Lebanon’s Clarence Dies might have been born a century or two too late.
Not only does he hunt with an 18th-century muzzleloader while wearing homemade buckskins and a beaver-skin cap, he is also among an enduring number of professional fur trappers who pursue an old-fashioned art in a space-age era.
“To me, it never gets old,” says Clarence, who for several years has run a trapline in sloughs and creeks along the Cumberland River and on adjacent Wilson County farmland. “I look forward to trapping season every winter. It’s cold, hard work but I enjoy it.”
Clarence is one of an estimated 2,000 semi-professional trappers in Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which regulates trapping, says a trapper with good territory who works hard at it can make as much as $12,000 a year from his pelts, but the average return is probably between $2,000-$4,000.
Fur prices fluctuate year by year, depending largely on foreign markets, and individual pelts vary in value according to size and quality. Clarence estimates these current averages:
Otter $25-$35; beaver $10-$15; coyotes $10-$15; mink $6-$15; red fox $10-$12; gray fox $5-$7; raccoon $5-$7; muskrats $2.50-$4, possums $1-$1.50.
“Nobody is going to get rich by fur trapping,” Clarence says. “If you figure the time involved in setting traps, running traps, skinning, fleshing and drying the hides and taking them to fur sales, you won’t make minimum wage.”
Skinning, fleshing and tediously stretching a single beaver pelt can take a couple of hours, and that doesn’t count the time spent setting and tending the traps and carrying out the frozen 40-pound rodent.
The TWRA supports trapping because it is an effective way to control populations of nuisance animals such as beaver, raccoons, possums and coyotes.
The later have increased throughout the state in recent years and have become a major concern in many residential areas where they are known to pray on pets.
Raccoons, possums and skunks are also on the increase, and take a toll on turkey eggs. Raiding raccoons can also wipe out rows of sweet corn overnight.
Not many people hunt possums, and although coon hunting with hounds remains popular, most coon hunters elect to led the coons go free at the end of a hunt. As a result, the varmint population continues to grow.
“I frequently get calls from folks asking me to trap nuisance critters like beavers, coyotes and coons,” says Clarence. “I do as much as I can, just as a favor.”
Although the season is open year-round for some of the nuisance animals such as beaver and coyotes, Clarence prefers to trap them in the winter when their pelts are prime, in order to avoid wasting the fur.
Clarence knows his stuff. He was named Trapper of the Year in the Eastern district last year after lobbying the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission to make some changes in regulations to benefit trappers, such as extending the time between trap-checking.
As an official with the Tennessee Fur Harvesters Association, Clarence works to educate the public about the benefits of trapping, and counter some of the negative images fostered by animal-rights extremists.
He also is active in various organizations that promote youth trapping seminars and activities, and is encouraged by large turnouts in recent years.
“A lot of teenagers are getting involved in trapping,” Clarence says. “That’s a good sign for the future. When my generation gets too old and wore-out to trap any more, hopefully a new generation will be ready to take over.”