By Roland Welker
It was late December, but an ongoing problem on my trapline was causing some most un-holiday-like consternation. A lone wolf had moved in and was living off the fat of my trapline. The peltry lost to the appetite of this bandit had reached into the thousand-dollar range, and I knew I would miss that money. To trap as much as I do requires a payday at line’s end, to cover the bills and maintain or replace hard-used equipment.
Wolf numbers in interior Alaska have been sky-high for several years now. Once-mighty herds of caribou have been laid low, and many in the bush are living on fish. Now, on top of that disturbing actuality, a particularly cunning canine had figured out that my traps could produce what amounted to a free lunch, day in and day out.
The result was a prolonged, costly, but rather interesting match of wits with one of the most challenging animals I ever set out to trap—a lone wolf, numero uno intellectus of the furbearing world if not the entire animal kingdom.
Adequate snow for machine travel had been late in coming, causing me to trap more locally and content myself with gear preparation for the longer line. It actually turned into a nice opportunity to sharpen my fox-taking skills and get in some early beaver trapping through thin lake ice. Eight inches of ice is much easier to chip than 30. And the tall, dry grass of autumn, standing free of the yet-to-come snow pack, offered excellent concealment for snares. A carefully prepared fox snare literally disappears in tall grass.
But by November’s end, things were getting kind of skimpy within hiking distance. The local beaver colony was harvested, and the cream of the year’s fox crop exhausted. I figured I had caught about every marten that was likely to come along, and one whopper of a wolverine, too. I guess I was off to a decent start for being afoot. But things were definitely slowing down, and snow was needed to get out into fresh territory.
December changed that in a big way. It snowed for two weeks, and when it settled out, there was a just-right base a foot thick—deep enough to smooth most obstructions yet not so deep as to require trail breaking with snowshoes.
Within a week, I had a full string of traps out, and the catch was on.
With the new snow, I noticed heavy wolf sign. A pack had worked through the area, though no kill had been made as far as I could tell. From the sign, it seemed the pack was not hunting outright, possibly disturbed or agitated by something I could not quite ascertain. They kept out upon the frozen lakes, packing down the snow.
They seemed to be avoiding trails and the usual throughways through the brush, many of which I had set up in anticipation of their arrival.
After the pack moved on, I noticed the track of the lone wolf lingering and poking around my trapline. Wolves have enormous paws, the forefeet being noticeably larger than the hind. Just because you see different sizes of track doesn’t always mean more than one wolf.
This one was possibly a fresh banishment from the pack that had just passed through, or maybe a past evictee following at a safe distance—who’s to say?
It did seem safe to say that if this wolf stayed hereabouts long enough, it would be mine as I had all of the main crossings and secondary slips covered with snares.
Secure in this knowledge, I set out for the line’s end. Trail maintenance and extension is a big key to success when trapping in the bush. There is not a road within 200 miles of my base camp.
It is a refreshing blessing to be roadless. But, alas, travel overland is also a lot of work. If flaying at brush and limbs with an ax is not your strong suit, then chances are you won’t make a woodland, wilderness trapper.
On the return trip, I again see the lone wolf track. It had avoided my sets and moved in on my carcass dump.
Naked carcasses usually put off intelligent furbearers in the early season, when things are not yet so dire. Not until the grip of hard winter do carcasses work well around here, whereas I’ve seen wolves and other species cannibalize their own in traps and snares, as long as the hide still is in place.
This wolf has gone beyond the norm in deducing the carcass cache as a safe food source.
Of course, I slip in the belated snares. And, of course, the wolf avoids them, as it inow s familiar with the dump. A foothold is also concealed in a trail, but now the animal is fully alerted and simply leaves the trail to walk around the trap.
The dance has begun in earnest.
Although I’m physically working the ends of my line, I’m mentally working on a way to trip up this wolf. I figure a scent post should do the trick. I’ve resorted to this in the past for savvy wolves.
A clean MB-750 is my first choice in wolf iron. Reasonable cost, size and weight yet high efficiency make it a first-class trap. Also, the tabs welded to the underneath of each jaw as part of the triggering design perform a bonus function. I notice much less chewing with this trap, due to the tabs blocking access to the part of the foot held beneath the trap jaws.
I set the trap on a much-frequented stretch of Sno-Go trail, with 6 feet of chain and a drag. Where such trails cross open swamp or lake, I often mark the way with willow limbs poked into the snow.
These markers also serve as scent posts for the local canines.
I set this particular trap 12 inches back and to the side of a “visited” limb, freshening it with yellow snow and frozen droppings from a local sled dog yard.
I deposit a second MB-750 on a nearby overland otter trail that sometimes sees canine traffic. I set the trap blind at a pinch point where high grass and brush neck down an otherwise open lead. I feel confident in both sets.
After three days at trail’s end, living in a winter tent camp, I am happy to return to the base cabin but disappointed to find the wolf traps empty. The wolf approached to within 10 feet of both sets before detouring, only to circle around and back on the trail 10 feet beyond. This critter is on red alert. So what to do?
My best snow sets have failed, and the wolf doesn’t seem likely to poke its head in a snare anytime soon, either. To make matters worse, baits have begun to disappear from marten sets. An entire day must be spent rebaiting and getting these sets back on line. Thankfully, bait stores are ample. But it still is extra work.
Since I can’t seem to snag the wolf, I’m hoping it will just move on before things get worse. But, unfortunately, the sign isn’t reading that way.
A couple of days at base camp are spent thawing, skinning, and boarding my catch of small fur. Then I pack the sled and draw gas for a return trip to the distant line camp. But before I can depart, a new development concerns me greatly.
A marten is ripped from a trap.
I postpone my trip to spend an extra day setting more traps and snares, including some extra-long fox snares. I hope the smaller diameter cable will do the trick. These I place from the side of the wolf’s track, standing back a good 4 feet and using a thin pole with a split end to position and support the loops in weedy cover.
I never once come in direct contact with the trail, and it all looks perfectly natural when I leave.
An extra trap is set, too. The 1.75 coilspring is a strong little gripper that can grab on and go for a ride. The drag is just big enough to slow the wolf, but hopefully not so cumbersome as to hang up and let the wolf pull out.
Once the small trap is on the wolf, it can be readily tracked down. I set this trap just beyond the MB-750 trail set, so that when the wolf perhaps grows weary of going around and decides to step over, it will be into the awaiting 1.75.
As before, I go to the outer limits of my line and return a few days later. A lot goes into these trips: the never-ending hauling of gas, gear, and supplies. Following so many harrowing stream crossings and scampers up steep grades, the wolf is no longer foremost on my mind as I come back in. But that is about to change.
The temperature is up, the fur is running, and my trip back is prolonged due to frequent stops to pick sweet Alaskan marten (North American sable) from my traps. Then, halfway in, wolf tracks show up on the line. By now, I’m certain it is the same vexing one, and I find nothing in anymore traps—except feet from swiped martens. All baits are gone, too.
I do not stop to remake or rebait any of the sets. It seems pointless until I can somehow take out a wolf that is swiftly developing into the worst catch predator I have encountered, rivaling a particularly nasty wolverine.
At least six marten have been lost, and the next day three more come up missing from a short side line.
I manage to collect one fresh-caught marten out of all traps checked.
Marten is the bread and butter of my trapping operation. Every other fur is just a bonus or taken to protect my marten interests. Bottom line is the marten pay the bills, and I have lost close to $1,000 that will be sorely missed.
The weather hangs on warm, and I’m sure the fur is running strong. Yet I must now concentrate on getting that wolf. With snow in the forecast, I go back and adjust all snares and traps to assure maximum efficiency. I set another trap and snares here and there. Eventually, the law of averages must kick in. I have too much out at this point not to connect.
The following morning dawns with a just-right blanket of pure white snow—more than enough to disguise my sets yet not so much as to render my efforts in vain. I set out expecting to cut fresh wolf tracks in the clean slate of snow, but I spy no sign or disturbance. Intuition tells me this is a good thing, and when I finally strike a single track coming into a section of pole-sized timber, I am thrilled but not surprised to finally see the unmistakable dark spot of a catch alongside the trail.
It is a mammoth gray and brown-tipped wolf with heavy white underfur, held live in the snare. When it senses me watching, it grows still, providing a splendid opportunity for me to observe a world-class catch. Despite all that the wolf has cost me, I can’t help but admire its grandeur of physique and also its cunning during the now-ended chase.
The snare had been hung in a very large loop so as to cover a large opening without fencing of any sort, guarding a secondary trail on the skirting edge of other snares the wolf had routinely dodged. Only this time it had ducked the wrong way.
Turns out to be a female of Amazonian proportions. Although never weighed, surely over 100 pounds—sleek with fat from weeks of easy pickings on my trapline. She stretches out plenty wide with tip-to-tip length of 8 feet. It remains a mystery why such a magnificent creature did not run with the pack. She seemed healthy in every way—and smart, I dare say.
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