Trapper NickMarch 15, 2014
Story by Jonathan Streetman
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
Nick Erny’s practiced hands move with a purpose.
For the past five years, from Nov. 8 to Jan. 31, Erny has spent every spare moment trapping fur in the woods, fields and swampy marshes of Dubois County and beyond.
On this cold January night, down a long gravel road just outside Holland, he’s hard at work scraping fat from the underbelly of another raccoon skin.
The hum of knife on flesh, methodically scraping back and forth on a specialized wooden structure that resembles an ironing board, reverberates through a garage turned workshop at his Holland home.
Erny takes a wide stance, feet planted shoulder-width apart so he can put his weight behind his work.
“Appearance is everything on this stuff,” Erny, 28, says as he delicately knifes off a tricky piece of fat.
The sounds of wood crackling in the ancient wood-fed stove drown out the country radio playing across the shed.
In an hour, Erny can strip the flesh off of seven coon skins.
From there they’ll go into a modified dryer to tumble about 15 minutes, then they’ll be pinned inside-out onto stretching boards before they hang from the rafters for several days next to coyotes and a red fox snared a few days earlier.
The heat from the stove will dry out a coon skin in just three days. Larger animals, like beavers, resembling giant fur Frisbees when skinned, stretched and attached to metal hoops, may take a little longer.
It’s a laborious process but one Erny has down to a science.
Fur trapping is the process of using a device, such as a trap or snare, to remotely catch an animal for a variety of purposes, including population control, curbing the spread of disease, rodent removal and fur harvesting. It is Erny’s full-time job for two and a half months bridging fall and winter, and he’s one of few area residents so invested in the trade.
“Basically, trapping is trying to make an animal that can step anywhere on this planet step on something that big,” Erny says, holding up his hands to form a shape the size of a baseball. “You gotta learn your animal and the habitat and what the animal likes.”
In Indiana, trapping is highly regulated and enforced by conservation officers from the Department of Natural Resources. All trappers must abide by DNR laws and must have a permit to trap furbearers, which in Indiana consists of beavers, gray and red foxes, coyotes, long-tailed weasels, minks, muskrats, possums, skunks and raccoons.
Erny, the son of Stan and June Erny, grew up near Duff. He graduated from Jasper High School in 2004 and earned a degree from Vincennes University in agricultural business in 2006. He works at Rauscher Farms in Huntingburg and lives with his wife, the former Dana Sander of Dubois, a nurse in Evansville, and their 1-year-old son, Lane, although he works significantly less hours at the farm during the trapping season.
Erny learned how to trap when he was young, watching friends and family and picking up nuances of the craft here and there, before moving to other activities, such as coon hunting with Plotts, his favorite breed of hound dog.
It wasn’t until beavers began flooding his favorite coon hunting grounds that he decided to dive into trapping. Since then, he’s become one of the most influential trappers in the area, teaching trapper education courses and starting Erny Trapping Supply, his own business that sells a variety of items including Erny’s personal bait recipe, a mixture of sweet and fishy scents Erny says coons crave. He also sells fleshing knives, aprons, lures and stretching boards. He became a licensed fur buyer before this season and is one of only two Dubois County residents to earn the distinction; Gibson Hochgesang of Celestine is the other.
Erny likes to trap in the Patoka River watershed, which provides marshy conditions, good for beaver runs. He also has permission from seven or eight farmers in the county to trap on their land. For that, he sets up snares along fence rows and places foot-hold traps in woods where coons have plenty of places to den. Those same farmers often call Erny if a beaver dam is blocking a waterway or a coyote is terrorizing livestock.
“There’s something new every day. When I’m running a line, it’s always like Christmas morning. You never know what you’re going to have waiting for you,” Erny said of the excitement. “You get to see a lot of stuff other people don’t get to see.”
He crosses paths with more than 100 deer each season as he sets and checks his traps. He once saw a bald eagle examining a muskrat in another of his traps.
While trapping is fun, Erny takes it very seriously. He understands he’s a steward for this hobby and has adapted his practices to reflect a more humane way of trapping. The traps he uses and where he places them are all a conscious effort to avoid accidental catches of illegal animals, such as domestic pets and river otters, which were recently re-introduced to Indiana water.
“I take care of what I catch and make it as humane as possible,” Erny said. To do so, he mostly uses special dog-proof coon traps and foothold traps with offset jaws and swiveling bases, which allows a trapped animal to move yet remain captive.
His actions haven’t gone unnoticed by local conservation officers who say Erny’s practices are appreciated.
“I’ve known Nick a long time,” said John Watkins, whose DNR coverage area includes Dubois County.
“Trapping is a dying art, and those who do it now do it because they love it.”
Watkins said Erny’s use of live traps and safer traps helps everyone out.
“Trapping is a very good technique to keep down populations on the fringes of an urban population,” he said. “I’ve never had any problems in my seven years here with any of the trappers in our area. People like Nick respect the wildlife. That’s key.”
Erny carries that respect into all aspects of trapping, which he calls a lifestyle and passion. In the fall, he teaches a DNR-sponsored trapping awareness course at Sugar Ridge Fish and Wildlife Area in Pike County. He wants anyone who tries trapping to do it properly.
Erny says trapping participation is on a perpetual decline, so he takes special care to raise interest among the younger generation — mostly children ages 10 through 15.
“Sometimes I’ll give a kid a break on his first trap, just so he’ll get outside and try it,” Erny says.
“Then when he catches something, I’ll buy the fur from him so he can buy more traps or bait or lure, just to give ’em a leg up. It’s not really a cheap sport to get into.”
A basic dog-proof coon trap costs about $15. Cage traps start a little higher.
Erny also has been an instructor for 4-H Shooting Sports since 2006, and teaches a trapping course once a year. This year’s session was March 6 at the Dubois County 4-H Fairgrounds and drew nearly 50 people.
“Always have a plan if something happens,” Erny said to an audience ranging in age from third-graders to high school students. Preaching safety, Erny ran through the types of traps he uses and demonstrated how to properly set up each. Conibear traps, or body grip traps, are good for muskrats, beavers and coons. Colony traps, or big wire box traps, can catch large numbers of muskrats at a time. Erny has had up to seven in one trap.
“I once had so many in here I had to unhinge the door to get inside,” Erny told the crowd, holding up a wire rectangular box the size of his leg.
Dog-proof coon traps, which are like a tiny piston sticking out of the ground, will not catch domestic pets. That sounds good to the third-graders.
“An animal has to really want what is inside here,” Erny explained, “and a dog’s paw just won’t fit down far enough to fire the trap.”
Swiveling foothold traps with offset jaws will catch anything that steps on it, but it will also keep the animal alive and unharmed until Erny checks the trap again. Indiana law mandates a trapper must check his traps once every 24 hours.
Erny gets a few laughs when he explains the versatility of snares, which are basically steel cables with a sliding hoop on the end.
“If it has legs, you can snare it. From squirrels to giraffes.”
While giraffe aren’t happening, Erny uses snares to catch coyotes and foxes, although he lets loose every female fox he catches to preserve the population. Erny has the option of setting an animal free by virtue of using relaxed locks on his snares, the byproduct of another Indiana law. When a snare fires, it tightens around an animal’s legs or neck. The lock then loosens slightly, keeping the animal in its grasp but allowing it to breathe.
Despite Erny’s expertise, it’s been a winter he’s termed “horrible.”
“When it’s as cold as it has been, the coon don’t move around,” Erny explained.
His catch is down by about half this year, coming nowhere close to the 250 animals he normally snags. He doesn’t have a lot of hope for the fur market this year, either, which will largely be determined by an auction in May. Prices will be set at the North American Fur Auctions in Toronto, after which Erny should know what his payday will look like.
“Even when the fur market is not good, and you’re just breaking even, it’s still fun and enjoyable to do,” Erny says, noting he’d rather turn a profit and has kept a close eye on what’s selling. “Muskrat and coyote have been doing alright so far, but everything else ... not so much.”
Erny wouldn’t be beat by winter’s grip. In the middle of February, he and Terry Simms, a trapping buddy from Newburgh, drove more than seven hours for a weeklong trapping vacation in Vaiden, Miss.
“We did pretty good down there,” Erny said. Relaxed trapping laws allowed them to target river otters, an animal abundant in the South. “I don’t know our exact numbers overall, but I can tell you I have 24 otter in my garage right now.”
Erny even tried something new, something he’d never done in all his years as a trapper and outdoorsman.
“I finally ate coon meat,” Erny said, laughing. “We were at a diner down there and a lady offered to cook some up for us. It was some of the best stuff I ever ate. Tasted like roast beef.”
Although the trip to Mississippi boosted his overall season numbers, Erny says it was mainly a vacation, a chance to have fun with a buddy somewhere new. “I wasn’t really banking on it for big numbers.”
Last Sunday morning, in a driveway in the Warrick County town of Folsomville, Erny tossed his final few bags of the season into a Budget rental truck already half full with the hard work of other area trappers. Erny added nearly 200 furs, mostly coons, beavers, coyotes, foxes and even three minks, a typically rare catch. Erny bought many of those furs and worked them himself.
The furs will make their way to Fort Wayne to be catalogued with a barcode specific to Erny. In Stockton, Wis., they’ll be graded first for size then for fullness and color. They’ll then be submitted to the North American Fur Auctions event in Canada.
“Only time will tell how we did this year,” Erny said. “It all depends on the market.”
Even though the trapping season is over for another eight months, Erny never stops preparing for next year.
“I’ll make repairs to my traps and research new techniques,” he says. “I’m always scouting new locations, too. It’s never completely over.”
Contact Jonathan Streetman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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