It’s cold, back-breaking work that requires long hours and doesn’t pay minimum wage.
Lebanon’s Clarence Dies loves every minute of it.
Clarence is one of thousands of Tennessee fur trappers, carrying on a frontier tradition in today’s space age.
“I like everything about it,” Clarence says, “from the challenge of trying to out-wit critters like foxes, coyotes and bobcats, to doing something our pioneer ancestors did.”
Clarence and wife Laura are officials with the Tennessee Fur Harvesters Association. They assist with the annual fur sale in Crossville, at which hundreds of trappers from around the state gather to sell their pelts at the end of the season.
Clarence is also an instructor at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s trapping classes, which attract aspiring trappers of all ages and walks of life.
For his efforts, Clarence two years ago received the regional Trapper of the Year Award.
“It’s especially great to see young people getting involved,” he says.
Setting his traps along the Cumberland River, Clarence catches beaver, muskrats, otter and mink in his water sets. His land sets catch foxes, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, possums and raccoons.
Lots of raccoons.
“Today’s coon hunters seldom kill the coons they tree, they just like to work their dogs,” Clarence says. “That means coons are becoming a problem. A gang of coons can wipe out a field of sweet corn overnight.”
A raccoon pelt brings only a few dollars. Clarence traps them “mostly as a favor to friends.”
The same with beavers.
“I trap a lot of beavers that dam creeks and cause flooding,” Clarence says. “I get calls from people asking me to come and catch them.”
Even when trapping nuisance animals, Clarence prefers to do it in cold weather when the fur is marketable.
“I hate to waste a hide,” he says, “even an ‘ol possum’s that brings only a dollar.”
A trapper with access to good territory who works hard at it can make as much as $10,000 a season. Most part-time trappers earn considerably less; one estimate puts the average at less than $2,000.
The price of fur fluctuates, depending on fashion trends and global markets. A prime otter pelt that last year sold for $75, this year might bring $20.
At last winter’s Crossville fur sale, beaver pelts brought $10-$25 depending on size and quality.
Skinning a beaver and stretching and fleshing the pelt takes about two hours for a skilled trapper. Then there’s the time involved setting the traps, running the trapline, and packing out a heavy, sodden, rodent on a freezing morning.
“We obviously don’t do it for the money,” Clarence says, adding:
“We do it because we enjoy it – or at least that’s what I keep telling myself when I’m wading around up to my knees in ice water.”