An Unsung Exceptional Trapper – Part II
John Vaia loved the prairie and the sage country, and his thing was searching out new locations. It’s big country out here, and much of it can only be looked at on foot. John was never intimidated by that. He spent many a hot summer day down in some cedar breaks, looking for suitable spots to snare later in the year. Over the years we started referring to that activity as, “biting off large chunks of country”. We’d spot an area in our travels and then look it up on a map. We looked for public land, private land, and access points. This was before Google Earth and phone maps. We both had the “need to see what’s over the next ridge” bug. Many nights we just slept in a bedroll wherever we were when it got dark. John liked to talk and visit, and many times we re-hashed a location or a strategy until the sun started to come up in the summer morning sky.

It was a time to learn, and a time to either reinforce or dispel what we knew, or at least thought we knew. It didn’t take us long to realize that, in our opinion, the trapping books of the time were pretty vague in actual location descriptions, and we had to sort the good ones out from the mediocre ones the hard way, by actually setting them.

If we saw a coyote or a fox along a road or highway, we’d try to figure out why it was there in the first place, and if it was a worthy location or not. Looking back, I know we were both hung up on finding travel ways and corridors that were the main topics of so many books and articles. It took a while for us to read the country, to see what would cause predators to hang around there, such as food.

For the first few years, a lot of our preferred coyote locations were spots that really jumped out at us. I guess now, in a lot of areas, I’d label them as marginal cat locations. Sure, they produced coyotes, and we enjoyed any success, but we had a lot to learn.

John stayed in Montana for about 5 years while I went to Wyoming. I learned how to den hunt coyotes in the summer and found some work doing that, but I’d still return to Montana and guide bird hunters with John in the fall. I lived in the dry arid country of the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming, with little suitable vegetation for snaring on a large scale, but the trapping was great.

John stayed in Central Montana, and took snaring to a whole new level. He’d call me frequently, to tell me he finally made it in to a drainage we’d been looking at for years but had never got around to, or to report on how well he’d done for the season. We were always comparing notes, always learning.

One year I went up at Christmas time to ride along for a few days, to check some snares and traps and catch up on things. I also stopped and visited with our mutual friends Keith Gregerson and Fuller Laugeman, both Montana trapping legends.

John’s snaring efforts were fairly scattered, and he wanted to show me some mountain country that he had been working for the previous year or two. The area was producing some really heavily furred coyotes and cats, and he described some of the locations to me in detail over the phone. I was anxious to see some of the spots firsthand.

There was fresh snow on the ground, and as we approached a location where a fence cut through a deep saddle, we noticed tracks in the road. A pair of coyotes were headed straight for two snares that John had just set in crawl-under spots in the fence, one on each side of a gate in the trail road. John commented with his grin that we’d find them both caught when we got up to the gate, but as we got closer, we could tell something wasn’t right. We’d both snared enough to recognize the sign of a catch, but we also knew that there wasn’t any coyotes laying dispatched where they should have been.

Maybe 50 feet from the gate, the pair of coyotes had split, with each heading for a crawl-under on opposite sides of the gate. We could see the support wires pulled out straight, without the snares they had supported, but no catch in sight. We walked up to each and saw where the coyotes had got caught, but both had struggled very little before just simply sitting down and chewing the cable off before leaving. It was a scene very easy to read, and we stood there for some time, talking about what had taken place, and how we had to figure out a way to stop losses like that.

We learned to use short snares, with a cable length of 42 inches. We both had done quite a bit of snaring by that time and had talked frequently about trying out longer snares, maybe even double in length. We were also starting to use a popular dispatch-type lock at the time. That winter we came to the conclusion that we needed to change our choice of snaring gear to dispatch and keep as high a percentage as possible. It started a whole new era for us.
We started using rebar “kill poles” the next winter or two, and that added a few new spots and types of locations we set, in contrast to using 14-gauge support wire in picture-perfect gaps and tight spots. Again, a game changer. And again, we were learning from each other, and with each other, as always.

These things might seem trivial and now the norm, but I assure you during that time in our lives, and that time in the evolution of modern snaring, they were huge revelations. We also realized, over time, that we had a lot of preconceived notions before we moved west. Many times we visited about things that weren’t always the way they were portrayed in the books. Several years of our lives went by like that, with many hard lessons to be learned. When your livelihood is based around your fur check for part of the year, lessons can be costly. We both paid the price at times.

John and I ran a huge snare line together in the “breaks” country of Montana many years ago. We were targeting coyotes, and of course any cats that showed up. For months we had basically no social calendar to conform to, other than to bite off more country and catch more coyotes. We covered a pile of ground, and at our peak we had out 1,400 trail snares. It was a huge effort, but one that really paid off. Thinking about how we headed off into that rough, unforgiving country in the dead of winter, with bare minimum resources, makes me shake my head now. Looking back, it was just how we lived.

John went on to make more huge catches on his own, and no doubt had some of the biggest true fur catches in the state some years. He also built his outfitting business up over time. I’d gone to work as a county trapper in the eastern part of the state. Over the years we had a million conversations, and they always involved trapping; always. I can honestly say that the longest phone conversations I ever had, were with John. The man liked to visit about the nitty gritty of longlining.

John got involved with fur buying, and built quite a reputation as a coyote buyer. He fit in really well with some of the bigger trappers in the state, and bought a lot of high-end coyotes in the region.

The years fly by like they do, and the summer of 2018 found my wife and I hosting the Wyoming State Trappers Rendezvous in Lusk. John drove down and spent two days. He visited with a lot of people, and took it all in. He got to know my kids a little better and saw friends he hadn’t seen in years. And he met and visited with many new friends. He later told me it was one of most enjoyable weekends he’d spent in years. I agreed.

John was scheduled to do a demo at my trapping event in August this summer. He had agreed to do it on what he knew best, coyotes. I think it would have been his very first demo. I guess it’s safe to say that while I was always in the limelight and went to a hundred conventions over the years, John just stayed on the sidelines and caught coyotes and built up his business. A few times people would meet him and say, “Oh, you trapped with John Graham.” I’d correct them and say, “No, I trapped with him.”

I talked to John for a few minutes early one day this past winter while on my way to check a coyote line with my son. We’d just got a box of tanned fur back from Moyles, and some of John’s coyotes were in the box. I sold some for him the night before, to a lady who was building a coat. I knew I’d lose cell service in a few minutes, but like a hundred times before, we agreed to talk until we ran out of service. We’d finish the conversation later.

Later that day, John’s wife Diane called to tell me that he passed away unexpectedly that afternoon. After the shock and fumbling for something to say, a flood of memories hit me like a brick wall. After all, we had done it all together, and had made it all together.

My daughter called me the next day and asked, “Dad, are you okay?”

I said, “I guess.”

She said, “Well if I know John Vaia, he’s in heaven, jacking his jaw with somebody about coyotes. It’s going to be okay.”

I knew she was right.