Bitin’ Good

Saplings swayed as the Maine Northwoods swallowed Dan McAllister’s blaze-orange parka.

“Wahooooooo!” permeated the canopy as I chased McAllister, struggling to keep pine boughs from stealing my hat and bloodying my face.

“What was that?” McAllister queried as he ducked under a blowdown, not bothering to stop pushing through the pines for an answer.

“Your partner’s third marten,” I guessed.

A few steps later, McAllister stopped.

“Oooooowwwww!” he whooped, dropping to his knees to examine a brilliantly furred male marten that had found his running pole.

Grinning, McAllister quickly removed his first sable of the day, reached into his pail for a chunk of beaver and reset his trap. After a hasty stir of a lure stick pasted to a nearby tree, McAllister sauntered toward the truck.

His partner, Jerry Braley, had raised the rear window of the truck topper and was fumbling for a white vegetable sack when McAllister reached the gravel road.

“You’re not going to let me catch up, are you?” McAllister needled as Braley tightened a tag around the neck of his latest catch.

Braley’s eyebrows bounced and his lips coiled. “Not a chance.”

Improbable Partners
Friendly competition aside, Braley and McAllister share everything about their marten line, from costs to fur value to enjoyment of trapping together.

At first glance, McAllister, 62, a retired government loan program administrator, and Braley, 43, a selfemployed scallop and eel fisherman, appear mismatched.

Besides an addiction to trapping, McAllister and Braley share another vital connection: An admiration for Bruce Gould, a respected fur buyer from Newport, Maine, who succumbed to leukemia at 68 years old on April 19.

“I sold my first muskrat to him when I was 9 years old,” Braley said. “Too bad you never met him, he was a character.”

McAllister nodded. “We both spent a lot of time with Bruce,” he said. “Bruce and I trapped together for over 20 years. When Bruce came down with leukemia, Jerry was working for him, and we started trapping beaver together.”

When Braley’s long-time marten trapping partner lost interest in running the Northwoods line last year, McAllister jumped at the chance to join Braley.

McAllister had caught a few marten before 2000, but never had the opportunity to run a long line like Braley had operated each season since 1977.

And for the record, McAllister caught more marten than Braley in 2000 on the pair’s first shared line.

Racing to the Marten
McAllister and Braley rode together, while I was escorted in a trailing pickup by Michael Hartt, Braley’s friend who owned the camp where we stayed.

At each location, McAllister had a set on the left side of the road, while Braley’s trap was on the right. Each worked quickly to find his set, tend it and return to the truck to speed to the next location.

I hustled to follow McAllister, then Braley, into the greenery in hopes of capturing a catch photo. After a few stops of plunging into the sopping shrubbery, I decided to wait on the road for a call to action.

Braley, who guaranteed a “good catch,” was visibly concerned after the line had netted only a pair of ermine after 10 stops.

At stop No. 11, I stood with Hartt on the sloppy gravel road.

“Paul!” Braley beckoned. “Bring your camera.”

I stumbled in to find a beaming Braley.

“I can still do it,” he said proudly.

I circled him and knelt in the moss to take a picture.

“See this one, he’s a young male,” Braley explained, stroking the marten’s pale gray head. “Feel the top of his head. It’s flat. Adults have muscle on their heads.”

Braley remade the box, and bounded from the woods to share news of his prize with McAllister.

“Get a tag out for me,” Braley instructed McAllister, who willingly obliged.

Braley’s truck pulled away rapidly, beginning a pattern: Each time the partners placed another marten in the vegetable sack, Braley would drive at least 10 mph faster to the next stop. Once, when the trappers registered a double, Braley’s truck disappeared from view altogether.

After Braley’s first marten, the trailing truck lagged until Hartt punched the pedal to catch up. When we pulled up, Braley and McAllister disappeared into the dreary woods. I stepped out of Hartt’s truck in time to hear Braley’s call for the camera.

I jumped a ditch and found Braley, who was holding another marten and sporting his best “I-got-one” grin.

“He’s what we call a canary,” Braley explained. “See that orange on his throat? That’s what we’re looking for.”

The chase was on.

A Simple System
Like most longliners, Braley has developed a set that takes seconds — rather than minutes — to construct.

For many years, he nailed #220 Conibears to trees, then tried wooden boxes.

“A long time ago, I wanted to use boxes,” Braley said. “I had a small pickup and didn’t have room to lug 500 boxes. We’d have to have made four or five trips.”

Braley found a solution in a local shopper: The newspaper had extra plastic delivery boxes for sale.

“I bought them for 50 cents apiece,” he recalled. “I didn’t know if fisher would go into plastic boxes, but it works.

“They stack nice, and I can get 300 of them in my truck. They’re durable, and a #110 and #120 fit perfect.”

To make a set, Braley wires the plastic box to the top of a fallen tree or wedges it under a log. Most of Braley and McAllister’s sets were off of the ground.

“If we get up in the trees, we catch more males,” Braley said. “They’re more aggressive. Females don’t climb as often. The more sets you have in the trees, the bigger your catch will run. But they’ll go into a box easier if it’s on the ground.”

While some marten trappers use fish for bait, and others prefer mice or feathers, Braley uses beaver exclusively.

“If the marten are hungry, it’s hard to beat beaver meat,” he reasoned. “If the beaver aren’t hungry, it’s hard to beat beaver meat.”

Braley and McAllister have a ready supply of beaver flesh, and baiting a box takes a flip of the wrist.

McAllister has a strong preference for #120 Conibears, which with an extra spring, are easier to stabilize in the boxes.

“It’s more trap,” he said. “If you catch a fisher, you have a better chance of holding him in a #120.”

McAllister prefers to set his #120s in the middle notch on traps with three notches, noting the middle setting gives the best tension for a marten to trip the trigger on its way to the bait.

McAllister and Braley dip their traps and add a swivel to each chain.

“If you don’t, they’ll twist that chain up and eventually break it,” McAllister said. “It doesn’t make much difference where in the chain, as long as it’s swiveled.”

Braley and McAllister use 11/4-inch fencing staples to tack the chain to a tree or fallen log. If possible, the staple is driven so caught marten will be suspended out of reach of mice and voles.

As with bait, Braley is a onetrick pony regarding lure. He uses his own formula, a blend of skunk essence and petroleum jelly he calls “Jeb’s Best.”

He places a gob on a stick and presses it against a tree 6 to 8 feet above the ground. To refresh the lure, Braley simply rotates the stick.

“The Vaseline holds the skunk smell well,” he said. “The birds, mice and squirrels don’t lug it off like they will with lard. A lot of guys don’t like to use skunk, but I’m telling you, that’s the key.”

Old Growth Optional
“This is a classic marten location,” Braley said as he released the trap’s jaws from the neck of another sable.

“Some trappers will only set in areas like this.”

A hundred miles of power poles hovered over us as our boots disappeared in unison into the spongy forest floor.

“Some years when you walk on this, the moss comes alive with red-backed voles,” Braley explained. “The marten will dig around and hunt them and ignore sets. They’re tough to catch then until it snows.”

Two stops later, McAllister picked up another marten in a strip of hardwoods.

“You don’t have to be in dark growth to catch marten,” Braley explained at the tailgate. “What drives them is their bellies. Strips of softwood and hardwood are good spots. The squirrels are there. The voles are there, and marten will hunt them.”

“Streams and waterways are natural barriers and funnels,” McAllister added.

“We set a lot of spring runs,” Braley said. “A lot of it is experience. We set locations where the lure can work. If you’re going to set one corner, generally it’s the northwest corner.”

Braley’s goal is to place sets where the prevailing wind will carry the skunk scent to traveling marten.

“Once that skunk hits his nose, 98 percent of the time, I’ll have him.”

A Bitin’ Good Time
“How many is that?” Braley poked, knowing well that his sets had produced more marten than McAllister’s boxes.

“Ten to eight,” I replied, as the sunlight faded on the mid-November landscape.

“I still have another day,” McAllister said defiantly.

“Eighteen marten is a good first day’s tending,” Braley said back at camp. “They’re bitin’ good, especially without any snow.

“Some years they bite better than others. The hardest year is when we have a good crop of mountain ash berries. That’s a hard food to compete against.”

The next morning, Braley’s pickup rolled to the first stop of the day with renewed fervor. More than 120 sets later, we had checked most of the 260-trap, 200-mile circuit.

Day 2’s tally: Braley 7, McAllister 4.

However, Braley was more gentle with his barbs about outcatching McAllister.

“Doesn’t matter if you caught them all,” McAllister reminded his partner as he turned to wink at me. “They’re half mine.”

After the final sets were tended, Braley pulled his truck into a clearcut to allow me to take tailgate photographs.

“As you’ve seen, there’s no big secret,” McAllister said as my shutter clicked to capture 29 marten, 10 ermine and a pair of proud trappers. “It’s getting up early, going to bed late and setting a lot of traps in-between. It’s all about working hard. Of course, we don’t call it work.”

Without losing his smile, Braley raised his chin in agreement, then straightened for another photo.

“I’m just like a kid at Christmas,” he affirmed. “Every set is like another unwrapped present under the tree, and I can’t wait to get there and open it.”


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