View Full Version : All the trappings

18th January 2011, 07:00 PM
Trapper Andy Shoemaker with the coyote, muskrat, red fox, mink, badger, raccoon and otter he has trapped this season. Shoemaker places 75 foot traps for muskrats, beavers, badgers, mink and otter and another 20 to 30 snare traps for fox and coyote. By law, foot traps must be checked every day.

All the trappings

Maybe Andy Shoemaker was born a century late, but he still applies age-old skills to track and trap the "soft gold" of the forest.

In the original territory we now call Minnesota, there was once only one commercial industry: trapping. From about 1650 to 1850, a time known as the Fur Trade Era, fortunes were made by traders with such still-familiar names as Sibley, Le Sueur and Radisson. Native people, Ojibwe and Dakota, were paid for their pelts with the wonders, some would say curse, of modern-day Europe: copper kettles, knives and guns. The currency of those days, so-called soft gold, was animal pelts.

The end of the Fur Trade Era came rather abruptly when European fashionistas decided beaver skin hats, all the rage on the continent for decades, were suddenly so yesterday. Trapping has never been the same.

Today, by the whims of fashion and the swing of the mindset pendulum toward the rights, real or imagined, of our fur-bearing neighbors, animal pelts have lost their golden luster for all but a few. Those few numbered about 5,500 Minnesota trapping-license buyers in 2009, down from nearly 25,000 in 1980.

Andy Shoemaker, a police officer who lives in rural Stillwater, is one of the hard-core cadre of Minnesotans who still tromp through snow practicing the ancient art of catching fur-bearing animals. Shoemaker's fascination with animal tracks led him to the sport of trapping.

"I was wandering around the old Mariner High School in White Bear," Shoemaker recalled, "and I came across some tracks that I knew from my books were mink. I went home and told my dad I was going to catch a mink. He just laughed. But the very next day I had that mink."

By the time he was 9, Shoemaker had a neighborhood trap line and was catching 30 to 50 muskrats a season. He sold his pelts to Lee Schommer, a modern-day fur trader and taxidermist in Prescott, Wis., who has a habit of paying kids more than adults for the same pelts to encourage their trapping interest.

Today Shoemaker places 75 foot traps for muskrats, beavers, badgers, mink and otter and another 20 to 30 snare traps for fox and coyote. He lists his ability to read the lay of the land, his experienced understanding of the habits of various fur bearers and his powers of observation as keys to his success. "It's the old real estate maxim," Shoemaker said. "Trapping is all about location, location, location. Where is that coyote going to cross this fence?"

Shoemaker notes, despite the waning interest in trapping, the fur bearer populations are far better today than when he was a kid. For example, the DNR recently expanded trapping for otter to the entire state because their numbers are so high. Otter pelts must be inspected and tagged by the DNR to monitor their take.

The business of trapping

Trapping is not for the out-of-shape weekend sportsman. Shoemaker regularly walks several miles on snowshoes to check his line. By law, foot traps must be checked every day and underwater killer traps every three days. Then there is the laborious process of skinning and stretching the pelts. Fat must be scraped off in a process called fleshing.

"If you're trapping for the money, find another sport," Shoemaker said. "The payoff for me is seeing the remote places and the wonders of nature that most people don't get to experience."

Still, Shoemaker admits he paid his college tuition with trapping income. Less ardent trappers might make enough in a season to pay for their family's Christmas presents.

The income end of the trapping equation comes in December, February and May when auctions are conducted at fur exchanges in Seattle and Canada. Professional graders at those exchanges sort the pelts by size, color and quality of the fur. Local trappers can send their pelts directly to the exchanges or go through local fur-buying middle men and then watch on the Internet as buyers bid on their furs. The great majority of Minnesota furs end up in China, Russia, Korea and eastern Europe.

Shoemaker laments the scarcity of young people interested in trapping. The Minnesota Trappers Association, a well-organized and articulate defender of the sport, offers an excellent trapper training program coordinated by the DNR for young people. But even Shoemaker's boys eschew the sport for lack of time.

"My kids tell me I was born 150 years too late," Shoemaker said.

Indeed, when he's wearing his badger fur hat, it's not hard to imagine him plying the waters of the St. Croix River in a birch bark canoe, loaded to the gunnels with fur, headed for Henry Sibley's trading post.


23rd January 2011, 06:54 AM

I lived by 2 trappers from about 4 y/o up until my high school years. I have seen how they have to kill these poor little animals. I can condone it if they use all the meat and fat but they kill them just for their pelts. What a waste. Going into those skinning sheds as a kid has scarred me for life. My sister used to clean the floors for very little money. It's very very disgusting.

Don't get me wrong, I think hunting for meat and keeping the hide is ok in my book. But just for the pelt?? No, I don't like it, I don't like it all.