An Unsung Exceptional Trapper – Part I
I’ve always known that the trapping community has a lot of exceptional who never get much fame or publicity, except in their local area or state. I’ve met several of these people while at conventions, or through my business in other ways. I’ve often encouraged people to go to conventions and meet and visit with other trappers, just to make more connections with like-minded people if for nothing else. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, and many people are willing to share their experience and expertise, if approached and asked for it. The trapping world lost one such individual this winter, and this article will be devoted to him.

I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, a college town, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s an area of much history, the famous Soo Locks, and Lake Superior State College. My family’s farm has been there since the 1880s, and that’s where I started my trapping career.

A few years after I graduated from high school, a friend of mine who was in college told me there was a guy from Ohio taking some classes, who was a trapper. He thought we’d get along well and wanted to introduce us. A few days later he took me to the house where the guy was living, with several other college students.

I remember that he and his trapping partner weren’t there when we arrived, so we all sat around and visited in the living room of the old house until we heard a pickup pull up. A few seconds later the door flew open, and two guys started lugging in beaver, two at a time, and stacked them in front of the basement door. There were at least a dozen beaver and a rat or two that they carried downstairs into the basement and improvised skinning room. We all packed a beaver or two to help out, and that’s how we were introduced. His name was John Vaia, and he had a deep, southern Ohio accent. One of his housemates knew me and had told him about me, and he wanted to meet me too. We hit it off instantly.

That night I helped skin the beaver. I had a lot of training on clean skinning, and they were still in the learning process. They didn’t have a trough, so I showed them how to prop the beaver up slightly, with a piece of 2x4, to get a better hold of the animal to get the right angle for the knife. They both caught on quick. John and his buddy were appreciative and excited to learn something different. I was impressed and excited to have someone to talk to who was as serious about trapping as I was.

That was 1982, and I was planning my move to Montana the next fall. A lot of my other friends were trappers too, but none had the same dream that John and I shared. We both had plans to be professional trappers.

We did a lot of visiting and comparing notes from that day forward. It was a time of learning for both of us, and we were both sponges. He had heard about our local trapping legend in that part of the state, Wilfred Eikey, and really wanted to meet him. Wilfred was well known for his large catches of all the different furbearers in the area, as well as being a big bounty coyote trapper. I was really proud to drive John out to Wilfred’s shop and introduce them, and even prouder when John realized that Wilfred was my mentor, and had taken me under his wing to be a coyote trapper. John asked the right questions, and listened to what was being told him, and I could see his wheels turning. It was a great evening, visiting and sharing.

I moved to Montana in the fall of 1983, and by the summer of 1984 I was working as a fishing guide in the western part of the state. The outfitter I worked for also ran a bird hunting operation over in central Montana, and I was going to be sent to the prairie and sagebrush country to guide bird hunters by September 1. The outfitter asked if I knew anyone who owned a good bird dog, who would also be interested in guiding some hunters. I mentions John’s name, and in late August John was headed west from Ohio.
Our camp was an old schoolhouse, and I’d been busy fixing it up to get it ready for the clients who would be coming to hunt the various local species of upland birds. When John arrived all the prep work got put on hold, and we hit the ground running. I loved that part of the state. I’d done a pile of scouting, and couldn’t wait to show him some of the areas that were especially intriguing and interesting to me.

We looked for bird cover, asked permissions, scouted for fur, and fished in the evenings. We were two guys in our early 20s, free, with an exciting fall ahead of us, and most importantly, finally in the West. We were in our glory.

John had a good Springer Spaniel at the time, and he really enjoyed the fall bird season. Central Montana had a lot to offer in the way of upland birds at the time. Looking back, we hit it at the right time, since almost any cover that looked good held at least a few birds, and our success was off the charts. Sharp-tailed and sage grouse were staple birds, but pheasants and Hungarian partridge were daily additions too. For two guys who came from areas where hunting was relatively tough, we knew we were home.

That fall found us wanting to catch some fur, so we set a few easy spots to check, and we’d bring home a coyote or fox most days, along with the birds. John, being from Ohio, had a soft spot for coon trapping, and he’d stop at every bridge. He would look along the bridge walls and guess how many coons were living there, and point out where the best sets would be. I remember when he came to the conclusion that he’d overlooked some spots because of the seemingly sparse coon sign. He told me where he lived in Ohio there would be very evident trails made between cover and the cornfields, in contrast to the two or three tracks we saw against bridge abutments in the creeks of Montana. When he finally set these spots, some of the coons he caught were huge. It was an observation that hasn’t changed much over the years.

Both John and I were especially interested in predator trapping and snaring. Coyote prices were high, but cats were coveted. John wasn’t a resident at the time so he couldn’t trap bobcats, but that didn’t stop him from scouting for sign. We both had read almost every predator trapping book at the time, and we just had to check out every possible spot that looked worthy. Lots of speculation was done, and lots of analyzing; our conversations would last for hours at times.

One late September day, as he pulled into the motel where we kept some of the clients, he had a huge grin. After he got the hunters, dogs, and other gear unloaded, he came over and told me what he was bursting to tell me.

“I saw a bobcat today! It ran across the road right in front of us. It was a big one, kind of red colored.”

I’d been around a few cats in Michigan over the years, and caught about a dozen on a walking line the year before in Wyoming, but John hadn’t seen one prior to that. To say he was excited would be an understatement. It wasn’t until a few years later that we realized, early cats often appear to be a reddish color even in good color areas.

That sighting of a cat really spurred John on. I hate to think of all the miles he walked and explored in the Missouri breaks and Musselshell River breaks in Central Montana in the 1980s and 1990s. He’d fill a jug of water, throw a couple of apples and maybe a bag of chips or cookies on the seat, and head off, literally for days at a time. Like me, John Vaia had fallen in love with the prairie and the sage country.