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The Great American Fish Trap (part 2)

In this column last week, Lamar, Lurch and I had interrupted our fishing session to discuss the art of animal trap making and related crafts. Drawing on our experiences of the previous winter, we had concluded our discussion of the pit trap, in which we had caught a weasel and ready to move on to the skunk trap. It didn’t really start out to be a skunk trap. It was just a general kind of trap in which we were going to try to catch some fur bearing critters and make our fortune selling animal pelts. Although none of had ever sold an animal pelt, we had read stories about the great trappers of the western frontier and how they would come to the trading post after a winter of trapping and exchange their furs for gold. None of us had ever seen gold either. But I digress.

Materials for trap making were pretty scarce around Morgan County in those days. We certainly didn’t have money to buy stuff. Our chief trap engineer, Lurch, found an old whisky barrel with some of the staves rotted out and Lamar found some chicken wire from the chicken pen Mr. Snipes had built the year before. The fact that chickens were still occupying the pen was a bit of a problem but it did not seem insurmountable. Lamar simply tied one of the Snipes German Shepherd Dogs right in front of the hole left in the chicken pen where the wire had been removed. Very few of the chickens tried to escape past the dog and the ones that tried were largely unsuccessful. We now had our barrel and wire. Seemed like that should pretty much take care of the basics.

We covered the holes where staves were missing with the chicken wire. We covered one open end with wire. The other open end was the trap door so to speak. We found some scrap 2x2’s and built a frame over which we stretched more chicken wire. We attached the wire-covered frame to the open end of the barrel with two other pieces of wire, sort of like a hinge. In theory the door would be held open until our furry critter was in the trap. A triggering mechanism would then release the door, which would slam shut, thus trapping the animal inside. Although the theory seemed sound, the reality was that we didn’t know how to hold the door open, or build a triggering mechanism, or keep the door shut to keep the critter inside. We obviously had more work to do.

Lurch spent two days meticulously working out the details of the trap. The result was simplicity itself. We simply positioned the trap under a low-hanging branch of a smoothed- barked poplar tree close to a well traveled game trail. We put heavy fishing weights on the bottom of the door so it would slam shut and stay shut when the animal sprung the trap. A heavy kite string was tied to the bottom of the trapdoor. It was then run up and over the lowest branch of the poplar tree and brought down through the chicken wire on the top of trap. The string was pulled to open the door and then loose end was tied to a tiny little thread, which was fastened to the floor of the trap. The thread was so thin that the slightest pressure would break it and the door would come slamming down. The trap was baited with our usual bait, a dead fish.

For the first three nights nothing happened at the trap, unless you consider the ripening of the baitfish a happening. On the morning after the fourth night we approached the trap in the early dawn light with our usual enthusiasm. Unlike the previous mornings we actually saw movement in the trap. “Ha,” Lamar said, “We got us something, a bobcat or a raccoon maybe”. A raccoon would be OK. Coonskin caps were popular. Lurch beat the rest of us to the trap. It was hard to see in the faint morning light so Lurch stuck his face down to look in the end of the trap “It’s a damn sk…” He never finished the sentence. The fresh morning air that had been subtly scented with a four-day-old dead fish took on a new character. The aroma no longer subtle, but rich, full-bodied, and pungent wafted from the trap and particularly from Lurch. He was the least popular kid at home and school for the next two days.

Later that morning Lamar and I climbed up the tree above the trap and pulled the door open with the long kite string. The skunk walked majestically out of the trap, ambled down the trail and turned just as he was about to go out if sight as if to say “Don’t ever let this happen again.” We never did.