The sport of trapping isn’t as prevalent as it was in pioneer days when people depended on wild animals to put food on the table and to keep them warm during the harsh winters of the northern states. However, it is enjoying a comeback, especially here in the northeast and Canada.
The faces of the sport are changing, too. No longer is the image of the trapper that of mountain men like history’s Grizzly Adams, but rather of ordinary folks who are looking to connect with nature and make a couple bucks doing it. A prime example is Jeff Stanton and his son Toren, who trap the St. Joe River bottom here in southern Michigan.
So, why does Jeff, a three-time SuperCross champion and three-time Outdoor National Champion on the Motorcross Circuit, retire from this lifestyle to traipse around woodlands in the middle of winter?
“For me, it’s about being outside and close to nature. This is where I’m in my element and it’s something Toren and I get to do together,” Jeff says.
Toren agrees. “It’s fun and a lot of my friends are into trapping too.”
Trapping is officially described as “the capturing and harvesting of animals.” While some animal activists purport trapping as animal cruelty, it is actually an important wildlife management tool that helps nature's checks and balances, much in the same way that hunting and fishing do. With animals losing more of their natural habitats, they are encroaching on suburbia and bringing threats to public health and safety issues.
“It’s all about population control,” Jeff says. “I knew it was out of control when I started seeing more coons than deer during hunting season.”
The trapping season itself is very short, with the prime season running from November until the first of January. At the ripe age of 15 and now a seasoned trapper himself since he’s been going with Dad since he was 5 years old, Toren says, “The colder the temperature, the better the quality of the fur because the hides are thicker.”
The duo traps raccoon, muskrats, mink, beaver, fox and coyote. Of all these, what is the most profitable? Quantity-wise it would have to be raccoons with the pair harvesting 258 this year. Their hides command a price between $15 and $35, depending on the quality. Besides thickness, quality depends on length with ratings from large through quadruple.
Dollar for dollar, mink is probably the best bet, but they are also in shorter supply. Jeff says, “Just like anything else, the fur market depends on supply and demand and what the buyers want. There are huge fur auctions in Canada during January and February with buyers coming from all over the world.”
Up until two years ago, Jeff and Toren sold their whole carcasses to a middle man who would basically buy them at a lower price, skin them out and then resell them for a much higher price. Then they decided they could “skin and flesh” the animals themselves.
The process is relatively simple. First they built a shed and equipped it with a woodburner for drying the pelts. After they pull the skins off the animals they have to be “fleshed,” which is putting the skin on a board with the fur side facing the board. Then a fleshing knife is used to scrape as much fat off the skins as possible. After that, the skins are put on stretchers (again, with the fur side inside) and tacked to keep them taut while the blood residue and the rest of the fat dries. This process usually takes one to two days.
The best thing about this process is that it is all just a matter of manual labor, there are no chemicals involved. Muskrats are probably the easiest to do because they have very little fat, whereas minks are their least favorite to work. Toren has a simple explanation: “They stink!”
After the furs are dried, they are ready to be tanned. Tanning is the process of removing the rest of the blood and finishing the furs to make them softer and ready to be cut and made into various clothing. An interesting tidbit here, the oil in an animal’s brain provides a natural tanning method and each animal’s brain is just large enough to tan its own hide. As of yet, the tanning bug hasn’t hit Jeff and Toren. They still prefer to leave that to others.
At the end of the season they sell their hides to the North American Fur Traders Association in Canada. The association travels twice a year on a circuit, going from destination to destination and staying at each location just long enough to buy the furs.
Jeff admits that the best part of trapping isn’t about the money, but rather being out in the woods and seeing what you get each day. Each state has different trapping rules and regulations, but here in Michigan it is required that trappers check their sets at least every 1 1/2 days. Jeff and Toren check theirs daily.
There are as many different kinds of traps as there are animals they trap, but they fall into two basic categories. The conibear trap consists of two metal rectangles hinged together midway on the long side to open and close like scissors. One jaw has a trigger that can be baited. The opposite jaw has a catch or “dog” that holds the trap open. They are designed to snap shut on an animal’s neck, killing instantly. They are used both under water for beaver and muskrat and on land for opossums and raccoons.
The other basic kind of trap is a leg hole. These are the kind that are referred to as dog-proof because they are designed to let a dog pull his paw out if he accidentally gets in the trap. Raccoons on the other hand, because of their grasping nature, will cause the trap to close tight and hold them.
For Jeff and Toren, trapping is a sport they both enjoy and it gives them a few extra bucks to boot. They both enjoy this relationship to nature and a link to the land. So, how long do they plan on pursuing this endeavor? They both agree, “As long as it’s fun. When it’s not, we’ll try something else. That’s what life is all about.”