Cando, N.D.—Warning: It’s not always wise to be downwind of trapper Dennis Carter.
Depending on the day, Carter’s scent can pucker your nostrils, perhaps even burn them like napalm in the morning. After all, he who works with skunks sometimes gets sprayed.
“I’ve gotten some quizzical looks over the years because apparently I don’t always have that downy-fresh smell,” said the good-natured 53-year-old North Dakota native, who has been a trapper for Delta Waterfowl since 2002. “The good news is that I seem to always get to the front of the check-out line in the grocery store. Perks of the job you could say.”
Carter is on the front lines of Delta’s ongoing predator management research in low-grass areas. Delta began trapping sites in both North Dakota and Manitoba following research that showed duck production in areas with abundant nesting cover produced at population-expanding levels without managing predators. In landscapes with limited nesting cover and chronically low duck production, preliminary research results indicate managing predators can significantly increase nest success.
Enter Carter, whose job, in effect, is to bring balance to a prairie landscape replete with mammalian predators, many with a particular taste for duck eggs and nesting hens.
On a sun-splashed summer day recently, Carter drove parts of his six-square-mile trap block, some of which are so waterlogged his traps are accessible only by ATV or on foot. As Carter drives he verbally foreshadows every bump in the road (some are completely washed out, impassable serpentine groves cut by torrential downpours), a running commentary that occasionally veers into his life as a trapper and his work for Delta.
“Do I think trapping helps the ducks? Yes I do. I really believe it has,” says Carter. “You have to get’em hatched for ‘em to have a chance.”
Few trappers are more qualified to get ducks off the nest and on the wing than Carter, who has made his living as a trapper since he quit high school. Carter’s face creases with a wry smile when he tells the story.
“I wasn’t doing well in school because I didn’t want to be there—I just wasn’t paying attention and I wasn’t doing my work,” he said. “One day I got called to the principal’s office and there was my father.”
Carter adjusts himself in the front seat of his truck, his eyes tucked behind black sunglasses, a toothpick anchored in the side of his mouth. His smile broadens; he’s clearly satisfied as he continues the story. “They basically said there’s no use in me being there, and I agreed,” he said. “Then they asked me what I planned on doing with my life.”
“I’m going to trap,” Carter said proudly. They laughed. Carter wasn’t amused. “I will prove you wrong,” he told them. “And you know what? I have.”
Carter said “there were trappers everywhere” when he began in earnest in the early 1970s. That’s when gas, he noted, was about 45 cents a gallon. Today, Carter is a relic of bygone era, and gas prices hover near $4 a gallon. “There are only a handful of trappers out here now, it’s really a lost art,” he says. “It used to be so competitive and so secretive. It was very hush-hush back when I started. But now no one wants to do the work because it’s so hard and the market is just not there.”
At its core, trapping is about ideas—ideas honed over years of trial and error. Carter takes immense pride in the “sets” he’s designed to lure furbearers into his traps, although he’s loathe to give details. “Some things just aren’t for sale,” he says.
But Carter can’t resist. He opens a small jar of beaver caster, a common trapping lure, and sticks it under the nose of his passenger, whose eyes spontaneously water. Its concentrated, pungent odor can, to the uninitiated, turn your stomach upside-down and inside-out. “I love the smell,” he says with delight. “I could put it on my pancakes.”
Asked what his favorite trap set is, Carter, a self-taught man of steel, mulls the question as he turns right onto yet another lonesome gravel road. Carter knows every homestead and landowner in these parts, many of whom he’s courted and worked with as part of his Delta work. “The easy part of the job is trapping,” he says. “Keeping landowners happy and content can be a little more challenging.”
Carter says he’s occasionally approached by landowners who have nuisance predator problems, especially raccoons destroying their property, and his willingness to help smoothes relationships for his Delta work. “More and more are seeing the value of what we do,” he says. “It’s getting better every year we’re out here. I enjoy helping out; raccoons, for one, can do a lot of damage—to property and duck nests.”
The raccoon discussion gets Carter in the mood to talk about his favorite set. He has created what he calls a near-perfect recipe for luring raccoons. It starts with the Lil’ Grizz Get’rz, a dog-proof coon trap.
To entice the nest-marauder, Carter uses salted sardines and marshmallows. The spoil-free salted sardines provide the smell and the marshmallows appeal to the raccoon’s apparent sweet tooth. “The first marshmallow on top of the trap they get for free, and the second one, on the trigger, costs them,” he says, noting he sometimes coats the marshmallows with chocolate frosting. “It’s one of the best concoctions I’ve ever come up with.”
As the mid-afternoon nears, Carter has nearly completed checking his trap block. Driving on a minimum maintenance road, he turns into a road approach, where, just yards away, one of his traps killed a skunk the day before. “Boy you can really smell him, he was a dandy,” Carter says. “In years past I’d collect the skunk essence and sell it to a guy in Georgia who makes hunting lures and cover scents.”
But there are hazards to that job, like accidentally nicking the essence sack with a knife and getting nailed with a projectile of green skunk slime. “I’ve done it before, and I’ve stunk for days,” he says. “I’ll tell you what; women aren’t big fans of skunk essence.”
Especially when they’re downwind of Dennis Carter.