The life of a trapping legend
The total count was about 90 coyotes, 10 coons, five badgers and four bobcats. It was less than usual. In past years, Jake Korell’s haul included more than 200 coyotes and dozens of other animals that fell victim to his traps. But this winter, Korell was 98 years old, set to turn 99 in April. Not too bad. He skinned and put up the animal furs himself.
Korell started trapping when he was 7 years old. The morning of March 6, the day his heart gave out while at his Riverton home, he’d planned to remove the last of his traps, unreachable earlier because of the snow. On that day Wyoming lost a legend. “Trapper Jake” as he was known, was one of the last of the original mountain men on a roster that includes the likes of Jim Bridger and John Colter, his friends and family said.
Korell was born in Nebraska, but moved to Wyoming when he was 2 years old, growing up near Torrington. When he was 7 a rancher offered to pay him 10 cents a tail to rid the property of moles. When he was 9, he realized he could trap skunks for $3 apiece. He was asked to leave school in the third grade due to the stench he could never scrub out of his skin.
His education continued intermittently, probably up to the equivalent of sixth grade, in between helping his father in the sugar beet fields and breaking horses. But he never stopped learning, reading and perfecting his skills as a trapper. During the depression his skills brought his family money when income was hard to find.
He had a way with animals and people, able to approach either and earn trust.
While people still trap, no one comes close to Korell’s level, especially when it comes to coyotes, said Lew Diehl, one of Korell’s friends. Few have his versatility. Many people specialize in foxes, or wolves. Korell trapped everything, bobcats to beavers, selling his furs to buyers that shipped them to China, Russia and Greece.
His work earned him a spot in the National Trappers Hall of Fame in 1993. He also helped furnish the Wind River Heritage Center, which he helped found, with a collection of traps and mounts of pine martens, black bears and wolverines.
But Korell’s favorite animals to ensnare were always coyotes. In a normal year he caught about 200 coyotes.
“He lived to kill coyotes,” his son Gerald Korell said.
Coyotes are smart. Korell liked the challenge. He’d put himself in the animal’s head, looking at terrain as though he was a coyote, deciding where the animal would step. He almost always caught the front foot and often could predict which limb he’d snag.
“The way he trapped — it’s an art,” Gerald Korell said.
Ranchers hired Korell for predator control.
One summer, almost 10 years ago, the coyotes were especially bad in the Green Mountain area where sheep graze. Korell trapped 360 coyotes that summer, Diehl said. Ranchers who’d lost 300 sheep the summer before lost only about 30 when Korell was done.
The room was full at the Fremont Center at the Fremont County Fairgrounds on March 12 for Korell’s Memorial Service. While many people Korell’s age have small services because their peers have passed away, hundreds of various ages came to Korell’s.
“He kept making friends his whole life,” Gerald Korell said.
Kyle Lehto was a young teen when he first met Korell at the 1838 Rendezvous, an annual event in Riverton dedicated to honoring Wyoming’s mountain men and early settlers.
“He had a lady on each arm and a bottle of tequila, and they were trying to see who could get to the worm first,” Lehto said of that first meeting almost 20 years ago.
Korell always had a joke to tell, but people who knew him knew him well enough to not tangle with him, Lehto said.
When Korell was 95 two people tried to mug him. Korell punched one, knocking him out, before proceeding into the store to shop as planned.
Korell was at every Rendezvous, one of the rare participants who actually lived the lifestyle, Lehto said. He’d regale anyone who’d listen — and there was never a shortage of volunteers — with his stories of trapping. He’d also freeze beaver he’d trap in the winter and offer skinning demonstrations and tips on trapping. He was eager to inspire the next generation of trappers, Gerald Korell said. His father probably introduced at least 100 people to the trade.
Korell truly loved animals. Even though he made a career or trapping and killing them, he had a kinship and understanding with them, Lehto said.
“They weren’t just a commodity or thing,” Lehto said. “They were a living being and he really respected them.”
He called it his “Avon collection.” The lures — or scents to entice animals — he made himself were trade secrets, although after he died it was confirmed one key ingredient was afterbirth from his son’s mare’s foals.
Korell was meticulous and gifted in all aspects of trapping, including the skinning, drying and stretching of furs. Many trappers struggle with animals, like bobcats. The furs are sold by length, so a trapper wants to maximize the inches, but too often people over-stretch and the fur loses its integrity. Not Korell. He was a master, Gerald Korell said.
Korell cut two incisions on animal on the hind legs and wouldn’t make another until the front legs so the fur stayed pristine. Many trapper use a knife to remove the fur, Korell pulled it off by hand, a physical demanding task that kept the pelts free of knife punctures.
He hand-stitched any holes he found in the hide.
Korell and his son went into business buying furs and carcasses. Some years during that time they’d skin and hang up to 1,500 coyote furs, all by hand. Korell also had careers raising cattle, breeding quarter horses and outfitting, as well as owning a taxidermy business, while always continuing to trap, the one type of work he loved too much to give up.
About three months ago, Korell’s heart started bothering him. He still drove. He lived alone and turned down offers to regularly eat dinner at his son’s house, shopping and preparing meals for himself.
But he began to talk of retiring — maybe next year, he said. Or maybe he’d trap only along the river and fully retire when he turned 100.
His doctor recommended he start taking Cumadin to help with his heart. But he wanted to finish out the trapping season. If he fell or cut himself, the medication, which causes the blood to take longer to clot, could make even a small injury serious.
So Korell pushed on through the trapping season, a little slower, a little short of breath, but still working at 98 years old.
Korell taught his son many things — the importance of family and honesty and how to ride and train a horse.
“When you are in a storm, never quit the horse, ride him to the end,” Gerald Korell said his father told him.
That was how Korell broke a horse, and also lived his life.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at [email protected]
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