These are skills that have been passed done through the ages and constantly honed. Knowledge is shared from generation to generation.
That’s the gist of the Montana Trapper Association’s Fur Clinic held this past Saturday at the shop owned by local trapping and fur preparation expert Dan Helterline.
A group of 20 men of all ages, a couple women and several young children listened intently as Helterline and several other experienced trappers shared their know-how on the proper way to prepare and preserve a wide range of animal furs to assure the best price from fur buyers.
Helterline, who has been trapping since he was 13 years, has been involved in the craft for 40 years. His shop near Plains is testimony to his success as a trapper and fur crafter.
Saturday his part of the day-long presentation centered on coyotes and how to best prepare their hides and fur for market.
In what has become a heavily regulated industry, Helterline outlined the basic steps in fur preparation: skinning the animal, stretching the hide, scraping the fat and tissue down to the hide and proper ways to dry and groom the furs.
Over the years Helterline has gained a wealth of experience in the field, as is evident by the wide variety of furs he has readied for market. Bobcats, beavers, mink, coyotes, wolves, fox, raccoon and even skunks are among the animals he has trapped.
“Skinning is the first step and a very important one,” he said. “It has to be done while the animal is still fresh. There is a lot of technique and knowledge involved in creating a quality product and this kind of clinic is a great way to share that.”
Helterline said there have been recent moves within the industry to push for mandatory educational events but nothing official has yet been enacted. And most of those present acknowledged their craft has come under attack by those who feel it is not a humane practice.
However, for most of those in attendance, trapping and selling fur provides a significant part of their income. Most are not full-time trappers, seasonal restrictions would not make that practical in many instances.
A typical coyote fur, Helterline said, can these days bring $75 to $100. Bobcat furs, on the other hand, can go for anywhere from $100 to $300. That’s where the importance of proper fur handling and preparation comes in.
Mike Tvardzik, who moved to Montana four years ago from his home state of Connecticut was among those eager to learn from experienced trappers.
“I came here because I like to trap,” Tvardzik, an electrician by trade, said. “There are trappers in Connecticut but out here is much different. The rules and regulations out east are much more strict than they are here.”
A “water” trapper most of the time, Tvardzik said he mostly traps beaver, muskrats and occasional otter, animals who live near or in water. Now living in the Bitterroot area, he said organizations like the Montana Trapper Association have been a huge help as he learns the trade.
“There are a lot of people out here who are very, very good at this,” he said.
“Experienced trappers have shown me a lot and provided me with a lot of support as I learn the business.”
Tvardzik said he takes no joy in killing the animals but instead sees it as a way to help control animal populations and provide products sought by many people. He said he loves being in Montana’s wide open spaces and cold winter weather.
Among those making presentations was Bob Shepard, a man Helterline described as a “trapping legend.”
Shepard showed attendees his technique for skinning and preparing a mink fur.
Having been in the trapping business for 60 years, Shepard said he too learns from clinics like the one Saturday.
“We are always looking for a better mousetrap,” he said of the many innovations that have come into use, particularly among tools used in preparing the furs.
“There is a constant learning curve involved. We are always looking for a better way that is more humane and efficient.”
Among the “tricks of the trade” he presented while preparing the mink was the use of Borax, a detergent powder, to ensure even and proper drying of the hide.
He cautioned his fellow trappers to shake the furs to remove the Borax before presenting them to buyers.
“I’ve seen fur buyers pick up a fur and give it a shake and a cloud of Borax comes out,” he said. “The fur buyers get kinda irritated when they get Borax in their nose and eyes and the price, I guarantee, comes down.”
Helterline, who is Director for Region 1 of the seven trapping regions in the Montana Trappers Association area, said populations of the animals involved are holding up fine.
“This business is heavily regulated, especially for fur-bearing animals,” he said. “There are a lot of animals out there.”