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Precious Memory of a First Catch


Paul Dobbins

    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 doing.
    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 box.
    “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 the kitchen.
    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 replied.
    “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 his basket.
    “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 was doing.
    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 there. 
    “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 running water.
    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 this dam.”
    “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,” I replied.
    “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,” he said.
    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 ground.
    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,” he added.
    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.” Dad said.
    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,” I said.
    “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 caught it.”
    “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 trapper’s heart.
    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 story.