Louisiana has always been big for Trappers
[Reprinted from original]
In days gone by, trappers in south Louisiana welcomed the first cold snap of the year because muskrats put on extra fur during chilly weather, and extra fur meant extra money.
As late as the 1950s ,Louisiana was touted as the greatest fur producing state in the country, with a yield bigger than Alaska (which was not yet a state) and Canada combined. “Each year,” according to a 1941 Abbeville Meridional report, “thousands of licensed trappers go deep into the swamps and woodlands to give Louisiana its $6,000,000 yield.”
Those licensed trappers (and, I’ll wager, a few who worked without a license), lived “a lonely but picturesque life,” according to the account. Their season usually ran from Nov. 20 to Feb. 1, during which they lived in ramshackle huts or houseboats, working their trap lines every day.
“After repairing his shack and making a clearing about it, he turns to the cleaning and repairing of his 200 to 300 traps,” the article said. “He may be ‘on his own’ … or he may be working on a ‘grubstake’ with the storekeeper. In the latter case, all his pelts are turned over to the storekeeper, who sells them to the buyers and ‘settles up’ at the end of the trapping season.”
In 1941, there were about 65 fur dealers who brokered the furs, and the hundreds of buyers working for them looked first for good muskrat pelts. In those days before nutrias began to eat them out of house and home, the muskrat was the top prize in Louisiana’s wetlands.
That hadn’t always been the case.
“Fifteen or twenty years ago there was practically no market for muskrat pelts,” the Meridional reported, “and they were sold for eight or nine cents each. However, through more careful grading and matching, and the stimulation of interest in style centers, the market has improved until now each pelt brings more than one dollar.”
Part of that “stimulation of interest” had to do with giving the varmint a fancier name. “Style center” buyers were less than enamored by an animal with “rat” in its name, but began looking at the furs differently after a Louisiana broker with a flair for marketing began offering them as “Louisiana swamp fox.”
The muskrat remained Louisiana’s top fur producer through the 1940s, but in the 1950s nutria passed them both in numbers trapped and in pelt value. That sustained some trappers for a while, but by 1955 demand and prices for nutria pelts had also dropped to a point where they were hardly worth catching. With no demand for nutria, fewer other furbearers, less access to wetlands, and a growing antipathy to wearing fur, the Louisiana industry became only a shadow of what it once was.
Only 5,542 Louisiana pelts were sold in the 2017-18 season. A bounty on nutria still keeps a few trappers alive, but they don’t catch enough of them to do the trappers or the marshes much good. Nutria numbers continue to multiply willy-nilly and they have become a bigger and bigger pest in places they were never seen before. Making matters worse, coastal erosion is eating away at their habitat as more and more of them are looking for a place to call home.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com(link sends e-mail) or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.