A doe snorted at me as I struggled to keep my waders above the water line. I worked up stream trying not to disturb the sediment on the bottom as I looked for the deep underwater slides. Announcing the entrance of another Bear den. I learned this scouting technique reading old mountain man books, as they would always walk upstream so any danger of ambush from the frontier Indians would be announced by the swirling sediment in the water, and if you work downstream you can’t see crap in the muddy water…LOL I don’t know why that stuck in my head but I work upstream every time I scout a stream.
My boots slid along the piles of limbs trying to find a foothold. These bears have been busy since the last time I had come this way. The piles of the bark stripped willows were all over the bottom. The shoreline looked like a dirty hairbrush with tons of small, sharpened stumps protruding from the ground with grasses and burs tangled in between them. No wonder my friend had called me; these bears had rendered this part of the creek bottom almost impossible to pass.
The deep ruts of the ATV crossing were no longer an option for gaining the only access to the deer rich ridges on the other side. “ Sh..” I yelled, as the cold November water rolled over the edge of my waders, announcing I had found another deep den entrance. I backed out of it and tied a small strip of ribbon marking the second one I had found. Cold and wet, I moved forward looking for the food stash. I had worked another 30 yards around the bend in the stream when I saw the glow of the bark stripped branches piled up on the edge of the stream. Apon closer examination I could see the one-foot-wide strip of bottom, sanded smooth from their bellies sliding on the bottom leading into the center of the pile. Well, that’s 3 good sets as once again I marked it with ribbon.
The stream was starting to narrow as I proceeded up stream. There was a fallen log that was just up another 30 yards, “Nice” I thought to myself, another perfect set. I pulled myself up onto the bank and looked back towards where I had entered the stream. What had taken me an hour to navigate in the stream would have taken a sprinter less than 60 seconds to cover on a track. I turned and headed back towards my pack, following a faint but walkable trail made by the deer looking for a crossing point.
Returning to my pack I removed four 330 conibear traps from my basket, checking each one to make sure they were properly tagged with the stamped copper tags with my name and address on them, a law here in Illinois. The freshly painted square framework of them looked awkward, a simple design, it always amazed me how something so simple could be so mistake free, and foolproof if properly set. These things almost never miss. They are so effective, strong and fast that by law they have to be completely submerged in water when set, thus preventing any non-targeted species from getting tangled in one by mistake. I also took out one of my first leg-hold traps I bought for Crick Bears. It was a large victor double long spring. I had no place on the stream to set it, but I always bring it with me.
I caught my first beaver on the Spoon River with it when I was a kid trapping with my father back in my youth. It always goes with me in hopes I can set it on a shoreline slide. This area had way too many slides to single out just one and my time was limited so back in the pack it went. I was glad I grabbed the 6-foot hardwood stakes as the dens were too deep for my shoulder gloves. With the water already murky I would have to feel the runs with my foot. The first ribbon was up ahead, I quickly felt for the edge of the run and pounded in the first stake. Then located the other side and pounded in the second. I grabbed a 330 and set it, I had already depressed the springs with my setting tongs on shore, so compressing them with my hands the rest of the way was no problem. I slide the springs to match the distance between the stakes putting the coil of the spring over each stake, I took off the safety’s and eased the trap down into the slide. With my boot I made sure it was centered correctly and moved the next set. Both the other den and feed pile were set the with the same technique.
The last set on this area was where the stream narrowed up ahead and the dead tree had fallen. I gathered up long bark stripped willow branches as I walked upstream to the set location. I pushed the fallen tree down touching the water. I then placed the 330 conibear directly in the middle of the stream and staked it into place on the bottom. With both hands I pushed the tree down, almost touching the top of the trap. I then took the bark stripped willows and shoved them into the mud making a wall on either side of the trap, all the way to the bank. There, it was done and looked good. The crick bears swimming down or upstream approach the log, and when they dive to get under it go directly into the trap. By far one of my favorite sets on small streams. With the light fading I made my wet cold a.. back up the hill to my truck. These old, tired legs are getting too worn out for this stuff, I thought to myself as I struggled to pull off my waders.
The night was always the same when I have steel soaking on land or water, always sleepless with anticipation. I awoke well before daylight and looked at old pictures on my computer as I sipped my coffee. They were old pics of me and Dad on the Spoon River at Grandpa Everts land. This small area is where I spent every Thanksgiving off from school running a line with my Dad. I had so many fond memories from this postage stamp size of property, I grinned as I scrolled through the old pics. Wow, I had made a lot of money back in those days when the fur was like gold and the buyers were paying top dollar. Funny, I wore garbage bags on my legs as those old K-mart waders leaked like a sieve, but that’s another story.
Daylight found me entering the stream once again. I almost crapped my pants as a couple woodies took flight almost right under my feet. I waded my way to the first set, nothing, the trap was unsprung. The next set held a good crick bear I guess around 30 or so pounds, I reset the conibear and continued upstream, the feed pile set, it was also a hit, another prime crick bear was firmly in the frame of the trap. Man, I luv these traps, I tossed it up on the deer trail with the other. The last set was coming up, the fallen tree set. I grinned as I approached and saw a giant crick bear laying on the bottom exactly where he hit the trap. These traps not only firmly hold their catch, but humanely dispatch it in seconds. I reached down and grabbed a hind leg, “wow” I said out loud, this old bear must weigh 60 plus pounds. I quickly reset the trap and crawled up the bank. I grabbed the hind leg and put it in the sled I had brought to drag them out.
Back at the other 2, I loaded them and with a loud moan, jerked on the sled rope. There must be over 120 or so pounds in this sled. I thought to myself. Back at the truck I was gasping for air, you are now the kind of gasp you get when you think you are in shape and drag a deer 30 yards. Yea that one. Four sets and 3 Crick bears, it was a good morning.
My buddy was happy to hear of my success, I told him we would let the steel soak another couple days to make sure we had them all. The next day produced another 50 pounder, after that then the sets went dry. My buddy has his Whitetail woods back and I have another memory and pictures to gaze over in my old age. Trapping is an much needed part of managing your land. I probably would have left them to their ways if they had not limited access to the other side of the stream for my buddy and his kids. They had created a pond that enhanced and benefitted all the wildlife using it. For those of you who know me I am a diehard Whitetail hunter and waterfowler as well as a muskie guide, but laying steel for furbearers is probably my favorite time spent in the woods and swamps. I strongly suggest you look online and sign up to take a trapping course, or hook up with one of us trappers and learn a dying art. You will learn more in a couple days about your land or lease as well as managing the exploding populations of predators and furbearing animals, that have to be kept in check to balance our wild outdoors for all of us. You would be surprised at the number of properties you can gain access to by helping landowners manage the fur populations. If you wish to try this passion of mine, you can find all the information on the Illinois DNR website. There is no better way to learn and see the outdoors than thru a Trappers Eyes.
Keep your Steel Soaking…..