These pages have been reprinted from the book Cree Trappers Speak, produced by the Chisasibi CTA in 1989. The input came from trappers Joab Bearskin, George Lameboy, Robbie Matthew Sr., Joseph Pepabano, Abraham Pisinaquan, William Ratt and Daniel Rupert.

Brock University professor Fikret Berkes, who was the researcher for the project, said one of the reasons for undertaking the book “was to show to the outside world that Cree hunters have working rules and practices that constitute a traditional system of regulation or unwritten law.” “…Taking care of a trapline means not killing too many. A trapper paces himself, killing what he needs, and what can be prepared by the women, so that there is no wastage of meat and fur, and respect for the animals is maintained. He should also make sure that the area is rested. Normally a trapper should rest parts of his trapping for two or three years but no longer than four years. If he leaves it, say, six or 10 years, he is not properly using his area, and the beaver will not be plentiful.”

“In an area which has not been trapped for a long time, there will be many empty lodges. This may be due to disease because of overcrowding; it may be due to beavers depleting their food supplies. The trapper knows that in an area which has not been trapped for a long time, various types of beaver food, such as aspen, would be in low supply. If there has been a fire, this also affects the beaver. Trappers know that three or four years after a fire the beaver will again begin to inhabit an area. At first, however, they would be eating more of the root foods. The trapper may resume trapping again when the willows are half grown. This may be some eight to 10 years after a fire.”

“A tallyman makes an inventory of the lodges of the area where he intends to trap. He would normally prepare this inventory during the last time he was in that area. Before the James Bay Agreement, the provincial department (MLCP) used to assign beaver quotas to individual tallymen based on the tallyman’s inventory of beaver lodges. More recently, the CTA (Cree Trappers’ Association) has taken over this function. The principle is that the yearly harvest of beaver be in line with the number of beaver lodges in a trapline.”

“The tallyman went to trap a part of his trapline. He had not been there for several years, but he had given permission to another group to trap it a few years previously. These people had reported plenty of beaver at that time. But the trapper knew that there would not be many beaver in that area because these other people had killed too many. He knew this because when these people returned to the village that year, their furs had not been prepared properly. Many of the furs had to be thrown out. They had killed young, old, every animal. Some of the beaver may even have been trapped out of season. The trapper visited, one after another, lakes and ponds which he knew to be good beaver lakes. There were beaver signs, but these were old signs from before that group’s visit. Beaver had declined, had not reproduced because those trappers had not taken care of that spot. They had harmed the game. In such cases, game retaliates. Leave nothing behind and it affects the later hunt. Bad management has repercussions for later years.”

“The tallyman started his inventory in early fall when he arrived at his trapline. This was before freeze-up so he was using his canoe to check for signs of beaver. He was looking for lodges and food piles (although beaver do not always make a food pile if there is a certain kind of water plant with roots used for food, in that lake). He was also checking for teeth marks on nearby trees to figure out the numbers and age of the beaver in the lodge.”

Managing a trapline Good trapline management means: Not over killing, so that animals can reproduce again,

Keeping the harvest in line with the number of beaver present, on the basis of the trapper’s inventory of beaver lodges,

Keeping a balance between the number of animals killed and the number of skins that can be properly cleaned and meat consumed,

Trapping a piece of land often enough so that it remains productive,

Resting a piece of land for two or three years and not more than four years,

Trapping animals when the fur is prime.

If a trapper does not take care of the land, the productivity of the game will decline. Animals will not let themselves be caught.

Trappers distinguish the following age groups of beaver: 1) New born waatish 2) Kits buiwaash 3) Juvenile or yearling bitimiskw 4) Adults chisamiskw The size and shape of the lodge also gave him clues as to what to expect: how many animals of different ages. He noted the distance between lodges and his camp by pacing himself. When he started trapping, he took care to leave some animals behind. Sometimes he would leave behind the younger beaver, sometimes he would kill them. Leaving an adult behind ensures quicker reproduction. The first-year beaver would not reproduce the following year. But leave an adult, and he or she will find a mate and reproduce the following year.

“By November, he was finished trapping around his base camp. He started settingup new camps in new areas. He would be gone from the base camp for one ortwo weeks at a time. Moving to a new area, he would check ‘beaver lakes,’ lakes where he would expect to find beaver. Making an inventory of ‘beaver lakes’ told him what to expect in that new area as a whole. He also kept an eye open for other fur animals, mainly by checking for tracks. The beaver is not the only animal he is after, of course. He needs a bit of everything. It was now near Christmas. He built a cache (platform with legs) for his traps and gear in his new area. This way he would not have to haul everything back to main camp. By this time, he knew of the existing lodges in the new area.”

“After Christmas, he went back to his main camp, this was a lodge built of sod. Keeping in mind what he left behind at the other area just before Christmas, he checked some additional areas near the main camp. Now there was more daylight, and he had more time to check the lakes he did not have time to visit earlier. He found 10 lakes in this new area with signs of beaver in them. He set new traps but did not check them immediately the next day. Instead, he broke trail to a new area and did an inventory. He also set a fish net in this new area. He would be making camp in one of those lakes later. The next day he checked his traps and brought in beaver. The wife had to work hard to keep up in cleaning skins.”

“The next day, he left his traps in and went to the new area to actually set up camp this time. He checked his traps the following day, and brought beaver to be cleaned and to be stretched on frames. With the new camp already set up for the whole family, they proceeded there. The traps were still set, but he did not check them that day. Instead, he inventoried a different area again. Even if there were no beaver in this new area, he knew there would be no problem because he already had a set of traps in the previous area.”

“From the new camp he set out the next day with his traps. He was lucky to find beaver lodges, four or five of them, and he was quite happy about that. He sent his son to go even further east the next day. The son checked the traps set the previous day and brought in beaver. The next day after that, the son checked the last set of traps set further east, but had no luck. With son and wife, he checked the first set of traps placed earlier. But he still had no luck with the traps set most recently. He took the traps out, ‘let them be, they will increase for the next time,’ he said. He was not catching anything there and there was a meaning to that. The beaver did not want to be caught yet. Next fall, he would come back to this area, and maybe then the beaver would be ready to be caught.”

A trapper paces his activities, moving about his land and setting traps in new areas. He decides what to do as he checks for signs of beaver in new areas, and checks his traps in the old areas.

If beaver are not caught, there is a meaning to that. Let them be, and come back later when the beaver are ready to be caught.