Fur Market Memories

This seasoned trapper has experienced all of the industry’s ups and downs over the decades. So, sit back and learn how things compare to the good ol’ days.

By Ed Jackson

During my seven decades of watching the fur market, I’ve seen plenty of ups and downs in the price of furs. But then, the same can be said for almost every other product or service that touches our daily lives. I remember when it cost only three cents to mail a letter. Shotgun shells were a dime each at that time, and you could buy as many or as few as you needed out of an open box at most country stores.

The author was 18 years old in 1958, and was offered only 50 cents for this bobcat. Photo credit Ed Jackson.

The author was 18 years old in 1958, and was offered only 50 cents for this bobcat. Photo credit Ed Jackson.

Sears, Roebuck and Company was not only handy in the outhouse, but the company sold everything from steel traps to underwear to baby chickens, and would deliver it all to your doorstep via rural mail carrier. Sears also bought raw furs, and paid either by check or credit vouchers for future catalog purchases.

Sears got out of the fur-buying business many years ago, but the raw-fur business and the modern-day followers of the mountain men and Daniel Boone are still tenaciously hanging on — even if the trail has been pretty rocky these past few years.

Spots Rule – Right Now

Any discussion of today’s raw fur market must logically begin with the current darling of the furrier, the “lynx cat,” known to everybody outside the auction houses as bobcat. Last year’s high bids for top lot cats varied from $1,500 to $1,900 — pretty rarefied air, if you ask me. In 1967 I bought my first new car for only a couple hundred bucks more than that second figure. Those were exceptional cats, of course, but for most of us, the $50 to $150 possible these days for our more ordinary specimens still makes for a decent payday.

That has not always been the case. Bobcats have always held a special place in my trapping and fur hunting memories, and trapping a bobcat was one of my first outdoor aspirations. However, this interest was not fueled by any economic incentive, but because my trapping mentor, Mr. Johnny Boone, carried on a constant battle with the poultry-stealing felines. As proof, I offer the fact that my first bobcat, a large winter-prime tom that I caught in 1958 on the ridge behind Mr. Boone’s homestead, elicited an offer of only 50 cents from a local buyer.

Two decades later, when the price of good cats from central Arkansas shot up over the $100 mark, I figured I’d witnessed a price climb that would never again be equaled. Today, four more decades later, that opinion seems to be holding. Good central Arkansas bobcats may reach that same $100 mark nowadays, but the purchasing power of that hundred-dollar bill is greatly reduced.

Compare the price of gasoline then and now, for example. During the mid-‘70s, gasoline prices fluctuated between 50 and 80 cents per gallon. At that time I was selling gray foxes to a local buyer for $40 each — the equivalent of 70 or so gallons of gas, enough to fuel my truck for three weeks of part-time trapline runs. The $10 or so that Arkansas grays are worth now (assuming you can get it) will buy you about four gallons of regular gas.

Speaking of Foxes…

Compared to my early trapline years, though, even the current prices for gray foxes look pretty good. In 1956, I got 20 cents apiece for two grays that I shipped to Sears & Roebuck’s Memphis terminal. That fur bundle also included a dozen 5-cent ‘possums and three ‘coons that added a whopping $2 to the total. The bank teller who cashed that check said wryly that he hoped Sears was good for it, but his sarcasm was lost on me. For a 15-year-old boy, the enjoyment and adventure of collecting those nearly worthless furs was beyond price.

As those early seasons passed, I continued to spend much of my before- and after-work time on the trapline. Most years I managed to use at least one week of vacation chasing the mountain man dream. At no time during those decades was I depending on my trapline earnings to keep food on the table or make mortgage payments, but I did cover all of my expenses and have enough extra to splurge on a new muzzleloader or maybe a new camera.

On the final day of the 1976-77 season, after a hard day of puling traps, I had five raccoons, a gray fox and a medium bobcat in the truck. I was tired, and instead of heading for home and the skinning shed, I circled by a local fur buyer’s place and sold the lot unskinned for enough to buy my first metal detector. Given today’s market (and the current price of a quality detector) I’d need the critters piled much higher to finance a deal like that now.

So what do we do when the cost for fossil fuel is greater than the value of our catch? Well, we could take a hint from the big business types (can you say NAFA?) and declare bankruptcy. That is, we could just up and quit. In fact, a lot of trappers have done just that. But most trappers, I think, are probably like me and didn’t get into this game in the first place just for the money.

Who can put a price on the exhilaration provided by the sight of the first fox of the season, painted on a canvas of frost-covered sage grass and framed by a backdrop of fall colors? That’s a perfect description of the scene that contained my first fox, caught in a 1½ longspring at an open-ended cubby set, baited with sardines and lured with O.L. Butcher’s Gray Fox Lure. The year was 1954 and I can recreate that picture in my mind’s eye like it happened yesterday. The fact that I can’t remember what Mrs. Cook, my algebra teacher that year, looked like says a lot about my priorities at that point in my life. And, I suppose, in most years since then.

Mink Were Once King

I picked up a back issue of Trapper & Predator Caller the other day and looked at the fur market report from last August. One of the things that struck me was the “mainly unsold” listing for wild mink, and the dismal prices paid for those few pelts that did sell. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that mink is no longer a target species for most trappers. For us old-timers, the fur market between 1945 and 1955 was driven by the mink coat craze.

The post-WWII economic boom was epitomized in certain strata of society, by the possession of a full-length mink stroller. In a 1951 episode of “I Love Lucy,” which featured a fur-coat mix-up, the price of that coat was said to be $3,500. During that same time frame, shorter jacket-cut mink garments, requiring fewer pelts, were considerably cheaper, and mink stoles or neck wraps were in the $300 range. On the trapline end of this craze, the 1952 price for a #1 XL male mink (then the rarest creature roaming the stream banks) was listed on most fur buyer price lists at $25. The most that I ever received for any of my infrequent mink catches was $20, but at that time it was equal to a week’s take-home pay for many blue-collar workers.

During those years, mink ranching was in its heyday and auto longliners (Curtis Grigg, Bud Hall and others) were making substantial paychecks, as well. The most exciting thing about this era for part-time or schoolboy trappers was that everyone had a chance at the gold ring. The mink, unlike his exotic cousin the marten, could be found in varying numbers in most of the country. Every farm boy with a dozen muskrat traps set on the back-forty pond knew that the next B&L longspring he untangled from its drowning stake might hold a prize that would pay for his entire Christmas shopping list.

Unfortunately for me, I grew up in an area of rocky hills and shallow, fast-moving streams. Mink were rare, but as I grew older, I managed to pelt a few each season.

Muskrats, though, the bread-and-butter species for most schoolboy trappers, were nonexistent in my neck of the woods. I was 26 years old before I caught my first one, after I moved to an area that had sloughs and larger rivers with muddy banks. I also quickly realized that mink were much more common in this flatter, wetter habitat than they had been in the rocky streams of my youth. So, of course, it was about this time that the markets switched to long-haired furs. My newly found mink and muskrats began — with occasional high spots along the way — a long slide toward the current abysmal price levels.

The Rise and Fall of Rocky Raccoon

During the mid-‘70s, fully prime raccoon hides also shot past the $20 mark in my part of the world, while larger, heavier pelts from farther north sold for substantially more. In those years, there were many days when I arrived at 8 o’clock at the mine shop where I worked with a collection of furbearers in the back of the truck worth more than my wages for that day.

That was a big change from the teenage year that I sold three ‘coons for $2. I grew up listening to tales of ‘coon hunts during the 1920s when good pelts brought $8, a price I could scarcely imagine during my teen years. During those long-ago days of open woods and unrestricted timber management practices, it wasn’t uncommon for ‘coon hunters to chop down hollow trees to extract a holed-up raccoon. I doubt you could find anyone now to chop down a big tree for $8, even if it was legal.

Mixing It Up

I always liked to trap some of all of the furbearer species on my line, even when the market dictated that more specialization was the way to go. In central Arkansas, the most abundant and preferred long-hair furs were foxes (mostly grays), raccoons and bobcats. During my vacation ventures I ranged farther from home and strung steel in portions of the two national forests, which contain over 3 million acres within our state boundaries. I trapped my first coyotes in those large, uninhabited areas where free-ranging dogs were not a problem.

Most of my occasional yodelers were caught in generic “first come, first caught” dirthole sets guarded by 1½ coilsprings retrofitted with extra chain swivels. Occasionally, I made coyote-specific sets using 1.75 coils, but coyote prices weren’t high enough to encourage any real effort. Even so, having grown up reading — and rereading — Herb Lenon’s bounty-trapping articles, my coyote trapline was a dream come true.

Now the market pendulum has swung once more and those coyotes that I sold for $10 to $15 in the ‘70s and ‘80s are now setting the standard for prices in most areas. Which, of course, means that I should probably spend this year’s grubstake to re-outfit my kit for the “brush wolf” line.

But probably not.

The Only Thing Sure is Uncertainty

One reason has to do with the celebration of my most recent birthday. The cake commemorating that event had 80 candles on it. Despite some blips on my X-ray and EKG screens, I’ve been lucky enough to stay pretty active — although in lower gears. But, I don’t tackle anything anymore that has to be done, even if it’s for fun.

Second, as you may have noticed in this meandering memoir, there are no sure bets in the raw-fur business. Last season’s leaders may be this year’s disappointments, and vice versa.

For instance, my buddy Harold, a veteran trapper, made a trip to a local fur buyer’s shed during the boom years. He had an assortment of pelts, small sizes and lower-priced items that he’d bagged and frozen. Harold skinned and stretched all of his bigger sizes to ship to the auctions, but a couple times each season he would sell off his lower-value items to this small local buyer for gas money.

After counting and sorting a dozen small raccoons and skunks, the buyer looked at the heap of opossum hides Harold had piled on a grading table. He grinned.

“There’s not many fellers still skinning and bringing me ‘possum anymore,” he said, “but if you know anybody who has any, tell ‘em I’ll give $4 a hide. Got a customer who’ll take all I can buy. Don’t know what he’s doing with ‘em, but his checks are good so I don’t really care.”

Harold called me that evening and told me to pass the word.

“Ain’t this fur business something?” he said, laughing so loud that I had to hold the phone away from my ear. “I’ve about wore myself out this season looking for cat sign and now I find out I should have been longlining ‘possums!”

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