A big part of trapping is the challenge of outsmarting individual animals, and the sometimes frustrating back-and-forth that comes from the critters who outsmart us. It makes things interesting, and often helps us become better trappers. In this story, Arnold tells of a wise red fox that did just that for a couple of years on his trapline.
Old Eagle Eye
First published in North American Trapper December 1938
Who was “Eagle Eye”? Well, he just happened to be about the largest, shrewdest and keenest-eyed red fox I ever knew. As soon as it was evident, sometime ago, that there was a cunning, oversized old fox playing heck with my trapping efforts, an individual study was started in an attempt to find a loophole in the vixen’s defense. Two seasons had passed, and about all the information gained was that he did his rabbit hunting in a certain swamp, chased grasshoppers in a little half-acre lumberman’s garden patch, and took his full quota of mice and squirrels on two close-at-hand hardwood ridges.
During this time a variety of sets were made, and some of them could have been classed as pretty fair. Other foxes were taken, but “Eagle Eye’s” pelt was always conspicuous in the collection by its absence. It was in desperation that the third year I decided to make a real farmland dirt set in the little half-acre field. A place was selected, a nice hole set prepared, and an appropriate scent for a field set was used.
It fooled him. On the return trip I saw the imprint of a huge fox’s foot well sunken in the fresh dirt, missing the trap pan by a fraction of an inch. Being a backwoods fox, he probably never saw a real field set before, and just had to look it over. The next trip the trap was exposed, having been kicked out by a hunter who happened to be one of the honest ones, and didn’t take it. I carried it away, and have taken no more chances there since.
Tucked away at the end of a hardwood ridge some three quarters of a mile from a small potato patch was the pet water set of my entire line. This spring hole is some eight by twelve feet in size, and is fed by a well regulated flow of water coming from the very bowels of the earth. It is one of the few springs that never freezes or floods. The approach is some 20 rods from my trail up the outlet and into the spring. Quite a few foxes have ended their lives there, and I felt that sooner or later “Eagle Eye” would wind up in the #3 that was doing guard duty there before the tempting bait, which at the time was a good sized piece of the discarded steak bone of a deer, with generous scraps of meat clinging to it. This had been washed in running water a few hours, previous to its being placed on the large bait sod. The wise one had spotted it all right, and was much interested, and probably saw a couple of his species which had become all tangled up in the adjacent brush.
One day, late in the season, following up the outlet, I came to a spot on the light snow several rods below the set where “Eagle Eye” had come down to the bank, tracked around as though he were looking for something, and then turned and trotted off. A week later this same thing happened again.
“So that is your game?” I reasoned, “watching for fresh tracks in the mud that covers the bottom of the outlet, to see if Mr. Man is still watching that bone? I’ll remember that next season.”
It was time now to close that section of the trapline, as my partner and I were shortening our line for winter work. After the trap was removed the trap sod was placed in position and the bone left on the bait sod. Without doubt, sooner or later, “Eagle Eye” got that bone, as it was nowhere to be seen that fall.
The next season I arrived at the set with a big #415 Triumph, known to some trappers as the small-sized bear trap without teeth. It was not made for bear, however, and would not hold them. This was placed in the spring, very close to the shore. Plenty of wet leaves were packed in between the jaws and the pan until all was level. A large chunk of dry rock moss, which filled the whole enclosure between the open jaws, looked like the top of a good sized rock after it was placed over the pan. A good bone had been prepared and was placed on the bait sod, and a very little scent smeared on an overhanging limb from an adjacent sapling. All tracks in the mud were smoothed out as much as possible, and I backed out and down the outlet. A lot of care was taken in making that set.
Returning several days later, I left the trail some distance from the outlet, walked along through the woods, and passed within several rods of the set. Looking down from the top of a slight elevation, it was plain to see that plenty had happened in the spring hole. Stepping into the little brook and wading up I found a fair sized fox dead in the big trap, completely soaked and covered with mud. He had been unable to drag the trap from the spring and had soon drowned.
“Now don’t that beat old Sam Hill!” I said to myself as I viewed the mussed up set. “Old ‘Eagle Eye’ won’t come within four miles of this place now.”
I yanked the fox and trap out and, keeping in the water all the way down into the swamp some 30 or 40 rods below, where a good pool of water was to be found, I proceeded to give both trap and fox a thorough washing and left the trap there in running water.
A week later, after many leaves had blown into the spring and things had taken on a more natural appearance, I went to work once more and prepared another set, using the same care and caution I had in making the first one.
If memory serves me right, it was three times I hunted past the set, never approaching it or leaving a track in the outlet. But the fourth time, as I came in sight and took a look, my heart started missing. It was evident that an eruption had taken place in that spring hole. Needless to say, no time was lost in reaching the place, and there, mud-soaked and dead in the trap was “Eagle Eye” himself.
Somehow this catch didn’t make me so happy as one might think. The wise old fellow had made trapping mighty interesting in that locality, and added a bit to my trapping knowledge. As I carried the mud-soaked body to the pool down in the swamp for a washing, a touch of sadness came into my heart with the realization that our battle of wits was over, and that particular trapline had forever lost a bit of the glamour it once possessed.
Like this story? Want to read more? Check out my book on legendary trapper Walter Arnold.