Rob F. Sanderson
“Bee” Adkins strings steel against Arizona’s predators.
Rob F. Sanderson
“I’m just like a durned coyote,” I remember Bee telling me. “I’m apt to be any place any time, and bunk there when night catches me.”
That’s why Bee (B.D. Atkins to strangers) accounts for the careers of so many bobcats, coyotes, wolves, and other predators - he’s tough enough to outlive and outsmart them in their own territory. To get his trapping country, he drives thirty-five miles over desert and mountain roads in a special buckboard-jalopy, catches and saddles one of his seventeen head of horses, and rides off into the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains where he often covers over forty miles of horse-trail trap lines in a day. Once or twice a week he comes into town for provisions, mail, fresh dogs and more traps, and mail a report of his catch of predators to the Arizona Game Commission for whom he started trapping predatory animals in 1937.
“Go around with me?” He asked when I requested the privilege. “Sure, glad to have you. Don’t have much company up in the mountains - most people are afraid they’ll wear their britches out riding around after me up there.”
That was the first premonition I had about what running the line with Bee actually entailed. A very mild appearing, soft-spoken ex-Texan of light frame and easy tread, he couldn’t have given me a more inaccurate preconception of the dynamo of energy he actually is. Had I studied his dark eyes more carefully, I might have suspected.
We left base camp the first morning while the west-sloping canyon was still in twilight, and as the iron shoes of our sorrels echoed among the clean boulders of the canyon bottom and splashed through the clear waters of the creek we were to follow back and up to where the snow was still melting on the forested mountains, he apologized.
“Ordinarily I get out considerable earlier that this,” he explained. “But today I had to wait for enough light to shoe one of the horses.” From an old timer who lives in the mountains, I later learned it was not uncommon for Bee to saddle up at 3a.m. I assured Bee it was early enough for my fancy, and by the time we finished the line that day we had ridden thirty-seven miles over boulder strewn trails; had climbed from 3500 to 7000 feet altitude, from blooming ocotillo desert cacti to the greenery of thick-trunked pines, and back to the red cacti blooms.
Bee traps the year round, on a straight salary from the Arizona Game Commission who direct his work, in cooperation with a program of predator control jointly undertaken by the state and the federal Biological Survey. In winter he skins out his catch and turns the prime fur over to the state; and during warmer months when the pelts are not marketable he scalps them to keep tally of his take. One of his oppressive responsibilities is keeping track of all the scalps, which he tacks on a tree trunk to dry, then puts them in a burlap sack tied to a high limb for safekeeping. From one to three scalps disappear each month, for which he evolved the theory that the camp cat often tears a scalp down with its heavy claws when the dogs chase it up the tree, and one of the young dogs promptly chews up and swallows the fallen scalp.
Most of the time you will find about the camp four of five rangy hounds, with manes such as Buck, Mike, Bulgar, Speed, Snotty Nose. Large black or red animals, floppy ear tips frayed from many tangles with cat and lion claws, Bee uses them along the line to catch any animals they jump, and to track down any trapped game which has escaped. Very conscientious about losing a trap or animal, or about running all his traps before the day is over, onetime we fell behind schedule to look for a missing dog, Bee kept me out until long after dark in order that he might run all his traps, and when the horses hooves clopped across the loose creek bed boulders in front of camp, it was past nine.
The number three long spring is the Adkins favorite trap. His considered choice of cat, coyote, and fox; he prefers larger sizes only for lobo wolf or mountain lion. To make a set, Bee stands on the springs, pulls open jaws, catches the trigger under the pan notch; then bends the springs back until the jaws lie flat, adjusts the pan to proper tension, scoops out a hole the size of the trap and buries it perfectly level with the surrounding ground surface. Before covering the pan he places a square of burlap over it to prevent dirt form filling underneath the pan and it from tripping under the weight of a predator’s foot. The government furnishes a specially jawed trap with a comfortable opening between the jaw faces. This takes a gentle yet firm grip on the animals paw.
Bee sifts out all the loose earth covering between his fingers, sorting out any sticks or gravel that might interfere with trap action. Brushing out all signs of disturbance or tracks, if it is a scent he pours a few drops of foul smelling liquid out of an old whiskey bottle onto a dung or leaf just far enough distant so the animal will step on the pan when trying to get a free whiff of Adkins special perfume. As the proper distance varies with the size and the specie of the predator, and the pan is only about an inch and a half in diameter, it is a rather arty matter to get the pan placed where the visitor will naturally roost his paw.
Bee makes up his liquid bait about six months in advance with food ingredients and parts of certain animals furnishing the constituents; has a constant supply at hand. In winter he uses three different types of bait, as a wary coyote gets wised up to one aroma. But in summer when no odor lasts very long in the trying Arizona sun, Bee sticks to one super-strong smelling concoction which he claims has such a lasting olfactory power that animals frequently scratch around set locations he has not used for two to three months, trying to locate the scent source. I can easily perceive the basis for this statement as I once got some of the odor on my hands while handing Bee the bottle, and it was two days before I could eat a meal without smelling coyote appetizer on my fingers whenever I lifted my fork.
Now and then an old coyote will cross the trap line, refusing to notice any of the scented sets. As all wild animals have semi-regular habits and are prone to revisit places where they have been before, Bee puts in a “blind” set near the tracks. A blind set is a trap set without bait of scent, in a path or trail near a natural obstruction that will cause an animal to step a certain place each time he passes. These sets account for many sages of experience who have had their toes pinched before.
Often a little strategy is necessary to collect the scalp of a wary animal. While I was in Bee’s camp, he succeeded in catching an extremely wiley female coyote, who had been trap educated. Strongly attracted by the smell of the trap lure, nevertheless she well knew where the set trap was hidden, and refused to step on it. Close observation showed faint scratches behind the trap bait, on the opposite side from the trap-concealed trap. Bee slipped a trap in here, covered it meticulously, made some artificial replica scratches over the trap with a twig. Next trip cagey animal, used to stepping where the second trap had been set, put her foot squarely into it. When animals become afraid of a set, Bee takes the trap up for a couple of weeks, then replaces it when he sees the animals are using the set freely again.
The state and federal supervisors furnish Bee with about ten dozen traps, a few of which stay in camp for a reserve to draw on when new set locations are needed. An average of three traps a month are lost to trap thieves, breakage, and natural causes. As few traps as possible are kept in camp. “A trap in camp never makes a catch,” he succinctly states the idea.
On the predator list where he now traps, protecting a wild turkey transplanting program in an area once frequented by large flocks of these great birds, are coyote, bobcat, fox, ringtail, skunk, and of course the occasional lobo wolf and mountain lion. These animals endanger different phases of a young turkey’s development. Ringtail and skunk eat eggs from the nest, fox are sudden death to the young birds not yet well able to fly, and other animals are mass murderers of all turkeys regardless of age.
While the turkey project was the main factor in locating Adkin’s trapping are, almost all birds and animals in the area directly benefit. Quail and other game birds nesting on the ground suffer fewer tender venison veal meals for the larger predators. Lobos and mountain lions account for full-grown deer, young beefs, and even matured cattle.
At intervals Adkins supplies stomachs to the state technicians for analysis, to give reassurance that the animals on the predator list really deserve to be there. Hair, bones, feathers, all serve to identify the partially digested meal. Venison and beef is the preferred lion diet, and following one lion, in a single day Bee came upon two deer and one young beef, slaughtered but only partially eaten. He estimates a grown lion kills ten calves or young beefs in a year. The worst offenders are the old lions with aging teeth and energy, who resort to cattle killing because it is less strenuous. Some conservationists estimate a large lion will average a deer kill ever three or four days.
The most difficult animals to catch in a trap are lobo wolves and coyotes. Lobos weigh close to a hundred pounds, while the largest coyote Bee weighed called forty-nine, but there is no essential difference in their anatomical proportions. However, rumor has elaborated tales of their cunning, and Bee disparages stories of sly old canines picking up the pronged trap drag in their mouth and thus running for miles. Bee asserts what really occurred is that the caught animal merely rolled over in the chain, which twists around his body and keeps the drag off the ground and allowed him to go considerable distance without the prongs of the trap drag catching on the brush.
Bee first trapped in 1916 when he was thirteen year old. At seventeen, he was taking coyotes regularly. Since 1921, he has trapped each year, giving him many years to perfect his trapping methods. He is constantly making observations of animal habits, and devising ways to improve his technique. He is firm exponent of making sets; scents and actions around a set appear as natural as possible. “The more natural a thing is,” he confided to me, “the less time I have to take with it to make a good set, and I’m always in a hurry.”
As a result of many years’ close observation, Bee has amassed an astonishing amount of detail concerning the habits of all the animals he traps for. He can tell whether a track was made by a male or female, how fast it was traveling, whether it was hunting or merely touring. By the dung, he ascertains what they have been feeding on, and make his sets where they will likely be hunting for this type of food. He can rattle off a list of any animals diet peculiarities.
“Coyotes? They eat rabbits, young fawns, chipmunks, turkeys and smaller ground birds, occasionally gang up on a newly born calf; like a lamb, young goats, chickens, certain insects, and are also very fond of watermelon, sweet potatoes, peanuts, grapes, apples, when they can get those fruits,” and he will go on to mention a host of other vittles one would hardly expect coyote to include in his diet.
“It’s taken me years to learn all this stuff,” Bee reminisced, telling me of the many baits, scents, and sets he has experimented with. “I learned the hard way. But I could pass it all along to a smart fellow in from sixty to ninety days.” Unlike other trappers, he does not jealously guard his trapping secrets or give mis-information. He answers any question about his methods, very frankly and completely. “Fellows can go around my lines with me, watch me closely, and still not be able to catch nearly as much as I do. It’s because they try only to learn the set methods, not the animal’s habits. The reason is just as important as the rule,” he explains.
Everything on Bee’s line is systematized. He has developed an efficient routine for all his actions, standardizes his sets as much as possible. His speed at resetting traps so impressed me that I held a watch on him, without his knowledge. The entire resetting time, including replacing and rebating the set, was two minutes and fifteen seconds. His technique for skinning out pelts he claims enables him to handing six coyote skins per hour, half the time needed by many experts.
Long hours and efficient methods enable Bee to run longer lines, catch more fur than competitors. His prize worry is that he will earn less total monthly points than some other state employer trapper. Each state trapper gets a certain number of points per pelt or scalp for each specie of animal trapped - the larger and more offensive the predator, the more points allowed for its capture. At month’s end, each trapper’s points are totaled and the published results sent to other trapper’s. Each man can see how he rates, and the low man is apt to lose his job if he repeats too often.
Not infrequently self-employed trappers will visit Bee, and wonder at the apparent ease and carelessness with which he handles the traps, and his paradoxically high catches. Not long ago a free-lance trapper who caught fifty coyotes during the entire past winter watched Bee take six coyotes from the traps in one morning’s rounds.
“I don’t see how you can catch anything, let alone so much,” the visitor lamented. “You do everything so fast, and you don’t even wear gloves.”
Bee tells me the less time a trapper spends around a set, the less human odor he leaves. “As for gloves,” he scoffed, “after a few days a pair of gloves will hold more odor than a man’s clean hand.” He habitually washes his hands whenever he gets the chance, never leaves any tobacco or spit around a set, but says his no-smoke no-spit policy has no correlation to his trapping methods.
Before state hired him in 1937, Bee trapped for himself and for cattlemen. Ranchers are anxious to have an expert trapper reducing stock losses on their premises, and for inducement furnished Bee with free grub and bunk, string of horses, traps, a bounty for each animal killed, and Bee sold the fur for his own gain. At odd times he is approached by some cattleman who is losing heavily to predators. With one lion slaughtering perhaps four to five hundred dollars worth of beef each year, ranchers can afford handsome bounties. Bee has trapped for cattle, sheep, and goat raisers. His proficiency is recognized as far away as Sonora, Mexico, whence came the most recent proposition of a Sonoran rancher who offered to pay a salary, all expenses, plus forty pesos (eight American dollars plus) bounty for each predator.
Depending on the country, Bee figures it takes about three to four months to clean out a 160 section area, and three years for the animals to move back in and multiply to near their original number. Before the state put him on a salary, they paid him by the animal, with bounties. Bee says he works harder under salary, as under bounty system he felt free to take time off to hunt or study animal habits, could also pick an area with denser predator population.
When Bee discovers fresh lion sign (tracks, dung, or peculiar scratches large lions habitually make in pine needles) he takes a day or two off to go lion hunting with dogs. Idea is to find last night’s fresh track before morning sun hits it and “burns” away the scent, let hounds cold trail until lion is jumped from where he is bedded for the day. Fast dogs on fresh track will force lion to tree or hide in a cave, where they keep guard and howl until hunters arrive. Bee shoots lions with a little .22 rifle, and one day when he thought he had a lion in a trap, and my horse gave out, I told him I would wait until he returned, and offered the loan of my gun as he ad left his in camp. “Oh, I’ll kill him with a rock,” he matter- of- factly refused.
Close escapes happen all the time. Closes escape from an animal was not while trapping, but on a hunting trip in Old Mexico where three javelina boars (wild hogs) charged him in a cave. He managed to shoot all three with a .32 caliber pistol he carried. Bee likes to hunt in Mexico, is well acquainted there and plans to take some friends down the next chance he gets.
According to regulation, Bee is entitled to Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday off. In reality, his only time off is when he comes to town to buy provisions and have a brief visit with his wife and three daughters. At home besides his family he has young dogs of all ages and a few chickens. He is very proud of his young dogs and will talk expansively on the genealogy of their strain, and how he raises and trains all his hounds.
For relaxation, he listens to a portable phonograph, reads the newspapers. He very seldom goes to town in the evening, takes no pleasure in light entertainment. Working twelve to sixteen hours a day doesn’t give him time away from his job. He enjoys talking to his friends and neighbors, keeps well informed on current events, but visits downtown Tucson, about eight miles from his home near Rillito Creek on the north edge of the city, only when necessary.
His big ambition is to have a hunting camp down in Sonora where he can take dude hunters. He knows the country well, likes the people there and the easy manner of living.
Until then, he says, he’s going to keep right on trapping. “It’s a harder life than digging ditches,” he told me. “I work long hours, my work is never done, I’m caught away from camp at night without blankets about three tires a month, and endure all sorts of hardship. Still and all, I’d rather trap than work at anything else.”
This was sort of hard for me to digest. I had seen firsthand trapping’s tribulations, had seen his worn-out horse lead home the last few miles, seen Bee arrive in camp so fatigued he didn’t bother to light a wood fire under sheet iron grill rests precariously on rock supports but made his evening meal out of cold lima beans and bread, slip off his shoes and jeans and crawl into his blankets. I thought of all these things, and the “saddle bumps” he has on his legs, the result of imperfect circulation caused by long days in the saddle.
“Why?” I asked him.
He thought a moment before answering.
“Well, I average about five bucks a day on this job, excluding the time I’m supposed to take off. If I was working in town or at any other job for that wage, there’d be someone standing over me all the time telling me just what to do and just how to do it. This way, I turn in top catches and nobody ever tells me anything except where to trap. I like it just fine.”
|© 2003 Chronicles of Bob|