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2750 words 5 pix
Submitted by-
Rob F. Sanderson
724 Edgewater,
Portage, WIS

Sky Road to Spring Rats
by Rob F. Sanderson

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to do your trapping from an airplane, to do “spot trapping” from the sky?

Here’s a couple of toe-pinchers that are pilots as well and they combine their sports for this trip into isolated lakes for spring rats

Sky Road to Spring Rats
by Rob F. Sanderson

          It has always interested me that more trappers have not made use of the airplane. In the lake districts of the north of the flat regions of the west, a plane has always seemed to me an ideal form of transportation around long lines. As both a trapper and a pilot, I inquired around for several years without finding our much definite information. To get the dope first hand, I had to try it myself.

          Perhaps a brief account of a spring trapping trip by airplane would interest the readers of F-F-G. The particular trips recounted here was not a long one but it will serve to give the reader an idea of the advantages and the problems involved in running a trapline from the air. My partner, Henry Sieger, is an old time trapper and flying boat pilot from the RCAF Air Ferries. Our ship is a two-place, 85 hp, all metal Luscombe on Edo #1400 pontoons. We packed the baggage compartment behind the seat with traps, rubber boots, a small inflatable rubber raft, collapsible paddle, axe, and other standard trapping equipment.

          Our plan was to trap the muskrat pockets on the northern lakes as soon as the ice was out. Late breakup delayed our start for a few days after the spring season opened, for although the flowing streams were open, we needed the wide expanse of the lakes for landing and taking off. Unless a pond or lake had a good half mile of straight open stretch we weren’t much interested in getting in or our of it with a heavy load of traps and equipment aboard. At last the day we awaited arrived; the northern lakes had begun to open, and we were soon flying northward through the sun warmed spring air.

          Now, it is common knowledge that on the larger lakes rats do not abound everywhere, and it was on the larger lakes we would be trapping the first few days, since they opened first. Rats on the larger lakes are found mostly in coves and sheltered bays, in protected waters where there is plenty of underwater feed in the shallows. These productive fur pockets are often isolated and hard to reach except by long boat trips, and therefore may be trapped but seldom. Often the rats there will multiply to large numbers.

          The first afternoon we landed in a sheltered bay near a creek mouth, a very likely spot easily picked out from the air. We beached the ship on a sand bar, I set off along the shore in hip boots, and Henry inflated the little rubber raft and paddled off to investigate a very ratty looking, muck-bottomed cove which could not be reached by hip boots. The water was at a high level and flooded back somewhat from the normal shore.

          Along the shore I found droppings on logs and occasional feed beds. The rat sign was not thick, but then the ice had not been out long enough for much of it to accumulate. Also, we cold count on a good number of traveling rats passing through, as a cove like this one is sure to be investigated by any rat that happens along the lakeshore. This being the start of the “running season”, we had a good chance to pick up a lot of strays that did not live there regularly.

          Because of the very mucky bottom I was not able to wade out very far, and sometimes was not sure of drowning water. At places like these I set a Blake & Lamb Surehold trop to prevent wring-offs, and they did an excellent job when the pin release for the extra arm was lightly set. I put out about fifteen traps and returned to meet Henry at the airplane. He arrived in about twenty minutes, rather out of sorts with the rubber craft. It was his first experience paddling one of these little rafts around, and of course they paddle like a washtub. Henry claimed the raft whirled him round & round so much he was dizzy and doubted if he could find all his traps again, for he was trapping in a maze of boggy passageways. However, Henry felt he head put in some good sets, since rats like to feed on these offshore bogs when possible.

          From here we flew low down the shore for about five minutes (about an hour by small outboard boat) and landed at a much smaller bay. By wading around the shallow shores we found placed for about ten traps. It was small but good rat shore, since it could be reached only by private road and the road was posted. With the second batch of traps out we returned to headquarters at the end of the lake, a spot we had chosen because of a good sand beach to ground the plane at night. If a bad wind kicks up during the night, any rocks or snags along the shore can damage the thin aluminum skin of the pontoons in a short time.

          The next day we were in the air before sunup, with full tanks of gas. We planned to do some wide prospecting and map out a relatively long line to run until the end of the season. At our first stop we taxied up the creek mouth and anchored the ship well inside the cove - leaving the ship on the outer beach yesterday had required too much walking through flooded dense brush before we got to the traps. We split up as before, Henry taking the raft.

          My first trap held only a foot, one of the few wring-offs of the season. Although the trap was staked in deep water, the rat had tangled around the only large twig within chain distance and had wrung off a front foot. Trap two was empty and trap three was sprung. Four and five were feed bed sets and both had rats. From floating log sets I took two more rats, and three from the Surehold traps set in the shallows. Seven rats our of fifteen traps made the season ahead look pretty good, even though this was but one isolated pocket.

          I met Henry back at the plane. True to his prophecy, he had failed to find two of his traps, but he had five rats with him in the raft anyway. We sat down to rest after the hard wading and paddling, and skinned the rats out. It is our policy to skin the rats out at the plane, since these small planes have a rather low baggage weight limit. Ours was 80 lbs., which can be easily exceeded by thirty good-sized, water-soaked rats and some other equipment. You may think this limited weight carrying capacity is quite a handicap on the trap line when you have to move a lot of traps and other equipment around, and it is. When we need to move much heavy equipment we make a ferry trip, leaving one man at home, and thus can carry two hundred pounds of freight at one haul.

          From our next fur pocket we took three rats, and although there were other pockets nearby that we planned to set at, we left them for later in the day as we wanted to look at some other lakes forty or fifty miles distant. A half hour later we were soaring over them, considerably disappointed because they had not yet opened. Smaller than the big lakes and considerably higher in elevation, the weather had not yet been warm enough to break them open although in flying low across them we could see the ice was pretty well honey-combed. At the lower end of one, two rats sat humped up feeding on the edge of an open hole, so we knew where some of the fur would come from later to keep our stretching boards warm.

          We returned to the main lake and set out more traps in pockets along the shore, and a few in a nearby pond that lay in the deep woods not a quarter of a mile from the lake. Until I saw it from the air, I never knew this pond was there, and I suppose it is seldom trapped. There was a lot of good sign near the outlet but I could only find good sets for five traps. Much of the shallow shoreline was overflowed and offered no set places.

          By night all our traps were set out and we had not yet begun to cover the territory we planned. Henry and I thumbed a ride into a nearby town where a trapper friend lived; I knew he was not trapping that spring and would loan us any traps he had, but it so happened most of his traps were larger sizes. By sorting around the garage and basement we finally assembled over five dozen useable rattraps, and after a few cups of coffee in the kitchen our friend drove us back to headquarters. From him we learned of several excellent rats ground in isolated lakes, which could not be reached by auto because of soft spring road conditions.

          In the morning the air was warmer and the wind was from the south. This was good news to us while we waited for the smaller lakes to open. On our morning line we took twenty-three rats from sixty traps set on the main lake. We set no additional traps there because we anticipated that the hides would soon be getting cut up by spring fighting, whereas on the slower lakes to open the hides would stay better longer. On our way in from the last traps we circled for a look at a couple of the smaller, somewhat higher lakes and noted that one in particular had gained quite a bit of open water that day.

          Already we were running short of stretchers and we devoted the afternoon to hunting material and fashioning out suitable fur forms. A big pile of shingles supplied a few dozen, and I bummed a few old fruit crates from the store down the road and made a fair number from them. The disadvantage of trapping with an airplane in strange country is that you never have any extra supplies on hand when you need them. The next spring trapping campaign Henry and I plan, one of us will take the car and trailer and meet the plane at the edge of the trapping grounds. This way we will have plenty of traps, stretchers, and other equipment on hand.

          Our trip around the line the next morning yielded twenty rats, and one trap lost because some larger animal got caught and pulled the stake out. The weather held warm, and the wind having strengthened from the south, we now felt that one lake in particular would be open in the country we had our eye on. This lake lay north-south and would be just right for the wind to break the ice. We flew over it about noon and the lower end was completely ice free. The layout of the land around the lake didn’t suit us too well, since hills abutted all sides except the south end. After three careful circles we landed on the lower end and taxied to the outlet where the land was boggy and ratty looking.

          We set about forty traps along the lakeshore and along the creek banks for a quarter of a mile below the lake. Rats had been working in the creek and sign was fairly abundant. The shores of the creek being both very boggy and very brushy, I made all sets using the raft. The current was a bit too strong to push the patience-trying raft back upstream, and when the creek ran against high ground I pulled the raft out, deflated it, and walked back overland.

          We set about forty traps along the lakeshore and along the creek banks for a quarter of a mile below the lake. Rats had been working in the creek and sign was fairly abundant. The shores of the creek being both very boggy and very brushy, I made all sets using the raft. The current was a bit too strong to push the patience-trying raft back upstream, and when the creek ran against high ground I pulled the raft out, deflated it, and walked back overland.

          The following morning the weather changed for the sadder. The sky was heavily clouded and a melancholy drizzle was falling. Off toward the hills we could see that no flying would be done there that day, but over our lake itself we were able to fly safely at low altitude above the water. Our catch in the pockets down the lake fell off the seventeen, despite the damp weather, so we moved a good share of our non-producing sets and placed a good number of traps in new coves. That afternoon when we were at the store buying some supplies a traveling fur buyer came through and offered to buy all our rats. Since this included everything stretched and unstretched, and would solve our fur stretcher bottleneck, and we were offered within ten cents of our price, we let them go.

          During the night a terrific wind came up from straight down the bay. I went down to the ship several times to make sure that it was not rocking or rubbing, and to see that the lines were secure. In the morning the wind had not let up much and the water off our beach was too rough for take-off. So we taxied about a mile down the lake to sheltered water and took off from there. Our morning catch from the big lake was eighteen rats, but we had to skip a few of the smaller coves where there was not enough protected water for a take-off. These big swells can throw a plane around for a terrific bouncing before it reaches take-off speed and can spring the rivets on the bottom stringers.

          Tending the traps on the upper lake was something of a worry because the wind was strong from the north, and there was a high bluff at the north end of this lake. This condition would cause a dangerous downdraught and make climbing out of the narrow valley a risky business. To eliminate weight I flew Henry back to headquarters with the unskinned rats to work on, siphoned out all the gasoline not needed on the trip, and took off alone.

          Landing into the wind on the lower end was easy. I tied the nose of the ship to a big tree on a point and let the craft drift off from shore with the wind while I went to run the traps. The lake traps did not produce well, probably because the rats had not yet done much running along the lake, but the traps in the stream held fourteen rats from twenty-three sets, and not a single lost rat. When trapping from the rubber raft I find it easier to stake traps in deep water and as a result few rats escape.

          Returning with the skinned rats to the lake, I warmed the motor up well and studied the nature of the surly wind ruffling the water in gusts. The air was rough and full of pockets. By the time I reached the downdraught at the upper end I was in the air with enough altitude to make a downwind turn. This lost me some altitude but enabled me to fly out of the valley southward instead of over the ridge. From later experience with this lake we found that almost every other morning the wind would not be right and one of us would have to take the ship alone. Sometimes on a very small lake that requires a certain wind, traps will have to wait three or four days.

          The weather soon turned warmer, and our spell of north wind had loosened most of the ice that the south wind had not. We were busy all day long prospecting and moving our traps to new lakes. Before long we had all our traps moved off the main lake where the run was slowing down and the hides were getting badly slashed up. Getting from one small lake to another, mooring the plane, inflating the life raft, etc. took a longer time than we had planned and we were busy all day long.

          At the end of the season we were really percolating with hardly enough time to cook our meals and look after the oil changes and miscellaneous maintenance on the airplane. We had not begun to cover the country we had planned, owing to a rather late breakup, and as a result our catch was somewhat below expectations. However, it was above the general average since air travel had been a big advantage in getting to lakes that could not be reached by surface transportation at this time of the year. We were able to trap lakes in which, without the plane, we could not have set a single trap. A lot of the success of spring trapping by air depends on an early break-up.

          While an airplane is a big advantage, it brings it s own private headaches. A spell of dirty, misty weather can keep a ship grounded for a couple of days during which the boat and car trapper make their best hauls. Wind conditions are variable and can keep the pilot-trapper out of certain lakes when not favorable in strengths and direction. And on a lot of those isolated lakes my fingers were crossed during the first few take-offs and landings, as hitting a stump or a log would have spoiled the rest of the season for us.

          Then there is the added expense of operating the ship, an expense which has to be deducted from the total fur returns. But to Henry and I, who like the sport of lying just as well as we like the sport of trapping, it makes a double sport. We’re sold on the idea even though, we’ll tell you confidentially, it’s hard to make any great fortune above what a good trapper can make with a boat, afoot, or with an auto trap line.

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob