Conservation and Trapping Science

Man recalls 50 years of trapping
Jan 25, 2021 10:56 ET

[Reprinted from original]

We were directed to Todd Felton while trying to find someone local who had trapped beaver. There’s a bounty in the county of $40 per tail for the buck-toothed dam-builders because they plug up drainage ditches. Trappers must get a signature from the owner of the land where the beaver was trapped so it can be determined who pays — the drainage district or the county.

It turns out Felton has trapped about every possible critter in Buena Vista County: beaver, fox, coyote, badger, raccoon, otter, skunk, mink. He tans the hides himself and mounted a few of them, like the rare black coon trapped three miles east of his place south of Storm Lake on M54.

He admires the fur. “See how soft it is,” he exclaims touching a deep furry coyote pelt. Browns, tan, blacks and even silver are mixed together. He prizes his two red coyote pelts — not bright red like a fox, but a tinge of faint red down the back.

He presses folds of fox fur together. “It’s almost blue,” he says looking into the crease.

As for beaver, he’s not trapping them this year. One time when he did, the drainage district didn’t pay him for a few years “until they got the money.”

Generally though, he traps for recreation. The fur market is down, not like the good years, the 1970s and 80s when foxes went for $75-$100 each and mink $25-$30.

Now, if someone really tried they could make a few hundred dollars a week on muskrat, which now pay two or three dollars apiece.

We’re in the midst of trapping season until Jan. 31 for all Iowa fur-bearers except beavers (their season ends April 15) and another exception: Lizard Lake in Pocahontas County has extended the muskrat season till April 1 because there is an overabundance of them and they are threatening to overeat their food supply.

Are there many muskrats in Little Lake? Felton says, “Some, but not a lot.” The muskrats depend on a somewhat predictable water level and the DNR drains the area occasionally.

Felton remembers his first trapping experience. It was a civet cat, a smallish spotted skunk, he saw in his trap set in a hole in front of the current rifle and pistol club. “I thought it was dead and went to pick it up and it drilled me,” he recalls. The year was 1971 and Felton was 11 years old.

The smell was so overpowering that when he tried to wear his leather boots to school (North School), it didn’t go over well. “I had to throw them away,” he jokes.

Civet cats are endangered now and Felton hasn’t seen one since that early encounter.

Trapping appealed to the young man so much he gave up sports in junior high for it. He quit the football team so he could concentrate on muskrats, coons and an occasional mink in fall.

He’s been at it ever since, staying in BV County all but one year when he went to North Carolina. “I couldn’t wait to get back,” he remembers.

WITH EXACTLY 50 years of trapping experience, Felton says there’s still something new to learn every day. We questioned him for fun facts.

Beavers: They’re heavy and hard to skin, however, a reason to go through the effort are the castor glands, located near the tail, which can be sold for $100 a pound (dried).

“Most women would be surprised if they knew that it’s used for perfume,” he says. It’s not as strong-smelling as a skunk, but it’s musky.

“Everything comes to beaver,” he says. There’s something about the smell. When a carcass is out in the field, deer, coyote, you name it, come to it.

Felton uses the “castoreum” as lure to trap beaver. When it’s placed on a trap in a beaver den, the beavers can’t resist it. The beaver families need to protect themselves and the smell of an intruder draws their interest.

A peeled cottonwood stick, still green inside, is also an effective lure.

Beavers do not pack mud with their tails. “That’s only in cartoons,” laughed Felton. The tails are mainly used to propel the beavers as they swim. They also slap the water with their tails as a warning.

Raccoons: Speaking of drawing interest, Felton knows how to make lots of calls. One way to attract raccoons is to make the hissing, growling, snarling sounds of coons fighting. Like humans, they can’t resist checking it out.

Mountain lions: Of course there’s no season for mountain lions, but Felton captured closeup photos of one on his trail camera up near Peterson in 2018. He kept it a secret for months so no one would try to go and find it. Felton knows the mountain lion call. “He scares me with it,” joked his wife Jennifer.

Coyotes: The BV County coyote population has grown over the past 15 years, mainly because of the loss of habitat for fox. That includes thickets along fence lines and marginal lands put into row crops. Foxes were also affected by a mange outbreak.

Coyotes take over in the absence of foxes, and vice versa. Now the foxes are slowly becoming more numerous. If Felton finds one in a trap, he lets it go.

Coyotes make two or three short sharp barks. And of course, they howl.

Otter: Felton trapped an otter near Alta. This animal is protected in Iowa so after he trapped it, he had to call the warden who attached an identification tag to its pelt. One time he saw an otter near the Linn Grove dam catch a carp, put it aside, then catch a walleye and eat it.

Muskrats: Trappers are required to check their traps every 24 hours, but with muskrats, if you get in a good place, you can check every eight hours and catch one. Then comes the “unpleasant” part. Felton shoots the trapped animal between the eyes quickly to get it over with.

He also uses killer traps, called Conibear traps. His skunk, otter, fox and beaver pelts were all victims of the Conibear trap.

Muskrats can be aggressive. Once Todd and Jennifer stopped their truck on a gravel road and a muskrat lunged at their front tire.

WE HAVEN’T EVEN gotten to all the tracks and droppings of BV County critters or to the weasel, which Felton says is the size of a brat with an eight-inch tail. There’s one in his woodpile right now.

Still on his bucket list is a bobcat. There’s a season in Cherokee County, but not yet in BV.

Where his vast storehouse of knowledge would once be the difference between starving or thriving for people in this area eons ago, more useful survival skills nowadays are being pleasant to one’s boss or the ability to fix a car.

Still it’s nice to know there’s a guy out there who knows that a line of any cats’ footprints, whether bobcat or house cat, doesn’t go in a straight line. There’s a wave to it.