Hunting beaver: The pursuit that shaped our nation

Hunting beaver: The pursuit that shaped our nation

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In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the entire world experienced a sudden and dramatic lunge toward the modern age. It was known as the Industrial Revolution, when post-war societies around the world saw dramatic increases in population and technological advancements, which drove a widespread economic surge and a shift from predominately agrarian economies to industry-heavy ones. In England—the most powerful country in the world at the time—shipping lanes opened and railway lines were built to make the British Empire a hub of international commerce, which in turn helped to shape and define the economies of countries globally. France became a hub for the agricultural fruit trade and Belgium for coal. Germany had its iron, Russian had its grain, and as for America? We had the beaver.

The European demand for beaver pelts helped shape our country as we know it. The pelts were beautiful, warm, waterproof, and the felt within them was used to make hats for the pinnacle of English society. Across the eastern United States, thousands of adventurous young souls turned their attention to beaver trapping, trying to capitalize on the demand for the pelts of North America’s largest rodents, which at times were worth more than gold. Beaver trappers expanded the territory of the United States, exploring and mapping regions around the Great Lakes and north along the Canadian border before gradually moving west. These western-bound beaver trappers pushed into the entirely unexplored territory of the Rocky Mountains, building a lifestyle entirely based on the pursuit of the beaver. They became known as the first mountain men. It goes without saying that our country wouldn’t be what it is today without the beaver. Hunting and trapping them is a part of the history and culture of America—one that is still practiced today.

Though demand for beaver pelts isn’t nearly what it once was, there is still a market for them in modern society, mostly coming from companies like Stetson, who still make hats using beaver felt. However, the price for beaver pelts remains relatively low and very few contemporary beaver hunters and trappers still pursue the animals for profit, but rather for the simple joys of hunting them. Their meat is fatty and rich, akin to beef, and is perhaps some of the best wild game meat a hunter can have. The castor glands still sell fairly well; they’re used for additives in perfumes and for bait for other trappers. Beaver pelts are extremely durable, easy to work with, and are great for making gloves or fur hats for a crafty DIY project. Beavers can also be a pest: Their constant dam building causes flooding and often ruins crops and stream banks. This often requires their removal from an area, giving modern beaver hunters and trappers an opportunity to use their skills.

Hunting and trapping beavers today is an often overlooked but thrilling practice, especially because it is generally done in the winter and early spring, which is frequently viewed as a hunting off-season. Of the two methods, trapping is probably the more effective and more common practice. When you’re first getting into trapping, all of the equipment and finding an area to trap can be incredibly intimidating, which is another wonderful thing about the beaver: They’re easy to find and are relatively easy to trap as they are habitual animals and generally aren’t very “trap shy.”

The easiest traps to use for beaver are snares, which can be bought in a variety of places but are also simple to make, followed by leghold traps and conibears. Setting these traps for the animals is fairly simple, too. Snares and foothold traps can be set at the base of active beaver slides around ponds and rivers, and within the small canals they use to travel through marshes. Another good method to trap beaver is to drill a hole in the ice of their ponds during winter. Set a trap or snare between two cut poles from the bank and place a piece of bait—such as a carrot, turnip, or fresh-cut willow twigs—about eight to 12 inches above the trap. Push the poles into the hole with the bait about six inches under the ice and cover it in brush or snow to block out the light. Beavers interested in the bait will put their head and front feet onto the top of the pole to pull off the bait, guiding their back feet into the trap.

Hunting beaver is also a simple practice. Though the animals are an aquatic species who spend the majority of their time either underwater or in their lodges, they of course come onto land or swim on the water’s surface where they can be taken with either a gun or bow. Hunting beaver in open water is best done from a boat, but is possible to do it from the bank so long as the hunter has the ability to retrieve the animal. Beaver can be active on the water’s surface all day, but are best hunted in the early evening when the low light makes them less cautious and facilitates the hunter’s movement into range.

Taking beaver on land is tricky, as they are easily spooked and wary of predators when out of water. Hunting beavers on shore is best done in the early morning by approaching ponds and beaver lodges slowly and carefully, looking for beavers working on their dams or feeding on the bank. Remember before heading out to check the rules and regulations of hunting or trapping beaver in your state as many of them require specific licenses and have restrictions on traps and hunting methods.

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