Sharing the trapping tradition: When it comes to the outdoors way of life, Rick 'Critter' Olson comes by his nickname honestly
Being successful, he says, is all about hard work, paying attention to details, studying the habitat, the traits and the habits of whatever he’s trapping and learning to see tracks and other signs most people overlook.
NEAR ROOSEVELT, Minn. -- It’s a cold, breezy Friday afternoon in early January, but the subzero windchill doesn’t stop Rick Olson from making the rounds and tending his trapline.
Just like he’s done every day for the previous 83 days dating back to late October.
Trapping — and sharing his knowledge of the outdoors with others — is a passion for the man known as "Critter" to his friends and neighbors.
So is hunting and fishing, Olson says.
"I hate to admit it, but I’m so addicted to the outdoor way of life," Olson, 52, said. "I’ve got too many hobbies; that’s all there is to it."
A 1985 graduate of Warroad High School, Olson says his passion for trapping dates back to the fall of 1978, first with a mink he failed to catch in an old building and later that same year when he caught a weasel in a live trap.
Olson trapped his first fox in 1981, a year when fur prices were "sky high." He’s been hooked on "dirt trapping" for species such as fox and coyotes ever since, preferring it over "water trapping" for beavers and muskrats.
From the fall of 1985 through fall of 1987 while going to tech school in Moorhead for commercial art, Olson trapped fox for a couple of weeks every fall near Comstock, Minn., south of Moorhead. He’d leave the house at 4:30 a.m. so he could be back in time for classes at 8:30 a.m., skin fox on lunch breaks and then deliver pizzas until midnight.
All this while carrying 21 credits.
He lined up places to trap through Ralph Rehder of Comstock, whom Olson had met through the Willow Creek Gun Club, a hunting camp near Roosevelt that Rehder founded in the early 1940s.
Rehder, who owned land near Comstock, died in September 2013 at the age of 91.
"I couldn’t have done the trapping down there without his help," Olson said. "I would have from 25 to 30 fox during those 2-2½ weeks. It wasn’t about the money, honestly; just a way to feed my trapping addiction."
Olson got his nickname years ago from a roommate who was a fishing guide and also hunted and trapped.
"I said, ‘Why do you call me ‘Critter?’ " Olson recalls. "He goes, ‘Because you kill critters,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s a legitimate answer.’
"And it’s just stuck."
In addition to trapping, Olson spent 10 summers in Montana, where he worked as a PGA golf pro and instructor and ran a golf course, returning to Lake of the Woods country in the winter to work on the ice for an area resort.
"I just love teaching, be it hunting, fishing, golfing, trapping, whatever," Olson said.
The outdoors beckoned, though, and he came home to stay in 1999.
For Olson, the challenge and attraction of trapping is trying to outwit an animal that’s keenly aware of its natural surroundings in hundreds, if not thousands, of acres, and getting it to step onto the 2-inch metal pan that trips the jaws of a trap.
"You know one thing with, be it hunting, fishing or trapping, if you think you know it all, you’re going backwards so fast," Olson said. "I’m humbled every year. Do I kill critters? Yeah, but a lot of them outsmart me."
Being successful, he says, is all about working hard, paying attention to details, studying the habitat, the traits and the habits of whatever he’s trapping. Learning to see tracks and other signs most people overlook.
"My favorite animal to trap is coyotes," Olson said. "I think they’re one of the smarter animals out there. I would say coyotes are the hardest to catch."
Snaring is effective, Olson says, but he prefers setting traps. A favorite is the Sterling MJ 600, a foothold trap with rounded jaws and an offset design he says minimizes the risk of injuring animals he might want to release.
"Obviously, you’ve got lures and different baits and different smells to attract them, but you’re making them step on a 2-inch circle, and to me, that’s so rewarding," he said. "I do snare, and that’s a great method and a great tool, but I get way more satisfaction from them stepping on a 2-inch circle than putting their head through" the hoop of a snare.
Olson started bobcat trapping in 2005 at the invitation of a trapper friend who lived north of Greenbush, Minn., where bobcats were more abundant than they were farther east. Gradually, though, the cats have become more common in the areas Olson traps closer to Warroad.
"They definitely spiked up," he said. "It was kind of nice because roughly 2010, I was averaging over $200 a cat, and you’re only allowed five per year."
In 2012, Olson wrote a book, "Extreme Northern Bobcat Trapping and Snaring Methods," to put what he calls "a more modern twist" on the time-proven techniques for catching bobcats. Minnesota Trapline Products of Pennock, Minn., near Willmar, publishes and distributes the book.
"It’s a niche book, but people in Alaska are buying it for lynx trapping, and I’ve had a lot of people buy it down in the South," Olson said. "They said they don’t deal with snow, but cats are cats. And it is universal."
Olson says his trapping is winding down for the winter. Bobcat season continues through Sunday, Jan. 26, but he probably won’t reach his season limit of five.
Between waterfowl hunting, deer hunting and trapping, the past three months have been a blur, Olson says.
"I think I’ll probably pick up one or two more cats within the next week, and then I’m going to call everything done," he said. "I’ve told so many of my friends, in October-November-December, I wish we had 30 hours (in the day) because 24 hours is not enough."
Olson will finish just shy of 35 coyotes and a dozen fox by the time he pulls his traps and snares. He’ll sell most of his furs to a Grand Rapids, Minn., buyer and earn enough to break even or perhaps show a slight profit after fuel costs and other expenses.
Minnesota coyote furs will fetch $50 to $150, depending on quality, while a prime bobcat with good, spotted belly fur is worth $150 to $200, Olson says. Fox prices, once as high as $125, today are "real weak" and fetch only $15 to $25, he said.
"It’s not about the money," Olson said. "I make no money goose hunting, no money duck hunting, no money deer hunting, but I’m not going to stop those. I love doing it. If you’re good at what you’re doing, if the fur prices are there, you can break even and make some on the side if the prices are good.
"But it’s a dying tradition, and I try to pass it on to every young person that shows any interest in it."
Numbers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources support Olson’s assessment. Since 2013, sales of junior trapping licenses have declined from 581 to 184 in 2018, the most recent year for which final numbers are available. Overall trapping license sales have declined from 10,234 in 2013 to 6,866 in 2018, DNR statistics show.
Paying it forward
Olson, who is a certified trapping instructor through the Minnesota Trappers Association, in late December helped a neighbor boy trap his first bobcat and first pine marten. It was a natural progression for Olson, who also worked with the 12-year-old on the hands-on portion of his trapper education training.
No matter how the bobcat season ends, that will be the highlight of the year, Olson says.
"That made my whole season when I helped him catch his first bobcat and first marten," he said. "I said it means way more to me if you catch your first bobcat than if I catch my 85th or whatever the number is."
Besides, Olson says, there’s always next year. And the satisfaction of knowing he helped turn a young man on to the tradition of trapping.
"If I live until I’m 90, I’m sure I won’t be trapping until 90, but if I’m able to go when I’m 80 or 85, I’ll do it to a certain extent because I love the tradition of it," Olson said. "I want to pass it along, be it hunting, fishing or trapping, because that’s what this country was founded on -- the fur trade and the gold rush."
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to email@example.com.