Category Archives: Trapping

A day in the life of a Wildlife Ranger…

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Two weeks ago I went to the Wilderness Wildlife Week to hear my friend Ila Hatter, http://wildcrafting.com/, speak on wild edible and herbal folklore. While cruising through the booths, I ran into Doug Elliot, a gifted storyteller, naturalist, and herbalist,  http://www.dougelliott.com/. I took some edible plant walks from Doug back in 2000 at the Rivercane Rendezvous and heard some of his great storytelling around the campfire. While catching up, Doug asked me what a typical day was like and since I have been asked this many times, I thought a blog post would be fitting. I am thankful to have a “dream” job, and I write this post as an insight to my daily life and hopefully add a few tips from the woods.

It is common knowledge that our park controls the non-native hogs, for their destructive habits and competing with native wildlife for resources.  http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/dff309-meetexotic.htm  This excerpt describes the program:

What do we do with non-native wildlife? In a typical year, wildlife managers actively trap and shoot wild hogs to stop habitat destruction and disease spread. Most of the work is done from December through June. In a typical winter, wild hogs move to the lower elevation areas where wildlife managers can more easily access them. In the spring and throughout the summer, hogs move to the higher elevation forest in the backcountry, making hog control much more difficult

No day is really typical in this job and sometimes we chuckle at how out of the norm our job can be. As noted above, our program varies by season. Winter months are usually spent still hunting during the day, hunting over bait at night, and trapping. During the spring, the hogs move up in elevation, so we follow them and camp up high to hunt them at night using NVG’s, thermal, and shotguns, due to the vegetation at that time.

It is winter and pretty damn cold at times, so I’ll start with that.

My alarm goes off at 0630 and then the most annoying creature in the world, my wife’s cat, starts clawing underneath the door trying to get into the room. The by-product of failed negotiations laced with feminine charm, this cat now haunts my reality. I not-so-secretly wish I could remove the problem, but in the spirit of matrimonial harmony I launch a passive aggressive retaliation against it’s master with a fusillade of flatulence. It gets the desired response as my wife, roused from her slumber, tells me to “STOP IT”. I chuckle and take pride knowing that I can be as annoying as the cat.

Time to get dressed, so I layer up. My “action suit” is a smartwool t-shirt, another merino long sleeve, wool socks, merino long underwear, cargo pants, Gore-tex gaiters, an issued softshell, a fleece hat and neck gaiter. Over this I put on a Wildthings Primaloft vest and jacket I designed on their website. As soon as I start hiking, I know I will heat up, so I will then stow the vest and jacket and wear only the soft shell. When I stop or slow down to still hunt, I will throw the jacket on over my softshell. I scarf down my favorite meal in the world, cereal, grab my gear, and head out. It is 4 degrees when I leave the house.

My commute takes me along the Dragon’s Tail, from Tennessee into North Carolina. Despite only living 28 miles from my duty station, the 318 curves in the 11 mile Dragon slows my commute to just under an hour. I admire the mist rising off the river and head up the Dragon, checking three hog traps on the way in. Nothing in them today, but I caught one earlier this week and there is still more sign, so I leave them set. I keep trucking along the icy Dragon’s Tail in four wheel drive.

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I arrive at the ranger station and find an array of combs laid out for me. I guess this is my hog trapper’s polite way of saying I should comb my unruly beard that I have been growing since I switched back to the wildlife division.  Waiting patiently for five years, my beard is growing aggressively unencumbered by any grooming policy. I pick a small black one and soon learn the soothing joy of combing my beard.

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Between the three of us, we have already checked eleven traps this morning, so we make our plan and head to the marina. Everything is frozen, the motors won’t start, and the water pump indicator is frozen. We start fooling with it, get the motors into the sun, and an hour later we are in business. I comb my beard again and tell Junior, our hogtrapper, to remind me to research outboard block heaters when I get to a computer.

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Once underway, our plan is to divide and conquer, dropping of both hunters to still hunt bedding areas and let Junior finish running the trapline, which includes seven more traps to check and two to pre-bait. Before we drop  off, we make pickup plans for the crew. Following the P-A-C-E acronym we designate a Primary and Alternate pickup spot. Our Contingency plan is to turn the radios on at 1500 and the Emergency plan is to get to the lake bank and build a smoky fire or signal in another way. We drop K.W. off and wish him luck. This likable, 58 year old mountain man is certain death in the woods, but I rib him about his diet of Spam and Lunchables before he heads out. He will spend the day working his way off trail, headed up under a top and come out two drainages east of his drop off location.

We have to look out for ourselves and each other as a response from the rangers would take at least 2 hours to get on the lake and several more to try and get to us off trail. Every Monday morning, we do a pack check making sure we have what we need in case we get caught out. For me, that is my clothing, a G1 poncho liner, fire starting kit, a shelter kit, and the removable bivy pad from my pack. I round it out with a first aid kit in the top pouch of my pack, a navigation kit in my right cargo pocket, a survival kit in the left, and a Mora knife on a lanyard around my neck. If for some reason I was separated from my pack, the contents of my pockets will get me through the night. I will do a blog post on the gear I carry and why soon for all my fellow gear-o-philes.

My plan is to scout a section of the main trail and then head off trail out a ridge where I have found bedding areas before. On that ridge, I ran into the largest group of hogs I have ever seen, but armed with only a five gallon can of gas and a knife, they all got away. I’ll save that story for the campfire sometime. Needless to say, I hunt that area religiously, especially in cold weather.

My hike starts out like all hunts on the lake… uphill. The feeder creek has a cool waterfall I get to scramble up first, which I thoroughly enjoy.

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I hit hog sign almost immediately and I pre-bait the trap in that drainage with corn that I brought for it. Upward and onward, I hit the main trail and head west. Our goal has been to scout a 33 mile trail that bisects the lower portion of all the drainages, letting us know where we have activity. We use the established trails as our highways into better hunting areas and a majority of my work is done off trail at this time of year. The first couple miles of my hunt is uneventful. I notice an old fence post from pre-park days and wonder if it is chestnut or locust. It looks like locust, but I don’t stop to check.

It is a little before 1:00 and I hear some leaves rustling on the opposite hillside. I am on the north side of a ridge and the trail is covered with crunchy snow, but I have a good wind. There are a couple ways to put the sneak on game in dry leaves or crunchy snow, all requiring some cover noise. Wait until they are rooting or moving, move when the wind is blowing, and move when an airplane is going overhead. I use all three to gain ground, get sight of my quarry, and get in range. Letting the animal crest a hill or drop into a gully and using a creek as a cover sound are good moves too.

During the winter I run a 6.8 AR with a Surefire suppressor shooting 110 grain Barnes bullets. Once rendered into our possession, we obtain blood, heart, fecal, nasal, and tongue samples for our disease monitoring program. Even though I just shot this animal ending it’s life, I can’t help but feel like I am violating it by getting the fecal sample. Life and death in the woods raises some interesting thoughts to ponder.

I return to the trail, pull out my water bottle, and find that it has already frozen at the top. I bust out the ice and drink up, knowing that my body needs just as much water in cold weather as it does in warm. When I return to the station later, I will find that all my blood vials have frozen as well.

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Heading west, I peel off on the ridge that takes me to the bedding area. I hit sign within 100 yards, but time pulling sample means I will not make it to the Primary pickup location. I pull out my map and locate a gentle finger ridge a half mile away that will take me down to the Alternate pickup spot. Easing out the ridge, I come across four does that drop off the ridge to the north.

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I survey the beauty that surrounds me. Combing my beard, standing on top of a ridge in the winter woods, by myself, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres, I am assured that my decision to leave the law enforcement division was the right choice. This past year, when I started spending more time in my patrol truck than in the field, I knew it was time to go. The pay and benefit cuts are all worth it, as in the last month I have spent more time in the woods than your average ranger does in a year. It’s not that they don’t want to be out there, it’s just an unfortunate symptom of a shifting program responding to new demands and budget cuts. My heart however, has always been in the woods, and I am back where I belong.

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I find my finger ridge and ease down, ever watchful for bedding hogs. Hogs are the ultimate survivors and I respect them greatly, even naming my school after these survival machines. Even if they didn’t breed like rabbits, weren’t tough as nails, or have a their omnivorous ways, wild hogs would get a gold star for their choice bedding sites. I often find their leaf nests under the protection of a pine tree, midway on South facing finger slopes. That is a textbook microclimate location.

No beds on this ridge and forty five minutes later, I pop out onto the lake bank.

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I still haven’t eaten lunch, so I kick some fatwood fins off a dead Virginia pine to light up my Mini Emberlit. No drive thrus or restaurants for us, but a hot meal on a cold day is pretty damn nice during my lunch break. The mini Emberlit packs up small, is lightweight titanium, runs off twigs, and leaves no fire scar. It was expensive, but well worth it in my book. The chopsticks were because I left my spork in the sink at the house and I usually carry my lunch in the MSR Stowaway pot you see here.

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Via radio, I let Junior know I am at the Alternate pickup. Dressed in camo on a rocky bank, it is really hard for the driver to see us. I give him a flash of the mirror as he cruises in the channel and also with the rescue laser I am testing out. The jury is still out on the laser, partly due to the fact that one of the crew is red-green colorblind.

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From here it is down the lake to pickup K.W., then back to the station to process the samples and fill out a short paperwork form. On the ride back we share intel from where we saw sign and start planning for the next day.

I wish I could tell you that we get into gangs of hogs every day, but the truth is our efforts have paid off over the years. Over 12,000 hogs have been removed during the history of our program and I have anecdotally noticed that numbers in my area have declined. Having the ability to breed twice a year, bearing up to six piglets, and becoming sexually mature at six months, if we ever quit, the population would rebound quickly, so tomorrow we will be back at it again.

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Resources:

Hogs in the Smokies: http://smokiesinformation.org/nature-wildlife/wild-hogs

Watch here for volunteer positions trapping wild hogs and helping deal with nuisance bears in the Smokies: https://www.thesca.org/serve/positions

Watch here for federal jobs hunting or trapping (type 0404 into the keyword search): https://www.usajobs.gov/

I did some work with these guys in college and they are the go-to agency for careers like mine: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wps/portal/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage

Wildthings Gear: http://www.wildthingsgear.com/

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On hunting and trapping..

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The most valuable hunting and trapping tool that I own is my mind. What’s that you say? How about your .308? Your .22 rifle? Or your conibear traps? Those are great, but without the first tool, the latter are useless. I cannot hunt or trap effectively without knowledge and skill, both hard wired into my brain.

Today, my mind has recognized that some viewers of my blog do not like dead animal pictures, so I will try to articulate why I hunt/trap in the hope that they set aside their disdain and can take a glimpse into the “natural” world. With trapping season only days away and hunting season already upon us, the volume of dead animal pictures on this blog will soon be on the rise. I would say this post is not for the hunters and trappers, but in reality it is for both sides of the argument. To the hunter I say “why not more?” and to the non-hunter I say “why not?”.

And with that prelude I give you the “Top 7 Reasons” why I hunt and trap.

1. I enjoy it – Plain and simple. All the reasons below are ancillary to the fact that when I am in the woods hunting, trapping, or foraging it feels right, almost spiritual in a way. I do not view myself apart from nature, but part of it. When I take the life of an animal, respectfully and humanely, I am just participating in the “circle of life”. Whether I am uprooting a plant or shooting an animal, to me they are one in the same.

Like many, I have felt that I was born centuries too late, but that is a cop out. Participating in the absurdity of modern society is a choice. If you want a simpler lifestyle, then do it. Hunt, trap, fish, forage, and grow your own garden. I promise you, the satisfaction of self-reliant hobbies is highly rewarding.

2. Subsistence – I am a meat hunter and trapper. At our house, we only cook wild game that I hunt, trap, or catch. If we go out to dinner or eat at a friend’s, I will eat what is available, but that’s it. I am able to pack my freezer with deer, hogs, coons, squirrels, turtles, frogs, fish, and a few other critters that keep me fed year round.

3. Health –  Organic, free range meat. I am not into hormones, anti-biotics, and all the other crap associated with factory farming. Since I butcher and process everything myself, I have direct control over the sanitary conditions and handling of my food. A big plus in my book.

4. Cost –  Debatable. One could argue that I save money by having no grocery bill for organic meat, expensive if you haven’t looked lately. The counter argument would be the opportunity cost of not working during those hunting hours and all the meat that could be purchased by my wages. I would then argue that my happiness while living off the land needs to be factored in, greatly increasing my stance and making it a win in my book.

5. Ethics – “Bunny-hugger” vs. “Bambi-killer”. “Meat-eater” vs. “Vegetarian” What is ethical when it comes to taking the life of any living creature, plant or animal? We cannot exist without taking energy from another source, but we can choose how we do it. My wife is a vegetarian, both for health and moral reasons, and I can respect that. However, if you oppose hunting and trapping for meat, and are not a vegetarian, then I will politely challenge your integrity and point you towards the garden.

Personally, I do not like the unnatural conditions animals are subjected to under factory farming conditions, so I choose to reduce my support of “Big Farma”. That leaves three options for meat: hunt & trap, raise livestock myself, or buy free range, organic meat. All good options, but hunting and trapping edge out the others in my situation, i.e. plenty of hunting opportunities, a “bunny-hugger” wife that would protest me killing the family hog, etc.

But how can hunting and trapping be “humane”? Sometimes it is not, but neither is nature. Pain and death are an ever present force in nature, just ask any prey species. I would like to say that all the animals I kill have a swift, painless death, but that is not always true. Modern trapping has come a long way in the area of animal welfare, but there is still the Murphy factor that sometimes comes out to play.  Have I lost game over the years? A few, but I continually work on my tracking skills and have to point out that nothing in nature goes to waste. My take is that the brief pain that I cause a creature is part of nature and better than living a cramped existence for months in a cage or pen. “Humane” in my book is the intent to make the kill quickly and efficiently.

6. Conservation –  Carrying capacity, over-population, tradition, economics, etc. I learned all the arguments in my wildlife college classes, but the big fact remains that wildlife management and conservation efforts in your state are funded by hunters, trappers, and fishermen. If you like seeing songbirds, turkeys, river otters, deer, elk, etc. then thank a sportsman, because their license purchases paid the bill for the wildlife management programs that either reintroduced those species or are protecting them.

Some of the species I hunt and trap are either non-native or cause damage to property. Want land to hunt or trap? Just offer to take care of a landowners feral hog, beaver, or coyote problem. Those three species have opened the door to some of the best hunting spots I have.

7. Self-reliance – Like gardening, homesteading, and the like, hunting and trapping promotes self-reliance. Coupled with gardening, raising livestock, and a food storage program, putting meat on the table from hunting and trapping is just one more skill that keeps the real “Spirit” of this country alive.

Resources for non-hunters/trappers: This blog. Keep reading it. You will learn some stuff about hunting, trapping, butchering, and cooking a variety of game. Check out your States DNR site for hunter’s education classes and other info: http://www.huntfishsport.com/web.aspx?cmd=dnr

Resources for hunters/trappers: Realize that you are an ambassador for our lifestyle. Question yourself why you do what you do and don’t act like a fool. Be able to express it to non-hunters in a logical way. We live in different times and the future of hunting and trapping is in our hands. Since you have the skills, unplug from the system and feed yourself. Teach someone to hunt. Watch a video on factory farming and see if you want to support that industry.

**Disclaimer – This post is in reference to the role of hunting and trapping in my personal life. Professionally, I hunt and trap as part of a damage control program focused on feral hogs, which has it’s own controversies. That said, past and future pictures of feral hogs are from legal hunting on private land and are not associated in any way with my employer.

Wrangle a Turtle..

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I caught another little guy this morning. TN law requires them to be a minimum of 12″ in length to keep. It is probably for the best that I didn’t catch a big one, as we are heading to a Wild Food Festival and my wife will appreciate me not smelling like a butchered turtle on our car trip.

The words of a good friend echo in my mind… “Your Blog is not your diary!! Show them how to do something“. One of my unofficial business coach is a decorated Marine combat leader, so I censored the expletives from his sage advice, but I love his “it may taste bad, but eat it” style.

Hai, Sensei!!” is usually my response

So here is a quick lesson on wrangling a turtle once he is on dry land. They are faster than they look, pretty ornery, and their long necks can reach surprisingly far.

Step 1: ” Open mouth, insert foot” Well not really. You step on their head and upper shell pinning them.

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Step 2: Grab the tail

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Step 3: Remember the turtle’s reach and throw it in your turtle sack if it is big enough or turn it loose.

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TN turtle regulations:

http://www.eregulations.com/tennessee/fishing/snapping-turtles-2/

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More than one way to catch and clean a turtle.. Part I

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The phone rings. I answer and hear a strong mountain accent utter the words…

You wanna turtle?

I replied “I’ll head that way“.

When the old ex-poacher heard I was trapping turtles out of a nearby pond, he proceeded to tell me tall tales of 200 pounders covered in moss that you could ride across the lake. I love listening to these guys, because there are pearls of knowledge mixed in with the grand tales and I like to pick their brains for different ways to put meat on the table. The pond owners had fished 4 or 5 good sized turtles out before I heard they wanted them gone and left me catching only these little guys.

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So when Danny offered me a free turtle, I wasn’t going to turn it down, knowing that there would be a good story that came with it. When I arrived to find the turtle in a net and stuffed into a garbage can, the story began.

Now there are good storytellers, and great storytellers, and this guy has it down. With all the enthusiasm he could muster in his 5′ 7″, 260 pound frame, he proceeded to tell me how he had watched that turtle “sunnin’ himself” for hours on the bank. Then it “slid into the water” and swam straight towards the dock, so “I kindly grabbed the net and hid behind the pole and eased it in“. The pole in reference is a 4 x 4 support on the marina, so the image of this bulldog of man hiding behind it made me chuckle. I realized that even though at one time we were on opposite sides of the law, we are both the same. We share a passion for living off the land and catching our supper.

I thanked him and promised to bring him some meat next week and headed to the house to clean my turtle. Well one thing led to another and I kept him in a tank for two days until I could clean him. I had full intentions of posting a “how to”, but my wife, and photographer, had to head to work half way through the process.

So we will call this Part I:

1. Catch a turtle – with a trap, jug lines, limblines, noodling, crossing the road, or with Danny’s net

2. “Dispatch it” a.k.a. kill it. Operating as a professional hunter and trapper for years I was well trained that we “don’t kill animals, we dispatch them”. You can sugar coat the process all you want, but if you are going to hunt and trap your own meat you are going to “kill” animals. I use a hammer to the head and then cut it off, a.k.a. “stunning and exsanguination” an approved method according to the AVMA Euthanasia Guidelines  https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Documents/euthanasia.pdf

3. If you have a hose, you can stick the nozzle down the neck and use the water pressure to help separate the skin from the meat.

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4. Cut off the feet, cut the skin free from the shell (carapace), and use a baton the cut the sides free

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5. Use the baton and knife to cut down the belly (plastron if you want to sound fancy)

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6. Then… you have to wait until I catch another turtle or Danny nets the “200 pounder

The finished product of head meat, backstraps, front and hindquarters, tail, and neck ready to be bagged for the freezer.

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“So this bear walks into a bar…”

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Or my hog trap in this case..

Not what I expected in the trap!! I am running some hog traps just across the state line for a friend in NC. According to state law, all hog traps  “must be constructed in a manner such that a non-target animal can easily be released or can escape without harm

I guess the bear never read the “escape” clause, even though he stuck his head up through the 18 x 18 inch hole several times when I got there.

Problem 1:  Angry bear in a trap

Problem 2:  Angry bear can reach all the way through the hog panels and angry bear is strong

Problem 3:  I need to get on top of the trap to raise the heavy door without angry bear deciding to use the escape hole to jump me from behind and/or pull me into the cage and chew me up

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Solution: A piece of scrap plywood, a big stick, some delicate footwork, and a pinch of testicular fortitude.

Cover the hole with the scrap plywood, have your big stick ready to thump him if he turns on you, and carefully climb on top avoiding the pissed off bear’s attempts to claw you.

Most likely, he will shoot out of the trap like a rocket leaving you unscathed. My bear decided it was time to cool off and go for a nice morning swim…

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NC Feral Swine Trapping Regs:

http://www.ncwildlife.org/Licensing/OtherLicensesPermits/FeralSwineTrappingPermit.asp