The Life of Riley
The title of this article is actually an inside joke in our family. My wife, Nicole, and I have four kids, and the youngest, Riley, always seems to be in the right place at the right time. His siblings are constantly reminding him how easy he has it, and how they basically paved the way for his, as they put it, "life of leisure". Nicole was raised in a large family, and she just always accredited it to the fact that Riley is the youngest, or, as she puts it, "the baby".

In most cases I have to agree; being the youngest does have some advantages, especially when it comes to work details, or in a situation that requires showing a great amount of responsibility. Riley can just go along for the ride.

But, as the older kids ventured off to college, Riley had to suddenly step up to the plate more. He had more responsibility, more demands on his time, and in some cases, more chances to experience real life things.

We have, partially by design and in many cases partially by good fortune, surrounded our kids with many great people. I was raised the same way to a certain extent; some of my parents' friends were, and still are, major influences in my life. Role models. Many of my life lessons were first learned by conversations, and then later played out through my own experiences, whether good or bad.

We are fortunate to have the family and friends that we have. Many are people you'd know by name if you heard it, and others are people we've met along the way. They've all played a part in helping us raise our kids, including Riley.

Good conversations are had around the supper table in a lot of homes, and ours is no exception. It's time to teach, learn, and listen. So many of our friends and company that we've had at our place over the years have commented to me later that it was a major source of enjoyment during their visit. The fact that our kids can visit well with adults is no doubt influenced by these conversations over meals. Kids absorb so much by people they look up to, and find interesting.

And, the shoe is on the other foot at times. Riley has amazed more than a few people when he goes to his bedroom and brings back the tanned hide of a huge mountain lion he shot a few years ago, at the ripe ol' age of 12. He can tell the story in detail, from what time we cut the track, the hurrying back to get cell service to call our friend with hounds, the chase, and right down to the type of tree the lion was in. Riley really isn't bragging as he tells the story, that usually isn't his style, but it's obvious that it's very vivid in his mind. To him, it was just another day at the office. If that sounds a little unbelievable, let me back up a bit.

I've mentioned in previous articles about my kids going with me in the field since they were very young. In most cases they wanted to go with Dad, but in some cases I simply had to go to work, and we didn't have a babysitter. I laugh to myself thinking about how many miles they've logged standing on the seat as I drove the 2-tracks checking traps, and along the fence lines checking snares in sheep country.

When I'd come out to a highway, I'd buckle them back in. For a long time they couldn't see over the dash, but they always seemed to know where we were, and what direction home was.

Riley was no exception; but as time went on, he was the exception. It took a while for me to realize that Riley just seemed to have the gift so many of us try so hard to experience. I'm sure you know the type. The guy who catches two fish while you're still tying the hook on; the guy that your dog would rather bring the bird back to; or the guy who shoots two roosters walking the ditch back to the truck. In our case, it became the guy that caught the animal with one trap, when I had set three.

For me, the ability to read animal sign in the field has been a lifelong learning process that's still on going. I don't just mean the age of the track, but rather what was going on when the track was made. So much of our predator work comes down to a track or two, or the lack thereof. The proverbial needle in a haystack takes on a new meaning when you're hunting a summer time lamb-killing coyote that seems to be a ghost.

My kids have been tracking since they were old enough to get out of the pickup. They usually followed along behind me, and looked where I looked. It takes a certain amount of faith to let your kids venture far away from you while in rattlesnake country. I learned with constant reminding and caution that they could navigate through the prairie on their own.

Right from the start, Riley seemed to want to hit the odd places when we got out to look for sign. Many times I'd rein him in to look at a spot that caught my eye, rather than let him look on his own. It took a while for me to realize that more often than not he found sign before I did, and I eventually had no reservations about letting him wander a bit.

I've often stood over a track in a trail, trying to determine as best I could the many factors running through my mind. The age of the track? Was it a larger track of an adult, or an old dog coyote perhaps? Was it alone? Was it hunting, travelling, or in a denning area? Many times I'm also doing a mental inventory on what we'd already taken there, and if that track could be tied in somehow. Or a hundred other things that you deal with when doing control work.

Over the years I've been amazed at how Riley also keeps those mental tally sheets rolling through his mind as he looks at sign. Anymore, if he's with me, I simply ask him, "What do you think Riley?" Usually I agree with his observations, and sometimes I don't, but I'm usually impressed and proud of his ability to make conclusions on what he saw.

So, when we were headed to check traps that late November day, and he saw the fresh snow disturbed by an obviously large track, he was out the door of the pickup before I had it to a complete stop. I had to keep my foot on the brake to keep it from sliding down the icy road as he walked along the tracks. He came back with his conclusion.

"A really big tom, just made this morning," he said. "We need to turn around and get back to cell service".

I knew he was spot on, and I did like he suggested. Things went as planned, and the result was the tanned lion hide in his bedroom, and memories we'll always share.

Being in the field 320 or so days a year, I get to see and experience different phases of the process of large-scale predator control. Each season has its own particular place in the big scheme of things, and we try to make the most of it. Winter is no exception, and that brings in trail snaring.

Snaring coyotes has taken Riley's powers of observation and sizing up a notch to new levels, and he probably doesn't even know it. I've always been a big proponent of learning from the ones you don't catch rather than the ones you've caught, and snaring has been a big factor. If that confuses you a bit, let me try to explain myself.

For the most part, I think picking locations for foothold traps comes fairly easy for most people. Right or wrong, it's not hard to pound in a few sets on a place that catches your eye, or where you've found sign. Success usually comes, if you've done things right and all the factors out there come together. And, as time goes on, you tend to look for the same type of places, and rightly so. It's hard to argue with success.

But I've learned over the years that there's usually a lot going on behind the scenes, away from those picture-perfect trapping locations. It didn't come easy, but I started to rely on snares early in my trapping career.

Just like certain trap locations seem to have a neon sign saying, "Set here", some snaring locations have well defined and obvious places to hang a snare in. But I think I've caught more predators in the less obvious places.
I learned how to snare from one of the best, and he told me to get out and look the spot over first, before even hanging a snare. I tend to follow that advice still, and I've encouraged my kids to do the same.

The last few winters, Riley has had the opportunity to do more snaring with me. I'm constantly looking for places to set and it's sometimes amazing, still, how even a small patch of brush can produce coyotes that aren't playing by the rules and getting caught in traps set on "perfect" locations.

I was lucky to have some multiple catches at a few stops, and I could see his mind formulating plans for spots that he was remembering. Many times, he'd say, "Hey, Dad, wouldn't that be a good place to snare?", referring to a place we'd encountered in our travels.

If it was a place free of livestock, and there wasn't a resident deer herd utilizing the cover, we'd stop and take a look. I'd taught him at an early age not to walk down the trails, but rather along them, and I showed him once again what it took for a place to be worthy of snaring. I showed him how the main trails were often too wide to use if the vegetation wasn't very heavy to begin with, and how to look for gaps or vegetation edges that would be likely places for predators to follow.

On days that we're setting, we got into a system where he would scout ahead and pick out a good place. He'd point it out, and then go look for another while I pounded in a support and hung the snare. He was usually right on the money, but being human he missed a few spots too, as did I.
The main thing was, he learned that a lot of coyotes hunted the cover more than he had previously thought; and that they'd actually get through the area without visiting those perfect looking trap locations as frequent as he imagined.

He liked the low-maintenance factor of snares, too, especially with our many snowstorms and the following freezing and thawing that kept us busy while running a large amount of footholds. I guess to sum it up, another tool and another lesson learned.

Spring and summer has brought us back full circle again, and we are putting in some long, hot days hunting coyote dens, and working on depredating coyotes.

The convention season is upon us, and we won't make it to many, but we'll have some good friends here off and on throughout the year. A lot of them will sit at the supper table at least one night, and hear about a huge shed deer antler that was found, or a coyote that was missed on the first shot, but an even longer shot that was made.

In other words, the life of Riley.