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The hunt was on.

"Follow the trail," instructed Gregg Crawford, gesturing toward a path of fresh destruction created by his quarry.

All along a 50-foot arc on a soccer field at the A Place to Play complex on Santa Rosa's West Third Street lay bald scars, still-moist mounds of disturbed soil and areas of eaten-away grass and roots.

"This is atrocious. This irks me to no end," lamented Crawford, dressed to kill in thick, anciently stained tan Carhartts.

He said the damage to the youth sports facility's turf isn't merely ugly but poses a hazard to players who could trip or step into a hole while running full-out in pursuit of soccer balls.

"This," he said, still scanning the devastation to a sector of the field perhaps 50 feet by 40 feet, "is all one gopher."

Crawford wanted that gopher.

Were he the obsessed golf-course groundskeeper portrayed by Bill Murray in the 1980 comedy, "Caddyshack," he would have stuffed plastic explosives into the gopher holes or crouched behind a tree with a scoped big-game rifle.

Instead, Crawford wielded simple but specialized tools to clear surface-level soil plugs from gopher holes and to widen the holes to the ideal trapping diameter. Then he placed into a hole here and a hole there one of his customized steel-pronged traps.

"I have a technique that's second to none," said the 64-year-old Santa Rosa native and former sheetmetal worker as matter-of-factly as he stated the name of his post-retirement business, The Gopher Guy.

He explained that the herbivorous, big-toothed digger responsible for the damage to the soccer field keeps the entrances to its underground home closed. When a gopher perceives that an earthen plug has been removed from where a lateral tunnel meets the surface, its defenses flare and cause it to go investigate the breach.

This is the moment that Crawford intends to introduce the critter to the lethal trap he has placed a short distance into the hole, where the soil plug used to be.

While certain that all the damage in this one quadrant of the soccer field was the work of a single gopher, he pointed out that there was similar destruction throughout A Place to Play. Gophers were all over.

So, riding the four-wheeled motorcycle he hauls in the bed of his pickup, he unplugged about 60 holes and placed traps in them, then marked each location with a small, pink landscaper's flag.

"I try to set two traps per gopher," he said. He spent most of the morning crisscrossing the fields to check traps and remove dead gophers. By lunchtime he had collected 29.

Liability-conscious City Hall pays Crawford to control the rodents at A Place to Play. But observe him for even a few minutes and it becomes clear that what motivates him most is the thrill of the hunt.

The 1965 Santa Rosa High alum and veteran of the Army's Vietnam-tested 9th Infantry Division smiled while confessing, "I'm way too into this. It's so much fun, and usually I'm done by noon."

Crawford cared nothing about gophers or the erosion and other damage they inflict on gardens, vineyards, lawns and other cultivated landscapes until one started digging in his Ricon Valley yard in 2000. He consulted with Jim Lang, a Sonoma County Master Gardener, then succeeded at trapping the animal.

A bit later, a neighbor sought the benefit of Crawford's newfound expertise. While trapping six or seven gophers in the neighbor's yard, he said, "I got hooked."

Over the past dozen years, Crawfprd has honed his knowledge of gophers and his technique for killing them in the least invasive, most humane and environmental way he can think of.

On his single biggest day, he caught 97 in seven hours at the Mendocino Coast's Point Arena High School.

The divorced father of three grown children charges homeowners $200 for his services, but he's just as happy for them to come to one of his workshops and learn for free how to trap gophers.

At Sonoma Mission Gardens in Sonoma Valley, manager Lydia Constantini said Crawford's gopher-control talks are so popular she often can't fit everyone into a single session. She tells people he's so passionate and entertaining that they should come hear him even if no gophers have tunneled their way into their lives.

"We've really gleaned a lot of information from him," Constantini said. "I think he takes it as a personal insult if he doesn't catch the gopher or the vole that he's after."

Though the trapper will admit he doesn't relish being eluded, he wouldn't for an instant fantasize about purging Sonoma County of gophers. What on Earth would the Gopher Guy do without them?

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