Bill Applegate, Trapper
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Applegate was raised near El Paso. He is a full-time predator-control trapper on ranches in Big Bend. For the past ten years, he has served as the president of the Texas Trappers and Fur Hunters Association. He lives in Marfa.
When I was eight years old, I was in my grandpa’s barn, and I found this thing. And I said, “Grandpa, what’s this?” And he says, “That’s a trap. Don’t mess with it.” And ever since then I’ve never put them down. I started on skunks. I had a lot of skunk adventures in my younger years. Once, I had got a skunk and buried him for three days, which is supposed to remove the odor. That’s a wives’ tale. I had this skunk hanging up by the hind legs and I had the pelt completely off, and I pulled on the tail and it squirted skunk essence right in my face. I ran to the house, about a quarter mile away, and my mother started opening up cans of tomato juice, which is supposed to be the skunk-smell eliminator. That’s another wives’ tale. Everything in the house that was plastic got that smell. And for the next couple months, whenever I was outside and it would rain a little bit, my hair would get wet and my friends would disappear.
I was about fifteen when I caught my first coyote, and oh, man, I was on top of the world. I caught it on my uncle’s ranch next to a cow carcass. And I remember I yelled at him, “That’s a coyote.” And he said, “A blind man could catch a coyote at a carcass.” But I didn’t care. It didn’t bother me. I just learned as I went. In high school I joined a trapping association and got a couple of books. Then I went to college, at Sul Ross, and got an agricultural degree. I got a job working for the Western Federal Land Bank Association of Marfa. I would trap after work and on weekends. I was with the land bank for about fourteen years and served the last ten years as president. But that was a ruthless business, so I finally quit the corporate world to try and make a living in the hills.
I got enough trapping contracts where I could make a modest living. I’m working for about six different landowners right now, and I get paid on a monthly basis to run traps on their places year-round. But trapping’s not a high-paid deal. The truth is, a wife with a good job is a requirement for a full-time trapper.
Most people that are trapping are fur trapping for the pelts. In my case, since I trap year-round, I have most of the predators knocked out by the time the furs get good, in the winter. So my fur take for sale is not as high as guys that are trapping for the fur. Their deal is more like fur farming. They allow the populations to grow in the summer and then, in the winter, harvest them.
The landowners that I work for, they want to protect their calves, their sheep, and their goats, and they want to see their deer and antelope populations coming up. So my main quarry is coyotes, bobcats, and panthers. If a panther moves into an area, many of the deer will move out, and that could be disaster for a landowner who relies on hunting income for expenses or a mortgage.
I try to reach my first trap by daylight every day. Sometimes it’s a thirty-minute travel; sometimes it’s more. The smallest property I’m working is about 20,000 acres. When I reach the first trap, I will normally put out some fresh lure, make sure the trap is still covered well. About noon each day I stop for a tuna fish sandwich and a can of peaches. That takes about ten minutes, and then I go on to the next trap. Since gas went up, I carry a bedroll in my truck. I’ll stop when it gets dark and stay the night, after a can of Wolf Brand Chili dipped out with crackers.
If I’m setting a new trap, I get out and look for tracks, droppings, scratch marks. A lot of traps are set right along the dirt roads. Other good places are along trails and stock tanks and places where habitat changes, like from trees to an open field, since that provides two different sources of food. It’s an edge. Some prey species like to be out in the open, and some like the heavy cover. Predators like to work those edges.
I use foothold traps so that a nontarget animal can be released. You bury the trap and use fresh meat, rotten meat, animal skin, or some commercial lure, food type or gland-scented type. Droppings and urine from coyotes are good because they give the impression that another coyote has been there, and that’s kind of a fear eliminator.
When you come upon a catch, a coyote’s usually gonna be jumping around, trying to get out and get away, but sometimes you’ll have some that’ll just lie there, like they’re ready for you to turn them loose. Now, cats, they will usually try to hide from you. Even if there’s nothing out there, they will lay down close to the ground and hope you don’t see them. And if you crowd them too much and violate their comfort zone, they will jump. I’ve had several of them pull their foot out of the trap and get away.
I dispatch them using a .22 revolver. Back home, I’ll skin ’em and cut glands off to use for lures. I wash the furs, get all the dirt and foreign material out of them, and then I will take the fat off the hides. It’s called fleshing. Then I put them on a stretcher and allow them to dry. There are local fur buyers and the big auction houses in Canada. At the present time, buyers from the Orient are the main players in the fur market. This January I will probably send up fifty or sixty coyotes, twenty or thirty foxes, and a dozen bobcats.
The panthers are my favorites. Coyotes are a little more nervous and high-strung, and the cats are a little more laid-back and easygoing and not so suspicious. Cats in general are a little easier to catch than canines. They’re extra-patient, which sometimes means they don’t have the interest in working a lure sometimes. But panthers, since there’s not as many panthers as there are coyotes or bobcats, you just don’t have as many encounters with them. It’s more of a challenge to catch one. I once had a panther trap sit for three years before I ever made a catch. It takes more patience with panthers. There’s not a whole lot known about them. You can find out just about anything about coyotes and bobcats. But finding knowledge about panthers, it’s hard. And that’s what I like to do. I’m in the middle of panther country out here. Instead of reading about them, I get to go out every day and experience the knowledge.