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Trapping school; Carrying on the tradition
By Pat Faherty*

Just how do you find pine marten, beaver, otter and fox? Experienced trappers know; now so do a group of northern Minnesota boys about to join that club.

Their rural roots, youthful enthusiasm and the promise of pocket money had them counting the days to the current Minnesota trapping season. (Beaver and otter opened in late October).

They spent three and a half hours for five straight Sunday afternoons attending a special class. The boys, ages 11 to 13, learned the skills, ethics and safe practices of traditional trapping techniques.

They also learned about trapping equipment, scents and lures, history, state regulations, wildlife behavior and even how to get out of a trap in the event of a mishap.

Several had grandfathers who had trapped in the past and some already hunt. The eight who completed this year’s course are students at tiny Cromwell-Wright School, best known for its tough nine-man football team.

Nolan Webster, 12, finished the course on crutches, having broken a leg in football practice. And while the injury kept him off the practice field, he vowed it wouldn’t keep him out of the woods. “I plan on making money and just having fun,” he said. He and Dylan Johnson, 11, plan on trapping mainly coyotes, and hope to take some animals

“I just want to make some money,” said Jordan Suhonen, 11, a sentiment echoed by several others who will target beaver and mink.

During the course, they learned the habits of Minnesota furbearers. In addition to beaver, a mainstay for state trappers, they know how to find marten and muskrat, where a fox or coyote will walk, what type of flow attracts otter, how high to set a snare, trap concealment and numerous other tricks from instructor Wayne Thom.

A retired county lawman who has been trapping most of his 60 years, Thom wants to pass that knowledge on to a new generation. Only 11 young trappers were certified last year in Minnesota and six of them were his students.

Thom started trapping in southern Minnesota when it was an economic necessity for some rural residents. But it was also a secret society.

“You used to have to find this stuff out on your own,” said the volunteer instructor, recalling the days when trappers kept their skills secret in order to protect their income. “Nobody would tell you anything... there were farms bought in southern Minnesota just on muskrat.”

Sometimes the skills are shared through families, but often the knowledge disappears as older trappers pass on. And that is a concern to the Minnesota Trappers Association, which supports Thom’s efforts. The association provided each boy with a half dozen assorted traps to get started.

“Now trappers are finding out if they want these kids to trap, they've got to be taught,” said Thom. “Everything I told them is what I personally use.”

The group shares another connection; most of the boys live somewhere along Thom’s 125-mile trapline. And their goal next spring – peak beaver season —is make sure their teacher doesn’t get as many beaver as he did last year. They plan on cutting in with their own traplines.

It’s a challenge Thom welcomes as a sign of success, and the competition will actually start this fall.

The course combined classroom sessions, hands-on outdoor learning plus written and practical exams. Students had to read a trapping textbook and were constantly quizzed. The boys got wet and muddy, and learned patience in the fields and streams. Thom admitted the crew could be a handful, but said they were all quick learners. “They know their stuff,” he said. “They can set anything now.” That was an important concern because some of the boys inherited traps from bygone days that require some extra thought to use.

“I’m concerned they learn to do stuff the correct way and not do stuff that would make trappers look bad,” he said. Respect for the land and safety were constant themes.

By the final class they had mastered the lingo and talked easily about sets, scents, trap sizes and concealment techniques. They also learned that Thom sets some pretty high standards.

“It’s never ‘pretty good’ in trapping,” he said. “It’s got to be perfect,” as he showed them how to silently cover a hidden trap with wax paper.

To complete the class, each boy will spend a day with Thom trapping beaver and he will show how to skin and flesh the animals. Thom knows that two years from now most of the boys won’t be trapping as they get too busy with school. But they will always have an outdoor skill they can fall back on.

Thom is already looking ahead to next year’s class. It will be coed for the first time with two girls already signed up.

*Pat Faherty is a freelance writer in northern Minnesota. He can be reached at [email protected].

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