All wild animals are important and should be, but one stands far above all others.  For this animal, much of the country was explored, wars were fought, fortunes were made, and history came to know iron men and their exploits, lengendary figures like Will Sublet, Kit Carson, and Jeremiah Johnson.  That animal is a 30 -40 pound buck toothed creature with soft, silky fur ideal for making hats, the beaver.

Beaver were prized in Europe from the 1600’s, and companies like the Hudson Bay Company and towns like Chicago were formed because of beaver and their rich “plews.”  The Iroquois fought off other Indian tribes to hold prime beaver territory, and the pelts were even used as money, a stack of pelts as high as a musket to buy that musket.

They disappeared in Ohio by 1830, and didn’t re-appear until the first was seen in Ashtabula County in 1936, but they slowly spread until over 5,000 were living in 37 counties in the early 70’s.  Now?  There are LOTS of beaver, about 25,000, many becoming a major nuisance as they dam and flood creeks and bottom lands, and trapping them has become possibly the most challenging of Ohio’s trap and snare winter activities.

One man who knows the sport from top to bottom is Shelby retired dentist Paul Curren.  Paul, in his 70’s now, leaves beaver trapping to younger men, but in his time he’s brought home around 100 of the animals, ranging in size from average 30 pounders to one that reach a whopping 70 pounds.  Most were caught in Ohio Power lands, some on private lands, and all in eastern or southeastern Ohio, the stronghold of this big rodent, though northcentral Ohio now has its share.

“We’d trap them non-stop for a week to 10 days, once the season came in.” he said, “and vary our techniques depending on whether we were trapping open water or under the ice.”  In either case, he and a friend or two would scout first looking for gnawed stumps, cut trees, slick slides leading into the water, and bank dens piled high with dirt and limbs. 

For open water they’d tie a big rock to a long wire and toss it out as far as possible, 10 to 15 feet, then tighten the line and set the trap in shallow water very near shore, often tamping down the dirt to make a flat platform.  Next step was to add a short poplar pole leaning out over the trap and smeared with castorum or commercial scent, along with a few carrots and parsnips on shore.  When a beaver stepped in the trap their instant reaction was to dive for deeper water and a clip near the trap allowed the trap to go only one way, so the catch quickly drowned. 

If there was ice, they used long poplar poles instead, placing several snares along the pole and adding a trap to a hand-made platform at the slide or other potential catch site.  It’s a truly rigorous activity.

“Beaver trapping is the toughest sport I’ve ever tried.” Curren said.  “You often get wet, the weather is usually miserable, and when you make a good catch, you’ve got to haul heavy animals up hill and down to reach your truck.  And skinning them is equally hard.  You can’t “fist” the fur off a beaver.  It takes hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny cuts with a very sharp knife to skin one.  I did reach the point where I could do one in 45 minutes, but it took a while.”

What about beaver meat?  I can personally testify that it’s delicious, a dark red, sweet meat that goes great at game feeds, especially when slow roasted with onions.  And the pelts can be sold or kept, as Curren did with a number, to make fine fur parkas for himself and his wife.

If you’re interested in trying this historic sport and pitting yourself against both beaver cunning and the elements, you’ll need permits and a thorough reading of the Ohio Hunting Regulations as well as proper traps and snares.  But the season runs from December through February, plenty of time to take some of these huge rodents.  And experience the life and times of Jeremiah Johnson without the Sioux to liven your days.

Originally published January 2005

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