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Fur trapping is an enduring tradition
Jan 17, 2013 12:00 am
Fur trappers are a vanishing breed, vestiges from a frontier era trapped – pun intended – in a space age.
But even though their ranks are thinning, in the U.S. an estimated 150,000 professional fur trappers continue to pursue the trade.
One of them is Lebanon’s Clarence Dies.
“I don’t know about the ‘professional’ part,” Dies says with a laugh. “I make a little money, but I’d hate to calculate what it amounts to in dollars per hour. It sure wouldn’t be minimum wage.”
Dies runs his trapline along tributaries of the Cumberland River in northern Wilson County. This season’s catch of critters includes beaver, raccoons, muskrats, possums (what Clarence calls “grinners”) and even a couple of bobcats and an otter.
Skinning, fleshing and stretching a pelt is time-consuming – one beaver can take three hours. That’s in addition to running the trapline, keeping traps set and baited, and toting home the catch for skinning. And it’s all done in freezing temperatures and icy water.
“I enjoy all aspects of the outdoors, and old-fashioned things like fur trapping and primitive hunting especially appeal to me,” says Dies who is noted for his home-made buckskin clothing and 18th-century flintlock rifle.
“It me it’s a connection to our past, our frontier heritage. We’re in danger of losing that connection. I want to preserve it as long as possible.”
Dies began trapping in 1983 when he lost his father and was laid off from work.
“I was moping around and found a couple of old traps and decided to give it a try, mostly just to take my mind off things,” he says. “I’ve been at it ever since.”
Trapping is a craft. The trapper must study the habitat and habits of his quarry and know how to lure specific animals into specific sets. Beaver, for example, are attracted to a scent known as “castor” excreted from the animals’ musk glands. Dies extracts the castor glands from each animal he traps and uses the scent to lure other beavers. Traps are set under water, with a castor-dipped stick stuck in the bank to entice the animals.
Trapping is carefully regulated in Tennessee. The season runs Nov. 18-Feb. 28. Fur-bearers include bobcat, fox, mink, muskrat, opossum, raccoon, skunk, weasels and otters. Beaver and coyotes also are popular with trappers, and the season on them is open year-round, although the pelts are prime only during winter months.
A trapping license is required, and each trap must carry the trapper’s ID. Traps must be inspected every 36 hours, and there are restrictions about where they can be set.
Dies is a member of the Tennessee Fur Trappers Association. At the conclusion of each season he and his fellow trappers bring their pelts to a sale in Crossville.
Prices vary according to the quality and type of fur – from $1.50 for an average possum pelt to $100 or more for a prime otter.
Many of the pelts are sold on the world market; some of the fur Dies harvests in Wilson County may end up on Russian coats and hats.
“It’s interesting and it’s challenging but its hard work,” Dies says. “When I’m half-froze and trying to skin some tough old critter I wonder if worth it. Then, after I rest up and thaw out, I realize how much I enjoyed it. And right back I go.”