Old-fashioned challenges lure modern trappers

Larry Woody • Jan 3, 2017 at 9:30 AM

Pardon the pun, but Lebanon's Clarence Dies admits he is trapped in the past.

Clarence is among the ranks of professional fur trappers in Tennessee and across the country striving to keep an 18th-century enterprise alive in the 21st century.

"I like the challenge, being outdoors, everything about it," he says. "I started trapping several years ago and the more I do it the more I enjoy it."

He adds with a laugh:

"Of course, every year it seems to get harder. The water seems colder and those big old beavers get heavier to carry out and harder to skin. It's about to turn into work."

Nevertheless, on Nov. 18, opening day of Tennessee's trapping season, Clarence began stringing his trapline along sloughs on the Cumberland River and on some adjacent land on which he has permission -- and even requests from landowners -- to trap.

Trapping season runs through Feb. 28. Shortly afterwards, trappers will carry their pelts to sales in Crossville and other sites, just as frontiersmen did 200 years ago, to sell their fur, renew old friendships and swap trapline yarns.

"You don't make a lot," says Clarence, a member of the Tennessee Fur Harvesters Association, of which his wife Laura is an official. "But we don't do it for the money. I'd hate to think what I make per hour if I counted up the time spent setting traps, checking traps, carrying out the critters, skinning them and stretching and scraping pelts."

Skinning a beaver, then stretching and fleshing the pelt, can take two or three hours. Depending on the quality of the fur and fluctuating market prices determined by finicky fashion trends, a prime beaver pelt might bring about $25.

Beavers, once rare in the state, in recent years have become so abundant that they are a major nuisance in many areas. They fell trees and dam streams, causing flooding over roadways and damaging crops in low-lying areas.

Clarence trapped beavers on one Trousdale County farm as a favor to the farmer as much as for the pelts. He did a similar favor to thin out some resident raccoons; raiding raccoons can devastate a field of sweet corn overnight.

The price of a raccoon pelt, like that of a beaver, varies widely depending on size, condition and the annual market. Overall, however, their value has declined; a prime raccoon pelt once worth $25 now brings $5-$10.

Other fur-bearers Clarence traps include otters, minks, muskrats, skunks, possums, foxes, bobcats and coyotes. A winter coyote pelt is worth $10-$15. The most valuable pelt is that of an otter, which can bring as much as $100.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency regulates trapping, establishing the seasons and enforces regulations about where and how traps can be set and how often they must be checked. The harvesting of some fur-bearers, such as otters, is monitored.

TWRA officials say trappers perform a valuable service by helping control nuisance animals. Coyotes, for example, are a growing problem, and in residential areas where it's unsafe to shoot they can safely be trapped.

A growing number of professional trappers operate in urban areas, trapping nuisance animals for their removal rather than for their pelts.

For Clarence and others of his kin, the icy lure of the trapline endures: harvesting fur just as early explorers and frontiersman did centuries ago. It's cold, hand-numbing, back-breaking work for minimum wage. And they love every minute of it.

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