MARSHALL COUNTY, Minn. Greg Habedank is on a mission.
It's a gray, dreary afternoon, another in a seemingly endless string of gray, dreary afternoons, and Habedank is trudging through the snow checking traps.
The woods are quiet here, the silence interrupted only by the occasional raucous call of a crow or raven. A stream that should be frozen by now continues to flow in places, the surface of the water boiling with minnows.
Buried under a blanket of white, the landscape seems almost devoid of color, aside from the shades of gray, which define the surroundings. Take a closer look, though, at the tracks left by rabbits, deer and even the occasional timber wolf Habedank says he's seeing more wolf tracks than ever this year and you'll discover there's plenty happening out here off the beaten path.
For trappers such as Habedank, that's a big part of the attraction behind this solitary outdoors pursuit: The quiet, the opportunity to meet nature one-on-one.
That, of course, and the challenge of matching wits with a wild animal on its home turf.
"You set a trap, you go away, you go home," said Habedank, of Thief River Falls. "You're not there to see it happen, but you'll find out later if it worked. Every time I catch something, I get a big smile on my face because it worked. What I wanted to happen, happened."
On this day, Habedank wants to find a bobcat in one of his four traps. His trapping license entitles him to five cats, but he'll settle for one. Doing that, he says, will fulfill his goal of trapping at least one pine marten, one fisher and one bobcat.
He's been at this mission for about five years, now. The fisher and pine marten came relatively easy, and their elegant pelts grace a wall in Habedank's basement.
But the bobcat well, that's proving to be more of a challenge.
That's OK, Habedank says; he'll keep trying.
"Once I get something in my head, I don't give up until I get it done," he said. "It's fun.
"You really do get to test wits with them. Especially this way."
"This way," in this case, is with a conibear trap. Named after a Canadian fur trapper by the name of Frank Conibear, who came up with the design, the conibear is a neck- or body-grip trap.
Typically set inside a square, plastic bucket containing bait and assorted scents, the conibear is designed to quickly kill whatever sticks its head into the container for a closer look.
Habedank baits his bobcat sets with beaver meat and sweetens the aroma with fish oil and castor, a brown, pasty substance derived from beaver glands that's surprisingly pleasant to the nostrils.
He lures bobcats to the site with skunk scent, which hangs from two small containers in trees adjacent to each trap and smells every bit as nasty as the real deal. (Actually, it is the real deal.) And whatever you do, he says, don't bump one of the containers.
Habedank also hangs three or four metal can lids at each of the sites. They sway from strands of fishing line like wilderness mobiles and serve as a visual attractant for the cats.
As he's finding out, though, coaxing an animal as wily as a bobcat to stick its head into a bucket isn't easy.
"It's harder to get a bobcat to stick its head in the bucket" than a fisher or pine marten, he said. "You catch more weasels than anything else."
Habedank says he prefers using conibears because they're more of a challenge than leg-hold traps. Time also is a factor, he says. According to Minnesota state law, trappers must check leg-hold traps every day, while every third day is sufficient for conibear traps.
There are other reasons, too.
"I could do it with a foot-hold trap, I know that," Habedank said. "I just can't take the chance of catching a wolf."
Habedank says the recent snowfall hasn't helped his odds for catching a bobcat. For whatever reason, the bobcat tracks that were so abundant earlier are harder to come by now. Maybe the bobcats have headed for thicker cover; maybe they're just hunkered down and moving less.
Maybe this gray, dreary weather has them in a funk.
Habedank says he's still learning. Whatever the reason, his first trap looks the same as it did when he left it. So does the second. And the third.
"It doesn't look encouraging," he said. "I had more visits earlier than I do now."
Habedank uses 160-size conibear traps for his bobcat sets. The number refers to the size of the jaw spread, and traps come in sizes ranging from 110, the smallest conibear with a 4-by-4-inch spread, to the 330 conibear, which has a 10-by-10-inch spread. Habedank says his 160 conibears have about a 5-inch spread.
Conibear traps pack a powerful punch, Habedank says, and that's why they're so lethal. Whenever he sets conibears, Habedank says he tries to notify bird hunters he knows who frequent the same areas he traps. According to Habedank, the 160 is big enough for a bobcat, yet small enough that it reduces the chances of the trap killing a hunter's dog.
Still, it can happen.
"That risk is always there," he said. "If it's not a cat, it's an animal you don't want. It's not a forgiving trap. There's no catch-and-release with a conibear."
Habedank, 43, cut his teeth trapping marshland critters such as beavers and muskrats on the Red Lake River and learned to trap land-based mammals from a friend.
"We were catching everything," he said. "When we were younger, we had time and money."
Then, life intervened; he got married and began raising a family.
For several years, trapping fell by the wayside. He even went so far as to sell all of his leg-hold traps. His son and daughter are older now, though, and Habedank has the time to set and tend a few conibears during the fall trapping seasons. He's put out as many as nine traps, he says, but only runs four for bobcats, all of those within about a half-hour's drive of Thief River Falls.
"With the price of gas, I told myself I wasn't going to make as big of a swing," he said.
Habedank says he launched his quest by contacting John Williams, the area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Thief River Falls, to get some tips on where bobcats might be the most abundant. He also asked hunters and others who spend time in the woods if they'd seen bobcats.
He drove roads less traveled looking for scratch marks where the animals had covered up their scat.
"It's best if someone confirms seeing one" in an area, Habedank said. "Then, it's just a matter of making the set."
On paper, that sounds so easy.
Habedank's walk down the trap line on this day ends the same way all of his other walks have ended during bobcat season with four empty traps.
"That's insane," he said. "Every time I do this, I tell myself that."
The walk back to the truck seems shorter, somehow, even though Habedank is going home empty again. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon, after all, than tromping around the woods in northern Minnesota.
And in the optimistic way of trappers everywhere, there's always next time whether that time is next week or next year.
"No kitties. That's OK," he said. "I won't give up not until I catch one this way."