Tactics and tales from the raccoon-trapping frontier

The raccoon is hard to love, but easy to respect. The coon commits a variety of social infractions that make it a real pest in agricultural areas — crop damage, stealing chickens and eggs, raiding gardens, and making smelly messes of barns and hay mows. Coons are curious critters, and this curiosity often lands this brazen omnivore — who will eat almost anything — in trouble. As naturalist Marty Stouffer has observed, this “masked bandit knows what he’s after and is bold enough to risk the consequences.”

Outdoorsman and trapper Ryan Minyo, of Morrow County, agrees.

“They’re curious animals. They aren’t afraid to try something new. Raccoons just go for it. But they’re not doing things to be hateful. A raccoon does what it does to feed itself and its family,” Minyo said. “They do what they have to do to survive; they are just going about their lives like we are.”

Minyo, a senior at Highland High School, took up serious trapping as a freshman (after being taught to trap as a youngster by his father, Dale) in order to fulfill the requirements for his state FFA degree.

“I need to make $3,000 profit from my SAE project as part of my FFA State Degree. To do this, I sell firewood and the pelts from coon, muskrat, and mink that I trap,” he said, “I wanted to help local farmers and landowners and at the same time make some money on the side. After a few years of trapping, farmers now call me to take care of problem animals.”

When trapping for coons, Ryan has learned that “no one place is the same — you need to know all the different techniques and strategies to catch coons in different habitats, environments, and setups. I have also learned about the time and money investments required to be an effective trapper through my project. I have $1,800 dollars in traps and supplies and have had to learn how to best market the furs. There is also a lot of time spent checking trap lines every day and preparing the pelts after the animals are harvested.”

When trapping coons, Ryan prefers dog-proof traps.

“They allow me to trap near barns and outbuildings without catching unwanted animals. I also use live traps in barns,” Ryan said. “I will use leg hold traps when running creek lines and farm fields. For bait, I use dog food and maple syrup, and when the raccoon rut is on in January, I will also put gland lure about four to five feet in the air above the traps to bring the coons in. At that point in the year, the coon’s main instinct is breeding, and the gland lure attracts the boar coon because it feels that another coon has invaded its territory, which makes him curious and brings him in to the trap to check things out. Coons are everywhere. It’s a species that is easily targeted.”

Trapping the raccoon is just the first step.

“There’s work that goes into processing hides, but the raccoon’s hide is easy to prepare and it doesn’t take too much time, not like a huge coyote,” he said. “It takes me 5 minutes to skin, 15 minutes to scrape and put on a board, and a week to cure the coon pelt.”

Most importantly, Ryan said that regardless of his respect for this animal, his interest in trapping raccoons is based on the need to maintain a balance in agricultural ecosystems.

“Whether we think about it or not and regardless if the fur market is up or down, raccoons need to be managed. I’ve seen 40 to 50 acres of corn that have been destroyed mainly by coons,” he said.

Ryan has become quite adept at managing raccoon populations in his neck of the woods.

“At one spot near my house — a creek running through a cattle pasture on one of my teacher’s properties — I caught a new raccoon in the same trap along the creek every day for two weeks straight,” he said. “I have been running a trap line for four years, since I was a freshman. My first year, a buddy and I caught 30 raccoons. We thought that was amazing, but every year the numbers have steadily gone up. I’ve trapped 120 coons this year, and I pulled my traps at the start of deer gun season the first week of December. I put them back out in the first week or so of January.”

While the raccoon has been relegated to nuisance status in many farmers’ minds, it should be noted that the critter possesses qualities of a more regal and revered beast of the forest. Raccoons have been compared to bears in several cultures. The German name for the raccoon, “waschbar,” translates as “little bear” and the Mexican name for the coon, “osito lavador,” means “little bear washer,” a reference to the raccoon’s habit of “washing” its food in water prior to consumption. And indeed, raccoons and bears share many qualities. The coon’s track looks like a miniature version of the bear’s and they have similar diets and habits. Both are known for their inquisitive, scavenging nature. They claw up rotting wood for grubs, are attracted to berry patches, and are driven to put on a layer of fat in late summer/early fall for winter, gaining 25% of their original body weight during this time. Like bears, ring-tails walk flat-footed, with a high-humped back and a shuffling, lazy walk; when on the run, both animals possess a rocking gait.

Ryan Minyo and other raccoon trappers are participating in a tradition, pursuit, and livelihood that stretch back centuries on this continent, and raccoons have played an important role in the history and development of the nation. They were a common and important source of food and income for Native Americans and early European settlers and explorers. Raccoon was a staple food item for Christopher Columbus’ sailors. According to zoologist Samuel I. Zeveloff in his book Raccoons: A Natural History, early settlers “presumably roasted raccoon and strips of their meat were smoked like bacon. Their fat was used for many purposes: it could be applied as a salve for bruises and sprains, it was converted into a lubricant and employed as a leather softener, and it was probably used in place of lard.”

Examples abound of how early Americans took advantage of the raccoon as a resource. Native American tribes used the animal’s s-shaped penis bone as a pipe-cleaning tool. In the cold winters during the Revolutionary War, American soldiers donned coonskin caps for warmth, and there was such a great European demand for raccoon pelts during the frontier era that coonskins could be substituted for money to pay court fees and to purchase goods at trading posts.

Highland senior Ryan Minyo has taken up trapping for his FFA SAE. Here he is holding the first coyote he trapped.

Highland senior Ryan Minyo has taken up trapping for his FFA SAE. Here he is holding the first coyote he trapped.

Ryan Minyo clearly understands this frontier impulse to use the resources that avail themselves to an outdoorsman, as he noted that through his trapping experiences, he has learned “how nature works, and to take what you can catch, and make the most out of what you can get.”

The raccoon’s common name derives from the Algonquin Indian name for the animal, “arakunem,” which roughly means “he who scratches with hands.” Minyo points out that a raccoon’s paws are 30 times more sensitive than human hands. Lake Erie and the Erie tribal group take their names from the Huron tribe’s name for the raccoon, “iri,” or “eri,” meaning “big-tailed.”

This moniker for the lake and people has its roots in the frontier fur trade, as Zeveloff explains: “A Northern Huron tribe may have been the first to use the term ‘big-tailed’ for both the pelts and the tribes bearing them, and the other local tribes evidently adopted this label. These southern fur traders hence became known as ‘people of the long-tailed ones’ and the nearby lake was called ‘lake of the long-tailed ones’…This is why the southernmost Great Lake is named Erie, as was the tribe of fur traders from its southern shore.”

Although many a curious coon finds itself the victim of a trapper’s tricks each trapping season, there are always more of these resilient animals to fill the void left by their fallen brethren. Say what one will about these sneaky little thieves, they are clever, tough, and intelligent, as testified to by a variety of American naturalists who have observed many admirable qualities in the species.

In his book Wild Animal Ways, Ernest Thompson Seton speaks reverently of the creature’s stealthy ghostliness, calling the raccoon “the black-masked wanderer of the night and of the tall timber…the dryad of the hollow trees.”

In his field identification guide, The Complete Tracker, Len McDougal points out that raccoons are “exceptionally tough and ferocious fighters when injured or cornered. I’ve seen them whip game dogs twice their size, even luring hounds into deep water where the coon actively tried to drown them.”

Calling it a “ring-tailed rascal,” Marty Stouffer also admires the raccoon’s hardiness and “street smarts,” pointing out that one “measure of intelligence is adaptability.” The coon is found in all of the lower 48 United States, southern Canada, and down into Central America, inhabiting every ecosystem from un-peopled woodlands to urban cityscapes.

Although the chances for frontier freedom and the lust for raccoon pelts has declined in contemporary times, as the previous quotes show, there is still much to be appreciated and learned from the raccoon’s habits and lifestyle, and much to be gained from a person’s chase of these wily varmints.

Ryan Minyo clearly understands this, saying that the most enjoyable aspect of running trap lines for coons is “being able to get away from society, to go into the woods and run traps, where it’s peaceful and quiet, and there are no phones or demands of you, and there is no one to tell you that you have to do this, or do that. You’re out there doing your own thing and seeing how animals interact, how they live, and learning about how people used to live before us.”

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