Points North: Outdoors, Age Doesn’t Matter

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Sometimes, it’s not what you do so much as the company you keep. This spring, I had very different, but equally enjoyable, outdoor experiences. A 15-year-old young buck tagged along as I trapped nuisance beavers in a neighbor’s pond. I also spent an afternoon on a trout stream with an enthusiastic old fox—age 75.

A neighbor asked me to catch the beavers which were plugging the outlet culvert in his pond, an annual occurrence. I waited to do so until Vikki’s grandson, Joe, came for a visit during his spring break. He’s a young buck who likes to get out in the woods and hadn’t experienced trapping. Tagging along for a few days as I tended beaver traps was a good way to give him a taste of it.

Beavers are surprisingly large rodents which may weigh 30 pounds or more. To catch them, I use large, body-grip traps, which quickly kill the captured beaver. These are powerful traps, which would cause a painful bruise or even fracture a bone if you inadvertently caught yourself.

I showed Joe how to set a body-grip, using a special tongs to squeeze and hold the springs while slipping on the safety catch to prevent an unintended release. Once the two springs were secured with catches, I showed him how to pull open the jaws and set the trigger mechanism. Then I put the trap on the ground, removed the safety catches and handed Joe a long stick.

“Push the trigger wire with the stick,” I said.

He did. The trap went off with a whack. Joe gained immediate respect for the body-grip trap, which was my intent. He was also curious to see if he could set it himself. It wasn’t easy. I coached as he struggled to open the springs with the tongs and hook the safety catches. As he pulled open the jaws, the trap got away from him. The safety catches were in place, but the trap still snapped in midair as Joe demonstrated his newfound respect by quickly stepping away from it.

As we walked around the pond, I showed Joe how to look for places where beavers climb on the bank. I set a trap in one such place, placing the body-grip in the water, as required by law, to minimize the chance of inadvertently catching some other critter. We used part of an aspen sapling, a favorite beaver food, for bait, pushing it into the mud so any beaver attracted to it would swim into the trap.

Aspen trees were harvested near the pond during the winter, so the scent of fresh-cut wood was in the air. The smell was attracting beavers, who could find plenty to eat in the limbs and branches left behind by the logger. We found a well-used trail where the beavers left the pond to go after the downed trees and set a trap there.

When we checked the traps the following day, we found a beaver in the first trap. Joe asked if he could carry the heavy animal back to the truck, which was fine with me. I also set a couple more traps along a nearby creek that’s a travel route for beavers, again showing Joe how to pick the best places.

We caught another beaver, heavier than the first, the following day. This time, Joe wasn’t so quick to volunteer to haul it out, though he did so without grumbling. Back home, we skinned the first beaver. For me, this is a time-consuming task. Joe watched and asked lots of questions. He was surprised to learn the fur mostly goes to foreign markets, such as China and Russia. He learned the amount of work that goes into beaver trapping has little financial reward. I expected to receive about $20 for the pelt.

The next day he watched me skin the second beaver. This time he was less curious, because I nicked a gland with the skinning knife and it oozed yellowish fluid. That triggered Joe’s gag reflex. Unwilling to lose face by going inside, he stared at the sky, walked around and took deep breaths while I continued skinning. By the time he was ready to leave for home, Joe could easily set a body-grip trap, but he probably won’t try skinning a beaver anytime soon. For that matter, he may not become a trapper.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the beaver,” he said.

The day after Joe went home, I received a Saturday morning phone call from the old fox, Dave Zentner of Duluth. He was coming up my way for an afternoon of fishing and wondered if I would join him. We agreed to meet for lunch in Grand Marais.

At lunch, our conversation ran long. Zentner, a nationally recognized conservation leader, is an interesting guy. He’s also one of the most passionate hunters and anglers I know. We traded tales about trout fishing throughout the Lake Superior country. I’ve done a lot of it, but Zentner has done far more. At age 75, he still spends numerous days along the rivers.

Storytelling was a better option than fishing. The midday sun was high and the rivers were abnormally low and clear, making for tough fishing conditions. After lingering over lunch, we headed for the Brule River at Judge C. R. Magney State Park. I fished up one side, while Dave worked the other. Since the Brule was one of the few rivers which wasn’t too low to fish, we shared the river with other anglers.

I caught a sucker. Dave hooked a steelhead just long enough to get a glimpse of the fish. But that was it. As we worked our way upstream, he began wading along a rock wall where the water is normally too deep and swift to traverse. When he reached the best spot, a long riffle downstream from a deep pool, he settled in to fish. I fished the deep pool without success and then crossed the river to meet Dave.

As I was doing so, I saw a sizeable steelhead rocket from the water. My view of Dave was obscured by the rock wall, but I assumed the steelhead was attached to his line. I hustled over to him hoping to get a picture. When I got there, all Dave had was a smile.

“I lost him on the fourth jump,” he explained.

Although we didn’t actually catch a fish, the one that got away capped off a fine afternoon. Afterward, I thought about Joe and Dave. Though one is a young buck and the other an old fox, both outdoorsmen are good company to keep.

Airdate: April 27, 2012

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