"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Winter Fur Trading
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Scifres

"The earliest fur traders to come to Indiana were the French 'courier des bois,' traveling buyers, who were trading with the Indians in northern Indiana by 1660 or 1670. In 1702 Indiana's first trading post was established at Vincennes. This post was abandoned in 1705 because of the activities of hostile Indians. From 1715 to 1732 French military forts to protect the fur trading business were built at the present sites of Fort Wayne, Lafayette, and Vincennes." --Indiana Department of Natural Resources 

"What a difference a day makes," goes the old saw. 

If we believe that--and who doesn't --we should not be surprised at the present state of the fur industry in this country--and Indiana --roughly 350 years after its meager and dangerous beginning hereabouts. 

So how goes the fur industry--more precisely  the trapping of fur-bearing animals in Hoosierland today? And fur buying? 

Well, Bruce Plowman, the wildlife biologist who heads up our Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) management programs for fur-bearing animals, believes fur prices will be a little better this year than they were in the 2000-2001 seasons. Still, Plowman indicates that the fur industry and trapping is only a semblance of what it was a mere 15 years ago. 

For example, Plowman says DFW records indicate that in the mid-1980s some 157 individuals held licenses to buy fur, an activity that is heavily restricted. In recent years the number of licensed fur buyers has been has been fairly constant at about 55. 

Plowman, who headquarters at Mitchell,  came on the scene last fall after the death of Larry Lehman, who headed fur-bearer studies for the DFW for many years. He is highly qualified, holding a MS degree in biology from Mississippi State University. He has much experience with fur-bearing animals. 

Plowman points out that the muskrat was the Hoosier State's most important fur bearer, posting total pelt figures of well over 200,000 in the glory years of the early to late 1950s. This, of course, was before the upsurge of raccoon populations in the 1970s and the escalated prices for Mr. Ringtail which would go well over $20 before the Russian economy failed. Some prime and perfect 'coon pelts brought as much as $50 in their heydays 

With average pelt prices running at a little over $1, total prices paid for the rats was a little over $200,000 which was not hay in those days. 

Plowman says rats, as they are affectionately known to trappers, still were the No. 2 Hoosier fur bearer in the 2000 - 2001 seasons with a total of 27,563 at an average price of $2.90. 

Top fur animal in those years was the raccoon with 79,314 pelts that averaged $5.92. 

Other 2000 - 2001 fur species were coyote, 1,713 animals at $7.12 each; red fox, 1,335 at $12.49 each; mink, 1,259 skins at $8.23 each; opossum, 876 hides at $1.27 each; gray fox, 240 pelts at $7.56 each, and skunk, 92 pelts at $1.84 each. 

In 2000 the DFW sold 2,420 trapping licenses. Records are sparse on the number of trappers there were in Indiana during the heydays of the fur industry because until about 10 years ago the license to hunt and fish also covered trapping. But the number of trappers today is a far cry from the glory years when many farm and rural schoolboys arose long before the dawn of cold winter days to "run" (check) their traps before going to school. 

Gone are the days when a Saturday wintertime fixture on courthouse squares throughout the state was a grizzled old fur buyer who knew raw fur inside out, upside down and backwards. 

Gone are the days when a teenage kid from Crothersville would join Jack Cain, his older mentor, to track a mink all day in the Muscatatuck River bottomlands before bagging it late in the afternoon. 

They would leave the town with six inches of fresh, dry, powdery snow on the ground, the street lights still burning. When they returned to the town the street lights would be burning again and the temperature would never have gotten as high as zero that day. 

But they would have a huge possum and a raccoon in addition to the mink. That night they would sell their unskinned animals for $22.22, the boy's half being more than his father had earned that week. 

Gone are the days when the red-bearded, fat, old fur buyer (nearly blind, but still able to detect flaws in pelts with his acute sense of touch) would foil the scheme of a couple of rowdies to sell him a mink pelt whose tail had been clumsily lopped off in the skinning process and sewed back on and covered with beeswax to disguise the flaw. 

And gone  . . . far gone . . . is the winter my father, who gave me my first mink-trapping lesson at the age of seven (some 70 years ago), trapped a mink in the early part of December to thwart the Grinch's plan to steal Christmas. 

Still, we can hope that the small army of Hoosier trappers will close their ears and eyes to the slurs of the animal rightists and keep this high quality form of outdoor recreation alive for centuries to come. 


All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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