Not too many years ago fur trapping was on the endangered species list, due to a couple of factors: the declining price of pelts, and pressure from PETA and other animal-rights activists.
Now, it's enjoying a comeback, again for a couple of reasons: the price of fur has risen, and there is a growing backlash against radical PETA-type propaganda.
"The number of trappers has grown in recent years," says Lebanon's Clarence Dies, an official with the Tennessee Fur Harvesters Association. "What's most encouraging is seeing more and more youngsters are getting involved."
Starting with the opening of trapping season on Nov. 22 and going through its close on Feb. 28, Clarence runs a trapline on the Cumberland River and some of its feeder streams and sloughs.
His harvest so far this season: one otter, two muskrats, four possums (what Clarence calls "grinners"), one red fox, one coyote, 20 beaver and 70 raccoons. In the past he's also caught bobcats and minks.
Pelt prices vary according to size and quality, but the average is about $10 for muskrat, $2.50 for possum, $20 for coyote, $50 for red fox, $30 for gray fox, $40 for otter, $20 for beaver, $15 for raccoon, and $95 for bobcat.
A fur sale is scheduled in Crossville on March 1 and in Morristown on March 8, but Clarence plans to ship his pelts to Canada this year in hopes of getting a better price.
Trapping requires permission from the land-owner, and all traps must be tagged with the trapper's name. There are restrictions on what kind of traps (leg-hold, for example) can be set in specific locations on land and water.
Technology has developed more humane types of traps, including instant-kill traps and an innovative, pet-proof raccoon trap in which the animal inserts a paw into a tube and becomes caught.
Most farmers welcome trappers because they thin out populations of nuisance animals.
"Imagine," says Clarence, "how many ears of corn 70 coons could eat. They can wipe out a field of sweet-corn almost overnight."
Beavers, likewise, have become a growing problem in many areas. They gnaw down trees and flood low-lying farmland. At the famous Civil War site of Carnton, beavers flooded a bottomland and damaged a number of historical buildings.
In urban areas animals such as raccoons, possums, skunks and coyotes are thriving --- and causing problems. Urban trapping -- "wild animal control" -- is a growing business.
Catching garbage-raiding backyard raccoons is not the same as exploring wilderness rivers as the early trappers did, Clarence admits, "but the skills are the same. The challenge is to out-smart the critters you're trying to catch."
While the price ice of fur has climbed in recent years, due to a growing foreign demand, Clarence says nobody gets rich trapping.
"When you figure the time it takes to set your traps, run the trapline, haul out your catch, skin the animals and prepare the hides, it wouldn't be minimum wage."
But, he adds, "That's not why we trap. We don't do it for the money, but for the enjoyment and the connection to a past era. It's a connection that I was afraid we were going to lose, but now it looks like trapping will survive, at least for another generation."