This article was previously published in the Northwoods Sporting Journal
Maine winters are long and cold, so naturally you’d expect ice fishing to be a popular way for outdoorsmen to pass the long dark days until spring. That’s what I did when I moved back to Maine. Every year I put out at least one fishing cabin on proven smelt water, and spent a lot of hours sitting in the shack jigging smelts, both for food and live bait to use on longer expeditions.
That was until this year. I never thought I’d see the day my fishing cabin stayed in the yard, like so many others I’d seen rotting in yards around northern Maine lakes over the years. But things caught up with me, and the cabin didn’t make it out.
What caught up with me, more specifically, was fire. My fur shed burned to the ground halfway through the trapping season last fall, leaving both a financial and emotional hole. Not being one to sit around and cry about things, I picked up the pieces pretty quickly and kept on trapping. And that’s when the trapping bug got in the way of my ice fishing routine. Spending time and money on ice fishing seemed a reach when I was already elbows deep into fur trapping.
As crazy as it seems, I’ve been spending winter chopping through ice on beaver flowages instead of jigging smelts. It’s been a while since I did much under ice beaver trapping. The past few seasons I hung most of the gear up once things froze hard. It may seem crazy to most, but I forgot how much fun it could be, once you learn to ignore the fact that it’s hard labor too. Chipping ice, cutting trees and lugging gear for the privilege of catching a critter that takes an hour or two to skin, flesh and stretch, all for about $12 apiece, makes trappers seem like an insane bunch.
A few decades ago, things were different in the beaver trapping game because fur prices were at profitable levels. That meant far more trappers were out in the woods trying to harvest relatively low numbers of beavers. Today prices are about a third of what they were 30 years ago, and that’s not even factoring in inflation rates. There are still beaver trappers around, but they focus on easy to access areas during open water or early ice, when the critters are much more easily and efficiently caught.
From January through March, a beaver trapper in northern Maine is an endangered species these days, and the beaver population is as high as it’s ever been. If you don’t mind trapping for next to nothing, the playing field can be all yours.
Finding an active beaver lodge in the middle of winter can be a challenge, but if you want to do some trapping it’s kind of a necessary prerequisite. If you haven’t scouted, you’ll have to wade through the snow and over the ice to scout, and usually you’ll visit several abandoned beaver dams and houses before finding an active one. A dam holding back adequate water, a beaver lodge with fresh sticks and snow melted from body heat, and a fresh feed bed are all indicators of an active colony.
Catching beaver under the ice is considered by some to be a lost art, and there certainly are details and intricacies a trapper needs to know to be effective, but that aspect is often overlooked in light of the obvious manual labor and brute force needed to get to the colony and chop ice. That can be some serious work.
Beaver can be caught under the ice a number of different ways, including blind sets with bodygrip (conibear) traps, baited sets with foothold traps, and baited or unbaited snares. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, as well as a thousand different ways it can be set up. That’s the beauty of trapping.
When you go beyond amateur status in any outdoor pursuit, and work to master a craft, you unlock an entire world of possibilities. You come up with theories, test methods, evaluate different gear, and get downright nerdy in your quest to master the thing you’re tackling. There’s a point in time where every passionate outdoorsman finds themselves down the rabbit hole of a particular pursuit, whether it be fly tying, duck hunting, archery, knife making, or one of a thousand other possibilities. This year my rabbit hole is under ice beaver trapping, and I hope to stay in it for quite a while. It’s painstakingly fun.