“I’m what you call a serious trapper,” said Larry Karels, who during the past season trapped and skinned 185 coyotes.
While most Iowans seldom if ever see a coyote, Karels, 64, of Monticello, has trapped more than 1,300 of the wily predators during the past decade — a tribute not only to his skill but also to the abundance of the adaptable canines.
“They’re getting thicker all the time, I’m telling you,” said Karels, who trapped 32 coyotes in five traps on a single farm this year. This year’s take also includes 270 raccoons, 70 opossums, 40 each of fox and skunk and about 50 beavers.
Karels, who started trapping in 1957, has taught himself to think like his quarry. “I can look over a farm for five minutes and tell you where the coyote is going to cross,” he said.
“Larry can catch them. No doubt about that,” said Craig Sweet of St. Charles, president of the Iowa Trappers Association, a 39-year trapping veteran who himself took 38 coyotes off a 310-acre farm this season.
During the height of the season, Karels deploys hundreds of traps, including 120 set specifically for coyotes. He trapped 17 coyotes in a single day this year but did not get up a sweat carrying the 35- to 40-pound critters out of their haunts.
“If you’re walking, you’re wasting time,” said Karels, who traps from 4 a.m. until dark during the season and spends his evening hours skinning and stretching his catch.
Karels’ sets are invisible but not necessarily unsmellable. They appeal to the coyote’s irresistible urge to mark its territory, he said.
He manufactures vile but alluring potions whose ingredients, like many of his techniques, are proprietary secrets. Aspiring expert trappers pay $400 a day to accompany Karels on his daily rounds.
Karels, who provides animal control services for the city of Monticello, sets traps in Jones and three adjacent counties, always at the request of landowners desiring control of nuisance animals. Coyotes are a threat to both pets and livestock, while the dams built by beavers often impound water that encroaches on farm fields, he said.
Department of Natural Resources furbearer biologist Vince Evelsizer confirms that coyotes are thriving in Iowa.
“The population is quite strong, despite a continuous open season on them, but they are good at staying off the radar and avoiding human encounters,” he said.
Though harvest statistics are not available for the current trapping season, Evelsizer said the coyote harvest increased from 2,500 in 2009 to 8,089 in 2010.
Sightings by bow hunters, a key wildlife survey tool for the DNR, increased markedly from 2009 to 2010, but declined slightly in some parts of the state this fall.
While coyotes prey mainly on mice and rabbits, packs of coyotes work together to “run deer into the ground,” he said.
Karels said his annual trapping income varies with the price of furs. At an average price of $25 per pelt, this year’s coyote harvest would yield about $4,600.
In addition to his trapping income, Karels cuts and sells large volumes of firewood and raises and sells produce from his extensive garden.
When he’s not extracting his living from nature, he pursues walleyes and catfish in the Wapsipinicon and Maquoketa rivers.
Escape from stress
Karels said his time alone outdoors helps him cope with the post-traumatic stress disorder that still plagues him from his service as an Army medic in Vietnam.
After 27 years with a road construction crew, Karels said he became so moody that he had to retire.
“I’d go out in the timber all day and sit around crying. There was no thinking about it. It (suicide) was going to be done,” he said.
Karels, who is on 50 percent disability from the Army, said he is alive today only because of the ongoing care he receives from the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Health Care System.
In February and March, Karels concentrates on beaver, which can be even more trap-wary than coyotes. Few Iowans trap them, he said, because they are hard to catch and because skinning them is so much work.
Karels, who for 20 years trapped beaver on contract for the state of Arkansas, said he once made a $100 bet with an Arkansan who fancied himself a rapid beaver skinner.
“I went first and finished in 2 minutes and 47 seconds. He just handed me the hundred dollars and left,” Karels said.
Coyotes in Iowa
- Coyotes were prevalent in Iowa at the time of settlement but they were considered varmints and persecuted extensively. Though they were never completely extirpated, they became quite rare in the 1920s.
- By 1937, coyotes had staged a modest comeback and were considered occasional and irregular throughout Iowa.
- Coyote numbers began to increase noticeably in the 1950s. One factor that likely contributed to the growth was the corresponding increase in whitetail deer, which coyotes prey upon, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
- Since the 1970s, coyote harvests have generally been in the range of 6,000 to 12,000 per year.
- Coyote populations are somewhat self-regulating in that they have the ability to produce larger litters when numbers are down and smaller when numbers are high, the DNR said.
Sources: Department of Natural Resources and “A Country So Full of Game: The Story of Wildlife in Iowa” by James J. Dinsmore