I am not sure how folks trapped beaver back in the fur trade days without the luxuries of the equipment we have today. I bet it was hard work. I have often been told I was born in the wrong century. I still love the look of a classic fur hat, not to mention fully enjoy their warmth and practicality. Although styles have changed quite a bit since the fur trade days, beaver pelts have still retained such an authentic look, on clothing but also as home décor hung on the wall or draped over the back of an arm chair. They add character to my home and remind me of the days spent trapping beaver with my husband and friends.
In the last issue of Outdoor Canada, I shared some trapping adventures and tips on gear and various trap sets. My friends (Chris and Andrew), my husband (Clarke) and I had great success that day out near Netley/Libau. We ended up with 6 healthy beavers and 1 muskrat out of the 9 traps we set. Our raging success also set the stage for the work that came after – fleshing and skinning.
Fur Handling and Skinning
In past years, our crew has always hunkered down in Chris’s garage to skin and flesh the beavers. I’m sure Chris and his family loved the mess and various smells this left behind. To change things up a bit, on this most recent trapping day we decided to set up in a near-by field to take advantage of the nice day and tie in a tail-gate lunch. We proved that this step can be done anywhere, as long as you have a proper working surface, sharp knives and a cold beverage. Saw horses work well with a sturdy piece of ply-wood, as do those handy plastic folding tables.
Obviously, proper care of the fur starts in the field. Be aware of the weather conditions to prevent spoilage, or in colder conditions, be sure not to lay a wet animal on ice or any metal surface. The guard hairs will freeze to the surface and the pelt may be damaged when the animal is picked up. Also, avoid dragging the animal during transport and try to rinse it clean of any mud, vegetation, burrs or dirt where possible. The location we trapped was along 6 miles of dikes…so a long ways from the truck. We brought along a trike and an ATV trailer- thank goodness! It would have been a long day trekking those 6 beaver out on foot. The ATV trailer worked great. It was spacious enough to hold our entire harvest along with the 9 traps and additional gear we needed.
There are two ways to skin an animal called “cased and “open. Most furbearers except for beaver and badger are prepared cased. The cased method can be best described as taking off a pull over sweater. You make your initial cuts at the hind legs and work the hide down over the animals head (so in the end the fur is on the inside).
Open pelts are prepared by skinning down the belly and tacking the pelt out flat to dry. This is the method we used for skinning beavers.
All skinning begins by making sure the fur is thoroughly bushed and cleaned of mud lumps, rocks, or vegetation. Since you will be working with a sharp knife and applying pressure while fleshing, any foreign objects in the fur will pretty much guarantee a hole in the pelt. Once you have brushed out the fur, you can make cuts around the fur line on the hind-legs, front legs and around the base of the tail. At this stage you can also remove the front and hind feet.
As I mentioned, “open” skinning methods require the pelt to be open and flat. The first cut you make is directly down the belly, starting at the center of the beavers lip and working straight down around the anal vent to the tail. Be sure to keep this line straight and centered as you want your pelt in the end to be symmetrical.
Starting at the head and on one side of the beaver (flank), begin to separate the pelt from the carcass with a proper skinning knife, or a sharp knife that fits your hand and you are comfortable using. You want to keep tension on the pelt as your skinning and remove as much fat and muscle from the pelt as possible. I find the longer smoother strokes with your knife work best, with your other hand holding the pelt tight and away from the carcass to keep constant tension. Keeping the pelt tight also provides you with a guide on where to cut as it creates a white line that you can follow with your knife edge to free the fur. A sharp knife is key, but be careful as it doesn’t take much to slice a hole in your pelt…you will learn that from experience unfortunately, as did I multiple times!
Once your first flank has been skinned down the side of your beaver as far as you can (to the base of the back), you can start on the other side and do the exact same. Once both flanks are complete, flip the beaver over on its belly and begin skinning from the tail upward. Here you can pull the carcass away from the body and use the body weight to create the tension you need. Once you get to the head, you will want to use more of your knife tip. Cut around the ears until they are fully exposed and then cut through to remove the ear from head. Work around the eyes feeling for the skull with the tip of your knife, and finally remove the skinned pelt from the nose. Skinning the head is the hardest…just take your time and know that skill comes with lots of practice.
Fleshing and Boarding
If you are going to get serious about trapping, I recommend you make yourself or invest in a fleshing beam. Most fleshing beams are designed from hard-woods; however Chris has crafted a fleshing beam out of PVC piping. It is genius. It has a hard smooth surface that eliminates any bumps or imperfections you may run across using wood. PVC pipe is also inexpensive and you can simply cut a section of the pipe that will give you a nice convex-shaped fleshing surface. Simply attach this piece of pipe to a wood frame and you are off and running.
The goal to fleshing is to remove the access fat and muscle from the pelt in preparation for drying and tanning. I found it easiest to flesh when the pelt is draped over the fleshing beam, working from the head down. It makes it easier to keep the pelt in place by pressing your hip against the hide while it is draped over the end of the beam. Using downward strokes get the meat rolling off the hide with a fleshing knife, focussing one portion of the hide at a time. You can rotate the hide on the beam to access new areas. Once the majority of the fat is removed, the pelt is ready to board.
North American Fur Auctions has beaver patterns or templates that replicate the size and shape of beaver pelts. These patterns can be drawn on a large 5/8 or ¾ inch piece of plywood and used as a guide. Measure your beaver in relations to the template and choose the appropriate size that fits your pelt the best. Next we nail the pelt to the plywood along the appropriate size pattern, placing the nails approximately 1 inch apart and all the way around the pelt. The leg holes and any other “random” holes can be sewn or nailed shut. Really try to avoid over stretching the pelt, it should be relatively loose on the board not tight like a drum, and about 2 inches off the board on the nails to allow for air circulation behind the pelt, and thus more efficient drying. Drying may take a few days and you will notice a significant colour change in the hide when it is completely dried and ready to take to the tannery.
The whole process is a ton of work but highly rewarding! If you find you are strapped for time, you can always skin the beaver and freeze the hide to flesh another day. We decided to use this technique on this trip as 6 beaver was a lot to get through in one afternoon! We take our furs to International Fur Dressers and Dyers Co. Ltd. on Dawson Rd. in Winnipeg once they are dried and ready to tan. There is also a really cool shop in downtown Winnipeg called Bill Worb Furs where you can get hats made with beaver or muskrat fur. They are stunning and only cost around $50 but your furs must be tanned first. These hats are a must have, unique, beautiful and highly functional for our Manitoba winters!