2012 Wyoming Canine Sweepstakes
In 2012, Trapper's Post and Fur Country Lures announced that they were co-sponsoring a Wyoming Canine Trapping Sweepstakes, with the Grand Prize being two days on John Graham's Wyoming trapline. We were astonished at the response; by the September 30 deadline over 1,200 people had applied. The winners' names were pulled on October 10, and the Grand Prize winner was John Leedom, 56, of North East, Maryland. He had applied for the Sweepstakes at the 2012 Pennsylvania Trapping Association convention.

Annie, our office manager, was able to put all three of us on the same last connecting flight. Deb and I met Leedom at the terminal, and within minutes it was like we'd all known each other for years. Leedom is a friendly, personable man with a cheerful, positive disposition, and he was excited about the trip. He'd never seen the West.

Through the 1950s and 60s Leedom's dad had trapped for muskrats, coon, and snapping turtles in the large creeks and swamps just outside Philadelphia, and also fished and hunted, so Leedom had a strong outdoor childhood influence. In 1991, when he was 35, he moved to Maryland and went to the Maryland Trapping Association trapping school, with his good friend Jeff Powell. He still traps with Jeff, who is a wealth of trapping information and an inspiration to him.

Leedom trapped for a few years but stopped to raise a family. His son David is now 12 and his daughter Rachel is 16, so he's had more time recently to trap. Five years ago he took his wife Karen to the Maryland Association trapping school, going through it again himself. They're an outdoor family, and they camp and fish a lot. Leedom also bowhunts for deer, so they eat a lot of wild fish and game.

Leedom and I sat together on the plane. It was a cloudless day and we could clearly see the terrain below. He was fascinated with it, especially the many ravines that cut across the brown, almost treeless landscape like thick black arteries, fanning out into gradually thinning and finally ending feeder tributaries. It looked like a topographical map with deltas across it.
John Graham's wife Nicole picked us up at the airport, and as we drove into the countryside Leedom, used to the heavily forested East, kept commenting on the vast openness, and how far we could see. The terrain was rolling low prairie hills covered mostly with sagebrush and short grass, browned by the severe drought the entire region had suffered for most of 2012. Occasional dramatic rock formations jutted abruptly up in the distance. Sometimes herds of 20-30 or more antelope or mule deer ran off across the landscape, staying visible for a long way.

During supper at the Grahams' home Leedom met the kids: Colette, 16, Tristan, 15, Julianne, 11, and Riley, 9. It was lively and animated around the dinner table, and Leedom fit right in. He said it felt like dinner at his own home.

We were on the trapline early the next day. Some of the stops were at ravines like the ones we'd seen from the air. They're called "draws" in the West, and Leedom was struck with how wide and deep some were. The bottoms of the dry draws were predator travelways, and typically Graham had two or three dirtholes along 200-300 yards of a draw, and up to half a dozen snares in the old cattle trails that wound through the knee-high sagebrush. Occasionally there was a stunted cedar tree, or a clump of them.

Checking these sets meant some hiking. Leedom walks with a cane; he was a union ironworker in Philly, and in 1998 he'd fallen a good distance and broken his back and right knee. After several operations he had another fall, and was forced into retirement. But he managed to get around with the cane and keep up with Graham. Part of it, of course, was that he didn't want to miss anything.

The vegetation was brown and the grass dead. I was struck by the absence of rabbits; I've been on western traplines before, and had always seen plenty of cottontails and jackrabbits and their sign. Today we saw only one jackrabbit, and very few droppings. "Nothing for them to eat after the drought," Graham said. "Coyotes are scarce too, and bobcats cover a lot more ground looking for groceries. It's harder to pin them down. " Also, Graham and his partner had already removed over 800 coyotes from the area that year doing control work, so the canines were definitely thinned out.

It was big country. The horizon was miles away, and occasional big evergreen covered hills jutted up in the distance. We slowly wound along bumpy, rutted 2-track dirt ranch roads, checking some sets with binoculars, some on foot. Graham said we'd cover five ranches that ranged from 8,000 to over 30,000 acres. That first day we were mostly on one ranch.

Leedom and Graham hit it off immediately, and the talking between us all was nonstop. Topics ranged from how to find set locations in country this big, to truck performance, the economy, raising kids, etc., and always circling back to trapping: set construction, animal behavior, fur markets, etc. Leedom got out at every stop to check out the sets and ask questions, and he was soon spotting set locations.

The first two catches were badgers, and Leedom was amazed by the amount of dirt they can move. Graham shot them with a .22 long rifle down behind the head through the chest; he wanted the skull intact, and no blood on the fur, to sell whole to taxidermists.
Next was a red fox, in a dirthole high against the bank of a draw. It was noticeably larger than an eastern fox; Graham said their male fox average 10-13 lbs., with an occasional one heavier.

We drove up into hills partially covered with cedars and cottonwoods, interspersed with open stretches of typical sagebrush prairie, an occasional jumble of big rocks, and sharp drop-offs. We saw porcupine damage in cottonwoods, with bark eaten off upper branches, and soon found one in a canine set. It was bigger than an eastern porcupine, and covered with long, fine, light colored hair among the quills. Graham put the animal in the truck; Tristan would pull the hairs and sell them for $20 an ounce, to Native Americans who used it in traditional clothing. "We'll see plenty of porkies up here in the wooded hills," he said.

About 50 yards ahead, on an open hilltop edged with cedars, a trapped bobcat jumped up and started bouncing around. Graham stopped and checked with the binoculars to see how well it was caught. He decided it wasn't, so we stayed in the truck while he cautiously approached the animal with the catch pole and slipped the loop over its head.

The male cat weighed 30 lbs. or so, and it was gorgeous. "I've seen cats before," Leedom said, "but never one like this! There's so much white to it!" It had a wide, clear white belly with vivid sharp black spots, and the sides and back were clear and also well spotted. Graham said the pelt was as good as they get, and might bring $700 depending on how the market developed. "Riley will be proud of it," he said. "He found the droppings. He'll be a good trapper, he's got a real aptitude for it."

Porcupines were abundant; we saw several up in the cottonwoods, and Graham got out and shot one lumbering slowly across an open area it. Three more were caught in coyote sets out in the open, away from timber. They cross open areas, but it's a puzzle how they can find a set. They have poor eyesight, so their noses must be great. A couple more badgers were caught.

Back home Tristan and Riley pleaded to go with us the next day. Leedom said he'd love it. Graham has been training both boys to trap, snare, and call, and the competition between them is hot. Tristan is already a decent cat and coyote trapper, and we'd be checking some of his sets. Riley is learning fast.

The next day we had an inch or so of snow, perfect for tracking. The first catch was a badger, in Tristan's set. He shot it properly; he's had some experience dispatching trapped animals. When a porcupine got caught a short time later Riley announced it was his turn to shoot, and with his father helping him hold the pistol, he killed it with one head shot. When another trapped porcupine appeared Tristan insisted it was his turn to shoot. That day six porcupines ended up in the truck, with the boys competing over whose shot it was, and Graham coaching them both, stressing an accurate, humane shot.

One set held a Swift fox. It was a small animal, about 4 lbs., and as feisty as a gray fox, which it resembled somewhat in coloration. They aren't very common. They're not listed as threatened or endangered, and it's legal to keep them with a permit, but Graham, concerned about their low numbers, released it. It ran off down a draw on all fours and was quickly out of sight. "They're neat animals," Graham said. "They're primarily a prairie animal, and I'm sure the drought has hurt them."

We didn't catch another bobcat that day, although Tristan had one miss stepping on his trap pan by barely an inch. His father helped him remake and block the set better. What few cat tracks we found wandered erratically since there were no concentrations of rabbits to hunt.

At one stop Tristan found fresh mountain lion tracks in the new snow. We followed them as it threaded through the trees along a steep canyon edge. There were plenty of deer tracks here, so there was no doubt what the lion was hunting. Graham said lions were not that uncommon here.

The scenery was often spectacular. At some stops in the hills we could stand on the edge of steep drop-offs and look out across seemingly endless miles of rolling land. Jumbled rock formations jutted up in places, and one stop had huge boulders that were flat on top but rounded on the bottom. Leedom remarked that ever since he was a kid certain special outdoors places had given him a spiritual feeling, and this boulder-strewn one did. "It looks like the Holy Land here," he said.

After another big supper we hit the sack early. Nicole drove Leedom to the airport the next morning, and a week or so later I called him. "It was a wonderful experience," he said. "Graham was a wealth of knowledge, and I'm anxious now to do more trapping. I hope to get my wife and kids more involved."

I remarked that he had kept up with Graham pretty well for a man who needed a cane, and he said, "I didn't want to miss anything! But when I got home I think I slept for a week. It was a great trip. I'll never forget it."