My love for the outdoors started in the Norphlet High School Library, where I developed an unquenchable thirst for the written word. Jack London’s Stories of the North Woods, Fang, and of course, Call of the Wild pulled me in, and just the excitement I felt while reading those books became an irresistible pull that directed my life as a teenager.
After I read about the north woods trappers in one of Jack London’s novels, I was determined to have a trap line, and after I found out we had a fur buyer in Norphlet, Mr. Tommy Benton, I started buying steel traps. That next Christmas Santa moved my trap numbers up to 10, and with my paper route money, I had 15 traps. That was enough to set up a trap line in the woods along Flat Creek. My December days started with the paper route at five o’clock, and when I finished the route, I headed for the woods to run my traps.
I could see dollar signs because mink were selling for a dollar an inch, and I figured those traps set along Flat Creek would sooner or later come up with a lot of mink. I found out it was going to be later, because my trap line was catching mainly possums and a coon now and then. But after a month, I had things figured out, and sometimes I would catch as many as three possums and a coon a night. I would skin my catch and put the skins on a board to dry. After drying, I took them to Mr. Benton. Possums brought fifty cents and coons were as much a $3.50 because of Davy Crockett. Davy wore a coonskin cap with the tail hanging down in back. The furs didn’t bring in much money, but I did sell the skinned possum’s and coon’s carcasses for another 50 cents each. I left one foot on each so the buyer would know it wasn’t some little dog.
My trapping did produce a couple of very interesting stories, and the first one was catching a mink on Christmas Eve. My one and only mink was a big one, 17 inches long and with the seventeen dollars from Mr. Benton, I headed to El Dorado Christmas shopping.
The other incident was a little different. I baited my traps with chicken parts, which attracted a variety of animals. I caught a gray fox, several coons, and a bunch of possums. However, one morning when I walked up to one of my traps, which I had covered with chicken feathers, I had caught a big hawk. It was a red-tail hawk that we called a chicken hawk.
I had read in the school library about nomads in Asia who tamed eagles to fly off their arm and catch wild game, and as I stood there staring at that hawk, I decided to give the art of falconry a try. The trap had just caught the hawk by one foot, and hadn’t caused any damage. I always carried a tow sack to put my catch in so I put it over the hawk and unsnapped the trap, and I had a big, angry hawk in a tow sack.
When I got back to my house, I worked almost all day to get a hood for the hawk’s head, and leather straps to tie the hawk to a perch in one of our chicken house that wasn’t being used. I built a perch, put on some heavy work gloves, and proceeded to try and tie a leather strap on one of the hawk’s feet and put a hood over the hawk’s head. Finally, after getting pecked and clawed until I almost gave up, I had the hawk’s head covered, which slowed things down. Then, after I tied a leather strap around one foot and tied the other end to the perch where I had placed the hawk, I pulled off the hood. Well, of course the hawk tried to fly, but ended up hanging upside down. It took the rest of the day to make the hawk understand it couldn’t fly off, but finally it would stay perched when I took off its hood. I figured it was hungry since it had gotten caught in the trap, so I tried to feed it a mouse from one of the many mouse and rat traps in and around our chicken house. At first the hawk would just glare and screech at me, but the next day when I took off the hood and held up a big rat it grabbed the rat and began to rip it up to eat.
That went on for a couple of weeks, and after a few more days the hawk would welcome me, and I didn’t have to worry about getting clawed or hooked with its beak. Then according to one of the books I had read, it was time to get the hawk to fly off his perch and land on my arm. That actually went better than I thought it would because the hawk was now considering me the one who brought food, and when I held up my arm holding a dead mouse it would fly off its perch and land on my arm. Of course, I had some thick padding to keep those claws from digging into my arm.
Then it was time for my next step, which was to put the hawk outside, set his perch up and tie a long leather strap on its leg and have it fly about ten feet to land on my arm and grab the rat or mouse. That went off without a hitch, so I made the leather strap on the hawk’s leg longer and longer until the hawk would fly about 10 yards to land on my arm. After I did that for several days, I knew it was time to take off the leather strap and let the hawk fly across the yard to my arm. Yes, the hawk did it perfectly, and now I was ready to use the hawk to hunt with, but then, when I re-read about how the people in the deserts of Asia used eagles, I knew I had a big problem. The places where eagles where used to hunt were barren almost deserts, and I was in Arkansas, which is full of trees. It would never work around here.
I went to bed that night wondering what to do, and finally I had a plan. The next afternoon when took the hawk outside, I pulled off its hood, but instead of holding up a mouse for the hawk to come get, I just turned my back and walked away. It took a few minutes until the hawk decided to fly, and then when it did, it tried to fly to me, but I dropped my arm down and it did a circle and another one and then with a loud screech it flew over our house and back toward the woods.
I had decided hawks should live in the wild and not cooped up in a chicken house.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected] gibraltarenergy.com.