Gene Chague: Retired Berkshire trapper reflects on old days
I love listening to the old timers describe how it was in the old days, especially as they relate to the outdoor sports in the Berkshires. When I heard that 96-year old Renee Wendell, of Pittsfield, was once an avid trapper, I just had to meet him. I had never done a column about trapping and wanted to hear about it.
Wendell came from a family of outdoor sportsmen, and any wild game that was shot was not wasted, for his mother was an expert cook of wild game. He still talks about her cottontail rabbit and noodle meals she used to prepare. He also was fascinated with the outdoors, considering the woods his "outdoor playroom."
Wendell’s grandfather used to babysit him while his father and mother worked. To keep him occupied, Gramps would pay him five cents for every mouse or mole that he trapped and skinned, a skill that became very useful to him in the future. This went on for some time until he saw Gramps throwing a pelt into their woodstove. That ended his mouse skinning career.
When Renee was ten or so, his dad bought him a trap in a hardware store. Shortly afterwards, Renee found a freshly dug hole in the woods in back of their house and he set up the trap, staking it well. He couldn’t sleep at all that night, wondering what he might find in the trap the following morning. He got up early and ran to the trap to check. Something had been trapped. He couldn’t make out what it was, for it was half in the hole and half out. He ran and got his father, who shot it. It was a skunk. He brought it home and while he was skinning it, someone offered him 50 cents for it, and he sold it.
One day he was trapping muskrats. While coming out of a swamp near Pontoosuc Lake with two or three muskrats, a guy asked him what he was going to do with the meat. Use it for bait, he said. The man then and there offered him a couple of dollars for it. Turns out that he was from Louisiana, and they ate muskrats down there. Renee got the pelt and a couple of bucks.
He trapped raccoons for an Italian fellow who paid him $2 each. One day he trapped a fox. When asked what he did with the meat, he told him he threw it out. Too bad, that fellow would have given him $2 for it. Hey, what the heck, meat is meat.
He used to get $2.50 for a muskrat pelt, $10 to $20 for raccoons and a dollar an inch for a beaver pelt. A pelt measuring 30 inches by 36 inches would yield $65. Fur buyers used to come around buying up all of the pelts. Toward the end of the trapping season they would have two auctions in Sheffield.
He enjoyed his hobby and made money doing it. He always made more than $300 each year to help buy Christmas presents, pay taxes, etc. He was helping his family as well as the environment because "animals weren’t getting managed. If you don’t harvest them, something else will. You can’t stockpile game," he said.
Later on, when he worked a second shift, he would get up early to check his traps. Over the years he had some interesting experiences. He recalls one early morning when he was trapping near Richmond Pond and he heard a fellow calling for help. He was ice fishing and the ice broke under him.
Renee ran to a nearby cottage and they called for help. Rescuers arrived quickly and saved him. One time in Becket, he also broke through ice near a beaver lodge. They usually keep the waters open there, and the ice was thin and covered with snow. Before he knew it, he was up to his neck in water and muck. What saved him was one little stick about 1/4-inch thick. He grabbed hold of it and got out.
Foxes were always a challenge, because they could smell a trap under an inch of dirt and he had to treat his traps. He boiled them in tree bark and leaves and then waxed them with bees wax (foxes aren’t afraid of bees). Then he would set the traps under an inch of wet leaves or moss.
Renee quit trapping when steel traps were banned.
"Can you imagine carrying a bunch of box traps with you? And what do you do with them in the trap? Some of these new laws don’t make sense," he said.
I was fascinated listening to him but it turned out that he had much more to tell. That will be covered in a future article.
The Pittsfield Sportsmen’s Club will hold its fourth annual Hunt Raffle and Buffet Dinner at the ITAM in Pittsfield on Saturday, Feb. 8. Doors open at 5 p.m., with dinner at 6 p.m. Cost is $15 for adults and $8 for children under 10. The proceeds from the event benefit PSC Land Development. Tickets are limited.
This is a serious raffle with a whitetail deer hunt in Illinois, a fishing charter on Lake Ontario, a drift boat fishing trip on the Salmon River and many more prizes. For more information, contact Travis Delratez at (413) 441-7979, or Ed Bushey at (413) 443-9371.
Still no schedule of ice fishing derbies occurring this winter. In the meantime, I will list those that are approaching within a week. Next Sunday, the Stockbridge Sportsmen’s Club will hold its 37th annual Raymond M. "Skip" Whalen Ice Fishing Derby from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Echo Lake in Stockbridge. Log on to stockbridgesportsmensclub.org for the details.
To reach Gene Chague:
or (413) 637-1818.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.