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SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Trapping and the connection it gives

WORTHINGTON -- What or who is a trapper? What a rare and endangered breed they are.

Fifty years ago, trapping was like hunting. If you lived in the country, almost every kid trapped and hunted. I can remember, as a kid, trapping gophers on my grandpa's farm near the tiny town of Wetonka in north central South Dakota.

Each tail was worth about 10 cents, I think. Gophers were so plentiful that we would set about 20 traps and then just drive around the pasture in a big circle and catch gophers. It took about 30 minutes to make the rounds. After about three rounds, we would call it a day and go back to the farm for lemonade.

I have used live traps to remove skunks and other pheasant predators on a hunting property near Rushmore. My skill is very novice, but it is an outdoor pursuit that has been done for hundreds of years and I can say I have done it.

North America was crisscrossed by trappers before any real taming of the Rockies took place. They were a courageous breed --thought of today as a mountain men and women.

After about five years of attempting to match our schedules, I finally got the opportunity to spend a Saturday morning with a real trapper. This guy has been trapping for more than 50 years and he guessed there are less than a dozen active trappers left in Nobles County.

Randy Erwin has many skills. He shoots trap like a pro and shoots some of the few big deer in southwest Minnesota. He spends more time outdoors than even me. He agreed to let me tag along.

With so little water around the area due to the drought, the prime spots for setting traps are dramatically reduced. I would guess 90 percent of what is normally wet is now bone dry.

I asked what a muskrat does when his pond dries up. Randy explained that they have to run the gauntlet by walking over land to the next nearest wetland in hopes of finding water. He went on to say that of 100 rats that start the trip, he figures less than 10 percent actually make it. With all of the land- and air-based predators, almost every rat will get killed and eaten on this voyage.

So, we traveled around some of the area lakes and checked a variety of different traps.

These traps included regular leg-hold traps and live traps. These traps are marked with the name of the trapper and their contact information. You need to purchase a trapping license to participate.

By law, all traps need to be tended to at least every 24 hours. Live traps need to checked every 48 hours.

Randy checks his traps each and every day. This is a huge commitment. You never get a day off and there are very few people you can call on to cover the trap line for you, if you need to be gone. This, I think, is one of the reasons why very few people trap anymore. Life is too busy for most people to take on this kind of time commitment.

Nobody that traps is in it for the money. A good week of trapping will cover the cost of the fuel to run the trap line that week. There are a few exceptions, but the planets have to align just right. Furbearer populations need to be high and fur prices need to be high at the same time. This almost never happens anymore. Trapping to Randy is really a calling -- much like restoring habitat is a calling to me.

You do it for the history and nostalgia and to keep an American tradition and way of life alive. Over the course of a few hours, I got the feeling that trapping is an internal connection to the land that can only be achieved by participating in the predator-prey relationship. This is similar to the feeling I get when I am putting that beautiful rooster in my game bag.

Man started out as a trapper and a fisher and evolved to throwing spears and sticks as the planet's first hunters. It is this evolution that is inside every human yet today -- even if it is so small it can not be identified in most folks. Hunting and trapping provided the necessary sustenance we all needed from the time we started walking upright.

So, trapping is a way to carry on this connection to the land and water; and I had a great time getting my first real taste of this outdoor experience. We had an OK day. We caught two coons, one skunk and two beavers. As part of my education, Randy showed me an example of the greatest animal engineering I had ever seen. As the water levels on this lake started to decline, a beaver's lodge was no longer at the water's edge.

They had a winter food supply of branches and sticks anchored in about three feet of water about 30 feet from shore. Knowing the lake would freeze and make this food supply unavailable, they dug a trench 3-feet deep and 3-feet wide in order to be able to access this food store. It was as though it had been done better than any machine would have been able to do. There was no sand or other debris littered around. The sides weren't caving in and it was perfectly symmetrical.

So, as the water receded even further they realized that the food store would most likely freeze to the bottom. They then started a new food supply reserve in that same trench right next to the lodge. It was an amazing display of Mother Nature at her very best.

Young beavers share the lodge until the next batch of young is born. At that time, they get forcibly kicked out and are on their own. The two beavers we caught on this outing were very large. Randy called them blanket beavers. This refers to the size of the pelts when they are all skinned out. A beaver whose pelt is 30 inches by 30 inches is a blanket beaver and a 36-inch by 36-inch pelt is a super blanket beaver. They weighed right at 50 pounds each.

The landowner had recently planted some winter wheat and we could not drive the truck to the spot. We had to march about 500 yards along the shore to check these traps. I was about 100 yards into my trip back to the truck with my 50-pound beaver in tow when I realized that being 6 feet, 6 inches tall has trapping value. As Randy carried his beaver, it was about six inches off the ground. I carried mine as high as I could and it was still dragging on the ground. I shared the fact that my desk job workout did little to help in conditioning to be a good trapper.

I learned a lot in this short Saturday, but most of what I learned was appreciation. It is an appreciation for a skill and a trade that very few people currently possess and even fewer are learning today.

Who is to pass on this tradition if not for those currently doing it?

Thanks Randy for a great day and the outdoor teaching lesson I will never forget.

Scott Rall is The Daily Globe's outdoor columnist. His column can also be read weekly at