Trappers: Explaining the attraction is all in the experience

rapper Dave Eckels carries a beaver back to his four-wheeler.
Staff Writer

An eagle soars overhead, looking for a meal for its newborn eaglets hidden in a nest atop a tree 150 feet off the ground.

No sirens, no trucks, nothing of busy city life interrupts nature's idyllic beauty.

On a damp Sunday morning, the only noises are those of boots squishing through mud on a little-used trail turned to soup by almost a month of daily rains. The temperature is a cool 51 degrees, a welcome change from the near 80s of the previous two days.

The daffodils are blooming, all bright yellow and orange and white.

"Nothing in that one, it's still set," Phil Engel says, in almost a whisper because of the peacefulness, to fellow trapper Dave Eckels, who already has headed off to the next trap. He gives a glance through the trees, cocks his head sideways to look through the scant winter brush, and turns back toward the four-wheelers.

That one is empty, too.

Engel is from Helena, Montana. Eckels is from southwestern Pennsylvania. They've known each other for years. And for 14 years, they've driven to Mississippi, the Golden Triangle and the Delta, to spend February trapping beavers, raccoons and otters.

"People around here hunt or go to the beach or whatever, we come here and trap for a month. It's fun, it's what we do. This is our vacation," Eckels said.

When pressed as to why they keep doing it after all these years, especially when prices for pelts are down and Mississippi furs aren't as desired as some from other parts of the country, Eckels paused for a moment, then said, "You have to like it to do it, and we like it."

Both have day jobs. Eckels owns his own construction company. Engel owns a residential landscaping company. It's hard to do much landscaping when the temperature is 10 below.
"It was minus 12 in Helena and 80 here," Engel said of Saturday's temperature differences.

Eckels started trapping when he was 9. He and some friends dammed up a small stream and it led to a self-taught love for the sport.

He eventually teamed up with others, much the way hunters do in Mississippi, to share their hobby. And in Pennsylvania, trappers are a big group with 3,500 members in the Pennsylvania Trappers Association.

To make better use of their time in the cold northern winters, he and some others started looking south. They called timber companies about helping them thin out beaver populations that were building dams that often flooded woodlands and roads.

They found most of the timber companies either had trappers on staff or contracts in place, but they did hook up with John, Mark and Kit Hart and Hartwood Plantation north of Aberdeen who wanted them to trap their 2,500-acre spread.

It was at a time when Mississippi State was working to encourage the links between northern trappers and southern landowners.

That started what has become the annual trip. Many trappers still come from Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania each year, but Eckels and Engel are the only two who spend much time in the area.
Eckels drives two days, Engel three, sometimes more, depending on the weather. He drives 20 hours and sleeps four in the back of his truck.

Both come pulling trailers loaded with gear -- traps, four-wheelers, rain gear, waders, even a cleaning table. They bring three large freezers in which they freeze meat and furs.

Since those early years, at different times they've connected with big timber groups -- 180,000 acres around Vicksburg -- to small land owners. They've trapped 4,000-acre spreads in Clarksdale to smaller tracts along the Chuquatonchee Creek in Clay and Chickasaw counties.

But they always use the Hart place as home base when in the Golden Triangle area.

They know the lay of the land and they've developed lasting relationships with both the family, the terrain and to a degree, the beavers.  They've done the same with others over the years in the region, from Bill Duke and Jeff Grubbs in West Point to others across the state. They have their regular routine for restaurants and places to see.

But most of all, they trap, setting out dozens of snares for beavers, otters and raccoons, and a few for bobcat and coyotes, especially since coyotes are getting to be a serious nuisance for many farmers and property owners.

The routine is the same -- set them and check them. Frequent rains this February have turned much of the trails into mud pits, which provides the two men an occasional distraction "mudding" their way, sometimes up to the headlights on their Honda four-wheelers, their tested brand of choice.

Jason Humbers, a Golden Triangle resident who has become a friend, once told them, "You know when the water gets up to your headlights, you need a boat."

He also promised to loan them his four-wheeler anytime if they needed it, "But I'm just going to give you the title. I don't want it back," Humbers told them.

This year they've trapped about 40 beavers in the Delta and another 40 in the Golden Triangle. In addition to private lands, they help out Monroe County Road Manager Sonny Clay, who gives them a list of roads where beaver dams are threatening culverts and roadways.

Engel and Eckels do the rest, although the problem is not nearly as bad as it was when they first started coming to the area.

Monroe County is the only one in the region that will pay the land owner a $12.50 bounty per beaver tail. It's a way of managing the population.

"We've thinned out the populations. In many cases, the owners just want to be able to get control of their land. Beavers make beautiful habitats when they aren't flooding roads or timberlands. We are careful to advise the landowner. Some places we'd catch 15 or 20 the first year. Now we go back and there might be one or two," Eckels noted.

They get up in the mornings and head out to check traps, resetting or re-baiting some, adjusting others, and go back through other areas.

Their biggest headaches are big snapping turtles that swim into the beaver traps. A visitor suggested they have someone make them turtle soup. They declined, saying they'd rather the prehistoric-looking turtles mind their own business.

They use their own blends to bait traps for raccoons, bobcats and the like. For raccoons, it's a mixture mostly of molasses with marshmallows on top. The traps are the kinds where only the raccoon can set it off. But at this time of year, as raccoons start mating, they often will by-pass the trap, instead following more primal instincts.

Engel used one of his trapping tools to catch a three-foot water moccasin Sunday. Although still sluggish from a winter hibernation, it opened its mouth wide to show off the "cotton" inside.
Engel planned to take it back to Montana to add to his "trophies," which include a wild hog killed in Chickasaw County on a previous trip.

The two men are trapping in Corinth this week so they make trips there, too.

At night, they clean the day's catch, saving the furs, some of the meat and whatever others parts might be of use.

For instance, beavers emit a goo called castoreum that keeps their fur water resistant. It's also used in vanilla.

At one point Sunday, as he trudged through thigh-deep water to get a beaver snared in a trap -- a big 45-50 pounder -- Eckels said, "There's a lot of work that goes into trapping."
"You said it was fun, there's a big gap between fun and hard work," his visitor replied.

"It's fun, the kind of work you don't mind, " he laughed.

When they first started coming, some other Pennsylvania trappers would make the trek with them and even bring their sons. Now it's just the two of them. The others found it really was more work and less fun, or their jobs didn't allow them to take a month off.

"If you were to go on a week-long hunting trip, you could be successful. But by the time you've driven two or three days down here and gotten set up, you already are in a week. A month just makes sense for us. It gives us time to really enjoy it," Eckels explained.

They don't do it for the money. Although they stay in cabins or houses on most land owners' property at little or no charge, they still have expenses, especially gas.

If they charge at all, it's $25 per beaver.

Beaver pelts bring $9 or $10 these days, down from $20 in their heyday. The fur on Southern beavers is too coarse, especially the older they get. Most buyers use it to make felt like that used on cowboy hats.

Otter used to bring $125. Now it's down to $27 or so. Raccoon pelts fetch only $3 or $4. Bobcats bring $20 to $30, compared to the "hundreds" a Western U.S. bobcat skin will bring, said Eckels, who prepares all the furs when he gets back to Pennsylvania and sends them to the Fur Harvesters' Auction in Ontario, Canada or the North American Fur Auction.

Saturday night's heavy rains changed the landscape, pushing waters well out of their creek banks, surprising the veteran trappers who slept through the storm. Some traps couldn't be reached because they were a foot or more under water.

"That's part of the fun. It's never the same, something new and different every day and every year," Engel said, noting that when the waters get high, the beavers move upstream to shallower, more manageable currents. "And you learn something every year."

They come in February because it's right after the end of deer season and before other seasons or farming really gets cranked up. They've endured bitter cold, unusual heat, rain and even snow. This February has been among the wettest and warmest, although given where they are from, the temperatures haven't aren't bringing major complaints.

Regardless of the weather, they have fields, duck marshes and virtually everything else to themselves.

"Where else can you get this kind of quiet, this kind of scenery, this kind of time to yourself? It's peace and quiet. My wife flew down three years ago just to see because she knew it is what I love. She says she won't come back...but we'll keep coming. She understands that," Engel said as he throttled his four-wheeler through another deep, mud-filled trail, off to check another trap.