Thursday, February 3, 2011

Trapping the Ninemile Under Ice (pub. Mar. 09' Fur Taker magazine)

by: Duane Fronek

Ninemile is a creek that stretches over  nine-one mile sections of Northern WI. Back country. Where I was to trap is roughly 8 miles back in from any paved or gravel road. To get in there is a trip through logging roads in some rough and  beautiful country.

  It all started in September when I taught a trapper ed. Class for a group from Trout Unlimited. They were looking to learn how to trap beaver for a trout stream restoration project. On Sunday the last day of the class they asked if I would go with them up on the  Ninemile where they were planning on trapping and show them a few more things. After getting the news that my Grandpa passed away in the early morning hours that Sunday  who had a love for trout fishing and enjoyed the outdoors, then passed that on to my dad and then on to me and myself on to my son. I felt there was no better way to reflect on memories and spend the remainder of the day. That day will be something I‘ll always remember.

  Well as time passes so do the season’s. It was  about mid- November when I stopped in the local café for a little breakfast. Word had gotten around that I was doing a number on the local coyotes  and when I walked in the conversations quickly turned to trapping and how many I was up to now. Then questions would come. One question that came up and the basis of this story, was from Jim Waters a student from my fall trapper ed class. Jim asked if I would be interested in trapping the Ninemile this winter and coming spring. He said Trout Unlimited would pay me a bounty, I said I’d think about it and get back to him.

  Well, I thought about it a bit remembering back to around 1995 when I trapped a portion of it back when the DNR was paying a bounty and that stretch helped contribute to my 75 beaver catch that winter. I also remembered that creek being a little treacherous with springs and bad ice and difficulty getting in there to boot not to mention if you got hurt or went through the ice back there you were along way away from help. But with all that and the beautiful wild country that takes you back thinking about the Mountain Men days I couldn’t resist. I got back to Jim and said yes and set a date to get started.

   The day came to head back in there. Jim had some 330’s he had purchased that fall and I had around a hundred neck snares I made up. I told Jim I’m gonna need to re-educate myself on this winter beaver stuff. We loaded up the otter sled with our gear and threw it on the back of my 4x4 and we headed up into the Ninemile. When we got  to the place where we would unload and head onto the ice to make our way to the houses Jim had picked out, my heart sank. I could see where the ice had sagged over the river. The water level had dropped severely . That told me two things, the ice would be more unstable and the runs on the houses could be froze out. I turned to Jim and asked what happened. He told me a landowner down stream pulled some dams on his property after the ice came on. Ouch! I thought, this is gonna make things harder.

 Well, we grabbed our gear and our ice spuds for checking ice as we walked. One thing to remember when winter trapping beaver ALWAYS bring your ice spud to check the ice when you walk it may save your life. After not trapping beaver through the ice since 95‘ that‘s one thing I do remember. We worked our way downstream about a mile to the first house we were to set. My fears were confirmed with the low water level. The original runs on this house were froze out and the water level was at a foot and a half at best. So I started looking for the runs that the beaver probably made since the old ones were froze out. Well since there was snow on the ice and no clear ice to see air bubbles I started hitting the ice with the spud as  I walked around the house looking for either thin ice or listening for that hollow sound that would indicate a run. I got lucky and found two, one was  where the food cache and the house met and the other was just along side the food cache. I punched the holes for putting the traps in. One was full of branches that had to be trimmed with the pruning shears I brought along for cutting bait,etc. The other was in a little under a foot of water which meant that a 330 was out of the question it would freeze in over a short time if the water level continued to drop which it would eventually. So I dropped in a snare in that run made of 32 inches of 3/32-7x7  cable and a washer lock the other run we dropped in a 330 guarding the run. We also went out on the end of the cache and dropped in a baited 330. There wasn’t much else to do here with the water level so we headed off to the next lodge 400 yds away.

  The next lodge was the same deal. New runs were cut through to the cache and the old ones froze out. But we did have a little deeper water and setup  with a 330 and some more neck snares. The ice around this house was treacherous  but nothing like the next one I was to set.

    We headed back towards the next house which was  in the direction of the truck and a little beyond where we parked which we called the point. When we got about 30 yds from the house Jim needed to get something from the truck I said go ahead I’ll get started on the lodge and have the holes opened when he got back. I did the usual pokin’ with the spud looking for a run and found one right tight along side the food cache, the original runs were froze out here too. I got the hole chipped out and started on skimming the ice out of the hole while on my knees when I heard that old familiar sound of a quiet shhhuush. I immediately rolled to my left toward solid ice as I felt my knees drop out from under me. A four foot section of ice caved in and left me struggling to keep out of the cold water , I managed to keep my left leg from getting soaked but my right leg wasn’t so lucky it was soaked and felt like it gained 50 pounds as the coveralls soaked the water up like a sponge. My foot was dry but my leg wasn’t. I sat there a minute till my heart slowed down. You’d think after breaking through a number of times in your life you wouldn’t get so excited but you still do. I prodded around in the hole with the ice spud to see how deep my bath would have been and it was about 5 feet deep there, whew, dodged the bullet there. When Jim got back I told him about my little mishap. We decided to finish setting up the house with  a couple 330’s and a baited snare pole which consisted of 3-10” sticks of 1” diameter popple wired to a dead pole with snares hanging down guarding the popple  bait. By this time I was ready to head out, my leg was froze and it was time to get in the truck and warm up.

  The next day we headed up to another section of the Ninemile to set  up another lodge that Jim had scouted out earlier. Upon arriving and looking out across the frozen spring it brought back memories from trapping this very same springs back in 95’. To my surprise the same house was still there big as ever. It also brought back another memory, thin ice and hard to trap. My memory was confirmed upon approaching the lodge. While spudding the ice the spud broke through about 5 feet from the lodge and around the house the same thing, the ice was too thin and one spot was open water with just drifted snow covering the water. The water depth varied from 6-10 feet deep around the lodge with muck bottom, not exactly the best place for a swimming’ hole. Well as the drive to trap and get sets in we cut a dead cedar pole about 8” in diameter and 10’ long and made a bridge from the good ice to the lodge.

 Once on the lodge my memory kicks in a little more. This lodge was like a mushroom, it looked like a normal lodge but under the water the  lodges base was  eroded away and cut back making it hard to pin point the runs. With the muck bottom and dark water you could not see the bottom or feel a runs depression. It was hope and poke just like it was a little over a decade ago. So we decided to set up a baited snare pole and a baited 330 and see what happens and hoped for below zero temps to come along to firm up the ice so we didn’t have to do the balancing act on the pole bridge.

First Catch

  Our first check yielded some disappointment, a 330 tripped with a peeled stick in the jaws from a beaver shucking it out the entrance of the lodge. A couple snares  knocked down on the bait poles and some held branches and closed tight. It was a couple checks before we connected. Our first beaver came off the 2nd lodge we setup, a 2 yr old beaver with nice prime fur. The 2nd beaver off that same house came when I brought my son Hunter along. He never went beaver trapping before, the only trapping in his 6 years of life was with me and coyotes since he was 3 mo old. He never seen a beaver before and when I pulled that beaver out of the ice he got pretty excited. He said, wow dad I never seen a beaver before, that’s great. It felt good sharing another trapline experience with my son, he thought the lodges were cool and the dams as well he also thought those beaver tails were pretty cool. After making a catch and re-setting the trap, I would skin out the beaver right there to cut down on weight we had to pack. I also saved the hind quarters and backstraps and put them in a Ziploc bag. It’s real good eating. I like cutting up the meat in bite size pieces then sauté in butter and onions and salt and pepper. Then fry up some potatoes and when everything is fully cooked I mix it all together  in the fry pan then put shredded Colby cheese over the top. Then put a lid on it until the cheese melts and your ready to go. You’ll bust a gut stuffing yourself, it’s good stuff.

 As the season progressed the weather kept throwing us curve balls. If it wasn’t a snow storm or rain it was warming up and making ice conditions treacherous. Everyday we had to carefully pick our way up and down the river spudding  in the attempt to keep from swimming. The access to the river was getting hard to navigate as well, deep snow with a ice base eventually put a stop to getting in with my 4x4. After getting stuck  a couple times and taking over an hour to drive and shovel a ¼ mile it was time for another mode of transportation. Jim had a 4 wheeler and with that and an otter sled we were good to go, just a little colder ride. Once a trail was blazed it was easier going, we just had to keep it open.

  By now we had a few beaver under our belt and frustration to boot. The 330’s were freezing in on the shallower houses due to the sub-zero temps from an Alberta Clipper that moved in and snares were continually closed and ice conditions were still unstable in spots which was verified with a couple of leg soakings including one up to the waist. Water level on the one lodge was under 10”, sub-zero temps was making ice where we didn’t want it. My main frustration was the snares, they worked so well back when I went after under ice beaver over a decade ago why weren’t they connecting now?

What’s the problem
 Well after pickin’ my brain’s memory vault and picking Mike Marchewka‘s brain, the problem was my snare. I bought cable for making coyote cable restraints. So I made my snares out of this 3/32 - 7x7 cut at 32” and using a washer lock, they were too slow. My brain kicked in and I remembered I had the same problem back in 95’ and switched to 1/16”- 1x19 cable with a penny washer with an oversized hole for the cable to slide, they were fast. As of this writing I’m waiting for 1/8” cam-locs to put on my 3/32” cable, recommended by Mike.

 We did catch a couple beaver on my washer lock snares but not as many as was missed. Hopefully changing out the lock will turn that around. The baited 330’s produced off the feed caches with a ½” dia.4” in length green piece of popple wired to the trigger and green popple twigs wired to the dead pole. One baited 330 yielded a nice 60# blanket caught neatly by the head over on the springs along with another on the same set which was pushing the 40# mark.

 As of this writing we had to pull traps off of 3 lodges due to the ice getting to thick and water levels dropping, the snare loops were even getting froze in and 330’s weren’t working here either getting froze in. We had to break out the chainsaw to open the holes, the last cold snap put the ice on these lodges another 8”, one run was froze all the way to the bottom. The last 2 weeks have been below zero temps with days of wind chill advisories. The springs with the beaver lodge is starting to freeze over good and there’s another lodge across the pond which we’ll set up when the cam-locs show up.

Moving on
 Like I mentioned earlier as of this writing I’m still trapping beaver. Jim and I are moving in on the spring hole beaver and trying to get into some other lodges tucked back in sticks in this country. It’s all Timber company land that we contacted to get permission to trap this wild country which we were granted in writing. Up here it’s raw, wild and beautiful and often brings thoughts of what it must have been like for the Mountain Men that trapped before us. They had no thinsulate or hand warmers or water proof boots. No 4x4’s or 4 wheelers. It must have been brutal back then. For us trapping beaver through the ice is hard work, I lost 3 belt notches around my waist and dropped 46# I didn’t need. Jim has been a real trooper, he’d put a lot of young guys to shame with his stamina, walking that river and the miles we have to put on by foot it’s a real workout along with dealing cold and wind.

A Few things to remember
 Always keep safety in mind when going after under ice beaver. Beaver lodges tend to have thin ice around the lodge, especially if there is a lot of beaver activity going on below the ice or your on a spring hole. Carry matches with you in a waterproof container, those  disposable hand warmers are real nice to.have in  your gloves and dress warm in layers. The most important thing doing this kind of trapping is to go with a partner he/she may save your life.

 There is no conclusion to this story because it’s still in the works. I’ll be trapping beaver through the ice in here till spring breakup then I’ll be hitting it with a canoe. When I’m finished this spring Trout Unlimited is having the USDA come in and blow the dams. I believe there’s somewhere around 20 some dams backing up silt and muck in there hindering trout reproduction in what was once a good trout fishery. Soon it’ll be on it’s way to getting back to what it once was.

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