The otter was hip-caught in a snare on a low cut-bank at the water’s edge, and his catch circle was bigger than a Las Vegas poker table.
I know as well as anybody that you don’t venture into an otter’s catch circle unless you want to change the number and appearance of your appendages. But what I didn’t consider was that much of this otter’s catch circle extended into thin air, above the surface of the river and beyond the edge of the cut-bank. When we pulled in to the bank to take care of the situation, the deck of the boat extended into that invisible but still very real portion of the circle.
That wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I was standing on the deck of the boat as we came in, and the otter figured it out before I did. It was at me before I could say anything, and all I could do was bend at the waist and sort of hurl myself backwards off the bow of the boat.
Like most near-calamities, it happened fast, but in my mind, the replay is in freeze-frame slow motion, like a football instant replay. Whenever I want, I can close my eyes and see that big dog otter snapping and lunging just inches from the zipper of my Levis, while my torso and legs formed a retreating U-shape. In the freeze frame, the otter’s snapping jaws are uncomfortably deep inside the U.
I had bad dreams about that incident for weeks, and it still makes me twitch. Losing a finger would have been bad enough, but the body appendages that otter was closest to during that slo-mo half-second are far more meaningful to me than a mere finger or two.
Things like that can happen anywhere, but the trapline can be an especially danger-fraught place. For one thing, we’re often out there alone, in a pretty remote place — or at least a seldom-visited one. If trouble happens, it might be a long time before help comes along.
And the very nature of trapping has its built-in dangers. Getting a thumb or finger caught in a #1.75 four-coil isn’t going to kill you, but it’s not something you want to do on purpose. And if you manage to get hung in one of the bigger bodygrippers — which many, many trappers, including myself, have done — it can be a dicey situation.
Twice it’s worked out that way for me. Once, I stupidly ran my hand into muddy water to retrieve what I thought was a sprung #330. But the trap was only knocked over, and when I grabbed it, I grabbed it by the triggers — with predictable results. The big trap jumped off the canal bottom and suitcased my right arm at bicep and forearm, with my elbow squarely in the middle of the trap. Long story short, I was able to get the trap unwired but couldn’t remove it left-handed. I ended up driving clumsily back to town, where a blacksmith had to cut the trap off my arm because I couldn’t find anybody willing to take it off me. I had hairline fractures in both radius and ulna of my right arm, and a set of bruises that lasted a month.
The other time, I got my foot hung in a #220 in a submerged run, after a rain had raised water levels 3 feet. I was feeling for the trap and found it, but the trouble was it was short-chained with cross stakes, and the water was 4 feet deep. I couldn’t pull my foot out of the stout little trap, and I couldn’t pull the stakes either. I was stuck there in that ditch for more than three hours before I somehow managed to squeeze my foot between the jaws and out of my waders, leaving them in the trap. I shucked the waders off my body and waded through the cold water barefooted.
There are plenty of other ways to get into trouble on the trapline, and I know many of the stories you readers could tell would top the ones I have because I’ve heard many of them — near-drownings, snakebites, unplanned hand-to-hand combat with otters, bobcats, wolverines, and in one instance, a 300-pound black bear.
The list of ways we can get ourselves in a pickle on the trapline is endless. The only cure for it — and even then it’s not a complete cure — is to stay vigilant and careful. Think things through before you begin. Anticipate the consequences of your actions. Have a contingency plan. Get yourself a trapping partner, or at the very least tell someone where you’ll be running traps and approximately when you’ll return. Carry a cell phone in a waterproof bag.
In other words, be careful out there. Trapping is supposed to be fun. Accidents can take away the fun in a hurry.
Jim Spencer, of Calico Rock, Ark., is executive editor of T&PC. To contact Jim, send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org.