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Rob F. Sanderson

Fur For Fun 'er Fortune

           Whenever trapping is mentioned in sporting circles, the common association is with Daniel Boone or the Hudson Bay Company one or two hundred years ago when Indians and half-breeds roamed the country in birch bark canoes with their eyes glinting for beaver hides. Few sportsman realize that today, trapping is economically the most important outdoor sport in America, the proceeds of annual American fur sales far surpassing all amounts spent for any hunting or fishing equipment, outfitters or resort fees, fishing boat charters, or other incidental expenditures. Yet trapping, the most historic and romantic of all sports, the industry that blazed the way across the continent for American civilization to follow, received very slight publicity or mention in most sporting circles. I have frequently wondered why more American sportsmen did not include a trapping trip in their yearly calendar.

           It is the only sport I know of that will bring the ordinary man more money than he pays out for expenses. Instead of saving all the rest of the year for your fall hunting or spring fishing trip, why not try trapping and bring home enough fur to pay for all your expenses, buy a new gun or new camera, and give your wife a fur choker beside? Professional trappers who operate in good fur sections expect fifty dollars of fur each day during the first month of the season, and while the part time trapper- sportsman could hardly duplicate this amount without a great deal of experience, there is no reason why he cannot net a tidy sum.

           This is true of all sections of the country, for trapping, unlike salmon fishing or moose hunting, is not a sectional sport. You cannot name a section of the country outside of very local areas that have not enough fur for a good trapper to make a living in, let alone enough fur for a short vacation outing. Mink, muskrat, and coon are found wherever there are lakes or streams. Fox range from the red fox of the north to the gray fox of the south and the kit fox of the west. Skunk are found in every state, as well as weasel. Then there are a few more specialized animals, such as the opossum of the south, or the otter and beaver of the unsettled regions.

           An important advantage that the trapper has over the other, crowded sports is the long season. Fur seasons commonly begin in November and run through March. In some states seasons for various animals are open all year round, though of course the fur is only of value during the colder months. As different animals prime up at different times of the year, trapping activities can be adjusted to the current prime fur. Animals such as skunk are prime in latter October in the northern states, and muskrat furs are best in the spring, as late as the month of May. A prime fur is the well-furred, pinkish colored skin that replaces the summer thinly furred bluish colored pelt.

           While some furbearers hibernate during the winter months, coming out during the warmer thaws only, most of the valuable animals including the fox and mink, are abroad all winter long regardless of weather conditions, and the alert trapper knows exactly where the animals are running because of their tracks in the snow. When the weather gets colder than twenty above, raccoon, opossum and skunk remain in their dens in the ground or in hollow trees, and even in warmer weather my refuse to stir if there is much snow on the ground. The best trapping for these animals is in the early fall, and later on the trapper can concentrate on the other non-hibernating furs. Muskrat and beaver, being water animals, must be trapped either before the freeze up, or after the spring breakup. All winter long they remain under the ice, living in houses, which protrude above the ice, or in bank burrows with underwater entrances, and feeding on sub aqueous vegetation.

           Contrary to popular opinion, the remaining furbearers are not found only in the northern or wilderness states, such as northern Maine or Minnesota. Farming states like Illinois or Ohio produce large numbers of pelts each year, and Pennsylvania is one of the leaders. In the south, the river bottoms, pine wastelands, and cypress swamps abound with water and land fur animals. Due to the fact that most furbearers run only at night the average resident is little aware of the ready cash in furs that abounds in his locality until mother skunk takes up an abode under his barn.

           In almost every vicinity there are certain of the common furbearers in fairly plentiful numbers. True, you will not find beaver and otter in the farming country of Illinois, but in sections where the only cover consists of grown up ravines or washes, fence rows, and small patches of side hill woods or brush, the experienced sign hunter will find traces of skunk, opossum, weasel, raccoon and an occasional badger sign. Not only these animals, but now the red fox is moving back into settled country, which he has been absent from for years. In the last several years Iowa and Illinois have had a plague of red foxes and persons of little experience trapping have been catching thirty or more a season. During the daytime they bed down in swale grass or small brush patches, having no regular dens and roving throughout the night to prey on rabbits and rodents.

           Any creek flowing through farming country contains muskrats, especially if a cornfield borders the stream, and any stream with muskrats and a few sucker minnows is apt to have be traversed by mink.

           There is no reason why any person living in almost any section of the country cannot get his share of sport and profit in trapping, unless he lives in the most urbanized of communities. At that, urban communities have few trappers, and once the animals get a start are apt to lead a much more unmolested existence than in the wilder of the rural areas where there is usually someone who traps part time. Good catches of red fox have been reported within the actual city limits of Chicago

           The most common device for taking fur is the steal trap. These lie flat when set, until some animal steps on the pan, which releases the trigger so that a steel spring closes the jaws on the animal paw. If the trap is properly fastened, you catch will be there when you arrive. Contrary to popular opinion the animal does not suffer in the trap, for the paw soon becomes numb and loses feeling.

           For the common furbearers, most trappers use a number one trap, costing approximately two dollars a dozen. This size does very well for skunk, civet, weasel, muskrat, and small mink. The number one and a half is used for large mink, small coon and similar sized animals. For large coon, fox, or badger, the number two, a double spring trap, is used, and for otter, beaver, wolf, wolverines, or other large animals, size three or four is the best. Bear traps are number five and six, and are so powerful they cannot be set without trap clamps

           The trapper sets out with a couple dozen traps and a small belt axe. If he is trapping on land, he will follow along over grown fencerows, ravines, patches of woodlot, and other cover or wasteland. Here and there he will spy animal tracks in the soft dirt, or droppings, which are generally filled with insect shells, fur, or other food remains. From the tracks or droppings he can tell what animal has been there during the night, and make a set accordingly. If it is skunk or other strong bait, placed about eight inches from the set trap in such a way that the animal must step on the trap pan. Either stake the trap chain solidly by driving in a forked stake with the axe, or staple it to a sapling pole ten feet long laid alongside the set. To kill the trapped animal, walk slowly toward it through the back, or through the head. If you succeed in breaking the spinal column you can kill the animal without its scenting, but otherwise it is likely to discharge foul smelling fluid from the glands beneath the tail. Should you get any of the odor on your hands, clothes, or equipment, a bath of gasoline, turpentine, or strong vinegar, followed by a thorough airing, will remove all traces of the odor

           Sets for other small land animals are made the same way as sets for skunk. If a den is found, you will be able to tell whether or not it is occupied from the amount of dung, tracks, and pulled grass. Select the entrance most used to set your trap, placing the trap just inside the den with the jaws parallel to the animalís path line of travel. Cover lightly with fine grass or leaves, just enough to camouflage the outline of the trap.

           Large animals, such as the fox or coon, are more difficult to trap because they are more sly, besides having more uncertain habits and a wider range. In fox trapping the gloves should be worn which have been buried for some time in leaf mold, and traps should be treated the same way. Trail sets are usually more successful for the amateur, with the trail set are usually more successful for the amateur. Dig a hole where you wish to set, just deep enough so that the trap jaws will be level with the surrounding ground surface. Drive a stake through the ring, and place the trap bed. Then cover carefully with leaves, fine grass, loose soil, or other material that matches the environment. When using soil as a cover, place a wad of wool or loose grass under the pan to keep it from plugging, or else place a leaf of waxed paper across the jaws to hold the soil level.

           Trapping for water animals is somewhat different. Here the traps are set underneath the water, which eliminates all human odor. The trapper follows along a creek or small river until he finds a den in the bank, animal tracks in the mud, or partly eaten food, and at these places he makes his sets. On larger streams, rubber boots are worn to reach set locations that are accessible by foot. A light boat is advisable on a navigable river or a lake.

           Muskrats are the easiest to trap. They live in the low dome-shaped dens built up a foot and a half above water level, with underwater entrances, or in bank dens with underwater tunnels leading in and upward. Traps set at a frequently used den entrance are sure of a catch, and as muskrat live in ground six feet deep, or more, the trapper will get a rat each night until the den is cleaned out. Other sets can be made where they pile up clamshells along the edge of the water, or gather roots together into a feed bed. Sometimes dung can be seen on floating logs or fallen tree trunks sloping into the water. Remember to stake the trap chain as far as possible into deep water so that the catch will drown. Never set a trap where the rat cannot get into water ten inches deep.

           Coon, mink, and otter all run along the edge of streams. By following their tracks in the mud or sand, the trapper can find where an obstruction forces the animal into deep water. Put a trap here right alongside of the obstruction and it will take the first critter that happens along. A fish bait can often be thrown back under some tree roots and a trap or two set in the water in front, making one of the most effective bait sets. After the freeze up in the North, traps must either be set in non-freezing spring holes or sets made on the ice or bank in the same manner as regular land sets.

           The main secret of trapping is to learn the habits of animals, where they are likely to travel, what they eat, and how they step. By following their trails after a rain or a soft snow, you can learn much that will serve you to advantage if you do very much trapping. Often when following the trail of an animal in the snow you will find where he has denned up in a hole or tree. Then all you need to do is to set a trap at the entrance, plug any other entrances up, and come back the next morning

           To remove the pelt, make a slit inside the rear legs, straight across from paw to paw. Work the skin loose, being careful that too much fat or flesh does not stick to it. Slit down the tail, take the tailbone out, and pull the pelt off the head of the animal in the same way you take a slip on sweater off. Pull the removed skin over a thin board tapering toward the head, stretched firmly so that it will not shrink in drying. Tack the tail and legs to hold them in place, and put the stretcher in a cool place for the skin to dry. As soon as the skin is dried firmly enough to hold its own shape, remove and hang it up in the coldest place available.

           If you want your share of fun and fur next fall, buy several dozen traps and make your vacation pay you a salary. If you have a fur choker made up for your wife, it wonít make any difference how much you leave your guns or boots around from then on. And beside your fun and fortune fur trapping, youíll be increasing the number of little quail, ducks and rabbits that grow up to be big ones that are shot during hunting season, and your hunting grounds will show you more game for less hunting.

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob