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February is the month where it’s do or die for Maine sportsmen. You have to be pretty resourceful (and sick of being cooped up) to want to spend a bitter cold day outdoors, but, as we discussed last week, it’s got to be done if you want to maintain any sort of sanity as winter winds on. We’re more than a month away from any hint of balmier times, and most folks are at their wit’s end already, at least those who can’t find something better to do with their winter days.
One of the happiest fellows I ever knew was a beaver trapper in Milo. This guy seemed to have a perpetual smile on his wind-reddened face, and it seemed as if the worse things got the better he liked it. I spent one February trapping beavers with him, back in the 70s when a prime Maine beaver hide sold for upwards of $100 at the Canadian auctions. Most of the time you could expect $75 or so locally, but that was good money at a time when the minimum wage was under $3 and a cushy shoe factory job might net you $150 a week after taxes.
Many of us got into the “fur business” because prices were sky high (and haven’t returned to those heady levels since) and, believe it or not, Maine is full of prime, in-demand furbearers the likes of which you’ll fine nowhere else except Alaska and Canada. Back then, a female fisher brought close to $200, an otter would go for $100 or more and a February bobcat would bring $300. I have seen grown men fist fighting in the snow at 20 below zero over the right to put the hounds on a fresh cat track, and I saw one local hunter literally pull another out the cab window of his pickup truck for “stealing” the other man’s marked track! Believe me when I say that trappers (and hound hunters) have a society of their own – and you’d best not tamper with it!
But, the winter I trapped beavers for “serious money” also happened to be the winter that our region of Maine rarely saw a day that did not bring snow – and lots of it. I have pictorial proof that the winter of 1975 (and again in 1976) was as bad as we’ve had since. I ran out of places to put the snow in late January, and that was the year it got so cold that my old Dodge Polara station wagon gave up the ghost after trying to warm it up at minus 30 degrees. The anti-freeze was like slush, a hose burst and spewed the precious green slurry all over the engine. I had cleverly taken the air cleaner off to allow more oxygen to the carburetor, and of course the antifreeze slurped right down the pipe, got sucked into the engine and slowed the pistons to a crawl. This little error on my part eventually caused the engine to seize up and quit, and I spent the spring and summer selling the car off piece by piece. It finally went down the road behind an Atkinson farmer’s tractor, a sorry end for what once was a great car.
A lot of people feel sorry for the beavers because they live under the ice in winter and subsist on stored aspen twigs, but that’s a joy compared to trying to set a trap for them! The general process involved in setting a trap for beavers can take an hour or more, and that’s just when things go right! You have to find a place to set a trap (not too close to the beaver lodge, which is illegal, and over water, or you end up with a trap set in the cold, clinging mud). This is not easy when the whole world is covered with several feet of snow. You have to dig down to the ice, making a hole big enough to work in. This might be shoulder deep in some places, though waist deep was the norm. Then, you need to take your ice chisel and cut a hole through one, two or sometimes three feet of ice to reach the water below. The gush of slush, water and ice chips that welcomes your final chop is a sight to behold, especially when most of it ends up inside your boots!
You must cut a hole big enough to put a pole, a set trap and several sticks of poplar (beaver bait) rigged in such a way that you can get it to stand below the ice with room for the beaver to find it, swim up and put a foot into trap as he munches on your offering of poplar branches. Done right, you’ll have a beaver in the trap tomorrow morning. Mess up and you’ll have nothing to show for your efforts.
Practiced trappers know how and where to set their traps, but the amount of work required does not change. You have to anchor the pole in the ice so you can find it in the morning. The bad news is that you have to come back early the next day and chisel through all that ice again, just to check the trap! In February, you can expect most of the three feet of ice to be right back there again, only this time you need to dig carefully so you don’t cut the pole, the trap chain or the trapped beaver into worthless chunks.
If you’ve caught a beaver, you reach under the ice (nice work!) and pull him out, reset the trap and go on your way. If you’ve got enough traps set, plan on spending the entire day setting, checking and resetting your traps – all this at minus 20 degrees in snow up to your waist!
Then, when you get home, you should have a dozen or more beavers that need to be tagged and skinned. Beavers are not hard to skin but they are not easy, either, and you need to be careful with the pelting knife and fleshing tool (which scrapes the excess fat and gristle off the hide). Any damage to the hide or fur will cost you money, as much as half the value of the hide if you are really clumsy!
Back then, we saved the tails, castors (beaver scent glands) and the meat for sale to various markets. The tails and meat was edible, but most of the market for those items was hound hunters (cheap dog food) or the occasional gourmet who wanted to try “it” once or twice. The scent glands were valuable and sold well at high prices to lure makers and others in the trapping trade.
All of this might take several hours, so a “normal” trapping day might last from before dawn to near midnight. But, on a good day a serious, professional trapper might earn several hundred dollars – not bad for a shoe shop town in the middle of a mean Maine winter.
Fur prices are dismal now in comparison, but if you want to experience a little of Maine’s outdoor heritage, look up a beaver trapper and ask if you can go along. Be prepared for an experience you won’t soon forget!
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