The highest honor in trapping and fur handling is a certificate worthy of framing and hanging in your trophy room.
By Serge Lariviere
With the advent of the Internet, it probably has never been easier to learn just about anything in the fur trade. The wealth of information is outstanding, and with just a little searching, one can find videos, articles, and photographs on anything they wish to learn about. Trapping is no different than any other trade in that respect and seasoned trappers now share information more readily than ever before. Likely, part of that reason is that the economic benefits of trapping have decreased substantially in recent years, and for a family to make a living from commercial fur trapping is probably a thing of the past. Fur prices roller-coaster most of the time, and for every year of high fur prices, we seem to be hit with 2-4 years of rough sailing. Luckily, and thanks in great part to information sharing, learning how to catch a bunch, and how to put it up properly, has never been any easier. Magazines, books, videos, trapper meetings, conventions, and a multitude of Internet videos bring us almost anything we want to know about catching animals, and also about the trade.
The one trend that has arisen in recent years is the growing popularity of international fur auction houses. By better understanding the international fur trade, many trappers have taken an interest to sending pelts to the international auctions, as much as a matter of curiosity but also to learn more about how this trade works.
I remember well the first time I walked into the storage depot of the old Hudson Bay Company in the mid-1970s. I was just a young trapper then, too young to drive, but my parents had decided we would drive the three hours to go see where my skins were sold. That warehouse was like the largest gymnasium you had ever seen, and it was filled with racks of wild fur. I was in awe the entire time, and man did I rapidly realize that my bundle of 6-10 skins of muskrats and weasels did not make me the biggest trapper in town! But wild fur was everywhere: coyotes, beavers, bears, raccoons, muskrats, and a whole array of species I had never seen before such as bobcats, fisher and wolverines. But one thing struck me and that was they had boxes and boxes of improperly handled pelts; pelts whose value was jeopardized or ruined because of improper handling.
The two international auction houses for wild fur, North American Fur Auctions Inc. in Toronto (the Hudson Bay Company under a new name) and Fur Harvesters Auctions Inc. in North Bay (originally started under Ontario Trappers Association), both companies in the province of Ontario, Canada, have spent great effort to help trappers do a better job. Both companies have produced posters of putting up proper pelts, fur handling books, and patterns for stretchers. Walk in any of these auctions rooms and fur graders will be happy to provide advice on how you can improve your pelt preparation. After all, why not get the most value of out every pelt we catch?
Regular shippers to fur auctions also know of an award that is remitted to trappers who send top-quality fur, the Top Lot awards. That award has a long history within fur companies, and is a great source of pride for trappers that receive it. But to fully understand this award, one must first understand the basic grading and lotting process.
When skins are received at an auction house, each skin is stapled with a bar code. That bar code is linked to the trapper’s account number, so it can be traced the entire way through. After that, the skin enters the grading process. Depending on the species, the skin will be graded based on size, color, section (where it comes from – or attributes of a specific region), and of course, quality. The latter element is most variable, because quality can depend on natural fur quality, but also will consider damages. Some of the damages are natural (bite marks, rubs, etc.) whereas others are trapper-induced (knife holes, taint caused by improper fleshing, etc.). At the end of the process, every skin should end up in a lot of 50-200 skins that are similar. These are the lots that will be sold to speed up process. Because the auction may sell several hundred thousands skins at a single sale (several millions if we include ranch mink), skins are sold in lots with a few exceptions: bears, cougars, wolverines will be sold individually because of the low number and the difficulty of making lots of similar skins with such low quantities. But for the most part, skins are lotted into bundles of 50-200 skins that come from many trappers. Once the grading is complete, the best lot is identified. Now for the interesting part: the best lot contains skins that are fully-prime (the most important), have no defects (natural or non-natural – second most important), and are handled properly (third in importance). At an auction, the Top Lot will be the lot of skins that sold for the highest prices for that species, and trappers with skins within that lot will be sent a “Top Lot” certificate, meaning one of their skins made it in the best of the best lot for that species for that sale.
Top Lot certificates are not easy to obtain, and being a great fur handler is only one step on the way to obtaining one. The most important step is catching and outstanding animal (in size and color), from the best section (geographic area), has no natural defects (natural damages), and finally making sure it is handled properly. There are thus two steps that a trapper can control: catching fur when it is prime and handling it properly. The rest is outside of the trapper’s hands, and trappers who harvest animals in areas where the fur simply is not the best may never get a Top Lot award simply because they do not trap where the best skins come from.
Location is Key
Let’s take beaver for example. The best beavers come from the northeast. Northern beavers have thicker fur, eastern beavers are darker compared to western ones with more blondish skins. So Top Lot awards for beaver almost always go to trappers from the northeast. If we now went to bobcats, well the best cats are western cats because they have whiter bellies and more defined ventral spots. If you catch a bobcat in Maine, and hope to get a Top Lot award, don’t hold your breath because you won’t. Your beautiful Maine cat may bring $100-150, but Nevada bobcats will bring 10 times more! The Top Lot bobcats are shipped by western trappers.
Interestingly, of the two factors that trappers control (time of harvest and handling), handling has received the most attention. As I said before, for years auctions houses were seeing beautiful skins dried up, hanging on nails, or improperly fleshed. But in recent decades, “disaster-skins” have become rarer and rarer. Most trappers and fur harvesters now know how to handle them properl, and they do so. Yes, there are still some oddities out there, probably by people just getting started with trapping, but in general, fur handling is much better than it has ever been. Honestly, trappers themselves should be credited for this as many trapper associations have organized fur handling workshops, and many books and videos show proper methods nowadays.
The one aspect that has slipped in recent years is timing of harvest. Auctioneers will tell you that many skins now come in captured outside of prime seasons. The handling may be perfect, but the animal was clearly harvested outside of “prime time.” Beaver are a great and terrible example of this trend. The low beaver prices have led to a lot of beavers being captured in nuisance work, and very few beavers are captured under the ice in mid-winter. Thus, the overall quality of the beaver skins offered at auctions has decreased compared to say 20 years ago. For other species, the desire to make large catches gets trappers starting early, much earlier than they should, and animals are captured before they are fully-furred. This is a big issue with raccoon.
the season factor
In my opinion, a third factor also plays into the abundance of not-yet prime skins at auctions. Most trapping seasons are set on dates, and in many areas, opening dates have not changed in 20, 30 or even 40 years. When I started trapping as a kid, the opening date was October 25 and you were lucky to get a full week of open water before things froze up. Today, I don’t expect water to freeze until November 25, a full month later. Let’s admit it: our climate has changed over the last 40 years and using the same old date to start has led to an abundance of not-yet-prime skins hitting the market. Animals caught on the same date simply do not have the same fur, and trappers set in their ways and sticking with dates are simply catching early skins more and more. And early skins, no matter how good the handling is, will never make it into the Top Lot!
The Top Lot awards have been a great tool for auctions houses to help trappers understand the importance of both primeness and good fur handling. Walk around any large trapper convention, and you will see guys proudly wearing their Top Lot hats or Top Lot pins. Getting Top Lot recognition from an auction house is indeed an accomplishment, meaning you were lucky to capture a beautiful animal with no defects and you did your part by catching it at the best time and you handled it properly. You should be proud because in the current market conditions, the future of commercial fur trapping rest on the shoulders of trappers who understand the importance of catching fur when it is prime and handling it right.