An Old Dog Can Learn

By Gene Kelly | January 2, 1997
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 1997

They say "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." But at age 56 I set out to prove them wrong - at least as far as fur trapping is concerned.

As a child I was curious about trapping, mostly because it went along with the hunting and fishing interests I shared with my father. I remember lying on the floor in front of the Philco radio 45 years ago and looking at traps in the magical Sears catalog - the source of all things good for a small town dreamer.

School, military, raising children and professional responsibilities occupied my life until recently when - at the age of 56 - the idea of trapping began to emerge again.

I subscribed to trapping magazines and read them cover to cover; I read books and attended meetings of the Missouri Trappers Association; I talked to a lot of experienced trappers; I searched for information about the newest traps on the market and the techniques for using them.

Most trappers are friendly and tolerant, and I learned a lot - as much as can be learned from talking and reading. I invested considerably in trapping equipment - probably enough to make the down payment on a nice fur coat. I ignored my wife's doubts and began to view myself as a serious predator, an active participant in the ecosystem. The evolutionary juices were bubbling.

The trapping season was slow in coming, like a child's Christmas, but once the season arrived it was worth the wait. My trapline was comparatively short, only about 20-25 sets. Missouri law requires that all traps be run at least every 24 hours, so two dozen sets was all I could maintain and still keep my day job. I left the house each morning in the pre dawn darkness with confidence and enthusiasm.

I caught some fur and made some mistakes, but I proved that an old dog can learn. Now I feel confident enough to pass on the following information for the next beginners:

  • Never set a trapline on the Missouri River if there has been heavy rain upstream. Your traps could well end up in Tennessee.
  • A trapped raccoon in total darkness sounds a lot like a temperamental grizzly bear.
  • There is twice as much brush in the outdoors before daylight as there is after daylight.
  • Chest waders are designed to hold water out or in.
  • Keep your trap wire short if you're trapping for raccoons near cockleburs.

As the trapping season came to a close, I began to think about how I was going to sell my furs. There are two basic ways: (1) sell them directly to a fur buyer or (2) take them to an auction and sell them to the highest bidder. I chose the more interesting path - the auction.

Selling the furs at auction provided as much excitement as any day on the trapline. The auction is the point in the process when the predator becomes the prey.

I drove to Montgomery City one Saturday in February where the Missouri Trappers Association was sponsoring one of its annual fur sales. The area around the building at the Montgomery County Fair Grounds was congested, but I found a place to park next to a truck piled high with raccoon hides. At that moment I admitted what I already suspected: I had been trapping, but I really wasn't a trapper.

I stepped into a crowded building bustling with activity. It appeared to be a family affair. People of all ages, old men and young men, teenage boys and girls, women with toddlers and babies milled around tables piled high with furs. There were furs of all kinds, more fur than I had seen in my entire life, and they were still bringing it in. The auctioneer's voice blared over the PA system nearly drowning out the bidders. Everyone appeared to be doing something important.

I stood in the center of the room and turned a slow circle. This old dog was intimidated. A person in a jam like this needs a friend, a mentor, someone in the know - and I found him.

He had a clipboard and was efficiently dispensing verbal directives near the center of the room.

This efficient gentleman was Mel Block, a local member of the Missouri Trappers Association and a man with a lot of trapping mud on his boots.

I introduced myself and fired a battery of questions. Block recognized the whipped-dog look in my eyes and told me to relax, he would help me.

At least two hours remained before my furs would be auctioned, which suited me fine because I wanted a chance to look things over. I wanted to talk to the other trappers and to the buyers, reasoning that if they knew me they might bid more on my furs.

Finally, Block pointed to a table. With the help of a friend, I brought in all my furs in one trip. The beavers were stretched and dried, but the raccoons and opossums had been frozen and were still a little wet.

Block produced a heavy comb and combed the beaver carefully with the final strokes going against the lay of the fur, making the fur stand up, as he rambled instruction. "Put these large pelts in one pile and those mediums in another. Save the small ones for last."

"Sell the coons next. They're still a little wet but keep wiping them dry, they'll be alright. Lay them on the table, grab them by the nose and give them a little flip. See how the fur fluffs up. Put these six large ones together. The hair on this one looks a little thin, put it with the small ones." The hair was a little thin. I had removed at least a hundred cockleburs.

I spent the next hour combing and grooming, drying, shaking and fluffing, as if preparing show dogs. Other trappers were doing the same. We were getting ready for the big show, and I was proud to be part of it.

The bidding itself was a blur. I stood at the end of the table next to the auctioneer with buyers standing on both sides of my furs. I couldn't have been more self conscious I had been standing on top of the table totally naked.

The auctioneer started his chant and after an eternity somebody bid, followed by other bids. Things seemed to being going pretty well. A buyer picked up a raccoon pelt and announced, "These furs are wet!" "They'll dry," said the auctioneer, and the bidding continued.

All my furs sold, but I did not have the slightest idea if I had made enough for gas money home. An experienced fur seller would remember the highest bid and the name of the buyer. I hadn't a clue. After a gentle nudge from the next seller, I turned and walked away. Block had told me to go to the other end of the building to pick up my sale receipts.

I stood patiently in line, warm with the feeling that I had done everything I started out to do. I had trapped the fur, processed the pelts with great care and respect and sold them to the highest bidder. All the lost sleep, miserable weather and tedious hours skinning and scraping had been worth it. It was the first time I did not mind waiting in line.

I left town that night with $155.50 for the sale of 14 raccoons, 5 beavers and 4 opossums. My trapping season had been a financial disaster, but I was far richer in other ways. I was not yet a trapper, but the old dog had learned about trapping.

Trapping requires a knowledge of animal behavior and the ability to read sign, knowing when to make a set and where to make it. Trappers also need to know how to skin an animal and scrape and place a pelt on stretchers or a drying board.

Trappers respect the animals they sacrifice and take pride in their ability to process the fur for future use by consumers. Of all my outdoor pursuits - and my wife will tell you they are excessive - nothing is as demanding in energy, skill and endurance as trapping.

Will the old dog be back next fall? You bet! Legends have to start somewhere.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer