I’m not sure what causes a grown man to try something completely new. Perhaps it’s a chance to feel young again, optimistic and green. Maybe it’s the joy of discovery, or the excitement of exploring a new world. I did just that when I became a first-year fur trapper at the age of 34.
The idea of fur trapping always appealed to me when I was a kid. I would read stories in Fur-Fish-Game of Alaskan trappers and dream of wild lonely places, adventure and riches. However, growing up on the outskirts of St. Louis didn’t provide an environment conducive to those dreams. I thought that learning to trap would be expensive and complicated, and I had questions about the humaneness of the sport.
I began my voyage into the world of fur trapping in 2003 when I signed up for a class called Trapping in Today’s World sponsored by the Conservation Department.
As an agriculture teacher, I attend in-service activities to learn new material for the conservation class I teach in Camdenton. The trapping class was held during the National Trappers Convention in Columbia. I watched demonstrations, visited with vendors, took notes and asked a lot of questions. I left the convention with three traps, a second-hand fleshing beam, some castor lure and high hopes.
During my first trapping season, there was a lot to learn. Whether you’re a would-be trapper, or merely curious, I hope my experiences help you to better understand the world of fur trapping.
Big work, little pay
My dream of easy riches quickly faded in my first season of trapping. Dragging a sled with 30 pounds of equipment and a 45-pound beaver reminded me more of football practice than a leisure activity.
Everything about trapping seemed like work at first, walking a creek in waders, climbing up and down river banks, making sets. It was a great way to stay in shape and shed a few of those holiday pounds.
The first time I sold my furs I was paid $9 for each beaver pelt. It was more than a little discouraging after spending so many hours trapping, hauling, skinning, scraping and stretching them. I had to remind myself that I was not only richer, but also happier and healthier for the experience. Later, I was able to sell beaver pelts for substantially more money as I gained experience and skill.
A global enterprise
I was fascinated by how much of the fur market had nothing to do with Missouri or even the United States. I never thought about how the Russian winter or the economy in Greece would affect prices for Missouri furs.
Fur was one of the main reasons for the exploration of our continent, if not the globe. Prior to synthetic materials, fur was the best way for people to keep warm. In some parts of the world, it still is. I liked the idea that my furs could end up anywhere—Chinese soldiers might be wearing the otter fur that I caught in Missouri.
There is also a downside to a global fur market. Just as in the early 1800s when silk displaced fur in the hat trade, causing the fur market to crash, today’s fashions are just as fickle. One season furs will be valuable, the next season they won’t. There aren’t any uncharted fur fields anymore but the fur trade is as global in scope as it ever was.
I found this to be one of the most difficult but rewarding aspects of trapping. Most trappers today sell their fur “green” or still frozen to buyers. Furs are sold this way because fleshing and drying hides can be time consuming and labor intensive. Also, if done improperly it can devalue your furs.
Fur handling is fast becoming a lost art, and I take a lot of pride in having learned to do it well. The first beaver pelts I processed took me four hours and rubbed blisters on my hands. For all that, I still managed to cut several holes in them. After several hides, I got the hang of it and it helped me sell my pelts for higher prices. As I gained skill, I actually became more interested in how my furs graded than the price I received for them.
There is something primitive and appealing in stretching and preserving hides for the fur trade. It allowed me to develop an ancient skill and connect with the past in a way that a trip to a museum never could.
Understanding animal behavior
Although I have hunted and fished for years, I have never connected with nature as I have with fur trapping. To be successful, you must study the animals’ habits and habitats closely.
Trapping forced me to get down in the water and examine every square foot of riverbank for tracks, scat or other sign. Sometimes a small stick or a clump of grass would determine where an animal was going to place its foot or stick its head.
I was amazed at how many furbearers roamed the woods at night. These animals are rarely seen by people, except perhaps a fleeting glimpse in passing headlights. Missouri furbearers are much more abundant than most people realize.
At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about capturing animals for their fur. When I hunt, I always try for the quickest, most humane kill possible. I was impressed to learn that modern traps have improved designs to enhance animal welfare.
Some traps today have padded rubber jaws, others have jaws that are extra wide or do not close completely to allow a looser grip and better circulation. Some modern traps kill the animal quickly by striking it behind the head, much like a giant mousetrap. It is in the interest of the trapper to cause the least amount of stress and pain to the captured animal. Any excess stress caused to the animal will lower the quality of the pelt and affect the price the trapper receives for the fur.
Trappers strive to dispatch animals as quickly and painlessly as possible. I have learned firsthand that trapping can be done humanely.
Beavers are brutes
guess it makes sense that a critter that eats trees for breakfast, lunch and dinner would be one of the toughest animals the woods. Beavers have no natural predators, and it is easy to see why. They are equipped with 3-inch-long chisel-sharp teeth on the business end of a stump-like body of solid muscle.
Making a beaver set often involves chopping wood, scooping mud and hammering stakes— all in ice-cold water. Furthermore, the traps used for beavers are big, heavy and powerful. Even carrying a beaver out of the woods is tough. The biggest beaver I caught my first year was 53 pounds. I suggest that a beginner start with muskrat or raccoon trapping and graduate to beavers if you want more of a challenge.
Few young trappers
Through the Missouri Trappers Association, I met men with names like “Griz” and “Bug.” They seemed every bit as tough and colorful as the mountain men who settled the West must have been. Apparently, it takes something serious to keep these guys from trapping. They are also serious about helping kids.
A fur buyer in Lebanon offered to buy my students’ furs at a premium, in spite of market conditions, just to encourage them to trap. At an MTA auction an auctioneer appealed to the buyers to raise their bids when he realized my kids were involved in the project. Afterward, I joked with my children that we were starting the Kitchen Fur Company. They took me literally and believed we had begun a real business with real profits. From that day on we checked traps together and split the “profits” three ways.
It has been six years since my first trapping season. Each year I have learned more about trapping and more about Missouri furbearers. I now tan hides, and I have added to my trap line. I teach an extensive trapping unit as part of my conservation class each year.
One might wonder after reading this why anyone would choose to trap. Fur trapping is a unique sport that results in harvesting a commercially valuable renewable resource from nature. Though it’s not likely you’ll be able to make a living off the land in this way, it can add a little income and a lot of enjoyment to your outdoor adventures.
If you do decide to try fur trapping, learn as much as possible before you ever set your first trap. Use modern equipment, ethical practices and humane techniques. Add a different dimension to your outdoor experience, and don’t forget to bring a kid along!
For More Information
Learn more about trapping through the Department’s Web site or the Missouri Trappers Association through the links listed below.