Working with a partner on a trapline has pros and cons. Here’s how to make sure it ends in success — not disaster.
Text by Cary Rideout
Photography by Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
Few enterprises are as solo as trapping. The image of the lone fur hunter carefully setting and checking is a classic, for sure. But does the sport have to always be a one-man show? Is there merit to perhaps taking on a partner in the coming campaign, someone like yourself who works the woods no matter the markets? In the current turmoil our sport is weathering, there may be no better time than now to form a partnership.
My schoolboy trapline team-ups were mostly out of necessity, especially since my line of steel was equal to the fingers of one hand. My first partner was the kid on the next farm over who had a whopping 11 traps, plus was a better skinner and became the boss in the fur shed. An old turkey house on my family’s place became our trappers’ shed and we lined the walls with weasels, ‘coons and ‘rats. Most first-time team-ups were similar with the combination of more tools or skills, offering the same appeal today.
Good partners work well together out on the line, often with little direction or even much talking. Over time, partners might not even see each other for a day or two while operating in widely separated sections, meeting up at prearranged sites to keep in touch or exchange rough fur destined for the processing shed. Other team trappers prefer to do all checking together, enjoying the company and the efficiency. We all know that a double or triple set is never a poor plan, and two can check multiple sets in a hotspot, like an old beaver lodge, much more smoothly than a single trapper.
Fur trapping with one or more partners has deep traditions, with good reason, too. At one time a person heading out past the settlements to the way-off country was wise to have another set of eyes and ears to avoid danger — not to mention lay out a line. Partnering up was the norm, and while we often think of a single trader or trapper heading out, in reality groups of fur hunters pursued plews.
Some of the really big outfits were comprised of several dozen trappers, camp workers, meat hunters and livestock wranglers. These large partnerships in the heyday of the beaver trade worked for months up through big watersheds, fanning out over a hundred miles before returning to base camp. Such old stalwarts as the Hudson Bay Co., American Fur Co., Missouri Fur Co. and, of course, the Nor ’Westers, all fielded massive trapping brigades that hauled out astonishing numbers of pelts. One record of an HBC trapping brigade pulled more than 155 beavers in one check alone — a real pelting job there! But, with skinners back at camp, work was efficiently divided to allow the steel to be set fast. All of this can be duplicated today, albeit on a much smaller scale with another set of hands.
Choosing a partner is something that often happens unexpectedly in some odd places. Maybe that longtime competitor who has kept you on your toes across water and woods offers to join forces. It might be a mink trapper over in the next county or someone from a work situation comes along. Perhaps you`re watching a sports game or a demo at a trapping convention, or maybe the guy in the camo jacket next to you at the feed store mentions the raccoons are eating his crops. Some partners just seem to fall into step together with no real effort and that’s about the best. Many times a competitor can be a fine partner as they are often just as determined as you are. This kind of person can bring plenty of grit, a good array of equipment and hopefully more country to set.
Trappers all have an eye over the horizon and few years pass when I don’t study away off in the distance, wondering what fur possibilities are over there. But with a partner and double the drive, maybe it can be more than a dream. Ask them about it and don’t be surprised if they’re equally keen to try new ground. A good team-up could be a water wader running the wet, while a dirt expert keeps the topsoil turned. Each can put down the steel in the way they like and all bases can be covered.
The Not So Good
Now, we all have bad moods and speak harsh at times, so here’s some valuable advice from a thin-skinned fellow. Don’t be quick to snap at your partner. Bad tempers can ruin the day and as adults hopefully we can gloss over any shortness. My temper gets riled mighty quick, more so if the darn coyotes are being truculent.
I had a trapline blow up once over a spitting incident. My partner was prone to chew gum and occasionally he’d spit out the wad. One snowy morning after getting the Dodge stuck twice and finding a long string of fisher sets empty, he hawked out his gum right under a pole set. Before I caught myself I slammed down the axe and ragged him out about his poor habits. Fortunately, he was a slower-to-anger sort and after a few hours of silence we were able to continue trapping together without any bodily injures. And don’t think I’m kidding here, either. More than one team has ended in anger over real or perceived slights.
Sadly, there are all sorts of underhanded shenanigans that do happen sometimes between partners. The sort of trouble we’ve all heard about, such as hoarding fur or working an undisclosed side line. Oh, you young guys are saying that’s impossible? But it sure isn’t. A retired trapper who put up 200 beavers a season liked to talk about his early years partnering. He managed to get a local trapper to take him on as a partner in the hopes of getting some good practical fur education. But all too soon he realized he was doing all of the packing, camp work and learning very little, while working very hard. Come fur sale day, the other trapper hardly acknowledged his efforts, offering a few dollars saying the real bonus was working with a pro! Such shady dealings are rare but need to be watched for — so keep an eye out.
Probably the worst partner, next to a chronic complainer (and we all growl sometimes!), is the lawbreaker. The sneak-thieves, the out-of-season outlaws, those fur-lifters who spend as much time watching out for the wardens as they do looking for the best place to trap. No matter the temptation, avoid this partner, even if you are offered a golden opportunity to trap a fur Eldorado. Regulations are there for a reason and we need to be lawful citizens dawn to dusk. The anti-trappers are lurking everywhere just hoping you’ll trip up, so never team up with a crook no matter how they talk themselves up.
Before You Trap
So you have some traps and I have some traps so let’s get going! Whoa there slow down and consider a few thing first before hitting the high country. Most of us have traps that for whatever reason we don’t always get around to setting. Maybe you bought a selection of steel on a whim or you just don’t pursue fox like you once did. Human nature changes over time and few trappers don’t have a bundle of long unset steel somewhere. But with a new outlook perhaps this steel can be used.
Another trapper might be in the same boat with water tools and no water. Swapping steel can get more on the ground while keeping you at the work you are best at. The opposite can be true when someone has plenty of territory but are trap-poor. Be honest when discussing any team-up and be open to changing your usual operations. Partnerships are very easy to mess up if the little things aren’t clear right off the get-go.
Pelting is a crucial consideration when teaming up, especially if you are used to selling green, while your new opposite is a skinner par excellence. Where are you going to process and dry? Will there be enough work room, sufficient fur forms and freezer storage for the increase in production? Will work, home or other commitments need consideration, particularly in relation to check times? There’s plenty to iron out because trapping time is limited and no one person should shoulder all of the heavy lifting, so keep things equal.
Along with additional steel, another possible team-up perk could be transportation improvements. A partner might bring a larger 4×4 truck with more reliable traction abilities. If this is the case, offer to keep the fuel tank topped up. Whoever supplies the wheels is adding wear and tear to the vehicle, so your offering to keep the gas coming will be welcome. Same goes for the ATV/UTV. A machine with more hauling capabilities can open up new prospects, quickly cover more territory and boost pelt potential. Perhaps one of you can supply a trailer for extra hauling on setting and picking-up day. The same goes for a snowmobile. One of these can be a boon to access prime country after Jack Frost moves in. I haven’t had a snowmobile for a couple seasons, but if a potential partner brought a new snow-tamer to the discussion I’d jump at it. Water transport can also be a useful addition with a trapping partner. Canoes or kayaks, V-hulls or maybe an old but sound outboard are in a trap shed somewhere waiting for a partnership. You`ll both come up with all kinds of useful equipment you haven’t considered in ages.
Maybe one of you has a cabin to work from or can gain permission to use one. After hunting season is past, many folks never visit their deer camp or lakeside cottage until the snow melts. A pull-behind camper is a great way to work a section of country comfortably. Sure the image of a snowy tent looks great, but believe me, a couple mornings of below zero temperatures cures that real quick. Brrr!
A slide-in truck camper is something that many outdoorsmen have and these is much better than any tent. Too often, potential partners get bogged down with how many traps they can field, ignoring all of the equally important considerations that must be addressed.
Learn and Pass It On
Working with a trapline partner can boost your skill set, especially if their methods or targets differ from yours. Say you’re unfamiliar with snaring, a partner can offer instruction on this tool, especially with wire/lock combinations that can be a little troublesome to a beginner.
I had a lucky break early on with a fellow who was a snare wizard. Although we only partnered briefly, it really helped demystify the world of wires and locks. He`d spend more time carefully looking for the correct spot than seemed necessary to me, but the results couldn`t be denied. As a proponent of entanglement, he routinely passed up sites that he felt the chances of a quick snag were dicey. Part of it was the experience he`d gained with the snares of the ‘40s and ‘50s when locks were as individual as the personalities of the users. His honest effort to pass along useful guidance has remained with me, and I encourage all trappers to share the hard-earned trade secrets so that the new generation can keep the fur on its toes.
Check the Fine Print
We live in a litigious age where many folks are only too eager to bring in the lawyers. Most trappers are not too concerned with formalities and many run with a partner only on a handshake. But, it might be smart to get a few certainties down before any steel hits the ground. Are you willing to share all scouting, setting and skinning work, plus the proceeds equally? Are all financial investments or costs to be split — such as fuel, licenses and breakdowns? These are not easy considerations to discuss, but in today’s court-obsessed world they need to be addressed.
Any serious trapline is going to burn through cash, and who pays is just as important as who cooks, so get it hashed out early on. I’m very serious here because a new friendship needs to be cared for with no unfortunate misunderstandings that can boil into real issues. Gone are the days of when carrying half the load was enough. Along with these decisions new trapping partners need to agree on the line check times, start and finish dates, amount of effort per area and how to handle any problems like thievery or weather changes. Do you pull traps if winter comes early, or are you both die-hard-to-the-end types? Some folks are the detail planners, while others never worry about next week, so if your personalities are not quite compatible, you can’t work efficiently together without a few clear directions.
Taking on a trapline partner might be just the ticket during these difficult days and a way to energize lagging spirits. Sharing the success or frustration, exchanging methods and time in the pelting shed are all great. But, just being out on the land is one of the real profits of any good team.