Alaskan Adventure: Subsistence Trapline

By Tom Williams

Tom Williams with snowshoe hares


I am a conservation-minded Alaska trapper who likes to kill two (or maybe three) birds with one stone. I need meat for my table, attractors for my trapline, and also materials for my many home craft projects. So, I figure why not let my outdoor interests and needs complement one another?

About the time of year that snowshoe hares in the Interior are turning white, their babies are grown and their meat is again edible. The first dusting of snow finds me in the alder brush, .22 rifle in hand. When the snow gets deeper and I get busier with the trapline, I use woven picture wire to snare hares in their trails.

However I get the hare, I not only get a meal for my family, I also get some of the best trapping lure and bait around. A lynx may be coaxed into a set by a scrap of white hare fur dangling from a branch. A marten may charge into a cubby set that holds a snowshoe’s head. Even a wolf may show interest where the blood and guts of a hare have been left along a trail. (Check your state trapping laws before using any game animal for bait or as a visible set attractor.)

Besides meat and trapping bait, the hare also provides a valuable hide. Although there is no commercial market for the thin leather, we find it very valuable for home use. It may be too thin for outerwear clothing, but it is the warmest fur to stuff down inside mittens, socks or pants for those 40-below mornings out on the trail or sitting in ambush for a caribou.

When I want to use a hare’s pelt for warmth, I carefully scrape off the fat, salt and stretch the hide. After it is cured and dry, I can store it until I have the time to work it properly. Then I get it wet again and work it with my hands until it is soft and supple. I can usually work one hare hide on a long Alaskan night.

The spruce grouse and ptarmigan are also on my menu when it comes to hunting up dinner for the family. And, same as the hare, they supply plenty of attractor byproducts for the trapline.

I save everything—feathers, blood, guts, head, and even feet may bring curious critters in to work trap sets.

I like to bed a trap in the snow up against a tree or rock outcropping and then cover the set trap with light powder snow that I pick up and sift off my axe head. Then I dump the bird remains next to, but not on, the hidden trap. It looks to me, and I hope to the next roaming predator, like something has killed a grouse there.

The response I am hoping for, and often get, is “maybe there is something left for me.”

As the predator sniffs around, it steps into the waiting trap.

Bigger animals—deer, moose and caribou—also provide set attractors, especially for large predators such as coyotes, lynx, and wolves.

I have shot my share of winter moose, and after a couple of days of packing the meat home from the kill site, seen signs of a steady stream of other visitors making similar trips.

Big kills make a big splash along the trail, their power of attraction magnified by size. At times, the magpies, camp robbers, and ravens are working the kill in a matter of minutes—much to my dismay. Then, I work as fast as I can, hoping to get the meat safely home before the noisy scavengers alert one of the resident black bears or grizzlies to the “all you can eat” wilderness buffet.

I shot a large moose in a swamp about 2 miles from the cabin. I made several trips back and forth packing meat but still had more to go when night fell, so I secured the remaining meat in a hastily built tree cache with plans to return the next day.

Early the next morning, I cautiously approached the kill site with rifle loaded and on the ready. Peering down through the willows, the first thing I noticed was that the huge moose head with rack attached had been moved 50 yards. Now, my heart was really a-thumping. Only a big bear could have picked that thing up.

I sat there for a long time, sweating it out in near zero cold, but after not seeing or hearing a thing, I finally slipped down the hill for a closer look.

More than half expecting to be rushed by a “not so gentle Ben,” I instead saw where a grizzly had eaten a “not so spare” rib dinner and then curled up on the moose hide for a nap. Luckily for me, it had decided to take an early morning hike, giving me enough time to roll up the hide and pack it out of there.

The remains still at that kill site later helped me trap a fox and several early marten. A few wolves worked the kill, too, though I never connected with them.

A common way to snare wolves is to set the trails a few hundred feet or more out from a kill. The thinking is that the wolves will not be so wary as they circle at a distance.

During the summer months, the local creeks and rivers fill with fish. Grayling hold in the deep pools awaiting my flies, which, by the way, I tie with feathers saved from the grouse I hunt.

Down along the Yukon, the muddy waters are thick with returning salmon. The late Peter Evans, a well-known trapper around Rampart, Alaska, befriended me and showed me how he caught the salmon using a fish wheel. The fish wheel is a trapper’s invention that has two baskets and two paddles mounted on a common axle that floats on a large raft. The current pushes against the paddles, turning the wheel. The turning baskets then scoop up the salmon and drop them in a large box mounted on the side of the raft.

Evans’ wheel worked like a charm, and by noon, we had to shut down as the box was overflowing with big chum salmon.

Now the work really began as he showed me how to fillet the fish with the skin left on. Then the fillets were cut into long strips, dipped in salt brine, and hung on thin spruce poles in a smokehouse to cure in the cool smoke from smoldering driftwood.

The big salmon heads, with backbones and tails still attached, were simply hung in the sun. After they dried, they were bundled together and cached for the coming winter, when they would be used to feed the sled dogs and also to attract hungry red fox to trap sets.

Even the furbearers hold goodies besides their fur. My sled dogs may turn their noses up at a skinned marten carcass, but a wolverine or very hungry wolf will not. The anus glands in most furbearers provide excellent trapping scents, and I have used beaver castor with great results. Just rub it on a stump above a set trap, and when the sun warms the castor, the scent comes alive. Of course, urine is another highly effective attractor that can be squeezed from many a catch, stabilized, and stored for later use.

Furbearers know the looks and smells of the other animals and fish that share their wilderness world, and they do not hesitate to investigate either.

Happy trails.

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