November 1, 2021
Joe Kelley with one of his great-grandsons, epitomizing the “take a kid trapping” principle.

Trapping: A Family Affair

By Tim Kelley

Photos courtesy of the author.

Many outdoor sports and pursuits are great activities to undertake with one’s family (which, incidentally, is one of the foremost reasons that many advocates encourage outdoor enthusiasts to take their family along when heading outside).  Trapping probably isn’t typically thought of in this vein, as most people likely associate trapping and trappers with more of a “lone wolf” stereotype. However, with all apologies to Sylvester Stewart (better known as Sly, of Sly and the Family Stone), there may be no outdoor pursuit that is more of a “family affair” than trapping. Granted, the act of setting and running the traps may be done solitarily, but that is only a small part of the story of what it takes to achieve a successful season from trap line to finished product…and most of the stories that I’m familiar with involve the assistance of the entire family to get the job done.  

A boy in a red sweat shirt is holding up a harvested mink while standing in a drainage ditch with tan grasses surrounding him.
Getting “up and at ‘em” allowed the author’s nephew, Joe Waldschmidt, to make one of his first-ever catches.

For some background, I was raised in a “trapping family.” My grandfather trapped from an early age and my father started even earlier. Dad ran a trap line every year of our lives and he was heavily involved in statewide and regional trapping organizations. Our family spent most of our vacation time visiting trappers’ conventions and get-togethers, so we all got to know other trapping families quite well. In doing so, we also learned about the interactions of these folks when engaged in our common avocation. After all those years, I can safely say that our family was not atypical, in the sense of Mom, Dad and all the kids being heavily involved in the season’s activities.

Preparations for trapping season, as I’ve outlined in a previous article, generally start almost immediately once the current season ends. Many of the activities entailed in pre-season preparation are simple enough to be performed by even younger members of the family. Collecting trap-bedding dirt, helping to collect black walnuts for trap dyeing, assisting in dyeing and waxing traps (with close adult supervision, of course), and organizing stakes, baits and lures are often tasks children perform to make pre-season preparations go smoothly. Not only does involving the children allow for an increase in efficiency (“Many hands might light work”), but it also helps to teach them important tasks that they’ll need to perform when they run a trap line in later years.

A elderly gentleman holding two harvested raccoons. Two children are standing on either side of the elderly gentleman. In the background is a road bridge and agricultural fields.
Photo of the author’s maternal Grandfather and elder brother and sister, displaying that, indeed, even the extended family is often involved in trapping activities.

During the season, it is often left to the adults and older children to set and check the traps. This is partially because some traps are slightly unsafe for individuals who lack the size and strength to effectively set and place them.  Additionally, some areas, such as deeper creeks and rivers, are inaccessible to smaller members of the family. However, that doesn’t mean the younger children are left out in the cold. For instance, my brothers and sister can all recall walking mile after mile along the creek banks, either handing traps, stakes or other equipment to our Dad as he set out the line or collecting animals he threw up to us while checking traps. As we got older, we often were tasked with riding the four-wheeler to transfer traps, equipment and animals between the trap line and truck and, eventually, when of age, we got to drive the truck on the line, too…which was often a job that our Mom performed before any of us were old enough. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if most kids from trapping families got a large portion of driving practice prior to getting their licenses on field lanes and along trapping ditches.

Once we returned home with the day’s catch, the family went to work to make sure everything was ready for the next day; something I know was common in other trapping families, since the amount of work to be done at the end of the day is nearly as much as what was accomplished during the day. To begin, the truck needed to be unloaded and the fur taken into the shed to dry. However, before hanging to dry, the kids were tasked with brushing out any burs, mud or other debris. The reason behind this is that, once dry, the animals would be skinned, fleshed, and dried and, if the fur were to be left dirty, the skinning and fleshing process could result in damage to the pelts. Once this task was completed, dinner was usually served and there was a brief break from the day’s work. After dinner, we’d head back out to the fur shed to help with skinning, fleshing and stretching. I can’t say that the kids did much skinning…well, my older brother did, but my older sister and twin brother were relegated mainly to fleshing…as protecting the pelts from any damage at this point is key to creating a quality finished product. Skinned and fleshed pelts were put on stretchers and hung to dry before heading in for the night. This was a process repeated day and night throughout the season, making for a long few months but also allowing the family to spend many days of quality time together.

On individual installs a trap in a wetland while wading in the water. In front of the individual is a group of people. Several children sit down in front of the group and some adult stand in the background.
As can be witnessed by the large number of children attending this trapping demonstration, many families bring their children to trapping conventions and get-togethers.

As the season drew to a close, duties switched to marketing the catch. Again, this is a task with which the whole family could lend a hand. When heading out to the local fur buyer or a fur auction, furs had to be sorted, bundled, bagged and loaded into the vehicle for transport. This is a step during which great care must be taken to avoid damaging any pelts and assisting with these tasks imparts a measure of responsibility to those involved, especially the youngsters. At the sale location, having extra hands to sort and “grade” the pelts made for quick work and helped to ensure the best prices were obtained. In some years, the kids had their own catch to sell. In most, however, Dad was the primary seller. I suspect that many of our Christmas presents were funded by our family’s efforts on the trap line and fur shed.

In today’s world of unprecedented distractions such as, social media, video games, and the ever-present cellular phone, it can seem daunting to find activities that can include the entire family. Any pursuit that can get the family outside together can probably be chalked up as a positive venture and, certainly, it was my family’s experience that this is the case when it came to trapping. Whether or not you have ever trapped or planned to, my strong suggestion is to take your kids…or friends, neighbors or any like-minded individuals…and make a family affair of heading outdoors and experiencing the wonders of Nature. Your family will be closer for the time spent together and you’ll likely make memories that will last a lifetime.

Tim Kelley is a District Wildlife Biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources,  Division of Wildlife Resources.


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