Basically, Michigan history began with the business of the fur trade and aquatic furbearers played a major role in the early development and settlement of our state. Fur traders visited Sault Ste. Marie and the Straits of Michilimackinac areas as early as the mid-1600s. Huge companies were formed to handle this lucrative fur traffic. Blacksmiths flourished, providing innumerable trappers, both Indian and white man alike, with newly designed, extremely well manufactured traps. By 1788, the Mackinac Straits became the principal collection point for the booming fur trade. In just one year alone, 1764, Fort Michilimackinac shipped 50,938 beaver pelts.
Since that period of history, trapping has suffered its ups and downs with prices fluctuating in wide variances as demand for fur either rose or fell.
Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Jim Harshman, who is well known in the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula for removing nuisance beaver, muskrat and raccoon under the business title, Cold Country Trapping (email@example.com) He is an active member of the Great Lake Fur Harvesters Association. Our question and answer forum follows:
Q) Jim, is trapping becoming a dying art? Are our young people interested in learning? What in your estimation does the future hold for this age-old method of predator and nuisance wildlife control?
A) A dying art? No, not be any means. Trapping is more than holding its own.
We need to keep the interest of the younger generation. If you had attended the U. P. Trapping Convention held this past July at Escanaba, you would have been amazed to see the high attendance of children and teens; many were just looking with interest at display booths; but others were buying traps, asking questions from the experienced trappers and the entire scene indicated the future of trapping is… ‘still in season!’
Q) Do you use any special lures, scents or foodstuffs…tinctures, powders, glands, musks or food substances?
A) Beaver castor. I rarely purchase any enticements; I prefer to make my own.
Q) Essential to your trade of trapping, do you regard yourself as a trapper who has personally learned and understood the habits and traits of the wildlife you seek? Are you self-taught? Or, was the art of trapping passed down from a former generation of friends or relatives?
A) I trained myself. I have an older brother who also trapped. The two of us started trapping together and neither of us knew one thing about trapping. At the time we were growing up we lived in Indiana. A man hired us to pull weeds and trim around cemetery memorial stones and when we were finished he gave us a trap. We set that first trap ‘in the road!’ Finding out that method did not work, we set the trap next to a pond. After a time, we finally figured it out. Eventually, we worked for a fur buyer where we earned half the payment; the fur buyer realized the other half. It was an adequate 50/50 agreement.
Q) What animals do you prefer to trap… red and gray fox, fisher, pine marten, beaver, otter, weasel (Ermine), bobcat, raccoon or coyote? Advice?
A) All of the above.
Q) Have you ever inadvertently taken a wolf in one of your traps? How did you free the animal?
A) I have had three wolves in traps. They were young wolves…weight about 60 pounds; first year wolf-pack animals. DNR wildlife biologist, Dave Jantoff, from the Sault DNR office, tranquilized the third trapped wolf. We had the wolf in a dog-safe foothold trap and the animal jerked the ‘S’ hook that anchors the trap to the earth…he ran off with the trap attached. Later it was observed within a herd of cattle; the farmer asked a coyote hunter to kill it.
A Michigan DNR conservation officer handled the other two wolves by placing a loop over one of the animal’s heads, and then fellow trapper, Jim Crocker, removed the trap. The wolf relaxed and then headed for the woods. No harm done.
Q) During the l930s, Michigan instituted bounties on wolves and coyotes, which was abolished in 1937 due to misuse and abuse. It was replaced with a state trapper system that seemed to handle predator over-populations quite handedly. In your opinion was this a wise and adequate move?
A) Yes indeed. More control was sorely needed. Bounties nearly decimated the trapping industry. The smell of money motivates some individuals into taking every bountied animal possible. And there was evidence that the system was open to cheating by both trappers and government bounty clerks alike.
Q) During the 1920/30s, seasons were closed to trapping of beaver; otter during l925-1939; pine martens and fishers were virtually extirpated by the 1940s. With reintroduction of the pine marten and fisher, those furbearers have made a successful return to the Upper Peninsula. Are there any wild creatures existing today in short supply, which in some habitats, numbers have crashed? What aquatic furbearers are suffering population drops?
A) No problem for mink, beaver, otter or pine marten. Population numbers remain good for bobcat and coyote. Fox count is most likely down due to the fact that when coyotes move in, fox leave. Both are predators. I might add that muskrat colonies fluctuate; up with high water; down with low water levels.
Q) Let’s talk wolves. They held a bounty on their heads as early as the l930s. Today, there are wolf problems in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Numbers may not present the total wolf population estimate; by their own admission, the Michigan DNR does not count wolf pups…we have some 678 wolves but with the pups, that estimate grows to 1,200 to 1,500 wolves. Do you feel that wolf bounties should be reissued today?
A) Wolf pups become members of the pack by the end of July, first of August and they should be included in that count; however, I am sure you realize, wolf pups suffer high mortality rates from accidents to disease. It is also unusual that the wolf count remains pretty much the same over a period of three years or so. I do not agree with re-establishing a wolf bounty, but a need for Michigan DNR wolf control measures does exist. Other northern tier states, (Minnesota, Wisconsin) allow far more wolves to be harvested than Michigan authorities allow. During their next wolf hunt, Wisconsin hunters will be allowed to take part in the hunt with trained wolf hunt dogs. In Minnesota, trappers may set traps as an alternate to hunting.
Q) Do you realize that today coyotes exist in every single county in Michigan, all 83 counties? Does this animal also need further regulating?
A) Coyotes are highly adaptable animals that can survive in both rural and metro areas. They are pretty well pursued by trappers, hunters and predator callers. It has been proven that the more pressure is put on coyotes, the more prolific they become. Yes, I am aware of the fact that coyotes now occupy every Michigan County.
Q) What type of equipment do you use trapping?
A) I always carry a pistol; a 22. I use steel leg-hold traps for taking coyote and coon, otter, beaver, bobcat; basically, most animals. For some species I employ a combo of traps; in some instances, beaver, otter, muskrat, some bobcats and coyotes…it depends on the individual situation.
I use a dog-proof trap when trapping raccoons. It consists of a tube that has a sleeve. Food is placed in the bottom of the tube; when a raccoon puts its hand down in, the trap releases and catches the animal around its wrist. This type of trap is used so that a dog cannot get its foot in this type of trap. To keep skunks out of dog-proof traps, we raised the trap off the ground where the skunk can’t reach it, yet the coon can.
Q) How are fur prices? There were times during the 1950s when muskrat fur brought in a price of $3.50 per pelt then dropped drastically during the 1960s to a paltry $.75 per pelt. How do today’s prices compare to yesteryears?
A) In general, I would estimate that overall, furs are going to be down due to problems in the Middle East, Russia, China and Greece. All were buying North American fur. China was severely fined for importing American fur without paying the required tariff. Greece has political and domestic problems with money being tight. So I would predict that fur is going to be down and prices may well stay down. Last trapping season of 2012-2013, fur prices were way up with muskrat pelts fetching a high price of $14 to $15 for prime pelts.
Q) How does handling your furs for sale differ from years ago?
A) While years back, fur buyers commonly came directly to your house; appraised your fur; paid you in cash, then packed up your pelts. You knew whom you were dealing with and usually kept the same fur buyer for years. Today, our pelts are scanned, afforded a price for prime, semi-prime, mediocre or poor. All pelts are collected and bundled together for shipment. Payment check equates to the dollars scanned into the barcode. A far cry from yesteryear!
Q) I understand you do quite a bit of ‘nuisance’ beaver trapping. Is this action profitable? How are beaver prices on today’s scale? List a problem beavers have recently caused that resulted in you getting a ‘nuisance beaver” call.
A) I often receive nuisance beaver calls from the Chippewa County Road Commission. Recently, they called asking me to remove a young beaver that had constructed a small dam, which was causing water to get to a level that within a day or two could flow over the road. I might say that yes, trapping problem beaver can be profitable during trapping season; however, trouble causing beavers removed during the off seasons are not prime and once trapped the carcass is virtually useless.
Q) What furbearers do you trap and which pelts bring in the best prices on today’s fur market?
A) I trap a good quantity of muskrat and red fox as well as bobcats that are well spotted. Otter has fetched a price as high as $100; last year though they were down to $50, half of what they brought the year before.
Q) What would you deem as your best, all time, trapping year?
A) I would have to say the l970s when raccoon was fetching a price of $30 to $40 each. At that time I ran coon dogs and also trapped. Raccoons are prolific. There was a time 20 years ago when raccoon prices went as low as $2 a pelt.
Q) Would you care to share one trapping pointer or technique with our readers?
A) Cleanliness is of utmost importance. I make sure my trapping clothes hold no human scent having been washed in special odor killing laundry detergent manufactured by a scent company. (Example: Wildlife Research Center’s, ‘Scent Killer – Body Wash & shampoo). My traps are boiled in a liquid produced from boiling black walnut hulls along with the traps that produces a black color masking the shiny metal of the trap.
Q) Do you make your own tried and true, never fail, lures or musk?
A) Yes, I do.
Q) Where do you traditionally trap? What makes your area ‘special?’
A) I tend to cover a wide area. And when answering nuisance wild animal calls, I often travel even further. But when personally trapping, the one factor I deem of utmost importance is that I rotate my trapping grounds, affording a rest period for the last area I trapped. In other words, I leave a number of muskrats, beaver, otter, etc for seed.
Q) Have you witnessed anything out-of-the –ordinary, unique, for any specific wild animal activity or behavior over the years you have trapped?
A) One time I saw an otter traveling over one-half mile from a lake or stream. An otter is the best of wild anglers; also a predator, so possibly the otter was searching for new waters to suit his fancy.
On one nuisance trapping call I took 32 raccoons out of a barn’s corncrib where they had been living both in the crib and beneath it. The lower floor of the barn served as a garage. Droppings from the infested corncrib above constantly rained down on the vehicles, prompting a call to remove the nuisance animals.
Another unusual incident found a red fox in a dog-proof trap. It was released free of harm. Remember, a fox is also a canine, so although the incident was unusual, it represented a viable possibility.
Q) It is a sad situation, when you see great numbers of unoccupied muskrat houses within the boundaries of a marsh…why are they vacated?
A) I hate to say this, but a few greedy trappers will take every rat from a given area for monetary reasons; others, like me, tend to rotate trapping grounds assuring that our areas will not end up being like the marshes you described. Predators take a huge toll on aquatic furbearers; especially eagles, owls, fox and coyote. Even chemicals affect their populations; and as previously mentioned; water up…better survival; water down…higher mortality rate.
Q) Have you taught young people the art of trapping?
A) Over the years, I have conducted numerous classes for youngsters wanting to learn to trap. Additionally, five or six Lake Superior State University students came to my place on Caribou Lake west of DeTour. I showed them my equipment and how to use it, and then we took a field trip where they could actually place and set the traps. And as previously mentioned, I can be found at the St. Ignace Powwow where young and old are free to ask questions.
Q) Have you made anything personal out of your furs?
A) I tanned an otter skin then gifted it to a Native American to include in his ‘regalia’ on Powwow Grand Entry.
Q) You recently attended the 2014 National Trapping Convention held in July of 2014 at Escanaba. Please tell us about this event.
A) It proves to be a great experience for young and old alike. Vendors from numerous other states attend as well as tailgaters who have just about every item imaginable to sell. The Trapping Convention indicates that ‘Trapping is alive and well in the United States and Canada.’ An estimated 10,000 people passed through the Escanaba Fairground gates to attend this convention.
You just don’t just see interested trappers, but women and children as well along with interesting displays from being able to touch fur to trapping demonstrations. It is a huge event. Next year the National Trapping Convention will be held at Kalamazoo.
Q) I understood two complete buildings held vendors and displays. What displays did you find most interesting?
A) Actually there were seven buildings. Perhaps the taxidermist displays and the beaver pelt exhibitions proved most popular. I enjoyed checking out the tailgate vendors as they had everything any trapper or mountain man could ever want from knives to cast-iron cookware, guns, Bridger traps and a great deal more. There was also a ‘Food Alley’ that provided 14 vendors for hungry visitors to enjoy. Almost every single state (except Hawaii for instance) was represented.
Q) Jim, why do you trap?
A) Because I love it…it is a way of life for me!
For further information contact: Cold Country Trapping: Jim Harshman at 906-292049 or cell 906-630-1216, email firstname.lastname@example.org or Great Lakes Fur Harvesters Association; President: Mike Seelman, P. O. Box 141, Prudenville, MI 48651. Email address; email@example.com