NEAR SOLON SPRINGS, Wis. - Jarid Rankila walked gingerly onto the frozen beaver pond, thumping the ice ahead of him with his ice spud - a long-handled spear-like chisel. If the thunk was solid, he would take another couple steps.
Rankila, a 19-year-old from Lake Nebagamon, really hoped to find a beaver in an under-the-ice trap he placed in this pond. But his first priority was to not plunge through any weak ice into the frigid water below.
He had set the trap a couple of days earlier. Rankila had baited the beefy 330 Conibear-style trap with a few slices of potato. Affixed to a strong wooden pole, the trap hung submerged near the beaver lodge. The pond's surface had refrozen above the trap.
Then, while Rankila went to his law enforcement classes at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and to his job at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, the trap was on the job full-time.
That's what Rankila likes about trapping.
"The appeal is knowing you have active sets out there 24-7," Rankila said. "It's just a matter of whether that animal comes by. You hope you can trick him."
Already in his young trapping career, he has tricked plenty of beavers, mink, muskrats, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, three gray wolves, a few otters and a couple of skunks.
"Skunks aren't much fun," he said.
The wolves were unintended catches - no season was open - and Rankila successfully released all three unharmed.
As Rankila traveled his trapline on this gray December afternoon, he at times wore the beaver-fur cap he had someone make from one of his pelts. He also wore a pair of beaver-fur mitts from one of the animals he had trapped. He sells some of the raw fur he harvests, but sometimes he has a piece tanned and sells the finished pelts online or keeps them.
Rankila, who has been trapping for eight or nine years, isn't in it for the money. Hardly any trapper can be in it for the money these days, with fur prices very low.
"For the money, it's not worth it one bit," Rankila said.
Running the trapline
Rankila thumped his way to the beaver lodge and chipped his wooden pole free of the pond's ice. He twisted the pole loose from the pond's muck and began to lift it - and his trap - from the water.
"Feels light," Rankila said.
By that, he meant there wasn't 25 or 35 pounds of wet, dead beaver in the trap. Sure enough, when he lifted the trap into the cool December afternoon, it had not been sprung. Rankila lowered it into the water again where it would go back to working 24-7.
The trick is to place these 10-inch-by-10-inch double-spring body traps in channels where beavers swim beneath the ice to retrieve food from their food caches. He has baited his beaver traps with potatoes, carrots and pieces of aspen or alder. The traps are powerful, killing a beaver almost instantly.
Rankila does much of his beaver trapping to assist landowners or townships where beavers - and their dams - are backing up water over roads.
After checking that trap, Rankila was off to run the rest of his trapline, driving his Jeep from set to set. As he drove, he constantly monitored the roadside snow for tracks.
"Those are bobcat tracks," he said, pointing out the window.
At a small flowage, he stopped in the road and looked down the stream. "Oooh. There are some tracks," he said.
He popped out to scout. Sure enough - the perfect offset paw prints of an otter. And Rankila has an otter tag this year.
"I'm going to set an otter trap here," he said.
In 15 minutes, he had the trap suspended in an 18-inch-wide channel of open water.
"This is perfect," Rankila said. "He'll have to swim right through here."
And he was off to place a mink set in a culvert. The bait: Dead ruffed grouse.
Learning the game
Rankila's dad, Steve, was the one who spurred his son's interest in trapping. "I remember going along with him for muskrats when I was 10 or 11," the younger Rankila said.
He's a serious deer hunter with bow and rifle, too, but trapping is his passion.
"I've been hooked since the day I started," he said. "I look forward to sitting in the bow stand, but trapping - that opener just sticks in my head."
Watching him at work on the trapline, it's apparent he's been at it for a while. He reads the land and makes his plan. He never hurries, but his moves are careful and calculated, with no wasted motion.
Already, he's written two stories for Fur-Fish-Game magazine, the venerable outdoor publication. Dave Zeug, a retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation warden who lives in Shell Lake and Brule, helped Rankila by editing those stories.
Rankila acknowledges the help and advice he has received from others along the way.
"I look up to the old trappers," he said. "They have taught me things that would have taken me decades to learn."
Rankila peppers those mentors with queries, his mind open to learning all he can.
"He's not at all shy," Zeug said. "He takes the bull by the horns. When he wants to learn more about something, he'll ask somebody.
"I remember he wanted to catch an otter and didn't have any idea how to do it. He called me on his cell phone one day. He's standing in a tributary of the Brule. I can hear the water flowing. I was talking him through it, how to make an otter set. He had no idea how to catch one - and he caught one."
Mark Lundgren, a taxidermist and a neighbor in Lake Nebagamon, also has taken Rankila under his tutelage.
"He opened his shop to me," Rankila said. "He taught me how to skin a fox and leave the paws on."
Lundgren once helped Rankila and his dad release a bobcat from a trap, which can be a dicey proposition.
"It's fun to help him," said Lundgren, who owns Lundgren's Taxidermy. "He's a good trapper. He's done real well on coyotes right off the bat. He's released I don't know how many bobcats."
Rankila already sees the big picture here.
"Hopefully, when I'm older someone will come to me for help," he said.
Then he was off to set a couple more beaver traps.