My Outdoor Life: Andy Shoemaker talks about trapping

  • Article by: AS TOLD TO BILL KLEIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2014 - 2:10 PM

In our continuing series on outdoor people and lifestyles, this 40-year veteran of the trap lines talks about pursuing his hobby and passion in the face of Minnesota’s brutal weather. Andy Shoemaker, 52, is a retired police officer and lives in rural Washington County.

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It was a difficult winter for trapper Andy Shoemaker. In addition to subzero temperatures, he dealt with traps encased with thick ice.

Photo: Photo provided by Andy Shoemaker,

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Hobby is probably not the right descriptor for trapping. Vocation seems to fit better because of the special commitment the sport demands. It’s not a maybe-I-will or maybe-I-won’t pursuit. You are either all in or all out. Many of the traps I set must be tended at least once every 24 hours. That’s the law. Plus, I feel I owe it to the furbearers to check my traps every day.

This means that whether it’s 20 below and windy or 30 above and calm, you go. If the ground is bare in the fall or if snowshoes are required because of a three-foot snowpack, you go. This past winter the conditions were quite challenging. Just getting to the dozens of traps I set took extra time and stamina. Then there’s the finger-freezing work of removing an animal or moving and resetting a trap. I’ve told many novice trappers you better have the passion or you better find another pastime.

For me, the pleasures of the sport far outweigh the pains. I could take you to places right here in the 11-county Twin City area that match the beauty, tranquillity and solitude of any place in America. For example, on one of our few warm days in March, I was checking traps on a hard-to-get-to stretch along the St. Croix River just south of Osceola. The sun was out with a fresh skiff of snow on the ground. Tiny rivulets of spring-fed water were streaming out of the sandstone cliffs. Pileated woodpeckers were pounding the massive white pines like amped-up conga drums. I could hear trumpeter swans flying along the river. Then I came upon the scene of a deer mouse’s demise. A few scant hairs were in the last footprint it would ever make, framed in the snow by a detailed imprint of a great horned owl’s primary wing feathers, stretched out for a touch-and-go landing. This is nature in high definition.

Reading tracks

All trappers are students of animal tracks and take great pride in reading them. I can tell from tracks whether a red fox or a gray fox made them. I can spot an otter slide far across a river. I can differentiate between a fisher and a marten track. Standing in a lacework of fresh tracks I can see the animals around me even though they are not there.

Tracks can also humble me. I got a call last summer from a farmer near my home. Coyotes were harassing his cats and killing his chickens. I set a few baited traps and was very careful to cover my own tracks and scent with sifted soil. When I returned to check the traps I saw clear evidence that an older coyote had brought yearling pups to my sets to teach them about danger.

No footprint was closer than four feet from the traps.

The weather this past winter was a real test of a trapper’s mental and physical toughness. In the midst of the polar temperatures, I was checking traps around the edges of a wetland. Opening a muskrat house was like chopping into concrete. And then I had to replace all those frozen cattails and close the house up again or the water below would freeze up. That would be no good for the rat, and, hence, no good for me.

Many of my underwater traps were covered by twenty inches of ice by February. This adds lots of additional labor to the trap-checking process. But on at least one occasion, while walking just a few yards away from the thick ice, over snowdrifts insulating the ice, I fell through into icy water. That puts extra spring in my steps back to the truck.

Why do I continue to trap? Money for my pelts has never been a huge motivator. Sure, I loved it last year when my lowly muskrat pelts were bringing $14 each at the auction in Toronto. They’ll fetch closer to $10 this year. But I can remember, not too many years ago, when I thought $4 per rat pelt was good.

I enjoy harvesting a renewable resource. I’ve been taking two beavers out of a certain pond for twenty years. I could take more. But I know, since this is a landlocked body of water, the resource grows by only two or three beavers per year.

I am drawn to the sport by the solitude and the challenge of matching wits with furbearing animals whose senses and instincts are far better than mine. It’s a vocation that allows me, even when I fail, to experience things in nature few others get to see.

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  • Shoemaker shows off a pair of beaver pelts harvested from a nearby pond. He takes two beavers from the same waters every year.

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