Turning Passion into Profession: Local Trapper Earned National Accolades
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By Troy Treasure
NEMOnews Media Group
Robert Waddell is a product of the land he was raised on. He has lived in Scotland County since second grade.
Waddell is a professional trapper for hire, primarily in 10 states. He likes the physical activity. His love of the outdoors dates back to his youth.
“I was a young kid, impressionable, growing up during the fur boom when fur was so valuable and money was worth something,” he said.
The winter Waddell turned 14, his mother took Robert, his two brothers and a neighborhood boy to Chelsea, Iowa. The Waddells sold $4,800 worth of fur the boys trapped within a couple of miles of where they grew up.
“That $4,800, mom and dad paid the mortgage on the farm with,” Robert said. “In the summers, we thought it was good money if you got $2 an hour sitting on a farm tractor. But muskrats were eight bucks, coons were $35 to $50, that was awful good money for a young kid 12, 13, 14 years old.”
The boys were also fascinated by rural mail carrier Forrest Martin, who was also a trapper.
“Us kids, it probably looked like a Norman Rockwell painting, we were single-shot shotgun out trying to kill a couple of rabbits,” Waddell said. “Forrest Martin would come up the road where they had plowed the road open and the snow was as deep at the fence post.
“He had two red fox on the hood of that old orange 4-wheel drive Scout he was delivering the mail in,” Robert continued. “He had those fox laying up on the hood. Things like that made an impression on you for life. I wanted to grow up and be a trapper.”
Looking back, Waddell cited former Scotland County High School biology teacher Mike Wagner as a big influence during the early 1980s.
“All us farm boys had to do to get out of the biology lesson was to ask Mike trapping questions or deer hunting questions,” Robert said. “We could, generally, disturb the class for the whole hour.”
Forrest Martin and Mike Wagner are both deceased.
“I have some of their traps hanging on the wall in the basement as mementos from each of them with their names and trap tags on them,” Robert said.
In January of 1998, Waddell’s younger brother, Bill, died of a rare form of bone cancer.
“We were pretty tight,” Robert said. “He was pretty driven in a lot of ways. I guess I’m the same way as far as, if you’re going to do it, might as well be the best.”
Waddell committed to making trapping his life’s work. He responded to a magazine advertisement placed by Dr. George Hurst of Mississippi State University. Dr. Hurst was seeking trappers and coon hunters.
Waddell headed to Mississippi a year after Bill’s death.
“Dr. Hurst placed me with an outfit by the name of Gaddis Farms, just west of Jackson,” he said. “They’re a pretty big outfit.”
Initially, however, work was on a conditional basis.
“They told me they had been burned by every redneck down there doing beaver control,” Waddell recalled. “They said if I’d come down, they’d pay my permit, furnish me housing, cover my travel expense and if I treated them right, they’d treat me right.
“I’ve been with them for 22 years now.”
Mike Morford of rural Knox City indicated he first met Waddell in the early 2000s through the Missouri Trappers Association.
“He was leader of District 1. He did a lot of fundraisers and we learned about each other through those,” Morford said.
Waddell and Morford qualified, as a team, for the 2004 North American Coyote Trapping Contest. The event was held at Jicarilla Apache Reservation in northern New Mexico. As far back as the mid-1980s, Waddell had read about the contest.
“It was kind of like the trapper’s Olympics,” Waddell said.
“He learned I had trapped on the Navajo Indian Reservation, mostly in Arizona, for years,” Morford said. “I had trapped there way before the contest.
“Robert just knew I had experience in high desert country,” Morford continued. “He wanted to partner up on the Jicarilla contest.”
Waddell stated the pair spent half their time lost.
“There were all these new oil roads that were not on the map because of the oil exploration,” he said with a laugh.
“There were super smart coyotes from over-trapping them by people less than perfect at trapping coyotes,” Morford added.
“We still managed to kill 30 head of coyotes in seven days and took second-place in the contest,” Waddell said.
Waddell and Morford proceeded to win the annual event for four consecutive years.
“We had some competition the second year, then we ran away with it,” said Morford. “There were other trappers who learned their way around, but didn’t have the knowledge to take that sharp of a coyote.”
During the 2008 contest, they took as many coyotes as the second and third-place teams combined.
“It was decided we should probably retire because there were some of the teams that weren’t going to come back again because they knew they couldn’t beat us. We were smokin’ them that bad,” Waddell said.
“That put me on the map as being in the top-tier of trappers in the United States with coyotes,” he said. “Each one of these events continued to just open another door.”
One such opportunity occurred in 2006. Waddell was teaching at the Missouri Trapper’s Fall Rendezvous at Unionville. After a demonstration, Waddell was button-holed by a stranger.
“He basically interviewed me,” Robert remembered.
The gentleman was Dr. Grant Woods, a whitetail deer biologist with influence in the Quality Deer Management Association.
“Two or three weeks later, I got a phone call from QDMA wanting to know if I could come to Chattanooga, Tennessee and speak in the think-tank session on coyote degradation and control for their national convention,” he said.
“I was the only person on the stage that didn’t have his PhD, his doctorate,” Waddell continued. “During Q and A, we fielded 13 questions from the audience; nine of those questions were directed to me. The guys with the PhDs were sitting there just twiddling their thumbs.
“The people in the crowd wanted to know how to kill a coyote.”
Waddell’s visit to Chattanooga eventually led to several appearances on the Outdoor Channel.
After visiting recently with NEMOnews Media Group, Waddell was headed back to northeast New Mexico.
“We go in and trap the coyotes just before the antelope does have their fawns,” he said. “The antelope herd has been rebuilt from almost extinction to the caring capacity to where the state of New Mexico is now trapping antelope and relocating them to other parts of the state; re-introducing them where they had lost them.”
Waddell’s expertise is not limited to coyotes. For example, he traps feral hogs while working for a farm consortium in the Mississippi Delta.
“It’s primarily in the Mississippi River bottoms on the Mississippi side of the river, Vicksburg north; three different counties,” he said.
The hogs can cause serious damage.
“The hog will go down the furrow and root the corn up to eat the seed corn. Of course, seed corn is expensive,” Waddell said.
“You can’t just go out and replant where the hog was because he’ll take one row 20, 30, 50 yards, then jump over a row,” he continued.
Waddell indicated flooding in recent years helped tap down Mississippi’s feral hog population.
“We’re managing them. The year before last, though, I killed over 1,000 hogs in Sharkey and Issaquena Counties in about 60 days,” he said.
Waddell was asked how much government regulations affect his work. He admitted it can be complicated, at times.
“Trapping is regulated in each state. Each state has different regulations, some have nearly none,” he responded. “Unfortunately in today’s day and age, a lot of these wildlife biologists or state agencies are regulation-happy.
“Some of these states; they try to turn trappers into a cash cow,” Robert added. “Some years, the permits are $2,000 to $2,500 just for the little piece of paper you carry in your pocket.”
Waddell said his main goal the last decade has been to keep trappers in the field with a declining fur market, including local individuals such Karri Feeney and Mike Hyde.