BY JIM SPENCER
One morning last April, I shot a fine gobbler on the ridge behind our house. He was the fourth I’ve taken from that ridge since 2011. My wife Jill has taken two others.
We’ve been trapping that same four-mile-long ridge for 10 seasons. My records show we’ve caught 29 coyotes, eight bobcats, 18 gray foxes, 27 raccoons, and a good four-dozen possums and skunks – all confirmed turkey and turkey nest predators. Before we started trapping that ridge, it was rare to hear turkeys or see turkey sign. Now, on a good spring morning we can hear four to six gobblers up there.
Maybe the heavy trapping pressure and the dramatic increase in turkey usage are unrelated. But I doubt it.
Many duck, quail, grouse and turkey hunters are unaware of it, but trappers can and do provide them with a valuable service. Reducing the predator population in a specific area is one of the most effective ways to increase the reproduction and survival of both upland and wetland prey animals.
For thousands of years before man came along, predators and prey existed in a more or less balanced relationship. There were always pendulum swings, but in the long run things usually evened out. That’s changed. Man has altered the habitat, often making it much easier for predators to find their prey. When Lewis and Clark went up the Missouri two centuries ago, the prairie pothole region was an unbroken grassland a thousand miles wide, stretching from the Big Muddy to the boreal forests of north Canada, dotted with literally millions of ponds, marshes and lakes – prime, immense waterfowl habitat. Ducks could nest anywhere, and predators had to work hard to find the nests.
Then came the settlers with their plows and ditching machines, and the vast pothole-laden grasslands were rapidly converted to farmland. There are many fewer potholes now, and the fringe of good nesting habitat surrounding them makes it much easier for today’s predators to find duck nests. And there are far fewer waterfowl now.
Different habitat, but similar principle, with upland birds and game. Nesting habitat and escape cover is fragmented, more limited and of lower quality, and predators have figured out how to find ground nests with greater frequency.
The answer? Trapping. That’s one of the primary reasons Jill and I focus so much of our trapping energy each year on these ridges and “hollers” within a few miles of home. We could do better financially by broadening our horizons (at least we could have before the market went south,) but this is where we live, and unless we’re on the road, this is where we hunt.
I can’t prove it, but I doubt we’d have killed six gobblers on our backyard ridge if we hadn’t been trapping up there for the past decade. Almost certainly there wouldn’t have been seven gobblers up there, which is how many were gobbling along the ridge that morning.
With today’s fur market in the toilet, it’s getting harder every year for trappers to get motivated. However, knowing we’re improving the survival odds of our local turkey population helps Jill and me get our game faces on every winter. I know this: the memory of that big mountain gobbler strutting through the woods toward me last spring is going to give me a little extra push this winter.
Jim Spencer, of Calico Rock, Ark., is executive editor of T&PC. To contact Jim, send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase Jim’s trapping and turkey books, visit his website, www.treblehookunlimited.com.