for a boat or canoe and it flows through wilderness, so walking is pretty much the only option. Because there are several huge farms relatively close – within a mile of the stream at some points – there’s typically an abundance of sign. If I set up every spot where I found raccoon, mink, or muskrat tracks, I’d never be able to carry enough traps. On set days I do pull along a small rubber raft with all of my traps and gear. The raft is a convenience my back and I have come to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. Still, I like to keep things in check. The best way I found to narrow down my locations was to consult a topographical map.
The first few years I trapped this place, I didn’t bother looking at a map. When I finally opened one up, I was surprised by how much the stream meanders and sometimes bends back around on itself. In one instance I thought I was hitting two different populations of raccoons, but looking at the map I realized they were actually only a couple hundred yards apart as the crow flies, not the half mile I’d estimated. Meanwhile, I’d left that whole distance between those locations untouched because I’d wanted to space out my sets. Sometimes it’s the simple things that get overlooked, I guess.
With the help of the map, though, I identified at least eight really good funnels along that four-mile stretch of stream. I set them hard, same as I would if I were road trapping, and on the first check I had more raccoons than I could carry, not to mention three muskrats and a mink.
That’s another aspect of a footline that gets me excited – the potential for a mixed bag in a relatively short distance. When trapping that length of stream, I inevitably come across a number of muskrat hole dens and mink locations that cry out for a 110 bodygrip. Also, there are a handful of locations along the way that are good for fox.
When putting up big numbers on a road ‘line, more locations translates into more critters. Running a trapline on foot, I try to think in those same terms. For instance, those eight really good funnels on my trapline could very well be considered eight stops on the road ‘line, it’s just that I’m walking from stop to stop rather than driving. Over the course of a week, those eight “stops” produce anywhere from one to eight coon apiece. According to my records, my best week ever on that stretch was 32 raccoons, a dozen muskrats, a mink, and two gray fox – and I still recall it as one of most enjoyable weeks I’ve ever spent trapping.
(Photo: As a young trapper, I enjoyed running traplines on foot. I rarely caught a ton of fur, but I usually got a nice variety.)
It’s amazing how much fur one area can produce if you really get into it and start dissecting it. Even back in my early teens when my trapline was my uncle’s farm, I put up surprising numbers. One year I stopped after I caught 25 raccoons from a 200-acre patch of woods. I wanted to leave some for seed, after all. Then I met a hunter with hounds who took another 20-plus raccoons from that same patch of woods, and I realized I need not worry. It blew my mind that a relatively small area would produce almost 50 raccoons, and that area still consistently produces that many every year once you combine our totals.
Of course, not every area has that kind of density. Still, when driving from stop to stop on the road ‘line, I often wonder how much fur I’m passing up. How many fur pockets am I not seeing because they lie just around the bend, out of sight of the road? Could I catch just as many if I focused my efforts on a smaller range? Even if I did catch less fur, would the savings in gas and supplies offset the difference? Sometimes you don’t have to put on hundreds of miles to make a big catch.
More than anything, what appeals to me about running a trapline on foot is the opportunity to get lost in the moment. I like getting away from the roads, beyond the bridges, and investigating those little nooks and crannies that other trappers skip over or are too lazy to walk to. For my efforts, I’m rewarded with a better outdoors experience that’s good for the soul.
There are some technical aspects to consider when running a trapline on foot, such as how in the heck to carry your catch. A good pack basket is worth its weight in gold, that’s for sure, and I like to skin my catch as I go whenever possible. Also, when you have to carry everything you need on your back for great distances, you quickly learn what is necessary and what is not.
My equipment list is a ghost of what it used to be when I was younger. I traded the heavy metal trowel for one 24-inch rebar stake that I use to make holes for dirthole and pocket sets. I carry a lightweight sifter for those foxy-looking locations. I attach all of my traps to saplings or logs using a length of aircraft cable with a loop on the end – goodbye heavy rolls of wire and wire cutters as well as rebar stakes and a mini-sledge to pound them into the ground with. Also, all lure and bait that comes in glass bottles is transferred to plastic. It’s amazing how even a few ounces of weight can make a difference.
I know when I’ve spent too much time in a vehicle. I get road-weary and trapping starts to lose its glamour. When I think of real trapping, I imagine mountain men exploring new territories and living solitary lives in the wilderness. Some people call that romance, and it is, but it’s also a part of the human spirit. To some extent, we all crave adventure, and for me that means getting back to my roots and running a trapline by foot.
Of course, I still enjoy trapping my uncle’s farm. My uncle has since passed away, but I still think of that hilltop as the highest in the county. Every time I make that long loop through the river bottom and up and over that hill, I’m reminded of all the mornings I walked that same path years ago before school. Those were good times, good memories, and it’s nice to know that some things never change – I still trap because I just love the sport of trapping.
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