Maryland is winding down its first fox-trapping season, but the shutdown on Monday won't disturb Butch Abbott.
The weather's been so bad the last week or so I pulled all my traps already," Abbott said Wednesday.
It's not exactly breaking his heart. Abbott, a transplanted West Virginian who learned his trapping out of books and by the seat of his pants, already has one shed full of red and gray fox hides and another full of raccoon furs.
That's not bad for a guy who lives 15 minutes from the White Oak shopping complex in Silver Spring and who does the lion's share of his trapping in populous Montgomery and Howard counties.
Abbott is head of the Montgomery-Howard chapter of Maryland Fur Trappers, Inc. His group now numbers about 50 members out of 500 in the organization statewide. On Jan. 20, he and the other trappers from central Maryland will be gathering at the Howard County fairgrounds for the first major fur auction in the state of Maryland, engendered in part by the rising popularity of trapping in the Free State.
Where does a fellow go about trapping when he lives less than a halfhour's drive from the Nation's Capital?
"Private land," said Abbott. "Ninety-nine percent of all the trapping in the state is on private land, with the owner's permission. It isn't any different here."
Abbott moved to Burtonsville, near Columbia, in 1968. He started trapping two years later, and has been refining his skills ever since.
The first few years he felt he was doing well to finish with a dozen coonskins and two or three fox furs, he said.
But over the years he got better, and his incentive increased, too.
Five years ago, fox furs were bringing less than $10 from the fur buyers. Today, some are worth more than $50. Raccoon skins were $3 to $5 back then; in 1976-77, the average price for coons was $26, according to the Maryland Department of Natural resources.
Abbott expects to walk out the Howard County fur sale several thousand dollars richer this year.
The rising values brought new people into trapping, Abbott said. When he started, there were only two or three other fur-takers in the two counties. Three years ago, when he organized the local trappers' club chapter, he had 12 members.
On the 50 current members, he said, only about half trap regularly, and only about one-third trap "seriously." There are still only two or three who take furs in the numbers he does, Abbott said.
"Don't get me wrong," he added. "We're not out walking a trap line in snowshoes with a trapping basket on our backs. We're all road trappers now. We walk some when we get to the farm we're trapping, but most of our time is spent in the vehicle, getting from one farm to the next."
No one in the Howard-Montgomery group is trapping for a living, Abbott said. They all have jobs, but the serious trappers often take a week or two off during the season to go after furs full bore.
And they all worry about the future of trapping. "When I started it was strictly a sport to me," Abbott said. "If the prices went down again, I'd still do it, just for the enjoyment. In fact, I wish they'd set a limit on fox furs and I wish the price would go back down to $5. I'd still trap, but then I'd be able to afford to make my wife a fur coat."
The principal threat he and the others in the local trapping chapter see is from loss of habitat. "You know how housing is around here," Abbott said. "I'm losing a 500-acre farm this year, myself. The farmer's moving out to Carroll County. I just hope I can get permission there."
The urban area trappers' other unending battle is with what Abbott call "the antis" -- those who oppose trapping on grounds it is cruel and unnecessary.
Trappers' answer to those charges are that they are making use of a renewable resource, and that with careful management there will always be viable populations of foxes, raccoons, muskrats and other valuable furbearers.
Just the same, one of Abbott's overriding preoccupations is with "keeping my trap lines as far away from people as I can." CAPTION: Picture, Paul Chaney, left, Maryland Fur Trappers president, checks fox furs trapped by Butch Abbott in Howard and Montgomery counties. By Angus Phillips -- The Washington Post