Local trappers suffer from declining market

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
John Zander (left) inspects and sizes muskrat furs during the recent fur buy at the Wooldford General Store. Declining prices are making trapping a hobby activity.

WOOLFORD — Muskrats live in the Dorchester County marshes. Many muskrats. Some are served in local restaurants and enjoyed as an eagerly awaited seasonal delicacy. Others wind up as lining for leather gloves or other clothing. But they all have to be caught first. Local trappers no longer view muskrat trapping as a full-time livelihood but rather as a tradition handed down from their ancestors. It is more of a hobby now – a special time of year when it is okay to tramp through marshes, braving cold, rain, or snow and enjoying the sunny, crisp days in between.

In January, February, and March, fur collectors T. Zander & Sons, Inc. send a truck from New Jersey to the Woolford General Store parking lot and purchase local pelts. The family-owned business buys, processes, and sells wild fur as opposed to ranch fur. They buy from trappers and smaller dealers across the county and export overseas to China, Korea, and Russia. The Russian market has declined says John Zander, primarily due to devaluation of the ruble. The Chinese market is lower as well.

Throughout its 50-plus years of operation, T. Zander & Sons, Inc. has become one of the largest suppliers of wild fur in the United States. As a direct supplier the wholesaler offers all varieties of North American wild fur – muskrat, raccoon, red and grey fox, beaver, opossum, mink, coyote, and others.

After participating in the 2015 Outdoor Show Dorchester trappers asked John if he could arrange a county fur buy. He agreed, noting that it helps the smaller, hobby trappers and kids who might not have enough catch volume to justify a long trip. He said last year, “that way we can pick up some additional fur that might not have made it up our way, and they can get a better value for their fur versus if they had sold through some other venue.”

Muskrats are the biggest item on the East Coast and the company handles 200-300,000 in a typical year. By 10 a.m. on Jan. 31, there were already 1,000 muskrat pelts counted, paid for, and stored in the truck for transport. John noted that some trappers come early. “A lot of guys like to remain anonymous.” He said, “The guys who catch the most are the quietest about it because they want to keep a low profile.”

According to tales from Hooper Island old-timers, muskrat pelts were as valuable as Atlantic City poker chips. During the long winters when the rivers were iced up watermen were stuck on land. Money was scarce and there was no way to fish, crab, or oyster to earn a living. Card games were a lively entertainment. Poker chips? Nope. Muskrat pelts were used as currency. And, like John Zander does today, the old-timers graded the pelts and assigned a different amount of money to each grade.

As wholesalers and dealers Zander & Sons buy from 50-75 dealers in the United States and Canada. Much of their business is in the Mid-Atlantic where the muskrats are black. “Folks in Ohio have brown muskrats,” he says. He chuckles, “Someone in Ohio caught a black one. He had never seen one before so he thought it was a real trophy!”
They do not buy squirrels, rabbits, or deer. Chinese processors buy ranch rabbits and in the U.S. wild rabbits are subject to strict hunting and trapping regulations. A raw deer hide would bring $3-4 this year but deer hides detract from Zander’s core business and require larger facilities. “They are more difficult to deal with,” John says.

With the coyote invasion over the past decade it would seem natural to hunt them for fur. But John says, “No. Not on the East Coast.” He explains that “The heavy coated coyotes in the Western states are either trapped or shot and a good pelt typically runs about $150.” The “locals” are thinner and have less luxurious fur.

Prices are down from last year. The average price this year for a dry muskrat is $3-3.50. A dry fox pelt brings an average of $14 as opposed to last year when it was in the $20s. One fox pelt brought 50 cents instead of about $4. He noted that this time of year “the foxes start to rub on trees and can wear patches away on their fur and that brings down the value.” In a down market buyers/dealers know in advance what the market will be because the foreign markets affect the local markets. If China and Russia are not buying, the trappers in Dorchester County will be paid less for their pelts.

John explained that he prefers fox fur on the outside of a dry pelt so he can judge its quality. When the fur is on the inside it is harder for fur buyers to determine its value. The optimum time for good fox fur is between Christmas and mid-January.
He considers the animal hides he processes a “renewable resource” and notes that the best marshes for muskrats are the ones where rats are trapped often which John feels seems to improve the quality of the animals.

Joining John in the truck is Omar who has worked for the Zanders for 7 years. He accompanies John on buying trips but also does skinning, dressing, and tanning in the New Jersey facility. The company is a seasonal employer so numbers range from 5 to 20 with sub-contractors hired for “piecework.”

John says, “Young guys not getting into trapping much in New Jersey. The average age is 40.” He cites expense. “To start up is expensive. Traps run about $30-40 a dozen.” He also says there are many hobbies now that compete with trapping. But, he adds, “It is still popular in Dorchester County.”

A trapper from a young age with a masters degree in engineering, John joined the family business because he loves it. Most of all he loves the process – from trapping in the marshes to seeing a finished product all the way across the world.

John will again attend the Outdoor Show, this year on Feb. 26, 27, and eagerly anticipates the muskrat skinning competition which he missed last year. He’s in for a real Dorchester County experience.

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