Locals keep trapping tradition alive
January 12, 2011 - By C.J. Carnacchio
|Trappers Hans Kalohn (left) and Aaron Curtis display some of their pelts and prey, which include muskrat, beaver, mink, raccoon and fox. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)|
Long before Henry Ford's assembly line transformed Detroit into the Motor City and Michigan into a manufacturing mecca, this land was dominated by the fur trade.
Detroit itself was founded in July 1701 as a French outpost to control the rich fur trade in Michigan and the surrounding states that made up the Old Northwest.
Pelts were the main currency of the day as Indians traded their furs to the French, so they could in turn be sold in Europe where they were viewed as highly fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Today, thanks to changing fashion tastes and animal rights extremists, the fur trade in the United States isn't nearly as rich and expansive as it once was, but a few hearty souls still engage in trapping as both a hobby and an honest way to earn a few extra bucks.
"Ever since I was a kid, I just enjoyed it," said Oxford resident Hans Kalohn, who's been trapping since age 12. "I starting trapping on Buckhorn Lake (in Orion)."
|Aaron Curtis prepares to set a trap in a local creek.
Photos by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)|
"It's the only sport that pays you back," said Oxford resident Aaron Curtis, who also began trapping as a youth.
The pair are part of what Kalohn called a "dying breed" – men who have the patience, time, desire and know-how to harvest Michigan's seemingly limitless population of fur-bearing creatures.
"I think it's better than deer hunting," Kalohn said. "You never know what you're going to get. With a deer, you just sit and wait. But with trapping, you're excited to go out and check every set."
"It's a great chance to get outdoors," Curtis said. "I can get out everyday, whereas hunting you may not go out everyday."
Both men acknowledged the friendship and mentoring of the late Hank Paddubny, a legendary Oxford trapper, as one of their fondest memories of the sport.
"Hank always helped me with stuff when I was starting," Curtis said.
In 1993, Paddubny was inducted into the Michigan Trappers Association Hall of Fame for teaching children how to set traps, skin animals and handle pelts.
|Hans Kalohn removes a trap from beneath the ice. (click for larger version)|
"He was a hell of a trapper," Kalohn said.
Kalohn typically sets anywhere from 30 to 75 traps in the Oxford area. He's primarily after muskrat, mink and raccoon.
"There's an overabundance of mink and muskrat around here," he said. "We've got a lot of mink down here – more mink than what people think."
So far, Kalohn's trapped about 130 muskrats this year and nine minks. Last year, he got close to 300 muskrats.
Curtis goes after those same animals, but he also traps fox, coyote and beaver.
"I pretty much do everything," he said.
His line consists of anywhere from 30 to 100 traps.
A trapper's line can be as long or short as he wants. It all depends how much work he's willing to put into it.
"A guy could run one from here all the way to Bay City," Kalohn said.
He just better have the time necessary to regularly check his traps. He also better have a fur harvester license, which can be purchased from the state for $15.
Traps: Myth vs. Reality
The variety of traps Kalohn and Curtis utilize are designed to either drown prey in creeks, culverts, ponds and lakes or hold animals in place until the trapper arrives to dispatch it with a firearm or by other means.
In this area, trappers are required by state law to check traps designed to hold animals alive at least once each day.
Curtis noted it's a common misconception that the foothold traps are designed to break an animal's leg.
"Foothold traps do not break bones like everybody thinks," he said. "If they did, you'd never hold the animal because it would be able to get out (of the trap)."
"Many people unfamiliar with modern trapping think of traps as big, powerful devices with teeth that were used to capture bears in the early 1900s," according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website. "Today, these traps are best used as a display on a cabin wall because trap sizes, types and usage are strictly regulated by the state to ensure the most humane method of capture."
What makes a good trapper?
"Patience," said Kalohn. "That's Number One of all."
His traps could remain empty for two weeks, then "all of a sudden bam, bam, bam . . . I'm getting them all over."
A good trapper must also be able to locate animals by looking for the signs they leave behind, such as tracks, and knowing their behavior, such as the fact that when muskrats move through the water, they "travel tight against the bottom."
"You want to be where they're going to be," Curtis said. "They can be drawn into an area, but by and large, you want to be right where they're at."
Animals can be drawn in using baits and lures such as ground meats, pastes, fish oil, urine and glands. They're designed to appeal to either the prey's hunger or its territorial nature.
Kalohn creates his own baits and lures.
"I get a kick out of making this stuff," he said.
Being responsible and respectful
Curtis noted it's important for trappers to read the rulebook and know the state regulations before they venture into the field.
It's also crucial that trappers "be mindful of where you're setting your traps" so they don't injure pets or people.
"You've got to use common sense," Kalohn added.
Should a trapper run across someone else's sets, the right thing to do is just leave them alone.
"We respect other people's traps," Kalohn said. "Sometimes you have problems – somebody will take them. That's very seldom. Normally, if he's an honest, good trapper, he respects the other guy's traps."
Why is trapping necessary?
Like hunting, trapping is a way to control and manage the animal population.
Not only can the overpopulation of any animal lead to the spread of harmful diseases, it can also yield increased property damage.
Muskrats can destroy break walls. Beavers can cut down trees or dam up lakes and flood lawns.
Coyotes will kill and eat pets like small dogs and cats.
Earning a few bucks
Unlike hunting and fishing where the reward is extra meat for the freezer, trappers can sell what they catch to earn some additional cash.
Kalohn sells his animals whole to a local gentleman, while Curtis takes the extra time and effort to skin his prey and sell the dried pelts at fur auctions.
Not only does Curtis' additional work make his furs worth a few more dollars, it adds to the pride he feels as a sportsman.
"To me, that's all part of it," he said.
At a fur auction held just prior to Christmas, the average prices for skinned and dried hides were as follows – muskrat $7.65, female mink $12.36, male mink $17.06, beaver $13.30, grey fox $21.50, red fox $19.11 and coyote $14.75.
While a person can't get rich off trapping these days, they can certainly add to their existing income.
"If you trap real hard, you can make $200 to $300, easy," Kalohn said. "But you've got to be on them everyday."
Curtis noted he's got a friend who just trapped his 700th muskrat this year.
Surprisingly, most of the furs trapped locally do not stay in Michigan or even in the United States.
"A lot of the fur we trap goes to Russia and China," Curtis said. "That's basically the fur market."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.