Larry Kline stood knee-deep in a Virginia creek, laying a trap.
He lowered the trap's spring-loaded metal frame -- something like a large mousetrap -- into the current. If a river otter swam through, it would brush against a trigger wire, and then snap! The animal would be caught at the neck by the trap's jaws.
"He'll dive right into the trap, and he'll expire real quick," Kline said as he demonstrated the trap last week near Dumfries.
Kline wants otters for their pelts, which can fetch upward of $100 each at auction. He's a fur trapper, part of a hidden industry in the mid-Atlantic region that observers say is in the middle of a comeback. Trappers hope it will continue as their work begins this week. The forces behind trapping's resurgence are as far-flung as New York clothing designers, the nouveau riche in China and hip-hop stars with chinchilla tastes.
Their high-fashion choices have trickled down to the backwoods of the East Coast, where people such as Kline are seeing higher prices for one of North America's longest-traded commodities.
For animal rights groups, the resurgence of the fur industry is a disappointment.
They have charged for years that trapping is cruel, especially the leg-hold traps that can prompt some animals to chew off their feet and trappers who bludgeon animals they find alive in the traps.
Trappers rebut these arguments by saying that they strive to give trapped animals a quick and humane death and that their activities are well regulated and pose no danger of exterminating any species.
Trappers are in the woods in Maryland and West Virginia, which opened their seasons this month. Trapping is done in wintertime to catch animals with their long, cold-weather coats.
Virginia opened its season yesterday, though traps set in water, like the "drowning sets" that Kline demonstrated to catch beaver and otter and hold them under, will not be allowed in Virginia until Dec. 1.
State officials estimate that only a few thousand people actively trap in this area. Few do it full time.
"You don't make any money doing this," said Bryan Nelson, president of the Virginia Trappers Association. "Your average trapper is lucky to pay for his expenses over the course of a year."
But everybody agrees the money has gotten better in the past three to four years. A coyote pelt that a trapper might have sold for $17 three years ago was up to $31 this year; otter has more than doubled its 2001 price of about $48 a pelt.
"There was a period in the '90s when fur sales were [down] and trapping statistics were declining," said Camilla Fox of the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, Calif. But things are different now, Fox said. "If you look at any fashion magazine right now, you can see the change."
"I still don't know if it's a moneymaking proposition," said Cliff Brown, a biologist overseeing trapping for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. Still, Brown said, "certainly, dollars create interest."
Classes for new trappers have filled up with teenagers and old-timers, and in Virginia the number of trapping licenses increased by 5 percent last year.
In Elizabeth, W.Va., Murray's Lures has been selling trapping starter kits that include a five-gallon bucket to carry the traps and iron rebar stakes to anchor them.
"I've had 10 calls from people that haven't done this for years, and they're retired, and they want to get back into it," said Pat Murray, who works at the store.
For fur trappers, it's just another bump in a roller-coaster market, where trappers have to keep one eye on the trends in Vogue magazine and the other on very rural worries such as rabies outbreaks and coyotes.
Old-timers still remember that business started getting bad after World War II, when the federal government passed a truth-in-labeling law. No longer could the lowly muskrat be sold under the more distinguished name "Hudson seal," and trappers were required to call a skunk a skunk.
The 1970s were a boom time, but the 1980s brought another bust, as clothing tastes changed and animal rights groups increased their attacks on fur as fashion.
The low point might have been about 1993, when the number of licensed trappers in Virginia fell to about 700, down from nearly 5,300 in 1979.
The recent comeback began when fur trim started appearing on high-fashion designs. Then fur became an accessory of wealth sought after by hip-hop stars -- today's rappers reference chinchilla, the fur of a South American rodent, like they did diamonds or Cadillac Escalades a few years ago.
It added up to a good market for all furs, including farm-raised minks and pelts from such wild animals as beavers and foxes. Overall, $1.8 billion worth of fur was sold in the United States in 2003, up by 7.5 percent over the previous year, according to the Fur Information Council of America.
"The fur market itself has been rather warm. Not hot; rather warm," said Sandy Parker, a New York-based journalist who writes a weekly newsletter for the fur industry. "That's fashion."
In addition to changes in the United States, there was a sudden demand for fur in Asia, especially China. There, industry officials say, otter is highly sought after to make coats and hats for men.
The otter market was a special boon to Virginia, which allows trappers to take an unlimited number of otters in areas east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Maryland limits trappers to five otters a season in much of the state. West Virginia, where the animals are rare, does not allow otter trapping.
Even with the improved market, trappers say their life remains difficult: They get up before dawn to check their traps and spend their evenings skinning the animals and laying pelts out to dry.
There is also a low success rate: A line of 10 traps might catch one raccoon a night. More valuable animals, such as otters, are even more rare.
When the work is done, trappers sell their pelts through international auction houses and receive only a fraction of the price that eventually will be paid for a fur coat or hat.
Kline, the trapper from Northern Virginia, said he often considers his position at the dirty bottom end of a glamorous international market.
"You often think about some of the furs that you've harvested, what became of them," he said. Maybe they're still in somebody's closet. Maybe they were long ago thrown away and wound up in a landfill. If so, Kline thinks of that as biodegrading, "returning to the earth."