The mold was broken when the Yankee Trapper was born. He is a character out of some fable told around a Boy Scout bonfire, someone who’d have been just fine traipsing around with Lewis and Clark. He is lean, tough and well-spoken with a penchant for blunt, salty language.
The Yankee Trapper set his first trap in Arkansas 30 years ago and has been trapping all but seven years since. Back then, he was 50 years old, a retired fur buyer looking to head somewhere south of his native Ohio for the winter.
“I contacted Charlie Dobbins, one of America’s best ever all-around trappers, and asked where I should go to catch big beaver numbers. He told me immediately: go to Arkansas. He gave me Ray Fuller’s name and phone number.”
“Mr. Ray” urged the Yankee Trapper – his preferred moniker, by the way -- to come on down and trap his farm because “he had beaver problems galore. He’d show me where to trap, provide me a house to live in, and let me use his farm truck if I needed.”
The Yankee Trapper’s real name is Jack Hatfield. He is from West Virginia and out of the same tree of folks that infamously feuded with the McCoys. Before she died at 92, his Grandma Hatfield “told me what she knew. I believe I must be related to Devil Anse Hatfield because our facial features are very similar. I have a picture of him and our noses are eerily similar. He died in 1925 and I was born 12 years later. My parents moved to Ohio in 1949 when I was 12. So, I don’t really have a good connection to my family roots.”
The Yankee Trapper is irritated with the common depictions of the feuding clans. He is a writer and aims to correct the record. “I’ve written since I was a youngster. So far, I’ve authored 11 books, have edited a union newspaper for 15 years and can write non-stop for 12 to 16 hours when the words are flowing. This summer, I want to head back to West Virginia and do some research on the feud so I can write a true, complete story about it and put all the garbage that’s come out of Hollywood to rest. I have to do that before I die.”
Folks ask him what it’s like to be 80 and still trapping. They’re right to ask – trapping is physically demanding. Old age has limited where he can trap, how long he can do it and how much he wants to catch.
“When my trapping partner, Mikie –who’s 35 – climbs out of a steep ditch holding a 50-pound beaver with little effort, I feel the years. I have to drag beavers along and crawl out of ditches on my hands and knees. Old age has robbed my strength and balance, but no complaints. A body that’s wearing out is the price we pay for God letting us live so long.”
Five years ago, he was hoping to trap until he was 80. “Well, 80 is here now and I’m still healthy and consider any additional years I get to do this a bonus. I’ve always believed 99 percent of being able to do something is convincing yourself it’s possible.”
That first year, the Yankee Trapper showed up in Marvell with an “excellent beaver-trapping” 25-year-old partner. The pair trapped on the Fuller farm in Monroe County and caught 78. Nearly every farm ditch had beavers and dams.
“We had no 4-wheeler in those days, the old farm truck was a two-wheel drive so when the farm roads were wet we often walked miles to check traps and carry out beavers.” The labor meant “we were in great physical shape.”
After clearing the beavers out, farmers would use dynamite to blow the dams and release the water flooding their fields. “I don’t know how much impact catching those 78 beavers had on crop production but do know (on just one farm) it released several hundred acres that could once again be farmed.”
The Yankee Trapper has found no shortage of work. Beavers travel and repopulate inhabitable areas constantly. “In Monroe and Phillips counties most major sloughs and waterways interconnect so they will always have beaver problems.” The nearby White River Refuge acts as a launching pad for beavers and “any farmer with water and trees on their land will always have to battle to control water levels on their property. I’ve caught thousands and each time I return the beavers have come back.”
The Yankee Trapper knows his beaver-trapping days are numbered. Those seven years he missed trapping were due to prostate cancer he battled until finally beating it at 70. At that point, “I returned and have been trapping for the last decade. I’ve actually been healthier in my 70s than my 60s, which is probably rare because the aging process spares nobody.”
2016 was one of his most productive Arkansas trapping seasons. He skinned and took home 190 beavers, 55 otters, 17 coyotes, one bobcat, 40 coons and 32 possums. “I skin what I catch because it’s in my DNA to waste nothing I kill no matter how worthless it may be. I caught those critters in six weeks and had to go home early because I got sick with bronchitis. Running a trapline daily for four hours and then skinning for six proved to be more than my old bones could take. That was the first time I got sick down here.”
While he’s trapped in Arkansas, he’s seen so many changes “it’s unreal. The most noticeable came after I missed those seven years and returned. The first person I contacted was a good friend dying from lung cancer. He told me was ‘Jack, this isn’t the same area and section of Arkansas you left.’ Truer words were never spoken. Many farmers I’d once trapped for had passed, including Mr. Ray. The main street businesses in Marvell were empty and abandoned buildings were caving in. Change may be inevitable but this kind was a killer, man.”
People ask why he’s still trapping, especially at an advanced age. “I realize we trappers are a dying breed but I do it because it’s what I’ve done since I was eight. I’ve never lost my passion and love for it.
“It’s said to be a good beaver trapper you need a head that wears a size-6 hat and a chest of 50 inches, or more. In other words: all brawn, no brains.”
He fits neither criteria but still traps. “It’s needed in Arkansas, especially in the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. I don’t mind the hard work involved and really enjoy helping those who need their beaver problems solved. We’re all on this earth for a set number of years so it’s important how we spend them. I’ve always believed we get credit from the Man Above for helping others. I don’t charge anyone for trapping service and never will.”
When the Yankee Trapper arrived in the Delta there was no bounty program. Then, Phillips County started one with $10 per tail, dropped it to $5 and then raised it to $20.
People ask why he traps 1,000 miles from his Ohio home. “I just love being down here – people are so friendly. I’ve met so many people and made so many great friends it’s simply incredible. Ohio folk just aren’t that way. I’m convinced Arkansas folks are the epitome of ‘Southern hospitality.’
“I’m not kidding. The kindness and decency of people in the Delta is handed down from generation to generation. I now trap for a third generation of the Fuller family. All of them have treated me with respect and like I’m family.”
His real love and passion is fishing. He started at 8 years old and now lives within 60 miles of Lake Erie. He’s worn out five vehicles and gone through six boats fishing the lake, “a fisherman’s paradise.
“As a young boy, I made money by catching a ton of fish mostly in Lake Erie – white bass and catfish. That ended when Ohio passed laws prohibiting it. Today, everything about Lake Erie is based on regulations to make money for the state. It’s a prime example of how many rights and freedoms we’ve lost. In the 1950s and 60s, Ohio had liberalized fishing and there were no size of bag limits. Today, nearly every fish that swims is regulated.”
Years ago, the Yankee Trapper discovered the key to staying healthy and working hard, long hours “is to match the hours you work closely with those you sleep. That gives your body a chance to rest and recuperate. When I deviate from the routine, my old body lets me know.”
He takes vitamin B1 and B6 daily to help keep his legs from cramping up. Walking a mile or two through muck and duck salad “will wear you out.”
You want to know how tough trapping is? Every year, the Yankee Trapper arrives in Arkansas 15 to 20 pounds heavier than when he departs.
When his time comes to go, he pledges to have no regrets. “I’ve spent most of my life in the great outdoors doing what I love. I feel sorry for folks who dedicate their lives to just building wealth. They can’t carry those dollars with them when Death knocks on the door.”
Note: Hatfield’s book of fiction, “Benny and Me,” is available at amazon.com.