Kentucky's Fur Trapping In Decline

By Avery T. Jenkins - 1963
The Rural Kentuckian

A fellow from Arkansas, who loved stories of the outdoors, once told this story about a hunting dog he owned. Claiming that his dog was exceptional, he sought to prove it by telling how the dog was particularly good at dimensions.

The storyteller said that when he wanted a pelt of a given size, all he had to do was put a hideboard out in the yard. His dog would look at it, go off into the woods, and would not return until he had caught a varmint whose pelt would fit the hideboard exactly. He said the dog would sometimes be gone for days.

Then he added, with a sigh, "Misfortune befell the dog, however. One day my wife happened to set her ironing board out in the yard; and the dog, after carefully sizing up the ironing board, loped off into the woods, with his nose to the ground, and he never came back."

A look at today's prices for pelts is enough to make any would-be trapper run out of the woods and leave his traps.

The craft of fur trapping in Kentucky has all but gone the route of the buggy whip and the production of homemade lye soap. While there has never been anything lucrative about this sideline, there was a time, only a decade ago, when a mink pelt sold for as high as $33; the market today quotes prices from $8 to $14.

William M. Fint of Tyrone, in Anderson County, grew up along the Kentucky River. He has been a part-time trapper, as well as a commercial fisherman and farmer, for most of his 47 years. He did not buy the $3.25 license for trapping this year, because he says that depressed prices and other discouraging factors are making fur trapping a thing of the past.

"About 1950, I sold mink hides to companies in St. Louis and New York for as much as $33, but a top-grade mink now brings only about $14," Fint said recently. "They were bringing $14 in 1939. I don't know what's happened to the market. Mink coats aren't getting any cheaper.

"Low prices is the main reason I quit trapping, but there are other reasons. For example, I lost several mink and muskrats, because the river rose and covered the traps. I wasn't able to check the traps for a week, sometimes.

"I have trapped a lot of mink, and I've caught a lot with dogs. A mink can be found almost anywhere close to a stream. They don't stay too much in one place. They will stay in an area for a few days, if they find food, but they move on when the rations become short.

"A mink's main diet is muskrat. They can kill a muskrat in a minute, but they like fish, too."

Fint denies that mink are more difficult to trap than other furbearing animals. He says he's heard the story that a mink will not go near a trap, if it catches the scent of man.

"There's nothing to that story. I have trapped a lot of mink and have never used gloves. I use a shovel to dig a notch back in the bank and put a fish head on a peg right over the traps, which are about two inches under water. The animal can't reach the bait from above, so he has to go into the water to get it."

Fint says the mink is a "nervous" type of animal and, unlike some other small furbearers, will bolt out of hiding when his place of refuge is disturbed.

"I have hunted with dogs, and I have caught as many as three minks within an hour. A mink often hides in a drift pile or rock fence. I used to rattle the fences with a shovel. If there was a mink in there, he'd run out, and the dog would catch him."

Fint said in a matter-of-fact way that he had caught mink with his hands without being bitten. He said a mink leaves a trail of tiny air bubbles when he dives into a creek and starts swimming. "All you have to do is follow along the bank, watching those bubbles. When he comes to the bank and raises his head, put your boot on his neck and then pick him up. Of course, I have been bitten a few times, but it didn't amount to anything."

Other bait for the trapping of mink, muskrats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes is corn. A few rings of corn, chopped from an ear, serves well as bait, as does a slice of apple.

Fint says there are still plenty of furbearing animals in Kentucky, particularly along the rivers, but he hasn't heard of much trapping to amount to anything anywhere in the state. Again, he blames the low prices for pelts as the reason for giving up the craft. He said he sold a fox hide in 1936 for $35. Today's price is about $1.50. Muskrat pelts brought as much as $4.50 in 1950. Current prices range from 20 to 80 cents.

The raccoon and skunk hide brings about $2.50 on the market now. In the case of the skunk, much depends on the amount of white in its coat; whether it's classified a long-fork, short-fork, or a star black. The latter, having only a small white spot in its forehead is the most valuable, if $2.50 can be considered valuable.

It appears that those few men who are still "running a trap line" are doing so for the outdoor appeal, nothing more!