He is a bright eyed, bushy little fellow. He is nervous, noisy and has a bad temper. He is very territorial, but quite prepared to raid others’ nests for his own benefit. You might believe that you know where this is going. But no, this isn’t a column about Thomas Mulcair, leader of the Federal NDP and Official Opposition. Today I have a different type of squirrel in mind.
A lot of kids have started their trapping careers with the red squirrel. They are one of Alberta’s most prolific fur bearers and are widely regarded by the trappers who target them, as the animal that will pay the expenses on a trapline. In the last decade, prices have floated from thirty cents to three dollars per pelt. Of course, we would always like a better return for our efforts, but I think most trappers are reasonably happy in the dollar-fifty to two dollar per pelt range.
Certainly it’s not a lot of money. But considering the ease with which trappers can rack up large numbers of these critters, the small investment needed to take them, and that this can easily be accomplished in conjunction with other trapping activities, they really do become worth going after.
Though territorial, squirrels are sociable rodents and tend to live in communities. It isn’t hard to locate their den sites which are typically found in old spruce or pine trees with an extensive den system beneath. Some of these squirrel trees, as we call them, can be very old. The piles of shelled-out spruce cones and other food debris are called a midden. Some of these are huge and attest to literally millions of spruce cones consumed by many generations of squirrels. As Ali and I travel across our trapline, we always keep an eye out for tell-tale signs of squirrel tracks, paths and freshly husked spruce cone shells.
When we locate a midden, we clean any dead branches from around the trees and set clean, straight, narrow poles on angles from the main tree to squirrel paths or the den mouths in the ground. In addition, we almost always nail a long straight pole horizontally about five feet off the ground between two of the trees.
Squirrels quickly adapt to these new highways and especially seem to prefer the horizontal poles when there are angle poles leading to them. I expect that it’s a real confidence booster in their safety department, for a squirrel to be able to barrel along on a smooth path, five feet above the ground.
Putting up poles is an activity that we do year round every time we are in the bush. Not that we ever need much of an excuse to head for our trapline, it provides another good reason. In the summer, we tend to set up a tree and then stop for a beer. It is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a nice off-season day in the bush. I don’t believe that it is any mere coincidence, that a squirrel pelt and a can of beer are worth roughly the same amount, and I tend to see the beer as all part of the future investment.
All trappers have their own system and some squirrel trappers even prefer to make their snares on the spot. We find that once we get busy with the general trapping season, unless our snares are pre-made, we never get enough onto the poles so we make all of ours in advance. This is easy to do during a couple of evenings or while visiting over morning coffee. The wire we use is a mild tensile 24 or 26 gauge stainless steel. We have a block of wood with two nails hammered in about 18 inches apart and with the nail heads clipped off. All we do is take a roll of wire and wrap it around the nails a desired number of times. Usually about thirty makes a nice bundle. Then, using a sharp pair of side cutters, we clip through the wrapped wires on both ends, near the nails. We pull the wire bundles off the nails, and on one end of each wire, we twist a small loop. We wrap two or three rubber bands around each bundle, just tight enough so that there is tension on the bundle, and then wrap each bundle in a piece of canvas or tanned hide. The wrap protects the snares, and with a prebuilt eye, makes it easy for a trapper to pull a single snare from the bundle, even with cold fingers.
Putting snares on the pole is easy and simple. When I pull a snare out of the bundle, I hold the wire in one hand, and then with my other hand, firmly squeeze the wire just below the loop, between my thumbnail and index finger. When I strip it through, it smooths out the entire wire and gives it a slight curl. I put the straight end of the wire through the prebuilt loop, making a larger adjustable loop. This is the end that the squirrel is going to get hung up in. Next, I pass the straight end of the wire under the pole and bring it back to me over the top and tie it off again in a small loop. It’s important to initially go under the pole, as once the second loop is tied off, I can pull the snare tight and put a small kink in the wire at the tie-off. This makes a stiff support for the snare. I open the snare up about an inch and a half and bend it into place on the pole. Pole diameters vary, but I always use the entire snare and any surplus wire goes into a bend over the actual snare opening. This dissuades the squirrel from simply hopping over the snare. I set the bottom of the snare, roughly a thumb thickness from the pole, and by looking down the pole, make certain that the openings are like looking down a gun barrel.
Usually, we set three snares on each pole, but if the horizontal pole is long, we will put more on it. A hanging squirrel is a tempting target for other small predators, so if the angle pole is close to the ground, we may only set a couple of snares fairly high up the pole.
The real bonus is, squirrels are a primary food source and middens are a natural draw for all predators. Depending on the traffic, we often gang set with snares for Lynx, #160 killing traps for Fisher, and Gord Colebank’s weasel trap boxes, which quite often take squirrels as well. Trapping is a numbers game and squirrels always help bring those numbers up.