Of all Missouri’s wildlife-based activities, trapping is perhaps the least understood. Why would anyone wade in icy water to catch furry animals, then devote weeks to preparing hides, all for a few dollars per pelt?
The reasons people trap are as varied as trappers themselves.
Missouri’s more than 11,000 trappers include farmers, schoolteachers, doctors, veterinarians, preachers, businessmen, and homemakers. Some are lured by direct, intimate engagement with nature. Others love the challenge of matching human wits against furbearers’ keen survival instincts. For a few, trapping is part of full-immersion outdoor careers that blend hunting, fishing, guiding, foraging for botanicals such as ginseng, and other traditional skills. Trapping during Christmas break has provided much-needed cash for more than a few college students.
The practical reasons for trapping extend beyond personal rewards. Trappers provide a vital check on furbearer populations that otherwise would become too numerous, leading to die-offs from distemper and other diseases. Trapping is the only economical way of dealing with the problems that arise when fur-bearing animals become nuisances. Ranchers who lose livestock to coyotes, homeowners whose attics are invaded by raccoons, and farmers whose fields are inundated by overambitious beavers all benefit from the services of trappers.
Trapping doesn’t merely prevent economic losses, though. During the 2012–2013 trapping season, Missouri trappers brought in pelts worth approximately $3 million. The Conservation Department monitors annual harvest figures to ensure that the activity remains sustainable.
The activity may temporarily become more profitable when furbearer numbers surge, but abundance inevitably drives down pelt value. The less furs are worth, the fewer the trappers willing to invest the time and money needed to harvest them.
Let’s meet a few Missourians who love trapping for fun and profit.
Conibears and Rhinestones
Leslie Bruner-Thresher doesn’t fit the mold of the weathered, wiry, middle-aged, male trapper. Her trapping jeans are adorned with rhinestones. So are her fashionable sunglasses.
She’s got a 10,000-watt smile that alternates with expressions of intense concentration as she checks and resets traps.
She beams when she hoists a No. 330 Conibear (a body gripper-type trap) holding a hefty beaver out of a ditch up onto the bank. That’s no small feat for someone who stands about 5-foot-nothing. Did I mention that Leslie is a middle school PE teacher and makeup sales rep? Not your typical trapper by a long shot.
Leslie’s interest in trapping started in a deer stand. She had always wanted to shoot a bobcat and have it mounted, but she never got the chance. One day a friend suggested that trapping might be a shortcut to the taxidermist.
Bobcats remained elusive, so she branched out. Beavers, which plug up drainage ditches, pose a perennial problem for farmers around her Mississippi County home. Conservation Department Wildlife Damage was off and running with husband, Brent, and their son, Lawson, in tow.
Lawson is learning the trade alongside his mom and loves to go with her when she runs her trap line after school. Brent doesn’t trap, but he often accompanies the dynamic trapping duo on outings.
Leslie ended her first trapping season with 39 beavers, one muskrat, three raccoons, one coyote, and five opossums.
Lawson’s tally included three raccoons and two opossums. The last time I saw them was at a fur-tanning workshop at the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center. When she finally bags her bobcat, Leslie will be ready to turn it into a décor item.
Full-Bore Trapping: The Perfume Connection
Tim Reed has been trapping for 33 of his 48 years, thanks to an uncle who introduced him to the pursuit. When Tim got married, he realized he needed to get serious about a career that would produce a reliable, substantial income. He was good at trapping and loved it, so that’s the direction his career took. Today, trapping accounts for about three-quarters of his annual income.
Tim begins trapping in Iowa early in the fall, then moves south when Missouri’s 4.5-month trapping season opens. When trapping season ends here, he moves south to Tennessee and Arkansas, where beaver dams cause flooding on roads and cropland.
Tim reaps a further bonus that some less-experienced trappers neglect. When he skins a beaver, he also removes the animal’s castor gland. This sac contains an oily substance that beavers use to scent-mark their territories.
When dried, castor glands are worth an average of $7, adding substantially to a trapper’s profit margin. Buyers in turn sell the glands to perfume manufacturers in France and elsewhere. Castoreum derived from the glands is used in making many perfumes.
I met Tim at the Blanchette Landing Access on the Missouri River in St. Charles County around 8 a.m. on a clear mid-January day. Because the weather was supposed to turn bad that afternoon, Tim had only set 44 traps. We headed downriver, motoring into backwaters and tributary streams where he had sets. As the morning wore on, the front of the boat where I was perched quickly filled up. Tim skinned the beavers he caught to avoid overloading the boat. Even so, the seven beaver pelts and 17 raccoons he caught that day added 300 or 400 pounds to our load. I doubt he could have afforded to bring a passenger if he had been running 100 traps.
The depth of Tim’s knowledge of trapping and the animals he pursues was obvious. Walking across a seemingly featureless riverbank, he pointed out subtle signs of raccoon traffic, noted clues to beaver and river otter activity, and gave me a short course in furbearer behavior. One of the beaver lodges where he had traps looked abandoned. When I mentioned this, Tim pointed to a pile of little green twigs neatly stacked near the base of the lodge.
“That’s a food cache for when ice makes it hard to forage outside,” he said. “And do you see those two lines of bubbles leading away from the lodge under the ice? Those point right to the entrances.”
Sure enough, each of the Conibear 330 traps set on the runs had a young, 35-pound beaver in it.
Land Sets: Coyotes And Bobcats
Mark Wilcoxon was just 14 when he met a trapper while hunting squirrels in Wayne County. The man had a fox in a trap, and Mark got to watch how the grizzled veteran removed the prize from the trap without damaging its pelt. After visiting with the seasoned trapper, Mark was so intrigued that he set out to learn the trapper’s trade.
Mark is a dry-land trapper, pursuing mostly coyotes, bobcats, skunks, and foxes. His home area around Van Buren has lots of trapping opportunities, and he likes the challenge.
“Land trapping is like baseball,” he says philosophically. “You have to accept a lot of failure.”
Running a line of 80 to 100 traps scattered a quarter to half a mile apart along deeply rutted two-tracks in the middle of nowhere provides plenty of time for philosophizing. It also has given Mark a deep understanding of the behavioral quirks of some of Missouri’s cagiest animals.
Creating an effective land set requires skilled craftsmanship.
First Mark examines the area for natural travel corridors. He uses these to make walk-through sets to catch animals making their normal rounds. If no obvious paths exist, he creates a bait-hole set designed to lure an animal to the trap site.
With either set, he tries to take advantage of natural obstacles that force passing furbearers to take predictable steps. Where no such object is present, he creates one with “stepping sticks” pushed into the soil.
Next, he digs a hole and places bait, consisting of ground beaver meat mixed with bobcat scent gland, into the hole. In front of this hole, he removes leaves and other material to create a stable bed for the leg-hold trap. He covers the trap with peat moss and then a layer of dry grass. He carries these materials with him, since it might not be readily available at each trap site. Tree leaves are no good for this purpose. If leaves are captured with the target animal’s leg, their slick surfaces can permit the animal to slip its leg free. (Traps must be made of metal with smooth or rubber jaws only and must not be set in paths made or used by people or domestic animals.) fur from a previously trapped animal and dabs it with bobcat scent. He anchors this lure to the earth with a small nail to prevent mice or other small animals from dragging it away. Finally, he sprays the set with bobcat urine to pique the interest of any bobcat that happens along.
On an average day, Mark might bring home five or six pelts. If two or three are foxes and bobcats, it’s a paying proposition. And since the activity is its own reward, any cash it generates is a bonus.
The Craft: Fur Preparation
The real work of trapping has only begun once an animal is removed from a trap. To get an idea of what fur preparation involves, I spent some time with Clay Creech and Chris Chesher. Trapping is a natural fit for people who want to develop intimate knowledge of wildlife. Chris learned much of what he knows about trapping from Clay, who says he likes to trap alone but prefers to work with a partner when “working up” furs. One partner can skin carcasses and stretch hides while the other fleshes them.
Fur care begins the moment an animal is removed from the trap. To maximize time gathering furs, Clay freezes most of his catch and prepares the furs after the season closes or on days when trapping is impossible.
When done properly, fleshing removes all traces of muscle, fat, and gristle. This requires a curved, two-handled fleshing knife with a rounded fleshing board that holds the pelt. The dull side of the knife is used to scrape away fat and loose flesh, while the sharp edge is used to shave off muscle and gristle that are more tightly attached.
The area from the ears to the middle of the back is the most difficult part to flesh. The armpits and bellies are the most fragile areas, requiring a deft hand to avoid creating cuts or tears that decrease the pelt’s value. As he painstakingly trimmed the areas around the eyes, nose, and mouth of a raccoon pelt, Clay said, “There’s a lot of pride in taking a big load of fur that you benched yourself, from beginning to end, with all of them looking pretty, to auction.”
A skilled trapper can flesh about four raccoon hides in an hour. Asked what were the most hides he had ever fleshed at one time, Clay rolled his eyes as if the memory was painful and said, “I fleshed 45 coons in one day. That was a long day.”
After skinning, Clay freezes raccoon carcasses and sells them to a buyer from Mississippi, who sells them to clients for whom the meat is a delicacy. A buyer in St. Louis takes some of his beaver carcasses for the same purpose. Left-over meat becomes bait for traps. Beaver, otter, and raccoon skulls are sold to people who use them in hand-crafted décor items.
Trapping is both equipment- and labor-intensive. Clay has approximately 750 traps, including 400 small body-gripping traps for muskrat, 50 big body-gripping traps for beavers, 250 dog-proof traps for raccoons, and 50 or so leg-hold traps. These cost $10 and up, but they last forever if properly maintained. Leg-hold traps made in the 1930s are still in use.
How much would you give fur that?
During the 2012–2013 trapping season, pelt prices in Missouri ranged from $1.25 for opossum to $115.50 for bobcats. The average auction price for raccoon pelts — which made up approximately three-quarters of the harvest — was $20.79. Other highly valuable pelts included river otter ($85.53), red fox ($39.13), gray fox ($34.72), mink ($26.72 for male pelts), coyote ($22.26), and beaver ($21.72). These prices are relatively high compared to the long-term average, thanks in part to demand for fur in China. How many sectors of the United States’ economy do you know where exports outweigh imports from China?