MARSHFIELD — As I sidestepped ankle-deep puddles and tiptoed through sneaker-deep muck at last weekend’s 46th North American Fur Taker Rendezvous, I realized folks nearby barely noticed these hazards of summer downpours.
Then again, this was the first time the Fur Takers of America held their annual event in Wisconsin, and every trapper knows the show must go on, no matter the weather. So, vendors and attendees alike pulled on their waterproof boots and camo rainwear, and conducted business from beneath hoods, tarps and tent flaps.
Besides, the Rendezvous’ host organization is the Wisconsin Trappers Association, arguably the state’s most unified and devoted conservation die-hards. While most hunting and fishing organizations attract only a fraction of their activity’s license buyers as members, the WTA boasts roughly a 35 percent membership rate among Wisconsin’s annual average of 9,100 active trappers.
By Saturday afternoon — Day 3 of the four-day FTA Rendezvous at the Central Wisconsin State Fairgrounds — attendance hit 3,000, a number approximating WTA’s membership base. Attendees were shopping for traps, scents, trowels and other tools of their trade; attending seminars on skinning and trap-setting; and cheering on competitors in skillet tossing and bear trap-setting contests.
And when they wanted a little comfort Saturday, they went inside to watch a fur fashion show on a lighted runway. The standing-room-only shows featured fur garments from around the world and were worn by professional models like Kate Redeker, Miss Wisconsin Teen USA 2013.
Meanwhile, attendees pounded paths into the soggy grass and ground outside where scores of vendors offered their wares atop tailgates, card tables and plywood-sawhorse flattops. The items were mostly weathered box-traps, foot-hold traps and body-gripping traps, but also included old bows, arrows, deer antlers, fishing tackle and great-grandpa’s axes, saws and wood clamps.
When asked about his diverse inventory, vendor Ron Christensen of Mass City, Mich., smiled and replied: “I learned a long time ago that not everyone eats peanuts.”
Meanwhile, Jake Holsclaw of Mauston walked by with a new trapper’s basket strapped to his back. The rain had passed, and he was putting his purchase to good use. Inside the basket — gripping its rim while rocking like a sailor in a crow’s nest — stood Holsclaw’s daughter Chloe, age 1.
Yep. No matter where you ventured at the Rendezvous, you saw trappers and their families visiting old friends, assessing the fur market and bargaining with sellers and buyers. In other words, they were carrying on trapping traditions dating to the 1600s in North America.
True, their numbers aren’t large, but that’s their heritage too. In the modern era, the most trapping licenses ever sold in Wisconsin were 28,912 in 1930, 27,940 in 1946 and 26,808 in 1981. Those numbers plunged below 5,000 by the 1990s, but rebounded to a steady average of about 9,400 the past 10 years, including nearly 10,000 in 2012.
John Olson, the Department of Natural Resources’ furbearer ecologist, attributes trapping’s strength in Wisconsin to a WTA initiative in 1992 to make trapper education mandatory for license buyers. State law requires trappers to pass this course — offered in class or by correspondence — unless they bought a trapping license before 1992.
“WTA members led the push for mandatory trapper education,” Olson said. “They saw the need and value of certifying trappers with a state-sanctioned course. They want to make sure Wisconsin allows only good, ethical, well-trained trappers on the landscape.”
When the mandatory program began, it certified about 600 trappers annually. Since about six years ago, the number of “graduates” consistently exceed 1,000. Last year, the correspondence course alone had 1,000 takers.
“The WTA’s commitment to education and grassroots recruiting keeps trapping strong here,” Olson said. “New trappers learn to do things right. It’s not easy. It’s a demanding, in-depth course.”
Olson said a rising fur market also helps, but fur prices and license sales don’t always correlate. “A few old-timers come back to make a quick buck when prices go up, but repeat customers tend to be those who come through the education process,” he said.
This program’s success suggests education requirements aren’t impediments to recruiting trappers. In contrast, some hunting proponents continually claim mandatory hunter-education courses inhibit recruiting.
Granted, maybe it’s easier for small, well-focused groups like trappers to stay tuned to their roots and heritage. But maybe hunters should try sharing similar pride in their traditions and quit assuming youngsters won’t grasp these values.
Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.