Trappers History

(Taken from Louisiana Fisheries.

Once the trapper located a colony, indicated by mounds of grass constructed by the muskrats, he would set his traps in the "runs" or trails used by the semi-aquatic rodent. Many types of traps were used. They included the long spring, used in shallow water; coil spring, which worked better in deeper water; the conibear, which actually required the muskrat to pass through the trap; and the stop loss, which greatly increased catches by reducing escapement.

Traps would be left overnight. Muskrats are primarily nocturnal creatures, and on cold nights they actively move and feed. Early the next morning, the trapper would return to his traps eager to see how successful his efforts had been.

Early settlers of coastal Louisiana found a bounty of income in the form of muskrat furs. After several cold fronts, trappers knew that the muskrat's fur had grown long and thick and was prime for the fur market.

In remote areas, the trapper would build a camp in the marsh where his entire family would spend months at a time. Everyone in the family had to work long hours to keep up with the trapping operation.

In areas where the trapper had to travel long distances, muskrats were skinned in the field and the pelts carried in a sack. This reduced the trappers load when walking in the boggy marsh. Upon finding a successful trap, the trapper removed the muskrat and reset the trap. Next he got out his razor-sharp skinning knife.

He skinned the muskrat by making cuts from the tail to the foot down the back of each hind leg. Next he would reach under the skin on the back, separating it from the carcass. The skin was then pulled over the animal turning it inside out. Around the head the trapper had to take care to make cuts at the base of the ears so that they remained on the pelt. This was a requirement by the fur buyers. A quick skinner could skin a muskrat and be on his way to the next trap in a matter of seconds. This was necessary since he may have hundreds of traps to check daily, and his day wasn't finished until all the traps were run.

Back at the camp, furs had to be washed to remove blood, dirt and mud. Then they were scraped of excess flesh and put on a stretcher to dry. After the pelts were dry they were removed from the stretchers and stored in a cool, dry place. When the trapper had a good load of furs they were sold to a fur buyer. The buyer would grade the pelts after examining them for holes or other imperfections and by running his hand inside the pelt to feel the thickness and length of the fur. The buyer and trapper would negotiate a price, and the furs were sold.

This seasonal way of life continued for decades across coastal Louisiana. During the early 1900s, Louisiana's fur industry involved more than 20,000 trappers and 1,000 fur buyers and dealers. Muskrat populations exploded during that period with the harvest peaking at more than 9 million pelts worth $12 million in 1945. This production was more than occurs now in the entire United States.

In 1937, the nutria was held in captivity in Louisiana near Avery Island. In 1940, a hurricane hit the area and nutria escaped changing the history of fur trapping and coastal Louisiana forever.

Free in the coastal marshes, nutria, a much larger rodent than the muskrat, was in a near perfect habitat. Like most exotic species, in the absence of their natural enemies, the South American native multiplied rapidly. In 1955, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimated that there were 20 million nutrias in Louisiana. By 1962 the nutria surpassed the muskrat in numbers harvested. Between 1962 and 1982, coastal trappers averaged harvesting more than 1.3 million nutria each year, representing 64 percent of the total catch and 60 percent of the total value of all furs harvested.

Fur trapping has been a source of income for coastal residents since the settlement of this area. However, today it is also viewed as a valuable marsh management tool. Muskrats and nutrias can do serious damage to marshes by eating out large areas of vegetation.

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