NORTH OF GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — For Tom Chapin, this late November day was the one he anticipates more than any other among his outdoor pursuits. More than the fishing opener. More than any hunting season opener.
It was the day that Chapin, of Grand Rapids, got to check pine marten and fisher traps with his trapping partner Dan Hertle.
“I kind of wait for this day every year,” Chapin said. “After we go through a lot of effort, Dan and I, setting the traps, checking the traps three days later is really exciting. You never know what you’re going to find.”
“It’s not just about the critters,” Hertle, also of Grand Rapids. “We get fur, but it’s more just being out there.”
Hertle, 57, and Chapin, 70, are selective in their trapping. They trap only marten and fisher — no beaver, muskrats, otter or mink. The men are throwbacks in the trapping community. They travel primarily by foot and canoe. For the past 15 years — since Chapin retired as a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer — they have trapped together on about 5,000 acres of Chippewa National Forest land.
Most trappers these days drive their traplines, hopping out to check a couple of sets here, a couple there. Chapin and Hertle park once and walk all morning checking a half-dozen traps. One of them backtracks and gets into a canoe, paddling across a small lake to meet the other and to check their final four traps. If the lake is frozen and the snow is deep, they might cross the lake by snowmobile and check traps on snowshoes.
“If you’re into it for the numbers, most people wouldn’t go to the effort we do,” said Hertle, a Department of Natural Resources forest technician. “We’re just looking for a few animals.”
They have little competition.
“In 15 years, we’ve never seen another human or another footprint,” Chapin said.
Chapin and Hertle ventured out to make their first trap checks of the season on Nov. 29, three days after the season opener. Hertle wore an ash pack basket on his back. Chapin had shouldered a weathered Duluth pack.
Seventeen inches of an earlier snow were melting fast in a November thaw, and a light rain fell. The woods were wet and getting wetter.
Marten and fisher season is a tiny window among Minnesota’s hunting and trapping seasons. It opened Nov. 26 and closed Dec. 1 — a six-day season. The limit is equally restrictive. Each trapper can take just two of the animals — either one marten and one fisher or two of either species.
Members of the weasel family, pine marten and fisher are two of the least observed and most elusive creatures that roam the north woods. An adult marten weighs about 2 pounds. A female adult fisher weighs 6 to 8 pounds, a male up to 13 pounds. Fisher, especially, have large territories. Both species den in tree cavities and prey on squirrels, among other small mammals. Chapin and Hertle trap in older forests, where squirrels are plentiful and standing dead trees provide good den habitat.
The two men aren’t in trapping for the money. They rarely sell a hide on the commercial fur market. If they are lucky enough to trap a few animals each fall, they are more likely to keep the finished pelts or have them tanned and sewn into caps or garments. Hertle has a hat made from fisher pelts. Chapin had a marten-fur hat made for his wife from five pelts.
On the trapline
The two trappers approached their first set and found the trap unoccupied. The trap, a body-gripping 220 Conibear style that kills an animal instantly, remained set. Square in shape, the trap sits
vertically in an open-ended box of coated cardboard. Wire mesh covers the back end of the trap. Chunks of bait — venison trimmings — are placed inside at the back of the trap. As a marten or fisher enters the box on the way to the bait, it springs the trap, which clamps across the animal’s neck or body, killing it.
Marten and fisher sets are off the ground several feet, usually on a leaning tree. A marten or fisher typically would have to walk along the tree several feet to reach the trap.
The trap Hertle and Chapin were inspecting originally had been placed atop compacted snow. Now, though, it had slipped to the side of the leaning tree as the snow had melted. Chapin and Hertle had to right it, supporting it with branches to keep it level. That would prove to be the case at nearly every trap they checked that day.
As they were leaving the set, Chapin spied something in the receding snow.
“Dan,” he called. “Look here. There’s fresh fisher tracks.”
Sure enough, two roundish paw prints, each a couple of inches wide, had compressed the snow on a log the fisher had crossed.
“We can’t explain why he came through here and didn’t go to our bait,” Chapin said.
Tales in the snow
On they walked through the mostly hardwood forest — old, tall trees with an open understory. Maple, birch, aspen, cedar and basswood dominated the landscape.
Near another unsprung trap that had tipped on its side after the snowmelt, the men saw where a pine marten had come bouncing along, its pawprints in pairs every foot or so in the snow.
“One thing about trapping with snow on the ground — it’s like a big storybook,” Hertle said. “You can piece together the story.”
If Hertle and Chapin decide to sell any furs this year, they won’t get much for them. Fur prices vary year to year based on the vagaries of the international fur market, driven mainly by demand in China and Russia.
“The year before, I sold a marten for $80,” Hertle said. “This year, I’d have to sell two marten to get $80.”
A fisher might bring $60, Chapin said.
On the land
At midday, the men went separate ways for a time. Hertle kept walking, checking more traps. The trappers met again after Chapin drove to his cabin and paddled a canoe across a small lake. He checked another trap on the far shore. Again, no critter.
He rejoined Hertle on the lakeshore for lunch. The day was drab and wet and gray. Light snow fell. Hertle built a small warming fire and shared his venison sausage. He had good news. One of the traps he checked had a marten in it. After lunch, they planned to return to the trap and claim the marten. It would be the only animal they would find that day.
Chapin and Hertle take their trapping seriously, but they do not rate the quality of their experience solely on the number of furs they accumulate.
“The best thing about it is to get out in the woods,” Chapin said. “It’s the exercise, the uniqueness of the animals we’re trapping. We never see anybody else in the area. We’re all alone. It’s just the aura of the woods this time of year. It’s a perfect time, before the winter sets in, to be in the woods.”
After lunch, the men hiked to two more traps and claimed the very damp pine marten from one of them. The marten’s fur was a deep mahogany in color with the light amber patch under its chin. He would tan up nicely.
The trappers walked back to the lakeshore and the remnants of their lunch fire. They tossed their gear in the canoe and paddled across the lake into the softly falling snow.