The Art and Business of Modern-Day Trapping
Illinois businessmen show that the trapping industry isn’t geographically limited
With the continuing popularity of TV shows such as Yukon Men, Mountain Men, Life Below Zero, etc., that depict folks making at least a portion of their livelihoods from trapping, I thought it might be nice to highlight some people in the Land of Lincoln. . .yes, right here in good, ’ol Illinois. . .who also make a vocation, at least partially, in the trapping industry. My first thoughts for this story ran to several fellows I’ve known for years who have made the trapping industry a large part of their lives. I hope this article will shed some light on how these folks decided to enter the business and how they keep thriving within its changing cycles.
Scott Davis (Kickapoo Creek Furs) of Brimfield began trapping in 1963 and, once he got out of the service in 1969, decided he’d spend his winters trapping and get other work after the season. For many years he made his own lures and gave samples to friends. Often, his “testers” would tell him that he ought to make the lures and sell them; eventually, he did just that. His lure business grew and, in 1980, he started selling both lures and trapping merchandise. Then, in 1985, he began buying fur, as well. Currently, his products are sold in four retail stores and his lures are carried in four catalogs. He employs four workers during the fur season and his son, Brian, buys some fur, as well.
The main challenge for the industry, to Scott’s mind, is the world economy. Russia and China are the primary fur markets for American trappers. Since Russia’s economy is tightly tied to oil and the prices of crude are down, Russians don’t currently have the disposable income to buy fur garments. China’s economy, though thriving in recent years, has leveled off of late, also depressing the demand for furs in that country. Scott feels that the economies of these countries, and others, will have to stabilize and improve to provide a real and lasting boost to the industry. Still, he plans to stay in the business and keep trapping for the love of it.
His advice to those considering getting into the trapping industry…though he doesn’t think it is a great time to do so considering the depressed fur markets…are, “start small and don’t carry a huge inventory.” Still, he feels hopeful for the future of the industry because he feels today’s new trappers are “not getting into it for the money, but rather, because they enjoy it.” Although he thinks that the media exposure provided by the TV shows previously referenced has expanded the profile of trapping, he doesn’t attribute any increase in business to them. He figures new trappers have little or no knowledge of the “glory days” in the 70s and 80s and, therefore, don’t expect to get rich from trapping. Instead, he believes they have entered “the game” because they enjoy the outdoors and the challenges that trapping provides.
Separated by a generation from Scott Davis, Kyle and Kellen Kaatz (Kaatz Bros. Lures of Savanna) represent a younger version of the “rugged individualist” that characterizes what many Americans think of when they think of a trapper. When I corresponded with Kyle, the older of the two Kaatz brothers, he indicated that his full-fledged entry into the trapping world came when he was 15, was disenchanted with school, and graduated early in time to trap during the spring beaver season. He told me that, ever since, he has been “driven to do my best to support myself and my family from the trapping industry.”
When posed the question regarding the challenges facing the industry, Kyle suggested that, as with any business, “managing cash flow, maintaining a profit during slow times, and servicing a customer base,” are the primary obstacles. However, he also notes that the trapping industry tends to be close-knit, with even main competitors carrying each other’s products and working well with each other, providing mutual advantages. Kellen, the younger Kaatz brother, notes that fur markets tend to be cyclical and that, in down markets, folks tend to cut back drastically on trapping or even give it up, completely, until markets improve. Conversely, there are advantages to working in the industry that can help offset the market swings. For instance, Kellen relates that helping trappers improve their craft is one of the most gratifying aspects of his profession. Assisting other trappers to work around problems like snapped traps, misses and other issues provides Kellen with some of his most enjoyable experiences. In fact, Kellen conveyed that, “I get more satisfaction knowing that I’ve helped someone else than I do when I make a catch myself.”
Similar to Mr. Davis’ thoughts, Kyle believes that current media trends involving trapping are encouraging and are great for public relations. He maintains that shows like Mountain Mendo a good job of showing people that trappers do exist and that they serve a role in wildlife management. On the other hand, he feels that the shows don’t exactly expand the market for trapping, as folks enjoy and learn from the shows, but won’t, “…run out and buy traps and grow a beard and start trapping because they watched Mountain Men.”
The major changes Kyle foresees in the industry relate to tariffs on imported goods that may make it more difficult for trappers to be profitable, considering that fur markets currently are lagging behind rising prices of traps, supplies, fuel, etc. He believes supply dealers will forsake paper catalogs in favor of on-line sales, as the younger generation of trappers relies more on social media for interaction with other trappers and is more adept at navigating and using websites to order their supplies. Kellen concurs, opining that the explosion of on-line forums and chat groups allow trappers to interact almost continually, but also have resulted in drop-offs in trapper convention attendance, where supply dealers make their “bones,” as well as much of their income. Kellen says, “technology has changed the advertising and marketing model, as up-and-coming lure makers and supply dealers can build websites, create Facebook and Instagram accounts, and start targeting potential trapping customers in just a few hours, whereas it used to take years on the convention circuit, building a customer list, and actual trapping.”
Kyle suggests that anyone interested in making a living in the trapping industry will likely need to be self-employed. Because of this, his advice is to, “find a good accountant, understand cash flow is king, profits are less important, read about finance, and then hit the ground running.” He strongly advises that being driven and committed to whatever one chooses to do is key and that, “Don’t look back, move ahead” is a great motto to follow for success.
As one can see from the profiles of these individuals, the trapping industry is alive and well here in Illinois, as evidenced by the 6,036 licensed trappers in 2017-18, and it remains a viable and fulfilling profession for many. This story is repeated across our country from rural areas to little towns to the biggest cities, where people like Scott Davis and the Kaatz brothers are keeping the trapping industry vibrant. These people are just like any others running businesses in our country; they work hard, provide opportunity for others through employment, and contribute to their communities. However, they are special, in the opinion of this author, in that, though the folks comprising the industry come from differing backgrounds and generations and have varying reasons for entering the profession, all of them are playing a role in maintaining the link to America’s trapping heritage.
For more on trapping in Illinois, including information on the Trapper Education Course, visit:
Tim Kelley is a district wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife Resources and based in the Havana office.