Tales From an Old Trapper

A retired biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks tells stories from a lifetime of hunting and trapping. Grab a seat near the fire and kick back.

By Tommie Berger

I have caught thousands of coons, some in foothold traps, but the majority in #220 Conibear boxes and buckets. Back in the 1980s I had some 1½ double-springs set for raccoon on the river and one morning I found a very large, beautiful coyote hopping around in one of those traps. Why he did not pull out I’ll never know because only his single outside toe was caught. Why he did not pull the short stake I’ll never know either. The catch circle was minimal and I assumed that the coyote perhaps had just gotten in the trap right before I arrived. That was my best coyote in all my years of trapping and calling – can’t believe I did not take a picture or get that critter tanned. In my younger years, money seemed more important than anything else.
Twice I have caught two coons in one #220 Conibear box. Both times the coons were youngsters; probably littermates who apparently tried to beat each other into the box.     Again back in the 1980s, I caught a beautiful blond raccoon in a #220 box at the base of a large cottonwood on a small creek. I had that unique coon mounted. The next year I set another trap at the base of that tree and caught a second blond coon, which I later had tanned. It would appear that a local resident female must have carried a blond gene and produced perhaps a single blond kit each year. I probably trapped that momma coon and eliminated that gene pool as I trapped that area for a number of years after that.
One year I had coyote traps set out east of town. I had an early meeting an hour and a half away and so it was necessary to run the traps in the dark. As I arrived at my trapping location, I used my large flashlight to check my trapline through the pasture. As I arrived at my last few traps, my flashlight batteries were weakening rapidly and I had failed to bring along spares. I knew there was one trap left in a fence corner so I approached the area in the pitch dark, hoping that if I left the light off for a few minutes it would produce enough light to check the trap. Unfortunately that was not the case. I knew I was close to the trap and was nearly down on hands and knees trying to use the slightly lightening sky to find the trap location. Right at that time, the coyote that was in the trap about three feet directly behind me let out a loud bark and howl that about made me jump out of my skin! I found the trap and about had to head home to change my clothes.
I have set hundreds of 220 Conibear boxes and caught my share of raccoons, opossums, and skunks. A few bobcats have stuck their heads into a box and several years ago I caught my first coyote in one of those things. I have also caught a squirrel or two, a mallard duck, a Canada goose, a few pack rats, and a few feral cats.
One day back in the 1980s, we got a call at the office about skunks in a large warehouse out on the edge of town. Being the only trapper in the office, I went to investigate with several live traps in hand. This warehouse was large, had both concrete and dirt floors, and was jammed full of material and equipment used for making farm and oil field machinery. I found some animal activity and set two raccoon-sized live traps and one tube skunk trap. The next morning I had one skunk – not a striped skunk as expected but a spotted skunk, a rare and endangered species in Kansas. I called our agency furbearer biologist for his advice as to what to do. He told me to take the critter to the country and turn it loose. Over the next week or so, I caught six more of those little rascals and never had one spray in the building nor when turning them loose. I would guess that I probably trapped more spotted skunks than any modern day trapper in Kansas. They were cute little guys.
When my son was about three years old I had a large live trap set in a pasture near a creek. I had Fritz along for the check and as I parked to walk down the fence line he bolted from the truck and ran down the edge of the field. He crawled under the fence and trotted over in front of the trap. When I arrived at the trap, Fritz was backed up a little from the trap, his eyes were wide, and he said, “Daddy, that kitty is mad!” A nice bobcat snarled and hissed in the back of the trap. Another time, I caught two bobcats in a large double trap, one in each side. I figured there would be a female in one side and a male in the other. Not so. Both were adult males.
When Fritz was five years old we went to an area near home on a November day to harvest a Thanksgiving turkey. Fritz had his little Indian Brave compound bow and I carried my trusty turkey shotgun. Before we parked, we spotted a flock of turkeys on a field near a small dry creek bed about quarter mile away. I told Fritz we would sneak down the creek and see if we could get close enough to harvest a turkey dinner. We had covered a couple hundred yards when I spotted movement on the ground ahead. We both stopped and dropped to a knee to watch a beautiful bobcat come sneaking along towards us. He jumped up on a fallen log about 10 yards to our left and stood there twitching his little tail, trying to figure out what we were. It didn’t take too long for him to decide to exit the area at a trot, luckily in the opposite direction of the turkeys, and we did harvest out Thanksgiving bird.
I began calling coyotes back in the mid-1970s with very limited success in eastern Kansas. When I moved to southwest Kansas in 1978, I vowed to become a more successful predator caller and worked hard at it. Fortunately, the coyote numbers were high and my success improved yearly. The local sportsman’s club held a coyote-calling contest each year the first Saturday of November. Pairs of callers were allowed to start at shooting light anywhere they chose and check in at a designated location by 7 pm with their coyotes. I paired up with a new friend and began to participate in the late 1970s. The club had a pair of brothers who were very good, had won multiple years, and were the team to beat.
Sometime in the early 1980s, my partner and I killed six coyotes on contest day and made the deadline in plenty of time. Much to our surprise, the brothers came in with six and we won. That win propelled my interest and I spent every spare moment on favorable days calling coyotes. I can remember a number of days when a partner and I harvested five to seven coyotes and a few days when I did it alone. We made many farmer friends in southwestern Kansas and northern Oklahoma by thinning their coyote populations down.
One fine November day I was calling on sagebrush flat off a large draw in the early afternoon. Back in those days, it was all mouth calls, no electronics. After a couple of series, a pair of coyotes came running from the draw several hundred yards across the flat right to me. At about 30 or 40 yards I tried to stop the pair with no success. So, I lined up on the lead dog and dropped it at about 10 yards. The second yote did an about face and I sent a second round up her tail at about 30 yards. I immediately sent out another series of calls just for fun and darned if a third coyote didn’t appear from the north. I stopped that one at about 50 yards and dropped it in its tracks. Three coyotes at one stand – wow!
My first coyote with a bow came one day while deer hunting. After climbing into my tree stand, I noticed some movement several hundred yards away across the pasture. As I surveyed the situation with my binoculars I realized it was a coyote feeding on a dead cow carcass. I dropped from the tree with the intent of still hunting towards the carcass and attempting to take the coyote with my bow. I noticed that the coyote would disappear on the far side of the carcass periodically so I moved closer every time he was out of sight. As I closed the distance, I realized that the coyote was feeding inside of the rib cage of the carcass. I maneuvered around and arrowed that coyote at about 15 yards as he was so engrossed in his supper that he never knew I was there.
My calling partner became my father-in-law after several partners moved on or their kids grew up enough to be their partners. That partnership did not last long as Dad lost his battle with cancer. So my last year in southwestern Kansas, I wanted to participate in the calling contest but could not find a partner. I asked the committee if I could call by myself. They said it was OK as I would be at a disadvantage without a partner. I started the morning in northwestern Oklahoma and ended up right north of the Kansas border. It was a perfect calling day: partly cloudy, northwest breeze at about one to five mile per hour, and plenty of coyotes. I called in 13 coyotes that day, 11 singles and one double. I harvested 11 of those yotes and was back in Dodge City in plenty of time to win the contest.
I killed my first bobcat in southwestern Kansas and a few after that. The first one was a fluke. We were calling coyotes on a large ranch and about mid-morning I was facing south while my partner covered a draw to the west. After a couple of series, I spotted a critter at about 100 yards out sitting in the high grass. All I could see was the face and chest through the grass of what I thought was a coyote. I drew down on the critter, sent a .22-250 round downrange, and missed. But, the critter didn’t move, it just sat there. So I chambered another round and concentrated hard. At the shot the critter disappeared and when I walked out there, a fine spotted male bobcat lay dead with a bullet in the chest. He sits today on my coffee table. Later, I trapped and killed enough bobcats to have a beautiful jacket made for my wife.
Several other bobcat incidents are noteworthy. After moving to north-central Kansas, I was again calling coyotes one November day right before Thanksgiving. I was on a high mound overlooking a creek bottom and some ag fields to the south. I had called and killed a coyote from this location a week earlier. I made several series of calls with my mouth call and was waiting and watching between series. I caught movement out of the corner of my right eye and turned my head to stare into the eyes of a large bobcat at less than five feet. My immediate thought was that whoever broke the stare first would lose so I proceeded to stare the critter down. After what seemed like an eternity, the cat ever so slowly began to turn her head. I am left handed and had my rifle laying across my lap. I knew that I could not get my rifle to my shoulder nor see anything other than hair even if I did get the scope to my eye. I slowly raised the barrel of the rifle and placed it under her chin as she turned and pulled the trigger. Needless to say, my heart was beating out of my chest by that time and I just slumped back when it was all over. That cat came from downwind and came a little too close for comfort.
Another late November day I was perched in a tree stand in the bottom of a big canyon on the north side of a central Kansas reservoir. Not too long after daylight, several small bucks and three does came down the canyon on the opposite side that I was on and too far for any bow shot. The deer never knew I was there and disappeared down around the corner of the canyon. A short time later I was amazed to see four bobcats coming down the same trail the deer had taken. I assumed it was a female cat with three almost-grown kittens. They also disappeared around the corner. I sat for another hour and a half and then headed back to my truck.
The entire time in the tree stand after the cats went by I contemplated what to do. I had my calling equipment and rifle in the truck and was really tempted to climb down and set up for a call but I didn’t want to scare away any deer in the area. As I headed to the truck I decided to grab my calling paraphernalia and set up at the head of the canyon to try and call in one of the cats before heading to work. Not very long after blowing a soft series of rabbit distress pleas I saw movement down the draw. Here came one cat on a dead run, then another, then another. The first two cats were youngsters and they proceeded to run up a small tree about 30 yards right in front of me, one clear to the top and one about three-quarters up. The larger cat came to a halt right under the tree and sat down on its haunches looking up at the cats in the tree.
It did not take me long to decide what to do. I shot the larger cat first, then proceeded to harvest the two cats who stayed up the tree. The lower cat fell from the tree to the ground but the higher cat dropped over a crotch and hung up. I had to go back to the truck for a rope to help me scale the 20 feet up to retrieve the cat. The adult cat turned out to be a male, along with both juveniles. That was the only time I called in more than one bobcat, let alone three.
As one can see, an old hunter and trapper can have some pretty interesting and exciting times in the great outdoors. We all dearly wish we could take the memories we have stored away in our heads and put them on film for everyone to see. How neat it would be to go back and have a youngster beside us when all of these amazing things happened. Perhaps just putting them down on paper for some to read will inspire them to get outside and try to have similar experiences.

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