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From The Past
Precious Memory of a First Catch
Memories of days gone by bring sad pleasure when they’re
of experiences with my best friend and mentor, my dad.
One such experience began on a cold January morning in
Virginia in the early 1960’s.
“Wake up, we’ve got beaver traps to set,” dad called from
my bedroom doorway.
I immediately sprang from my warm bed, realizing the night
had become frigid when my bare feet hit the cold wooden planks of the floor.
This house was not centrally heated, nor well insulated, and the wood-burning
heater in the living room was our only source of heat.
While getting dressed, I felt the excitement that had
been building for weeks. Dad had been away in a far off county trapping
foxes for the State of Virginia. Before leaving that month, he said
that that during the week at the end of the month we were going to trap beavers.
Dad worked from the first until the twenty-third of each month in whatever
county he was assigned that month. The last week he was off and during
the trapping season, he would be found fur trapping.
The twenty-fourth was a Saturday, which meant I didn’t
have school, and I could go with him. I had been anticipating this
day ever since he told me we were going trapping together. It was hard
to concentrate in school and found myself in trouble more than once for daydreaming
in class about going trapping instead of paying attention to what the teacher
was trying to convey.
As I passed through the living room on my way to the kitchen,
I lingered for a few minutes at the old wood-burning stove to warm up.
I could see the wood box behind the stove was almost empty and I’d need to
fill it before leaving.
The smell of perked coffee and cooking bacon filled the
air. Even today when I smell coffee and bacon, I’m taken back to those
days of my youth when life was simple and secure.
When I entered the kitchen I saw mom putting a couple
eggs and bacon on my plate. Dad had finished his breakfast and was
sipping his coffee between puffs on his aromatic pipe.
“Boy, it’s going to be cold out there this morning.
Make sure you dress warm,” Dad instructed.
“I will,” I assured him.
As soon as I was done with breakfast I donned my coat,
gloves and boots in preparation for my chore of filling the wood box.
When I stepped out the kitchen door, the coldness of the air caused my breath
to form billowing white clouds every time I exhaled. The sky was bright
with the glitter of stars. It had been a clear night and that helped
the temperature to fall as low as it did. Dad always said when there
was a cloud cover, the clouds acted like a blanket to keep the warmth in.
It was a short walk of about fifty feet to the woodpile.
The darkness of the early morning was lighted enough by the bright stars
to easily show the way to the neatly stacked cords of split oak and ash.
The previous summer, dad and I had cut up dead trees on the farm where we
were renting this house. We then loaded the wood onto a wagon borrowed
from the farmer and unloaded the fresh cut wood in a pile. It was my
job to split the larger pieces of wood with a sledgehammer and wedge each
night when I got home from school. It was hard work, but it needed
I pulled back the tarp, which draped over the stack to
protect it from rain and began taking the wood into the house for the wood
“Make sure you bring plenty, we don’t want mom running
out to get more wood while we’re gone,” Dad said as I made my way through
I filled the wood box in three trips. By then dad
had the car warming up and we were ready to go. Dad picked up our lunch
sack, thermos of coffee and kissed mom goodbye.
She told us to be careful and we both said we would.
The first thing dad did once we were on our way was to
turn on the radio. He always had the radio on to hear the latest weather
forecast. He wasn’t too interested in the music or talk, but he wanted
to know what the weather had in store for him. Many times the weather
forecast would dictate where he would trap and what sets he would make.
It wasn’t long until the weatherman was giving his prediction.
He said in a monotone voice, “After a low of 29 degrees
this morning the high today will be 42 around noon, and then a front will
move in and snow will start falling around 3pm this afternoon. The
temperature will fall from the high of 42 to around 31 tonight. Expect
snow accumulations to be from 3 to 6 inches.”
“You know what that means, don’t you Boy?” dad asked in
a slightly excited voice.
“It means the critters will be on the move tonight,” I
“Yessiree, we need to get in as many sets today as we
can, so tomorrow we’ll be carrying out a lot of beavers.” Dad said with a
grin on his face, barely visible in the dim light of the car.
Dad started talking about his plans for the day and filling
me in on where we would go first.
“We’ll go to the Marshall place first, because it will
be the hardest,” he said grimly. “It’s better than a three quarters
of a mile walk in,” he went on.
Then all was silent as dad steered the car onto one dirt
road after another. By now the sky had lightened up a lot and the sun
would soon be coming over the trees. This was the best part of the
day, because there would still be a lot of animals to see still out from
their night’s work of foraging for food, both predator and prey.
Dad pulled the car onto a farm path for a very short distance
and parked the car off to the side of a gate. The field on the other
side of the gate was planted in winter wheat and the farmer understandably
didn’t want anyone driving on it. A few feet from the edge of the field
was a three-strand barbed wire fence that separated the field from the cow
pasture next to it. In the pasture as well as along the fencerow were
numerous cedar trees of various sizes. From the edge of the field to
the fence was a stand of chest high dead weeds and briars. This fence
seemed to go on forever and disappeared into the darkness of the woods near
the far corner of the field.
“It’s all walking from here Boy,” dad said.
Dad opened the trunk and took out two packbaskets and
handed one of them to me. He then handed me two #4 Victor longsprings,
a coil of 11 gauge wire, a handful of stakes he’d made that summer, a shovel
and an ax. I put the traps, stakes and wire in my packbasket.
Dad put one #4 Victor longspring and two #44 Blake and Lamb longsprings in
“We’ll travel along the edge of this field until we get
to that corner over there,” he pointed diagonally across the long green field.
The edge of the field was easy to walk on, but when the
briars along side the field would force us to walk into the field, our boots
would sink into the soft earth where the short green shoots of wheat were
growing. There was a heavy frost on everything, but the soft dirt of
the field did not freeze. There were tracks of red foxes visible along
the edge of the field where a faint path could be seen. At one point,
there were a few flat rocks at the field’s edge. Two of these rocks
had fox droppings on them.
Dad asked, “Which of those were made by a grey fox?”
I studied the droppings for a little bit. One was
dark and pointed at both ends, and not as big around as the other one.
The second one was bigger around and somewhat blunt with a few persimmon
seeds in it.
“The grey fox made the one that is blunt and bigger around
with the persimmon seeds in it,” I replied. And I added, “The
pointy smaller around dropping is of a red.”
“Right on Boy. The red must not have found the grey’s
persimmon tree,” dad chuckled.
Dad never passed up an opportunity to teach. It
was just his nature to teach, regardless of who was with him, or what he
We encountered several more flat rocks and dad told me
to pick them up and put them in my packbasket. After three of these
rather large rocks were put into my packbasket, it got a bit on the heavy
side, but I didn’t complain. Dad also put a few of them in his packbasket.
When we finally reached the corner of the field, we made
our way down a faint game trail through the honeysuckle and brush.
We walked another two hundred yards and the terrain dropped fast into a bottom.
In the bottom was a small fast moving creek not wider than about eight feet
and only knee deep where we encountered the creek.
“Listen,” dad said, then asked “What do you hear?”.
“I can hear running water, but only barely,” I replied
after straining my ears for any kind of sound.
“That’s right, the dam is upstream another seventy five
to a hundred yards,” dad responded.
We made our way up the creek by wading in the stream rather
than trying to make our way along the bank choked with briars and honeysuckle.
The wading was fairly easy except for some deep spots on the outside bends
of the creek. When we got to the base of the dam, it loomed above us.
This was a very large dam and the water gently cascaded over it here and
“Let’s get on top of the dam and go to the edge and scout
upstream and see what else is up there,” dad shouted over the sound of the
We made our way to the top of the dam and walked to the
edge, which was about fifty yards. Once at the end of the dam, we started
upstream along the water’s edge. It was easier walking there and soon
the beaver pond became small. It was easy to hear the watery sounds
of another dam, not far upstream. We made our way to it and started
across the dam towards where the dam would be on top of the streambed.
When we got to where the stream channel was visible at
the lower side of the dam, dad stopped and asked, “What do you see here?”
I looked and a path running up the dam was wet and dark
compared to the rest of the dam. It looked well used.
I said, “This looks like where the beavers are crossing
“That’s right Boy, now what would you do here?” He asked.
“I would put a trap at the top of the dam where the beavers
are crossing,” I responded.
He said, “Go ahead.”
So, I removed my packbasket, took out a #4, a large flat
rock, the wire and a stake. I had seen dad make this kind of set many
times in the past and I knew what to do, but this was the first time I had
actually made the set. First, I dug out a bed for the trap to sit.
This bed was in the water at the crest of the dam where the crossover came
over the dam. The bed was a bit offset to the right of center.
I then cut a piece of the heavy 11-gauge wire and attached one end to the
stake. The other end I attached to the end of the two-foot trap chain.
I then used 14-gauge wire and wrapped the flat rock so it wouldn’t slip out
of the wire. This rock was then wired to the trap chain a few links
from the chain. (Back then we didn’t know about drowning locks.)
I knew the rock was to hold the beaver under water when it got in the trap
so it would drown.
I then shoved the stake into the ground and used my boot
to mash it into the dam. Next I placed the trap on top of the flat
rock and using my feet, I stood on the springs and set the trap. I
took the trap and positioned it in the bed and looked to dad for approval.
“Boy, looks like you’ve been learning, that’s a good set.”
Dad told me with a bit of pride in his voice.
“I think I’ll put one at the bottom of the crossover since
there appears to be enough water to drown the beaver,” He added.
He proceeded to make a set like the one I did, only at
the bottom of the dam, but he did it an awful lot quicker than I did.
“I’ll make the rest of the sets here so we’ll have time
to get to some more places today,” he said with a grin on his face.
“That’s fine with me, thanks for letting me set one,”
“The best learning comes from doing Boy,” he told me.
As I was watching dad make his set, I was surprised by
a sudden loud noise just behind me. I turned to see waves from a beaver
that had slapped it’s tail on the water about twenty five feet away.
Dad looked up and said, “There’s one that can’t wait to
get in my packbasket.”
After dad had finished his set, we went back across the
dam and started along the pond’s edge going upstream again. Every once
in awhile we’d catch a glimpse of that beaver out there swimming around keeping
an eye on us.
Dad found a well used castor mound on a point where a
small stream entered the pond. He took off his packbasket and took
out one of the #44 longsprings.
“I like these large traps for a back foot catch.
Sometimes the beaver’s back foot goes all the way across the jaws of those
smaller #4s and I end up with toe catches and many times the beavers aren’t
there when I check my traps.” He explained.
After being satisfied that he had enough water to drown
the beaver, he constructed the castor mound set. The trap was rigged
just like the two dam sets with the rock and wire. The last thing he
did was to put some castor based lure on the mound. I don’t recall
the brand, but it sure did smell like castor.
Traveling upstream along the pond’s edge, we found a place
where the beavers had been sitting in the shallow water feeding. There
were peeled sticks everywhere. The water was about three inches deep
here. Dad looked around and found where the beavers where leaving the
main channel and coming to the feed bed. At the place where the beavers
were leaving the channel, the water was still only about three inches deep,
but it dropped off fast at the channel. He rigged another trap and
set it in a bed he made in the path where the beaver was leaving the channel.
At the upper end of the pond, there was another small
stream entering the pond and there was another well used castor mound.
Dad made another castor mound set with a #44.
We walked up the creek a ways farther, but found that
there were no more beaver dams, and the beaver sign soon ran out.
“I think that will be enough sets in this place for now,”
We made our way out of the site and back to the car.
It was now about 11am.
“Time to put the feed sack on, dad said, “Let’s see what
mom packed for us”
We ate a sandwich and a half apiece and started down the
road to the next site. We set up two more sites that day and were walking
out of the last site at dark with snow biting our faces. It was getting
colder and the snow was coming down hard.
On the way home, we listened to the weather report.
The weatherman said the snow should end by sun-up and the temperature wouldn’t
get above freezing tomorrow. He said that we should expect around four
inches of accumulation before it ends. The snow wasn’t sticking to
the road surface yet, but it wouldn’t be long before it would and driving
would become treacherous. Fortunately, we got home before it did.
Sleep was elusive that night because I couldn’t help think
about the sets we’d put in and all the beavers we were going to catch.
When I did finally doze off, it seemed like only minutes until I heard dad
say, “Time to get up Boy, we’ve got beavers to haul out.”
Like the day before, I had breakfast and filled up the
woodbox. The weatherman must have known what he was talking about,
or was a lucky guess, because there was right at four inches of snow on the
The drive to that first site seemed to take forever and
when we got to the gate, it was still dark. I think we left a bit early
because dad seemed a bit anxious also. So, we sat in the car and waited
for enough light to start our walk in. The snow had quit before we
got up and now the sky was filled with stars again. It was noticeably
colder this morning than it was the day before. As we were sitting
in the car waiting for daylight, we listened to the radio and the weatherman
said the high would be around 30 degrees, dipping into the mid twenties tonight.
In a concerned voice dad said, “I hope it doesn’t get
much colder than this, or we’ll be fighting ice conditions and we’ll have
to change a lot of the beaver sets.”
Finally it was light enough to safely walk into the site.
The snow made our travel a bit harder than it was the day before. It
was evident that the foxes had been out when the snow stopped, because there
were plenty of tracks.
When we got to the stream, we started wading upsteam.
At one point where the stream made a bow, there were tracks leaving the stream
and taking a short cut across the bow.
Dad stopped, pointed at the tracks and asked, “Do you
know what made those tracks Boy?”
I examined them and said, “They are doubled tracks
like a mink makes, but they’re way to big for a mink…..I don’t know.”
“They’re otter tracks!” Dad exclaimed in obvious excitement.
“I sure hope he’s waiting for us in one of those sets,”
We hurriedly made our way up the creek to the big dam.
We went across it and up to the second dam. Upon approaching the crossover
sets, we saw a brown patch of fur at the lower set that dad had made.
“Muskrat!” he shouted as he looked down at it. It
was obvious that beavers had used the crossover that night because the path
was worn free of snow and had ice built up on it.
“Check your set Boy.” He instructed.
I made my way to the set and could see the trap was missing
from its bed. I found the wire at the stake and started pulling.
I about swallowed my tongue when I shouted, “I got an otter!” The otter’s
head broke the surface of the water when I had pulled the trap up.
“Way to go Boy!” Dad said as he beamed at the otter. “You’ve
caught your first one.”
I removed the trap from the front foot of the otter by
having dad hold the hind legs of the otter while I stepped on the trap springs
to release the otter and I reset the trap. He laid the otter on the
top of the dam and we both admired its beauty.
“It’s a nice sized male, it ought to bring a good price.”
I remade the set while dad went down the dam and removed
his rat and remade his set. He got done way before I did, even though
I had a head start on him.
We checked the remaining sets and had a big male beaver
in the first castor mound set, a two-year-old beaver at the feed bed and
a large female at the second castor mound. We’d left the animals near
where we caught them so we could pick them up on the way back.
Dad stuffed the large female into my packbasket and then
we worked our way to where the two-year-old beaver was laying. Dad
picked this one up and carried it by a hind foot until we got to the large
male. Here Dad stuffed the large male into his basket and laid the
two year old across the top of his basket, holding a front foot in one hand
and a back foot in the other.
When we got to the otter, I stuffed the rat into my basket
and placed the otter across my packbasket like dad did with the two-year-old
beaver. We trudged toward the car, made the whole walk without stopping
and were exhausted when we got there. We took out the animals and placed
them into the trunk.
“I still find it hard to believe we caught that otter,”
“No, dad said, not we, YOU caught the otter.” Dad continued,
“you made a very good set and when the otter came through last night, YOU
“But dad, if the muskrat hadn’t gotten into your trap,
you would have caught it,” I countered.
“Boy, IFs don’t count for much in this world, it’s the
DOING that counts.” He said with finality in his voice.
I felt bad that he was going let me keep the otter when
I know how tight the money was. I knew that the money from that otter
would have gone towards paying bills that needed paying if dad had caught
it. But I knew that there was no other way, he would not hear of it
any other way. So I accepted it.
At the next two sites we picked up five more beavers and
another rat. That made a total of eight beavers, two rats and an otter
to skin tonight. I knew that I’d be skinning and fleshing the otter,
but dad would be right there teaching me as I went.
I’ll never forget that first otter, and being with dad
made it one of those memories that will always bring joy to this old beaver
It was a long night in the skinning shed. We had
some great times out there putting up hides, and that’ll have to be another