Trapping: Trapline Transportation

By Trapping Editor, Hal Sullivan

ATV equipped for trapping

Most fur trapping occurs out in the country or in wilder places. Granted, a few raccoons, beavers and even coyotes may be trapped in urban settings. But they are trapped to prevent the damage they might do, not for their fur. For the most part, fur trappers find their critters in the forest and fields.

True, a lot of road trappers make the bulk of their mink catch driving blacktop from bridge crossing to bridge crossing. A man can make a substantial catch of coon that way, too. But, for the most part, fur trappers leave the pavement behind.

The most elemental form of off-road trapping transportation requires nothing more than your own two feet. Walking is a pretty surefire way of getting around even in difficult environments.

You do have to carry everything with you, and that’s why they make pack baskets. You can carry things in a 5-gallon bucket instead, but it will throw you off balance and make it harder to walk. You could carry two balanced buckets, one in either hand. But then you would have to set one of those buckets down every time you needed a hand to do something, and most everything a trapper does requires two free hands, not one.

A pack basket balanced on both shoulders is definitely the way to go on a walking trapline, and I wore out a couple of wood pack baskets before I switched to fiberglass. I now use a polycarbonate packbasket that is lightweight yet big enough to hold 330 bodygrips.

Walking is also one of the surest ways to get to know the habits and habitats of the wild critters you are trying to trap. Step by step, with eyes open and nose to the ground, you pick up details that would go completely unnoticed riding in a vehicle. I firmly believe that the best way to start a young trapper is on a short walking line.

But working a trapline on foot is slow, and you can only cover much ground, especially when also trying to trap critters along the way. If you want to run a longer line and make a bigger catch, you need motorized off-road transportation.

The most common trapping vehicle the past 50 years or so has been the four-wheel-drive pickup truck.

They have come in all shapes and sizes, and ’most any 4WD truck will get you off the pavement. Where the terrain is not too inhospitable, the right truck will get you close to most sets. This is particularly true when trapping where there are field roads and forest cuts.

A lot of canine trappers take that route. It’s hard to catch a coyote right next to a highway, but if you drive out to the back forty, you may find a number of good sets within an easy stroll of where you park the truck.

The equipment is mostly carried in the back of the truck, and in this case you may get away with 5-gallon buckets for the short hauls.

A trapper’s truck almost always has a topper for the bed. This helps keep equipment dry and also hides the catch from prying eyes or just casual viewers. You can lock it all up when and where necessary. A topper can also be topped with a boat rack, in case you need to haul a canoe somewhere.

I highly recommend a topper with side windows that open wide. It is much easier to get at gear that way, as opposed to climbing in and out over the tailgate. To help extract things out of the truck bed, I carry a hooked stick to reach boxes and buckets that are beyond arm’s length.

As helpful as four-wheel-drive trucks may be, they are not a guarantee that you will be able to get where you want to go and then back out again. Ever heard the adage God gave us four-wheel-drive trucks so we could get stuck farther from the road?

The answer here is a true All Terrain Vehicle, commonly known as an ATV.

Early versions in the 1970s had three wheels like a tricycle. They were mostly sold to enthusiasts who wanted to enjoy a little off-road trail riding. For these folks they were expensive toys. But they could go about anywhere, and for many a trapper, that meant they earned their keep.

I had very limited personal experience with three-wheelers. But I always heard they were inherently unstable, or maybe it was just reckless and untrained riders flipping them down slopes, cracking up at creek crossings and other places.

Regardless, by the late 1980s the manufacturers (no doubt at the urging of their lawyers) had abandoned the design for more stable four-wheel models.

The early, inexpensive four-wheelers where actually two-wheel drive, not four. They would go a lot of places, but not everywhere. A friend made a set of tire chains for his 2WD ATV to give it more traction in the mud. Eventually, four-wheel-drive fell in price and became the standard.

I didn’t have much disposable income at the time, but I figured I could recover the cost and then some trapping nuisance beaver, so I finally bought myself a used ATV.

But running that nuisance beaver line proved hard on the machine. I routinely dunked it completely underwater, and repair bills began to erode my profits. Still, the ATV more than paid for itself.

I finally decided that five years’ service was about all I could count on from an ATV. At the first sign of breakdown after that, I would trade it in for a new one.

But there is no reason a well-made ATV could not last a more sensible trapper for years and years—especially if he isn’t dunking it in muddy water.

Let me wax nostalgic for the Honda 300 ATV, what I consider the apex of the trapline ATV. It was simple without the bells and whistles and had fewer parts to wear out. It was full-time four-wheel-drive with plenty of power to get a trapper where he needed to go, and it was reasonably priced. After that, four-wheelers just kept getting bigger and fancier.

You may be able to ramp an ATV up into the bed of a big-enough pickup truck. However, I found it easier to haul mine around on a trailer. I used the same little trailer for years. But as ATVs grew wider I had less and less clearance on the sides when I loaded up. Finally, I had to buy a wider trailer.

For carrying gear you can get a storage box that fits about any ATV. They are pricey, and most are not very roomy. The simplest homespun solution is to fasten a couple of milk crates to the racks with bungee cords. I built a wood box with a couple of compartments that fit the full length and width of the back rack. I could always get enough equipment in there to last until I got back to the truck.

I left the front rack open, because that’s where I strapped down critters for the ride home.

The big negative when riding an ATV is exposure to the elements. Ride an ATV in the rain, and you’re going to get wet. I would wear chest waders, cover up with a raincoat and don goggles to keep my eyeglasses clean. It kept me drier. But it sure was clumsy to work like that.

Riding an ATV into a bitter winter wind invites frostbite. Anybody who has done it knows the thumb that operates the throttle freezes because you’re not moving it much.

I would reach across the handlebars and work the throttle with my left hand when my right thumb went numb.

Another ailment aggravated by riding a four-wheeler is shoulder strain from fighting the handlebars. My shoulders were getting weaker and weaker when steering assist finally became available.

I opted for it. I also went from foot-shift to a push-button shifter mounted on the handlebars. These options cost a little, but for me they were worth it.

The evolution of off-road trapping transportation took a big step up when the ATV morphed into the Utility Transport Vehicle. The UTV is more like a road vehicle. It has a wide bench seat, which is where it gets the side-by-side nickname. It has a steering wheel and foot-actuated accelerator and brake, just like a car.

Back in my youth there were still a few WWII surplus “Jeeps” running about, and today’s UTV isn’t far removed from those utilitarian buggies.

At first I did not buy a UTV because they were all too wide to squeeze where I often needed to go. Then Honda introduced the Pioneer 500. The 500 stood for 50 inches maximum width.

I decided to go for it.

The 500 was a little pricey, and with today’s fur prices it may take a while to pay mine off. But I have struggled enough running traplines, and nowadays I don’t mind availing myself of some comfort. It was getting harder and harder to fork a leg over the old ATV, and despite the steering assist, my shoulders ached perpetually from wrestling those handlebars.

I’ve been wet enough and cold enough to satisfy all of those urges, too.

After I bit the bullet and bought the UTV, I equipped it with roof, windshield, aluminum skid plates, axle guards and a winch. In addition to the enclosed cab, there is plenty of room on the back rack for a storage box, and I built one nearly twice the size of the one on the old ATV. I already had a sheet of Plexiglas, from which I fashioned a rear window.

I am not going to be apologetic about paying for comfort. It is much easier for this old-timer to slide onto a seat than it is to mount an ATV. I can work the throttle with my foot, so no more numb thumb. Holding a steering wheel with both hands is much easier on my shoulders. And because of the side-by-side seating, I can comfortably take another person on the trapline with me. Before, they had to “buddy ride” on the back of the ATV seat.

Granted, my UTV won’t go in all of the tight places an ATV might. But I’ve decided I don’t necessarily need to go to all of those places anymore, either.

It’s almost a little shameful to be able to drive in such comfort to trap in remote locations. I’m willing to bear that shame.

The UTV has to be the ultimate off-road trapping transportation. It can get you pretty near everywhere you need to go with a surprising degree of comfort and plenty of cargo space. If you ask me, UTV stands for Ultimate Trapping Vehicle.