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A Maryland trapper sells $4 muskrat pelts as American fur trade dwindles



Dan Baker, 57, is one of an estimated 300 to 400 remaining trappers in Maryland, as a once-defining trade has bottomed out. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

Dan Baker, wearing thigh-high camouflage waders and jabbing at the muck with a wooden stake, picked his way through a marsh in Southern Maryland as if he had lost something in it.

A biting wind off the Patuxent River reddened Baker’s cheeks and ooze sucked at his boots as he poked through a maze of cattails until at last he reached his prize: a muskrat, its fur matted and tail dripping mud, crushed dead in a body-gripping trap.

Three other muskrat traps turned up empty, but that didn’t faze Baker, who likes to focus on wins, not losses.

“It’s Christmas every morning,” Baker said. “That’s how trappers look at that.”

Baker, who lives in St. Leonard, Md., is one of a dwindling breed. Once upon a time, trappers were instrumental to European colonization of North America, as fur-trading outposts became settlements and later cities. As recently as the 1970s, Maryland counted approximately 5,000 trappers; today there are maybe 300 to 400 active statewide who generally trap for fur, food or pest control, state officials said.


“It would be hard to tell the story of the United States without talking about trapping,” said Joshua Tabora, a furbearer biologist with the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

But changes in fashion and the long, steady migration of Americans from farms and rural areas into cities and suburbs have made trapping a controversial anachronism. Global fur prices have collapsed since 2013-14, driven by factors ranging from overproduction of farm-raised animals to the conflict in Ukraine to the pandemic, further reducing a group of outdoorsmen with a unique insight into the wild.

Trappers, who provide data to the DNR for research on animal populations and tracking zoonotic and other diseases, tend to be keenly observant and knowledgeable about animal behavior and the signs their quarry leave behind, Tabora said.

“Trappers in general are some of the most devout and most detail-oriented … outdoorsmen out there,” he said. “When you talk to some of these guys who’ve been doing it since the ’70s and the ’80s, they’re just like dictionaries — they’re walking repositories of ecological knowledge.”

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Roosters crowed and the sky turned milky blue when Baker climbed into a Ford 250 truck to run his trapline early on a raw January morning. He packed some plastic tubs and a bunch of tobacco stakes, which he uses to secure each trap by a chain or wire before driving the stakes into the ground. He was eager to finish before a rainstorm moved in and eager to share what he’s learned over the years from trapping.

When Baker, 57, rolls onto a farm, he reads the land with a mental map of the routes a fox will travel over ridge and hollow as it sifts the air for prey. He scours the banks of streams for places where otters have left scat full of undigested fish scales. He walks farm ponds at noon with the sun high overhead, scanning the bottom for the telltale way that muskrats swimming to their dens kick up the silt and algae.


“You see the yellow? Versus the green?” Baker asked, pointing to an almost imperceptible path through the underwater weeds and algae as he walked beside a pond where he had laid several traps. He waded off the bank gingerly, so as not to sink in too deep. Water lapped around his knees as he rooted about, hauling up what looked at first like a clump of weeds. It was muskrat, pancaked by the metal bars of another body-gripping trap.

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Baker knows how to set leghold traps so that they catch and drown a muskrat at the same time. He schools younger trappers on how to create and conceal elaborate sets that will trick even the most wary coyote and on how to kill a fox with two sharp blows from a club. He saves the intestines of coyotes and foxes to help the DNR track a parasite that also infects dogs. He can whip out a blade and skin a muskrat in four minutes flat without nicking the pelt.

He sells the muskrat’s fur for $4. He sells the meat at the same price.

“It’s a delicacy,” Baker said. “I’ve been selling muskrat meat for probably 45 years. So you build up a market through the years, and nowadays I’m like the only one that sells it around here.”

Baker has been trapping for so long that most of his daily routines are dictated by the seasons and the animals he catches or kills. Come autumn and the first cold snap, he lays traps for muskrats, coyotes and foxes, often pursuing them deep into winter. When spring returns, he’s after eels, then perch, then crabs. He tongs oysters from sandbars when they’re in season.

As summer wheels into autumn, he’s back to trapping muskrats. In between there is duck hunting, which takes him to his blind on the Patuxent, and wild turkey season. When deer hunting begins, he opens his butcher shop in the barn behind his house, where he also builds eel pots and other watery traps that he lists for sale.


For fun, he carves duck decoys. He uses a comb to brush the paint into delicate swirls on his canvasbacks — a signature touch, he says — and melts his own lead for the weights that allow decoys to ride upright in the water.

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He has spent a lifetime studying animals — how they travel, how they shelter, how they reproduce, what eats what. He spent 10 years traveling the East Coast competing in waterfowl-calling competitions, a skill that comes in handy when he’s leading hunting parties as a professional guide.

“Our first wedding anniversary, he took me on a ‘cruise’ up Hunting Creek checking eel pots,” said his wife, Roberta “Bert” Baker. The couple met on an ambulance run in October 1985 — she was an EMT with St. Leonard, he a member of Prince Frederick’s rescue squad — and they more or less hit it off while transporting a dead body to a hospital.

Not long after they began dating, Dan Baker said, he realized they had something special. While driving to the movies in Annapolis in her Monte Carlo, they passed a dead raccoon. For a trapper, it was like finding a $10 bill on the side of the road. But Baker, thinking his date would be horrified at the idea of picking up fresh roadkill in her car, kept quiet. Then she spoke up as if she had read his mind.

“Well,” he recalls her saying, “I got some newspaper in the back. You want to go back and get the coon?”

“I’m, like, ‘Sure,’” Baker said. “I knew I was going to marry her then.”


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So they did nearly 36 years ago, and raised two children in a house on the farm Baker’s father once owned. In addition to many side gigs, Dan Baker works for Calvert County as a safety officer. He’s also a lifetime member of the St. Leonard Volunteer Fire Department, where he served as chief for a time and used his experience as a licensed diver to help set up its dive team.

Roberta oversees the St. Leonard fire department as its president. She spent the first 10 years of her life in Cleveland before moving to Southern Maryland with her family, but embraced country living, if not the hunting and trapping that’s at the center of her husband’s world.

“I don’t know anybody sane who wants to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and get your hunting gear on and go out in this bitter cold and duck hunt. That is just crazy to me,” she said.

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Baker picked up many of his interests from his father and namesake — Dan is Daniel Baker III — who lived in Lusby, working as an electrician by day and a Maryland state trooper by night. In 1976 Baker’s father bought a 36-acre farm, and Baker learned to trap after raccoons started raiding the chicken coop. He became good enough at it that neighbors asked him for help.

“It got to the point where somebody had a groundhog in their garden so they’d call me,” Baker recalled. “And then somebody would say, ‘I got a snake in the house. Can you come down?’ And it just got bigger and bigger.”


When he was 13 years old, Baker joined the Maryland Fur Trappers Inc. He even won a trapping competition, much to the annoyance of the adult trappers he beat. Those were the days when a prime red fox pelt would fetch an average of $46 — about $185 in today’s dollars — and old-timers guarded their turf as closely as their trade secrets. In a good year, Baker caught as many as 200 red foxes and gray foxes — not bad pocket money, even if not exactly enough to make a living.

Nowadays, though, fox pelts go for around $3, Baker said. The U.S. fur trade — which peaked in the 1970s and 1980s — has plummeted because of the animal rights movement and advances in fabric technology that led to a switch from natural furs.

But Baker, like other trappers, found that trapping “nuisance animals” could still make money. The Maryland State Highway Administration pays him to trap beavers, whose dams can flood and wreak havoc with country roads, and ordinary folks pay him to remove pesky home invaders.

“We’re the ones getting the squirrels out of the attics, the raccoons knocking over garbage cans, foxes getting into backyard chickens,” Baker said. “Everybody has chickens now in their backyard.”

After returning home that day in January from running the trap line — about 25 traps in all — Baker lugged the plastic tubs with his catch into his butcher shop. Deer carcasses hung from the low ceiling, the air heavy with the tang of dried blood. For three hours of labor, he counted five muskrats and one mink.

His tool of choice for skinning muskrats is a blade he fashioned from a small metal file. He whet the edges on a steel, ruffled the muskrat’s wet fur with his fingers and flipped the carcass on its back. Then another few deft cuts, until he could grab enough loose skin and, as if turning a sock inside out, yanked the hide off. He rolled the meat in plastic wrap to sell, with the teeth showing, so that buyers can be sure it’s not possum or some other critter.

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One of his regular customers is Howard Brooks, who lives in Lusby and took 300 muskrat meats off Baker last year. Brooks said he kept a few dozen for himself and distributed the rest, at cost, to other folks who prize the muskrat’s dark, savory flesh.

“You can bake ’em, grill ’em,” Brooks said. “I can fry them and make gravy with some onions. They don’t taste like chicken, I can tell you that.”

There are regional cook-offs for muskrat, which is sometimes styled “marsh rabbit” for the squeamish, which Baker is not. He cooks a lot of game, including groundhog slathered in bacon and pulled from the bone like pork. He’s eaten crow, literally. His wife and hunting friends say he’ll eat anything, not as a compliment.

“Muskrat? Absolutely not in my house,” Roberta Baker said. “Rabbit would make me gag, too. But he eats all of that stuff.”

Dan Baker doesn’t rip around backwoods trails in four-wheel-drive vehicles or raise Chesapeake Bay retrievers like he used to. He’s less inclined to stay out all night hunting coyotes or other varmints. He passes on what he’s learned about hunting and trapping to his 7-year-old grandson and anyone else who asks, including a 30-something neighbor, who couldn’t catch a fox no matter what he tried.

Baker took the novice trapper out this winter and showed him the painstaking method of laying a trap that resembles the buried caches of food that foxes leave behind after killing their prey. The setup requires picking the right location, digging out the ground and handling tools so as not to leave traces of human odor or activity, adding scent-masking lures such as fox urine and scat.

The technique worked so well, Baker said, that the trapper went on Facebook a few days later to boast about his success, saying he was catching foxes every night with tricks he had learned from “an old-timer.” Baker shook his head at the thought.


“I’m one of the old-timers now,” he said. “Fifty-seven is old-timer now.”

Source: Washington Post

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